I know how easy it is to sit around during this election year and smolder in rage. I have years of personal experience reading newspapers or listening to news while the urge to violence hijacks my mind. Getting wind of the latest degradation to decades-old environmental legislation or another slash to health care and education is sure to get me steaming. I have entertained countless fantasies of moving to another country (and that’s the tame end of things). But in spite of my anger, rage, and disbelief, I have a commitment to try not to hate, or at least to try to temper my hate with a little bit of compassion and understanding. Why? Well, I think it’s the sane way to be—and my dharma practice demands it.
To this end, I’ve concocted a set of reasons that I use to remind myself not to hate our government. These reasons are by no means meant to disempower me or prevent me from acting. What they do instead is provide an antidote to my bitterness. They serve as practice instruction to see how wide I can open my heart. They provide a Buddhist twist to counteract my habitual tendencies so that I can ultimately respond to perceived injustice from a healthier place.
1. Hatred Hurts.
The Buddha taught that hatred is a form of suffering. He said that holding hatred in the mind and heart is like tightly clutching a hot coal in your hand—guess who suffers? You can experience the burning quality of hatred by examining your own mind. What does your mind feel like when it is filled with love? Most likely you feel connection, spaciousness, openness. What does it feel like when your mind is full of hate? Probably you feel disconnection, pain, and separation, all accompanied by some good old self-righteousness. Dharma practice is about the development and cultivation of skillful mind states—no matter what the situation. This is not to say difficult mind states don’t arise unbidden, but which ones do you want to hang on to? What kind of mind do you want?
2. No One is Eternally or Inherently Anything.
Buddhist teachings remind us there is no essential “self’ that lasts or is inherent. This person we are hating is not always this way, has not always been this way, and may act very differently at other times. And within each of us lie the seeds of change. When I can remember this, my clinging to blame can soften. I am reminded of the Buddhist tale of Angulimala, the murderer who wore a garland of 999 fingers around his neck to commemorate the brutal death of each of his victims. When the Buddha saw that the murderer’s mother was to be his thousandth victim, he intervened and, with a single teaching, converted this evil criminal into a fully enlightened being, albeit one who still had to accept the karmic consequences of his earlier actions. It’s an interesting teaching tale of the potential for change within each of us.
3. We’re That Way, Too.
No one corners the market on greed, hatred, or delusion. These mental states are inside all of us. When I’m in the middle of a heated argument, I sometimes point out to myself that I’m filled with anger, just like the person I’m mad at. We may not have the degree of anger we see reflected in the violence in the world. We may not have the power to do damage on the level of a world leader. But for anyone who has ever sat down to observe the mind, it’s clear how plentiful the three poisons are in there. We all might have the capacity to do anything, given the right circumstances. When dire circumstances in Rwanda in the 1990s turned neighbors and dear friends into murderous enemies and rapists, one expert from Human Rights Watch stated: “This behavior lies just under the surface of any of us.” Remember the famous Milgram experiments at Yale in the 1960s, where subjects administered harmful electric shocks to actors posing as cosubjects, simply because authority figures instructed them to do so? It could be us. In fact, it is us.
4. We Don’t Know For Sure Who Is Right.
This is a hard one to stomach, but it’s true. How can we possibly know? We can hold long-cherished ideals, bur the truth is, since we are not omniscient, some of what we believe may be wrong. Review your own political history and ask yourself whether your beliefs have changed over the years. Many of my currently pacifist Buddhist friends were once part of militant revolutionary organizations using violent means for social change. According to basic Buddhism, one of the greatest forms of suffering is attachment to views. No matter what the view, if we are attached, we will suffer. The dharma invites us to rest in not-knowing, to tolerate the discomfort of a mind with no firm ground. It asks us for a more flexible mind that might be open to other views. From this place, can we soften our critique of the thing we hate? Sometimes when I’m really mad I say to myself, “Diana, maybe in some way they’reright. You just don’t know for sure.” And it’s true, I don’t. This does not mean I can’t develop discriminating wisdom that allows me to keep seeing clearly, and acting on my insights. I just try not to hold on to my views so tightly, especially the views that make me see others as enemies.
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