The Hidden Power Of Compassion, Generosity And Self-Restraint
By: David Edwards
The Fire Of Discontent
The 4th century poet Aryasura described nothing less than a revolution in human understanding when he wrote:
“The only beauty that truly pleases is the beauty of virtue.” (The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.305)
Aryasura was specifically contrasting human physical beauty with what he considered to be human moral beauty. The contemporary Chinese thinker Hsing Yun indicates what the poet had in mind:
“When we begin to desire something, we feel dissatisfied because we do not yet have it. If we get it, we feel dissatisfied because it has not yet lived up to our expectations or because we now fear that we may lose it. After we have lost it, or after it has grown old, we feel dissatisfied again.” (Master Hsing Yun, Being Good, Weatherhill, 1999, p.36)
The 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz adds some emotional colour with this description of his reactions on seeing Irish actress Henrietta Smithson for the first time:
“I became possessed by an intense, over-powering sense of sadness… I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favourite studies became distasteful to me, I could not work, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris and its environs.” (Quoted, Frank Tallis, Love Sick, Century, 2004, p.123)
To make the point clearer still, consider the words of the contemplative, Ajastya, whose fathomless generosity, we are told, attracted the attention and admiration of no less a celebrity than Shakra, Lord of the Gods. By way of a reward, the awestruck deity offered Ajastya anything his heart desired: “whatever you wish. Ask what you will.” The sage responded with words that resonate thunderously 2,000 years on:
“If you wish to grant me what will truly please me, grant me this: May that fire of discontent which burns in the hearts of people the world over – even after they have won spouse, children, power, and riches beyond their wildest dreams – may that inexhaustible and all-consuming fire never enter my heart!” (Aryasura, op., cit, p.57)
Is it true? Does the fire of discontent rage on even after we have won everything we might conceivably desire? Is the whole thrust of modern civilisation rooted in utter folly?
The point, for our present purpose, is that the satisfaction of desire does not and cannot extinguish the fire of discontent. Physical beauty, for example, inflames the heart, sets the pulse racing, but it does not +truly+ please for the simple reason that fire burns – we suffer.
The Smiling Autumn Moon
So what did Aryasura mean by ‘virtue’? Many of us associate the term with appearance rather than reality – with someone making a show of pious, ‘holier than thou’ behaviour in order to feel, or be considered, superior. Or with someone giving in order to get. Or with Machiavellians like Tony Blair professing moral belief precisely to obscure his lack of scruples as he bombs the world better. Or with someone desperate to find order and meaning in a meaningless world – hair-shirted ‘goodness’ securing passage to some ‘better place’ after death.
But Aryasura’s idea of virtue has nothing to do with any of this. It has to do with the human capacity for self-awareness, empathy and reason. I, for example, know what it means to feel jealous, angry, abandoned, confused, afraid, alone and sad. I also know what it means to be happy, encouraged, relieved, hopeful, joyful and ecstatic. I have an idea of what other people are suffering and enjoying when they experience these emotions. I am therefore able to empathise. I cringe at the sight of a dog being kicked because I know the suffering of a blow to the body. I smile at the sight of a toddler laughing in a paddling pool because I know that happiness.
I am also able to reflect that my suffering is not more or less important than anyone else’s. I cannot rationally argue that my pain matters more than yours – it might matter more to me, but that is mere bias. I take it to be an empty argument at best leading to shameful consequences at worst. After all, it would be shameful to steal food from a hungry child simply because I was able to do so. Wanting the food doesn’t make it right, nor does being able to take it – such behaviour cannot be defended as reasonable. From a simply rational point of view I know that placing my own interests above those of others is unfair; there is no justification beyond self-serving prejudice.
But who cares if it’s unreasonable? Who cares if it isn’t fair?
The answer is: everyone else does! I am not an island, an isolated individual – I am deeply connected to, dependent on, my family, friends and society. From my earliest days I have learned that I need the help of others to survive and flourish. Everything I possess, even my name and body, has been given to me either by others or with their assistance. Like it or not, I really do need to be liked, supported and loved. And I know that people tend to like and love those who respect the needs of others, who act as though the needs of others are at least as important as their own.
I also find that caring for others is conducive to my own sense of well-being. When I am overcome with selfish greed and anger, I feel isolated, anxious and unhappy. One of the fundamental bases of ethics is simply that the human heart is happier when it is well-disposed towards others.
So my concern for others is rational, fair, in my own interests, and conducive to my own happiness.
But when Aryasura talks of virtue being the only beauty that “truly pleases”, he is talking of a specific variety of concern for others – the kind that is sincere. In other words, the times when we are generous, restrained and loving, not because we are focused on the benefit to us, but because we are focused on the benefit to others. That is our goal, we really do have their welfare in mind.
Which is not to say that all, or even many, actions are entirely without a selfish component. Even someone hurling themselves into an icy river to save a drowning person may be risking his or her life with some thought of prospective glory. But that hope may be a small factor beside the overwhelming concern that someone is dying and should be saved – as we know, the impulse to save other life can be sufficient to risk our own.
Despite this ability, we are of course profoundly biased in our own favour. Many thoughts are taken up with what we want, what we don’t want. Our self-concern is on a hair-trigger; it takes very little to make us greedy, determined to put our interests first.
The reason we are so selfish is not simply that we are ‘fallen’ or evolutionarily hard-wired – many cultures have been, and are, far less self-centred than our own – it is because society has persuaded us that a self-focused life offers the best hope for happiness. Our ad-packed, profit-driven, corporate culture is structurally deaf to what Ajastya had to say. It is all too easy to believe that we’ve got to push and shove, to beat everyone else, to get what we want.
But there’s already an interesting contradiction here. As discussed above, we tend to like and admire people who really do care about others. I once knew an elderly gentleman, Fred, who was quite unabashed about declaring: “I take care of myself first.” But, he added: “Once I’m okay, I try to do what I can to help.”
In reality he spent most of his time taking housebound pensioners on “runs” in his car to the seaside, bingo, shopping and so on. He took food for elderly disabled friends and visited any number of people who were alone and isolated. All of this was done without fuss – he waved away expressions of gratitude and was not interested in being admired, paid, or otherwise rewarded. He helped me, too, and seeing all this made me feel I would do anything to help him if ever he needed it. And this is the extraordinary charm of moral beauty – it generates deep admiration, even love, in others. Aryasura put it perfectly:
“For so it is that the brilliance of the virtuous attracts the peoples’ love as strongly as does their most beloved friend or relative – just as the smiling autumn moon in the heavens, showering its beams freely in all directions, wins the love of all.” (Aryasura, ibid, p.333)
But isn’t this exactly what we hope to achieve by launching ourselves on self-focused careers to the summit of personal success? Don’t people become music, TV and sports stars to be loved in just this way?
I know another person, a director of studies at a language school where I used to work. His special delight lay in supporting teachers and students as far as he was able. He went to great lengths to give teachers the time off they requested and to keep them working for as much of the year as possible, student numbers permitting. Whereas many in positions of authority often take pleasure in turning down requests, in confronting people with power, he clearly found great satisfaction in using his power to help.
One might question the practicability of this kind of attitude in hierarchical management. And yet I never thought, for example, about taking unwarranted sick leave, or of taking advantage of the school in any other way, because I was treated so well by this one sincere and well-intentioned individual. The idea of causing him unnecessary problems was unthinkable. I know many other teachers felt the same. In this way, his attitude of generosity and respect spread throughout the entire school making it extremely popular with students.
The ‘Slingshot’ Effect
In a recent Media Alert, I cited the case of Vietnam veteran Claude Anshin Thomas who in his book, At Hell’s Gate, described how the horrors of war had left him all but psychologically ruined. Thomas had witnessed, and participated in, appalling violence:
“I don’t sleep very much at night. I haven’t been able to since an early experience in the war… At some point either late in the night or early in the morning, the Vietcong overran our perimeter, the protection that surrounded us. Of the 135 or so Americans present, only 15 or 20 were not killed or wounded. I happened to be one of those few.
“In the course of this night the fighting became very intense, hand-to-hand. I had to take lives with my hands. As the fighting subsided, I then had to listen to the screaming of the wounded and dying.” (Thomas, At Hell’s Gate – A Soldier’s Journey From War To Peace, Shambhala, 2004, p.62)
Thomas described the psychological consequences:
“I was trapped in the prison of self, confined by guilt, remorse, anxiety, and fear. I became so tormented that I was unable to leave my house. Physically and emotionally, I was under siege, bunkered in.” (p.37)
A turning point came when Thomas attended a meditation retreat with the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Than. Towards the end of the retreat, Thomas spoke to a Vietnamese nun, Sister Chan Khong, to ask her forgiveness, to atone for his part in the killing of her people. Chan Khong’s response was to invite him to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Than’s monastery and retreat centre in France:
“If you come in the summer, many Vietnamese people are there – refugees, boat people – and you can learn to know the Vietnamese in another way. Come to Plum Village; we can help you. Let us help you!” (p.43)
Thomas wrote of the impact of this generosity of spirit and of his experiences in Plum Village:
“I was overwhelmed by this offer of help. No one in my own country had made such an offer to me, an offer of support and help to live differently, to find peace.
“At a very deep and profound level I understood the truth and sincerity of this offer… What the Vietnamese community did is love me. They didn’t put me on trial. They offered me an opportunity to look deeply into the nature of my self, to walk with them in mindfulness and begin the process of healing and transformation.” (pp.43-45)
This indicates the power, and beauty, of what we call ‘virtue’ – here of generosity, compassion and forgiveness in the face of what many would consider unforgivable crimes. No amount of drugs, drink, hatred, or even courage, had the power to liberate Thomas from his torment. What did have that power was unconditional kindness offered by members of the same people he had fought in war.
It was not just the generosity and kindness that helped Thomas, but their contrast to what he might have expected to receive – hatred, damning judgement, even revenge. Much as a judo wrestler uses an opponent’s weight to his or her advantage, so the practice of restraint in the face of anger and violence gains strength from the anticipated, but absent, hostile reaction in a way that can startle and inspire. This ‘slingshot’ effect happens every time we respond to someone who harms us with restraint rather than retaliation.
This has the capacity, not merely to neutralise a negative event but to transform it into something positive. For example, if someone inconveniences us in some way – by blocking our path in the street, arriving late, forgetting to return a possession and so on – they will likely expect, and brace themselves for, some kind of hostile response. We can instead confound this expectation by responding with generosity and kindness. Expecting a negative outcome, our antagonist experiences, not merely a neutral, but actually a highly positive outcome. This is all the more powerful because it is so unexpected.
None of the above should be taken to suggest that it is primarily the task of the weak to forgive the crimes of the powerful. Nor am I advocating passivity in the face of violence. The point is that there is a hidden power in generosity, compassion and restraint that makes a nonsense of the reigning ‘common sense’ presumption that choices are often black and white, with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” being the only ‘pragmatic’ response. All else, in fact, is +not+ naïve.
In truth, retaliatory violence is often advocated as the only ‘credible’ solution, for example in foreign policy, precisely because advantages through violence, rather than peaceful and just solutions, are being sought. Thus the “war on terror” is a war. Terror is involved. But the goal is not at all to rid the world of terror.
Media Alert = Garbage!
We at Media Lens occasionally receive quite heated emails in response to our work. Some of this, it has to be said, we bring on ourselves. Our philosophy is in part inspired by abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, who was also accused of being a ‘trouble maker’ and of seeking to generate controversy and ‘excitement’. His response:
“Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a most tremendous excitement.” (Quoted, Howard Zinn, ‘History is a weapon,’ http://www.historyisaweapon.org/defcon1/zinnslaem10.html)
It is often obvious that hostile emailers are angry and intent on punishing us for some perceived egregious error or failing. The senders are often well-motivated and believe they are standing up for what is good and right. They often clearly believe anger is a valuable, empowering force.
They are also aware, at some level, of a number of issues. They are aware that they are heated or angry. They are aware that they are arguing on an emotional rather than a purely rational level. They know that they are being harsh or abusive and are likely to cause offence. They surely expect to receive abuse or at least cold dismissal in response. From their perspective it’s reasonable that someone would reply to their anger with abuse – they have themselves, after all, responded to irritation with abuse in just this way.
Something interesting happens, then, on occasions when we are able to respond calmly and rationally (not always the case!), without anger and retaliation.
The first thing that happens is that the emailer knows that we are responding reasonably by not retaliating with abuse in kind. This throws their own angry email into sharp relief. As discussed above, we have a powerful need to view ourselves as fundamentally reasonable – it is vital to be seen as such if we want to be accepted and liked, much less loved. While our emailers may have believed it was reasonable to respond aggressively to the latest Media Lens ‘nonsense’, how reasonable is it for them to respond angrily again to a polite and restrained reply?
Of course some do respond with contempt and anger. But in my experience, the strength of their need to see themselves as fundamentally reasonable means they are far more likely to match a restrained, non-aggressive reply with something similar.
After all, their anger was initially motivated by our ‘unreasonableness’. But a restrained response may well provoke the thought, ‘This is actually quite a reasonable reply – maybe these people aren’t as mad as I thought.’ Secondly, it is unreasonable of them to continue being angry at +us+ for being unreasonable, if they are willing to be less reasonable than us by sending further abuse!
Alternatively, if they really are too angry to match a restrained response with an answer in kind, then they may well feel unable to reply at all because they know they will appear unreasonable and irrational, not just in our eyes, but more importantly in their own. In my experience, enraged emailers can occasionally manage a second venting of abuse in response to restraint, but rarely a third. They just cannot convince themselves that further abuse would be justifiable – and the whole basis of their outrage is that they see themselves as reasonable people making a stand for what is right and just in the world.
My co-editor, David Cromwell, responded to one fiery reader who sent the following email:
“What was the garbage I just was sent as a ‘media alert’? Along with the recent ‘people ask, what can I do about..’ diatribe that was sent by the ‘Davids’ I am wondering why I signed up for this rubbish. I want to hear them challenging the media when they blatantly lie and deceive (as with the Iraq massacre).
“Instead I am being lectured to by communists about how ‘property is theft’ oh puuuuurleeeese! and other crap.
Stick to ‘Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media’ which you are good at…”
Cromwell wrote back:
“Thanks for your feedback, even though I suspected what was coming when I saw ‘media alert’ in inverted commas. :o)
“I don’t know how long you’ve been signed up for media alerts, but most of them are indeed straightforward analyses of media deceptions, omissions and distortions. Every once in a while, though, we do like to send out something a little bit different. Often these will address issues of humanity that underpin the approach of Media Lens. A lot of people respond very warmly to these; but we realise they may not be for everyone!
“It might be worth reminding folk that these media analyses and essays are offered for free. Apart from the very occasional ‘guest’ alert, they are written by just two people who have other major commitments (don’t we all?!) and who are not earning a living doing this.
“Thanks again for writing. We do appreciate feedback!
Our correspondent then wrote again:
“Just to re-iterate. I love your genuine media alerts. When you see lies all around and shout at the news broadcast for blatant lies, the alerts and an oasis.
“In that respect I think you are doing a superb job. I just don’t want to be lectured to in emails. If I did I’d go over to znet mag and sign up there or read marxism today.
“I agree there haven’t been many emails of this type. I’ve been on for about a year and only two that I can remember were ‘off-topic’ but both were very recent.
“Of course it’s your time but I think it would be better spent attacking the lies and ommissions of the corporate media. Perhaps that is why I don’t like them, I think the time would be better spent elsewhere. Just my 2p..
“p.s. I love the way you keep calm and respond politely. It’s hard to be annoyed at someone like that hehe ;-)”
What is so remarkable is that, swayed by what amounts to a national religion of anger in our society, we believe that the most powerful way to respond to anger is in kind or worse. Determined to silence our abuser, we demand: “Don’t you dare talk to me like that!” One of the favoured, end-of-show moments in soap operas involves someone angrily reducing some miscreant to stunned silence through the sheer force of their verbal assault.
The irony is that, in the real world, the opposite strategy of self-restraint has exactly the calming and/or silencing effect we might hope to achieve through anger.
In fact, thanks to the ‘slingshot’ effect discussed above, patience, generosity and compassion achieve far more than this. When the anticipated retaliation does not come, the irate are effectively released, not just from their existing anger, but from a painful cycle of tit for tat abuse. Helping to dissipate a hostile mood in this way really is a great kindness – anger is one of the most painful and destructive emotions to endure.
The real surprise, then, is that the angry person can respond actually with gratitude, even warmth, to someone who was recently the target for intense hostility. This truly is the power and beauty of virtue.