Q: I am deeply disturbed by the rise in anger, hatred, and violence. It feels like the entire world is becoming a battlefield. I want to counteract these negative forces and become an agent for peace. What is the best way to go about it?
A: A disturbed person can never be the source of peace, so the first step is to calm your disturbed mind. For example, if you are standing on a lakeshore and see a man drowning, instead of immediately plunging in to save him, stop and think: “I am wearing boots and heavy clothes. If I jump into the lake, chances are I will drown, too.” So what is the best way to help? Stand on firm ground and throw the man a life preserver. Or remove some of your clothes, put on a life jacket, and then jump in. Take a moment or two to prepare yourself, so you can help without drowning.
To be a force for peace you must have a peaceful mind.
There are millions of people in the world today who are drowning in their own negative thoughts and feelings. If you react and jump in without full preparation, instead of becoming a force for peace, you will drown along with them.
Take some time to assess the situation. Understand that jealousy, hatred, anger, possessiveness, and feelings of superiority and inferiority held at the individual level have the same effect as a stone dropped into a pond. The unrest ripples outward, disturbing the family, the community, the society, the nation, and finally, the community of nations. That is how the world becomes a battleground.
It is the same with peace—it begins at the individual level. To be a force for peace you must have a peaceful mind. As the Buddha repeatedly proclaimed, “Light your own lamp and the lives of others will be illuminated.” None of us has the power to force others to rid themselves of darkness. The only power we have is to demonstrate how delightful it is to live in the light.
It is not possible to promote peace in the larger world until you have made your own mind calm and tranquil. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra outlines four principles for freeing the mind from the disturbance created by jealousy, hatred, anger, possessiveness, and feelings of superiority and inferiority. They are maitri, cultivating friendship for those who are happy; karuna, cultivating compassion for those who are suffering; mudita, cultivating cheerfulness toward the virtuous; and upeksha, cultivating an attitude of non-judgment toward those who are not virtuous (Yoga Sutra 1:33).
Nurturing a friendly attitude toward those who are successful and happy (maitri) cleanses the mind of the fundamental toxin of animosity. This practice also frees the mind from its dark, heavy properties and makes it clear and transparent, so it can attend its chosen focal point without distraction. Cultivating a general attitude of friendship is a contemplative process. For instance, when we find ourselves intensely critical of a particular successful person, it is important to ask ourselves if this is because the part of us that craves power, prestige, and glamour is trying to demolish the competitor we see in that successful person. Dismantling our justification for hating others and seeing our competitors in a positive light of friendship protects our mind from an inner enemy—the deeply rooted principle of animosity.
We must remember it is self-examination, not examination of others, which lays the foundation for our spiritual quest.
Practicing compassion (karuna) is more subtle and potent than practicing friendship and it requires greater understanding and skill, for it begins with discovering and acknowledging the injured person in us. The first step is to recognize where our own thoughts and feelings have been hurt. The pain caused by emotional injuries has a powerful effect on our personality. It distorts our worldview and forces us to be hypervigilant, constantly on the offensive, quick to hurt others, slow to forgive, and insensitive to the injuries and pain of others. If left unchecked, this behavior becomes a breeding ground for violence and cruelty. That is why the practice of compassion begins with healing our own internal injuries.
A mind free of painful tendencies is naturally drawn to a peaceful, happy state. A peaceful, happy mind sees things clearly. It has the ability to discern good from bad, right from wrong, real from unreal. It has the ability to see and relate to others’ pain while remaining unaffected. This is when the practice of compassion in its truest sense begins—an active engagement in loving, caring, and serving those who are suffering, without judging anyone.
Finding joy in learning about someone’s spiritual achievements (mudita) is both subtle and tricky. Because we want to be recognized for our own spiritual virtues, it is only natural to be jealous of those who have already attained and to feel happy when the recognition they have achieved is for some reason tarnished. This potent subtle contamination destroys the mind’s ability to flow peacefully inward.
The world will always have both genuine and fake spiritual adepts and seekers, and both will gain spiritual recognition. Our job is to look into our own mind, examine its powerful tendencies, and work hard to make it crystal clear. We must remember it is self-examination, not examination of others, which lays the foundation for our spiritual quest. Cultivating a general attitude of respectful happiness toward virtuous souls, without ferreting out the details of their personal lives, is one of the surest ways to benefit from what is good in them while remaining unaffected by what may not be so good.
A mind free of painful tendencies is naturally drawn to a peaceful, happy state.
Cultivating a non-judging attitude toward those who are not virtuous is upeksha. Although it is frequently translated as “indifference,” this is not what Patanjali means. Upeksha is a composite of upa (near, closely) and iksha (to see) and means “to see closely” or “to see in the proper context.” For example, theft and violence are generally regarded as sinful. The more poverty and illiteracy in a community, the more theft and violence there is likely to be. This does not mean the poor and illiterate are sinful. Practicing upeksha in relation to poor, illiterate people caught in the painful cycle of theft and violence means understanding them in their context. This enables us to see them as downtrodden fellow beings and to develop love and genuine compassion for them.
Cultivating these four positive attitudes instills higher virtues in our mind. These virtues allow our mind to reclaim its natural, pristine, joyful state. A joyous mind has all the ingredients to become one-pointed and flow peacefully toward the center of consciousness. At first glance, it may be difficult to see the link between practicing these four principles and dissolving the feelings of anger, hatred, and vengeance that fuel violence in the external world. But with time, practice, and patience, the link will be clear and your mind will become free of animosity. With that calm and tranquil mind you will be able to design a plan for becoming an active agent for peace.