Peace, joy, and blaming the victim: What the Dalai Lama got wrong
This essay was originally published at AlainaMabaso.com in 2015.
This is going to start out with a little true story, and don’t worry, it will make sense soon.
My cousin came to visit her mom, my aunt, while I also was staying here, and while she, my cousin, was here, she purchased and consumed a food item known as headcheese, which is a “meat jelly” made by boiling the head of an animal, like a pig. Well, she consumed part of it. Part of it was still left in the fridge when she caught her flight back to PDX.
When my aunt discovered the abandoned headcheese a few days later, it was quite ripe, or riper than it had originally been, to the extent that this is possible. Since there were still a few days to go until trash day, she put the headcheese into the freezer, to shield us from any further decomposition before the trash went out.
Now take a look at this quotation, supposedly from the Dalai Lama:
What does this have to do with the disposal of headcheese?
Let me digress a little more, but I promise I’ll pull it all together.
When I was at Christian boarding school, the loudest teacher on campus had a favorite saying (besides her promise that she would lie down in the church aisle should any of us attempt to get married before the age of 35).
“If ever I am offended,” she would trumpet, green eyes flashing and black curls flailing, “the problem is with me!”
I really bought into it. It seemed like an insulating, empowering philosophy to a teenager who made top grades, edited the school paper, starred in the school musical, and then dissolved into tears every time she shut the door of her dorm room, slicing ladders of scars up her arms and legs with an X-ACTO blade as a punishment for all her perceived failures, a desperate attempt to redirect a mental agony that had learned nowhere to turn but inside.
If I could just remember that no-one else had the power to make me feel bad, and that any anger or discomfort I felt was really the result of my own shortcomings, prejudices, or insecurities, I could take control of my feelings and sail unruffled through my life.
Take a look at this nugget from a yogi in the Facebook feed:
When I look under the surface of both of these quotations, and my former teacher’s philosophy, the same theme jumps out at me. They’re all essentially a doctrine of interpersonal passivity in the face of adversity.
I mean, just look at that last line from Yogi Bhajan: “[Y]ou will, over a period of time, cease to react at all.”
These bits of pseudo-psychology are pretty hot in my feed right now, and each one yanks me back to my 18-year-old self, desperately wanting to believe that I could be the master of my own feelings if I just tried hard enough, just kept the right attitude, just gained the ability to look inward and find peace rather than calling out the jerks when the world seemed to crumble into meanness and misery around me.
My former teacher had another favorite saying which connected well with her theatrical inclinations: “Everyone is waiting in the wings to be offended!”
Again, the point was that if we’re offended by something, we’re being too reactive to other people: anger at slights and injustice is an inappropriate response. In a world where everyone else wants an excuse to be pissed off, you can choose to stay above the fray.
Take this halcyon placard from a contemporary wellbeing guru who enjoys a large social media following:
The message is the same. Keep the grief to yourself. Don’t react. Getting angry, arguing, or taking action for your own views, or “pushing” others to understand you, won’t get you anywhere. Take the quiet, passive route, without trying to jolt anyone out of his or her headspace, and the world will magically become your oyster.
This bit of wisdom takes it even further:
It’s not enough to stop yourself from acting. You have to stop yourself from thinking, too. Just breathe; be; accept; and it’ll all work out fine.
I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t see the truth in these: that grain of health and goodness that hooks us into clicking “share.”
It is a sad state of affairs if you let every impingement and violation from mean, naïve, stupid, selfish, or narcissistic people govern your state of mind. You would never even be able to drive, watch TV, or go to the store without melting in rage. Particularly if you do not face systematic injustice or stigma in your life (as in the case of white, straight, financially stable, able-bodied, cisgender Christian people in America), it would be valuable and quite possible to cultivate a peaceful perspective on life’s myriad little insults. Mean comments don’t have anything to do with you; there is nothing serious at stake if you sit back and wait for better times when trauma or disagreements occur. In fact, your peacefulness and quiet in the face of trouble, your ability to look inwards instead of assigning blame, will bring about the scenario you wanted all along — and if not, it’s ok, because you’re secure in your own self.
I have to live by this all the time in my professional life. If you want to write for a living, you need to be able to handle all kinds of vitriol from readers who have missed the point, or who disagree with you (especially in the age of social media). My policy is to shrug and move on to the next piece. You might hate me, but I can’t police your opinions.
But when it comes to my personal life, these memes really burn me up, even though I realize they may be valuable for some people. I don’t want to take a kind of micro/macro fallacy here, i.e., the concept that for a thing to be valuable or good, it must be applicable to everyone, the greater group as well as the individual. This is the kind of nonsense you might hear from anti-gay crusaders who argue we’d cease to exist if everyone was homosexual, and therefore homosexuality is deviant and wrong, instead of being one kind of identity on the vast vibrant spectrum of humanity.
You can be tingly about the Dalai Lama and Abraham-Hicks. I can choose never to attend any of their events. The world will go on.
But here’s something I think about. I see a lot of these types of messages in my social media feeds, and who are spreading them? Women, in my experience. I rarely see men sharing quotations (even if they’re from male leaders) about a patient, passive, internalized response to the things that hurt us or make us angry.
Is that important?
Yes. I’m not ready to publicly detail the reasons I feel strongly about this in my life right now, but there is a very real dark side to the constant attempt to shift the genesis of your feelings from other people onto yourself, especially when the burden of this philosophy circulates primarily among women. If you’re in a healthy society, a healthy family, a healthy partnership, a healthy mind and body, this may soothe and benefit you. But if you’re the victim of crime, discrimination and disenfranchisement, mental or physical illness, or abuse, I can’t think of anything more toxic than making these things your own responsibility, keeping quiet, and schooling yourself not to act or react.
No matter how hard you try to live the life you want, terrible things may happen to you. Many of these things will be directly perpetrated by other people, or an institutionalized system of injustice. If you fail to see the wrong of others’ actions with a clear eye, stand up for yourself and take action to protect yourself from the people who would hurt you, and speak the painful truths that others don’t want to hear, you could slide into an unimaginable, self-annihilating pit of grief.
Or that’s what happened to me, at least.
So I don’t want to hear that it’ll all be fine if I just keep quiet and breathe and believe that other people make me feel bad only if I let them.
The reason I am still here — walking, writing, paying the bills, alive — is that I finally shed the false paradigm that my worst problems originated in my own self. With the right help, I recognized the toxic influences that were sapping my will to live, and stood up against them. Sorry, Dalai Lama. Some things are somebody else’s fault, and I could never have wrestled my own life into a safer phase without facing that, terrifying and disempowering as it can feel.
To me, overly simplistic messages about being solely responsible for your own keel in life clear a wide path to acceptance of serious abuses. It’s a fine line between declaring that you yourself are responsible for all of your feelings, and blaming the victims of trauma. The flip side of declaring that everyone is waiting in the wings to be offended is the idea that you’re not responsible for the hurts you inflict on others.
For me, following the Dalai Lama’s advice would’ve been like leaving the headcheese in the fridge and telling ourselves that the smell would bother us only if we let it. No. Gross as they are (sorry, headcheese enthusiasts), some things must be removed to the freezer and then banished to the curb, and some people will ruin your life if you don’t take the right steps to challenge and contain them.
Or, if all else fails, this is a placard I might be able to get behind: