The War Within
Absolutely nothin’. Say it again, y’all.”
— Edwin Starr
Are you at war with yourself?
We tend to think of war as something that happens outside of us, involving weapons, nations, politics and the quest for domination.
But we are also at war within ourselves. At war with our feelings — when we ignore, numb, escape, sublimate. At war with our personalities — when we judge quirks and traits and characteristics we’ve decided are unacceptable. At war with the way we move and act in the world — when we criticize ourselves for choices we’ve made, “failures” we’ve brought about, or dreams or goals we still haven’t manifested. At war with our bodies — when we hate aspects of our physical looks, are angry with our bodies for not performing as we would like them to, or are frustrated with illness or aging. At war with our situations — when we refuse to accept that external circumstances change, or don’t change, and that we don’t always (hardly ever?) have ultimate control over outcomes.
Does any of this sound familiar? It is helpful to notice the places or times we are battling ourselves, to simply start to pay attention to this habit of struggle when it arises. As we learn more about these tendencies and bring awareness to all of it, we begin to have more choice — and we may choose more letting go, more peace, more acceptance, more love…rather than the fight.
Mindfulness practice is all about bringing every single bit of reality into the light — all the beautiful shiny joyful peaceful and happy parts, and also all the dark horrifying scary broken and sad parts. All of it. We bring our attention to whatever is happening, in the world and in ourselves, and we do our best not to judge it, but rather to allow it to be there in all its gorgeous glory or horrifying hideousness, whatever the case may be. We remain present for all of it. Only from this place of awareness can we see clearly and act skillfully. But when we fight ourselves, we do the exact opposite. We close the door on our reality, our experience. And we harm ourselves (and, ultimately, others) profoundly in the process. For who knows what wisdom and freedom might wait on the other side of that closed door.
The Buddhist tradition identifies three main poisons (kleshas) that “cloud the mind and result in unwholesome actions”: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion. They are also spoken of as Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance. Certainly they are visible in our species — destructive, angry, insecure, consuming, confused humans in the process of destroying life on Earth as we know it. But keep watch, for these poisons are not just “out there” in others. We can’t just blame the government, or the media, or society, or Big Oil, or other people whose beliefs differ from ours. These poisons are just as surely “in here”, in our own hearts and minds. And it is our job in this lifetime to discover, uproot, and transform these forces within ourselves, to say, “no more”, and finally lay down our own angry fire.
This is why all the great Buddhist teachers talk about cultivating peace within as an solution for creating peace in the world. The cliche is true. We are basically little war machines walking around wreaking havoc, so often offering thoughts, words and actions that arise from ignorance, hostility, fear and denial. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can get a handle on it, start to learn about these aspects of ourselves, begin the work of healing our own internal conflicts, of crafting peace treaties with ourselves, of creating cease fires that save lives and hearts and make room for more and more love and kindness all the time. This is where meditation practice comes in. Sit. Every day. Watch, breathe, observe, learn, love, heal.
Hatred is War. Aversion is War. Anger is War. Judgment is War. Regret is War. Lack of Forgiveness is War. So where are you at war with yourself? As an experiment this month, start to notice when you have a feeling of judgment, dislike, aversion, disgust, or shame directed toward yourself. And then see if you can pause and just observe the feeling. Hold it gently, not feeding the story around it, but rather sensing the energy of it and where it resides in your body. And then from this place of presence, see if there is room for some love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Embrace the difficult, the sick, the old, the embarrassing, the weak, the shattered, the scared, the scattered, and breathe some love, some space, into that aspect of yourself. Make just a little bit of room for the possibility of healing, rather than hostility. And see what happens.
May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace,