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Evil: How Do We Meet It?


Part One

Evil is I word I almost never use for many reasons. But it is perhaps the best word to describe one of the greatest challenges we encounter on any spiritual path. Even if we have been lucky enough to have no first-hand experiences with evil, if we are at all well-informed about the world around us, we know that many unbelievably cruel things are taking place all the time. Children are sold into prostitution, women are gang-raped, prisoners are tortured, genocides happen, bombs are dropped, elders are abused and neglected, animals live tortured lives on factory farms, a journalist is dismembered with a bone saw, the list goes on and on. How do we meet all of this?

Theistic religions have struggled to explain why an omnipotent God allows evil. Nondual religions have offered their own explanations. Buddhism talks about the causes of suffering. Some traditions say it’s all only a dream—best to turn away and ignore all of these disturbing things—put the attention elsewhere, on the light. Or maybe we are told that all is One, that good and evil are inseparable polarities, that we cannot begin to fathom how it all works from a larger perspective—but that in that bigger context, all is well—nothing real is ever harmed or destroyed, and what seems like a disaster may be inextricably linked to what we see as grace or positive transformation. These explanations may be nothing more than beliefs, or they may arise from deep insights and intuitions, but either way, being betrayed by your friends and nailed to a cross is painful, no matter how enlightened you might be—and seeing the evil in the world can be challenging for all of us.

Modern psychology, sociology, political science, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience have all given us many insights into how evil happens. We have learned, for example, that brain abnormalities can affect behavior, that psychopaths are born without the capacity for empathy, that not everyone has equal amounts of impulse control, and so on. We can see that each of us is the product of infinite causes and conditions, and that we are not all equally endowed or conditioned in the same ways.

Meditation—at least the kind that encourages insight—allows us the opportunity to see the seeds or roots of evil in our own psyches. If we are sensitive enough, self-aware and honest enough, we can find such powerful forces as hatred, prejudice, fear, anger, hurt, judgement, the desire to punish, out-of-control habits and impulses, and so on in our own minds. However much we abhor such things, if we’re sensitive enough, self-aware and honest enough, we can find racism and sexism and heterosexism in our own psyches. We may do everything we can to undo such prejudices in ourselves and in the world, but still, the seeds are there. We may never actually kill someone, but we’ve probably all felt the surge of anger, pain and hurt that might lead another to do that, and pushed far enough—if we were in a combat zone, for example, perhaps we would find ourselves doing the otherwise unthinkable. If we’ve looked deeply enough, we recognize that everyone is doing the only possible in each moment, and that guilt and blame are actually rooted in misunderstanding and delusion.

But still, we face those moments when we are confronted with evil. How do we respond? This is a wonderful question to live with—to watch and see how we actually DO respond. Maybe we rush for a comforting spiritual explanation of one kind or another. Maybe being faced with the existence of evil brings up feelings of hopelessness, cynicism, despair—the kinds of feelings that make us turn away from awakening and toward destructive escapes such as addiction in its myriad forms. Maybe we notice our shared human fascination with evil—it sells newspapers, as they used to say, because of this fascination. Maybe we notice that sometimes we are fascinated by it, and that at other times, we turn away, that we don’t want to face it, that it frightens and disturbs us too deeply. Is it possible to simply be aware, without judgment, of how we actually do respond when faced with evil?

For many years, every time this ad for the humane society would come on the TV, an ad that shows emaciated dogs and cats who have been abused looking into the camera with their sad, frightened, sorrowful eyes, I would immediately look away. It was too painful to watch. One night, I got curious and kept watching, allowing myself to bear witness to this cruelty and to see the suffering without turning away—to simply behold it. I found that beholding the suffering was bearable. I could bear it. The “me” that turned away in fear was the ego-self, but the “I” that could bear it was boundless awareness. There was a Zen teacher, the late Bernie Glassman, who held annual “bearing witness” retreats on the tracks leading into Auschwitz. This wasn’t intended as some kind of masochistic immersion in pain, but as a kind of alchemy, as in the (metaphorical and experiential) movement from crucifixion to resurrection portrayed in Christianity. In a similar vein, I was once moved to watch all nine hours of the movie Shoah, simply beholding what had happened.

Still, sometimes when confronted with evil, I find myself losing faith in the light, and in one way or another, falling into fear or despair and turning in some way toward destructive behavior or thinking. It may be very subtle. But it happens.

So, I’m wondering, is it possible to simply see how we respond, to be aware of our reactive tendencies, whatever they might be (escape, self-righteous outrage, despair, self-destructive or outwardly destructive behaviors and thoughts, etc.), and to behold these without judgment?  I am by no means suggesting that we “should” or “must” always force ourselves to watch such things as the humane society ad or the movie Shoah. Sometimes it may be perfectly appropriate not to take in deeply disturbing images and stories. But at the same time, perhaps we might wonder if it’s possible to meet evil not by covering our eyes and looking away, not by getting drunk or falling into cynical hopelessness and despair, not by hating the perpetrators and getting lost in self-righteous anger, not by rushing to find some comforting religious or spiritual explanation, but simply to behold it with open eyes, open mind, and open heart—with the light of awareness, which is unconditional love. To simply bear witness. To hold it in our heart as gently and tenderly and lovingly as we might hold a distressed child, a dying baby or a beloved pet.

Maybe in the end, we don’t need to explain why evil exists. We can simply notice that it does exist (at least apparently, in this movie of waking life, however real or unreal we think all this is). And we can notice how we react to it each time it happens. We can allow ourselves to actually feel the pain and the sorrow, and we can discover that this is indeed bearable. We can notice the seeds of evil in our own minds. We can have compassion, the genuine kind that arises from deep insight and understanding, for the perpetrators as well as for the victims. We can simply be present for all of this. Beholding it all in awareness, in presence, in love.


Part Two:

We may notice that we find such things as the rape of a child, a senseless murder, or the cruelty inflicted upon animals on factory farms far more disturbing than the painful injuries and loss of life caused by a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane. Why is this?

Isn’t it because one is an act of nature, utterly beyond our human ability to control, while the other is the result of human delusion or ignorance, and is thus something that could potentially be different?

In one sense, humans are an expression of nature, not an aberration of nature, and in that sense, everything we do—from paving over the planet to nuclear bombs and genocides—is every bit as natural as beaver dams, locust invasions and predators ripping apart their prey. The infinite causes and conditions that lead someone to rape a child, to commit a senseless murder, or to abuse an animal are not the result of individual free will in the way we often think they are. Our actions in each moment are a choiceless happening of nature, the result of infinite causes and conditions, a movement of the totality.

But in another sense, there is within us the potential, the possibility, the response-ability to wake up, to transform, to change. Many of us have experienced the realization (or making real) of this possibility through addiction recovery work, psychotherapy, somatic work, social justice work such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement, and/or through a spiritual path such as meditation and meditative inquiry. These human activities that transform our lives and our societies are every bit as natural as the white blood cells battling an infection in the body or all the myriad ways that wild nature heals and restores itself. This, too, is a choiceless movement of the totality.

We are not actually in control of whether the interest in such transformation arises, or the ability to carry it out, or the circumstances that make it possible, such as meeting the right therapist or the right spiritual teacher or living at the time in history when all the conditions exist for certain social changes to actually manifest. In that sense, we are powerless. Like a wave, we are a movement of the whole ocean. Our individual, independent, free will, as a wave, is a kind of illusion. We don’t actually create our desires, our impulses, our wants, our interests, our abilities or our actions any more than we create our brains, our nervous systems or our eyes and ears.

And yet, we can’t deny that in the play of life, there is apparent choice, and that our ability to respond (our response-ability) is part of how life functions, part of how the universe moves. Ultimately, we are not a small, limited form—we are this whole vast happening, this unbound presence, this intelligent awareness beholding everything, this undivided ocean of being.

We don’t just sit back and wait for the universe to bring us our daily food. We work to earn money, we go shopping, we cook, we eat, we take out the garbage, we clean the house, and so on. And likewise, we take action to address an addiction, a social injustice, a problem in our relationship, climate change, animal abuse, or whatever it might be. This is how the universe is functioning through human beings. To deny this would be to imagine that we are somehow outside the whole, like a small thing being helplessly pushed around by powerful forces. But that view is a kind of illusion, a presumption of duality, of separateness, and of persisting entities where no such “things” actually exist.

In the end, no conceptual formulation—whether it is free will or choicelessness—can capture the living reality. The living reality is too fluid, too subtle, too vast, too all-inclusive for any concept to contain it. Concepts are simply maps or pedagogical tools, useful as far as they go, but ultimately not the truth. When we cling to them and fixate on any one of them, we are missing the whole truth.

And so, when we see or hear about animals being brutalized, or children being abused, or a journalist being dismembered with a bone saw, we naturally feel something different from what we feel when we see the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters, because we recognize that there is the potential in human beings to behave differently, to wake up from our ignorance and delusion. We know that these kinds of insensitive and cruel actions are (at least in part) the result of delusion and ignorance in some form. The hurricane is obviously not operating out of that kind of delusion—it is simply doing what hurricanes do.

But at the same time, we need to remember that if the human perpetrators of these painful atrocities could be behaving differently in this moment, they would be. For myriad reasons, that possibility is unavailable to them right now. They lack the sensitivity, the insight, the capacity for empathy, the degree of impulse control, or whatever it might be that allows others to not behave in this way and perhaps even to find such behavior utterly unthinkable or unimaginable.

And also, we cannot know how all of this goes together—the totality that includes every possibility, good and evil, enlightenment and delusion—we cannot step outside the totality to see it as an object, so we cannot know that bigger picture.

But we can tune into the awareness, the presence, the vastness that is Here-Now—we can sense that at the deepest level, all is well. We can behold this whole happening with love and tenderness and compassion. We can recognize that none of it is outside of ourselves. We contain it all.

In one sense, the potential for waking up from delusion is always here in this moment. And yet, in another sense, it isn’t always here. Or maybe we could say that although the potential is always here, the ability to see and open to that is not always here. Sometimes the clouds of ignorance and delusion are too thick, too overpowering—and sometimes, other factors are involved as well (brain anomalies, neurochemical or hormone imbalances, genetic defects, and so on). The failure to wake up in any moment is not a personal failing. It happens to all of us at times that we are overwhelmed by delusion, by false promises, by confusion, by the forces of habit and conditioning. And yet, at some point, there is almost always a waking up. I don’t mean anything explosive or grandiose, but simply those everyday moments when we wake up from a train of thought or a fantasy, or when we suddenly let go of our defenses in an argument, or when we notice the breathtaking beauty of the simplest things.

Perhaps the so-called spiritual path is simply about attuning ourselves more and more to this simple awaring presence, this aliveness, this open heart, this unconditional love that we are beyond name and form. One teacher describes it as vigilance: keeping vigil at the flame of truth. Re-turning (again and again, here and now) to the simplicity of just this. Not as some grueling task, but as the lover returning to the beloved.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018 --

This article is drawn from several Facebook articles I wrote in late 2018. You are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post whole articles or long excerpts from this web site on other sites or blogs, please give appropriate copyright credit to Joan and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

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