I’ll be the first to admit it, folks: non-resistance, one of the core elements of Buddhist or dhammic praxis, seems like a sham. On its face, non-resistance sounds like one or a combination of (a) weakness: a sort of rationalized fear of fighting back; (b) delusion: playing Mary Sunshine and pretending that there’s nothing to resist; or (c) apathy: leaving it to fate or karma or whatever to sort everything out.
With a slightly more nuanced view of non-resistance, we realize that it doesn’t so much refer to external conflict or confrontation, but has more to do with our internal states, as a tool for reducing suffering. A British professor, a guest speaker I heard at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center back in September, cited as an example the moment you open a delicious-looking box of chocolates, only to find that they’ve all been eaten up — except the coconut ones, which you hate. The more we resist reality (by fantasizing about the missing chocolates; resenting the scoundrels who devoured them), the greater our suffering will become.
Ok, understandable, but something still feels off. It was at that moment, when he pulled out the bonbon anecdote, that the thought occurred to me: This white guy has no idea of the weight of the words he’s using.
These words carry a lot of meaning for a lot of people. How could he use them so blithely, so unawares?
Now, it wasn’t just a matter of the professor: his explanation, language and vocabulary were also tied to the audience he was addressing: largely wealthy, white, overeducated, and middle-aged. But there was also a larger context: the neighborhood in which this dharma talk was taking place. Area 4, poor and gentrifying, a long under-resourced and heavily policed area, with lots of homeless and near-homeless people of color.
When talking about non-resistance, how often do we hear examples of irritation like sitting in traffic? Not getting a bonus or promotion at your firm? Undergoing chemotherapy?
In my experience, A Lot.
And how often do we hear examples of police profiling and brutality? Eviction? Domestic abuse? Racist education? Colonization? War?
It’s a shame that so many dharma talks by convert Americans in the U.S., from what I’ve seen and read, are couched in terms of a white ruling-class (and often straight, male, cisgendered, non-disabled) experience. Some may include the “social justice question” as an afterthought, or as a response in a Q & A, but rarely do dharmic explanations center around the people who must resist routinized oppression in order to survive. Talks ignore these realities. And that ignorance, willful or not, can raise a lot of skepticism about the dharma. Earlier in 2009, brownfemipower approached this same question from a different angle: the notion of submission, and whether it can ever be relevant to people who don’t really have a choice.
Fortunately, though, the way I see it, when we get to the deep meaning of non-resistance, we understand that it is totally compatible with political and social struggle. Lately I’ve run across a few explications that speak to confronting violence or abuse.
Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—to emphasize our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or condoning abusive behavior. Rather, acceptance often means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which inevitably leads to greater empowerment and creative change.
– Christopher K. Germer from “Getting Along” (Tricycle, Spring 2006)
Non-resistance means looking at the totality of a given situation: not denying any aspect or focusing too narrowly on one area. And not getting lost in our own imagination, our own reactions, or our own desires to appear strong, calm, courageous, or unperturbed. In a conversation with Pema Chödrön, Alice Walker makes a similar point about the importance of acknowledging and accepting pain when somebody tells us to “go to the back of the bus”:
The cause of someone’s aggression is their own suffering. So we can connect with our own aggression and provocation, feel that, and exude good wishes for ourselves and others.
Let’s be clear: exuding good wishes for ourselves and others doesn’t rule out strong action. Even physical, militant action. In his essay “Loving the Enemy” (2002), Jeffrey Hopkins writes,
If your own best friend [suddenly, without warning],* came at you with a knife to kill you, what would you do? You would seek to disarm your friend, but then you would not proceed to beat the person, would you? You would disarm the attacker in whatever way you could—you might even have to hit the person in order to disarm him, but once you have managed to disarm him, you would not go on to hurt him. Why? Because he is close to you.
If you felt that everyone in the whole universe was in the same relationship to you as your very best friend, and if you saw anyone who attacked you as your best friend [acting harmfully],* you would not respond with hatred. You would respond with behavior that was appropriate, but you would not be seeking to retaliate and harm the person out of hatred. He would be too dear to you.
We’re not talking docility here. What makes non-resistance so great and useful is that it’s not a prescription for action or non-action, but rather an aid to clear-sightedness that we can apply to any given situation. It says: look at the reality in front of you. Much as we might want to deny that our friend is brandishing a knife, he is, and that needs addressing. Much as we might want to concoct some story of betrayal — that our friend has now become our enemy — in truth he’s only our enemy if we make him so. Otherwise, he’s only changed from what he was before.
As my teacher Goenkaji says, Accept each moment as it is — not as you would like it to be, but as it is.
And when the moment comes to resist, you’ll resist.
Have a good weekend, friends. I know I will. :) More on that next week.
*The original language in this piece talks about the best friend “going mad” as the explanation for the harmful behavior. As folks at Feministe pointed out while I was guest-blogging there, casually linking violence and mental illness presents a lot of problems, including exacerbating stigmas against people living with mental illness. I think Hopkins’ story is still helpful in the sense that it points to the power of a pre-existing, positive, loving relationship that allows us to choose mercy over revenge, refusing to totalize a person even based on their violent actions. At the same time, it’s also a very simplified example, evading the possibility of calculated betrayal, or an inherently predatory “best-friend” relationship. If you have time, I really recommend checking out the Feministe thread, and probing the example a bit further.
hey katie, was pointed to ur blog via FB. happy new year! i love how you’ve articulated this tension, and also point to resolution w this notion of radical acceptance. its something i remember asking my dad (who’s a buddhist scholar) about in early adolescence as i was learning to apply some of these concepts to my life and actions. ive basically come to the same conclusion but hadn’t really worked it out as cleanly in my head, so i enjoyed following ur flow.
in regards to the experience of injustice and oppression, its always been clear to me that acceptance doesn’t mean docility. instead, we seek a level of emotional stillness that can hold passion, sadness, disgust, pain, hope etc without letting these emotions overtake a more fundamental understanding that external conditions that create suffering are indeed inherent to lived experience and should be recognized as such. the most practical way i apply this in my own mind is to check this egoistic impulse to ask “why me?” if something bad happens to me. what i like about buddhism is that it keeps it real on this Q: “why do bad things happen to good people?” A: “it just does.” its not a gods will, or to teach me a lesson, or because i did something wrong (though there is a separate more explicable conversation re: karma and cause-effect to be had). once i come to terms with that fact, there is less emotional energy expended on wringing my fist at the imbalanced nature of the universe, and instead focus my mind on altering the tangible conditions that i have access to changing.
the idea of non-resistance to me is helpful in de-anthropomorphicizing the universe and coming to terms with – as you say it “the moment as it is.” all this being said, i consider myself to be extremely privileged and also have avoided some of the awful things that life deals to us. so my sense of acceptance and emotional stillness are still untested. i hope that things will stay that way, but its my hope that when the uncontrollable external world brings me to test, that i will have these spiritual tools to help me weather whatever storms storm.
to move the convo slightly, and as much as i agree with you on this notion of radical acceptance, i would reiterate your original question about how useful it to our brothers and sisters who are living under the grinding pressures of poverty, war etc. just as you questioned a more simplistic notion of non-resistance, it is important to check the relevance of privileged philosophizing. but at the same time, i believe in shared truth between humanity – so there is no reason to think that oppressed people could not benefit from the same spiritual frames even if the conditions around them are more extreme. (sorry this is a little muddled)
anyway, im really impressed by this post and hope to check in regularly in 2010. i hope ur having a great time in bay, hit me up if ur ever back in the bean! aaron
not to blow up ur comment section here – i went out to grab some dinner (im on tokyo time) and getting away from the computer had two additional thoughts. 1) my original response i felt was sorta an unoriginal regurgitation of your thoughts, or in a better light, simple affirmation. but nonetheless not particularly substantive, 2) a more unique thought in relation to the relevance of non-resistance to oppressed people – i thought it would be interesting to interrogate how this idea of radical acceptance could play into combating symptoms “internalized oppression” – im not going to expand on it but if we want to really marry spiritual frameworks with an on the ground leftist politic, i think that intersection could something interesting to sit with. peace~
I similarly don’t have much of substance to add but I wanted to give you and aaron thanks for starting off my day in satisfyingly thoughtful way, if that makes sense. It makes my life feel full to read the insights of intelligent friends who cause me to want to reflect purposefully. Plus, this topic is surprisingly relevant to my life right now and I am grateful for the little mind-stretch you’ve just given me. Happy New Year, Katie!
aaron tanaka! it’s so good to hear from you! you’re more than welcome to blow up my comment threads anytime. i hope you’re well — i’ll be dropping you a line in a second to ask about tokyo, and life in general.
you might feel like you only regurgitated or affirmed my thoughts at first, but (a) affirmation and pushing/moving in a new direction are equally appreciated, so thank you for both, and (b) i actually think that these rearticulations, or variations on a theme, like in music, are beautiful and useful in achieving a more holistic communication. maybe it’s just me being a blog nerd, but i really enjoy getting into a comment thread and reading a lovely reinterpretation of the main idea in the post.
f’rinstance, your “why me?” example is, i think, a super useful and practical one.
also, i didn’t know your dad is a buddhist scholar. interesting.
and the issue of privileged philosophizing is important, you’re right. i can’t and don’t claim to speak from the experience of someone who has endured poverty, trauma, imprisonment, or torture. but what inspires me about dharma is that it’s *not* merely philosophy, and not even *mostly* philosophy, but an actual practice, subject to testing by each individual.
that’s why i’m excited about sharing my encounters with it: because it has actually helped me, and i think there’s a chance it could help other people. all kinds of people.
my specific issue here is that there’s a whole big group of us who can’t even *relate* as readily to dharma teachings when we hear them because they’re so often illustrated, in these U.S. mostly-white Buddhist convert settings, according to a blindly privileged and dominant experience.
it would be great to see instead, for example, a dharma talk that *begins* from, and centers on, the experience of practicing as a prisoner. these prison meditation programs are growing pretty popular, from what i’ve seen, but usually they’re presented as, like, “hey! what a great idea! teach zen in prison.” and then spending a lot of energy implementing the program, and not a lot of energy giving platforms to actual students of those programs, to tell whether and how they’ve actually benefited from something like non-resistance.
(it also gets tricky in the representation of prison teaching because sometimes it’s painted like ‘using meditation to reform deviant criminal minds,’ rather than offering spiritual tools to cope with the dehumanization of imprisonment itself, plus the institutional racism and oppression that pipelined you there in the first place, along with all the ego baggage we carry around as humans, regardless.)
anyway, this is already a long response, and i haven’t even gotten to your intriguing point about non-resistance and internalized oppression! lemme take a quick stab at it, and maybe if you have more thoughts later you’ll come back and share.
i am often guilty of just taking the last thing i read and applying it to whatever question i’m currently facing. call it laziness or a gift for making connections, no matter the material. ;) so last night i read audre lorde’s “uses of anger,” where she advocates tapping into our anger at racism and patriarchy as a source of empowerment. at one point she writes,
now, as i understand it, internalized oppression basically means ingesting and believing, on some level, the hegemonic messages and systems that keep us low and tell us we are undeserving. right?
so maybe acceptance in that context doesn’t mean accepting the oppressive messages and systems, but acknowledging that they exist right now, and accepting all the confusion, pain, and anger they incite within us. once we accept the internal tensions and anger, don’t hide from them or fight them, we no longer suffer from them. and we might even discover the space to use them, as lorde advises, strategically. to make change.
those are the thoughts that come up for me, but i’m curious where you were headed with it. digging the intersections.
thanks again for stopping by, aaron. if and when i come through boston again, i’ll definitely hit you up — i feel like you’re one of those potential friends i missed out on while i lived there. and in the meantime, you made my day with your comments.
ashley! i didn’t see you until just now! girl, i miss you. so glad you found something here that resonated. it’s really good to see you — even just in name and writing.
i still think about you calling your grandparents.
hope you’re feeling well and taking care of yourself in the brand-new year. let’s catch up for real soon?
katie, you’ve put together a long, well written piece. I’ll have to be selective in what I respond to or I could be up way later than I need to be. But that’s not such a terrible problem, is it?
I’m looking at your issue with the dharma being taught from an ivory tower. “Doesn’t it suck when your favorite candy is gone and all you have left is your second favorite?! IKR?!” My experience is not with the dharma, though I imagine the dharma can be heard in many unlikely places. My experience is with the Christian church. I hear the Bible and its exegesis presented pretty similarly. It’s frustrating, it’s maddening. how grand that jesus can help me in my time of trial, that dark day that started like any other. I reached for the carton of milk in the fridge to find that there’s not enough left for a whole bowl of frosted flakes! WHY, GOD?! WHY?! Inconsequential Christ. But this is an obvious symptom of privilege, isn’t it? The power to omit what is awkward and damning; the very things that if I prayed with my eyes open, so to speak, would make me ask, “Is this how a ‘good person lives?” The answer would of course be, no. So then a light would be shone on my blood soaked hands and I’d have to work to change or own up to the harm I’m living. but why give more airtime to bullshit from the pulpit and on the lecture circuit? That’s what bothers me about the English professor. People born into privilege have an obligation to call their privilege by its right name and take inventory. If you’re going to get up in front of a crowd to speak, offer a prophetic voice of critique, not a lullaby of complicity.
I think of two churches in Cape Town a few blocks from each other. One is the Dutch Reform Church, (sound kinda white?) the very congregation responsible for publishing the theological justifications for Apartheid. It is dying. A 9o% loss in attendance. I ask the deacon why. He speculates, but never touches on Apartheid. The church follows this line and as you say, it raises skepticism, over time the church can no longer speak truth to the people, so the people don’t come.
The second church is St. George’s. During the end of Apartheid the now famous liberationist cleric, Desmond Tutu, was Archbishop. This church spoke to the realities facing black people living in South Africa. Here the Bible was interpreted and presented as a celebration of each individual’s humanity, including the oppressor, and that’s a direct act of resistance in an intentionally dehumanizing social, political, cultural, and religious context. And of course that dehumanization seeps deep down into people. Steve Biko didn’t create his famous quote, “The most powerful tool of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” in a vacuum. The life-giving interpretation that came from St. George’s created a flourishing congregation.
I love this because it reflects the potential for internal and external liberation-journeying by speaking truth. That’s why to regain respect or trust for Christianity I had to turn to Romero, Gutierrez, King, Fiorenza, Plaskow, Jeremiah Wright, people whose religious interpretation came from necessity, not privilege.
i’ve written enough for now, and haven’t even gotten into non-violence, or using anger, or, or, or… i like when that happens haha
If a person attacks me with a knife or a word, that person is practicing terrorism, and is such at that moment my “inimicus” ( in (non) + amicus (friend)). This is so, not because of me merely attributing a label out of my consciousness to their existence; it is true because of how they live up to the preexisting term “enemy” —and only they can decide when and how to step into that role. A rapist or thief is so because they decided to make the choice to fulfill that role. I accept the person as a human being (this is immutable) who is carrying out a role (which can vary); but they decide how and when to manifest their actions—as a friend or an “inimicus.” Unfortunately, some people vacillate between the roles often.
A philosophical distinction? Perhaps. But I raise the issue not to say “But, Mom she hit me first.” Rather, I raise the issue wondering at what point do we take full ownership of our actions? Oppressors or an aggressors act as such; and philosophers rationalize (i.e., tell lies that sound rational) as to why we shouldn’t resentfully resist the aggressor’s role. But why can’t the aggressor restrain themselves from that role? Why is the onus on the attacked to have to decide how to “interpret” the other person’s actions or role (friend or “inimicus”)? Why can’t the onus be on a person to not attack? A woman sleeps with a married man, and yet wants to be understood and not labeled—ok, so stop sleeping with married men! A husband beats his wife, and yet doesn’t want to be known as a wife beater. A person claiming to be a Christian sleeps with a married man or woman (i.e., not their spouse) or is abusive towards others, lies about their vices, and yet is the first one to say “Jesus says ‘don’t judge’—as if for 30 years that was the only thing Jesus ever said; there’s don’t steal, kill, commit adultery, lie, and the only command remembered is “don’t judge.” Amazing!
Carl Rogers and a host of humanist would argue that each person deserves unconditional positive regard. Ok, so how about each person showing unconditional positive restraint—and routinely holding themselves accountable for their own actions?
The resistance of the oppressed would not be much of an issue if there was restraint on the part of oppressors. Perhaps if people in general would, as the principle of Magga suggest, practice “right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation, right thought, and right understanding”—perhaps then there would be less of a discussion about resistance. Or here’s an idea: Governments should restrain themselves from injecting people with syphilis; from putting people in gas chambers; and should help restrain agencies and companies from taking advantage of people. Individuals should restrain themselves from doing harm to other individuals (including to themselves).
I do agree with Gandhi on how communities can use non-violent resistance to counter criminal activity:
Instead of bearing ill-will towards a thief or a criminal and trying to get him punished they should try to get under his skin, understand the cause that led him into crime and try to remedy it. (Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), p. 350)
“Understand the cause;” now there’s a practical principle often forgotten by “largely wealthy, white, overeducated, and middle-aged” elitist in a rush to engage in intellectual and philosophical masturbation over esoteric solutions—feels and sounds good, and yet produces no practical understanding of life. I digress. But where’s the debate over the dharma of non-ill will restraint? Where is the movement of restraint—without the religious or philosophical decorations (this-ism and that-ism)? Resistance, non-resistance, non-violence, eastern, western (no central?), colonization, freedom, war, peace, and the Beatles telling us that all we need is love. I prefer Aretha Franklin, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” Again, “find out what it means to me.” In reality, what we need is the restraining of ourselves from disrespecting each other and each other’s social and physical space (and the symbols therein); to restrain ourselves from between and within-group acts of domestic, social, economic, and psychological terrorism, as well as self-terrorism. Imagine a day where no one attacked nor took advantage of anyone —just for that one day. What would that day be like? And then perhaps one day turns into two days; and a few days turn into a week or a month. A month of no one hurting anyone—one day at a time. Some people call that a utopia. I prefer to call it a “u-restrain from harming me and u-don’t need to worry about my resistance.”
Restraint…*sigh*….over the Christmas break I volunteered to work 4 shifts at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. On one shift, a man, while fellowshipping amongst his comrades, told me he was God. I then asked him to put $100 in my hands. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a roll of money that could choke a horse. I realized that this man was not homeless, he was just house-less (so it seems); and that the only reason I can’t pull out a roll like that is because I keep wasting it on Qdoba and Yenching. The guy then bragged that there was more of where that fat roll came from. Perhaps he couldn’t restrain his tongue; perhaps I couldn’t restrain my envy. And yet we both showed restraint: He restrained from giving me $100 bucks and I restrained from saying something I would later regret—two human beings (immutable) playing out our roles (which could vary depending on our choice).
“Lock and load!”