Buddhist author Vimalasara believes that hatred is not innate but learned, and explores how this toxic emotion enters the human heart. Vimalasara will be teaching an online course based on her book, Detox Your Heart, starting March 3, 2008.
Hatred is not innate. It is learned. We are not born with hatred in our hearts, but we are born into a culture of hatred. We can see the evidence around us. It’s in our newspapers, on television, in our communities. Some of us enjoy watching war being acted out on television. Violence has become entertainment. When I explore conflict with young children, some of them say that if it’s tough at home they’ll take it out on somebody at school. For many of them, fighting in the playground is entertainment. One child said it’s like going to a movie. With the advent of mobile phones with video cameras, children will boast about videoing fights and charge their friends to watch.
We know children learn by imitating adults, and if they grow up with violence around them they learn how to confuse hatred and anger with love. When their parents or carers fight each other, the children witness violent behavior. Some children see their mother being physically abused in one breath, and in the next hear their father tell their mother he loves her. The mother might also tell the child that daddy hit her because he loves her, in order to make things all right for the child. Similarly, if we were hit as a child and told by the adult it’s because they love us, we begin to think love is violent, so it is OK to be violent. People who remain in violent relationships have often learned as children that violence is part and parcel of all types of love relationships. Another way a child learns hatred is when he or she is physically, sexually, or mentally abused; then the feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, and invasion can be so difficult to contain that the strong emotion of hatred can help temporarily quash the fear and pain.
Some theories state that children are more able to cope with their lives if they hear the gruesome tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Some writers, like Bruno Bettelheim, claim that fairytales are important for a child’s development. He believes they help children become powerful in relation to adults, especially in stories in which a little boy has overcome a giant. Although this is true, I would also argue that fairytales are often about humiliation or annihilation. The classic children’s fairytales are often based on good and evil. The good person can never do wrong; their behavior is justified, even if it is hateful. It is almost as though they have a right to behave in a way that annihilates another being. While I believe some fairytales can have a positive effect on a child’s development, I’m not convinced that we are completely aware of the effect of some of the more violent and humiliating stories. Are they the best stories to tell children just before they are tucked up in bed? What effect do they have? I know for myself that when I fall asleep after hearing violent or disturbing news, it affects my thoughts, and even how I feel when I wake the next morning.
Some people are born into communities where hatred and violence are prevalent. In the film City of God (2002), we see how children as young as five and six pick up guns and kill people in the ghettoes of Brazil. In some war zones, the soldiers are little more than children fighting as guerrillas. I have worked in London with boys as young as eight and nine who carry knives, sell drugs, and where it is not uncommon to have a parent or sibling shot dead or killed in a fight.
Then there is the hatred we just take for granted. Throughout modern British history, police have been called pigs. This language will have an effect on how we interact with the police. Stories passed down from African families about slavery, and from Jewish families about genocide, have meant some people have grown up with hatred towards the colonizer or towards the Germans. In fact, we grow up with so much of how our families may have been wronged, or had to struggle in past generations. it is inevitable that our hearts will be affected.
Practice: reflecting on the past
Take a moment to pause, then become aware how you might have been affected while growing up. Recall some of the stories that affected your heart. Try to recognize which of your prejudices come from your parents, teachers, or the media.
By recognizing our conditioning we can begin to let go of hatred in our hearts.
Valerie Mason-John is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. Her Buddhist name Vimalasara means “she whose essence is stainless and pure.” She brings the quality of her Buddhist name, and her expertise as a trainer in anger management and conflict resolution to help people transform their lives. She is the author of five books, most recently, Detox Your Heart, a book on working with anger, fear and hatred. She was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of East London in recognition of her life work. Her online course, based on Detox Your Heart, starts March 3, 2008.