Responding with Love and Courage
In a healthy response to pain and fear, we establish awareness before it becomes anger. We can train ourselves to notice the gap between the moments of sense experience and the subsequent response. Because of the particle-like nature of consciousness, we can enter the space between instinct and action, between impulse and reaction. To do so we must learn to tolerate our pain and fear. This is not easy. As James Baldwin put it, “Most people discover that when hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.” That’s why we start by paying attention to small things, small pains and disappointments.
We must learn the difference between reaction and response. When we’re in a hurry and the toast burns, we can react by fuming or hitting the counter, or we can feel our frustration and put in another piece of bread. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we can angrily retaliate by racing up to them shouting, trying to get back at them, or we can breathe and let it go. When we are criticized, when we are betrayed, we don’t have to reinforce the pain of the situation by adding to the pain by our reaction.
It’s like two arrows, the Buddha said. The first arrow is the initial event itself, the painful experience. It has happened; we cannot avoid it. The second arrow is the one we shoot into ourselves. This arrow is optional. We can add to the initial pain a contracted, angry, rigid, frightened state of mind. Or we can learn to experience the same painful event with less identification and aversion, with a more relaxed and compassionate heart.
Does this mean that we cannot respond strongly? No. Sometimes we need to get up, shout out the truth, march, protest, do whatever is necessary to protect our life and the lives of others. The great exemplars of non-violence such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were strategic and skilled in this way. They rallied people, used the courts, broke the law, blocked the way, negotiated, moved forward and back, found allies, and used money, power, shame, speeches, and politics all to stand up for what was right. But they did not act out of hate and violence. This is a powerful example. When self-righteous anger arises, we can let it go. Retaining our own fierce clarity, we too can seek justice, yet do so with a loving heart.
The Buddha urges us to let go of our anger even after extreme difficulties. Here are famous verses from the Dhammapada, the sayings of the Buddha: “‘He abused me and beat me, he threw me down and robbed me.’ Repeat these thoughts and you live in hate. ‘He abused me and beat me, he threw me down and robbed me.’ Abandon these thoughts and live in love. In this world, hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.”
When we examine anger and aversion with awareness, there is a radical shift of identity. These states are not who we really are. They are conditioned and impersonal, and they do not belong to us. It is scary to us and to those with whom we are locked in conflict when we release our blame. Sometimes our partners are confused when we step out of the dance of anger. They too will be required to change. In letting go of contention we return to our true strength and nobility.
When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about her many years of house arrest under a cloud of violence and the brutal repression of the Burmese dictatorship, she said, “It is from hardship rather than ease that we gather wisdom.We need to develop the capacity to draw strength from our hardships . . . to ignite the thunder flame of our own heart and let it illuminate the stormy night.” In our hardships, we discover the courage not to succumb, not to retreat, not to strike out in fear and anger. And by resting in a non-contentious heart we become a lamp, a medicine, a strong presence; we become the healing the world so dearly needs.