Sometimes, like now, it feels almost ridiculous to say that we’re living through challenging times. There are only so many times we can say it before it seems worn thin from over usage. Perhaps numbness creeps in? And yet, it is precisely in such times, when everything feels like it’s too much (or too little), that our awareness can be most transformative, both for ourselves and those around us.
I’ve received so many messages from participants on our course after my last missive about forgiveness, and once again I wanted to honour those and to thank you for sharing so much. It is truly humbling to see how many people are striving to cultivate and maintain an intentional compassion through these days of pandemic and political uncertainty ...
... So many of you are juggling multiple sources of suffering, and you’re doing so with sincerity and ardency. Please know, as I’ve repeated over and over again, it’s not a failure to be overwhelmed or to cry or to feel the anger of frustration arise. It’s not a failure when days or weeks pass and you haven’t found the time or energy to sit and do your meditation practice; rather it’s a tremendous success each and every time you practice, each and every time you recognise the anger arise and take a half-step back from it, each and every time you feel gladness that someone else is happy, healthy, and free from enmity. If you’ve been around since then, all the way back in April, I think I wrote to you about being especially gentle about goals and judgements during the pandemic …
Judging by your messages, especially (but certainly not only) those of you in the USA, this week is going to be especially challenging. So, in case it’s helpful, I want to spend a little time in this message to suggest some ways that the theory and practice of mindfulness might be supportive in such times.
I don’t want to repeat all my previous messages (which you can still find here if you’re interested: https://www.mentalpraxis.com/covid19), but I think there are two very pressing issues on many people’s minds at the moment. One of them is around the anxiety of uncertainty during the US election and its aftermath. And one of them is about frustration and anger, partly in the context of renewed phases of lockdown in many parts of the world, and partly in the context of social injustice and political chaos.
My guess is that most of the participants in this course already have a pretty good idea of how mindfulness might support them in the face of stress and anxiety. We cover so many practices that are designed to help us cope with (and even overcome) these toxic responses, so perhaps it’s enough simply to remind you that these practices can only support you if you do them! So, this week, perhaps you can pick a practice and make a new commitment that you’ll do it every day for the next 7 days, or you’ll do it every time you check the news on your phone … or (perhaps even better) every time you realise that you’re about to check the news on your phone. The practice can be tiny and brief (like a simple pause for breath or a three-step breathing space), or it could be more elaborate and long (like a four-stages of awareness sitting practice) – it doesn’t matter. Be realistic about the time and energy you have, pick a practice or selection of practices, and form the intention to do this for yourself and your loved ones for 7 days. Use this as an opportunity to see whether these practices support you or not – how can you tell? If it helps, I can tell you that I’m doing the same thing!
After my last message about forgiveness, I received some very sensitive and compassionate emails from people in this community about how (if at all) mindfulness might support engagement for social change. It’s such an important question, and I suspect it may be especially resonant this week, as levels of fear, uncertainty, and anger rise in communities all over the USA and elsewhere.
In that last message, I talked about forgiveness in a rather personal way, as a form of action that can be transformative for ourselves and, through that, for the people around us. As you’ll probably recognise from our course, this lens really emerges from the emphasis on psychology (and Buddhist psychology) and well-being that we find in the field of mindfulness today.
For some people, and probably for some members of our little virtual community, this emphasis on individual psychology risks missing the point. In particular, in the face of rampant social injustice, systemic racism, and even physical violence, is forgiveness really going to help us bring about change? What about the utility of righteous anger? What about going out into the streets to fight for what is right? Isn’t forgiveness just a way to help us feel better about the horrors of the world around us, including our role in perpetrating them? Isn’t forgiveness ineffective in the world? Doesn’t anger get things done?
Such powerful questions. Even writing them down carries emotional force in my body. Can you feel the energetic urgency to act that even asking these questions might inspire? If so, it might be interesting to pause and reflect on how easily that response arises in us … and how easily it can be provoked in us by the words of others.
It seems very likely that we’ll see anger in the streets of America over the next week or so, no matter how the election goes. No matter the results. So, this seems like an important moment to reflect on what that might mean and how (if at all) mindfulness might provide some support. To be clear with you, I’m not telling anyone how to act or what to do, I’m simply seeking to offer a bit of a sense of how mindfulness might encourage us to deal with anger, including righteous anger, if we seek the support of mindfulness in these times.
With that said, in the framework of our course, there might be (at least) two ways to approach this question.
The first is actually the simplest: for the Buddha himself, there is never a justification for righteous anger instead of forgiveness. It is always (ie. always) the case that the healthiest response to wrongness is forgiveness and compassion. So, it is always (did I mention always?) unhealthy to respond out of anger or vengeance. One of the key issues for Buddhists, however, is whether the Buddha’s teachings are meant to direct our intentions or our actions. One reading, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, might be that the Buddha was not very interested in what we actually do but mostly in why we do it. Hence, as long as the intentionality that we embody behind our actions is characterised by forgiveness and compassion, we can do more or less anything … including, presumably, fight. However, it is a complicated question whether some forms of action (including fighting or violence) are actually possible manifestations of authentic intentions of forgiveness or compassion. One of the roles of mindfulness in engaged Buddhism is precisely to enable people to see very clearly what their intentions are when they act, and thus to enable people to ensure that everything they do in the world emerges from compassion rather than anger.
There is a curious old story from Japan about a samurai who was also a practitioner of Zen. This samurai lived in a kingdom ruled by an vicious tyrant, and he resolved to kill the tyrant as an act of compassion for the people of the kingdom, accepting that he would probably die in the attempt. That is, he sat with his intentions and cultivated a will of compassion, and resolved that this compassion would be manifested in the killing of the evil lord. After many adventures and trials, the samurai finally comes face to face with the lord, who cowers away from him in fear. At the last moment, before cutting down the lord, the samurai realises that he is disgusted by the lord’s cowardice, and that his cut would be full of contempt. This makes him pause. At that moment of hesitation, the lord spits in his face. And the samurai steps back, sheaths his sword, and walks away.
What happened? The samurai needed his cut to be an expression of compassion, and he had managed to maintain the purity of his intention through many adventures. But, in the end, his compassion was tarnished by contempt and finally by anger (that the lord spat in his face). So, if he had killed the lord, it would not have been an act of compassion – it would have been vengeance – it would have been unhealthy. He walks away.
It’s not impossible that the samurai went back to finish the job after he’d worked on his contempt and anger in meditation, but the story doesn’t continue after he walks away.
In any case, in case the Buddha’s position on this still isn’t clear, in the ‘Parable of the Saw’ the Buddha famously instructs his monks thus: ‘even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill-will at heart would not be upholding my teaching.’ Instead, of ill-will, followers of the Buddha are called upon to respond to such situations ‘with a mind of love,’ and asked to radiate compassion and forgiveness. Only thus will the world be transformed.
However, this is not a Dharma course and (as we know) mindfulness and Buddhism are not the same thing; our undertaking to practice mindfulness is not the same as an undertaking to follow the teachings of Buddha. So, it’s possible that you might find an appeal to Buddha’s ethics interesting but irrelevant to your life.
So, a second way to look at this is through the lens of our ‘scientist’ archetype, who may be informed by Buddhist psychology in a secular way. Through this lens we can see a basic contradiction between the effects of mindfulness and the effects of anger on our awareness of the world around us. While the practice of mindfulness helps us to cultivate an open, non-judgemental awareness of whatever is happening in a given moment, anger contracts and narrows our attention around a single focus of action, shutting out almost all other sensory and cognitive input. While mindfulness enables us to take a little step back and to see the situation as a whole, and then to make a skilful intervention into it, anger keeps us locked in a form of resolve and action regardless of the context and meaning of the situation. That is, we very often regret what we do in anger, because our anger prevents us from seeing the meaning of what we’re doing. Tunnel vision is often the antithesis of wisdom. Mindfulness, on the other hand, should enable more skilful, wiser decisions.
Once again, we might recognise a version of our samurai story in this, albeit less ethically driven. Here, there is no claim that any particular form of action is better or worse than any other, but only that anger disables us from making the best choices. Through this lens, it’s entirely possible that fighting is the right action, but we won’t know that unless we fight from a standpoint of mindful awareness rather than anger. Fighting in anger is just auto-pilot: fight or flight. A key purpose of mindfulness training is precisely to interrupt the automaticity of our reactions and enable wiser, more skilful actions, even if those actions involve fighting.
So, our scientist archetype is not especially interested in whether it would be ethically better to perform violence, but only in whether such actions are really the most effective way to accomplish our goals. Will it really help us accomplish the overcoming of dis-ease and enmity that we’re seeking? Or is there a better course of action that we only see when we’re more mindful about the situation?
Anyway, I fully recognise that these are extraordinary times, and I sincerely hope that your practice can offer you some support in these times. If it helps to know that there are tens of thousands of people in this community thinking of you and wishing you happiness, health, and freedom from enmity, please know that this is true, and I am one of them.
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.