There are so many times I've said something tinged with meanness, hostility, even violence. It's hard for me to write those words, but I know they're true.
Do you see that in yourself?
If you do, let's talk about how to say things differently, without judging or retaliating against ourselves. If you don't, maybe listen anyway.
Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 329. I hope you’re doing well and staying safe. It’s the last couple of weeks of the darkest days of the year up here in the global north, and of the lightest days in the global south, and wherever you are on this beautiful blue planet, I also hope you’re finding joy.
Last week we took a look at Chapter 9 of the Dhammapada, Evil. The gist of the chapter is, crowd out evil thoughts and enhance positive ones. And I mentioned that the title of the chapter, “Evil,” felt somewhat alarming to me.
Well, this week’s chapter, Chapter 10, is called Violence. So there’s another alarming title. But I do think it’s a good thing to talk about.
The chapter opens with these verses:
All tremble at violence; all fear death. Seeing others as being like yourself, do not kill or cause others to kill.
All tremble at violence; life is dear for all. Seeing others as being like yourself, do not kill or cause others to kill.
I want to tell you a story about violence, mine. No judgment, but this is the truth about how I feel.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I was, once. I started practicing mindfulness in 1993, when I randomly attended a workshop called, Introduction to Mindfulness, at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. I say “randomly” because I was a newly single mother, my ex was with our baby girl that weekend, which was rare, and mindfulness was what was on offer. James Baraz was the teacher, and he’s still my teacher today, so there’s that amazing blessing.
On the first day of the workshop, in the first session, James led us in an eating meditation. It’s a classic: raisins get passed around, participants are encouraged to taste the raisins, imagine where they came from, all the people it took to get them into their hands, how the earth and the sun make raisins possible, and so on. It’s a beautiful, powerful, meditation. I had no idea how powerful until I walked into the dining hall that evening, and one option was chicken. And I looked at the chicken and didn’t eat meat again for five years.
But eventually I gave up being a vegetarian, and there are so many moments I really feel that choice. Maybe because, as the verse says, I experience life as dear and fear death, and I suspect cows and chickens and fish and lambs and ducks and all the animals I eat also experience life as dear and fear death. Just look at how they care so lovingly for their young. So this eating meat is a point of sorrow for me, and I think partly because of that, I feel the truth of these verses. Maybe one day shift back (or forward?) and stop causing others to kill so that I can eat the animals they’re killing.
So that’s one relationship I have to violence. Here’s another way of looking at violence, in another verse in the chapter:
Don’t speak harshly to anyone; what you say will be said back to you. Hostile speech is painful, and you will meet with retaliation.
And here’s yet another:
Even while doing evil, fools are ignorant of it. Like someone burned by fire, those lacking wisdom are scorched by their own deeds.
This is the set of verses – or, mindfulness instructions - that I think invites us, and I’d say with some urgency, to really hold up a mirror.
How many times have I spoken harshly? Or said something ostensibly not harsh, but underneath, there’s harshness? Even violence? How many times have you? It may be well-disguised, or it may be thinly disguised, but it’s there. I was talking with a teammate the other day and realized there was an edge to my voice. I was on a chat yesterday and the person wasn’t understanding what I was asking, and I used all caps to explain something. These are brief moments of violence.
The word itself makes me turn away. And yet if I’m being truthful, it’s the right word.
I can tell when it’s happening because the tone of the conversation changes. There is retaliation, even if subtle. Violence begets violence as hate begets hate, as Gandhi and Dr. King reminded us. If the ancient sages had been speaking to lawyers they’d probably be even more emphatic, because speech is a weapon in the law. And when we use it that way, we can pretty much count on the other person returning the favor.
I don’t know about you, but I can also retaliate against myself, scorch myself when I notice I’ve said something violent, even if only teensily violent. I feel dismay, or even disgust. I feel like I should have tamed my mind better, or just flat been more kind. So there’s that level of retaliation and scorch, too.
So we have this invitation, or maybe obligation, to put some real effort into this. And some real mindfulness, and virtue, too. Because if our job as lawyers is to be the most passionate advocates possible for our clients, our job as mindful lawyers is to titrate between using words as weapons because our clients want that (and often feel they need that), and also because we want to go for that skewering effect, right? – to titrate between that, and being a good and wise human.
I don’t think we have to choose one or the other, though. I think we can do both. One way I try to work with this is to practice discernment. Remember the four steps of discernment? Set good intentions. Remember that everything we say, and the way we say it, really and truly matters. Do no harm. And the big one – the one that’s about self-awareness and not turning away or being defensive or in denial: check in frequently: before you speak (or write, or post – that’s a big one), while doing so, after, and a while after, to see if there’s any violence, and harm being done. And apologize if there is.
And also don’t scorch yourself with dismay.
I love this as one small, daily way to address and end suffering. Which is just what Chapter 10 says:
Like a good horse [or lawyer] alert to the whip, be ardent and alarmed. With faith, virtue, effort, concentration, and discernment, accomplished in knowledge and good conduct, mindful, you will leave this great suffering behind.