Universal Love & Compassion

A man works and can only work for himself. When he feels he is working for someone else he is either immature or foolish. ~ Sri Swami Rudrananda

Much-touted in modern spiritual circles is the notion of universal love. Yogis in particular — whether we or others call us Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, or anything else — are supposed to cultivate compassion (or loving-kindness, depending on your preferred interpretation) above nearly all other virtues. I am not here for the clickbaiting task of “disabusing my readership of that mistaken notion”, but I am interested in exploring the concept further. As I’ve said before, I write primarily to process my own experiences, but I share what I write in hopes helping others to do the same. We needn’t always come to the same conclusion to help one anothers’ process.

The yogi is under no obligation to display universal kindness. Kindness is not goodness. It has no inherent value. It is a social lubricant which can be good in its place and time, but in excess or used in the wrong circumstances kindness makes it difficult or impossible to understand the real dynamic of a situation.

The Christian thinker C. S. Lewis — if I am remembering correctly in his book The Problem of Pain — puts it that “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” Though I no longer call myself a Christian, the wisdom of C. S. Lewis will stick with me on many points; it is perhaps his vision of Christianity which has colored my perception of what Christianity ought to be quite distinct from what it in fact is. To this point, Lewis does not mean to denigrate kindness, but to put it in a much greater context. Kindness is neither the only nor the greatest of virtues, and like any other virtue we can easily lose sight of all the others by digging into it exclusively.

Love is “more stern” because it is ready to support the growth of its object. If I am merely kind to my wife, I wish just to keep her contented and quiet, but if I love her, I will support her as she works to learn and grow and better herself though it requires some sacrifice of us both. A good marriage is one in which this love goes both ways. The same is true of authentic friendship, and so on. (In principle, each member of a Christian congregation is supposed to feel this about the congregation as a whole; we see in practice how rarely this is so, as this sort of love is fairly uncommon in any relationship.)

Vitally, kindness would prefer the status remain quo. For most of us, kindness is merely laziness of feeling.

Individuality and individualism are troublesome ideas to grapple with, but are immediately relevant to the present discussion. Individuality is not itself a problem. The yogi must, in fact, recognize their own individuality and come to grips with the components of it. Individualism, however, makes a religion out of one’s own identity. American culture and the many — many — diseases within it are largely the doing of the cult of individualism. Where a mature individual can see how their own difficulties are similar (in some ways, at least) to those of others and therefore display empathy and compassion, the individualist is so caught by their own (ironically) group or population identity that the difficulties of anyone outside those identities is that of a distant alien at best or of a hated enemy at worst. Usually it will switch from one to the other depending upon how much those “others” try to better their own position…

I wrote in another article that “I am very much of the mind that social pressure, whether exerted by one person or by an entire culture, is something like the interaction of the balance of kleshas among all the people involved.” In other words, much of the time even when we think we are doing good when we put social pressure on others we are projecting our own kleshas on to other people and the world at large. Unfortunately, when those who actually hold the power perceive others as threats to their hegemony, this pressure invariably becomes violence — a physical projection of their kleshas upon the world.

Violence breeds violence. This trite cliché is no less true for how much we hear it and think we understand it. When a hegemonic power lashes out to protect the egos of its constituents, it cannot be surprised when the response is a violent resistance. We needn’t condone violence to understand its causes and even to sympathize with those who see it as their only recourse in the face of a real existential threat presented by those who use it to protect against a merely conceptual threat to their little reified selves. When the kleshas get rolling, it takes a monumental effort to break their momentum. And, like a virus, they spread.

The healthy individual can make a conscious decision in the midst of all this not to allow the infection to take hold in them. That does not mean that the healthy individual will never display force, but that they will do so deliberately rather than reflexively. Violence for them will be a last resort, and to be used decisively like a great general might, so that the harm to both sides may be minimized and the rebuilding begin as soon as possible. The coward alone wants to extend or expand violence because the coward cannot imagine wanting the good of his opponent once the fighting ends; the coward is so afraid that he cannot even imagine cooperation with anyone who is unlike himself.

Mahasiddhas, Rishis, etc., sometimes showed very intense anger and disrespect. Famously, masters of Chan and Zen Buddhism will use brief but intense bursts of force to produce a shock in their students. Sri Dadaji Dhuniwala and Sri Chellapaswami were both known to yell and throw things at those who approached them for teachings or blessings when the asking would be vain. My own lineage currently features a sincere but gnomish “gatekeeper” whose job is explicitly to allow applicants for instruction to filter themselves out. My first mentor in said lineage was very kind and patient — except for a few moments when being pointed produced better results. It is worth noting that an individual of my acquaintance who most glorifies in the unnecessary use of violence against those who are already hurting was the first to tell me that the harsh but helpful words of a teacher were “inappropriate” on the grounds that for him to have one’s identity and assumptions challenged is as bad as death.

Sri Rudrananda’s quotation at the head of this entry may seem extremely selfish. In fact, it is a call to radical responsibility. If I join an organization or a movement, even if I just give to a charity or another individual in need, it is as much a part of my process as is my daily meditation practice. If I am smart about it, I can engage with this fact directly and make the most out of it. If I am naive and think that my actions are only external, I miss a great opportunity to learn about myself and to grow inwardly. I am most truly useful when I am in touch with my individuality. Apart from that, I do incredible harm through all of my kindnesses. It is better to be truthfully angry than (self-)deceptively nice. Of course, I must eventually grow through that anger, but if I acknowledge that it is there, and know why it is there, it becomes so much fertilizer to my root system. If I am dishonest with myself and ignorant of my own motives, everything is poison.

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