A Meditation on Violence

In the aftermath of so many mass shootings, there are practical political and social things we can do. But what do we do with what's going on in our hearts?

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The mass shooting yesterday in San Bernardino—at a center for people with disabilities, after a morning holiday party—piled pain on top of pain. Our collective heart is breaking.

This latest shooting, coming on the heels of one last week in Colorado, became the occasion for the New York Times to tally up the dead and wounded from mass shootings so far this year. To say that it is sobering and unsettling is a huge understatement: In 209 out of 336 days this year, at least one shooting left four or more people injured or dead in the United States. A total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks. These grisly statistics do not even count the death toll from similar shootings abroad.

Who can know what to do, how to process this information? How do we feel something more than powerlessness in the face of something so horrific? There are practical things that can be done in the political and social realm, and those are not insignificant, but that still leaves us to deal with what’s going on in our hearts.

Affective neuroscientists—who study how emotion works within our mind and body—talk about deep resources of energy that we hold inside ourselves, ready to be brought to bear on any situation. Our brain, or our mind, if you prefer, manages and allocates those resources. We see our dog panting and wagging her tail, looking at us with wide eyes, and from somewhere inside good feelings well up. Before long, this becomes a pattern. It’s a pathway we follow again and again when we encounter our pet, so much so that even when she rips a favorite shirt to shreds, that good feeling soon overwhelms any feelings of anger and resentment. Naturally, these kinds of feelings are mutually nurtured in our relationships with all sorts of people in our lives. They become the glue that holds families and communities together.

But we also allocate those inner resources in ancient, ingrained habits of self- and group protection. If we encounter a strange dog on a dark street, growling and lunging, our fear kicks in and we will bring lots of energy to bear on things very rapidly. We may run or freeze or fight or seek to ingratiate ourselves with the animal. Similarly, if we perceive ourselves to be wronged or cheated, the energy of anger can reach a fever pitch. These emotions, and others we tend to label as negative, can go way beyond self-protection. As we well know, when they get out of hand, they become a means to steamroll everything and everyone in our way.

The motto at Mindful—“taking time for what matters”—is one we share with a rapidly growing community of people in all walks of life who care about mindfulness, awareness, kindness, and compassion, and who believe—in the face of very challenging evidence like we’re facing today—that human beings are inherently mindful, aware, kind, and compassionate. They want to take their practice and their understanding into their work and their lives, and not just in the easy places, but also in the places that challenge our inclination to be patient, kind, and caring.

When we talk about taking time for what matters, nothing matters more than how we channel and pattern and nurture and develop the vast resources of energy within. These are not just personal resources; they are shared resources. A kind and generous love can spread, and so can a possessive fearful desperate form of love. Anger can take the form of righteousness and justice, but it can also form itself into a deep wellspring of hate. And when it is entrained deeply enough, it can be the source of deadly violence.

We can be compassionate first toward ourselves, and then to those immediately around us, and so on and so on. And our compassion can reach so far as to the victims and their families, and also to the perpetrators of violence, to contemplate the deep pain and fear that can cause them to act so inhumanely and the damage they’ve done to themselves and their families through violence. We can forgive without condoning the actions.

Nothing “matters” more than how we spend the vast store of energy bequeathed to each of us. We cannot control how others manage theirs, but we can start inside and work out. Research from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, and other places, has shown that compassion is something that can be trained. And while we don’t yet have research that measures the infectiousness of compassion, we know from our own lives how emotional energy can spread. We can be compassionate first toward ourselves, and then to those immediately around us, and so on and so on. And our compassion can reach so far as to the victims and their families, and also to the perpetrators of violence, to contemplate the deep pain and fear that can cause them to act so inhumanely and the damage they’ve done to themselves and their families through violence. We can forgive without condoning the actions.

As we seek to allocate the resources in our hearts and minds, compassion seems to be the best compass to follow, asking ourselves to act with the greatest care for the benefit of others and wishing that others may do the same. What choice do we have?

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