Journal Entry – Thu Dec 17

It’s freezing out – Our next-door neighbour has two great Danes. Can you go for a walk if you are in a wheelchair? Maybe you can catch some air or go for a Wheelie. Stay warm!

Matt used up all his deodorant, lotion (an 3/4 of mine) – I’m trying to understand how that’s possible – we’ve been here for 17 days! Today he went to Shoppers to reup.

Lecture 23: Being Peaceful in a Troubled World

In the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions, the concept of ahimsa is a fundamental ethical principle. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means “without harm” or “non-injury.” It’s sometimes also translated as “the principle of nonviolence.” Ahimsa emphasizes the lack of harmful intentions and serves as a precondition for developing compassion – recognizing that everyone is suffering and the desire to eliminate the conditions for their suffering. Compassion, or karuna in Sanskrit, contributes to one’s own tranquillity and removing other people’s suffering.

However, it is hard to maintain peace and tranquillity in the face of danger. The world often presses on us in ways that make peace seem impossible. People sometimes unjustly inflict harm on others, so what are we to do in cases like this? How can we peacefully stand up to violence without allowing violence to consume us? A common phrase related to this issue is “turning the other cheek,” which recalls Jesus’s famous words. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

The Christian theologian Walter Wink has argued that this passage supports what he calls Jesus’s third way. This is a middle way between the extremes of cowardly submission and violent reprisal. Wink suggests that in this passage, Jesus is telling the victims of oppression to stand up for themselves, to defy their oppressors, and to assert their humanity, but without answering the brutality in kind. Wink suggests that standing up to violence in this way nullifies the oppressor’s power. The oppressor can no longer shame the victim.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience give some reason to think that acting nicely toward someone may change their behaviour. The reason for this has to do with mirror neurons and our mirroring tendencies. When we move our bodies, we activate specific neural circuits in our motor cortex, which happens even when we just watch somebody else move in a certain way. This is why it’s nearly impossible to explain to a child how to tie shoelaces, but it’s very effective to have the child watch a demonstration. Research suggests that this is true not only for motor movements but also for other behaviours. When someone acts aggressively, other people have a tendency to mimic aggression because they are neurologically mirroring it. The same goes for kindness. When someone is friendly to us, we have a tendency to emulate that.

But the question remains: How can we stay calm and peaceful in the face of hostility and violence? Buddhist practitioners employ various reframing techniques in their journey toward enlightenment and liberation – that is, on the path to nirvana. For example, the 8th-century Mahayana Buddhist philosopher Shantideva uses many different reframing techniques in his masterpiece The Way of the Bodhisattva. In this work, Shantideva writes for aspiring bodhisattvas, as we learned yesterday, are beings who forgo final nirvana until everyone has achieved it.

In The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva explains how we might aspire to become a bodhisattva and begin to engage in the process of actually becoming one. To help us accomplish this, Shantideva offers practical arguments and advice, including advice that helps address the question: When others assail and annoy us, what should we do? We have to resist becoming angry, and one of the techniques Shantideva offers for avoiding anger is a clear example of a reframing skill. This is part of how Shantideva describes the method in The Way of the Bodhisattva:

Those who stay close by me, then,
To damage my good name and cut me down to size -
Are surely there protecting me
From falling into realms of grief.

Shantideva’s central point is that we can skillfully reframe how we view those who slander us, insult us, and actively block our worldly ambitions. Rather than hindering us, they are actually helping us. Worldly matters simply engender attachment and aversion. It is ignorant to think that such issues could make a person truly happy or could eliminate suffering. Instead of being angry with these people, Shantideva advises treating them as a source of joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist monk, suggests another tool. This is how Thich Nhat Hanh puts it:

There may be times when you are angry with someone, and you try everything you can to transform your anger, but nothing seems to work. In this case, the Buddha proposes that you give the other person a present. It sounds childish, but it is very effective.

When we’re angry with someone, we want to hurt them. Giving them a present changes that into wanting to make them happy. So, when you are mad at someone, send him a present. After you have sent it, you will stop being angry with him. It’s straightforward, and it always works. Don’t wait until you get angry to go and buy the present. (Good point!)

When you feel very grateful when you feel you love him or her so much, then go and buy the present right away. But don’t send it; don’t give it to the other person yet. Keep it. You may have the luxury of having two or three presents stored secretly in your drawer. Later, when you feel angry, take one out and deliver it. (Awwww! It’s easy to read it. I need to do it!)

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

This gift-giving technique changes us by moving us away from anger, resentment, and revenge. It moves us toward compassion, loving-kindness, and generosity. Additionally, it changes others by mirroring for them something humane, by easing their suffering, and by helping them reframe the situation, too. People might resist the gift. They might even see what we’re doing as ironic and insulting. However, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that if we make this a practice and do it skillfully, we can continue to be peaceful in the midst of trouble.

One more lecture to go then I’m done!

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

Feature Photo Credit: akos147 from Pixabay

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