By Ayesha Chopra
Can we go beyond the violence that we routinely inflict on others and ourselves and make a determined pitch for peace and happiness, asks Ayesha Chopra
I have thought a lot about the existence of violence in our psyche. As far back as history books go, human beings have been resorting to violence in one form or another. The subject is so vast, intricate and complex that in my attempts to explore it I find more questions than answers. One thing however is crystal clear and indisputable: violence shatters peace and happiness. Over the years, I have asked myself some questions on the subject:
1. Why must we indulge our violent tenden-cies when they so obviously destroy peace?
2. Since nothing in nature exists without a cause what could be the reason for the exis-tence of violence in us?
3. Is there a way to eliminate violence from our life so that we could have peace and happi-ness all around?
The answer to the first two questions came to me in parts at different times in my life. The first was a couple of decades ago when I was living and working in a war-torn country in the southern region of Africa. It was a difficult duty station with a high level of work-and-life stress. One quiet and therefore precious Sunday morning I was enjoying my first cup of tea in bed when an unfamiliar creature flew across my face. Without giving it a second thought I picked up the fly-swat lying beside me and swatted it hard. It died instantly. Only then did I carefully look at it. What I saw took my breath away. It was a beautiful moth-like creature I had never seen before. Prettier and more fragile than a butterfly, it had the most exquisitely coloured wings that I had ever seen.
Realising that I had unnecessarily taken the life of a beautiful, innocent creature tears welled up in my eyes. I was full of regret. There was no way that such a perfectly harmless creature could have hurt me. My fear had momentarily clouded my reason and I had reacted violently against a creature that had done me no harm. That day I directly observed fear as a major cause of violence in our life.
Another revelation occurred a decade later on 9/11/2001 which threw light on the possible reason for the existence of violence in us.
When the Twin Towers collapsed, the world witnessed one of the most horrific violent events in living memory. The show of compassion from the world over was overwhelming, to say the least.
And then the irony struck me. The horrifyingly violent destruction on 9/11 was the cause for the overflow on an unprecedented scale of love and compassion.
In our world of opposites –
|Gautam Buddha once told a man who was hurling abuses at him, “I do not accept your gift (of abuses). It belongs to you. Take it back and keep it with you.”|
night and day, up and down, left and right, tall and short, good and bad – we recognise one aspect only in relation to the other. We would not enjoy the freshness of spring in all its glory, for example, if it were not for its stark contrast with the harshness of winter.
Similarly, it struck me that perhaps the significance of violence in our psyche lay in the fact that it provided the backdrop against which compassion and kindness could be expressed, experienced and appreciated. No wonder, the sight of the beautiful moth whose death I had caused brought tears to my eyes and aroused compassionate sorrow in my heart.
But violence is not just physical. It is also emotional. My third question above and the focus of my current inquiry specifically relates to the emotional violence which is inflicted verbally and psychologically by human beings all over the world causing untold harm.
Verbal and emotional violence
In homes, offices and wherever people interact with people, we hurt each other by word and deed. We criticise, dominate, suppress, ridicule, demean, scold, control, put others down and attempt to assert psychological supremacy over others. We exclude and divide people with our biases and prejudices, our contempt and condescension, our intolerance and disrespect for those who look and speak differently and whose personal values and religious, political and social beliefs are different from our own.
Interestingly, most of us do not even recognise the above behaviors as ‘violent’ despite the wounds they leave on our hearts and minds. A friend broke down uncontrollably as she told me that the man she had married for love now constantly attacked her with sarcasm and putdowns. “He chops me like mincemeat…treats me like a doormat,” she sobbed. A colleague wouldn’t
|The worst physical wounds can heal in eight to 12 weeks but the emotional and psychological damage inflicted by hurtful words can last a lifetime.|
look me in the eye out of sheer humiliation when his boss shouted at him for a minor mistake in front of me and a group of other managers. I doubt if either the husband or the boss ever considered themselves at fault for their hurtful behavior; or whether my friend or colleague ever seriously thought of it as verbal and emotional violence which could be addressed and rectified.
Before I became sensitive to the concept of verbal violence, I did not think of my own critical thoughts and harsh words as violent either. But I am not sure that the good man I married or my children and some other family members would not tell me otherwise! Looking back, I can identify several instances when my angry outbursts and insensitive actions must have hurt them.
Why is it that we let anger overwhelm us to such an extent that we become insensitive to its violent effects?
In retrospect, I can see that my retorts and put-downs were often my inappropriate way of dealing with my frustrations and unmet wants, needs and expectations. I had not learned to express and resolve my feelings in a mature and responsible manner and so resorted to blame and accusations, defiling the environment with my angry thoughts and words.
Isn’t that what we commonly do? We often forget how powerful words can be. Words can encourage but they can also discourage; they can motivate and also de-motivate; they can give comfort and they can inflict pain. And words that inflict pain can hurt beyond measure, for words have certain finality about them; once uttered they are impossible to retrieve. The worst physical wounds can heal in eight to 12 weeks but those caused by hurtful words run far deeper and last much longer than any physical wound, and the emotional and psychological damage they inflict can last a lifetime.
Today, I have learned that I cannot be happy by hurting someone else. It is a simple law of nature that when we hurt others, knowingly or unknowingly, verbally or non-verbally, by thought, word or deed the ripples of negativity rebound back on us in one form or another. The reverse is equally true: acts of kindness and compassion come back to us in multiple positive ways. Hence my question: can we lead a life without interpersonal violence?
I am encouraged by the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the spiritual teacher from Vietnam who says that we have seeds of both negative and positive tendencies in us and can choose which we choose to encourage and cultivate.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” Mahatma Gandhi said. If I want to live in a peaceful world free of violence then change must begin with me. The onus is entirely on me to make a conscious decision to reject violence in my life and encourage acts of caring, concern, and compassion.
We have the capacity to think and decide what is best for us and for the environment and to choose wisely, what to think and speak and how to act.
|Ayesha Chopra is writer and
life skills coach based in New York and India who bases her practice on the principles of NLP, transactional analysis and natural laws gleaned from personal experience.
Several years ago I set a personal life goal of maintaining interpersonal harmony and inner peace.
The goal is challenging and ongoing, arduous at times but immensely rewarding. The strategy involves behavior modification based on the principle “No attack on self and no attack on others!” To that end the practices I began to follow are simple but require firm determination and constant vigilance. In a nutshell:
1. Observe thoughts and replace critical ones with those of appreciation
2. Express thoughts, feelings and desires honestly, directly and non-threateningly
3. Choose words carefully and avoid those that are likely to hurt
4. Avoid judging others based on my own values and standards
5. Respect differences in viewpoints, cul-tures, lifestyles, and backgrounds
6. Develop sensitivity, understanding, compassion and empathy for others
7. Separate the person from their behavior when addressing interpersonal violence
I have since realised that violence is a double-edged sword. It cuts the wielder as badly as it does the person on whom it is inflicted. The strategy outlined above works well for me in two ways. One, it keeps my own system clear of negative energy. When negativity goes out peace sets in and peace only generates positive vibrations. Two, more often than not, the above practices tend to invite positive reactions from others. At times, when they don’t, I remind myself that my responsibility is to my own behavior. How others choose to respond is up to them.
Vipassana was (and is) my greatest ally in understanding and dealing with emotional turbulence. As all vipassana practitioners discover, every emotion creates certain sensations in the body and if left alone they sooner or later die down without causing undue harm. I find that if I allow the other person to vent their negativity without immediately reacting to it my psyche remains unscathed!
Gautam Buddha once told a man who was hurling abuses at him, “I do not accept your gift (of abuses). It belongs to you. Take it back and keep it with you.” It is immensely empowering to realise that we can reject any stimulus that does not serve us well.
I have also learned that when potentially violent emotions such as anger arise and we let it pass without reacting and accumulating its negativity in our system then it soon loses its potency. Anger becomes harmful when we hold on to it and strengthen it with vengeful thoughts. But if left alone it tends to naturally dissipate.
Only when strong feelings are out of the way can reason be applied to understand violence.
People who resort to violence do so because they are struggling with an overwhelming sense of their own hurt and pain which, in my opinion, makes them deserving of compassion and empathy, not hatred and condemnation. It is not enough to be compassionate towards the victim alone; it is even more important to empathise with the pain of the instigator of violence and to forgive their trespasses.
I admit that it is not easy to be compassionate, empathetic and forgiving when we ourselves are the victim and hurting badly. But once we pass the initial bottleneck and expand our awareness to embrace others’ feelings and vulnerabilities we find that human beings are much bigger than their behavior. We have much more to us than is readily apparent and the more connected we are with one another the more understanding and empathetic we become.
If there is one factor that accelerated the onset of inner peace in me it is forgiveness. Learning to forgive myself for all the pain I had unknowingly caused others and to forgive others for the hurt they had caused me was profoundly liberating.
Forgiveness is not a one-time thing though. I find that I have to constantly keep it alive in my heart for I still tend to get disturbed by the continuing violence around me. But it does become easier as I discover that forgiveness is by far the best antidote to the cumulative violent effects of anger, resentment, hurt and pain.
I still do not claim to have all the answers but I do know what works well for me. To my mind violence and happiness are antonymous and mutually exclusive. Just as two swords cannot fit together into one sheath violence and happiness cannot co-exist at the same time. Where violence is, happiness is not – and for happiness to be, violence must end.
It is up to each one of us to choose which of the two we would rather have in our life. I have made my choice. How about you?
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