Friday, November 28, 2014

Seeds of virtue: how I'm moving forward after news from Ferguson

A Kingian nonviolence trainer once showed how our conventional emotional reaction is to direct anger at people and reserve compassion for conditions, e.g. poverty and illness.

anger --------------------> people

compassion ------------> conditions

Yet this is unhelpful; to maximize our force against injustice we must cross the arrows. Direct anger at conditions such as economic inequality and racism, not at people who are involved in these unfortunate and unnecessary conditions. 

Applying compassion unconditionally to people is possible and empowering. I know because I have tried it. Beginning with myself, the effect of recognizing every individual's weaknesses and virtues is deep calm and kindness. I have yet to encounter a human being without a seed of virtue. It is conceptually impossible: the worst behaviors arise from a set of terrible conditions, such as abandonment, abuse, and ostracism, which nurse our worst seeds. I know that I am capable of terrible deeds because I have done them in the past and sometimes consider doing them in the present. I, too, have these seeds in me, and by being aware of ugly thoughts arising and choosing to behave in more helpful ways, I keep those seeds harmless. Helpful actions nurse my virtuous seeds, growing them and letting virtuous seeds go into the world around me. 

Sure, directing anger at a person feels satisfying on an instinctive level. What kind of seeds do we nurse in ourselves and those around us through anger at a person? I experience this when I am alone, replaying a scene where cruelty or injustice played out in my life. My heart races, muscles clench, and mind spins. In those moments I'm watering my worst seeds. 

It's hard to turn against emotional convention. By practicing awareness, though, I'm finding it easier and faster every time -- and in a reality with racism, sexism, and other institutions of oppression there will be many opportunities to practice. I notice sooner when I'm tending harmful crops, and let them go. I turn my attention to the greatest potential in myself and others, even perhaps in the person who did a harmful act. They live in conditions, and acted under conditions. Terrible conditions cause terrible suffering and deserve our righteous indignation. We can change conditions.

It helps me, too, to find that nothing in existence is permanent and unchanging, so social injustice, too, will one day end. It wasn't our choice to be in human form now, while conditions diminish our individual and collective potential to create joy, beauty, and innovation, but it is up to us to decide how we move in our lifetime toward an end to suffering. Hardly a generation ago Chinese were prohibited from immigrating; blacks were denied their right to vote. The righting of such wrongs are ongoing; virtuous acts by those who fought harmful conditions continue in us as we benefit. Similarly, our virtuous acts today and tomorrow, however small, will continue as benefit to those around us.

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