“Justice is what love looks like in public.”–Cornell West
Let’s begin from the assumption that we love the world. Obviously, we have mixed feelings and views of all kinds, but deep down, under our fears, cynicism, disappointment, and so on, we care deeply for life and this earth.
Like children, we long to touch and honour and live up to this world’s beauty. Like loving parents, we feel torn by the wounds that are inflicted on our world–on its people, on its forests and oceans, on its air and animals.
Loving the world is like having a wound that won’t heal. We are caught between our feeling of love, which is openness and acceptance, and our longing for justice, which defiantly declares “this is not acceptable.” We churn within the energy that dwells in that confluence of heart and mind, love and anger, yes and no. Should we embrace peace and love or resistance and righteousness? Should we love our enemies or punch them in the face?
In the Shambhala tradition, the practice of the heart is to develop boundless compassion. We practice compassion almost as a martial art, utilizing the energy of inner emotions and outer challenges to deepen and open our hearts more.
The purpose of training in compassion is not just that compassion is so nice, and it’s better to be nice than to be mean, and love and rainbows, and so on. We are not training in love because we are afraid of the harm and aggression that we see in the world and would rather pretend that we live in a softer world. Rather, it is because we see the suffering of the world so clearly, we know that we need a bigger heart and a bigger mind to hold it. The only way we can hold it without being crushed by it is to open up so much that we actually relax our boundaries. Releasing our boundaries we are free of rejection, therefore we have acceptance, and we return to a natural state of peace. Peace means we have resolved our inner fears and so we are not conflicted. Thus we are powerful.
Often in today’s world, peace is written off as submission or as non-engagement. Indeed, if we think the only alternative to violence is giving up, and we call that peace, then peace is a weak path. But peace is not ignoring; peace is awake. Gandhi and King did not teach peace as submission, but as truth-force. For peace to be potent, it must be embodied, thus it is unified with a person’s natural love for the world. When these come together there is tremendous dignity, which is not ignorant or weak, but awesome.
Peace is generally thought of as the opposite of anger, but these two natural dimensions of our humanness have one thing in common, which is clarity.
When we witness willful ignorance of harm to our eco-system by politicians, brutality toward innocent black men by police, incitements to violence by white supremacist presidents, tribal genocide instigated by Buddhists, sexual assault by countless men against countless women and trans people, and on and on, we feel clear: these harmful acts must stop. They must leave this earth. This clarity can arise in us like a wave of ferocious power. It may not be what we think of as peaceful, but that is only because we think peace lacks energy and intensity. This energy of natural clarity responding to harm could be called compassion or it could be called anger.
Here are some reasons we usually don’t work with this energy in a creative or healthy way:
Our untrained mind’s habit perverts everything into ego.
We fear our own power.
Aggression and blame allow us to avoid being implicated.
It feels like sadness.
We have been socialized to be ashamed of anger.
We think anger is not compassionate.
We get off on rage.
We think compassion is weak.
We want to be peaceful.
We don’t want to feel.
For all these reasons, anger is difficult to work with, and is traditionally seen as a negative emotion. Indeed, when the natural energy of clarity/anger arises in a mind conflicted by fear and confusion, it becomes aggression, a deeply harmful energy that damages us and others, and really has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Therefore, working with anger is considered dangerous.
An easy conclusion would be to opt for compassion and steer clear of anger. However, as I have tried to show, genuine compassion and genuine anger often arise as one response within us. To divide our experience is also aggression. Can we learn to honour our anger and its fierce clarion call to justice without abandoning compassion?
Since we live in a time when compassion is so deeply needed, it seems imperative that we understand it and feel totally confident in it. Since we live in a time that is so rife with injustice, it feels imperative that we understand our anger and unleash its creative potential. Since we don’t have time to waste, we need to resolve our inner conflict.
A practice for holding to genuineness, and not cascading off into aggression or ignoring, is to stay true to our sadness. Sadness is not depression but a quality of pure humanness– tender, alive and true. It dwells within us, at the heart of our feelings, beneath our layers of thoughts, like pure water within the earth. If we are willing, we can touch our sadness in the midst of the arising of anger, or any feeling. It’s like a touchstone of genuineness. It doesn’t play in the realm of evaluation, blame, or pride. It binds us to our hearts. That’s where our power lives. It may not be what we thought, but if we’re willing to feel it, we could offer something really unusual to the world– real compassion, real anger, real humanity.