How Do You Become Love in Action?
May All Beings Be Free from Suffering
Buddhist loving-kindness meditation sounds so nice in theory: cultivate compassion for all beings. And it is so hard in practice.
The practice involves cultivating compassion for yourself, those you love, those you don’t know, those you dislike, and the world. For many people the ones that come easiest is loving-kindness towards the people we love and a generic sense of people that doesn’t include anyone we know.
We hold ourselves to impossible standards. We hate our enemies. We can’t imagine the whole world in a way that allows us to connect to it.
But every major spiritual leader has taught some kind of practice focused on expanding the range of people we extend love to.
Expanding our range as people who give loves soften our hearts. And the impact of loving kindness on other people seems to be an invitation to soften them.
But, when we are open, we are vulnerable. And we don’t want to make ourselves easy victims.
What can it possibly mean to love people who are working to harm us?
Love Your Enemies
How can we even think about loving them and also hold them accountable for the harm they have caused? How can we love them and not disrespect ourselves and those we care about who have been harmed?
I keep landing on a teaching I first encountered in “The Anatomy of Peace”, a fable published by the Arbinger Institute. In that book, it talks about the fact that unless we honour the humanity of people, we cannot hope to change their behaviour. Unless we see the humanity of those we want to hold accountable, our attempts to hold them accountable will generate animosity that recycles distrust, dislike, resentment, hatred, and other negative dynamics.
What might it mean to see the humanity of someone as we hold them accountable for doing harm?
We can acknowledge that some of the harm they did was unintended. People always want to be their intentions to be seen and understood. Validating their experience of their intentions as true for them helps them accept responsibility for their unintended impact.
Because the truth is, we are always held responsible in some form for our impact, whether it is intentional or not.
Nobody thinks of themselves as inherently evil. When others label us evil, we don’t respond well. So, we cannot label others as evil if we want them to change in any way other than to defend themselves.
We can validate for others that their experience was true for them without agreeing with them.
If a child falls and has a minor injury and cries, we believe them when they say it hurts, but we don’t rush them off to the emergency room unless we think the injury really is serious enough to warrant such a trip.
When someone is raised in a culture that makes a specific behaviour “normal” or respectable and it turns out to be incredibly harmful, we can say, “I know that the way you were raised, you were taught that this is how the world is, and this is not how I want the world to be going forward because it hurts me.”
The world we live in has many harmful implicit norms. Systemic racism is one set. Gender norms that reinforce narcissistic traits in men and co-dependence in romantic relationships are another. Many kind-hearted men were raised to infantilize women by taking care of them and many strong women were raised to expect to be taken care of. Can we grieve the way these norms have hurt people, look for ways of reconciliation, and together search new ways of relating going forward?
The greater the harm inflicted, the harder it is to find this kind of way forward. There is a reason every spiritual leader has had to teach this lesson and most of their disciples have failed to learn it. It is hard.
In the context of the changing cultural norms around consent, I propose keeping an eye out for where you can stretch into gentleness. If you ever observe a man claim responsibility for behaving badly in the past and working on atonement or culture change, maybe find the capacity to embrace that and acknowledge the courage it takes to look at oneself clearly.
There need to be consequences for actions, and yet, given how rarely revenge or abstract justice through the legal system makes a victim whole, maybe restorative justice and community service in the form of culture change work is a better approach. We need to see everybody’s wounds. Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people.
What Must We Do to Be Love in Action?
Love in action means saying we are sorry when we hurt others and changing our behaviour as a result. It means taking responsibility for learning how to do better – not from the people we have hurt, but as an offering to them after we have done it with others. Just as we turn to our friends who are not suffering to help us with our grief when another friend gets ill, we need to turn to friends who will tell us the hard truths, therapists, coaches, and other trusted advisors and return to those we have harmed having changed as a response to acknowledging that we have caused harm.
And when we have been harmed, we must reach within ourselves to find our curiosity and compassion. We must train ourselves to look for the needs that underlie other’s behaviours and let our hearts open to their humanity. We must do what we need to do inside ourselves to see what part of our hurt is attributable to our interpretation of the the situation and what is objectively true.
If we can keep our hearts at peace and keep seeing the humanity in even those who do harm, we stand a much better chance of holding them accountable without escalating the hatred and violence in the world.