by Sheree Johnson, founder and Director of Gestalt Ann Arbor*
Query: In the United States we appear to have the option of “choosing to cultivate” our attitudes towards our world and it’s ideas and it’s variety of beliefs. They are ours to ponder at our leisure if we so choose. Do these philosophies hold up if we live in the war-torn areas of Iraq or parts of Africa decimated by disease and famine? Is it possible to have “Hope and faith without letting go?” How much of that is possible when all you can hope for is that your children make it through another night or find another meal. Is there one set of rules/choices for one country over another?
Johnson: Three answers to your question: one is to address the assumption that those of us living in the United States are granted more opportunity than other parts of the world to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion. And the second answer that addresses the principle that the strength of one can bear the afflictions of many if it understands the principle of interconnectedness. And the third, which addresses if it is possible for someone who lives in another country, you named Iraq and Africa, or any other country riddled with strife, war, poverty, etc., to have the “leisure” to cultivate compassion.
There are many countries, and the United States unfortunately is amongst those countries, which experience disproportionate rates of chaos and strife. However, the rate of suffering one country has over another, or one person may experience over another, does not preclude or exclude the ability to control one’s heart and mind and for suffering to be alleviated by intentional acts of cultivating compassion. (I will give very specific examples of individuals from various parts of the world that are models of how a conscious mind can peacefully influence an entire nation.) If we see the world as a planet full of boundaries and borders, then we will fall into a mindset that could undermine our ability to use the practice of compassion as a vehicle to heal the planet.
Here are some statistics that cause me to question if conditions for many in the Unites States are less threatening or more peaceful than other countries.
- Child Abuse: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2017), the United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average almost five (5) children every day to child abuse and neglect.
- Sexual Assault: Every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. That means EVERY SINGLE DAY more than 570 people experience sexual violence in this country. (HuffPost, April 2017).
- Domestic Violence: On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines nationwide receive approximately 20,800 calls (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2015).
- Poverty: Despite the recent decline, the United States still has a far higher child-poverty rate than other high-income countries, with devastating short- and long-term effects. The poverty rate for children of color is TRIPLE that of white children (The Atlantic, 2017)
- Gun Violence: In 2015, 13,286 people were killed in the US by firearms, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and 26,819 people were injured (those figures exclude suicide).
Suffering does not respect boundaries or borders – Johnson
Experiences of violence, trauma, chaos, war, poverty, rape, murder, starvation…these are deeply unfortunate examples of human suffering and when someone is subjected to any atrocity and adversity for any length of time, he or she will have a much more difficult time attaining peace of mind. That is without question. But suffering does not respect boundaries or borders. Any amount of human suffering on this planet impacts all of us.
Of course, it is much easier to sit on a zafu and meditate for an hour when one does not have to worry for food or shelter or is in fear of one’s life. But cultivating inner peace and compassion are not experiences or states of being restricted to environments or situations that are ideal. There is a potential within every human mind to achieve high levels of compassion and tranquility through the circuitry that is hard-wired in the brain. The septal nuclei are part of the limbic system linked to empathy, compassion, and the development of prosocial behaviors like bonding. (I can give another discussion on this point at some other time but for now, it is quite possible for anyone who is interested to research the information that addresses this concept). Your brain is something that you can train no matter what the external circumstances are that abound.
If you are fortunate to have the leisure time to meditate, to cultivate compassion and send that energy out into the planet, then you are in an excellent position to help someone who may be too afflicted to do this for himself. The practice to develop is called LoJong. That is a very lovely and deeply transformative practice that you can do for anyone, anywhere and at any time. An experienced Teacher would help you to learn the principles and techniques of LoJong (a mind training practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition).
Now to address, how can someone succeed at cultivating attributes like compassion and inner peace if living with adversity is his day-to-day reality? Researchers have identified several qualities that seem to be protective factors that certain individuals possess, which are inherent, and which may be due to either genetics, personality, environment or all of those. One trait is called “tenacity”. Another is called “grit”. Tenacity is an attribute that is close to what we might describe as “persistence” but even persistence does not quite explain the combination of passion, resilience, stubbornness, that contributes to this incredible trait. Grit is very similar to tenacity except that it adds this extra element of courage, a drive fueled by fortitude that seems to be linked to the individual’s sense of purpose. Research has linked these traits to achievement more consistently than any other trait, including I.Q. If someone reads this article and a spark of interest flares up in her spirit and she takes it upon herself to look up some of the terms I am mentioning…like “LoJong”, for example, she is demonstrating enough tenacity and grit to take the next step…which is to find a qualified teacher or a sangha or ask questions until she finds a way to learn what she needs to do to begin a practice of cultivating the mind.
There are numerous examples of human beings from diverse backgrounds who have modeled for us the ability to cultivate compassion and inner peace despite the challenge of adversity. I only list a very few. We have been fortunate in this dispensation to know or hear of many people who show or have shown us the manner in which the attributes of loving kindness and compassion are developed into powerful vehicles for change:
Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the South African government. He became the country’s first black Head of State.
Thich Nacht Hanh worked relentlessly to reconcile peace between North and South Viet Nam. He was banned from Viet Nam. In 1966, both the non-Communist and Communist governments banned him for his role in undermining the violence he saw affecting his people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
Oprah Winfrey was born in poverty; raped at the age of 9. She became one of the first African-American and female billionaire and is one of the greatest philanthropists in the world.
Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist; was imprisoned for publicly criticizing her country’s hierocracy and in 2003 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in fostering the rights for Muslim women, children, and refugees. She was the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is currently in exile.
Benazir Bhutto in 1984, founded an underground organization to resist military dictatorship in Pakistan and at the age of 35 became Prime Minister of her country, making her one of the youngest political figures in the world. She was assassinated in 2007.
Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned several times for his non-violent protests against the British domination in India. Through his personal practices and modeling of non-violence, he ignited a revolution of peace amongst the people so powerful that India finally won independence in 1947.
Rigoberta Menchú’s younger brother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by a military death squad in 1979, and her mother was kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and murdered by soldiers the following year. She escaped to Mexico from Guatemala and continued her campaign for human rights against the Guatemalan government, rising to international acclaim. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her continuing efforts to achieve social justice and mutual reconciliation in Guatemala.
Tulku Sang-Ngag Rinpoche was 12 years old when imprisoned by the Chinese government for practicing Buddhism. For the next ten years he would continue to work under the brutality of the prison system, not knowing from one day to the next if he would be the next to be slaughtered or randomly hung. He admitted to struggling with feelings of hatred towards the Chinese and because of the teachings of an elder monk, chose to train his mind and heart towards compassion for his captors. Upon his release from prison, he went into exile, continued his studies in Buddhism and had the fortune to meet and receive direct guidance from the Dali Lama. He is now the founder and spiritual director of the Tibetan Ewam International Centers around the world.