We all have a tendency to divide things into categories: “us” and “them,” “right” and “wrong,” “worthy” and “unworthy.”
There are many ways to talk about the problems of this world, but one way or another, all of them have to do with polarization. We all have a tendency to divide people, things, and ideas into sharply contrasting categories. Consciously or unconsciously, we carry around concepts of “us” and “them,” “right” and “wrong,” “worthy” and “unworthy.”
In this framework, there’s not much room for a middle ground; everything is at one pole or another. When groups of people or whole nations get together around these concepts, they can become hugely magnified, which may result in large-scale suffering: discrimination, oppression, war.
These national and global problems have their roots in the subtle workings of our own individual minds. All of us, to our own degree, experience some feeling of opposition inside ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us. We’re never quite satisfied with ourselves as we are, other people as they are, things as they are. Often, we feel this as an aversion to whatever we’re experiencing. We don’t like what’s happening and we want to get rid of it. This can start out as a subtle level of aversion, which can grow into more obvious irritation. From there it may escalate into full-blown anger and hatred. Other times our feeling of opposition has to do with desire or craving. For instance, we may want an object or situation very badly because we think it will make us happy. But these desires are also based on seeing things as separate from us—seeing them as “other.” In either case—aversion or desire—we’re caught in some form of polarization. Whether we are “for” or “against,” there is a lack of openness and relaxation in our minds. If we observe ourselves closely, we’ll probably discover that this is the case much of the time.
What is Bodhichitta?
Fortunately, there are effective ways of working with our tendency to polarize. We can begin by self-reflecting and noticing the “for” or “against” quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. We can also notice and take joy in those moments when we’re not polarizing. Throughout the day we can ask ourselves: Am I perpetuating my sense of being in opposition? Or am I going against that tendency by lessening the gap between myself and the world? Am
I increasing my sense of separateness from others? Or am I nurturing bodhichitta, the longing and commitment to wake up for the benefit of all living beings?
It’s fairly straightforward to work with polarization on the level of physical action. For instance, if I turn on my shower and then discover a spider in the tub, I have two main options. I can let the water run and leave the spider to its fate. This is a polarizing action because it creates a big gap between us. My aversion or indifference to the spider blinds me to what we have in common as living beings. Both of us want to be happy and not suffer; both of us want to live and not die. My other option is to turn off the water, get a piece of toilet paper, and use it to help the little fellow get out of danger. Then I can think, “The day’s hardly begun and I’ve saved a life!” As Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche once said, “It may be a small event for you, but it’s a major event for the spider.” But in a sense, it can be a major event for me as well, because it nurtures my awakening heart. We can try to go through each day with a heightened awareness of our actions, taking every opportunity we find to lessen the gap.
Sometimes we will succeed, but other times we’ll fail. We may even fail miserably. What happens then? Say you feel such a strong opposition to someone that you shove them or punch them—or worse. This kind of escalation can happen to anybody. When the perfect storm of frustrating conditions arises, you don’t have to be a classically violent person to get out of control. What should you do then? What’s the best way to turn away from your polarizing behavior and get back on the path of bodhichitta?
One popular method for dealing with these kinds of actions is to feel guilty. If what we did was especially aggressive or hurtful, this guilt could last a long time, maybe even for the rest of our life. But hiding out in a state of guilt won’t help us overcome our feeling of separate- ness. It won’t contribute at all to our waking up. So instead of reacting to what we did with guilt, we can make the best of the situation and use our unpleasant experience to get smarter.
If you shoved someone out of anger, you can start to turn things around by just acknowledging your harsh behavior. You can allow yourself to be openly aware that you’ve added aggression and strife to our planet—which you know doesn’t need any more than it already has. You can feel regret for what you did, but it’s important to do your best to bypass the heavy-handed guilt-tripping.
Being conscious in this way, without beating yourself up, can be a huge departure from your previous patterns of protecting yourself from owning your negative behaviors by repressing or trying to ignore them. For at this moment, you have a chance to turn your mistake into something positive.
What you’ve just done makes you vividly aware of the painful reality that all over the world, every day, people are shoving each other, stabbing each other, shooting each other, being cruel to each other in many ways. This all happens out of ignorance—ignorance of our interconnectedness with each other and of our own basic goodness. But now, instead of beating yourself up for losing it, you can aspire to be more aware of your own hurtful actions, and more aware of how widespread these kinds of actions are in the world. Your action has opened your eyes to the human condition, to how fragile and vulnerable we all are. This heartbreaking thought makes you long to do what- ever it takes to help. You understand from your experience how important it is to find a way to work with your habitual patterns, to learn how to stay present with your emotions without letting them escalate and spill out into action. You want to become fully conscious of how you get into that extreme, polarized place to begin with. This is how you naturally renew your commitment to wake up for the benefit of others. In this way, your seeming mistake can turn into a source of bodhichitta. The idea is for us to become more and more aware of what we’re doing, and more and more aware that our actions have consequences.
Examining our behavior to see whether it’s polarizing is an extension of the question “Does it matter?” Once we see what’s at stake—not just for ourselves, but for our surrounding environment and for the planet as a whole, which suffers so much from polarization—we are naturally motivated to apply payu, heedfulness. We can gradually refine our payu so that it’s present at more subtle levels of our behavior, beginning with our words.
Be more aware
I haven’t shoved anyone in a long time, and I do whatever I can not to harm animals, even the peskiest insects and rodents—but speech is a whole different level of challenge. We can all appreciate how hard it is not to let harmful words slip out of our mouths. There are so many varieties of polarizing speech, from gross insults and lies, to subtle digs and other cutting remarks, to slander and gossip and all the other ways we have of creating divisions between people. Sometimes our polarizing speech is so familiar and so accepted among the people we hang out with that we’re not even aware of the harm it may be causing. As with physical action, the method for overcoming polarizing speech is to become more aware of what we’re doing—without getting into guilt—and to use our regrettable experience as a way of increasing bodhichitta.
Then we get to the subtlest level of polarization the level of our mind. Unlike our actions and words, our thoughts don’t go out into the world and have blatant repercussions. But
are these thoughts really so unimportant? We’re just sitting there, harmlessly thinking to ourselves, “She deserves to be taken down a peg. And what he did was definitely wrong.
I know because I took a poll and everyone agrees with me.” We may be sitting in a stream of critical, judgmental thoughts all day long and not realize how much polarization we’re creating in our own mind. The grooves in our brain deepen with each repetitive thought and form habitual patterns, beliefs, and attitudes. Conscious or not, these patterns increase our propensity to separate ourselves from others, and subtly undermine our wish to awaken on their behalf. They also inevitably come out in our speech and actions. If you’re constantly judging Isaiah in your mind, there’s a good chance he’ll eventually find out what you really think of him, and it won’t be pretty. But if you never indulge in critical thoughts about Gabrielle, there’s no chance you’ll ever snap at her when you haven’t slept enough. If we develop a healthy caution about the destructive power of our thoughts, we’ll have much more incentive to nip our judgmental thinking in the bud. Then we’ll be able to feel more at ease in all situations, especially when we’re with people who push our buttons.
Polarization is at its most problematic when we dehumanize people—when we forget that the people we judge, criticize, and disagree with are actually as fully human as we are. This dehumanization can manifest in an obvious way, such as apartheid, slavery, police brutality, or genocide. But some level of this kind of prejudice exists in all of our minds. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see that we habitually dehumanize others for many reasons. For instance, if people have political views that we consider narrow-minded or backward, we may have trouble seeing them as wholly human. If they don’t believe in climate change or evolution, we may unconsciously disqualify them as fully developed members of the human race. We may condemn people for their behavior or criticize them because they smoke or drink or wear what we consider tacky clothes. Even such minor differences in our habits and preferences can cause us to feel fundamentally separate from others.
If we commit to being aware of our tendency to polarize, and we counteract that by arousing bodhichitta, we will gradually close these gaps. Then we’ll be able to see all people as fellow human beings who want to be happy just like us. This covers not just climate change deniers and people who smoke, but even those who ruthlessly and callously bring suffering to others—such as perpetrators of hate crimes, greedy heads of corporations, sexual predators, and criminals who prey on the elderly.
There’s a practice I like called “Just like me.” You go to a public place and sit there and look around. Traffic jams are very good for this. You zero-in on one person and say to yourself things such as “Just like me, this person doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable. Just like me, this person loses it sometimes. Just like me, this person doesn’t want to be disliked. Just like me, this person wants to have friends and intimacy.” We can’t presume to know exactly what someone else is feeling and thinking, but still we do know a lot about each other. We know that people want to be cared about and don’t want to be hated. We know that most of us are hard on ourselves, that we often get emotionally triggered, but that we want to be of help in some loses it sometimes. Just like me, this person doesn’t want to be disliked. Just like me, this person wants to have friends and intimacy.” We can’t presume to know exactly what someone else is feeling and thinking, but still we do know a lot about each other. We know that people want to be cared about and don’t want to be hated. We know that most of us are hard on ourselves, that we often get emotionally triggered, but that we want to be of help in some most natural and reasonable to polarize. Even when extreme religious groups behead people or a racist gunman murders people praying in church, there is room to feel our connection with the perpetrators rather than dehumanize them.
The mother of James Foley, one of the journalists beheaded by ISIS, said of her son’s executioner, “We need to forgive him for not having a clue what he was doing.” This level of compassion can only happen when we have a sense of the complexity of what makes people reach the point of committing such crimes. Those who believe in violence are desperate to get some kind of ground under their feet, desperate to get away from their unpleasant feelings, desperate to be the one who’s right. What would we do if we felt so desperate? Having compassion for those who have harmed us—and especially those who have taken away our loved ones—doesn’t come easily. We shouldn’t feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t at present feel this degree of understanding and caring. In fact, it’s quite exceptional to feel this way. As a precursor to this level of empathy, sorrow—simple sorrow—is often more accessible. For instance, in this case of the violence committed by extreme militants, we can tap into a deep sorrow for the situation as a whole. Along with our sorrow for the victims, we can also feel sorrow that young men find themselves hating so much, sorrow that they’re stuck in such a pattern of hatred. Since things have such complex and far-reaching causes, we can feel sorrow for the circumstances where ignorance or suffering in the past created the hatred that is manifesting in these young men now. We can harness this all-encompassing sorrow to arouse the broken-hearted feeling that fosters bodhichitta. Having compassion doesn’t mean we can’t take a stand. It’s important to speak up when we’ve been hurt, when we see others being hurt, and when we observe or experience examples of abuse of power. It is equally important to listen deeply and without judgment when people speak about their experiences and their suffering. What has been dysfunctional does need to be openly addressed.
We are at a time when old systems and ideas are being questioned and falling apart, and there is a great opportunity for something fresh to emerge. I have no idea what that will look like and no preconceptions about how things should turn out, but I do have a strong sense that the time we live in is a fertile ground for training in being open-minded and open-hearted. If we can learn to hold this falling apart–ness with- out polarizing and without becoming fundamentalist, then whatever we do today will have a positive effect on the future.
Working with polarization and dehumanization won’t put an immediate end to the ignorance, violence, and hatred that plague this world. But every time we catch ourselves polarizing with our thoughts, words, or actions, and every time we do something to close that gap, we’re injecting a little bodhichitta into our usual patterns. We’re deepening our appreciation for our interconnectedness with all others. We’re empowering healing, rather than standing in its way. And because of this interconnectedness, when we change our own patterns, we help change the patterns of our culture as a whole. The results won’t be immediately apparent. You probably won’t notice any big changes in just a week or even a year. But please don’t give up too easily and think, “This bodhichitta doesn’t work for me. I’m going to look for something where the results are more immediate and tangible.” Believe me when I say your patience will pay off. If you commit to overcoming polarization in your own mind, it’s a life changer, and it will help the world as well.