Emotions Need Not Be Shamed
Saturday, October 3, 2020
Friday, October 2, 2020
There's a lot of great discussion going on right now about whether one should wish harm upon their enemies.
Or amongst my closer friends, if one should feel conflicted when we inevitably wish harm on our enemies. (we are, after all, only human)
This is a powerful contemplation to be in, and I think the fact that we feel the need to ponder it at all bodes well for the state of our hearts and minds.
Another inquiry often arises at the same time that is equally messy - are we supposed to take "wrathful" actions in the face of tyranny or "evil"? Is it ethical to strike out? It certainly doesn't feel ethical just to stand by!
I think an important thing to note is that this point of inquiry often comes up in the discussion on ill-will or hatred because we may be getting near to convincing ourselves that hating another does no good, but rather harms our bodies and often makes us less effective. But it feels so right! So mustn't that feeling mean there's validity to it? We want to argue "maybe I should feel hatred for them, maybe that's the best course of action."
I wanted to offer some perspectives from Buddhist ethical thought, because at some point in the convo, educated people will often bring up Trungpa Rinpoche's advice not to give into "idiot compassion" or even invoke a famous myth about a Bodhisattva who killed a criminal out of a spirit of protection.
Let's do the punchline first actively protecting others and averting harm has nothing to do with hatred and ill-will. Protection doesn't depend on ill-will, it isn't strengthened by it, in many cases, it's actually harmed by it. Hatred is not necessary to act on behalf of others.
I think it's important that the punchline come first because usually the issue is coming up in the conversation at this point because ill-will and hatred grab us so strongly, that its tempting to find a way to believe, "yes, this emotion is important, this wish for harm to come to another is important." But the truth is, the ill-will we feel, and the desire to protect are two different things. They're often interlocked, but they're not bound together by destiny or by nature.
Imagine, for example, an army who is truly and honestly trying to help another country, or subjugate harmful enemies. We do not do well when we train that army on hate. It is not required for us to demonize the enemy, to dehumanize the enemy. This type of dehumanization is usually what results in excessive use of force and war crimes. It may even be what we see in the rampant use of excessive force in American Police - a training which emphasizes fear and aggression, and which results in overreach and harm.
If we're against dehumanization and violence in these contexts, then we should also be against their causes in ourselves. We must learn to detangle, to disambiguate, the will to protect vs the desire to harm within ourselves.
In Buddhism and in yoga, the mind is trained through vowed morality, the practitioner takes a number of commitments and endeavors to the best of their ability to uphold them.
The most common list, shared by all Buddhists is the "10 Nonvirtues" to avoid, it's similar to the Yamas/Niyamas in yoga, and even the Ten Commandments.
These include: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, harsh speech, divisiveness, wasteful speech, envy, malice, and wrong views.
The point of note here is that while the first 7 are meant to be held to the best of ones ability - i was taught - only the final three are absolutely non-negotiable. No matter what else we must do, we never give in to a mind of violence toward others. This is why in the famous myth of the "Bodhisattva Ship Captain", he found out that there was a murdering robber aboard and he calmly took the murderer's life before great harm could be done. According to the teaching tale, there was no other way to avert harm than to slay this person, but there is another part of the story that is less well-known.
I was taught the primary motivation of the ship captain was to save the robber from accumulating grievous karmic harm to himself. In yogic thought, by killing and robbing all the people on the ship, this thief would accrue horrible recompense, and the captain felt that it would be most compassionate to stop him by any means necessary.
I think this is a totally different way of looking at using force than we're used to. In the myth, this bodhisattva intentionally kills someone with the thought that the karma of killing will ripen upon himself, in order to save the evildoer from his own ignorance! So weird!
What it points out, in grand mythic form, is the worldview of "wrathful actions" in a yogic context. If you have to lie to protect someone, you must break that ethical commitment against lying - you misdirect an abuser and you say "she's not here, I haven't heard from her." If you have to kick someone in the knee who's chasing down an innocent to harm them, you violate ahimsa (non-violence) and you kick away. But the most important ahimsa is the one within, while engaging in these physical or verbal acts as a last-ditch effort, the mind never gives rise to hatred or ill-will. Rather the yogin's heart aspires toward the famous sentiment of Jesus on the cross, "forgive them, they don't know what they're doing."
Why is the Yogin so concerned with what goes on in their mind? Because they see the mind as the most precious possession. We moderns may not believe in karma in the same way that the ancients did, but one thing holds true - the mind shapes itself to the conditions we expose it to. When we expose the mind to hatred, we gain a hateful mind that primarily lives in a world of enemy images. But when we expose the mind to things like love, equanimity, and compassion, it takes on those perfumes as well.
For a transformational practitioner, tending the garden of the mind is the utmost priority, we would never plant the seeds there of things we don't want to grow.
And so, what about being a Dharma Protector, a wrathful yogin? A simple test is taught: if your mother, or someone you care for deeply, went insane and began to act like your enemy does, how would you treat them? Would you vent your hatred and rage upon them. If your grandma, best friend, your son, your husband, your 3rd grade teacher came at you with a knife, having lost their mind, would you give rise to rage and intentionally harm them, or would you see them as sick and try to protect yourself and others while also protecting them?Thinking this way is a tall order, but it is not far off with a little practice and inquiry. The yogic view of what makes people harm others is that they're overwhelmed by ignorance. They literally are sick and have gone mad - happy, healthy people don't act that way! It is crucial to protect others from harm, but if you want to claim Dharmic inspiration for your protectorship, you cannot love only the innocent and hate the perpetrator - everyone in the situation is suffering and you might have this one rare opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering, rather than adding more fuel to the fire.
So feel relieved, giving up hate does not mean you can't tackle someone should they need it! I train with my kung fu students every week in various ways to tackle dudes just in case! But the Code we follow is that we tackle them the way we would want to be tackled - say if we'd been slipped PCP, or had a traumatic brain injury, or otherwise couldn't control ourselves.
The energy of hatred isn't necessary to empower us to engage in heroic protection - it's a fickle energy anyway. Not only were hate and protection never coupled in the first place, we can gain vastly more empowerment from a greater source of fuel - that of love. Not just love for the haters in the world, but love for those we're protecting, love for the values we fight for - there's plenty of power there that doesn't require me wasting another moment of my precious life stressing myself out over evildoers.
And of course, "love thy enemies" is perhaps a stretch on some days, so I'll leave you with one of the points of Buddhist morality I use on a regular basis: If you can't help, at least try not to harm - if you can't actively love and feel compassionate, just hold your mind back from dehumanizing. Draw that firm line for the sake of your own humanity and note that rather than disempowering you, it helps you rise to the potential of your heart, and become an even greater resource for us all.
Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Matt 5:44
Ok, easier said than done, JC!!!
Something deep in our human nature resists this instruction. The words aren't just talking about those who annoy us, they're talking about those who persecute us! It seems terribly natural and even smart to hate those who persecute us, doesn't it?
And yet, for some of us, we can't tell why - but willingness to hate strikes a dissonant chord in us. Our enemies suffer and part of us wants to rejoice, but at the same time another part of us is disturbed by our rejoicing. We feel right, vindicated, righteous, and at the same time like we're somehow not living up to our deepest values.
There are plenty of metaphysics we could explore around this hard-to-swallow-pill from the Master from Nazareth, but i think there's a quick contemplation the injunction can inspire that shines a light in the darkness of what can be a major inner conflict.
The simple contemplation is that suffering is not the cause of learning.
and when we wish another harm, what we're really wishing is that they'd learn
Go ahead, take a minute to let this percolate in. It's going to confront all the cultural-trance hypnosis that says the way to get people to act right is to punish them, make them hurt. But the truth is that those who are imprisoned longest are not those who necessarily have a change of heart. Those children who are hit or deprived are not the ones with greatest strength of character. Countries bombed, impoverished, and wracked by sanctions rarely become less warlike.
We have an instinct built into us to hurt those who hurt us or those we love. This makes us think that wishing suffering on our enemies is helpful. The truth is, causing another pain as a discouragement only works in the most immediate circumstances, and operates in a model of power-over, rather than power-with. In the complexities of our human relationships, these basic instinctual drives almost always cause more harm than good when untempered by our higher faculties.
What we truly long for is for our needs to be met, our values to be manifest. If this were happening, we wouldn't waste another second on enemies, haters, or persecutors - we wouldn't let them take up that real estate in our minds.
We give them so much space in our heads because some old instinctual trigger thinks that: a) making them suffer will force them to learn and change, and b) by wishing and reveling in the idea of their pain, we can somehow contribute to it.
What would be best for all involved is if our persecutors would learn. And when we understand that suffering is almost always anti-learning it makes it easier for us to drop the hate that is primarily harming us, and sometimes harming our cause, but rarely harming our persecutors.
So as Buddhists, there's a trick we use. We too are advised to pray for our persecutors, and it's not natural for meditators either. So to get around these instinctual triggers and into the state of mind we want to cultivate, we think to ourselves, "If they were not afflicted by suffering, ignorance, and hatred, they would not be persecuting me or others. It's their afflictions that cause them to perpetuate pain on others." With this thinking, we pray that their afflictions swiftly be removed - because it means they'd swiftly be less of a jerk!
The Buddha famously said "Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed." Hating the haters is nearly as oxymoronic as the "war on terror," and about as effective. Instead of poisoning ourselves with stress-chemicals while giving our enemies valuable space in our minds, we could pray for peace, for learning, for growth, for safety for all. It would make us more efficient in achieving these ends and cause us to spend less time thinking about persecutors.
This only refers to our "prayers" - our inner life. Persecutors must of course be blocked in actions that harm others, but we can do so in ways that don't close our hearts, dehumanize us, or continue to spin the wheel of retributive violence and division. We can put our bodies in the way of harm, and restrain those with violent intent. We can use our voices to shout down vitriol while never becoming vitriolic ourselves. We can be the change we long to see even when taking dramatic action.
We can also always pray, "may this obstacle be removed" - and the obstacle to peace and equity may be your persecutor, that's not for us to decide. We can pray for our values to swiftly manifest: May the most vulnerable of us be protected, may our planet know peace, may equity and sharing become the rule of the day, may we treat one another with civility and nobility.
While some of you may not use the word "pray" like I am above to relate to the scripture - the same principle holds true for our thoughts. We have to find a way to be with our minds that lets us stand strongly for the values we hold, without stooping to the level of those who would threaten those values.
There's a reason to take the high-road like the wisdom holders have always exhorted us to do. While this type of anti-violent stance has all kinds of beneficial effects on societies, relationships, and movements, the greatest benefit is to you. You can live with a heart that is free from hate, while not surrendering the fire of your values driving you to act. You can hold to your code to see the dignity innate in humanity, and not normalize dehumanization in your thoughts, words, and actions. And when you do this, you can feel the power of inner congruence, rather than inner conflict.
It's a tall order to refuse to wish suffering on anyone, but it is immanently practical - and if it is how your heart calls you to live, it is achievable.