Deliver Us From Evil

There’s a question that’s been floating around my brain for quite some time, and that is, can we create “good humans” without religion’s fear of a haunting afterlife or using a penal system to punish “bad” behavior by locking people away.  As an educator who pines for a more peaceful and equitable world, you might understand why I ask such a question as I do believe that I can make a positive impact on a human life.

During my high school psychology class, I remember learning about an experiment in which a social scientist, Stanley Milgram asked if the Holocaust could happen again.  In his experiment subjects played a role of the “teacher”, and they were told that the student was about improving memory. If the “student” could not remember something, they were to apply increasing amounts of electric shock to the finger. They could go all the way up to 4blindobediance50 V, and not surprisingly, “students” pleaded and cried to have the shocks stop, fearing that it might be fatal. At which time, the “teachers” were reminded by someone in a lab coat (not a real doctor or professor) that they have a job to perform and this shock treatment was for the “students” own good. With this reminder, the “teachers” continued to provide shocks to the “students”.  This experiment involved over 1000 participants and demonstrated the idea of “blind obedience”, in which people can be easily coaxed into mean and corruptible acts when they believe that the person giving the directive is a respected authority. This same experiment inspired other experiments that explored good people doing bad things; in particular, the most controversial and telling one by Dr. Phil Zimbarbo, who created a  prison simulation whose good kids were turned “evil” by the social situation in which they found themselves. (The experiment was supposed to go for 2 weeks but had to be stopped after 5 days due to the sadistic acts done by the “prison guards” to these mock prisoners.) Ironically, the images of Abu Ghraib in Iraq were eerily similar to the cruelty exhibited by these prison guards done in his experiment. When he was interviewed about the shocking similarities, Dr. Zimbardo came in defense of the soldiers who took on these roles because it was the expectation of the authorities above them:

Most American soliders are good apples and what we have to realize that someone put them in a bad barrel and we have to know who are the “bad” barrel makers are. And this becomes the metaphor: bad apples, what is wrong with the individual vs. bad barrels, which is situational analysis; and of course the system is the bad barrel makers, the people who make those situations and sustain them.

-Dr. Phil Lombardo-

He calls the impetus to do bad the Lucifer Effect, which if you want to know more about, you can watch his TED talk below. It’s fascinating and uncomfortable to learn about.

I postulate that this is true for all people, whether we analyze slavery, Nazis in WW2, gang violence, the genocide in Rwanda, Columbine shootings or the more recent terror attacks done by the Taliban and ISIS.  I think this is the same reason why American police officers have such a bad reputation and why the Black Lives Matter campaign began to humanize people of color so that people of authority can start to see their humanity and stop stereotyping them as criminals.  Never the less, all these people started off as “good apples” who got sucked into a system in which the lure of evil seduced them and they began to follow the orders of people they see as superiors.

 

Christians around the world say “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” And the point is that evil comes in many sizes and many shapes. There is the evil of action, doing bad things, but there is also the evil of inaction, not doing the right thing when you could.  This is the bystander effect. …People around the world do not come to aid of someone in an emergancy who needs their help. It’s so easy to cross the line…..but what about those people who resist the temptation and  power of the group, especially when everyone in the group is doing it. I began to think of them as everyday heros.

-Dr. Phil Zimbardo

 

That’s an interesting perspective and definition of “heroes”-the people who question authority and the system that allows for the dehumanization of people. As someone who was raised with Christianity, I always found Jesus to be a social deviant, caring for lepers and befriending prostitutes. He was an extraordinary and courageous man because he challenged the cultural structures of his time–and you know what that got him?-crucified!   It’s challenging to go against authority but in one of the scriptures,  Jesus tells his apostles that they can do what he does and more, encouraging them to stick their necks out for the greater good.

Dr. Zimbardo explains that small acts of evil can become an unconscious habit of compliance in our system and are compounded unless we make a conscious effort. In Confuciusism, there is a saying that “the small man thinks that small acts of goodness are of no benefit and does not do them; and that small deeds of evil do no harm, and does not refrain from them; hence wickedness becomes so great that it cannot be concealed.”  Dehumanism is the first symptom of going down that slippery slope of evil and happens easily when we begin to label people—perhaps you recognize these some of these labels:

Mexicans, terrorists, Muslims, Christians, immigrants, blacks, women, men, Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Politicians, WASPs, Jews, Kooks, Asians, Blonds etc…

helpers

I agree with Fred Rogers, it’s vital to shift our focus toward the people who are helping others. And hopefully, those people are us. Maybe we can stand up or our children who stand up and make a difference.

These are easy to spot and quite obvious, especially when one turns on the news, as it shamelessly glorifies violence and hatred as a form of entertainment.

However, the antidote to evil is to begin to look at others as humans–people who share the same life struggles as we all do–then it is simple to do more good towards one another. It’s easier to stop and give that “bum” (a common label in society for people who are poor and homeless) a dollar when you act with compassion toward a person, knowing that ANY of us could be in that situation and connect with the thread that binds us all. Currently, the research shows that only 10% of people globally practice “mindful disobedience“–Zimbardo’s term for heroism–these are the whistleblowers and the everyday individuals who take extraordinary actions that defy the norms of the system they find themselves in. Not many people choose to challenge authority because of the negative consequences that they may encounter as a result of their action. For example, the Private who disclosed the abuse at Abu Ghraib had to hide him and his family for 3 years due to the death threats and emotional suffering that he encountered. Not everyone can go into exile like that, which is why so many people shy away from such acts of heroism.

But I do think we can do something about that 10%. 

The first step begins with us as individuals. Awareness and reflecting on our actions and words–are we participating either actively or passively in dehumanizing others, demonstrating agreement with exerting power over individuals that deny them dignity and compassion? C’mon–there’s a 90% chance that we are. Look hard enough and you can find ways that you are contributing to hatred and evil in the world.  Goodness knows that I’m searching my conscious and definitely find ways in which I could improve and be a kinder and more involved human.

And of course, it’s about education. I believe that you can teach children this skill of recognizing our humanity and helping them to develop the courage to stand up for each other, even if it means ridicule from our families, our religious community or other cultural structures that they find themselves in. If we can teach guide dogs for the blind intelligent disobedience  (the dog’s ability to know when not to execute a command it’s given when that command would bring harm to the person), then we can teach kids mindful disobedience as well.

Hopefully, newer generations will feel compelled to take positive action in the face of what may be the status quo of their culture or the system they find themselves in.  This could take the form of telling someone politely that their racist joke is actually quite offensive or disagreeing with your pastor’s advice to vote a certain way, or choosing not to post something on social media that dehumanizes others.  Deviation from these behaviors will hopefully cultivate a “new normal” over time, in which we begin to understand that the rights of others are everyone’s responsibility, regardless of race, religion, gender or beliefs. Respect and acceptance can become commonplace in our political and social systems if we develop awareness in ourselves and our children. I do believe that we can be “delivered from evil”, and I hope that you will take a moment to pause and consider how you might become a better human being as well because it’s simply the RIGHT thing to do.

 

 

To Africa, with Love 

A long time ago I had a friend from Senegal who used to admonish me for telling kids at camp to finish their food because “there are starving kids in Africa”. He would tell me that there is so much more to the continent of Africa than kids with bloated bellies and he didn’t want me to spread this message. It has taken me years to finally grasp what he meant. I owe him a sincere apology.

I reckon most people from the western world don’t travel to countries in Africa unless they want to go on safari or are involved in some religious/charity work. I don’t know what compelled us to journey to South Africa exactly but we ventured there during our long Chinese New Year holiday. It’s been, hands down, the most amazing time spent as a family.

From the moment we boarded our Ethiopian Airline’s flight in Shanghai, the whole atmosphere of the airplane was different. It was a full flight with seeming strangers but I immediately felt like we were apart of a community, in which fellow African passengers helped each other with their luggage, made jokes and referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”-even though they were not even related.  I am not a person who knows much about the history and culture of many African nations, but it was obvious to me that they shared some common values which were easy to connect with, no matter the age or language barrier between them. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Needless to say, it left an impression on me.

I’ve known quite a few people who feel drawn to the soils of Africa and now I totally get what they cherish about it. Even though I only spent time in Addis Abbas and Cape Town, I believe that you can be anywhere in Africa and have a similar experience. And what experience is that? An experience of breath-taking beauty–not just of nature but of the human spirit. And it was a place full of contradictions, particularly between poverty and wealth. It’s really hard to even relate this in words. Words can not capture what it is that I want to say, but I am utterly grateful for my experience there. And, I urge you, the reader, to go visit and experience for yourself. And if you keep your mind and heart open, I believe that you will have an unforgettable experience that will leave an indelible mark on your consciousness.

….. Enough 

When I was 14 years old, I ran away and lived on the streets in Atlanta, Georgia for several weeks with my best friend at time. Thinking of all the terrible things that could have become of me is baffling and nothing short of miraculous, however we were taken in by a couple of neo-nazi skinheads who sheltered and fed us during this time. (Yes, even neo nazi skinheads can be caring)One night we went to a skinhead party with them and I met a “white power” skinhead named Christopher and we talked until a fight broke out. What intrigued me most about Christopher was that he was a young African-American who believed that something was inherently wrong with him and that he should be subservient to white people. I was confused by him. Up until then, I had never really thought much about race, but after that, I absolutely knew that I was in the wrong crowd and I needed to get away from these skinheads.

Although this part of my life story is embarrassing, interesting and complicated, I have to leave it there. Obviously, it left an indelible mark on me. And my story has a happy ending since I am writing this today. Clearly, I am lucky to have a loving family who has always supported me through my troubled times.

Although it may not be as obvious in places like America, it is blatantly clear in countries like South Africa in which race inequality is apparent.

However, it was the first time I became aware of my white privilege. I wouldn’t expect most white people to identify it let alone acknowledge it, but I know it’s a real thing. Not only have I experienced it first hand but I’ve lived its opposite vicariously through my husband, an Indo-Guyanese, and witnessed it with others. And no matter where I go, in South America, the Middle East, Asia or now in Africa, the attitudes toward race are consistent: the paler your skin is, the better. This attitude that was imprinted during imperialistic times still is in different cultures today.

Lately the international news is full of all things American- mostly the social discord brought about by Trump’s presidency. In particular, women are protesting him and his vision of “greatness”. However this has struck a chord with women around the world and these protests went global. Undoubtedly this confuses Trump supporters, men and women alike, with them thinking that he has been fair enough to women. Perhaps white women are “privileged enough” but what about the women of color- whether black, brown, yellow or red?-maybe they are tired of slathering on whitening cream and putting on pants to justify that they deserve a fair shake at the benefits afforded by men-especially white men- men like Donald Trump- who never had to make difficult choices about whether to buy food or diapers for his children. It seems clear to me that there is another perspective to this reality tv show called American politics that is being reflected across the oceans,  and ideas about race and gender are being challenged.

All I know is there seems to be a day of reckoning that is upon us as we hold our collective cultural beliefs up to the light.  This is a time for reconciliation, courage and thoughtful action. To be unaffected by these events seems impossible and it has definitely stirred up a lot of emotion, even for non-Americans. As I am a tourist here in South Africa, a nation still grappling with its recent past of apartheid, I am wondering if I treat my fellow humans with the dignity and kindness that should be afforded to all people, or am I just being “good enough” to them.

From my Christian background, this is one of those bible verses that clings to my heart and reminds me that kindness and understanding should be my compass as I encounter others.

I know that I can’t change the inequities of the world but I can change my behavior as I interact with others. I can see others in their humanity and embrace the differences between us. I can acknowledge that their struggles are real and offer them genuine compassion- not pity or indifference- but respect for who they are and encourage them. We are all one. I truly know that with every fiber of my being. The Catholic faith taught me that first and my life experience continues these lessons. I can be more forgiving, more patient, more willing to see others’ perspectives.

I do not know if this “enough” but I feel that this is the soundest action to take in the moment.

A Love Protest: The Donald’s Presidency

My doubt and questioning is not the point of this blog post. However, for sensibility’s sake, I make my disclaimer: I did not support Donald Trump to become President. For the same reason why I want a highly qualified teacher in charge of my child’s learning at school and also why don’t want my manicurist to fly my plane to China–I believe that not just anybody can do any job, especially without proper training, even a business celebrity like Donald Trump. However to allow this to become a rant would be useless, and, quite frankly, doesn’t move us forward in our humanity.There are all kinds of data that are expressed through this man, which I feel could serve us in developing our consciousness. I think there is a wonderful divine lesson to be learned if we can get beneath the story of this election and the personality of this man, taking a moment to reflect and connect with the threads that bind us.

First of all, everything happens for a reason. Whether you study the science of the cosmic or the microscopic levels of life, there are integrated pathways that are set into motion with the slightest effort.  We all conspired to make this a reality. Let’s take responsibility for that. We, as a humanity, agreed to this, even if it wasn’t consciously. There was a deep yearning to “Make America Great Again” long before Trump, and he just happens to embody this ideal. (Maybe some of you didn’t have him in mind as the leader to this anthem).

Truth: You Can’t HATE Your Way to Love.

No matter how hard you squeeze an orange, you are not going to get apple juice out of it. Likewise, there is no amount of hating that will bring about love and personal peace. Not going to happen, people. So you have to make a choice, do you continue to point out his shortcomings and secretly wish to avenge the other half of your friends and family who voted for him? Or do you transform your disdain by practicing principles of equity and acceptance, beginning with the guy who cut you off in traffic?

When you hold people in judgment and anger, it’s like that idea of building a wall on the Mexican border.  Yeah Trump thinks Mexico is going to willingly finance it, but you also irrationally believe that the person you are cussing out in traffic is also going to pay for his misdeed and suffer. Nope, that person has moved on, and so should you. You can’t build walls of hostility–there’s a price that you pay for your acrimony. The Chinese proverb reminds us of that: if you aremartin-luther-king-quote seeking revenge, best you dig 2 graves–one for yourself and one for the other person.

So, get clear that you have to love no matter what. No matter how ugly, profrane and stupid you may find people or ideas, there’s always something valuable in them. Start looking for possible ways to find the silver lining and become connected to our common humanity. I love the advice that the hero Martin Luther King Jr offers during his call to action during the Civil Rights Movement, which couldn’t be more poignant today.

So, as we move forward in the next 4 years of this man’s leadership, here are some ideas that I intend to employ when embracing the “pussy grabbing man who colludes with the Russians”.

  1. See the child-like innocence in the person–if they knew better, they’d do better. Even Trump.(And I hold this level of compassion for my own failings, which are many). I trust in the goodness in one’s intentions and try to extend goodwill towards them.
  2. Remind myself: We are all learning here! Some are mentally, emotionally and spiritually in kindergarten and others have advanced degrees. However, having an advanced degree doesn’t make you an expert unless you exercise your knowledge in meaningful ways.
  3. We are different versions of each other and act as a mirror, reflecting what is “good” and “bad” in ourselves. The same faults or virtues are contained within the human seed, so I need to look more deeply at how I judge others. So what is Trump showing me about me? How am I thin-skinned? How am I shallow and petty? Likewise, what am I charismatic about? What ideals can I renew (make America great again)?

Speaking of  Greatness?

The idea of making America great again is a vision that all of us support. You god-confusioncould say greatness is strength or power, but I think defining it is personal. And so is the task of being great!

But it’s not something outside of us, it’s not done unto us, but through us–through our actions, words and deeds. So I am deciding now to tune his Tweet diplomacy out and focus on ways that I can be a better version of myself. To look at him through the eyes of the heart, feeling grateful that he has brought up so many issues that need to be reviewed and reflected on. And, it is my hope that I can come out a better, more peaceful human being as a result of this experience. At the end of the day, no one is in charge of my Joy except for me. So it is my responsibility to practice goodness, kindness, and compassion to facilitate the greatness that I believe is possible. It is my intention that I  develop the courage and determination to go to the outer limits of loving humanity so that I may be transformed into the teacher, mother, and wife that I aspire to be.

I’ve heard that nothing proves that you love someone more than mentioning them in your prayers. So let this prayer for Trump demonstrate to my commitment to love:

As God is the molder of human clay, I pray for that you are shaped into a model of compassion, strength, and love. I pray that you lead with a sound mind and your judgments are wise. I pray that your thoughts be soothed so you speak peace. I pray that your heart feels empathy deeply and you connect with a broader perspective of the people you serve. I pray that you look upon God’s creation, our natural resources and creatures large and small,  and desire to protect it. I pray that you bring about actions that unite, not only America but the whole world. I pray that your decisions bring about prosperity for all.   I finally pray for your health and the wellbeing of your family. 

I pray this, not only for you President Trump but for all the leaders in government.

Amen.

(As I look at this prayer, I think that I could just an easily pray this prayer for myself as I could for Trump. Hmm… as I look in “the mirror”, it seems that all the fear and hope that I have for him also resides in myself. Perchance you feel the same way .)

 

Patient Heart

I really appreciated the distinctions and nuances of self-compassion during Dr. Craig and Dr. Richard recap of the “self” . Up until now, I never realized how connected heartfulness is to mindfulness. I always thought it was just about awareness, but now I know that connecting the heart with the mind is a big part of the practice. And there’s plenty of material in our lives in which we get to put knowledge into action. Every time we read or listen to the news, check our social media, and engage in conversations with those around happy daysus–every moment presents a challenge and an opportunity. And now that I know better, the question I have to ask myself: can I do better?

My heart says: Breathe. This is going to take practice. Breathe. This is going to take practice. Breathe. This is going to take practice. Breathe. Keep practicing. Be patient.

My mind says: You can’t do this. You’ll always be impatient and judgemental. It’s your nature. You are hardwired to be critical. Give up, it’s useless.

I feel like trying to coax my mind into a friendship with my heart is like trying to convince a card carrying NRA member that America needs gun control laws–A frustrating endeavor that requires unemotional focus and patience. And I have to wonder, is it even possible? Can my thoughts shake hands with my heart and come into agreement? It seems to me that I have to develop my heart muscle. As I have chartered into a new dimension of my self-awareness through this mindfulness practice, it has become crystal clear that I need balance between my thoughts and emotions. Self-compassion seems absolutely relevant and necessary as I develop into the person I wish to be.
As an aside, I find it uncanny and appropriate how the Chinese character for patience involves the graph for heart, as well as recognizing the possible danger and struggle that can ensue when developing patience.

character for patience

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe.

May I be me.

 

Can We Stop Gun Violence by Making Compassion a Habit?

If anyone has studied the Chaos Theory, then they have the understanding that nothing is random even though it is unpredictable. Coincidences are an illusion. Even one small act can have profound effects, such as the flap of a butterfly’s wing.

So this week was no surprise that my mindfulness practice mirrored the curriculum of our inherent oneness and the need to cultivate compassion. As my key take away, I reflected on remembering our common humanity–see the WE and not just the ME.

Due to the shooting in Orlando, FL in America, I was deeply moved, not just by the violence of the shooting, but by the reaction to the trauma. I wondered if people could experience greater compassion if they would feel that they need to cling to their guns to provide them a sense of power. Could embracing the notion that we are ONE despite our religions, our ethnic backgrounds, our political leanings, our level of wealth, etc.. and recalling that “we are our brother’s keeper” be a powerful enough reminder to curb our need to “protect” ourselves from one another and stop using the 2nd Amendment as a shield from our feeling of powerlessness? Now we could argue if owning a firearm is really a right or is it a privilege and hence the need for gun control, but that’s not the point. As I see it, it is the cause for such a horrific act of violence that needs to be argued–why would anyone feel a deep malicious desire to kill others? And I am not referring as so much the mental state of the perpetrator, but the underpinning lack of consciousness that seems be prevalent in these senseless crimes, in which there is a lack of connection to people, emotionally unplugged from the beauty, love and grace in life.  And it wasn’t just the shooter, because so many other hateful things have risen to the surface and have been brought to light as a justification for killing innocent people.

viktor-frankl-quote

So here is the flapping of the butterfly wing. Me, thousands of miles away, feeling the impact of this atrocious event. I reflected and wondered about my own acts of violence (not bullets, of course, but the things I say I do which create harm) in my life–toward myself and toward others.) I tried to take note of these moments, offering the wishes, “may you be happy, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be safe.” It helped me to cultivate gentleness towards myself and others. As I think about the importance of practice, I wonder if I was to really commit to this and create a habit in which my default mode was compassion, who I would be in 1 year from now? And I am curious–how long would I need to practice this in order to cultivate this hard wiring of compassion? Would keeping these people in mind (as well as Sandy Hook and so many other senseless mass shooting victims) who were shot down be enough to keep me focused?–Remembering that the world needs LOVE and UNDERSTANDING.

If I was to create this habit of compassion, is the risk that this practice might ripple out in the world to make a difference enough to solidify this worthy goal into the fabric of my daily life. Could you imagine what serendipity might ensue from a cascade of events that arose from a moment of compassion, understanding and love? In this way, there might be some sense made from the murder  For surely this too is the flapping of the butterfly wings as well.

May we be Happy.

May we be Well.

May we be Peace.

May we be Safe.

May we be WE.