This past Saturday May 30, millions witnessed live online the SpaceX launch. Outer space has been the fascination of much of the human population for a long time. Maybe we hope to find some escape from the stupefying problems on the ground, such as systemic racism, oppression, corruption, destruction of the environment, in every corner of our little plastic-strangled space rock. But inner space has become for me a far more compelling exploration, producing palpable changes in my experience. Maybe it would be worth pouring as much time, energy, and resources into exploring the inner reaches of space as world sages and contemplatives have advocated again and again. Thankfully, we don’t have to go to a cave or mountaintop to work with our mind, our awareness, no matter the circumstances, since our mind is with us wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.
So, in protest against my mental afflictions, I turn the placard so the words face me, so the words are in my face. That is to say, I stop blaming others as a start to bringing healing to self and others.
Here is the shortlist, from the Buddhist tradition and universally applicable:
“The six primary afflictions are thus:
greed, hatred, arrogance, afflicted misknowledge, afflicted doubt, distorted perspectives”*
And here are those derived from the above:
“The twenty secondary afflictions are:
aggression, resentment, concealment, spite, jealousy, stinginess, pretension/deceit, dissimulation/hypocrisy, smugness, cruelty, shamelessness, inconsideration, dullness, agitation, faithlessness, laziness, carelessness, forgetfulness, non-introspection, and distractibility.”*
“Mental affliction” is defined as any mental state that disturbs mental equilibrium or peace of mind. They are identified in Buddhism as what prevent us from achieving actual, sustained, and optimal mental health and sanity; and as mentioned, the above 26 found in the Mahayana Abhidharma tradition make up the short list, the worst offenders, the gravest psychological destabilizers; there are thousands more, and there is plenty more online if you wish to dig deeper.
Going from the individual situation to the collective, if we want to empower our communities, we must understand that violence and destruction as methods to raise awareness of systemic issues are dynamically far worse than a dead end, since their dark effects foreclose any possibility of a sane future for people in our communities, destroying any hope for positive change.
Violence guarantees misery. The first and worst victim of aggression, destructiveness, and violence is the perpetrator.
Like a virus, violence is contagious. But so is love, far more powerful than violence, and in alignment with sustainable flourishing. Like the sun, it shines with no agenda or to secure anything for itself, and its light and warmth heal and illuminate the earth, but notice how the sun burns itself, just as we need to burn up our own mental afflictions from within.
We’ve all been watching, some of us outraged, some of us resigned, some of us overwhelmed, numb, griefstricken.
Destroying others’ property or lives guarantees lack of opportunity, and worse. Rage must be transmuted into solidarity.
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa, etc., leveraged millions through unwavering commitment to true solidarity, a refusal to resort to destructiveness, recognizing the universally shared condition even the most powerful and wealthy cannot escape.
Those who subordinate love to power drink the poison of self-created ruin.
We have plenty of examples in the media who embody this deluded approach.
As David R. Hawkins suggests (paraphrasing), power comes not from any ideology but from highest integrated inner values of love, compassion, wisdom, patience, etc., while force is the strategy used by those who lack true power. Force is the strategy fueled by the afflictions.
No one gets out unscathed without going inside first. And that going inside is not avoidance, it is the uphill climb, the uphill greatest purpose, the anti-inertia, post-delusion key to freedom of loving in the face of misery. But for that, deepest stillness first. The silence we carry is the secret to freedom. But silence without insight is escapism. And the cultivation of insight is unique to the human mind. Voicing ourselves from our places of inner silence conjoined with insight is not noise. Noise is what happens when we drown out the truths that silence-with-insight yield.
If I want to bring attention to a cause, I need to bring attention to my contribution to the problem. If I don’t want to see bullies, I can’t be a bully in retaliation for being bullied.
That does not mean I don’t take a stand. I just do so without causing harm to myself or others, any others. That’s what brings integrity to any protest.
“But the truth harms perpetrators.” It looks that way, but if it’s really truth the only thing that is damaged is the continuation of an affliction and an afflictive process or system.
The key to freedom is exactly as the unheard, retold, unheeded, reworded, untapped messages of the world sages declare: love your enemies. How? We don’t start with the ones “out there” or the ones we blame our suffering on, be they systems, regimes, ideologies, groups, or individuals.
First we see: how am I an enemy of myself?
How do I do violence to myself?
How do I steal freedom from myself?
How do I destroy my peace of mind?
I need to locate the “enemies” inside of myself. The world is a mirror for my mind.
Once I locate the “enemies” in my mind, and hold those parts of myself in non-judging acceptance, recognition, and love, the outer bullies will vaporize in my experience, and the inner bullies will have been turned into the ultimate allies.
I won’t hide, run from, deny, or repress those painful parts of myself. But neither will I let them loose to destroy others too.
Eventually I will see no such things as “enemy” and what only need the healing waters of love and the space that lets them breathe and work themselves out. I will see that the very label “enemy” was a misleading characterization of something far more mysterious that unites us all.
First I must see how, over and over and over again, I am my own worst enemy. How do I do that? I check to see which attitudes (see lists above) stand in the way of my freedom. I don’t have some vague loose-y goose-y notion of what makes me a decent person or not. I get specific, so that my understanding becomes shatterproof. As I meet them with love, care, and space, the truths they thought they stood for, the dysfunctions that brought them on reveal themselves to be better understood.
Mental afflictions show up in freedom-crushing actions of body, speech, and mind and drive away peace of mind and body. Freedom can’t be guaranteed for long by a constitution, however enlightened, without the corresponding civic duty of being a good citizen. And being a good citizen can’t happen without being a good person. And being a good person can’t happen without understanding which actions I myself am doing add to or subtract from the problems.
As soon as my own harmful attitudes and their associated behaviors stop, so will my misery. When my misery stops, I become my own best friend, far safer for myself and others to be with, and thus is the contagion of love guaranteed, because love is naturally occurring, naturally present, in the absence of mental afflictions.
How, for example, would torching the property of my perceived enemy secure my credibility or leverage my cherished cause? How would that help bring about the changes I demand? I’ve got the sequence bass ackwards: if I want to be respected I must first plant its cause, which is to know and show respect not to some “enemy” but to his exact same potential for goodness that I too possess. The demands I make of others cannot be effected without my making demands of myself first. I bring the highest potential of myself or another repeatedly to the forefront of my mind, and I background our limitations until we all meet in Rumi’s field.
“But they are hurting us!” you object. But if we hurt back the harvest of bitter fruits will never, ever, end.
“But it’s easy for you to say you don’t have mouths to feed or three jobs to work.” Yes, but to leverage out of those conditions we still must reorient our minds, step by step.
Can I demand others to do better by me when I refuse to first do better by them? Does an effect not require a cause? If we want to disarm another, we must first disarm. No violence in the name of “changing the system” will ever secure safety for long. Results have the same flavor as causes. If we have an ef-you attitude toward bullies we drive the stake of misery deeper into our hearts.
I have to first clear the ground of rocks and weeds; I have to hold my feelings of devastation, outrage, disgust, disillusionment, agony, first in loving acknowledgement of the layers upon layers of misery and hurt they arose from in myself. I have to look inside and start with the source of pain: my mind. Through healing my mind I become one less problem that no one else can solve but myself, in deepest recognition of the radically interdependent nature of reality. That will require some epistemic humility, and some careful thought on the nature of perspectives themselves, and how they come about. Please see Charles Eisenstein’s recent essay on The Conspiracy Myth.
This is why the Buddha said: first know suffering. He wasn’t talking about watching the news and advocating that we go from the outside in. He was talking about watching our experience of body and mind. Solving the problem requires each of us to have the courage to strap ourselves in and embark on the journey to inner space, one by one, so that we come to know that what happens there shows up “outside.”
*From the blo rigs tradition, based on the Mahayana Abhidharma; various translations exist. My intent was to translate as accurately and understandably as possible.