Avoiding cruelty, the “far enemy” of compassion (Day 30)

Cute sheep looking directly into the camera. Who would want to eat this lovely person?

Yesterday I wrote about the complexities of the “near enemy” of compassion, which is the grief that arises from attachment. So we might feel bad when we see someone suffering, but not actually have any empathy for them. That’s not compassion. It’s “grief” at having our normal experience disrupted by someone who’s inconsiderate enough to suffer. Or we may spiral into despair and sorrow (which is called “failed compassion”) because we’re unable to bear the discomfort of knowing someone is suffering. This is all rather tricky for people to get hold of, sometimes, and it’s potentially undermining because we can end up doubting, in an unhelpful, self-hating kind of a way, whether our compassion is real. (Don’t worry. Just keep on going with the practice and things will sort themselves out.)

Cruelty, the opposite or “far enemy” of compassion, might seem to be more straightforward. But I’m not sure it always is!

The straightforward side of cruelty is deliberately causing physical pain to others. Now of course when we’re children we often just don’t understand that small creatures you’re tormenting are actually experiencing pain. We just see the worm writhing and think it’s funny. And we may need to be taught that what seems like fun for us isn’t fun for the other; that the other creature’s pain is as real to it as ours is to us. And with that leap, empathy is born.

There are a few places in the early Buddhist teachings where the Buddha helps children to become aware of their cruelty. One time he came across a crowd of boys who were fishing, and he simply asked them “Boys, do you fear pain? Do you dislike pain?” Of course the boys did. And the Buddha points out, in the Dhammapada, the empathic basis of non-cruelty: “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

So this brings up the question of vegetarianism. If you eat meat you’re either killing or you cause another to kill. An animal has to die. So you might not think it’s cruel to eat meat, but a lot of cruelty has gone into bringing the meat to your lips. The Buddha didn’t force his monks and nuns to be vegetarian, but remember that the monks and nuns lived by seeking offerings of food as they went door to door. And although we think of India now as being largely a vegetarian country, it certainly wasn’t at that time; there are plenty of references in the Buddhist scriptures to butchers, and to cows being slaughtered (cows that Hindus now consider sacred). So imagine living by begging from door to door, accepting what’s put in your bowl, and remaining vegetarian. It wouldn’t be easy. And as confirmation of this, the early Buddhists saw vegetarianism as an ascetic practice, along with wearing cast-off rags and sleeping under trees. To be a vegetarian monk would have meant risking malnutrition and illness.

But I presume you’re not a monk and don’t live by begging from door to door. You do have a choice about what you eat, and you can choose to eat food that involves less cruelty. In fact I’ve been a vegan (again!) for the last four months, because there’s a lot of killing and pain involved in the dairy and egg industries, and I’d like to contribute less to that.

People get very attached to eating meat, and this attachment makes them indifferent to suffering.

But there’s a lot of cruelty involved in our lives in subtler ways. Not all cruelty is to do with causing physical pain or taking life. Cruelty is, fundamentally, the desire to make others feel pain (even emotional pain) or to deny them happiness.

So there’s a simple question you can ask yourself in your interactions with others, or when you’re thinking about them: am I trying to block another’s happiness or to make them feel bad?

Listen to your thoughts and words, and see how often you blame others for things that have gone wrong. We often want to make people feel bad.

Listen to the jokes and put-downs you make at others’ expense, or even at your own expense. (We can be cruel to ourselves, too).

How often do we rain on someone’s parade when they’re really excited about something?

How often does our ego prompt us to be obstructive: someone at work has an idea, and we immediately switch to fault-finding and obstructionism. It can be laziness or being unwilling to change on our part that leads to us acting in this way, or it may be that we don’t want the other person to get any credit, but we can take positive pleasure in stopping people from seeking happiness and satisfaction.

How often do we “blame the victim” or feel judgmental when someone’s suffering and their own actions contributed to their pain?

We tend to believe that punishment — the infliction of suffering in order to modify behavior — is a necessary part of everyday life, especially when it comes to children. Many people still hit their children, which I find incredible. And yet the most effective trainers of animals show us that punishment is totally counter-productive to getting the behavior you desire. Rewards work much better — and rewards can just be a “good job” or a “Thank you, I appreciate what you just did.”

So watch out for how you think and talk and behave. You can always backtrack, apologize, try again with more kindness. You can make cruelty less likely to arise by keeping the metta phrases (“May you be well; may you be happy”) running through your mind during the day. You can keep bringing your awareness to your heart as you go about your life and especially as you encounter people. And make sure that you’re not unkind to yourself as you become more aware of the small cruelties embedded in the way you behave, speak, and think. Be compassionate to yourself, for the most common target of our cruelty may well be ourselves.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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