“We act out because, ironically, we think it will bring us some relief. We equate it with happiness. Often there is some relief, in the moment. When you have an addiction and you fulfill that addiction, there is a moment in which you feel some relief. Then the nightmare gets worse. So it is with aggression. When you get to tell someone off, you might feel pretty good for a while, but somehow the sense of righteous indignation and hatred grows, and it hurts you.
It’s as if you pick up hot coals with your bare hands and throw them at your enemy. If the coals happen to hit him, he will be hurt. But in the meantime, you are guaranteed to be burned. On the other hand, if we begin to surrender to ourselves—begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like—we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s under all that harshness. By being kind to ourselves, we become kind to others. By being kind to others, we benefit as well.
What you do to others, you do to yourself.”
–Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are
What I do to others, I do to myself.
The more I kind I am toward others, the more kind I am capable of being toward myself.
I learned pieces of this lesson a long time ago, when I realized that the more I judged others for their outward appearance, the more paranoid I became about being judged in a similar manner. I spent a long time working on this tendency in me, and as I became less willing to judge others this way, I also became much less fearful about what others thought of me. But when it comes to morality, I find myself becoming very judgmental and sometimes angry when people fall short of my standards.
This is a problem, because the more unkind I am toward the flaws of others, the more unkind I am about my own. Truth is, I’m just as prejudiced and dishonest and selfish and hateful as they are, only regarding different things—things I’ve justified. I make decisions that are just as poor, and have ideas about how the world ought to be that are just as bad. And it’s not that these these things don’t need to change in me, they DO. But the more judgmental I am toward the failings of others, the more judgmental I am toward my own and the less clearly I’m capable of seeing those failings. It’s only through compassion that I can bear to look–really look–honestly and sincerely at my own shortcomings. Without that compassion, it’s just too painful, too shameful to see how horrible I can really be. If, however, I can foster a culture of compassion within myself, I will become more and more capable of looking at my own failings with the love and tenderness that must be present if I am to grow.
“No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
There is no possibility for movement upward without a corresponding move down. It’s only by being willing to see, truly see, acknowledge, and treat with compassion the worst—the very, very worst—inside ourselves that we can begin the work of change.
“We rebel against our own totalitarianism, as much as that of others. I cannot merely order myself to action, and neither can you. ‘I will stop procrastinating,’ I say, but I don’t. ‘I will eat properly,’ I say, but I don’t. ‘I will end my drunken misbehavior,’ I say, but I don’t. I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect. I have a nature, and so do you. We must discover that nature and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves. What is it that we could most truly become, knowing who we most truly are?
I have to know and take a good, honest, compassionate look at the “not good” before I am able to foster the “good.” I have to reach toward and acknowledge the hell that dwells inside of me in order to grow toward heaven. And because what I do to others I do to myself, I must extend compassion toward the hell that dwells in those around me if I am to receive the compassion needed to acknowledge it within myself.
And why not have compassion toward the hell in others? They are, after all, making themselves miserable and that is something that warrants compassion. Furthermore, it’s not as if I can change them. Half the people whose so-called sins I go around condemning are people I don’t even know. As for those I do know, the best I can do is lead by example and give advice when asked. My attempts to control behavior are just that—control of behavior. Through action or conversation or outright manipulation I might be able to get those around me not to do the things I believe (maybe even rightly) are immoral or harmful, but it won’t change the reasons and motivations they have for doing what they’re doing. If someone has a habit of drinking to dull their pain, for instance, abstaining from alcohol won’t change the fear that motivates the action. Without a change of heart, they’ll most likely find new and equally unhealthy methods with which to cope. In fact, if I successfully change the action without changing the intention behind the action, I could possibly make things worse by giving that person a new unhealthy intention (e.g., fear of making me angry.)
Bottom line: I can’t change anyone. I don’t have that power. Or, rather, any power I have to influence change exists not in my ability to change people’s behavior, but in their willingness to change their intentions. Regardless of their outward actions, people will work work within their internally existing intentions until they’re ready for a change. So isn’t it better just to love them?
What if my revulsion toward the so-called wrong actions of others is keeping me from fostering the very compassion I need to create a loving environment within myself? What if my revulsion toward other people’s sin makes me unwilling to face the sin that dwells in me? What if my harsh judgement toward others makes me judge myself so harshly that it prevents me from producing the only change I have any real control over: my own?
“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Maybe, just maybe, this passage isn’t talking about God’s judgment. Maybe it’s talking about our own.
The Law of Reciprocity