My spiritual practice aims to cultivate a mind and heart that can find compassion for all beings. After the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in India, I was feeling lost and defeated. I emailed a dear friend, “I can’t find compassion for the men who raped and killed her,” I wrote. “My heart is just not capable of doing that.” My friend, sujatha baliga, is also a teacher to me as well as a lawyer working in restorative justice.
Besides being a graduate from Harvard University, sujatha is a student of the Dalai Lama and has been deep in the study and practice of Buddhism for decades. Her response radically shifted the state of my heart. She wrote:
I find it useful to understand where people are coming from when they do the hideous things that they do. What we know is that 53% of children in India are sexually abused, and that over half of those are boys. I have no doubt in my mind that the young men who did this were harmed in some way. People do not act in these ways without trauma of some sort, either physical or psychological or sexual, as the root of their behaviors. Every incarcerated person I have ever met has suffered unthinkable harm in their childhood.
The abuse and harm people suffer in their childhood is never an excuse to go on and do harm. But it is an explanation as to why it happened. By starting with compassion for what people suffer, and for how it sets them up in part for doing great harm, can be the cause of great compassion from us. Also, by lovingly bringing people into awareness about the harms that they suffered as children, or in life in general, they are able to start to develop empathy for their victims, and would be victims, and by helping people touch the depths of their own sorrow, they will begin to understand the depths of others sorrow. And that is how they will begin to stop doing great harm.
I read her words and cried and cried. I could feel the knots behind my heart loosen and prana begin to flow. It was much easier for me to feel compassion for an abused boy than for an adult rapist. Finally, compassion became a consideration.
Many people do things that challenge our capacity to feel compassion. But it is very much our work – even in the wake of the most horrible things done – to be compassionate.
One of the great challenges is mustering up compassion when we feel that the victims of others behaviors are particularly helpless, or when we identify with the victim. In the latter case, where we identify with the victim, the ego is particularly strong in resisting feelings of compassion for those who’ve done great harm.
But this is a particularly wonderful opportunity for stretching the boundaries of our compassion.
Compassion, however, is not some insipid dictate that has no teeth in the wake of harm. Holding people accountable for the things they have done wrong is, indeed, compassionate. But that doesn’t mean we harm those who have done harm in order to teach them a lesson. Actually, harming those who’ve harmed teaches nothing. Studies show that recidivism does not decrease when we punish harshly.
Nor does harsh punishment deter others from bad behavior. So the execution, or even incarceration for life, of those young men will do nothing to stop them or others from doing harm.
I later spoke to sujatha over the phone. “We have to understand the needs of our enemies,” she said.
Everything sujatha says is imbued with deep understanding, the stepping stone to compassion. This is what the Buddha taught; Shanti Paramita; the ability to receive, embrace and transform pain. The way to do this is to slow down our reactions and make time to look deeply at the root causes for people to hurt others. From understanding comes forgiveness. If we go to the other side of anger and hatred, thinking it is better to hurt the other than to understand the other, we continue the cycle of pain.
It is so incredibly difficult. Pausing, looking deeply, understanding, forgiving are all skills that take time to develop. Thankfully, through meditation and yoga, we have the tools to develop these qualities and stretch the perceived limits of our hearts. Thankfully, we have a lineage that is strong and powerful and alive and that guides us step by step.
May we ask for help from our teachers and friends when we need it. May we empty ourselves of ego and allow another to shower their gifts upon us. We bow to our teachers in this tradition because our teaches have the ability to transform our hearts and this is priceless. When we bow, we are never bowing to anything separate from us. We are bowing to our potential. May the qualities of awareness, compassion and generosity that I see in sujatha, awaken inside of me. When I bow, I water the seeds of compassion inside of me and plant the intention for them to grow.
(sujatha baliga prefers her name to not be capitalized)