Some of us may still be reeling from the divisive rancor of the Kavanaugh hearings. Both my side (the good guys) and their side (the bad guys) are more against each other than ever. Is there any way we can change this dynamic? Here’s a quote from Mother Teresa:
“I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that. But as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”
When we’re against something we get fired up, and that can be healthy. The anger from my own brother’s suicide in a locked ward propelled me to create humane alternatives to locking folks up when they are struggling with severe mental health issues. On the other hand, staying with our anger can be unhealthy and ineffective. In coming posts I’ll discuss four limitations of “being against.”
The first limitation of “being against” is that the path forward is confusing and vague.
I remember having a geology teacher in school who was on my case. I was afraid to run into him in the halls, afraid to talk in class. This sapped my energy and will power. But what if I had thought about it differently and focused on what I really wanted to learn about geology, what interested me, and how I could work on that?
If something happens that you don’t want, you may not be able to resolve the entire issue, but there are positive actions you could contribute. The Kavanaugh hearings seem to be motivating many people to support women who are running for office.
The second limitation of “being against” is that it’s not sustainable. If you’re just moving away from the pain of what you don’t want, you’ll waver when the pain waivers or you’ll burn out and give up. But if you focus on what you care about and how much you want to change things to be better, your motivation may maintain a steadiness.
The third limitation of “being against” is that it doesn’t inform your unconscious mind, which communicates through images, not words. It has trouble processing the negative, “I don’t want to fail in geology,” but creates the image of “fail.” If you haven’t given your unconscious a clear picture of what you want, it has to figure out what “not fail” might look like. But the more you think about and talk about failing, the more you keep “fail” alive.
Every couple of years for the last 16 years I have initiated people at Zen Center into our tradition, which includes giving them Buddhist names. Early on I gave someone a name, which in English meant, “freedom from fear.” Unfortunately, for the next year or two, this person focused on his fear in a more unhealthy manner than before I gave him that name. I learned something important from that. The next time I gave someone a name who had major fear issues, I gave her a name meaning, “great courage” Anyway you can get your unconscious on board will help you.
Let’s say you are scared about something. How about allowing yourself to relax in your meditation, relax into your “don’t know mind” and let your unconscious generate ideas? You might say to yourself, “I don’t know how to create what I want. But if I did, what might that be? Where could I start?”
A fourth limitation of “being against” is that it’s tough on the body.
When we are focused on what we hate, fear, or what makes us angry or stressed, we may have discomfort in our neck or shoulder, our jaws may clench, our heart may pound. This is all to prepare us for “flight or fight.” And if we focus on what we don’t want constantly our stress manifests itself as chronic anxiety or depression.
A few weeks ago several people at our Zen center participated in the program, “10 days free from violence.” Folks felt good about the talks and other activities that were offered during this time period. But I bet they even would have felt better if it had been titled “10 days of cultivating peace.”
Here are a couple of examples contrasting the power of being for rather and the power of being against from my own life. In 1967, when the Vietnam War was raging, Hubert Humphrey (who many of us considered L.B. Johnson’s lap dog for his promotion of the war) came to speak at Stanford, where I was going to school. I got angrier and angrier as he defended the war, so angry that after his speech was over I found myself in a group who was chasing him after he left the building. We didn’t get far because of the phalanx of secret service guards who were protecting him, but I was left unnerved and deflated by my experience. I was also a little embarrassed by how rapidly I had lost it, even though I had been meditating daily for about three years.
The second example is from an anti-Iraq war march that I went on in St. Paul in 2008. I had been teaching a class at Zen center on the Paramitas (referred to as the Perfections or the “gone beyonds”) of one-sided thinking including “being against.” During the first part of the March from time to time I repeated the Paramita of equanimity, saying quietly to myself “deep peace” on my in-breaths and out-breaths. But then suddenly a phalanx of police dressed in military armor appeared and began to approach us. “Deep peace” didn’t work for me any more, so I switched to loving kindness, but it didn’t work either as I looked at these nameless robots rapidly approaching. Then I switched to the Paramita of generosity. I imagined that the police approaching me were as frightened as I was, that like me they had parents with children (my son was with me on the march) who they wanted to protect. And it worked. Soon I felt better, was able to return to “deep peace” and the line of police gradually shifted direction so it was no longer coming toward us.
“Being for” takes practice and I practiced it a lot in the years between these two events. You might like to practice this yourself.
First, take a few deep breaths. Then let an issue come into your mind that frightens you or makes you anxious. Spend a few moments thinking about everything that is wrong and horrible about that issue. Now scan your body: How does it feel as you focus on what is wrong or horrible? When you have completed this scan, take two or three more deep breaths. Now think about what you would like instead. What you can be for in regards to this issue? What would that look like, feel like? How can you alter the image that is not positive so you feel good? Check in with your body again. How does it feel as you focus on what you would like?
You might finish this exercise by noticing how much more powerful it feels to be for something and move toward a positive solution than to be against something.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher