Change-making, Activism & Compassion
Breaking the cycle of anger and resentment – whether in our intimate relationships; between parents and children; within collaborative projects; or between nations – is one of our hardest challenges as human beings. Anger has a tendency to stay within…
Breaking the cycle of anger and resentment – whether in our intimate relationships; between parents and children; within collaborative projects; or between nations – is one of our hardest challenges as human beings. Anger has a tendency to stay within ‘the system’, spreading outwards to others – unless it is released, just as a computer virus infects more and more of the network unless it is ‘healed’ once and for all.
In the Tao Te Ching it says;
After calming great anger
There are always resentments left over.
How can this be considered as goodness?
Therefore the sage keeps her part of the deal
And doesn’t check up on the other person.
We can only ever be responsible for our own anger, as it is inside of us. Dictating to other people what they should or shouldn’t be doing without first clearing away our resentments and frustrations is doomed to failure. More importantly, forgiving ourselves the anger inside us turns out to be the key to forgiving other people – people with high moral standards are inevitably most unforgiving to themselves, and to loosen their rage with others they must first look inside. And for that they need compassion.
The first two (of four) ‘Divine Abidings’ of the Buddha (he taught that these four ways of being are enough to lead to rebirth in the highest heavens without actual enlightenment) are ‘loving-kindness’ and ‘compassion’. Therefore there is a rich heritage in Buddhism of cultivating ‘loving-kindness’, or metta. This is a way of defusing anger at its core – psychologically speaking most anger is a reaction against a feeling of insecurity and fear first felt at an early age, that has become an easy program to run when things becoming threatening, or we feel alone, got at, or victimised. To release the anger (so that it no longer cycles around and around our inner system, and we don’t pass it on to our children) we must dissolve it in ‘love’.
In metta practise, one doesn’t go straight for the hard stuff – loving other people, or people we don’t like. The first step, always, is love of oneself. For many this is in fact the toughest challenge; we hold beliefs that we are not good, not right, not OK deep down. Without compassion for ourselves we have no hope of compassion for others. I find, in my work, that a great way to develop self-compassion is to see our ‘negative’ behaviours as – literally – those of a hurt and confused little child (frozen within us) that is doing what it thinks it needs to do to survive. In my own life, I don’t feel that this insight excuses my anger and violence, nor does it make it right – but it does make it understandable. The only way to change something is to accept and understand it first. Having a baby son – who has a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way – has really helped me to forgive myself, and see the anger that arises within me as a baby’s tantrum locked in place. Therefore if I can love and forgive myself the same as I do little Jai – and see the anger within me and those around me with the same sense of humour as I see his – then I can truly be a leader: Someone who can create lasting change in myself and therefore the communities around me rather than recycle the pain, anger, shame, guilt and fear over and over again.
This insight has direct relevance to all those fighting injustice out there in the world. If we see an act by a government or group as ‘wrong’ – ie. morally wrong – we immediately make ourselves right. In this moment we are judging others, and we become, at some level, angry. This anger becomes part of the system, and we inevitably lose all power to make lasting change. Activism is a thought trap that locks the world in place. Just look back at history and see how revolution has inevitably created as much, if not more, violence than the situation it was fighting against. Back on the microcosmic level – how likely are you to change when someone says: “Stop doing that you idiot.” Most of us think…. ‘**** you!”.
Gandhi saw this vital insight into change-making (we should all take note – he was the leader of one of the greatest political shifts society has ever seen) when he developed the philosophy and practice of satyagraha;
“Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love.”
“I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.”
It is challenging, so challenging – when in a crazy fight with a lover, or an entrenched conflict within a collaboration or business project (these latter are simply more hidden – and perhaps dishonest – versions of the former) – to step out of the well-worn groove of name-calling and stone-throwing and look inside ourselves first. But if we resist the insanely tempting urge to be right – to be violent in thoughts, words, or deeds – we can tap into a compassion for ourselves and our fellow human beings which becomes the true force of change. As the experiences of the transition to black rule in South Africa teach us, forgiveness through Truth and Reconciliation are the keys to creating a lasting peace within us, and between us.
Back to the Tao Te Ching;
He who fights with love will win the battle.
He who defends with love will be secure.
This is the means by which Heaven protects and save him.
This nugget is dedicated to my wife, Lisa, who forgives me the anger that arises; and who bathes me in the love that can release it.