I'd like to think I can get away with being careless every so often, but the truth is, I can see how the slightest edge in my voice, the tiniest amount of anger or ill will, is obvious to everyone and just leads to more of the same. It's nice that the opposite is also true: kindness leads to kindness. I notice I can even topple my anger, with love. In this episode, what does any of that have to do with the law? Plenty.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call #304. On today’s Call I want to talk about how One Thing Leads to Another: how anger leads to anger, how peace leads to love, and maybe how to choose peace in the law.
There’s wisdom we’ve probably all heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It’s carved on the wall of Dr. King’s memorial in Washington.
I’m guessing saying is echoed in or derived from Christian theology, since that was Dr. King’s path…although he was also a good friend of the great Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
The saying has a parallel in classical mindfulness as well, where it’s one of the fundamental teachings – the first teaching - from a beloved text called the Dhammapada. In that text, it goes something like this (this is Gil Fronsdal’s translation): if we “speak or act with a corrupted mind…suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.” And, if we “speak or act with a peaceful mind…happiness follows, like a never-departing shadow.”
As with much of mindfulness, there’s an example that goes along with the teaching. In this case, the example is, ““They abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” For those carrying on like this, hatred does not end…and for those not carrying on like this, hatred ends.”
And then the teaching concludes with something that sounds very much like Dr. King: “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.”
No matter how many times I’ve read this, and practiced with it in my own portable practice, the question for me remains, how can it work in the law?
Take the example. “They abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” I feel like I hear that all the time. Lawyers say it, clients say it, friends complain to friends – my one friend who says, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, sit by me.” “You won’t believe what happened,” we say, “he attacked me, they took that from me, how dare she?” I can find myself right there.
In a way, this lament, ““They abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” – isn’t that the reason a client comes to a lawyer (and sometimes the reason a friend comes to a friend)? In the law, in the public interest arena, sometimes there’s a greater harm being addressed and it’s less about some one person claiming they were abused or robbed, but sometimes someone is making that claim. In the private sector, the refrain can be really personal: this person abused me or defeated me or my company – how can I get them back? What can I recover?
Of course the law is adversarial, so in one way, the refrain is just a reflection of the system. And since most folks aren’t necessarily studying mindfulness when they hire a lawyer, they’re not aware that a refrain like this will only perpetuate grief. In fact they believe the opposite. They believe that the appropriate thing to do is to complain – we might be filing a “complaint” for them, right? – and then obtain redress, and that by doing this, they can stop the cycle of suffering.
As much as this is the way our system works, from a mindfulness perspective, this is an incorrect point of view. However much the person “recovers,” it will not stop the cycle of suffering – theirs, or the person against whom they prevail. But unless they – and we – are aware, or remember, that hatred cannot drive out hate, that only love can do that, that only by non-hate does it end [and] that this is an ancient truth – unless we are aware of that, we aren’t free to choose love.
And if we aren’t aware, or don’t remember, not only does hatred not drive out hate, but it does the opposite. It creates more suffering. Not just for the person or institution we’re hating, but for us. That’s why in classical mindfulness, hatred is considered an “affliction.”
So how do we not bring hatred, or if that’s too strong a word, ill will or frustration or anger, into our advocacy? How do we dive in and advocate, whether for the good or just because the client demands it, and do that without ill will, even when the client is full of ill will?
I think it’s not easy. One of the reasons it’s. not easy is that ill will can deceive: it can feels like it’s providing energy. I’ve had many lawyers and law students say their anger is what gives them motivation, that it’s righteous, that it’s protective.
I understand, as best as I can from a privileged perspective, or at least I hear, that righteous anger is motivational, and protective.
And yet I also see, from my own practice, that Dr. King was right and the ancient texts are right: anger doesn’t end anger. The minute I get angry, or my anger shows up even if I think I’m hiding it, it’s like a poison arrow that lodges in the person I’m speaking or working with, and then they pull out the arrow, clean it off, straighten it out, put it into their own bow, draw back the string, and let it fly…right back to me. And then I do the same, and then they do the same, and that’s what we have: a profession; a world, driven by hate, or ill will, or intolerance. Not by love. And yet “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Unfortunately most of the time, I’ve already let the arrow fly before I realize what I’m feeling. I don’t take the time – the breath, really – to check in, see what I’m feeling, and if it’s anger or resentment or any form of ill will, empty my quiver and set down my bow. I don’t give myself the freedom to do that. But when I read Dr. King first phrase, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” I think he meant that ignorance cannot drive out ignorance, that only the light of awareness can give us the freedom to find our way.
So this doesn’t mean, don’t have anger, don’t have ill will. That’s unrealistic. It just means that if our goal is a more compassionate, loving, society, then compassion and love need to be how we lead, because if we “speak or act with a corrupted mind…suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.” If we “speak or act with a peaceful mind…happiness follows, like a never-departing shadow.” And awareness is how we know what we’re leading with. And we’re always free to choose.
Kigaku Noah Rossetter said recently, “We are the authors of our own destiny. Being the authors, we are ultimately, perhaps frighteningly, free.” Maybe that’s also what Dr. King, and the ancient text, are saying.