Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Rage Within Us

Whenever we hear about the act of human rampage -- like the high school student in Minnesota yesterday who killed 10 and wounded at least one dozen -- it should cause each of us to take pause. The obvious despair and rage which necessarily serves as the wellspring for such acts is inherent in each of us. While we might not be able to fathom the wanton violence on an intellectual level, we each should be able to identify with it on an emotional level.

I realize that to many of you this sounds preposterous. You may think to yourself, "I could never take another person's life" or "I would never go over the edge like that". But, if you are a sentient being, I think you're only deluding yourself as a defense mechanism. You feel as if you must, somehow, separate your self-identity from those who commit such acts.

Life is all about conflict, frustration, aggravation and a feeling of being thwarted. Each of us strives to fulfill our singular needs and desires and, far more often than many of us may choose to admit, those needs and desires are not met. Because we view ourselves as separated from everything else, each time we are thwarted in achieving our personal ends, we harbor anger and resentment.

If we are able to vent these feelings at appropriate times, we lessen the pressure and tension that wells up in each of us. If we become unable to vent our feelings, then the pressure and tension begins to build. At some point -- like a balloon that contains too much air -- we are bound to burst. When this occurs, all the hurt and resentment comes rushing forth at once and overwhelms our sensibilities. We then become capable of committing all sorts of atrocities.

Still, I hear many of you saying, "OK, I accept your general thesis, but I don't go around randomly shooting people". My response is that your balloon has not completely burst.

While most of us do not fatally injure others when we let off too much built-up pressure, we do injure and maim others in different ways. We scream at our loved ones for minor transgressions, often imaginary ones at that. We gossip about friends, co-workers or the boss -- our way at striking back against those we believe have wronged us. And, just as often, we engage in behavior that is self-destructive and, by extension, negatively affects those within our social network.

If we allow ourselves to tap into our reservior of naked anger and come face-to-face with our own violent feelings, each of us should be able to trade places with this Minnesota high school student. We should be able to envision ourselves gleefully pulling the trigger, destroying the hopes and dreams of others. We should each be able to comprehend how such an act would relieve the overfilled balloon of our self-ego as it breaks forth in an orgy of self-importance.

It's a scary proposition. It's scary because we each want to feel that we are superior to those who commit these heinous acts. If we acknowledge that we harbor the same kinds of resentments, then the wall of moral/ethical separation is removed and this should scare the hell out of each of us!

The only way that I know to break away from this pattern of built-up resentment, hurt and anger is to let go of our feelings of self-importance. When we view our lives as part of an all-encompassing whole, the petty inconveniences of life don't take on the level of self-importance we give them.

Below is an essay, The Tao of Forgiveness, by Derek Lin from Tao Living that illustrates this point far more eloquently than I ever could.

One day, the sage gave the disciple an empty sack and a basket of potatoes. "Think of all the people who have done or said something against you in the recent past, especially those you cannot forgive. For each of them, inscribe the name on a potato and put it in the sack."

The disciple came up quite a few names, and soon his sack was heavy with potatoes.

"Carry the sack with you wherever you go for a week," said the sage. "We'll talk after that."

At first, the disciple thought nothing of it. Carrying the sack was not particularly difficult. But after a while, it became more of a burden. It sometimes got in the way, and it seemed to require more effort to carry as time went on, even though its weight remained the same.

After a few days, the sack began to smell. The carved potatoes gave off a ripe odor. Not only were they increasingly inconvenient to carry around, they were also becoming rather unpleasant.

Finally, the week was over. The sage summoned the disciple. "Any thoughts about all this?"

"Yes, Master," the disciple replied. "When we are unable to forgive others, we carry negative feelings with us everywhere, much like these potatoes. That negativity becomes a burden to us and, after a while, it festers."

"Yes, that is exactly what happens when one holds a grudge. So, how can we lighten the load?"

"We must strive to forgive."

"Forgiving someone is the equivalent of removing the corresponding potato from the sack. How many of your transgressors are you able to forgive?"

"I've thought about it quite a bit, Master," the disciple said. "It required much effort, but I have decided to forgive all of them."

"Very well, we can remove all the potatoes. Were there any more people who transgressed against you this last week?"

The disciple thought for a while and admitted there were. Then he felt panic when he realized his empty sack was about to get filled up again.

"Master," he asked, "if we continue like this, wouldn't there always be potatoes in the sack week after week?"

"Yes, as long as people speak or act against you in some way, you will always have potatoes."

"But Master, we can never control what others do. So what good is the Tao in this case?"

"We're not at the realm of the Tao yet. Everything we have talked about so far is the conventional approach to forgiveness. It is the same thing that many philosophies and most religions preach – we must constantly strive to forgive, for it is an important virtue. This is not the Tao because there is no striving in the Tao."

"Then what is the Tao, Master?"

"You can figure it out. If the potatoes are negative feelings, then what is the sack?"

"The sack is... that which allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is something within us that makes us dwell on feeling offended.... Ah, it is my inflated sense of self-importance."

"And what will happen if you let go of it?"

"Then... the things that people do or say against me no longer seem like such a major issue."

"In that case, you won't have any names to inscribe on potatoes. That means no more weight to carry around, and no more bad smells. The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to not just to remove some potatoes... but to relinquish the entire sack."

The conventional approach to forgiveness, as the sage points out, is focused on striving. The well-known poem by Shenxiu describes this precisely:

Body is the bodhi tree Heart is like clear mirror stand Strive to clean it constantly Do not let the dust motes land

It is all about constant, diligent practice. The process never stops, because there will always be more dust falling on the clear mirror. Just when you think you've got it perfectly clean, another speck of dust has landed. The disciple noted that as long as he remained at this level, his sack would never run out of potatoes. Similarly, as long as we're stuck in the conventional approach to forgiveness, we'll never run out of transgressors to forgive.

But why is there a mirror for the dust to fall on in the first place? And does it really need to be there?

The mirror in the poem can represent egoism – an exaggerated sense of conceit and vanity. Although it does not exist as a physical thing, we treat it as such. Our language is full of references to this assumption. We talk about the "bruised" ego, or how the pride is "hurt," or how one's dignity can be "wounded" – as if egoism is part of the body, like a limb or an organ.

And yet egoism is nothing more than a construction of the mind. It springs from the false perception that we are separate and different from others. That sense of separation and difference leads us to skewed comparisons, which in turn lead us to a false conviction of superiority. When this elaborate illusion is under attack, the illusory injuries seem quite real. But as soon as we see through the illusion, it fades away, and so do the damages against it.

This is the basis of the Tao approach to forgiveness. Zen Master Huineng's response to Shenxiu's poem illustrates it perfectly:

Bodhi really has no tree Nor is clear mirror the stand Nothing's there initially So where can the dust motes land?

The mirror doesn't really exist. Although the dust motes keep falling, there is nothing for them to land on or cling to, and there is nothing to wipe clean. Egoism is something we created for ourselves, so it is something we can dismiss with a simple decision. Without egoism there is nothing to bruise, hurt or wound. Without damages or injuries to the ego, pride or dignity... there is also nothing to forgive.

This is how the sage transcends beyond the ordinary teachings of forgiveness. By recognizing that the true self can never be hurt, and it is only the false projections of the ego that are damaged by criticisms and insults, we bypass the constant striving to forgive others.

Not many people realize this particular realm of the Tao even exists, but once we have truly arrived - absorbed the lesson completely - forgiveness for us will require no effort at all. Forgiving becomes an obsolete and unnecessary action; this Tao takes us through life with the smooth, effortless ease and elegance of wu wei.

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