Thanks to Christi for her addition to my list of scandals, yesterday. And how could I have forgotten Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, extreme rendition and those secret CIA prisons, and the "Justice" department's rationalizations to authorize torture? Not to mention the virtual neglect of yet another round of genocide in Darfur...
I was talking yesterday to my friend, the painter Mark Strickland, about his newest mural-sized painting "Indomitable Spirit". It's about the Holocaust. Arising in part out of his experience in sensitivity training with a group of actors in Rome, and in part out of a subsequent visit to the site of the Dachau concentration camp, it's a massive work which incorporates passages from Elie Wiesel's "Night" along with images of both agony and redemption. Our conversation turned my mind, of course, to the empty promises to "Never forget" and to the repeated acts of genocide in Cambodia, in Rwanda, and today in Darfur--acts which the world stood by and watched with apparent impotence and possible indifference.
All of which inspired a particularly uncomfortable meditation this morning, since I wanted to focus my mind on the reality of genocide, and on the stain it leaves on the consciousness of the human race. The effort led me on a three-step journey, unplanned in advance, but nonetheless powerful for that. The first step was the one I usually take, into as clear as possible a mindfulness of my own presence in the world--a body scan accompanying the observation of the breath, beginning with individual areas of the body and leading, finally, to a full body awareness, a heightened sense of my physical being in the context of everything around me until the boundaries start to evanesce and everything becomes a single, breathing universe.
Then, staying with the body, I found myself moving spontaneously into the second stage of the meditation, imagining myself the target of genocidal assailants: how it would be to have to watch the women and girls in my family raped and mutilated, our children pierced by bayonets or thrown into the flames of burning villages, my own body hacked apart by grinning sadists with machetes and left to rot in the blazing sun...
And then, moving even deeper into the darkness of the human heart and soul, I found it necessary to imagine myself the perpetrator, the one with the rifle or the machete in his hand, the one inflicting horrors on his fellow human beings, the one so dehumanized and so empty of consciousness and conscience that he is able to commit atrocities with a cold heart, contemptuous of the humanity of others. I tried insofar as possible to actually go through the motions, to feel these terrible actions in my body.
This last was the hardest part, and I'm sure there are those who will be puzzled, offended even, by the necessity I felt in going there. But I feel strongly that we will never begin to address the dreadful propensities of our species until we understand and acknowledge our part in them. It's all very well to point the finger at those "Nazis" or "the Janjaweed" and blame them for the atrocities--but in doing so, we conveniently dissociate ourselves from their actions without recognizing our part in having allowed them to happen. I think, too, that this is the only way I will ever be able to follow the Buddha's injunction to feel compassion for all living beings--including even those we loathe; because, to feel compassion, I have to find some place of empathy, no matter how vestigal, in my own experience.
The compassion that the Buddha teaches, I believe, is not a matter of tolerance or of forgiveness. Such acts would be unforgivable, even if we had the power to forgive them. It's not a suspension of judgment, either. Who can fail to judge behavior of this kind as heinous, heartless, reprehensible? All words seem feeble in the context of this kind of horror. No, but it's possible, I believe, to hold the perpetrators accountable for their deeds, and to be compassionate without absolving them of responsibility. And the first step toward such compassion would be the acknowledgment of shared humanity, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.