My first time experiencing empathy and truly realizing that a world existed outside of myself was when I went back to India at the tender age of six. I was walking down a bustling street in Mumbai with my father to my favorite ice cream parlor. I looked up from the steaming pavement and my eyes connected with those of a little girl, around the same age as me. She was alone, half-naked in worn tattered clothing, her hair and skin caked with dirt.
She lived on the streets like many of the other children who wandered hungrily like lone wolves, begging for a few rupees, and picking scraps to eat out of garbage bins. Witnessing moments like these still hurts my heart, my privilege weighing heavy on my soul, often making me feel guilt. But when our eyes met I dropped the stories I had that divided us. I was no longer a privileged American, she was no longer an impoverished Indian.
In the softness of her gaze I felt something turn inside of me, I looked at her and saw myself. The only thing that separated us was merely my stroke of luck, that in this particular incarnation I was born into a well-off loving family. I could not bear going into the ice cream store and see her standing outside alone, all skin and bone. I asked my dad if she could join us and he said yes. My father bought us both chocolate cones and we left the ice cream parlor holding hands, ice cream smeared across our lips and chins.
My father kept telling me not to touch her, and I felt disgusted by his insensitivity. I wanted to hold her like I would embrace any one of my other friends. I did not listen to my father and before parting ways I kissed her on the cheek goodbye. I was sick for a week. Many of the street children have diseases and I picked something up from her. But I did not care or change my behavior moving forward.
Being a child I truly did not see our separation in the way my father did, even how I might now after the many years of social conditioning. My first moment of really looking at another human being and truly witnessing their suffering without turning away, lead me to the feeling of unity I shared with that little girl.
From living in India in the summers, traveling to many third world countries, and volunteering in the ghettos of New York, I have witnessed heavy suffering. The majority of my past work was nonprofit based, using little resources to create large scale change. After years of being paid so little and working so much I became burned out, and honestly, I was angry.
I was angry at the systems in place that kept certain demographics of people trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. I was angry that a small group of white men held the majority of the world’s wealth. I was angry that people really believe wealth trickles down. I was angry with the way people treated other humans who did not look like them, I was angry at the rampant xenophobia plaguing the states.
I was angry that most of my LGBTQ friends had attempted suicide because of discrimination not only from society but their own families. I was angry that I was living in a world where rape was so common, that almost all my girlfriends had been sexually abused. I was angry that corporations were so ecologically insensitive. I was angry that humans really believed in the foolish notion of man over Earth. But most of all, I was angry at myself because no matter how much I did it all seemed so insignificant compared to the depth of injustice I was witnessing on a daily basis.
I used to think that anger in social justice was useful, and in the beginning stages, it possibly was. My anger fueled my need for things to change, it lit my fire, my Manipura chakra that governs inner will and determination. This anger was what allowed me to say “no, enough is enough, I cannot stand by and wait for things to sort themselves out.” Anger worked to kick start action, to allow me to begin to become a vehicle for change.
Over time, holding on to this anger, and feeling it build in my chest day after day was not only useless, it was objectively detrimental. This anger was dampening my social justice work because the rage I felt was putting me in a reactive state. I would see something I felt was unjust and I would then react with extreme heat and frustration.
We see this a lot in social action, something triggers us and we react. We march out into the streets and protest or sign a petition or call the governor. And yes all of this is necessary, but it does not fix the problem from the root. Instead of being proactive and witnessing the way things are with a clear mind we are often in this reactive dance to our rage. This rage is never directed at only a situation; it’s shot at the people creating the situation we perceive as unjust.
My anger was directed at people I thought were the wrongdoers, then creating even more of a separateness and division between people in my life. It became so extreme that if I knew someone had voted for Trump or was a conservative, I would not befriend them because I was so attached to my righteousness and my belief system. As Ram Dass once said, “if you end up creating anger and hatred and pain in the people you oppose, you will maybe win the battle, but you’ll lose the war.”
I wanted the world to be at peace, but I was not. From this realization, I committed myself to the path of spirit, continuously working on my inner landscape to become the clearest channel of emptiness, where peace could then reside.
Although anger had value for me at one stage of my existence, now it was a weight that needed to be put down, because it was making me hate other people.
Anger is generally unconscious, when you see people act from a state of rage it is never their true essential being that is revealed. To work in social action consciously is to perform every act from an awakened state that is not based on the egos root of separation.
The ego loves having enemies, the ego loves having a challenge, something or someone to place itself against. Dissolving the ego thus dissolves anger. As Lao Tze said, “the best fighter is never angry.” Anger is an emotion that vibrates on a lower frequency; it does not bring you up to universal law, which vibrates on a higher frequency with the cosmos. In a state of anger, you become energetically depleted and low, your senses are not fine-tuned to hear higher messages.
From holding onto anger I was torturing myself, limiting my impact, and creating a polarization between myself and other humans. This division between human beings, the feelings of separation is what primarily allows people to harm one another unconsciously. When we realize to what extent we are interrelated it is impossible for us to do any action to one another that is not rooted in love.
However, this feeling of oneness and love is not something we can easily tap into when we are constantly consuming mainstream news that works to polarize us. It is not easy to love others when living within the confines of capitalism that push us into competition and seeing one another as commodities to be used. In the systems we reside in, anger is not something that is easy to shake off, because everything is designed to fight for our attention, to pull on our emotions so we perpetually stay in this angry reactive state.
When we choose to turn inward instead of being controlled by external forces, we then enter a space where spirit and social action can meet. This inner space is truly beautiful because you become so unshakeable in your calm center that your every action will ascend from a source of truth and purity rather than fear and reactivity. When you put less emphasis on external voices in turn you give more room to your inner voice. This inner voice only exudes loving awareness, never hate or anger, for these emotions come from the mind.
This growing awareness has become the most promising vehicle for social change, no longer anger. From my mediation practices of acting as a witness, I have sharpened my awareness which permeates through the thick fog of our physical reality. I can clearly see when I am being manipulated by Facebook algorithms spewing the same radical content that reinforces my liberal belief system. I actually laugh now when I read the extremism of news headlines and how ridiculously unsubtle the game is, the extent to which clickbait culture feeds off our reptilian brains.
Instead of this repulsing me like it used to, I see it as something we as a collective have created. In turn, this means that this is something we as a collective can disassemble if we no longer buy into the extremism that grips our consciousness. The purpose of reading news is to be receptive to new information, to listen openly to the stories of others in order to learn and grow.
However, in the society I grew up in I was taught that listening meant you agree. If you do not agree with someone you inevitably are both battling in conversation, talking over one another, and actively rebutting the other without really hearing their perspective. From my loving-kindness practices, I have the ability to sit with another person who does not have the same views as me and I can really listen to them. Intently listening does not mean I agree with them, this means I have the curiosity and will to understand them.
This will to understand the other and meet on a common ground is what we want in social action. The goal is to create a dialogue around the issue we are confronting instead of pointing fingers. We seldom see this because of our polarized anger. The recent presidential debate held no purpose because it was just candidates spewing verbal garbage at one another. This violent communication puts people in a defensive mode, there is no room for real conversation. How can we attempt to change if we cannot even have a real dialogue or understand each other’s needs?
My old boss was a billionaire republican, and I often worked from his apartment in the Trump Tower. I would sit with him at dinner and debate a whole range of topics, and almost everything he said I did not agree with. I could not insult him or hate him for his beliefs because I worked to understand him, to have a conversation where I could comprehend his needs in life.
I could clearly see his karmic predicament, his life path that was centered around his relationship to money. From spending time with people different from me I see that nobody’s life path is ever wrong just because it is not mine. Rumi once said “’somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.”
From going inward and not discriminating against my own thoughts as right or wrong, or good or bad, I now have that same compassion for other people. I no longer see a whole human being as bad, or his actions as wrong. I see another human being like me, and many times the human beings who are able to perpetuate suffering so widely are the most wounded. They are so deeply asleep and unconscious they do not even properly understand what they are doing.
For the rest of us to pour our hate into these people we believe are doing wrong, just brings about the opposite desired results, this hatred brings them more energy and power. I truly believe that Donald Trump was elected because of our collective consciousness. Instead of being pro Bernie or pro-democractic socialism, we were loudly anti-Trump, we poured all our energy into his entire melodrama. We collectively posted about him, read news about him, and incessantly argued over him. It was not surprising that he was elected because our collective energy manifested it, it does not matter if the energy was negative or positive.
As Hale Dwoskin says “so if you’re anti-war, be pro-peace instead, if you’re anti a particular politician be pro his opponent. Often elections are tipped in favor of the person that the people are really against because he is getting all the energy and all the focus.” Resistance actually adds more power to whatever is being resisted. As Carl Jung once said, “what you resist persists.”
Instead of resisting I have embraced acceptance. In order to change any situation, I must accept where society is really at right now. This way I can look at reality in the face, and size it up to comprehend how to move forward with grace. Through accepting the present moment fully I now have the ability to trust whatever is presented to me.
My past anger was rooted in fear because I did not have trust in the universe. I had a limiting belief that the world was callous and cruel, that life was fair because it was unfair to everyone. Through accepting the current moment I can see that no matter how ugly a situation, nothing happens that is not meant to happen.
I deeply feel that from even the most unfair and unjust acts, it is all part of a larger purpose. There is a higher-order to things, a universal law that goes beyond what our rational minds can begin to comprehend. Through the misery of the human condition I have also seen how acute suffering creates an awakening in people, that pain forces humans to evolve.
We must learn to embrace our suffering and use it as fuel in social action. We must pay attention to our inner states of being because they are always reflected in the external world. The quality of our beings must rest in peace before we begin to protest for peace. The quality of our beings must rest in equanimity before we start preaching for an egalitarian society. We must be good before we attempt to do good.
As Eckhart Tolle wrote, “action, although necessary, is only a secondary factor in manifesting our external reality. The primary factor in creation is consciousness. No matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world, and if there is no change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference.”
Imagine if everyone actively navigated the dark recesses of their consciousness, we could then take responsibility for our lives, and respond to the present moment instead of unconsciously reacting. The only way out of anger, hatred, and fear is going in. In through our Hridayam, the spiritual heart that rests in unity. Anger makes the heart contract; acceptance, and trust create an expansion. When we can expand and open to one another despite our differences we can collectively begin to heal.