The First Step in Practicing Non-violence Is Toward the Self
Don’t bring a gun.
I listened to a talk recently from Tara Brach about ‘radical compassion.’ In it, she tells the story of primate biologist George Schaller, whose renown came from gathering more intimate and compelling information about gorillas than any scientist at the time had ever gathered.
“How did he do that?” she asked. “How did he get intimate with the gorillas?” Answer: He didn’t carry a gun. And then she took us gently to the next logical step, asking, “How do we get intimate with ourselves?”
Don’t carry a gun.
In my quest for self-awareness, I’ve engaged in decades of therapy. I’ve explored countless spiritual paths — everything from from Christian Science to Scientology, from Roman Catholicism to Silva Mind Control, from The Work of Byron Katie to Wicca. And for the past twenty-one years, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist.
My ultimate aspiration is to uncover my true nature — to strip away everything that obscures it, and free the awakened heart within me so I can free it in everyone around me. But for any of that to happen, I must take the first step: familiarization. I must become aware of my habits, all my hiding places, all my kneejerk reactions.
When I heard the words “Don’t carry a gun,” I saw myself so clearly. There I was, venturing deep into my habitat, weighted down with rifles. Fear traps, guilt pits, and the poisoned darts of self-loathing. This is not the approach that would inspire an intimate encounter with anyone, much less one’s own consciousness.
Of course my heart was in hiding. Who would show themselves under those conditions? Not my heart. She’s shy and self-sufficient and she doesn’t need me. She’s fine where she is.
I’m the one who’s not fine, starting at every little twig snap, always looking behind me. Putting down my weapons is the last thing I want to do. I have them for a reason. My father, my brothers, my husband, my piano teacher, my doctor — all let me know how dangerous the world is.
But somewhere in the back of my mind, I know. I have to come to myself unarmed.
How it works in real life.
Yesterday, I had the perfect opportunity. I had burnt some toast and the whole downstairs stank of it. That, and the scorched whatever-else-was-in-the-toaster at the bottom. I came out of my stupor to the sound of my wife banging the toaster upside down onto the counter, trying to clean it out, muttering cuss words.
“This happens to us all," she said in her frustration, "but at least DO something about it!” She was right. I had noticed it but stayed upstairs pretending it hadn’t happened, pulling the covers over my head.
So we opened all the windows and she went back to her TV while I tried to minimize the damage. She’d taken care of the toaster. I was going to fix the stink in the house. I turned on the fan. I set up a diffuser with essential oils. Then I filled a saucepan partway with water and put two sticks of cinnamon, several coins of ginger, and slices of lemon in it. Put the fire on low. Went back to work upstairs.
Hours later, I ran downstairs to find the saucepan completely dry with everything in it burnt to a crisp. I’d made the situation worse. Desperate to fix this before my wife came out of the TV room, I hid the pan outside as far away as possible. Came back in and replenished the essential oils. Opened more windows. Turned on another fan.
This was the crucial moment. The temptation to hurl caustic insults at myself was strong. You IDIOT. Why can’t you do anything right?! But the words “don’t bring a gun” were in my mind, so I paused long enough to see. 1. The toast burned. 2. I ignored it. 3. Then I tried to help. 4. I forgot about the pan of aromatics on the fire. 5. The smell got worse. All of these are neutral facts. Without the self-judgment, what do we have? A woman with an opportunity to learn self-compassion, and a couple nudges toward paying attention while she’s doing stuff. Worst case, we have a burnt pan and a smelly house that will both be fine tomorrow. No self-castigation required.
What we can do when faced with self-aggression.
We can only bring our eyes and a willingness to see what we see with tenderness. Our ears, open, ready, curious. We can come naked and barefoot to this clearing, with a question in our open palm.
And then we can listen and listen and listen.
For the rest of our lives.
To listen and do nothing about it. To listen and not fix. To listen and love and let be.
This is what “Don’t bring a gun” means to me. This is the only thing we can do about violence anywhere — to see it within ourselves first, to not look away, and to find compassion for it. And when we do, maybe then our awakened heart will amble down the hillside slowly, peer through the vegetation, and make contact.