Five Years

bonsai-tree-yuywj-atilde-130-acircI am playing hooky from my own blog today.

I will share two questions I have been thinking about:
What are we doing for our children’s children’s children?
Is five years so different than fifty?

John Michael Greer’s latest book is available Dark Age America; Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead. Highly recommended.

Parental Kindness

“Our lives, from the beginning, depend upon kindness, and it is for this reason, as we shall see, that it terrorizes us.”
On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

 

We will not be able to respect the earth until we are able to respect ourselves. We will not be able to respect ourselves until we understand the value of the individual, a value not defined by any social group. In our time of mass-market-man the pressures to conform to the collective are everywhere. Mindful Ecology looks to rebalance the scales a bit. Today that involves us in an exploration of childhood development.

According to the psychoanalytic theories, kindness starts  in childhood as a sort of bribe for keeping the needed parental attention focused on ourselves. As we have seen, the human mammal has the longest childhood of any animal. Throughout this extended stage of development we are wholly dependent on the kindness of our care providers for everything from food and warmth to protection from the elements and predators. It is critically important that the child keep the relationship with its parents viable if it is to reach adulthood. How can a small child do this? By being lovable enough for the parents to watch after it. This is the birth of kindness as a bribe, “an insurance policy against deprivation or neglect,” as On Kindness has it.

This bribe kindness is a type of false kindness rooted in the fantasy world of the child’s magical thinking. By the lights of this psychoanalytic story the mind of the child is prone to two types of fantasy. One type of fantasy is that the child can satisfy all their needs by themselves, that they have no need of other people and in fact resent whatever obligations other people place on them. Here is a narcissism we can easily recognize as one of the more insidious features of modern culture; the claim that the rich and powerful became that way all by themselves and so have no further tax obligations to the society which fed, clothed, housed, taught, and provided the opportunities they took advantage of. The other type of early mind development the child needs to be weaned from comes from the other direction; they need to be weaned from complete dependence on the mother for their survival and well being. The child cries and the mother appears. ‘Wow, I have such power’ the young mind rightly concludes. The child cries and the mother does not appear. Whatever is the child to think?

Fantasy does not have what it takes to satisfy our inner and outer needs. The spaghetti you see, smell and maybe even taste in your imagination, will not nourish your body, however well developed your skills at visualization might be. In the exact same way the romantic relationship your fevered imagination conjures up will never be able to satisfy the needs of the heart or loins for long. When we eat the  menu instead of the meal we are left malnourished. It is by renouncing the world of magical fantasy that we find there is an opportunity to be nourished by reality; we eat the spaghetti, we come to know our partner as a real human being.

So how does this weaning away from fantasy kindness occur? By recognizing the truth of the frustrations we feel. No parent has ever been able to satisfy every desire of any child ever born. Frustration is the inevitable result. The child comes to experience the truth that they are unable to make everything better for themselves or for their parents. The child also awakens to the fact that they are unable to remain satisfied or experience well being only from the resources they can draw out of themselves. The hubris of false kindness fails to achieve the developmental tasks required for growing up. To grow up we have to recognize psychological interdependence; that we need others to nourish our real needs and that a reality exists that is mostly unresponsive to whatever we might wish, feel and imagine.

In the fall of the false kindness there is a chance for real kindness to be born.

False kindness fails to recognize that there is an element of hatred in our emotional life. Rage is the reaction we have to frustration. Learning to tolerate frustration is the beginning of learning real kindness. Unlike the fantasy that insists it can make things all better, real kindness accepts that there are forces much bigger than us that sweep us into pain and heartbreak even when we wish it were otherwise. Compassion and kindness are born from the recognition that in this we are, in fact, just like all other sentient beings. The classic set of sickness, old age and death are often brought up as subjects worthy of contemplative time. In this context we can see how they are avenues of strengthening real kindness by looking at exactly the kind of things false kindness finds so uncomfortable.

This brings up a very important point. There are meditation practices that are capable of healing us and meditation practices that are capable of maintaining our neurosis, even meditation techniques designed to bring about temporary psychosis in the context of complete personality reformation. The meditations a Mindful Ecology is interested in are those that “steady the mind and open the heart [to] be more present to our world” instead of those spiritual teachings and practices that “cut the nerve of compassionate action,” as Joanna Macy taught in ‘On Being With Our World’ found in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.

Just as there are numerous ways in which the developmental tasks we are discussing can go haywire, so there are a number of ways spiritual practices can also go haywire. The reasons are not unrelated. There are many so-called spiritual teachings (not to mention economic and political) which, instead of maturing the human psyche, are designed to keep it in an infantile state. Many of the more destructive groups in our society seek just such an outcome; a nice child-like herd of customer-converts that will not protest too much when they are used and abused.

It is rather obvious to us in the West that some Islamic parents are willing to use their children to advance their own religious and political agendas. The twelve year old suicide bomber apprehended by authorities last week is a vivid example. We recognize parents and groups that do such things as cold and cruel. More charitably, we might say their abstractions about god and heaven have made them sick. Because Christianity does not include the idea of a jihad holy warrior we do not even seriously consider the abstractions by which these adults rationalize these kinds of activities as being worthy of our rational attention. However, we in the West should not be too quick to judge since we are captured by our own abstractions. We are unable to appreciate the same dynamics are at play when, say, a teenager trying to leave the dogmatic religious cult or the abusive parenting of their childhood commits suicide or dies from an overdose. School shootings differ from bomb vests but there is a streak of fanaticism and mind programming recognizable in both.

Using children is a far more pervasive problem than it might at first seem. We become enraged when our moral right to exist is denied by someone treating us as an object to be used, not a person to establish a relationship with – and we all know how we feel once we discover we have been used. Piling up un-payable toxic debt and irreversible climate change is just so much more of the same use and abuse. Add uncontrolled access to pervasive pornography and images of violence, torture and carnage and our social war on the innocent is complete. We seem to get a kick out of terrifying our children, as if we could take our revenge for everything that has disappointed us about life under Babylonian Capitalism by taking it out of their hides. It would be the height of folly to think such intergenerational extremism will never face a day of reckoning.

A powerful survival instinct tells us that when we are beaten we should hit back. When parents lash out at their children they create the frustrated rage of a small sentient being unable to effectively defend itself against giants. As the parents almost inevitably assure the child that these physical or psychological attacks are ‘for their own good’ the child is left very confused. The developmental tasks of the child’s psychic maturation includes recognizing that hate is included in the ambiguous emotional life of an adult in love. Growing into this insight is already confusing and difficult enough without adding additional burdens. The adult can understand that there could be no hate without some element of love involved; if there were no love there would be only indifference. Nor can there be adult love until someone knows quite clearly what they hate about non-love. Sexual attraction may involve an element of cruelty, as the Freudians insist, but whatever sadomasochistic patterns might be involved, there is no rational way to confabulate the love found in relatively healthy homes with that found in S&M dungeons. Reasoning depends on proper emotional responses as we have seen established in the neuroscience work of Dr. Damasio. Reasoning also depends on duality and here, where love and hate are the dualities involved, is where it is most difficult to reach the maturity of emotional life that fully supports reasoning well. Real kindness is the one guiding light. That is its power.

Parents will hurt their children, none are perfect. Nor is a pain free childhood something we should imagine would do us any good anyway. Healthy parents are able to recognize that they get frustrated at times and act in ways that they later come to regret. They model how an adult can accept life’s shadow side without allowing it to destroy one’s basic gratitude for being alive. After all, to have children consciously is to say you believe that, in-spite of all the pain and horror involved in a lifetime of experiences, in-spite of all the dangers of nuclear war and ecological destruction, it is still worth it to experience existing. This is a relationship with the archetypal shadow as something workable. It teaches what it means to be a human being by avoiding the inflation of the elect, who project the shadow, and the bestiality of the damned, who are consumed by it. When healthy parents model such stoic acceptance of human life as it really is, they teach frustration tolerance to their children. It equips their children well for dealing with life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Unhealthy parents are unable to stand the sight of themselves as sometimes being bad parents. To even broker the thought is to open up realms of personal shame in which they feel broken, flawed, and even satanically sinful in the very core of their being. For such parents, all the horrors of adults using their children can only be accepted by being white-washed with the magical incantation, ‘it is for your own good.’ The child abused sexually, physically or psychologically / spiritually is receiving a message that undercuts their burgeoning ability to reason clearly. They are told, by the actions that speak louder than words, that hate is love. This is part of the reason Alice Miller is so adamant in The Body Never Lies that abused children must come to the point of expressing their rage at their abusers. Only in this way can the mind regain confidence in its ability to reason. It is necessary to see through the double bind that can drive people crazy.

George Orwell had a lot to teach us about such stinking thinking. In 1984‘s Newspeak we are taught many of the clichés we still fall prey to if we are not thinking carefully. “Hate is love” might be the most recognizably goofy but some of these thought stoppers still have us mesmerized. “War is peace” is one we Americans seem to have a real problem with, considering the size of our military budget as opposed to the proportion of public funds dedicated to the health and well being of people and the environment.

Navigating these emotional waters of love and hate during childhood development is no easy task even when abuse is not in the picture. When acute childhood events are also part of a person’s childhood experiences they leave a lifelong propensity towards a variety of problems ranging from violence to substance abuse. This is why child abuse is considered as evil as it is: it leaves marks, programming people for life. It is true that such broken people can honestly say ‘forever changed, not forever damaged’ but it is a Pollyanna view that refuses to recognize the reality of the harm done by our barbaric childhood rearing practices.

In healthy childhood development the mother is able to regulate how much hate the child experiences, modulating it in such a way that the development of the child’s psyche is not unbalanced by the terror and fears such exposure entails. Real kindness is born from the recognition of our shared ambiguities and frustrations (as well as our shared love and bliss). The child uses its anger to expand its world beyond the mother and father in a sincere search for relationships with others. Kindness is the fellow-feeling that guides us through the development of friendships. Among our peers we learn to stand on our own and begin to discover what it takes to provide for the unique needs of our individual psychological makeup.

Homes full of fundamentalist religious or political beliefs add all manner of spooks and devils to this universal process by coloring the first glimpses of the heart of darkness with fantasy filled assertions of absolutes. Such parents are incapable of empathy because their filters of fear keep them reacting to their own projections. It can be very difficult for people raised in such environments, at any age, to separate the reality of hate and love from the magical fantasy versions.

“A society that romanticizes kindness, that regards it as a virtue so difficult to sustain that only the magically good can manage it, destroys people’s faith in real or ordinary kindness. Supposed to make everything happy and right, magical kindness cannot deliver the realistic care and reassurance that people actually need. Magical kindness is a false promise…
For some people, their dependence on their parents when they were children was so unbearable that it can never be risked again. Concern for parents felt like self annihilation and brought them up against the limits of what their love could do. Every child wants to cure his parents of whatever makes them unhappy, and every child fails at this. That experience alone can make a child begin to doubt the value of his kindness, because it isn’t magic.” On Kindness

The epidemic of stressed out parents churning out infantile adults is threatening to remove our ability to reason about reality all together. Magical incantations will not save us from the consequences of our ecological ignorance, complicity with destructive groups, seduction by charismatic leaders or remove the corruption of our institutions and social arrangements. Too much of what passes for public life is little more than the rage of the frustrated child refusing to accept the limitations inherent in our being human. (Remember the crucifixion image?) This leaves us, collectively and individually, prone to any con that comes along promising  to magically make everything better. As  Kunstler has it, there is indeed Too Much Magic.

The alternative is clear and it is the same for our social life as it is for our individual lives. Once we are free of the enchantments that keep us enslaved to our magical thinking, we are able to use reasoning, coupled with imagination, to develop a knack for setting realistic tasks that make the world and our lives within it, not perfect, but just a tad better. Turn your attention to the many ways in which existing arrangements cause the death and destruction of species, peoples and lands. It is not hard to find realistic tasks that would make important improvements. First, however, we have to stop looking for mommy and daddy to tell us what to do. We first have to grow up and accept that there are limits to growth.

Kindness is Powerful (2)

“View people’s moral character in terms of habits that can be changed instead of as fixed,
inborn properties.”
Aristotle, paraphrased by Elliot D. Cohen in The New Rational Therapy: Thinking Your Way to Serenity, Success and Profound Happiness

 

Last week I mentioned that it seems that hope inspires two types of faith. Fanatic faith, which we looked at, is toxic. It increases fear and decreases real compassion as a natural result of its focus on an elite entitlement. When you are sure you and yours have the one and only capital-T truth, the battle with doubt is all consuming. As studies in cognitive dissonance make clear, one of the most effective ways to assuage such doubts is to busy oneself proselytizing and bearing testimony as often as possible about how sure you are such and such a creed or ideology is true. People can maintain these dogmatic positions only by constant social and cognitive reinforcement; typically this includes reading only approved material, watching only approved movies, and hanging out only with fellow true believers. Over time these practices narrow a person’s world view.

What might hope look like that is not toxic? Basically it is one that leaves space for the unknown among ethical considerations. It is unwilling to make final judgments about the state of anyone involved in any event. This is a way to recognize and honor what you consider good and evil and seek the good, even while remaining cognizant that this is no more than what your habits born from experience have persuaded you is most worthwhile.

This is not to say there is nothing but personal opinion involved in ethics as a postmodernist might assert. An examination of the nature of the human being as a social mammal shows how the structure of our mind, body and emotions is such that a common code of decent conduct, while not written in stone, is written on the waters of our biological roots. This leads us to look for a middle way between fundamentalism and complete ethical relativity.

Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld’s In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic provides us with a useful exploration of this middle position. They point out that “all one’s moral certainty” could be summed up by one sentence in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “The dignity of man is inviolate.” They go on to point out, “It is instructive to recall the historical context of this sentence. If human dignity hadn’t indeed been violated in horrific ways under the Third Reich, the declaration of dignity wouldn’t likely have been put into a state constitution. Not always, but very commonly, certainty in moral judgments arises in situations in which one is forced to confront instances of obvious and massive immorality.”

It is just this historical process that has lead the modern world to condemn torture, the death penalty, and slavery. In each of these cases someone pricked the conscience by saying ‘Look here, look at the details of the rack, the guillotine, and the bull whip.’ It is also just such a historical process that, I suggest, the globalized society is now confronting in the many ramifications of the ongoing, accelerating ecological crisis. All over the world people are screaming ‘Look!’ and pointing to the poisoning of our air, water and lands. “The meaning of the dignity of humankind comes to be perceived at certain moments of history, however, once perceived, it transcends these moments and is assumed to be intrinsic to human being always and everywhere.” (Italics in the original)

One is lead to wonder how long emissions will be allowed to continue. “What we observe, then, is a development in the perception of human dignity and of offenses against it from mere opinions (‘You and I will agree to disagree about slavery’) to universally valid moral judgments (‘I condemn your practice of slavery, and I will do whatever I can to stop you’)… ‘Look at this’, they said, in effect: ‘It must not be allowed to continue.'”

This is not to say that any of these historical developments are inevitable, nor that once obtained they are secured forever. There are plenty of historical cases where a culture succumbs once again to barbarisms it had once set aside. (This should give us pause at a time when the basic institutions of democracy, institutions embodying doubt instead of dogmatic certainty, are being threatened.) This historical development of a culture’s ethical understanding is just the sort of contingent development we have come to recognize as a signature feature of the evolutionary algorithm. It is also a bulwark against the temptation to justify moral certainty only through religious certainty.

In Buddhism there is an emphasis on developing compassion and empathy as a means of working directly with these perceptions of human dignity. The most sophisticated elaboration of Buddhist ethics, along with means for increasing one’s compassionate perception, are found in the Mahayana teachings. As I have been taught them they offer an example of a non-fanatic faith. In the Mahayana there are, for example, the ten precepts. What makes these different than, say, the ten commandments? The Buddhist presentation of these norms includes something we do not find in the traditions of the dogmatic, namely, when each of the precepts should be broken for the sake of compassion. In other words, these precepts are not considered the final word that applies to all times and in all conditions because they were revealed from above, but are guides for how we might more wisely think about moral behavior.

This presentation of the Mahayana often includes a retelling of a tale in which committing a murder was the most compassionate act. Note that there is no magic righteousness removing the ‘negative karma’ from the person who commits the murder, something every veteran suffering post traumatic stress certainly understands:

A Buddhist story tells of a ferry captain whose boat was carrying 500 bodhisattvas in the guise of merchants. A robber on board planned to kill everyone and pirate the ship’s cargo. The captain, a bodhisattva himself, saw the man’s murderous intention and realized this crime would result in eons of torment for the murderer. In his compassion, the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man to prevent karmic suffering that would be infinity greater than the suffering of the murdered victims. The captain’s compassion was impartial; his motivation was utterly selfless.”

There are things we should not do: lie, steal, sexually abuse, and murder are among those universally recognized as wrong, at least when such crimes are committed against members of our own group. If we assume we are trying to be good people and are avoiding these things, how are we to think about other people we see engaging in them?

How we choose to answer that question will determine the degree to which we view the world with compassion. It is easy to hate those which are most justifiably hated. The killer and the torturer are rightly despised. There is a reason that even in prison the child abuser is singled out for particularly harsh treatment by his fellow convicts. All this is true; empathy for the suffering that has been inflicted on the victims requires a heartfelt desire to protect, to stop the evil deeds from being consummated or continued and if that means destroying the person causing the suffering, so be it. If this were all the compassionate heart had to consider, the spiritual path would consist mostly of keeping oneself pure and destroying the evil others.

What happens, however, if we dare to ask about the mind of the perpetrator? What has shaped and formed this mind in such a way that it is driven to commit acts of horror? In a previous cycle of posts we looked a little at the biology of violence and discovered evidence that victimizers had often been victims themselves. As soon as we begin to ask about how a heart of darkness became dark, the whole black and white ethical thinking of the fanatic begins to look like so much ignorance. When we are brave enough to face the darkness in our own hearts the same thing happens. It is just not that easy to hand out damnations.

In Christianity there has long been a theological debate between those who hold that in the end hell will be empty and those that insist on eternal damnation. Those who defend the empty hell position point out that a loving god will need to eventually send his grace to each and every one of his precious children. However lost they might be or whatever sins they might have committed, there must be a means to return their heart to eternal joy if this is to be a god of love. The esoteric teachings about Christ’s three days dead being spent in hell deal with this ethical reversal as well; it is the time when those crying out ‘Lord, Lord’ are found to be last among those who really understand.

One theological camp, those of the empty hell, would like the pain and damage caused by evil actions to be healed so that the victims and those who love them can lead a life that still includes happiness. The other camp focuses instead on the perpetrator and believes harming them will somehow make things right; the joy of those in heaven is said to be watching the suffering of the damned. How much of spirituality is little more than a revenge fantasy?

How hard is it to not grant the victims of horrendous abuse the satisfaction of returning a bit of the pain they have known back to the one that caused it? Alice Miller in The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting argues emphatically that victims of child abuse are unable to take responsible care of themselves as adults until they are able to overcome the taboo that says children must always honor their fathers and mothers. Recognizing reality, the very thing abusers are trying to keep their victims from doing, requires recognizing that some fathers and mothers are monsters. Only when the victim no longer tries to justify the perpetrator’s behavior through convoluted logic will the ability to think and feel rationally be restored. Properly placing and speaking of the rage needs to happen. How does that fit into the overall framework of how we think about what is right and wrong? How does that play out against the larger context of mass media manipulations designed to remove our sense of reality and replace it with childish dependency on the immediate satisfaction of a consumer purchase?

Consideration of what made the perpetrator have the mind they do makes it much harder to harbor thoughts of undiluted hate and revenge. What we learn out here in the real world, out beyond the Sunday school lessons, is that most every criminal was once a victim themselves. The child abuser was abused as a child, the father beating up his five year old was beaten himself. Which leads us to ask where the father’s father received the shame and pain that warped their mind, causing them to act out. “The sins of the father will be visited upon the third and fourth generation” the Bible says in Numbers. This is the dark wheel of samsara, endlessly spinning around and around. Keep returning hate for hate and it never ends; only love can over come hate. This wheel needs to be cut.

What opens up once the simple black and white thinking is abandoned is a vision of vastness; ripples of causes and effects running their way backwards and forwards in time.

What we are being taught is that it is possible for there to be a bodhisattva in hiding – a spiritual giant might be going where the evil is in order to do good. We can never be one hundred percent sure, even in the realm of moral certainty. This follows directly from the truth of equality seen through the eyes of our interdependence. When the eye of compassion looks at an event like arms dealing in the third world it hopes (aka has faith) that among the many people involved there might also be a bodhisattva working undercover. One of the arms dealers might have diverted a shipment or influenced a sale so that it minimized the harm that might otherwise have been done. Or maybe a bodhisattva in hiding was able to accidentally arrange for illegal shipments of small arms to war torn regions to be discovered by the authorities. Who knows?

The Mahayana teaches its ethics within the context of compassion. It does so by not allowing the ethical precepts to be considered absolute. There are times when doing the right thing requires one to lie, steal, kill and even behave sexually outside the norm.

Due to the way I was raised and many of the experiences of my own life I am able to see in the popular Broadway musical and movie Rent an acid test of real kindness. Can you see beyond the shallow, where breaking social norms are sins and the people are just being punished for it, to the deep where lives are being spent in love? What I see in this script are the flawed and raw, the hurt and abused, doing what they can to share among one another what happiness they can know. (Btw, those who see Rent as little more than modern decadence can argue that it is providing a set of likable, talented pretty people with sins larger than our own to salve our guilty conscience. For these people movies like this only encourage lax moral behavior by romanticizing it, confusing our young people even more. It is a legitimate criticism. This is just the way things are when we step out of the abstractions of black and white thinking and take up the mantle of adult understanding; a bit more complicated than what can be captured in a sound bite.)

We have to be careful when trying to pursue the good. Often when we apply a great effort of willpower and try to force our way into virtue, we are really coming from a place of great fear, not compassion for oneself and others. When fear is fueling the willpower behind such disciplines they do not lead to lasting healing. It is a hard thing to be truly wise and compassionate, very difficult. Recognizing this is simultaneously recognizing the many ways in which people can use the concepts of virtue in highly un-virtuous ways.

The point is this: never cut off someone forever from your compassion. That is the one thing we are not allowed to do in the Mahayana way of thinking. But it is equally important that you recognize that you cannot help everyone, at every level, right now. This means it is ok to personally remain neutral for the time being and just wait to see how things continue to play out if need be. You do not always have to make a judgment about whether something is right or wrong on the spot; you can defer judgement as an act of kindness to oneself and others. We enjoy clear, unassailable compassionate thinking when in addition to yes and no our ethical life includes maybe. Accepting this allows us to take our seat, the powerful seat of kindness. Karma is the idea that we can be confident that the reality of events are the causes from which results will be born; they will not be born from whatever con job or delusion might be dominating the mindstreams of some of those involved.

The whole Mahayana structure with its undercover bodhisattvas and exceptions to its ethical vows is an elaboration of the simple sentiment; “I hope some good comes of it.” That is what we say when confronted with an evil but still are capable of feeling hope within us. Understood rightly it is the exact opposite of a Pollyanna point of view. This is just what Mindful Ecology is all about. It looks to the mess we have made of our social arrangements and our relationships with the living earth and refuses to just lay down and die. It looks the storm right in the eye and then gets to work embodying an alternative lifestyle as a way of swaying the probabilities involved in charting our future on this planet. I hope some good will come of it.

Kindness is Powerful (1)

“Religions are basically inventions of the human mind… Compassion is fundamental to our nature. To achieve it we do not need to become religious, nor do we need any ideology. All that is necessary is for us to bring forth our basic human qualities.

“The real Avalokiteshvara (the greatest Bodhisattva) is compassion itself… an ideal quality which we must strive to cultivate to a limitless degree.

“My religion is kindness, a compassionate heart… this is both the root and the fulfillment of all spiritual paths… Let others concern themselves with God.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, quoted in Celestial Gallery, Romio Shrestha

 

Kindness is the acid that eats through all pretensions to elite entitlement. It recognizes the truth of interdependence requires we meet on a ground of equality. All beings want happiness and to avoid suffering, and all beings’ own life is precious to them. These things make us equal first and foremost; before any segmentation due to status, belief, race, gender, species or anything else which divides us, applies. When we embrace another human being, literally or figuratively, in a fully honest extension of our heartfelt love and kindness, it is an act of celebrating who they are, as they are, without agenda and without conditions. It is an act of embracing them from this ground of being. It can be a powerful experience, perhaps the most powerful awareness is capable of. It can be as if all the energy of a panic attack due to the fear of death were being harnessed, because there is no fear, and applied to this moment between us. Yet the stream of compassion is stately and graceful, full of the patience of a mountain and a strength on par with a slowly revolving galaxy.

These powerful moments are rare. They are rarely found where we work, sometimes in the home, occasionally between lovers but most often it seems they occur in emergency rooms and funeral homes, our modern cremation grounds.

It would be a mistake to overlook the powerful psychological truth behind an act of heartfelt kindness. Before we can talk about what that is though, we will first need to clear away some baggage. As one might expect in a world of violence saturated entertainments we are not particularly well educated on understanding the ins and outs of compassion and kindness. Of late we have gone in for a more Spartan sensibility. I will argue that is sad, that by doing so people alienate themselves from the one thing that can bring healing and happiness to lives in the midst of our troubled times.

One objection to compassion being a well spring of our human nature comes from the school of popularized biology that insists selfish genes cannot make altruistic mammals. We had a chance to look at just how mammals need kindness earlier among the wire and cloth monkey mothers. I’m willing to bet the best interpretation of the evidence is that it is very possible for a social mammal to have honest loving kindness for another. Objections to compassion being actually possible for human beings also abound among the philosophers. Nietzsche famously allowed that compassion is a part of human character but claimed those who extol its virtues to be inspired by no more than the resentment of the poor and powerless against the wealthy and the strong. His acidic assessment of Christian hypocrisy remains a damning indictment but that does not of necessity remove the possibility or value of actual loving kindness.

On the flip side from those who object to compassion being real are those who are sure true compassion is easy for human beings. These are all the good-doers running around thinking they are helping others, all the while hurting people right and left. They think they know what is best for folks and off they go to do right by them. It is often hard for a person kept overly busy chasing virtues on a never ending escalator towards unobtainable purity to slow down long enough to ask themselves if what they are doing is really bringing benefit to other sentient beings. I submit to you that the world is full of more unskillful harmful poisoning than healing from the church dragons among us, that the full depths of compassion are not achieved as easily as the do-gooders in the world believe.

There are many reasons for that last. I want to draw our attention to one built into the very concept of spirituality, almost like a trap. I contend that real compassion is not possible for those who are sure they, or their cult, alone have the truth.

These people have not yet taken what Buddhists would consider the first step on the path of Dharma. Let me explain. The person who espouses a dogma is pretending to a certainty that is not available to the human mind. Dogmatic faith says things like, “I know this is the one true church” or “I know this is the one true god / message / standards / commandments,” or the real bait on the hook, “I know what happens after death (and can sell you fire insurance)!” They do not.

These people have not yet obtained intellectual honesty. For any number of psychological reasons, they have yet to find the courage to accept the reality of the cognitive, conceptual and emotional limits of biological earthly human life. Lacking self honesty, there is no further step that will aid them on the path of suchness, the reality of things. They have yet to enter the vehicle by which this path is traveled. Intellectual honesty forces us to admit that we do not know, that we cannot know with certainty. Therefore honesty requires admitting these unfalsifiable claims are in fact our best guess or perhaps more graciously, our most meaningful expression of myth and honored traditions. It is as if hope in the human breast is home to two types of faith. Fanatic faith is toxic.

Most people who have walked this earth over the long millennia stretching back into deep time have not claimed dogmatic certainty. Monotheistic history is the history those in the West know best but it is not a characteristic sample. More commonly the symbol systems we today consider religious were woven into the daily context of transformation all people in the culture participated in. There was not the separation between church on Sunday and life on Monday we are familiar with. The Navajo and Tibetan people are good examples of such cultures in which a certain shamanistic sensibility guides each person along a path of beauty expressing itself through one’s daily activities. In such a milieu the arts of saying ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank You’ have a chance to refine the energy of compassion, push it and develop it and see just how far it will go. Such cultures say they are giving birth to spiritual warriors: men and women who are heroes due to their tamed minds as opposed to warmongering heroes who dominate the bodies of others.

The healing wisdom traditions of our inherited stories and myths encapsulate centuries of lessons about how and how not to live as social beings. These are one and all rooted in a humble attitude as their basic foundation, the ground from which they offer succor. The ground recognizes that we are not free to say what is real and not, but we are free to try and learn from it. The ground includes reverence before the wonder and preciousness of life as we experience it within the ever enveloping environment of the earth and sky. It is just this humble attitude that is lacking in the dogmatic individual.

The human being naturally wants to say ‘Thank You’ and ‘Yes’ to the experience of living. This is the fundamental response, the root of our psychology coming directly from the organic health of the bodymind – the thrill that it exists at all, a finite point in a sea of infinities.

In the dogmatic believer fear clouds this basic ground of goodness, obscuring it behind a fog of conditions; covenants and contractual obligations full of gods granting magical powers and virtues rewarded with wealth. Each time thoughts naturally turn to ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank You’ the fears instilled by their dogmatic faith get triggered and instead of finding comfort just resting in that awareness of the sacred, they suffer from the mind running circles around it, trying desperately and hopelessly to capture the essence of the experience in words; the holy books of all kinds. As every terrorist act is designed to shout: We value doctrine above persons! They are living upside-down.

The dogmatist has, as we say, a chip on their shoulder. They try to convince themselves and others that they have a mainline to the capital-T truth the rest of the world lacks. To the degree that they remain with their dogmatic insistence they are incapable of true compassion. Though they might act kind and always strive after virtue as it is defined by their creeds, at the end of the day this elitism makes a meeting of hearts between equals impossible.

The start of compassion is said to be the recognition that all sentient beings want the same thing you want, namely, happiness. It is also the recognition that all sentient beings are just like you in that they suffer. It is from this ground of equality that empathy is born. The elite might have pity, a real type of sorrow for all the poor smucks who just don’t get it. But this is not the fellow-feeling from which insight into the truth of interdependence can arise.

The spiritual elite add one other ingredient to their witch’s brew of dark curses, one which is having its day right now all across the globe; the dogmatist who just knows what is really going on is, in their own mind, unquestionably an elite human being and so naturally they are entitled to act in ways others are not. This sense of entitlement is what makes a discussion with such people such an unnerving experience. They deny your moral right to exist. Technically they fit the definition laid out in Aaron James’ Assholes; A Theory:

“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically
2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”

This sense of entitlement is haunting the house of the abused child, inspiring the bully in the pulpit, and echoing darkly through the heartless environments dripping wealth in our financial centers. This sense of entitlement is not just a problem with religious fundamentalists. It is a problem inherent in belief itself when it is allowed to claim logical closure.

What this means is that any system of thought that retains intellectual integrity will be an open system, one that recognizes the acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing activity. Its honest pursuit will provide an individual with powerful intuitions and strong emotional commitments but these will not be elevated to the level of dogma. Logically, open systems compliment compassion by granting that each individual has their own unique dream and integrity. Cultures that encourage open systems allow each generation of minds to explore their own experiences as being as true, real and legitimate as any that have gone before.

A closed system by contrast insists that all that is of real importance, or all that human beings really need to know, has already been revealed and what the existing generation needs to do is accept its authority and learn to live by its lights. Thought that retains intellectual integrity does not allow for such closed systems, ones in which circular logic seemingly succeeds in containing the one truth for all people in all times under all circumstances, like some sort of ideational perpetual motion machine. We insist intellectual integrity does not allow for closed systems not because we free thinking heretics are cussed. It is because a closed system necessarily depends on claims that cannot be falsified and thought stopping circular logic and in these things we recognize ways by which the human mind can be mislead, deceived and controlled. Karl Popper taught well the distinctions between open and closed systems of thought and their social and political implications in The Open Society and Its Enemies. It was also his work that first clearly teaches us how and why we need to ask if claims are falsifiable. But wait, there’s more. Closed systems suffer from another inherent weakness, for as Douglas Hofstadter was at pains to point out in his masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Braid, it is a characteristic limit in conceptuality itself that any system complex enough to be interesting that is capable of proving some things true, cannot itself be proven true by any conceivable means from within that same system. Gödel’s Theorem is a coffin nail on all such fevered, Faustian dreams.

The dogmatic believer is threatened by openess. It is too exposed. It is too vulnerable. It is too raw and real. They fear space. Earlier I mentioned that the basic truth of our experience, ground-floor truth, is the thrill of existing at all. It is also true that all things in universe (used intentionally as a verb) are impermanent, which means space will take away what you have come to love. Love will still exist, it is as indestructible as the Queen of Space herself. Truth be told, what you find most precious in love is love itself, so what you find most precious is indestructible. That should comfort you but it is your choice. It becomes a question of what you value more: “the magic in a young girl’s heart” or your magic, yours alone.

Only one of these believers in magic, as far as I can tell, carries the balm of compassion wisely.

Kindness is Dangerous

“Kindness, we will argue in this book – not sexuality, not violence, not money – has become our forbidden pleasure. What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?”
On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

 

Kindness is dangerous, make no mistake about it. To be kind is to admit you care, exposing yourself to the surrounding bullies and giving them ammunition by which you can be hurt. This is why so many torture techniques are about raping the wife and killing the children to destroy the man. He cares and so his psyche breaks witnessing the cruelty.

The smallest act of kindness is revolutionary, an active protest against the insistence that this whole planet is full of people, animals and things meant only to be used to further our personal pursuit of wealth and power. With an act of kindness you dare to interfere with the Invisible Hand of the marketplace, threatening social chaos because you are not pursuing your own interests first and foremost. Of course we are a culture of smiles, but they do not reach our eyes. Too often the only purpose of our friendliness is to grease the wheels and make using one another a little easier.

“Goodbye cruel world.” Is the only way to escape this cruel world to die? Perhaps if we became a touch less cruel ourselves, the world would look a touch less cruel as well. Perhaps if in addition to selfish genes and ruthless competition we also filled our lives with thoughts of mutual aid and cooperation we would find our days proceeding much more smoothly, more filled with peace and contentment then they are right now.

When you feel caged in, hurt and vulnerable it is impossible to extend to another human being a warm, heartfelt acceptance. If inside you are feeling that you have been used and abused by others, you are not going to be able to greet other human beings in an atmosphere of trust. If you suspect every act of kindness has some ulterior motive, you are not going to be able to accept comfort from other people. Under these circumstances the interactions between human beings are ruled by fear which makes everyone wary, always on the lookout for the next insult, blame or threat. We see this everywhere; unhappy marriages, unhappy families, unhappy workplaces. That it is easier to sell someone something they don’t need if they are stressed out and full of fear is exactly why our media does all it can to keep images of carnage and pain, human cruelty and deception surrounding us at all times. The only kindness we accept is that of Hannibal inviting his guest to dinner.

In A Language Older Than Words Derrick Jensen writes, “I sometimes feel as though the tone of this book is not appropriate. I’m not certain the language is raw enough. My language is too fine, the sentences too lyrical, to describe things neither child nor adult should have to describe at all.”

By creating a culture devoted to material gain through individual competition we have also created a culture in which it is almost impossible to relax. Can you feel how, as a society, we are just getting wound up tighter and tighter? We all fear that if we let our guard down and expose our open and vulnerable side, others will take advantage of us. We fear they will use shared intimacies against us, fears that are often well grounded. While thankfully only a few people will experience torture, very few people will escape the devastating experience of having a trust betrayed by a friend or lover, by a boss or colleague, by a parent or sibling. We suffer when some intimate detail of our vulnerability, which we were courageous enough to share, is used against us. We suffer so deeply that we are quick to create a persona, a mask, that pretends we are not as hurt as we actually are. At first we use our mask as a band-aid but over time, as the scar tissue grows, it becomes character armor. We no longer even think about whether what we are about to say or do to another is cruel or not. We no longer notice when we are devastatingly cruel, carelessly flinging arrows and spears into the broken hearts around us.

We have become astonishingly cruel to one another as our capitalistic relations have become ever more brutal and exploitive. Coming out on top is the over-riding value; we must be first, best, brightest, and cutest or else the big machine of corporate power will chew us up and spit us out on the street.

The new management style that was all the rage recently well captures our social bankruptcy. In this breakthrough of business acumen the competition that dictates relationships between businesses was encouraged among the employees as well. The world of business is notorious for its dirty tricks and cold heartedness; ‘it’s just business’ we say, as we deny paying an insurance claim to the family with a child dying of cancer. The new management, following the same playbook, encourages backstabbing your peers by reporting their mistakes to their superiors secretly, negative office smear campaigns to destroy the careers of your competitors, and disingenuous reporting of other people’s achievements so yours stand out as unquestionably the best. Anyone recognize any of this? The logic is straight forward enough: the best businesses are those that out-compete all others, so the best employees are those that out-compete all others. Basically we have come to worship the CEO as asshole. In doing so we have come to prize the human being that can most quickly and thoroughly be an asshole to another human being as the highest achievement of personality and character.

We have become so fascinated by the gross power the abusive wield, that we have grown blind to the more subtle power found in acts of generosity and kindness.

True kindness, or the lack thereof, comes directly from how we see the world. There is not much more to it than that. The difficulty of the path in which we work on developing compassion is that we cannot change the way we see the world. Not directly anyway; the way we see things is the way we see things. We can fool ourselves for awhile, and others even longer, by trying to force ourselves into some regime of positive thinking or faith or groundless optimism but in the end, the world we see is the world we live in.

This is not to say there is no way to change the way we see the world, far from it. In fact it is more of a problem for the human mind that it is too easy to change the world we see into one we picture must be there. The contemplative arts are forms of training the mind to see what is really there beyond our fearful clinging and grasping. By calming the mind and letting it rest we discover a basic ground of goodness, we allow ourselves to become aware of the subtle delight that accompanies energetic, organic existence.

The world we have been taught to see by our immersion in the norms and mores of our dominate culture is one in which a dead, mechanical universe exists only to serve our needs. The non-human life we find on this planet is considered to be a kind of pseudo-life arising from mechanical chemical reactions. Non-human creatures only seem to have feelings, self consciousness and worth – much as women and children were considered to be for most of history. Only humans are really aware we are alive because we can talk to one another, although this condemns us to a lonely soliloquy. Around and around we go, stimulating one another in our echo chamber to ever greater feats of anger and destruction, stoking the fires of fear and justifying our injustices.

If what you actually see invokes respect you will naturally seek to treat it with the decorum it deserves. For the human being our most graceful acts and attire are reserved for those special occasions when matters of highest individual importance are unfolding; births, deaths, and marriages. We instinctively understand our value is the value of the unique individual. Extending this simple recognition to all sentient beings is an ethical ideal perhaps, but it is also little more than a simple recognition of the facts, namely, that before the forces of life and death all living things are equal. I am vulnerable to suffering, so must you be. At this level of being we are equal and this is simply the truth. Social and cognitive constructs do not reach here; in the silence there are no claims of revelation and salvation, status and domination. Here in our equality it is undeniably obvious that you and I, we have each been born of earth.

Recognize this and you recognize that no one has the right to tell you how to live or lord it over your innermost heart. No one else can give you the final answers to what this life is all about. Recognize this and you recognize the full implications of your choice to be cold-heartedly cruel or not.

Kindness is dangerous, make no mistake about it.