It takes a fair amount of hubris and courage to create a newsletter called “Explorations in Kindness”. I say this with a good dose of humor and humility because I am keenly aware of how unkind I can be. Whether it is a moment on the phone getting very, very edgy and irate with a customer service representative who is being officious and unhelpful, or whether it is thinking back on the bone field of severed and fractious relationships with family and friends, it all amounts to the same thing: I am as apt to be angry and hurtful as the next person.
The good news out of all this history, though, is that I believe I am becoming more able to hold onto a growing core of peace. This has enabled me to act with kindness even when I feel triggered into fear and anger. Instead of retreating into a self-protective shell or indulging in lashing out, I am able to remain open-hearted towards the other person and to consider other avenues to find resolution. The antidote has been years of self-contemplation, working on my own healing, and the practice of meditation. What I have done is not new; indeed, many spiritual teachers from myriad cultures have taught these principles.
One of them was Mohandas Gandhi who was credited with freeing India from British rule in 1948 through the use of active nonviolence. He singlehandedly challenged the old notion that violence is the only possible response to oppression and threat to life and limb. He is credited with mobilizing thousands of Indians in this endeavor in the face of intense resistance and violence on the part of the British. The famous Salt March of 1930 is perhaps the most well-known and dramatic example of his effort. For 24 days, he led a group of several thousand Indians on a march to the Arabian Sea to engage in illegally making salt in defiance of British law. It is probably less well-known that Gandhi consistently asserted that it takes a great deal of work on one’s inner life and self-discipline to resist and even transform the will to strike back or hide when confronted with injustice or threat to life and limb. He called this inner force satyagraha and translated it to mean “soul force” or “truth force.”
Gandhi was a keen observer of human nature. He did not have the benefit of 21st century neuro-scientific understandings of the function of the brain. But he had enough evidence in his own and others actions to know that when we feed fear and anger in our thoughts, we are more apt to respond to perceived assaults with animosity and even violence. When we feed gentleness and kindness in our minds, we are more likely to access a deep reserve of compassion and fearlessness when confronted by unkindness. Gandhi did this by spinning, meditation and daily readings of the renowned spiritual text, the Baghavad Gita. We can do it by any practices that consistently quiet and inspire the mind, whether it is saying contemplative prayers, knitting, or reading the Bible.
We can also do it by working on healing our wounds. I cannot say often enough how essential I believe personal healing to be. I do believe that a consistent practice of meditation and other calming, repetitive activities can go a long way to quieting inner storms. However, I also know from personal experience that the triggers setting off those storms can be so deeply imbedded in our psyche that they elude even the most disciplined meditation practice. We live in a world that has been infused with fear, anger and violence for millennia. We are also presently fed a media barrage of fearful, violent images and messages. On top of this, most of us live in families that are marred in some way by visible or invisible traumas going back generations.
I call this atmosphere the “culture of post-trauma.” The problem is that the trauma is not yet “post”, but alas energetically alive in our bodies and minds. In the face of this reality, we can find it hard to even start to meditate because when we sit “on the cushion,” we are filled with intense pain and discomfort.
Therefore, even while I enjoin others to work on their healing, I have moments when I feel utterly overwhelmed and discouraged. I look around me at problems of poverty, an economy in decline, fundamentalist religions and violent conflicts dominating the world stage, and vast differences in opinions and experiences. How easy it was for us to resort to war after 9/11.
I also know that when a person is struggling to put food on the table or whose country is at war, meditation and healing are expendable luxuries. There is little social support in the U.S. and certainly in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan for finding oases of peace where a person can retreat to nurse his or her wounds.
I include the U.S. on this list despite our massive healthcare system that includes a phalanx of social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Despite the fact that we lead the world in the field of mental health services, there is still a long way to go. I also know that in many cases, this system does not actually heal, but in many cases, causes more pain and suffering. The focus of the current pharmaceutical companies and managed care is to get individuals functional enough to return to work.
A friend of mine is a psychiatric nurse in a local hospital. She bemoans the fact that the impoverished mentally ill who come into the psych unit are given short-term treatment for their symptoms, which often include alcohol and drug abuse. They are then put back on the street without any further social or psychological supports. Within weeks or months, they are back on the unit in no better shape than they were when they first came in. The staff are burned out, stressed out and therefore cynical and often hard-hearted in the face of the chronic suffering of their clients. They need healing, too.
There is still much social stigma associated with depression, anxiety and other mental “disorders.” Even the fact that they are called “disorders” or “mental illness” speaks to the pathologizing tone infusing our society and others. In contrast, in my experience with working with hundreds of students and clients, it is not at all uncommon to go through periods in life when we are in crisis, depressed, grieving, or anxious. Yet we are given the message that we should be able to pull ourselves together in order to feed the great wheel of commerce.
But I don’t want to be so unkind as to blame some external “other” for this state of affairs. I know that what is “out there” is also inside myself. How could it be any other way? I know how difficult it is for me to take time off, even though I am self-employed and not answerable to anyone but myself. I also know that this internalized “slave-driver” is a result of generations of traumas in my family and society that has promulgated and been driven by many traumas feeding persistent, intractable fears: of poverty, attack, illness and pain.
Therefore, I would add to Gandhi’s list of spinning, meditation and spiritual reflection, access to healing centers. These centers would educate people about trauma and the effects of trauma. They would provide affordable and even free access to a variety of medical and non-medical modalities, including psychotherapy, psychoeducation, massage and other forms of bodywork, and even alternative healing modalities such as EMDR and shamanic healing. Every individual resonates to different modalities. There is no single panacea for the human race, particularly when we work in international, cross-cultural contexts. Western psychology may not be the best tool in Cambodia or Sudan. There may be local systems of healing more compatible with those cultures.
I have been lucky enough to have access to the resources needed to help me with my healing, including the best of western medicine and the best of emerging healing modalities. I want to make healing an even more common, everyday matter, no matter how it is defined by each individual, community, society, or nation. We need to be able to talk about healing—what it is, how we feel about it, and how we might envision it taking hold of our lives. This would be a very productive step towards creating the “nonviolent army” envisioned by Gandhi—an army of thousands who can confront the violence and conflict in our world with love in our hearts and peace in our minds.