Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Conscious Change

A shocking event like the recent Mandalay Bay massacre can wake us up to a broader problem: our culture is infected with violence. Our military actions abroad, abusive action by police inside our country, our enormous prison system, gangs in our cities, bullies in school, violence within our families – certainly mass shootings are a serious issue but our problem with violence goes far beyond that. Is this violence something rooted in our essential character as a nation or as a species? Or this some passing phase, an arbitrary visitation from the vast realm of possibilities, that will depart as mysteriously as it arrived?

This kind of disease is exactly what the medical practice of Buddhism specializes in. Buddhism addresses more specifically the coming and going of such behavior patterns in individuals, but its insights can be generalized to societies. Of course, societies are made up of individuals. Each of us can individually work to uproot whatever violent patterns or tendencies they might experience, and the traditional approaches of Buddhism can be very effective for that. But we can also address our collective problems using similar methods.

Gun control is a key issue in the public debate over how to respond to mass shootings. Some of the opposition to gun control comes from advocates of violence, for whom, if there is a problem at all, it is how to maintain the space for legitimate violence while working to suppress illegitimate violence. Unfortunately this kind of “I am right, you are wrong” approach to violence is one of escalation. With any luck we can learn to see through its deception before the destruction and suffering reach yet more horrific levels.

Another objection to gun control is that it is too superficial. If a person intends violent action, the lack of a gun is a minor obstacle. Criminals will find illegal guns or use other means to indulge their lust for violence. We need to address that criminal mindset directly. Unfortunately the real root of the problem is quite elusive. Each problem is an outcome of several other problems. We have to change everything to change anything. Even if it were possible to design some total new structure for society that would have no place for violence, how could such a reboot of society be brought about? Archimedes envisioned moving the earth, given only a separate place to stand. Who stands outside society, to be in a position to re-engineer it from a clean slate?

The Buddhist approach to conscious change is incremental. The core insight of the Buddha was interdependent origination. The search for a control panel and a seat beside it from which to steer change, this search is futile. Because things arise in networks of interdependence, change must also occur through such networks. We need to steer our behaviors across their full range. The resulting changes can then reinforce each other and lo, the earth moves.

The basic dimensions involved in individual conscious change are outlined in Buddhism as: view, meditation, and conduct. These same dimensions exist in society and can provide a path by which we can extract ourselves from the pervasive violence in our lives.

These dimensions of society already form the cornerstones of exemplary cultures of conscious change. Modern science is built from theory, experiment, and application. In isolation, these elements cannot come to life. It is by bringing them together, each informing and correcting the others, that modern science has achieved the vitality through which it has transformed our world.

The framers of the United States Constitution also understood the vital importance of conscious change and the kind of interdependence required to achieve it. Our three branches of government, legislative, judicial, and executive also inform and correct each other to keep our government responsive to the evolving needs of the citizens.

An event like the Mandalay Bay massacre can wake us up to the need for conscious cultural change. These three dimensions can provide a rough outline for the kinds of work required. Exactly what kinds of structures and institutions might be most effective for this work – probably we will have to stumble along the way and learn from our mistakes. But if we can address the full scope of the interdependence that generated our disease of violence, we will have the power to cure it.

Violent behavior is one link in a cycle. It spawns the anger and divisiveness that then regenerate further violent behavior. To cut this cycle, it is essential to suppress violent behavior comprehensively, across its full range. Violent suppression is absurd and counterproductive. More restrictive government regulation of citizen weapons is a perfectly reasonable component of a program to suppress violence, but such restrictions must be implemented in a nonviolent way. A key element in conscious nonviolent change is an incremental evolutionary approach.

Armed violence by the public is only one strand of the violence that pervades our culture. Violence perpetrated by government agents must also be addressed. Our military actions around the world must become less violent. Our police at home must become less violent. Of course any such constraints will make it harder for these agents to fulfill their missions. But a surprising amount of the time these missions arise from the unintended side effects of prior violent action. As the general level of violence decreases, the sense of crisis lessens and with it the impulse for violent responses.

The arms industry is another component of behavior that promotes violence. With an incremental, evolutionary approach, it is practically impossible to predict where the path leads. To eliminate all need for weapons seems barely imaginable in the long run and completely unrealistic in the short term. But definite concrete steps need to be taken to curb the worst excesses of weapons production. One good step could be the prohibition of making and selling of land mines.

Certainly it will be important that violence from gangs, domestic abuse, etc. be reduced somehow or they can re-infect the broader society. Different opportunities for action will be available to each person and institution involved in the conscious effort to cure ourselves of our addiction to violence. Some folks will pick up the ball early in the game. Others might be much slower in coming around. If movement can become widespread enough in the network of interdependence, the whole world can move.

The simple suppression of violent behavior is not enough to shift the whole network. Changes in conduct must work hand in hand with changes in view and meditation.

View manifests in society as art, literature, media, etc. Violence is clearly even more pervasive in our video entertainment than it is on our streets. We are not going to cure our streets of violence so long as the glorification of violence is a major theme of our video games. It is good that an event like the Mandalay Bay massacre can inspire some people to support stricter regulation of fire arms. Can it also inspire film makers to stop glorifying violence?

Meditation in society manifests primarily as education and training. In general the antidote for violence is to cultivate a deep understanding and appreciation for the other people with whom one interacts. Before the army deploys to a new country, soldiers could learn the language and culture of the people there. Police need to understand the situations of the people in the communities they serve. Religious leaders must not promote bigotry but work instead to enhance understanding across sectarian boundaries. These are not new ideas, of course. But if we can put together a comprehensive program of nonviolence… the whole world can move!