Saturday, November 28, 2009

Treasures of Darkness: Part III

Violence is not merely killing another.  
It is violence when we use a sharp word, 
when we make a gesture to brush away a person, 
when we obey because there is fear.
~Jiddu Krishnamurti

I ended my previous post with the perhaps controversial notion that we can be violent and compassionate at the same time.  In exploring this idea, I found an interesting discussion thread on the website, Martial Development, about the relationship between violence and compassion.  Steven Smith, a World Taiji Boxing Association instructor, says:
Both compassion and violence are innate. Well, when I imagine the need to pluck a poor carrot from the garden, I consider it violent. So — that’s what I mean — we have an innate propensity to eat and nurture ourselves, and to do so requires violence. Much of our violence is shielded from awareness, true; but actions that support life (even you –vegans) requires violence, destruction, consumption (pick the term).
Compassion, of course, is innate as well: without it how could I listen softly to my friend’s words or offer a soothing touch? When we temper our violence with compassion, we learn to walk softly. We find those fine lines, that razor’s edge, to travel into the deeper recesses of awareness and attention.
Existing as a human, or, even more so, being a martial artist while believing that you do not practice violence is both great denial and a great way to prepare to get hurt.
He also makes a distinction I find useful.  He talks about the overuse and emotionally loaded quality of the word "violence," and replaces it with "ruthlessness" for the purpose of the discussion.  He says that compassion arises when "you simply experience your own inner softness, your tenderness. From personal experiences of tenderness we may, nevertheless, execute ruthless acts."  He then gives the example of "a great bodyworker" who "will impress, with deep-tissue realignment, the meaning of ruthless compassion."

Is it truly possible to have compassion toward one to whom you do violence?  Can you deliberately be ruthless to a friend?  Again, it comes down to definitions and deeper understandings.  Cruelty and friendship, abuse and friendship - certainly not.  But part of friendship - one of the hardest parts - is promoting accountability.  It may sometimes be necessary to forcefully cross a boundary set by a friend in order to hold them accountable.

In the post that inspired this series, Rebecca posed the question:  Will we evolve out of the need for violence?  I don't see us evolving out of the need to eat just yet.  Nor do I see the need for occasional ruthlessness disappearing, as long as human nature is what it is.  What I do think we could evolve out of is cruelty, whether deliberate or because of unmindfulness.  And compassion is the key.

But what exactly is compassion and how do we practice it? One of the ways I've been approaching this topic is through considering The Charter for Compassion, which I've come across twice recently, at A Mindful Heart and MIND SIEVE. Rather than summarize it here, I strongly recommend you go check it out, if you haven't already.

Compassion means, at its root, to "suffer with."  Karen Armstrong, author of The Charter for Compassion, says that one aspect of practicing compassion is "the breaking down of the ego that makes you go beyond doing the things that you like or feel comfortable doing."  (Another kind of violence?)  As Dan Gurney pointed out in response to one of my recent posts, the Dalai Lama has said that compassion is the path to happiness.  Another paradox, a mystery.  How will allowing myself to suffer with someone make me or them happy?  But anyone who has tried it knows that it does indeed work that way, maybe not in that exact moment, but in the lingering effects of practicing it on an ongoing basis.

However, practicing compassion can also have very immediate and profound effects.  I've personally experienced the power of compassion and forgiveness to alter an extreme situation.  When I was seven months pregnant and living alone, I came home from work one night to watch movies with some friends.  After my friends left, I got into bed and was reading when I heard a noise in the closet.  I got up to see what it was, and as I opened the closet door, an unknown black man jumped out at me and tied my hands behind my back, knocking off my glasses in the process.  He then blindfolded me.  In the confusion of what was happening, my first thought was that it was my brother playing a joke on me.  He was supposed to come over that night but hadn't shown up.  Once I realized what was actually happening, my response was terror, and I screamed.

But then an amazing thing happened that transformed the experience entirely.  I had been studying A Course in Miracles, which is a year-long set of daily practices designed to promote spiritual awakening, "removing the blocks to the awareness of love's presence."  One of its primary principles is that "nothing real can be threatened" and "nothing unreal exists."  Forgiveness and the laying down of defenses are the aims of the daily practice.  Since I had just finished the course a couple of weeks earlier, my response to being raped by this attacker was vastly different than it might have been.  I moved deeper than my fear and applied the precepts of the course, consciously applying forgiveness, compassion, and the faith that I would not be harmed because I had internalized the lesson of the course in which "attack [is] seen as misperception calling for remedy through gentleness and love. Defenses are laid down because where there is no attack there is no need for them. Our brothers' needs become our own, because they are taking the journey with us as we go to God."

I kept silently telling this man, "You are my brother and I forgive you."  I also repeated to myself other lessons of the course, such as, "I can be hurt by nothing but my thoughts."  And I experienced peace as long as I kept myself in the moment with these thoughts.  No pain was inflicted on me, and after the man left, I managed to get my hands free and ran down the street to a friend's house, where I called 911.  The man had stolen my car, and the police caught him driving back down my street a little later.  They chased him, he hit a fire hydrant, got out of the car, tried to climb over a chain link fence, and stabbed himself in the penis with a piece of the fence.  They had to take him to the hospital before they took him to jail.  As far as I know, he's still in jail.  It turns out that he had also raped a couple of other women in the neighborhood. 

When the rape crisis people came to talk to me that night, they were amazed at how calm I was.  They had never seen anything like it.  I can honestly say that it was as though my year of doing A Course in Miracles had been training for that very night.

This was an extreme situation that required that kind of preparation, but it was an enhancement of a natural compassion that I seem to have been born with.  It has never been difficult for me to empathize with another's plight, no matter how shocking, pathetic, debased, or personally threatening the situation might appear to most.

However, I also fail at compassion on a regular basis, especially with those closest to me.  I get irritated too easily when life is chaotic, not flowing pleasantly.  And because I have four children, this happens fairly often.  Like, daily.  My response is often a pulling away at best, or snapping at them at worst. These actions are relatively mild, but are still decidedly not compassionate, kind, or loving.

This post series has been extremely challenging for me.  It has turned me inside out and now I'm showing all of this to you.  Aside from the emotional difficulty, there is also the problem that for every judgment I can make on this topic, three or four other, often contradictory ones come to mind.  Which is why I keep coming back to this same point:  I don't really think it's about answering these questions once and for all.  I think it's about integration, befriending shadows.  It's about being willing to break out of comfortable truisms, easy dualities, and elitist moralities, and, resting in mystery, embrace a mindful unknowingness.  It's about starting, moving, and ending in a place of compassion.

Through writing these posts, I've come to a definition of compassion that for me is deeper and more useful, which is simply "friendship."  When I'm not sure how to show compassion, if I ask myself "How can I be a friend in this circumstance?" I'm much clearer about what to do.  This is not just because the action required becomes more obvious, but because I'm starting from a place of heart and authenticity, tapping into the source of love within myself.  As O'Donohue says in Anam Cara, "If approached in friendship, the unknown, the anonymous, the negative, and the threatening gradually yield their secret affinity with us."  Friends are the easiest people to love, so it's natural that thinking in terms of friendship is an easier way to open the door to that source.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to say.  Anam Cara means "soul friend," and the whole book is about different manifestations of spiritual friendship with various aspects of ourselves, the earth, and other human beings.  Finding this book at such a time has been a great blessing for me, an unexpected and perfect gift of grace.  Reading it has made me aware of, among other things, the amazing gift of the "soul friends" I've made through blogging.  There is a tendency to view the relationships we form through the internet as less "real" than those we have in the physical world, but as O'Donohue says, there are no "limitations of space or time on the soul." 

One of the purposes and distinctions of soul friendship is that "the superficial lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are."  A soul friend is one with whom you experience a sense of "recognition and belonging," and "to whom you confess with a full heart."  These quotes wonderfully describe the experience I've had with friends I've made through blogging. 

So all I am left with at the end of this lengthy discussion is deep gratitude to my soul friends in the blogosphere who have both inspired me to explore these issues and also made me feel safe enough to do so publicly.  These are the greatest treasures of all.


  1. Thank you for having the courage to write this most remarkable post!

    I've noticed, too, that it is often more difficult to show compassion to those closest to us in our mundane day-to-day lives. The fact that compassion flows sometimes more easily to a stranger is one of those wonderful paradoxes that makes life interesting and keeps us on our toes. Our best and most difficult and demanding teachers are sometimes our parents and our children!

    I loved your words, "It's about being willing to break out of comfortable truisms, easy dualities, and elitist moralities, and, resting in mystery, embrace a mindful unknowingness. It's about starting, moving, and ending in a place of compassion."

    That's it, EXACTLY. Starting, moving and ending in compassion (or loving-kindness, joy, or equanimity, as circumstances indicate) is just where I wish to dwell.

    Finally, your post called to mind something that the Dalai Lama once said, "Hurrying does violence to time." I suppose this idea pushes out the boundaries of violence a bit, but it's helpful to consider this idea and to allow things to unfold around us at their own pace, within their own schedule.

    Thank you for your tour through the treasures of darkness. I'm loving your blog more and more!

  2. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support.

    Just before I read your comment, I was reading in the Anam Cara book, and he was talking about how we become blind to the familiar. I think this is a key reason it's easier to be compassionate to strangers at times.

    In the same section was also a wonderful quote which seems related to yours from the Dalai Lama: "When time is reduced to linear progress, it is emptied of presence."

  3. Hello Pollinatrix,

    I have read with great interest this discussion on violence; anticipating where will this topic take me. To end with a discussion on compassion seems appropriate. It is my internal search for compassion that I uncover my biases, jealousies and resentments.

    This examination of your rape was quite gripping. Perhaps as you say, you were being prepared for that very circumstance. Often life finds us unprepared I think. I believe you are encouraging me to look at my life differently; my normal daily responses and behavior need assessment and possibly alteration.


  4. I'm glad that you've found something helpful in these posts. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

  5. This post was quite an amazing journey.

    In the first section, I began pondering how one can be ruthless and compassionate at the same time, and my thoughts turned to parenting, where those emotions are sometimes simultaneous. I often feel that I suffer(ed) with my children too much, and fail(ed) them on the ruthless part, which is, as you say, holding them accountable.

    I could not imagine a circumstance far more challenging to handle, as you were given with the attack. Your ability to be compassionate and forgiving, thereby mitigating the injury you felt, is so powerful. Can something be violent if the person to whom it is acted upon does not accept it as violence? I guess I could easily argue that yes, it is still violence. But you are very compelling in the reasoning that you can only be harmed by your own thoughts. I shall continue to think about this.

    And finally, the transition to Anam Cara, and the experience you have had in finding soul friends through blogging. I am rather new at blogging, but I am delighted that I am finding a similar experience. It is so rewarding to read thoughtful posts (such as yours) and then have follow-up discussion. It reminds me of the best writer workshops I had in college, where one can quickly get to know the heart of fellow writers.

    I am thankful for the thoughtful reading you give my entries and comments you provide, and I look forward to reading yours as well. You provoke me to look at things anew, and I welcome that. I can imagine that this piece was difficult to write, and I am glad that you have found the comfort within yourself to do so, and that you trust your readers and friends with it. Giving others the opportunity to be compassionate can be difficult, but you have done so here, and I am glad to be part of it.

  6. I have the same problem with my kids! I hadn't even thought of it in that regard when I wrote this, but I do need to muster up more ruthlessness with them at times.

    There was certainly violence in my attacker's heart, but what woundedness in him caused it, I can't say. It's interesting to me that the attack he meant for me he turned around on himself.

    The "nothing can hurt me but my thoughts" thing works the other way too - often I take something as an attack when it wasn't meant that way. But it FEELS like an attack, so it wounds me.

    I'm glad we've found each other, and I look forward to more of these conversations!

    Were you a Creative Writing major in college?

  7. You made a comment to me once that you were "glad to have me around", as I seemed to live with fresh intent.

    I'm glad to have YOU around!

    Expressing emotions prove to be quite uncomfortable, and being shallow, or acting shallow, (which I'm really not) is a defense mechanism to avoid all that unpleasantness- to shy away from anything deeper than business talk and what color of nail polish I currently sport; feels easier and safer.

    Your posts force me to stop being SO Lady Ga Ga superficial you know? I think that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was not as thin souled; but not nearly as marketable- so she likely had to make a choice.

    I am so sorry that (rape) happened to you.

    I'm going to be thinking all day about this post, I know, and will be back.


    And no wonder I got eyelash extensions- I probably watched one to many Ga Ga vids!

    Mah, mah, mah poker face, poker face..

  8. Couldn't even muster a coherent thought or response when I first read this the other day. It sounds like you've come to terms what happened to you, so I won't dwell on that (I will echo EC and say that I'm sorry it happened to you, though).

    I like your linking of "violence and compassion blended" to "being compassionate in the face of violence." I don't think anybody who doesn't heartily believe the precepts of compassion could have mustered such a mental state as you did, and have continued to. That's remarkable, and a lesson we could all take to heart. Compassion's one of those things humanity's mighty low on and always has been. Even just a drop or two more could even matters out for SO MANY people.

    This post is about as evocative and mind-melding as they come. Well done, and...

    ...thank you for sharing.

    Oh, and EC: I did tell you I've had Ludacris stuck in my head now for the last three days, correct? Only I can't help thinking of YOU when another verse of "Stand Up" or "Act a Fool" pops into my head.

  9. As others have said, this is an extraordinary post with such deep sharing. In what you say about your reactions to the rape compared with your comment about failing at compassion on a daily basis, I wonder if there's something about an extreme experience ripping us out of ourselves on a very deep basis, compared with the daily irritations, when we remain our day-to-day selves.

    Thank you for writing about this.

  10. Thank you all for showing up with such kind support.

    EC - I've never seen you as shallow, and a great sense of humor such as yours, is one of the most valuable things a person can have. I love your silliness and fun, and I also love the depth that shows through it.

    I also enjoy your blonde-glam-chickness. As I've said elsewhere, I'm no good at girly stuff, so I get to live vicariously through you. I'm actually a big nerd - I had to look up Lady GaGa, thank you very much.

    Postman - You're right - even small shifts of compassion can make a huge difference.

    I hope I haven't melded your mind too much - I liked it the way it was :)

    Tess - That's exactly it. I'm great at huge crises and suck at daily irritations. But I'm training myself to become more mindful in those irritations, and thus deal with them better. That's why the huge crises are easier, because I'm forced by the extremity of the situation into mindfulness.

  11. Being compassionate in the face of violence is what most of us recovering alcoholics do on a daily basis. And I've had to learn to be compassionate to the still suffering who try to hurt me with words or actions because they, themselves are so broken and dead inside. When I face that with loving compassion, that is when the healing begins. For both parties. By the time they get to us, they believe that no one could possibly love them. But we do. Oh, how we do.

  12. It is true for me. The dark places are what have brought compassion to the forefront of my heart and existence. It has been because of the depth of hurt (sometimes literally violent, sometimes not) that I consider circumstances from a softer place. It is because of my own personal pain that I want so deeply a better way for others.

    Does one need these experiences to come to a greater awareness of compassion? Must we suffer or cause suffering to gain a greater sense of love within ourselves? Where do we go from here? Where does the awareness of the pain of ruthlessness take us? How can we collectively move to a place that brings true compassion one to another?

    In reading your experience with the unknown man I had this sense that although I wished it were not so that your experience within it was so powerful that it gave you something significant. You exercised your spirit and the power within you in such a way that is profound and encouraging.

    It is my ultimate belief; this body is housing the best part of me, the eternal part of me, the part of me that no man can take away, the part that remains forever...the part I'll never see with my human eyes, but I feel it. Faith truly is the substance of things not seen. I praise for the faith you had that day and for sharing ALL of this. I'll be reading this series again and again.

  13. I've left this post a couple of times, returning when I felt I had more time to absorb all that you've poured into it. It is a remarkable sharing and openness you've exhibited and I honor your courage and forthrightness in doing so. Compassion is a subject that is close to me in its mystery, in its healing properties. Thank you for sharing your views and experiences around a most powerful subject.

  14. Jennifer - I treasure you too, and the depth with which you approach these conversations. And I really appreciate that you "get" where I was coming from with my response to the man who attacked me.

    In the O'Donohue book, he has this very interesting way of repeating the idea that the body is in the soul, not the other way around. I'd never thought of it like that before, but I've become smitten with that concept.

    Kate - It's a tricky, difficult, and even dangerous thing to do, no? Loving those whose love is so dead they're capable of inflicting so much suffering.

    Your post about the woman being beaten by her husband really got me thinking. If this post series hadn't already been so long and grueling I would have written more about that kind of relationship.

    It's one thing to show compassion and another to be entirely sucked into someone's dark world, especially when it's someone you're intimate with and love. Everything gets so distorted and insidious. It's the worst thing that can happen to a person, I believe.

    SUNRISE SISTER - I was concerned about the length of these posts being a deterrent to people reading through them. Thank you for taking the time.

  15. Wow! Now I am glad I stopped by. I usually shy away from long posts, but I read every word of this one and all I can say is WOW! It was just what I needed on many different levels. Thank you! I am fascinated. I have the chills and peace all at the same time.

  16. Jenny - I'm glad you stopped by too! All the things you've said here are such wonderful compliments. "The chills and peace all at the same time" is what I want to experience when I read, and to know that what I've written had that experience on someone is very very gratifying.

  17. Hey. Not to be pushy or anything, but I've been waiting, I think, patiently, for another post from you.

  18. It's coming. But there will be no Part IV, and I'm sure we're all glad about that! Myself included.

    I've just been so incredibly busy this week, and I still have a ton of work to do over the weekend, but I'm going to try to get one out today.

    Thanks for missing my posts!



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