Dealing with the Violence
Witnessing the brutal murder of Lieutenant Moath al-Kasasbeh in such a public way this past week, combined with all of the horrific violent images we have been flooded with these past several months, has been difficult to say the least. It is impossible to see these types of images and not be somehow affected. I found myself to be physically ill with a gnawing in my stomach that I have come to know as a vault of repressed emotion. Meditation has given me the courage to open the door and look inside this vault when I feel its presence, rather than to further repress or ignore what it might have to say. Looking inside, here is what I found. See how any of this resonates with you.
The 3 Fires: How could someone brutally murder another human being? I don't know. Frankly, I don't care to understand the inner workings of the mind of a person who would do such a thing. However, insight is important if healing is to be accomplished. So, here goes. There may very well be people in this world who are inherently evil. I generally do not hold this view. I believe that we are all equipped with the machinery to either be the victim or the perpetrator in a situation like this. Human nature allows for extremes of goodness, ugliness, and everything in between. Most of us live in the in-between favoring the "good" end of the spectrum. Any of us can only ever see the world through the mental lenses we are currently wearing. Our lenses are always somewhat clouded by preconceived notions, judgments, emotions, ideas, memories, attachments to how things should or shouldn't be, or any host of factors. In general, people who commit atrocious crimes are themselves blinded by some combination of greed, hatred, and delusional thinking. The Buddha called these the 3 fires, and taught that they were at the root of all suffering. I do not think that anyone who sees the nature of reality clearly commits the type of violent acts that have unfortunately become so regular in the world today. Only someone who is blinded from understanding, compassion, and clarity of thought does these things. They suffer themselves, and know not how to resolve, but only how to create more suffering in response.
Interconnectedness and Detachment: With images of hostages, beheadings, bombings, sniping, and all sorts of violence becoming so commonplace, how do we remain attentive and caring, and not numb and detached? For the same reasons you had whatever reaction you had to the news or images of this crime when you saw and processed it. Who among us didn't put ourselves in that pilot's shoes inside that cage? Who didn't wonder, "What if that were me?" or "What if that were someone I love?" The truth is, we are all connected. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. We are all living, conscious beings doing our best to survive. Seeing these horrifying images is like looking in a mirror and seeing pain, vulnerability, and mortality. I saw the fear, sadness, and resignation in Lieutenant al-Kasasbeh's eyes, and I in my own way felt them too. I felt sick with helplessness and confusion as he must have. I felt hopeful that what I was seeing wasn't real, as I'm sure he must have as well. And I looked at the murderers and wondered "Why?" as I'm sure he must've asked himself a thousand times. I realized in a deep and personal way, that I am Moath al-Kasasbeh, and he is me. He is you and you are him as well. It is hard to see such misery, and not take it as my own. But why should I not, because it is my own. It belongs to all of us, and only together as a larger community of humans can such pain be fully and skillfully born.
Reflection: Objects that we see are only ever known to us because of the way they reflect light back to our eyes. In much the same way, I can only recognize greed, hatred, and delusion, because I too am equipped with them. In the same way that I am Lt. al-Kasasbeh, I too am his captors. Not to say that I possess homicidal thoughts or would ever condone such behavior, but if I don't see that I also am at times consumed with the 3 fires, then I too am hopelessly delusional in my own thinking. It is painful, but important to recognize that my outrage at the images I was seeing, and my instant desire for revenge and "justice" for these people is no different than that which motivated these men to murder the captured pilot. How is my thirst for their blood any different than their thirst for his? It isn't. It is only through awareness of how the fires move in me that I have the ability to choose not to act on them, and to remain skillful in my thoughts, words, and actions. I realize that the only way to really make any difference in this situation is to attend to my own greed, hatred, and delusion in a caring and compassionate way, and to treat people as I want to be treated. But, just because I choose to follow Jesus' Golden Rule, doesn't mean anyone else has to. It's just what I choose for me, and that's all I can really be responsible for.
Compassion: While talking about the violence that recently played out in Paris, France with my daughters, my younger daughter said, "I feel really bad for the people who died and their families, but also for the people who hurt them." "Why is that?" I asked. "Because they must have been really hurt or sick themselves to want to do that to other people." This, my friends, is the heart of compassion so beautifully expressed through the innocent eyes of an 8 year old. She hasn't yet been tainted by attachment to views, opinions, judgments, and "should be's." She just sees it how she sees it. We could all stand to learn from this. Maybe I am naive, but I truly believe that no one seeing life clearly would knowingly harm another human being. It is not in our loving nature, which I believe to be at the core of who we really are. Sadly, there are many in our world who have never known the loving embrace of a mother, the approving nod of a supportive father, or even kindness and generosity in any form. Many grow up only knowing fear and insecurity, not taking even their own day to day survival as a given. I said that I had no desire to know the inner workings of the mind of a homicidal individual, and I don't. But, I do recognize that it must be a horribly confusing, lonely, and painful place to live. It is not letting that person off the hook for the actions she or he takes, rather, an attempt at understanding the pain of that person, the causes and conditions that may lead one to feel such pain, and to respond and/or react skillfully to these events as they come into my awareness. It leads to an understanding that responding to pain and hatred with pain and hatred leads me only to more pain and hatred, while responding with compassionate understanding changes the dynamic considerably, if even just for this one person. Remembering that we are all interconnected, maybe that is all I really need to do, at least for now.
What Can I Do to Make the World a Better Place?: Responding to the public images of the murder of a man in a cage with an intense desire to bomb the shit out of the men who did it, while seemingly justified at the time, is not skillful or wise, and serves only to create more hatred and pain. This is a cycle that doesn't end until one side takes a different approach. It is not to say that violence is never justified, it may very well be in certain instances. However, we must have a clear understanding of the ramifications of our actions. In the Christian tradition, Jesus taught when struck to turn the other cheek. This is not to be taken as allowing oneself to be victimized, passive, or weak. It is an understanding that responding to violence with violence begets more violence, while responding to violence with wisdom, understanding, and compassion creates an entirely different dynamic. It takes a great deal of personal strength and restraint to live this way, but it is what keeps "me" from becoming like "them." By cultivating wisdom and insight in myself, and opening my heart to the world rather than closing it off, I can make my small patch of this Earth that much of a better place to be. I can defend myself against being consumed by the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, and remain open to the pain and suffering that exists in the world without letting it become the only thing I know. Only by practicing being the best person I can, do I have any chance of this world one day becoming what I believe it can be. By teaching my daughters these things, there are 2 more people who are equipped with the skills it will take to survive and advance in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world. In short, As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." This, my friends, is our task.
There is so much to say, and so few words with which to express it. I hope I have spoken clearly and wisely on this deeply painful and personal topic.
That is all for now. Thank you.