Cruelty and Compassion

Ego rightly fears the highs and lows of emotions by which the psyche can be carried away. Crimes of hot passion and cold revenge haunt our history books. Overwhelmed by grief the ego has been dragged to hell, overwhelmed by bliss it has been transported to heaven. Until it has plumbed the heights and depths itself and extended its compassion to all the parts found within, that fear of being overwhelmed by what has been repressed remains. The Self seems to guide the ego along the lines of overcoming these fears, given the chance. Along the way our conception of who and what we are remains, of necessity, mundane and restricted. Our conception of the universe we find ourselves in also remains similarly mundane and restricted. When we look into our minds and allow only a small glimpse of their potential to effect us, we intentionally narrow our view. A larger glimpse of their potential can lead to a larger view.

Most often we narrow our view by turning our attention to ourselves. We ruminate about our life stories; replaying past events and imagining future ones. This is how we learn and set the goals by which we energize the present moment. There is nothing inherently wrong about these types of cognitive activities; they are what the mind naturally does when placed more or less in neutral, unless the mind is unaffected by fear. Without fear the mind more naturally turns its attention out away from one’s own life story. In neutral it then unleashes its inborn curiosity and ponders this existence we find ourselves a part of. Contemplation along these lines can lead to gratitude and awe born from a profound respect for the intelligent pattern everywhere displayed.

The logical third possibility is that the contents of narrow attention will consist of some combination of ego considerations and an awareness of the vast environment it finds itself a part of. Here, at the interface, is where so many of our deepest dissatisfactions with our existence arise. It seems as though we rarely can get what we most deeply long for from the universe. Peace and contentment escape us for we cannot long rest content with our achievements, nor can we avoid the heart rending suffering of love lost for long. Many of our most basic needs and desires are related to our relationships with other people, but other people do not appreciate us enough and the world certainly is not giving us our proper due… All these kinds of thoughts come naturally to the ego and provide it with the fuel it uses to get up off the couch and work hard to make things a bit better.

This, however, is not optimal. To be inspired by the energy of what is basically a childish temper tantrum is to be enslaved by one’s own existence. Gratitude and awe before the vast reaches of inner and outer space is a much more liberating psychology from which the ego can live. Moving the ego’s center of gravity from the tantrum to the gratitude requires that it comes to know it is valued, just as it is. It needs to come to know it is loved by god as a child of god, as it is said in western religious terms. It needs to come to know it is valued as a Bodhisattva in training, as it is said in eastern terms. It needs to fight off the inner bullies that would wound its very being with shame and deny it has any right to exist, as it is said in psychological terms.

The modern view of that which is real is so vast in time and in space that it intimidates us. It threatens us with such minuteness that we fear our lives to be little more than meaningless grains of sand, specs of dust in the wind. It is worth noting that this cosmic vastness has been part of the view of the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism since their inception. Both of these eastern traditions are rich in teachings that point to the inner world of the psyche as being equally vast and finding thereby some measure of belonging within the infinities which surround us on all sides. This is in no small part where the differences between the psychology of the east and the psychology of the west have their roots. Modern cosmology has brought the eastern view to the west. It can shake the girders of our souls, waken us from our dogmatic slumbers, if we let it.

Ego works hard to find love and food, shelter and some sense of meaningful participation with the rest of the world. Where it fits in the vast cosmic panorama is harder to say, whereas what it needs to do today is usually rather clear. It is not easy to be self-conscious. Touched by sorrow the ego has tasted hell, touched by love it has tasted heaven. As mentioned, overwhelmed by grief it has been dragged to hell, overwhelmed by bliss it has been transported to heaven. All this has taken place without ever once setting foot anywhere but on the solid ground of this very earth on which we live. Where the human being fits in this vast cosmic panorama is hard to say, but it is the nature of our minds that each of us must take these journeys of the soul into the outer reaches. No one wholly escapes the responsibilities of the shaman.

Lovecraft, reflecting a modern sensibility, warned that mankind was not meant to venture far into the reality of our vast cosmos. In what is probably his most well known quote he predicts that if we were to awake to our true position in the vast scheme of things we would run quickly back into the comforts of a new dark age. For Lovecraft that would be a return to barbarism and religious superstition in which we try once again to appease primitive gods, granting at least some small degree of control over what happens to us in our own deluded minds. It is not a pretty picture of our psychological potential. For Lovecraft, the modern western author of cosmic horror par excellence, madness threatens those who seek too deeply into the nature of nature.

Against this view what defense does modern man have? I will argue interdependence, the view embraced by ecology and systems science. Size alone, in space or in time, should not intimidate us. The human brain is the most complex organization of connections in all the known universe. The evolutionary role of emergent consciousness, which is what mankind is involved in, is closer to quantum weirdness than it is to the now discredited mechanical universe Lovecraft was reacting to.

When another person dismisses your existence as meaningless and worthless, as elitists of every stripe do with such ease, it is as if they are embodying this view of a vast heartless universe, our modern horror. In what psychology knows as a reaction formation people who have become assholes have reacted to this repressed threat to their ego by overcompensating for the impotency it makes them feel. This is much like the closely related phenomenon in which the bully uses cruelty and violence to maintain a repression over their inner insecurities. ‘If the universe is just going to use and abuse us, well I’m nobody’s fool, I’ll use and abuse people even more,’ the twisted thinking of the asshole-elitist runs. Next thing you know we are dealing with the unique cruelty only human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another: we will never see rabbits crucifying one another or wolves hooking pain inflicting electrodes to each other, or even, Orwell’s prescient Animal Farm not withstanding, will we see pigs creating totalitarian governance systems.

Compassion is anti-assholism, anti-elitism. For some reason there are other people that react to this same environment differently. This view of vast time and space opens these people to extend loving kindness to others as much as they can. They do not perceive the universe, just as it is, as a threat to their ego stability, but as the supporting context from which it arises and draws its being. At some deep level, beyond what ego can directly control, they have become convinced that whatever is most precious to them cannot be destroyed however outrageous one’s folly might be.

We do not know the determining factors that decide which way an ego will come to view its place in the grand scheme of things. Something beyond what ego can control is guiding this process as far as we can tell. This is why depth psychology needed the concept of the Self as a larger whole within the psyche of an individual than the ego alone. What we do know is that these things seem to be related to how a person has been handling the highs and lows they experience in their innermost heart, their center of emotional life. Here is where the mystery of consciousness is most acute, here in the inner sanctum of the real temple.

The compassionate protectors will discipline themselves and others as a tree is pruned, to facilitate future growth. The will never harm the health of the seed and sap, as it were. The destroyers, on the other hand, use discipline as a means of dispensing with existence, denying that life has any right to exist just as it is. It is as if the destroyers miss the seed and the sap, the Buddha Nature, the state of grace, that everywhere is manifest in sacred world.

We find both protectors and destroyers within and without. It is good to know how to identify who is who. Those who would treat you cruelly, and exalt in that cruelty for cruelty’s sake, do not confuse the minds of their victims. They are easy to identify. The torturer and the bully in their pure form are self defeating. It is when the torturer claims to be working for the Holy Inquisition, and the bully claims to be working for the patriotic military (aka Holy Hosts) that the confusions abound.

Those who would treat you cruelly and claim it is compassion, that it is For Your Own Good, are liars. They are claiming, thereby, to have found themselves heartless in a heartless universe. They are claiming the earth is dead, a place where feeling and consciousness are epiphenomenon, where all that is really going on is a meaningless clash of robots. They have made all things over into the image of the machine. Or, if they are of a religious instead of secular bent, they claim to have found the only heart in a heartless universe. Their savior and story are the one thing that really matters; earth is the dead backdrop against which the all important drama of the human soul takes place. If we need to kill the village to save it, this thinking runs, so be it.

This is a simple truth: there is a universe of difference between treating oneself and others with cruelty and treating oneself and others with compassion.

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