I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Art of Communicating this week, and something he says early on struck me. He says that whenever you find yourself in the midst of toxic conversation, “you have to protect yourself with the energy of compassion so that when you listen, instead of consuming toxins, you’re actively producing more compassion in yourself. When you listen in this way, compassion protects you and the other person suffers less.”
The first time I read this, I found myself resisting the idea. Wouldn’t putting on armor, even of the compassionate kind, only generate more anxiety and disconnection from the people around me? But when I read the passage again, it no longer seemed like this is what he’s suggesting. Instead of consuming toxins, you’re actively producing more compassion in yourself. It’s like he’s saying that receiving someone else’s words, hurtful though they may be, can be a fuel for warmth.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is social media and the geyser of anxiety from websites like Twitter and Facebook. At first, the idea of taking that spray to the face and transmuting it into something vaguely resembling compassion is almost laughable. But for the moment, if I take Thich Nhat Hanh at his word and act as if what he suggests is true, suddenly that geyser no longer seems like such a threat. It’s as if the geyser itself, for all its noise and motion, is made of stillness, calm, empty space. Could seeing hurtful words or actions this way actually result in more compassion for the one speaking those words or taking those actions, a person who is clearly suffering themself? The idea is jarringly sweet to me, sounding just as implausible as it does hopeful in the age of Twitter.
But what about violence? Or speech that incites violence?
This was another point of resistance for me. What about outright Nazis, racists, and homophobes? What about someone threatening to harm someone, or disparaging someone else’s background, identity, or experience, intentionally or not? Does having compassion for these people mean also being gentle with them? The reason I ask is that most of the time, authorities shame the people they oppress for not expressing their outrage civilly, for not engaging in calm, patient dialogue while they and their children are dying. There’s got to be space in this open field of compassion for standing up, making trouble, and disrupting the established order when someone else (especially someone with power) either makes a habit of crossing the line or has all but made their home miles past it.
What comes to mind is a passage from a book that I reference now and then, Time to Stand Up, by Thanissara, in which she shares one particular story of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama (you can also read the original text from the Majjhima Nikāya here). Gotama’s cousin, Devadatta, was very ambitious and always trying to take control of the Buddha’s order. When he wasn’t trying to assassinate the Buddha, he put on a front of concern for his aging cousin’s health, suggesting that he, Devadatta, should take charge instead. The Buddha’s blunt response: “I would not even hand over the Sangha to Sariputta or Moggallana [his chief, trusted disciples], let alone to you, you who should be coughed out like spittle.” (Reminder: this is the Buddha who is speaking!)
Thanissara says, “As Buddhists, we tend to shy away from confrontation, defining right speech as always gentle—which it is, but not when it colludes with damaging behavior [emphasis added]. There are times when it is important to speak clearly, with strength, to confront and expose deception.”
In the story of the Buddha, a certain Prince Abhaya comes to the Buddha with a question meant to trap him: would you, the Buddha, “say words that are unendearing and disagreeable to others?” If the Buddha says yes, then he’s no different or more enlightened than any regular chum. If he says no, then he’s a hypocrite for badmouthing his cousin. The Buddha’s answer to the question is hilariously simple: “There is no categorical yes-or-no answer to that.”
He goes further and gives the example of an infant who has swallowed a pebble or stick and is choking. Most of us would act without thinking and try to remove the foreign object, even if it meant hurting the child, because we know that if we do nothing, the infant might die. We wouldn’t have to think about it ahead of time; we would act on the spot. So too, the Buddha says, should one be intimate with the truth of the moment, and only then will one know the right thing to say or do in any situation.
Thich Nhat Hanh gives a similar message: “As you connect with yourself [that is, the truth of the moment], you begin connecting more deeply with other people. Without the first step, the second step isn’t possible.” If we’re not listening to our bodies and our thoughts and allowing them to hum and breathe as they choose, how can we know the “right” thing to say? Without attending to the moment, how will we notice the infant choking in our lap and take compassionate action without a second thought?
None of this means casting off the lessons of history or the tool that is our imagination. Yes, “conceptually,” “hypothetically,” and “historically” are neither here nor now, but they are important tools in which we may place our trust when the moment calls for action. Funny enough, the Buddha’s statement that “there is no categorical yes-or-no answer” is itself a categorical answer and should also not be taken too seriously. Someone may feel very “in the moment” and still hurt a child. Education itself may become a tool of oppression and inform harmful spur-of-the-moment choices on a daily basis. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the state’s violence against those it has dispossessed.
So how do we know what to say? How do we know what to do? Well, we don’t, not standing here anyway. A little later in his book, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If we can be aware of our in-breath and out-breath [that is, the present moment], we will remember that the one goal of compassionate communication is to help others suffer less.” Only in the naked awareness of our own minds and bodies and our own suffering can we begin to lighten the suffering of others. There is no categorical shape that those words or actions should take—gentle or rough, endearing or riotous. There’s an uncomfortable amount of trust in that, trust in ourselves and trust in not-knowing. But in this kind of discomfort, there lies the possibility of an end to suffering. I think that’s worth the struggle. ∎