Sunday, December 20, 2009

Riding Tigers

If the justified aggression of men and women just like us is the cause of war, then how do we ordinary folks go about finding peace? When we feel aggression in ay of its forms---resentment, discrimination, jealously, complaining, and so forth---it's hard to know what to do. We can apply all the good advice we've heard and given to other people. But often all that doesn't seem to help us.

Traditionally, it's taught that patience is the antidote to aggression. When I heard this the first time, it immediately caught my interest. I thought, if patience is really the antidote to aggression, maybe I'll just give it a wholehearted try. In the process I learned about what patience is and about what it isn't. I would like to share with you what I've understood and to encourage you to find out for yourself how patience can dissolve the mean-heartedness that results in us harming one another.

Most importantly, I learned about patience and the cessation of suffering---I learned how patience is a way to de-escalate aggression and its accompanying pain. This is to say that when we're feeling aggressive---and I think this would go for any strong emotion---there's a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution. We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease. It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved.Right then we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience. But what do we usually do? We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering. We strike out, we hit back. Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there---if you can practice patience, you can catch it---but usually you don't even realize there was any softness. You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind. It has a very unforgiving quality to it. With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain.

I recently read a letter from a U.S. soldier in Iraq. He wrote about the so-called enemy fighters, the unknown people who are so filled with pain and hate that they sit in the dark waiting to kill foreign soldiers like him. When they succeed, and his friend's bodies are blown into unrecognizable pieces, he just wants revenge. He said that each day he and his fellow U.S. soldiers were also becoming men who wait in the darkness hoping to kill another human being. As he put it, "We think that by striking back we'll release our anger and feel better, but it isn't working. Our pain gets stronger by the day." Amid the chaos and horror of war, this soldier has discovered a profound truth: if we want suffering to lessen, the first step is learning that keeping the cycle of aggression going doesn't help. It doesn't bring the relief we seek, and it doesn't bring happiness to anyone else either. We may not be able to change the outer circumstances, but we can always shift our perspective and dissolve the hatred in our minds.

So when you're like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means just slowing down at that point---just pausing---instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response. You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot. But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling. You're not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. If you wait and don't fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous story line and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and with the discomfort of it. This means relaxing with the restless, hot energy---knowing that it's the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.

Patience has a quality of honesty and it also has the quality of holding our seat. We don't automatically react, even though inside we are reacting. We let all the words go and are just there with the rawness of our experience.

Fearlessness is another ingredient of patience. If you want to practice patience that leads to the cessation of aggression, it means cultivating a fearlessness that is both compassionate and brave. Because at this point you're getting to know anger and how it easily breeds violent words and actions, and this can be decidedly unnerving. You can see where your anger will lead before you do anything. You're not repressing it, you're just sitting there with that pulsating energy---going cold turkey with the aggression---and you get to know the naked energy of anger and the pain it can cause if you react. You've followed the tug so many times, you already know. It feels like an undertow, that desire to say something mean, to seek revenge or slander, that desire to complain, to just somehow spill out that aggression. But you slowly realize that those actions don't get rid of aggression, they increase it. Instead you're patient---patient with yourself---and this requires the gentleness and courage of fearlessness.

Developing patience and fearlessness means learning to sit still with the edginess of the discomforting energy. It's like sitting on a wild horse, or maybe even more like a wild tiger that could eat you up. There is a limerick to that effect: "There was a young lady of Niger who smiled as she rode on a tiger. They came back from the ride with the lady inside, and the smile on the face of the tiger." Sitting with our uneasiness feels like riding on that tiger.

When we stick with this process we learn something very interesting: there is no resolution for those uncomfortable feelings. This resolution that human beings seek comes from a tremendous misunderstanding: we think that everything can become predictable and secure. There is a basic ignorance about the truth of impermanence, the truth of the fleeting groundless nature of all things. When we feel powerful energy, we tend to be extremely uncomfortable until things are fixed in some kind of secure and comforting way, either on the side of "yes" or the side of "no," the side of "right" or the side of "wrong." We long for something that we can hold on to.

But the practice of patience gives us nothing to hold on to. Actually, the Buddhist teachings, in general, give us nothing to hold on to. In working with patience and fearlessness, we learn to be patient with the fact that not only us, but everyone who is born and dies, all of us as a species, are naturally going to want some kind of resolution to this edgy, moody energy. And there isn't any. The only resolution is temporary and ultimately just causes more suffering. We discover that joy and happiness, a sense of inner peace, a sense of harmony and of being at home with yourself and your world come from sitting still with the moodiness of the energy until it rises, dwells, and passes away. It never resolves itself into something solid. We stay in the middle. The path of touching in on the inherent softness of the genuine heart is sitting still, being patient with that kind of unformed energy. And we don't have to criticize ourselves when we fail, even for a moment, because we're just completely typical human beings; the only thing that's unique about us is that we're brave enough to go into these things more deeply and explore beneath our surface reaction of trying to get solid ground under our feet.
Patience is an enormously supportive and even magical practice. It's a way of completely shifting the fundamental human habit of trying to resolve things by either going to the right or the left, labeling things "good" or "bad." It's the way to develop fearlessness, the way to contact the seeds of war and the seeds of lasting peace---and to decide which ones we want to nurture.

Patience and curiosity also go together. You wonder, "Who am I" Who am I at the level of my neurotic patterns? Who am I beyond birth and death? If you wish to look into the nature of your own being, you need to be inquisitive. This path is a journey of self-reflection, beginning to look more closely at what's going on in our mind and heart.

{"Practicing Peace In Times Of War," Pema Chödrön}

{All images linked/Programming by DPC}

**Documentary: "Why We Fight" ** (99min)

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