Today is the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence, and it’s Gandhi’s birthday. It is also a day on which many Americans are watching and sharing a speech given by President Obama regarding yesterday’s mass shooting in Oregon—the 45th school shooting this year in the United States. He seemed weary, incredulous at points, as he spoke of the country’s gun laws, observing, “Somehow this has become routine.”
Indeed, violence has become routine in our world. I remember walking home one night not so long ago and seeing through a large window on a recently built block of luxury condos: A man was watching TV on a massive flatscreen hung on the wall, and some kind of very loud assault was taking place onscreen, probably on a glitzy police TV series. We, as a society, invite violence into our homes, then wonder why it’s making us unhappy.
We can focus in even more tightly and look at the violence going on in our heads. This year I have been heartened to see a lot of discussion in advertising and on social media around the ways we are casually and relentlessly mean to ourselves, along the lines of, “Would you talk to someone else in the way you talk to yourself?” (Most of us: “Dear God, no!”)
However hard we try to behave nicely and smile, outwardly, through our own distress, doesn’t it follow that when we find ourselves intolerable, we find things in the outside world intolerable, too? This is where a meditation practice can become so valuable—not one which necessitates a fancy silk cushion, scented candles and mood music. Rather, one which involves sitting quietly with yourself, over and over again, and learning to be your own friend, as I discussed in last week’s post on Conscious. It is hard to be our own friend if we don’t know who we actually are, and crank up the outside volume to drown ourselves out.
I was very moved by the Pope’s recent words on the current immigration crisis. In a soft, patient voice, he asked people not to look at the numbers of refugees, but rather at their faces. This is so profound; it is very, very hard, to act without compassion when we’re looking in someone’s eyes. This kind of focus brings us back to earth and to our own humanity.
I have a friend who is a great mum to her lovely four-year old daughter, and when her little girl is getting distracted or overwhelmed, she asks her to look into her eyes while she’s talking. It changes everything.
It seems to me that so much trouble and violence arises from our inability to take a long look at something or someone, however painful and problematic it may seem. Violence can, and has become routine. And while it’s possible to cultivate “good” habits which benefit each other, I think that kindness cannot be routine. It’s a stirring of the heart, in response to truth. In Buddhism, it’s bodhichitta; the tears that instinctively come when you watch one of these news reports on TV, a compassion that comes out of being awake to feeling.
Today is a good day to practice lovingkindness meditation for all (outlined here); and of course, for the great, simple prayer: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu; may all beings be happy and free, and may I in some way contribute to that happiness and freedom.