October article 2012

Reflections – October 2012

Friends: Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

This month I have some more reflections on what I learned from Rose about nonviolence.

You’ll remember from last month’s posting that Rose, a neighborhood dog, decided a few weeks ago to bite me on the leg. She ran down the neighbor’s driveway, barked at me, and then went for my leg.

Last month I wrote about two easy lessons about nonviolence which Rose taught me: Don’t take it personally and Prolonged anger was really pointless.

These were easy lessons because I had never met Rose before and could not imagine any personal reason why she would have wanted to attack and bite me. I thought that perhaps she’d been abused as a pup by a tall man with a baseball cap and as a consequence was aggressive towards me as a look-alike.

A friend and reader who’d been trained as a veterinarian informed me that dogs who have been abused tend to cower and act afraid, not aggressive. So I began to consider other possible explanations about Rose.

Next I got a phone call from someone leaving a message for “Rose’s friend”. I figured it was either a wrong number or a call from a very good friend who likes jokes like this. So I called that friend back and had a chance to propose to him my latest theory about Rose.

I said to Jim that Rose could have seen me walking down the sidewalk carrying a big, thick book every day. She might have assumed that I was a famous writer. And she perhaps thought that if she bit me, I would write about her and make her famous! (In fact I did write about her and Rose is now “famous”.)

This theory has tickled my fancy for days.

The humor, of course, lies in the incongruous notion that Rose would care about being famous. That would require a sense of self-awareness which I don’t imagine dogs have. Dogs can be loyal, compassionate, loving, protective and have many positive qualities and emotions; they have personalities. But I don’t imagine they have egos in the sense we as adult humans have. I don’t imagine Rose could care about being famous or not.

Last month I wrote about whether Rose was in her “right mind” when she bit me. And in the spirit of fair comparison, I wrote these paragraphs admitting how often I too was not “in my right mind.”

As a young boy I thought that being good at fist fights (especially in a bar) was how men were supposed to be when we grew up. Then I watched more TV and wanted to reply to some opponent with a great speech which would totally devastate him or her. Then I watched more TV and thought that owning a bunch of stuff was what I wanted – but without thinking of the violence of how that stuff was made, nor of the violence we were doing to the planet to make it.

Was I “in my right mind” … to think these violent thoughts?

These reflections have led me to consider what is similar between me and Rose – and what is different.

We both have been potentially deeply affected by what was done to us – and taught to us – when we were very young. Whether we were physically abused or treated with kindness could make a huge difference in how we would likely be when we grew up. I must confess, with a certain chagrin, that in this regard Rose and I are very similar!

But as humans, that treatment extended also to the conceptual ideas we were taught, overtly or implicitly, about ourselves and about the world. While Rose certainly learned some “ideas” about the world – for example, perhaps about tall men with baseball caps – this was presumably only through her direct experience. And I don’t imagine such “ideas” were subject to her self-reflection and verification.

In this way, I believe that Rose and I are different. And therein, as I see it, lies both the difficulty and potential greatness of our human condition. Out of our capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection, we developed a sense of self-identity, how we came to see ourselves, our egos.

Very young children seem not to have developed this sense yet. That is, to my experience, what is a wonderful charm of young children: they are completely authentic, they lack any self-conscious worry or manipulation about how they’ll be seen by others.

I’m hardly a good person to quote the Bible, but I’ve always liked the line that “unless you become as little children you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” I take this to mean unless I – as an adult, with all of my experience and acquired knowledge – manage to leave aside my acquired sense of self-identity, my ego – I won’t be able to experience fully the joyful spontaneity and happiness which is our birthright.

How does one do this? And what, if anything, does this have to do with nonviolence?

One often hears in our culture the notion that the ego is bad, the root of selfish desires, and one should fight against it. I find a more realistic assessment comes from the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. In his book on Happiness (and his 2-CD talk by the same name) he does not say that the ego is bad, only that our identification with the ego as the seat of a permanent personal identity is an illusion. He writes:

Each of us is indeed a unique person, and it is fine to recognize and appreciate who we are. But in reinforcing the separate identity of the self, we fall out of sync with reality. … Our experience is simply the content of the mental flow [through our awareness], the continuum of consciousness, and there is no justification for seeing the self as an entirely distinct entity within that flow. … We are so accustomed to affixing the “I” label to that mental flow, however, that we come to identify with it and to fear its disappearance. There follows a powerful attachment to the self and thus to the notion of “mine” – my body, my name, my possessions, my friends, and so on ….

This is how the concepts of the self and of the other crystallize in our minds. The erroneous sense of duality becomes inevitable, forming the basis of all mental affliction, be it alienating desire, hatred, jealousy, pride, or selfishness. From that point on, we see the world through the distorting mirror of our illusions. We find ourselves in disharmony with the true nature of things, which inevitably leads to frustration and suffering.

Lucky Rose! She probably doesn’t have to worry about all these things. But without a sense of self-awareness, Rose probably can’t cultivate a strong desire to be of help to all the other dogs on the planet, let alone to tall humans wearing baseball caps. That’s just a natural limitation of her consciousness.

The Buddhist Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda puts the issue of ego and self even more simply:

There is no self. There are only causes and conditions. Therefor to struggle with ourselves and others is useless. The wise ones know that the root causes and conditions of all conflicts are in the mind.

Well, if the root of all conflicts are in the mind, what to do? The traditional answer is meditation, which is simply a method for looking at our minds from the inside. For many of us, when we begin it’s a real surprise. “Look at all those thoughts! Where did they come from? I don’t remember choosing to think that.” (The same French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has another book, Why Meditate?, which I found a very good introduction to the practice of meditation beginning with Why do it!)

I find that all of this has a direct relevance to nonviolence. As I admit to myself the ways Rose and I are similar and have been formed by the earliest conditioning of our minds – I find that I must admit a similar process could have happened to all of those people I sometimes have trouble with (whether in person or in the news). And the more I am mindful of what goes on in my mind – even sometimes am amused by watching the strangeness of what I see passing through my consciousness – I must admit that a similar stream of consciousness must be flowing through the minds of everyone else I meet.

As I develop a sense of understanding and tolerance towards my own mind, I find that it naturally develops towards others too. It becomes harder to believe that I’m fundamentally different from others.

The Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi comments in her book The Voice of Hope about the relationship of awareness to doing the right thing in the world (and understanding those who don’t):

The more aware you are, the more objective you become. … And I think that those who have no sense of awareness of what’s going on around them cannot have those feelings which are so important for doing the right thing in this world. If you are not aware that what you are doing is wrong, then you will not feel ashamed of it. One is living in pure fantasy – a type of madness and a total lack of objectivity. Which all comes down to an inability to face the truth.


An update about Rose. The other day I walked by “Rose’s house” and spoke to the woman of the house who was outside gardening. She told me that they’ve found a good new home for Rose, out in the country with a man who will take care of her and keep her away from tall passersby with baseball caps.

My apology for being a week late in this posting. The various reasons are not worth going into. But I was at a workshop with Joanna Macy and Wes Nisker. One evening we had fun writing haikus. Apropos of watching and trying to be aware of the processes of my own consciousness, here is mine:

Joanna’s kind praise;
Ego rises; a bad mis-
-take to cling to that.

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