[From 01 January 2010]
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.