Part I: Practicing Peace in Times of War – Pema Chödrön

Last night, I attended a showing of the first part of Pema Chödrön‘s recent public meditation session on “Practicing Peace in Times of War,” given at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, California, on 13-15 July.

In an online invitation to a similar talk (being given now through 15 Aug. at the Shambhala Center at Red Feather Lakes, CO), Pema offers these very sage words:

War begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily — in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice — whenever we feel uncomfortable. It’s so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we’re feeling.

“Someone once gave me a poem with a line in it that offers a good definition of peace: ‘Softening what is rigid in our hearts.’ We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other. “

My notes, and comments (indented), from last night’s viewing follow. I apologise in advance for my shallow, incomplete, and uninformed view of complex dynamics and concepts in Buddhist teaching; I’m reporting here what I heard, how I heard it (given my lack of deep Buddhist grounding, and given my views, experience and other filters), and how it seems related to other things I ponder, observe, and experience.

Pema started out by talking about the idea of ‘settling a score’ or ‘getting even.’ She said, doesn’t it sound like those things should result in harmony, in evenness, in a balance restored? In actuality, they don’t, but we continue to think that they will. We have a misunderstanding about revenge, wanting someone else to feel as bad as we feel.

Actually, aggression breeds aggression, violence breeds violence, and neither brings the relief we hope for. We take our pain and give it to someone else, thinking we will be rid of the pain and they will understand; instead, over the long term, we still have the pain and so do they, and they will pass it along to someone else in the same way, and so on.

Pema says that the Dalai Lama was asked why he keeps advocating non-violence in Tibet when every year things get worse and worse for the Tibetans. His answer: “The use of violence is bound to create long-term resentment in others, and that is a source of future conflict.”

My comment: I agree whole-heartedly with the belief but the logic seems shaky: Lots of things create — or perhaps more accurately, uncover — resentment in others, e.g., being more skilled at something, being seen as better-looking, having more friends, getting better grades, having a child or not having one, etc. Should we forgo those things, too, because others will be resentful and there will be conflict? Jesus was very resented by some of those around him, for his claim to divinity, his healing powers, his flouting of their rules, and so on. Should he have behaved differently? To what extent are we responsible for the resentment of those around us?

Girardian thought parses this idea of resentment in detail, seeing mimetic entanglement and rivalry as the crux of resentment, which is very helpful for me. Girardian Paul Nuechterlein says that “Resentment is a state which has one always pondering evil against one’s rivals.” Put this way, it’s obvious that resentment is aggressive in nature. Sometimes it’s overtly aggressive, as when I lash out physically or verbally at someone who has insulted or disappointed me, and sometimes it’s so subtle, so that I may be privately wishing that someone I otherwise seem to love falls from grace or gets his come-uppance. There’s a similar mixture of spirits in the case of mentors and celebrities — whom generative anthropologist Eric Gans says in our culture “play the structural role of sacred figures, with all the ambivalence that attends that status” — whom we on the one hand idolize and imitate, and on the other, respond to reports of their downfall or besmirching with a frisson of schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune), the classic Girardian ‘mentor as obstacle’ dynamic.

Nuechterlein also says: “To live trapped in the world of debts is to live in a world of constantly building resentment, … a world that thus is in constant need of the release of resentment through the victimage mechanism.” Resentment leads to the creation of ever more victims. More on merit and debt below.

Later, Pema will say something that makes all of this clearer for me in a Buddhist context, concerning our attitude and spirit when we act.

Pema describes how aggression comes about: We are triggered emotionally by something — anything: an insult, a disappointment, a slight, a criticism, a loss, etc. — and we react to it emotionally. The more timid or conflict-avoidant among us might react by repressing the emotions and letting them fester inside us (for a time; and anything ‘inside’ us is unavoidably also essentially part of our ‘outside’ interactions and relationships), while the more daring might immediately strike back at the perceived perpetrator.

In all cases, the underlying desire is for us to feel better. Aggression, Pema says, rarely comes from evil nature [she didn’t use the world ‘evil’ but I can’t recall the word she did use] but rather from a desire to feel better when we feel any sort of pain and vulnerability.

In that moment, when the emotions begin to rise in reaction, we can think about how we might do something different.

She brings in the apparently traditional Buddhist teaching on ‘settling the score’, which is that when we are triggered, when we don’t like or want what’s happening, we can recognise that “karma has just ripened.” Rather than point the finger at someone or something external to us, the one or thing that we feel is making us suffer, we can see it simply as karma ripening. The idea is this: ‘I am feeling deep discomfort, and at some point I caused this same discomfort in another, and now I can pay that karmic debt by letting the aggression stop or I can get deeper in debt karmically, and strengthen my own habits of aggression, greed, fear, etc. I can choose to act for my own happiness and the well-being of the planet, or not.’

My comment: This idea falls flat for me. To look on my discomfort as what I am owed because I caused discomfort seems another way of engaging in blame and accusation, and making that the focus, and it keeps us in the realm of quid pro quo, of merit and debt, of reward and punishment, which is radically different from the view of God I currently hold. :-) I think this idea of reward and punishment in Buddhism is seen more as natural consequence than as punishment — similar to the way I interpret much of what has been traditionally taught as ‘reward and punishment’ in Christianity — but in this formulation it sounds less like consequence and more like punishment, i.e.,”You did this and now it’s your turn.” Which is not the same as ‘You did this and as a result of your actions, it is now being done to you,’ but it’s a very fine line.

There is also in Buddhism the “Dedication of Merit,” where after a class or other meritorious activity, we give away the merit we’ve earned to all sentient beings, and we wish to free all beings from “the ocean of samsara,” which seems to a Buddhist beginner like me to be a kind of karmic purgatory. It’s seen as a generous impulse to give away the merit one has earned, and yet I wonder why there is a persistent need to believe in merit, earning, debt, owing, accrual, and so on. And from where is the merit earned? And why is the universe keeping track, like some omniscient accountant? I tend to agree with Nuechterlein that living within the barren imagination of this kind of tit-for-tat system increases resentment.

Back to Pema. She goes on to say that in any case, from someone else getting ‘your’ parking space or cutting you off in traffic, to someone gossiping about you so that your spouse leaves you and you lose your job, to someone murdering your child or killing your dog — from an ambiguously malicious/ignorant action to one that is clearly malicious towards you — the buck has to stop here. No matter how unspeakable your own pain, reacting to it aggressively will only cause more pain and conflict.

There are practices we can do to work with our own reactivity. These are related to Uncovering Three Innate Qualities of Mind.

The three innate qualities of mind are natural intelligence, natural openness, and natural warmth. She says later that working with openness in particular helps to uncover intelligence and warmth.

1. Natural intelligence: We know that aggression generally leads to aggression. A five-year-old can predict that if someone feels thwarted or attacked, s/he will be resentful and angry and likely as not, will be aggressive in return. (By the way, if this isn’t already clear, aggression doesn’t necessarily mean striking out physically or verbally; it can also be a hateful quality of spirit, a slow simmering strategy to get even, a deep festering resentment that colours future perception and action, etc. It’s anything, it seems, that’s not about softening our hearts’ rigidness.) We have this natural intelligence within us, but our emotional reactivity is so strong in the moment of triggering that our intelligence is clouded.

This natural intelligence knows what will churn us up and make us suffer (e.g., with resentful mind, even if we don’t act on it then), and it knows what will soothe and heal us and lead to long-term happiness.

She asked the audience at this point if anyone wasn’t buying the idea that aggression leads to aggression. A man stood up and said that striking back out of revenge is different from striking out in self-defense or for a higher purpose. He posited that in the case of Tibet, if that country had an effective army, it might well be worth fighting off the Chinese. He also mentioned as a worthy enterprise that nations went to war against Hitler when he invaded Poland.

Pema’s response was low-key. She deferred most of her response, and conversation about this, but did say that there are times when it may be intelligent (i.e., in keeping with natural intelligence) to protect the self or strike out, but that generally that action comes along with a spirit of hatred. My own observation is that even if an aggressive spirit isn’t present at the outset, often hatred, anger, resentment, and so on form and harden in the process of striking out or in its aftermath.

2. Natural Openness: As mentioned before, Pema feels that intelligence and warmth flow from an open mind and an open heart. That is, a mind and heart free from bias.

She instructed the audience: “Listen as if someone were gong to ask you what you just heard.” There was silence, and then ten seconds later, she said, “that’s it.” That’s openness: attentive, paying attention, not knowing what comes next, not caught in our own thoughts, just opened outward to whatever comes. Again, from my own experience I’d say that curiosity is a part of this openness, too.

She suggested we do this throughout the day — pause and look outside our own bubble. Take three conscious breaths, or look at your hand, or just listen for a couple of moments to what’s in your environment. Don’t make it a big deal; there is nothing special to experience. The point is that it offers a contrast to being all caught up, like we usually are. It offers consciousness in the midst of mindlessness and habit. The larger point is: This is always available. This spaciousness is always available.

Part of what really soothes and heals us is recognising how much space there is, space for natural intelligence and warmth to arise. She likened it to the ‘space’ provided when we write a venting email or letter, in the heat of emotion and self-justification, and then we wait a few hours or a few days before sending it (likely as not, not sending it or re-writing it). Natural intelligence, which tells us that striking back in reaction won’t lead to harmony and all good things, is clouded by emotional reactivity — and it’s nurtured by space.

My comment: Thinking about aggression and resentment, openness and a spirit of compassion, reminds me so of the writing of James Alison (Girardian, gay man, Catholic priest), who speaks of the deeply felt experience of love and forgiveness (similar, perhaps, to the Buddhist idea of maitri, abundant loving-kindness for self and other), which can lead to freedom from resentment and an ability to fully imagine and inhabit true generosity, compassion, and peace.

The introduction to his 2001 book, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, has perhaps a different slant on these things than Pema’s talk, but it seems essentially compatible with her outlook and aspirations. The context is the Bible story of Joseph and his brothers: The older brothers, jealous of Joseph as the favourite of their father, want to get rid of him and so sell him into slavery and tell their father that he was killed. Joseph spends years abandoned by family, enslaved, viciously maligned, and in prison, but now is a powerful and wealthy man with the Pharoah’s ear.

“‘How’ Joseph must have thought, as he donned his Egyptian vizier’s robe, ‘am I going to enable my brothers to share all this abundance which has been given me? They think I’m probably dead, and effectively that’s what they wanted. They are a long way away, and even if, by the sort of miracle usually confined to Bible stories, they were to wend their weary way across the desert from Canaan to Egypt, they are probably still just as jealous and fratricidal as ever they were, and thus would be frightened of me. They would think me likely to be plotting revenge and so wouldn’t open up enough to be able to receive all the things I want to give them.To tell them that we were wrong is to play tit for tat. Not to tell them anything is to treat them as incorrigible and deprive them of the joyous breaking of heart which will enable us to become real brothers. What on earth am I to say?”

“I am not sure that any lesser starting point is worthy of gay people who are becoming able to speak the gift of faith. The position of the effectively dead man who, after losing any belonging, after struggling through an unsatisfactory apprenticeship and a prison sentence in a realm he did not know, without any support from his own, has found himself given a position of such favour and abundance that his task is to imagine generosity for others.

This is what I mean by calling this book Faith beyond resentment. Joseph exercised Pharaoh’s generosity as though he had never undergone any of the experiences which led him to his position. He was so entirely free of any sort of resentment that he was able to imagine an entirely generous and sustained programme for the reconciliation of his brothers, and act it out in such a way that they were eventually able to get the point, overcome their fratricide and be reconciled.

“In the pages that follow, it is to just such a making available of abundance from a complete lack of resentment that I aspire. And yet the reality falls far short of the aspiration. I don’t suppose that Joseph was free from resentment as he was sold into slavery by his brothers. He had time for meditation as he was dragged off to Egypt, meditation which could easily have turned into bitterness, resentment and despair. He had cause for more of the same when his seemingly safe job got turned into a trap by the wife of his master Potiphar. And in whose entrails would the worm not have turned during a long and undeserved jail-sentence? Yet it was in the midst of these experiences that Joseph developed an awareness of being loved such that he recognised that none of the people against whom he might justly feel resentment were really worthy of his dedicating to them that weight of emotional involvement. And he moved beyond even that, to a position of such freedom that he began to be able to plot not vengeance, but sustained forgiveness* as the gift of humanising others.

“The reason I have called these pages ‘fragments’ is that they inhabit the process of losing resentment. The freedom from resentment which I have described is aspirational, but the process of losing it is real.”

Next week: Natural Warmth, and the Q&A session.



* I love the idea of “plotting forgiveness.” As Alison talks about it in ‘Re-imagining Forgiveness’ in On Being Liked (2003), “the mere act of presenting some sort of … offer of forgiveness [can be] a rather subtle form of accusation, … a sanctimonious way of telling people that you hope they’ll see the error of their ways.”

To forgive can be, and often is, a form of revenge that claims the moral high ground. It can be a way of saying: I am not run by the same attitudes, beliefs, and values as you; I am not like you and I won’t be contaminated by you (Joseph’s penultimate position, in the passage above); and I am sanctified and godlike as shown by the fact that I can and do offer you forgiveness, as from on high.

Alison speaks of a remedy for this self-righteousness, which is to first recognise that I am the recipient of forgiveness myself, so that my identity is not derived from seeing myself as bestower of forgiveness; i.e., I am “not someone who is primarily a victim and secondarily a forgiver, but someone who is primarily forgiven, and for that reason capable of being a forgiving victim for another, without grasping onto that, or being defined by it.”

For Alison, forgiveness is not about wiping some slate clean. It’s an entryway to our own communal creation, free of the compulsion to either embrace or avoid death. Forgiveness looks like an ongoing, over and over again, process of learning to behave as if death were not, as if our biological lives were not the enemy, and it’s a way of dying in advance “so as to no longer be driven by death in our living.” That is, we can gradually let go of “our tendency to hold on to life at the expense of victims, and to think we are just to do so.”
(More on Girardian thought here.)

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