I like this quote a lot.
“Nonviolence does not mean non-action.
Nonviolence means we act with love and compassion.
The moment we stop acting, we undermine the principle of nonviolence.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
To act in the real world often means holding (and acting out of) seemingly contradictory views. To be non-violent and still take up effective action sounds at first glance like a clear contradiction, but as we have seen over and over, it is actually the MOST effective in the majority of cases. We are taught from the earliest ages to see the world as an either/or environment, and yet it only takes the most cursory look around to see how false this premise really is!
The world around you is not either in winter OR spring, the reality is that it goes slowly from one into the other. In fact, the change of seasons is so gradual that we spend as much time in the “transitional” seasons as we do in the “official” seasons. To use another example, how do we know when “childhood” ends and “adulthood” begins? Or how about why a sad movie can make us cry and yet still feel good at the same time? How can we both be embarrassed by and still enjoy the funny biting comment a friend makes about us at our expense?
The reason is that there really is no hard division between most things in the world and that our existence means literally balancing seemingly opposing thoughts, observations, and feelings all the time. We use our minds to separate the world into discrete unite to make it easier to understand, but unfortunately we are not taught that this splitting into boxes of reality is just a technique for simplicity, not true reality. Even so, and despite the fact that we are taught dichotomy from our earliest age, we handle these contradictions easily and intuitively. The problem comes when we are asked, or ask ourselves to consciously pick a side. There is an old zen saying that goes “Comparison is the lowest form of thought”. We are told and believe that one has to pick a side, or to prefer a team, to make a mental heirarchy of value. In short, we believe we have to make an either/or decision. We cant simply enjoy our cookie, we must compare it to the other cookies we have eaten, even if such a “decision” makes no difference at all! To the extent that we believe that these choices are based in “reality” or can somehow apply at all times and in all situations we suffer and cause suffering.
Of course we have to live in this world, we cant pretend that we dont have preferences or that or choices dont matter at all. They do. No sane person would tell you that you shuld feel as enthusiatic about eating mud as you would be about eating chocolate, we prefer comfort over pain, we rank kindness as better than cruelty, and rightly so, but the trick is to do this without becoming blind to the provisional nature of this conditioned reality we all live in! We may prefer comfort over pain, but if we always opted for the former over the ladder no one would get tattoos, or work out, or eat a healthy salad instead of a fast food burger! Even in this example we realize that the contradiction disappears when you simply act out of seeing reality. Sure being comfy is great but not at the cost of harming ourselves or others!
To return to the Quote which began this article, if the Ghandis, Mandelas, and Dr. Kings of the world had resorted to violence then those oppressing them would have had the (false) moral excuse of “protecting” the society to use violence against them. If the Ghandis, Mandelas, and Dr.Kings had sat passively by and waitied for change to happen then perhaps India would still be an oppressed British colony, South Africa still segregated, and Blacks denied the “white only” sections in the American South. These wise leaders took action, they confronted injustice head on, but they did so in the spirit of the old saying “when fighting devils, beware not to become a devil yourself”. The nonviolent protests changed the game, it made the inequality so manifest and so clear that not even the most ardent defender of the status quo could say a word against them. Once the truth was presented, once the violence of their respective systems was revealed it was only a matter of time until those oppressive organizations fell. To sick dogs and peaceful protesters, to bludgeon a peaceful march did more to destroy corrupt regimes than a molotov-cocktail hurling riot could have.
The state of balance won out over the profoundly imbalanced. It always does, eventually. The trick within our personal lives is to live with that balance. This first requires a rigorous honesty, and I have found no better method of attaining this compassionate self-analysis than meditation. It really is a bullshit stripper! If you want to live like all your thoughts are true and to feel like your opinions and ideals are correct and impervious to being false then dont start meditating! I dont care what your upbringing or beliefs are or how strongly you hold them, after a few months of daily sitting you will be questioning some or all of them. The interesting thing is that rather than make you feel insecure or without moral anchor you actually feel free to have real compassion, real morality! It turns out that be internalizing all these rules and codes, and patterns we actually allow ourselves to behave like assholes! “Its not my fault” we say to ourselves, “this is just how the world works”. But once you begin taking responsibility and stop taking a kneejerk side in every situation your real, and I believe, inherent compassion allows you to act out of accord with what is most effective. This feels amazing! It was equally amazing to watch things I had fervently “believed” and patterns I had repeated until I truly believed they were “me” drop away one by one to be replaced by the ability to truly react appropriately to each thing as it cames up instead of trying to use my old programming and comparing mind. I am far from perfect at it, (after all we all have decades of bullshit conditioning), but even the small amount of it that has fallen away has made an amazing change possible!
The fact is that you are not a statue or a corpse, you are an ever changing whirlwind of contradiction and so is the world, by allowing yourself the natural ability to be what you really are you will be in accord with the world! As the Walt Whitman once brilliantly pointed out in a poem:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”