In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
As a mother watches over her child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving kindness.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
What disturbed me most about the Trump campaign was not his racism or his intentional stoking of fear and hatred among the American people. It was my sense that once Trump became acceptable, his behavior would set off a karmic tidal wave that would engulf our national culture. And so it appears to have done, as hate crimes spike, churches and mosques are vandalized and burned, immigrant children and girls in head scarves are abused by their classmates, and hate groups have their day in the sun.
The ancient wisdom contained in the quotes above observes an important reality about human nature. We are hardwired to mirror and experience the emotion we see in others. When we are exposed to the angry words and deeds of others, our own threshold for anger is lowered. Hatred is anger with a story behind it – “Look how they have abused us!” It is natural for us to become angry in the face of real or perceived abuse, and inevitable that we will often frame that anger in a story that makes it a crime that cries out for retribution. And so hatred begets hatred.
But as human and inevitable as they may be, anger and hatred are two-sided swords. We can use their energy to stir us to engagement and action; but they can easily overwhelm us, blinding us to the true nature of our situation. They can make us forget that what we have in common with our fellow humans is always far greater than our differences, to forget that we are inextricably bound to one another. They can become covers for other motivations – fear, greed – and mask our true intentions. And the irrationality they foster can be used against us – Trump’s campaign being an all-too-vivid example.
In recent weeks we’ve heard from a number of sources that Buddhists and other mindfulness practitioners are too quiescent. Aren’t our hours of sitting around just self-indulgence? Doesn’t our focus on compassion and equanimity make us delegitimate the anger of those who are abused by the dominant culture? Wouldn’t it be better for us to get off our cushions and out into the streets?
We should always be mindful of any tendency we have to use our dharma practice as an escape or a cop-out. Mindfulness does not call us to evade our experience, but to observe it carefully and openheartedly, and confront the reality of what we see. If our intention is to live with compassion, we have a responsibility to respond to the suffering of others in the most skillful way available to us. Certainly, if there is any advantage in our current situation, it is that it offers us an opportunity to examine our practice deeply and gain fresh insight into what the dharma really means in our lives.
It is easy to become angry, especially when our anger arises in the face of injustice. But we can’t dispel hatred by hating. The antidote to hatred can only be love. Where hate sees division, love responds to connection. Where hatred makes us want our enemies to lose, love reminds us that there is no permanent victory over injustice while hatred is making its karmic rounds. Only by not reacting to the hatred of others, only by increasing the ability of ourselves and others to experience our human connectivity, can we move toward a world in which there is less injustice and abuse.
Yes, get out and march. Speak out forcefully against the wrongdoing of those in power. Step up to help those who are being victimized and attacked. But remember that your influence in the world is not limited to attending a rally or casting a vote. Your every word and gesture influences everyone you come into contact with. With your daily existence, you can decrease the anger and hostility of others and make it easier for them to feel love and kindness. And cultivating your own capacity for mindfulness and joy will help you stay strong in the face of adversity and prevent the reactivity that blinds us to suffering, our own and others’.
Since November, I have been spending an increasing amount of time doing various kinds of loving kindness and compassion practice. It was the only response I could think of to the hardening of my heart and the closing off of my mind that the election results set off. For a couple weeks, I could not feel that metta sensation in my heart; but when it finally came, I was reminded that there is no better healer than love, and that no catastrophe would ever take that capacity away from me.
Sharon Salzberg writes:
It’s important to investigate the nature of anger because it is such a powerful energy and can be so destructive. When we can face our anger without being afraid of it, or angry about it, or defenseless in the face of it, then we can come close to it. When we are able to look closely at anger, we see the threads of different feelings – the sadness and the fear woven throughout it – and we can see its true nature. When we can uncover the helplessness and powerlessness that often feed anger, we transform them. In being mindful of these feelings, we actually use the sheer energy of anger – without getting lost in it or overcome by its tremendously deluding and fixating quality – to reveal the courage and compassion that have been concealed.
When Practice Circle meets this Sunday, January 22, at 8 pm CST, we’ll share some loving kindness practice. Please come join us here: https://zoom.us/j/968569855