Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
For a dozen years, I lived and drove in Boston. The city’s twisting streets, heavy traffic at all hours and impatient, angry drivers are all notorious – and with good reason. One afternoon, I was driving from Boston into Cambridge with my beloved friend, Joni. We were going to a new gourmet store to buy something extraordinary (cheese, probably) and I wasn’t sure where I was going. As I hesitated at an intersection, the car behind me honked hard and insistent. I immediately felt embarrassed and upset. I continued on and another car nudged out of a parking space hoping to merge into the flow of traffic. I honked nastily to keep her back. Joni laughed and looked at me, “What are you doing, silly?” she said. “You just honked at her because somebody else honked at you.”
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If there is a dark place that we want to be lighter, we bring light to it, not more darkness. And yet when there is hate or anger or fear, so often what we bring is more hate, anger and fear.
We see this everywhere: in politics, between countries, between siblings, in marriages, and inside ourselves. One side is angry or hateful and the other side pushes back with more of the same. It’s an ancient response from our threat/defense system and ultimately, it doesn’t serve us.
Anyone who hurts is hurting. Over and over, I’m struck by the truth of this. If someone hurts you, it is because they, themselves are hurting. Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist teacher, uses the image of coming upon a snarling, snapping, growling dog. Our first reaction is to pull away, thinking this is a wild and dangerous creature. Upon looking closer, however, we see that the dog’s leg is caught in a trap. Suddenly, our response changes entirely to one of compassion, care, and a desire to relieve the poor creature’s suffering.
The next time someone honks at you in traffic, or speaks to you harshly, or even guns down dozens of elementary school students, think of the dog in the trap. This perspective doesn’t make the hurtful, hateful actions right, but it gives us an understanding that is far more skillful than hating them back.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”― Gandhi
The place to start, of course, is where you are. In your own skin. In your own head. I know that I spend a startlingly large amount of time each day judging, criticizing and chastising myself within the confines of my own noggin. How could I miss that appointment? Why did I say that thoughtless thing? Why did I have to eat all of Kate’s chia seed cookies? In some way, I think that if I stay on myself, keep the bar high, keep cracking the whip, then I’ll get better, be kinder, act smarter. But imagine a close friend or a beloved child committing the same infraction. Imagine them missing the appointment or eating the cookies. What would you say to them? Do you really think that harshness will beget happiness, or that relentless criticism will lead to love?
There is neuroscience that explains both our tendency to be hyper-self-critical and why self-compassion works to ease the suffering. I notice something about myself that I don’t like (it could be anything from the shape of my thighs to the way I spoke to my teenager) and I react with anger or fear that awakens our threat/defense system. The amygdala, in an effort to keep me safe, fires and shifts me into the lower, limbic brain to attack the threat. The problem is that the threat is me! So a more skillful approach is to ask “What can I do other than being harsh and critical to keep me safe?” (Rick Hanson led an amazing series of talks last fall called The Compassionate Brain. The sixth talk in the series was with Dr. Kristin Neff who is an expert in self-compassion. She talks brilliantly about this phenomenon and how we can address it skillfully. The series is free and I recommend it highly.)
This week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we will play with moving with kindness and compassion. This is an internal, personal practice that I can feel in my body. When my eyes are soft and my hands are receptive, it is a way of being kinder to myself. When I meet my shortcomings or unskillful actions with the recognition that I’m hurting in some way, I can recognize that I need love, not hate. Only light can drive out darkness. Only love can drive out hate. And we have to start where we are, with ourselves.
May you be safe and well,