July 5, 2010

Compassion for All? ~ Krystina McIntyre

Why and How to Have Empathy for Those who Harm Others.

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space.

He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.

Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

~ Albert Einstein

When I abandoned my fundamentalist Christian background (Mormon, if you must know) upon encountering Buddhism as a teenager, it was because of the simplicity and profundity of the principle of compassion.

Of course, compassion was present in my native religion as well. Do unto others, love thy neighbor, etc., but it had always seemed buried under a heap of sin, patriarchy, vengeance and wrath.

In Buddhism, compassion was front and center, dogma was minimal, and I found affirmation that was what I believed most strongly from within; to live with kindness and fairness could actually serve as the foundation for all my actions and decisions.  There was no need to look to a book or a man in charge.  Knowing right from wrong is as simple as my own, innate compassion.

Except that compassion isn’t always simple.  As an animal-rights-focused vegan (blogging to help aspiring vegans is one form my activism takes), I frequently encounter accounts of violence and cruelty toward helpless animals, and persecution of their human defenders.  I find that forgiving those who wrong me is a piece of cake compared to having love and compassion for those who wrong others, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

Vivisectors and dairy farmers might not be the people you struggle to feel compassion for, but there’s probably some person or group you feel justified in cutting out of your circle of compassion.  Our society encourages unquestioning hatred for murderers, child molesters, and rapists.  But the Buddha said,

“Let none…despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another. Even as a mother protects with her life her child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings,”

in the Metta Sutta. The Buddha also said,

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

So, how do we get beyond this reaction?  I’ll share with you the method I use to extinguish my anger and replace it with compassion.  I don’t always succeed, but I’m often surprised at how compassion seems to meet me halfway, once I make the effort.  I challenge you to try this in regards to whatever person or group of people you have demonized or feel justified in hating.

First, look at your anger.  Why is it there?  It was not created by the abuser.  Your anger was created by you and lives in you, so why did you create it?  I’ll offer two common reasons, though others are possible.

Maybe your anger is your way of responding to an act of violence you are unable to prevent or to undo.  You can’t stop the oil spill, un-slaughter frightened animals, or reverse the rape of a friend.  Your anger is an outlet for your helplessness; a way for you to feel that you’re doing something.  Your anger is a way to show that you care.

Response: Realize that extending your compassion to abusers does not mean abandoning or betraying the victim(s).  There will be enough compassion to go around.  Neither does having compassion mean condoning or excusing abuse.  Don’t confuse cultivating hatred with taking constructive action.  Your anger does nothing to alleviate the suffering, it only causes more suffering, this time of your own making.

Another possibility is that your anger arises from fear and self-protection.  If you demonize a person who does something abhorrent, you deny that he is like you, or that you are like him.  The more “monstrous” the abuser, the less we see ourselves in him and the more we comfort ourselves that we are good people, different from that kind of person.  Your anger is reassurance that you are safe from some potential inner darkness.

Response: If you want to be less like that person, cultivate your empathy, and diminish your anger.  Who is more capable of cruelty, a person who clings to hatred or one who extends universal compassion?

Now, see if you can shift your focus from the suffering caused by the abuser to the suffering experienced by the abuser. If this is difficult, you might try imagining him as the child he once was.  Odds are, the abuser was once a victim himself.  Most perpetrators of physical or sexual violence come from a background of abuse.  I truly believe that only a broken person can do horrific things.  Ask the common question, “What makes someone capable of doing such a thing?” But don’t ask it rhetorically, as is generally done.  Try to understand the suffering that made this person a broken human being, capable of cruelty.  Now imagine the continual suffering of being such a broken person.  What must life be like when viewed through the eyes of an aggressor?  How lonely, to be violent.  How sad, to feel no sympathy.  Lastly, imagine what it must be like to live the rest of your life with the memory of the harm you have done, and to be unable to undo those actions.  What a nightmare it must be, to re-live that cruelty indefinitely.  How must that guilt and remorse weigh you down?

The aim of this exercise is to contemplate the suffering of the abuser without feeling any delight, revenge, or satisfaction.  “As a mother protects her child,” was Buddha’s example.  Can you see yourself as the abuser’s parent?  If your child did something cruel, would your love remain?  Do you feel that flash of empathy?  It will get stronger and easier to arrive at with practice.

I was fortunate to have regularly visited inmates in prison during my most formative years.  In visiting rooms full of armed guards, convicted men in identical clothing shuffled in, single file, to spend an hour with a wife, a parent, and sometimes their children.  I saw men who were frightened, lonely, depressed, resigned, and broken, but I never saw a monster.  I saw men who had caused suffering that would outlive them by many, many years, and whose own suffering was also immense.  I never once spent an hour there without seeing an inmate cry.

I’m not saying that these men weren’t guilty of awful things, or that they shouldn’t have been there.  Certainly there were women, children, men, and animals that were safer with them locked behind bars.  What I’m saying is that there is suffering on both sides of abuse, and that all we can control is our reaction.  We can choose to suffer as well, or seek to understand by extending our compassion.

{I used male pronouns only because violent abusers tend to be male.  I am by no means implying that all abuse is committed by men.}

Krystina McIntyre is an atheistic slacker Buddhist who loves her Pagan roots.  She is an outspoken, bike-riding, liberal, tree-hugging, vegan, feminist, equality activist who is finally getting back into yoga and who deeply misses gardening.  She blogs about veganism for aspiring vegans and the vegan-curious at vegansalt.wordpress.com.  Krystina works as a bookseller and a barista while trying to figure out how to save the world, and what to be when she grows up.  Krystina currently resides in Salt Lake City with two cats and her favorite person; the love of her life.  They dream of living somewhere more lush and tree-filled together.

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