On Monday, I wrote a little about my response to Osama bin Laden’s killing. Upon hearing of his death, most people expressed heartfelt and understandable relief that our hunt for one who wished to destroy us was over. Others participated in “celebrations” that seemed tinged with what could be described kindly as poor sportsmanship. The question I was trying to raise was this: if we must kill (as in this case), is there a way to do so that will increase chances for peace (which is why we did it in the first place) rather than violence?
People showed up on my blog who were quite pissed off at me for being arrogant, judgmental, delusional, and/or some kind of pussy. This confused and hurt me.
What I was calling for—and will continue to call for, most of all from myself—is compassion: certainly for those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and for our whole country which has suffered deeply, but also for our “enemies.” This is not because I’m some super nice kind of person. It’s because only by cultivating some kind of empathy rather than hatred can we begin to create lasting change in our world. Escalating violence and retaliation do not lead to peace. I’m a realist.
On a scale of 1 to 10, my certainty on this score is 11.
Compassion is rooted in seeing others as similar to ourselves, in removing any and all ideas that there is an “us” and a “them.” There is only us.
But how do you do that for someone who wants to kill you? Is it even a good idea? Some commenters have said things like well, when cornered by a rabid dog, you don’t want to say, “please don’t hurt me” and hope for the best; that I’m incredibly naïve and probably some kind of Mac user. (Really, that was one of the accusations.) (How did they know?!)
Of course we want to protect ourselves from violence and danger. Please stop igniting all of my neuroses from childhood by talking to me as if I’m stupid. That turns me into a rabid dog.
So, I’m not counseling stupidity. I’m not counseling what has been called “idiot compassion,” which is the idea that you’re always supposed to act nice and be some kind of touchy-feely asshat.
In Buddhist thought, compassion is synonymous with skillful action, action that is rooted in seeing reality from the largest perspective possible. When you are able to pay attention to the reality that exists beyond your thoughts about reality, you know what the next right action is. If you need to love, you love. If you need to avoid, you avoid. If you need to cut, you cut. There is a sense of precision and elegance and kindness in all cases.
To do this, you put aside your assumptions, judgments, and projections…and simply look. You open, even to what and whom you dislike. This doesn’t mean forgiving or liking anyone–it simply means taking them in as flesh-and-blood human beings, not as cardboard cut-outs who have no reality beyond your judgment. You let go of concepts, again and again. You give up what makes you feel safe, secure, right in order to do this. It is an act of extreme courage.
True compassion is a profound skill, one that has much more in common with fierceness than softness. Compassion arises when you allow someone else’s pain into your own heart without a personal agenda. This is what so many of us are terrified of doing, and understandably so. To view our “enemy” as part of the human family rather than a scourge to be obliterated means we have to take on their pain as our own and most of us are already full up on that score. Nonetheless, we must do it anyway. It requires fearlessness and and a sense of genuine power, and is not, as a few characterized it, some kind of lefty do-good politically correct emasculating bullshit.
The stumbling block for many of us is that we haven’t learned how to have compassion for ourselves. The idea of extending it to others then causes resentment, anger.
This is where the work begins: by opening to your own experience with kindness.
Forget for the moment about political strategies, ethical systems, or whether or not you’re acting like an asshat. We can begin much more simply than that, by cultivating some tenderness toward ourselves. From here, open-heartedness blossoms naturally.
Thus the practice of meditation—which is the act of sitting with yourself exactly as you are—is the foundation for cultivating intelligent compassion.
If you would like to try meditation, please do. You can find instruction in the video below.
Please remember: If we open our hearts, we can change the world. The truth is that there actually is no other way.
OK, now call me an asshat. It’s my new favorite word.