By The Dalai Lama and Arthur C.
March 11, 2019
Human beings have a deep longing to live
together in harmony. People only feel completely alive when experiencing loving
bonds with one another. Everyone, of all faiths and no faith, knows this truth,
and most profess it openly.
And yet people fight incessantly. Even
though war is blessedly absent in most countries today, these are deeply
polarized times. Words too often are delivered with contempt; philosophical
differences are likened to warfare; those who simply disagree with another are
deemed “enemies.” Often it is on the Internet — which was launched as a forum
for unity — where people attack one another, under the cloak of anonymity.
This state of constant conflict is a major
source of stress and unhappiness for millions of people. Is there a solution?
We believe that the answer is yes. Further,
as is the case with all big problems, within this crisis lies an opportunity.
Polarization contains the seeds for personal excellence and spiritual
To begin with, the solution is not for
people simply to agree with each other, or to prevent disagreements from
occurring. There is nothing wrong or inherently destructive about having ideas
that differ from those of others. On the contrary, disagreement is necessary in
a pluralistic society to find the best solutions to problems. The ability to
disagree freely is one of the great blessings of modern democracy.
The solution — and the opportunity for each
of us — lies not in disagreeing less, but in understanding the appropriate way
to disagree with others, even when we are treated with hatred. A valuable clue can
be found in the words of the 8th-century Indian Buddhist master Shantideva in
his text “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”: “Unruly beings are as
unlimited as space / They cannot possibly all be overcome, / But if I overcome
thoughts of anger alone / This will be equivalent to vanquishing all foes.”
At first, his words sound somewhat ironic,
as if Shantideva were dispensing strategic advice on how to win an argument. It
is a little like Abraham Lincoln’s rhetorical question, “Do I not destroy my enemies
when I make them my friends?”
That is a misunderstanding, however. In
these quotations, to vanquish foes and destroy enemies does not mean to
ill-treat others in any way, or even to seek victory over them in a traditional
sense. The objective is not to vanquish a person I considered my enemy; it is
to destroy the illusion that he or she was my enemy in the first place. And the
way to do this is by overcoming my own negative emotions.
Perhaps taking that approach seems
unrealistic to you, like a kind of discipline only a monk could achieve through
years of concentrated meditation. But that isn’t true. You can do it, too,
regardless of your belief system. The secret is to express warm-heartedness,
kindness and generosity, even in disagreement — and especially when others show
you contempt or hatred.
What if you don’t feel warm-hearted, kind
and generous? Here’s the good news: It doesn’t matter. To begin with, there is
a space for all of us between stimulus and response; to master yourself means
to choose your response to stimuli. When someone treats you with contempt, you
are not forced to respond in kind; you are a human being who can make conscious
choices. You can choose to behave ethically.
Furthermore, these ethical choices improve
your emotions. A great deal of modern science shows that this is the case. When
we smile, we feel happier. When we express gratitude, we feel more grateful.
When we show love, we feel more loving.
Each of us can break the cycle of hatred,
starting today. Do you feel that you’ve been attacked on social media? Respond
with warm-heartedness, disarming your attacker with forbearance. Overhear
someone make a snide remark about people who think as you do? Respond with
kindness. Want to say something insulting about people who disagree with you?
Take a breath and show generosity, instead.
Jesus taught, “Love your enemies.” You have
the power to do this, because love is an attitude you can choose. By choosing
it, you will generally find that the person wasn’t your enemy after all.
How would that help counter the widespread
crisis of contempt? Warm-heartedness is contagious. Just as people mimic bad
behaviour, they mimic good behaviour. We all want to be happier and better
people. The best way for each of us to improve society is to model behaviour
that offers a way forward. Others will follow. It may take a long time to
change society, but it won’t come sooner than our own individual actions.
Your golden opportunity to start the
cultural healing — and to improve your own life — will come as soon as the next
confrontation. Will you take that opportunity?
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual leader of Tibet and
a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American
Enterprise Institute, a Washington Post columnist and author of “Love Your