The news has been filled with hatred and killing since we, “the number one bad animal,” as some have called our species jokingly and affectionately, first started walking the earth. Whether killing is related to ideology turned fundamentalist, an, “unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs,” or an unquestioned insistence on a particular worldview or rigid adherence to an exceptionalist way of viewing the world. Or it could be coming from greed, like a dispute about property, or an over-identification with a certain skin coloration, and so on. There are endless motives for folks to kill one another. If we added how many people have been “killed” in our imagination, the number would be considerably larger. Luckily, not all that is imagined or simulated in our minds during our frustrations with life’s relations, is actualized.
There are almost endless reasons leading to killing or torturing of humans by other humans. The one shared characteristic many contemplative types who have looked into a root cause, including myself, think leads to that final act of destruction of someone else, and oneself, as seen in recent mass killings, is the deeply held delusion or sense of individual separateness. This unquestioned conviction that I am here and you are out there. A worldview or emphasis on our separateness may start simple and seemingly logical. We enter the world and its messages and identify with just our minds, or just our bodies, or just our immediate family. Anything that isn't perceived as related, or is unknown gets a category of “other”. Given enough time and generations however, these tightly held views of subject vs object, self and other, heaven vs earth, etc. get concretized and becomes unquestioned truth. Not just concretized in our minds and bodies, but also in the field and forms of time, the kind of world we have made with our minds. This world we create today are yesterday's, “frozen thoughts”.
Humans who suffer from a constant undercurrent of hatred and enmity, have, I sense and recognize from experience, deeply held confusion and alienation about their nature, a lack of intimacy with the great mystery that we are all manifestations of. I believe hate filled humans, and perhaps all of us to various degrees, can also inherit hatred from our ancestors. This may be stored in the subconscious, and perhaps be carried on epigenetically somehow, revealing itself in somatic forms in the body and the way we react in certain situations. This sense of separate and seemingly concrete self is bound to beget various degrees of greed, pride, hatred, (food, housing, material) insecurities, the belief in various types of scarcity, etc. One side effect of all this alienation, is fear of the “other”, the unknown, and desire to put up walls and hoard resources, resulting not just in personal armament escalations, but also collective inner, and consequently outer arms buildup. The belief that there are all these threats out there (most of which fears imagined, which then have a tendency to get externalized due to the fear of the unknown) result in a fortification of the perceived separate self. On a larger collective scale one can see this with nations who build up arms and walls to such an extent that they can kill the perceived externalized enemy many times over. So as the “walls of the mind” go up inside of us, inevitably, the walls outside the mind follow and manifest themselves into our world.
My overall sense is that killers, for example the recent person who limited his self-identification to a neo-Nazi, had to have enormous self-loathing (which is a miserable feeling, as pretty much all of us have experienced a taste of at some time in our lives) being very upset with someone or some situation. He must have felt a tremendous amount of alienation from a large number of human beings. My sense is that many deeply hateful humans are not just alienated from other groups, from those who were “different”, but also from their own authenticity, the parts of themselves that are not so sure about everything, from their vulnerable authentic human side. I don't believe this alienation and hatred is limited to just a certain religious group. A person who ends up killing other humans would have also likely felt alienation from the sky, the moon, the earth, and all the forms of life that grace and communicate with us without words each moment in this world. Being able to listen deeply to our world is a big if. If we are open and receptive, allowing some stillness to settle our restlessness, and perhaps trained by our wisdom tradition to receive these transmissions. This mystery of the world around us, if slowing down enough to look deeper, is also pointing and reminding us constantly to our vast and boundless, and inter-dependent nature.
The victims of the latest murder suicides, after all, came out of the same dark and rich earth and have 99.9999 percent the same DNA as the killer. They had joys, hopes and dreams, beating hearts, and fears just like himself. In the killer's, or the fundamentalists over-identification with his or her separateness and certain ideas or beliefs, these folks failed to recognize and appreciate the “other” as intimate family. Most humans struggle with seeing everyone as precious family, or we wouldn't quite be so hateful or disregarding to each other and the earth and sky we totally depend on. This narrowed objectified worldview of self and “other” can pave the way for someone to choose to end their lives, and the lives of people never made intimate, who were presumed to be a threat that needed eliminating.
In a smaller sense I also believe that an individual and the folks who influenced his life, like the recent neo-Nazi, took thousands of smaller steps towards that final act of premeditated killing. To better understand these small and seemingly insignificant steps that might have contributed to a person killing, I think it is also helpful to have the humility and willingness to look more deeply at how far or not we are removed from the act of killing humans or other life ourselves, or as a collective of individuals.
While most of us don't kill nor want to kill fellow human beings purposely, I think we underestimate and prefer to not think too much about how often we are indirectly involved. And we need balance for good reason, it can be depressing! Well-known experiments like the Milgram experiments in the 1960s, repeated in various forms over the years since, have proven again and again, that over 60 percent of any of us are willing to administer death by way of a fatal dose of electric-shock to another human being. This test shows a human being on the other side of a room, divided by a window. A person who is just like us, who we don't even hate, who is not on death row. Yet this majority of us, is willing to shock another human being entirely voluntarily, if simply told it is OK, “keep on going”, by an authority figure or perceived figure of authority. In the Milgram experiments the authority figure was a researcher, but in other cases that “figure” of authority encouraging destructive behavior may be our belief, our parents beliefs, living in us as a sub-conscious “life-sentence” passed on by our ancestors that we never questioned, or other types of indoctrination, such as a religious text from our ancestors that we belief is literally true, etc.
While many of us wish to not kill and we try to limit our harm, we cannot avoid harming altogether. Just to illustrate with a couple of detailed examples below which may seem rather obvious, but how easy it is to forget! If we were to look at our typical waking up on the planet, from a western perspective, we can see that killing and harming is involved. We may wake up in the typical house, which was 983 square feet in 1950 had swelled to 2,349 square feet in 2004 — a 140 percent increase in size. (And everything about them consequently has to be bigger so it fits in, from larger garages to the professional-grade stoves and refrigerators. All of this will take more resources). We get out of bed, eat and feed our kids food which involved killing and displacing other life’s habitat (each one of our children will also have a similar footprint, and each of our children will likely also have offspring, multiply the future resource footprint accordingly). The food and sugared beverage portions have increased in the last 30 years considerably. The higher up on the food chain we choose to eat, (see carnivore resource footprint vs vegan footprint) and the more of us there are, the more resources have to be used, displaced, or killed to make the food. On top of that, we throw away 40 percent of our food. We put on some clothes which may have been made in unregulated sweat shops with unlivable wages and no health care provided, (leaving the producing workers to potentially pre-mature death or undiagnosed diseases etc.). Perhaps we put on some cosmetics which may have involved some animal testing and killing. We turn on our electronic gadgets and computers, which in order to keep the price down, were likely made in some off-shore plant with perhaps diminished living conditions leading to some suicides. Our obsolete electronics were likely shipped off to a third world country where inadequate worker protections lead the workers to be exposed to harmful levels of toxicity. Then we may click on the links in the news of who got killed thereby paradoxically encouraging news outlets to place killings more prominently on their news sites, since positive stories get fewer clicks, and thus fewer advertising revenues. This then may lead some individuals to conclude killing is what gets the world's attention for their cause, or simply for fame. Then we drive or get driven to work, (hopefully to a line of work that helps rather than harms), the roads further displaced a number of habitats and killed a number of animals. In terms of our politics, the majority of us still votes to kill someone who has killed, (survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that 62 percent favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder while 31 percent are opposed).
In extreme cases like the Wisconsin tragedy, the killing is based on the idea of a belief that something, in this case a certain religious affiliation is outside one's limited self-definition. I want to keep coming back to the root of the symptoms, a confusion about oneself and one’s place or relationship to this world. A person with deep hatred or extreme fundamentalism has the worldview, cut off from the heart and self-honesty, that externalizes certain things that are not liked. A view that disowns “evil”, dividing everything into self, and “other”, whether this “other” is race, sexual orientation or religion. Then this ultimate act of killing that “other”, is really the result of perhaps the culmination of countless small steps away from original state of wholeness and towards separateness. Put another way, these ultimate acts of destruction or terror are the end-result of a concretized belief in separateness, an un-integrated view of self vs other, me vs you, object vs subject. A self-alienating view that only sees the fragmentation, and not the whole. The same way the moon when reflected in an evening pond is fragmented when the pond is disturbed, but is showing one moon when settled. If a person only sees the fragmentation, but doesn’t wait to see the settled view of one moon, this person may think the moon is always fragmented. This is like the view that only sees individuality and differentiation, but misses the oneness of life that exists and flows through everything at the same time. I sometimes marvel at how relatively few mass murders happen, when you consider there are more than 300 million people in the U.S. alone and there are lots of messages that can feed alienation.
So are these recent murder suicides on U.S. soil and other cases of fundamentalism just isolated cases of a maniac terrorist? It is tempting to think the rest of society has nothing to do with these types of behavior whatsoever. However, from an interdependent point of view, we all influence these types of events with our state of minds, attitudes, and orientations, which become actions. Maybe the acts of violence won’t be our actions, but the actions of someone else who has gotten our non-verbal permission and approval. Today's human created world is the result of yesterday's frozen thoughts, so we must look very careful at all the thoughts we have every day. Regret is delayed illumination, says Joe Campbell. If we knew that any kind of mean spiritedness, however small and insignificant it may seem, influenced and nurtured small steps to a larger bloodbath later, we would think twice about the harmful jokes, or mean spirited attitudes. For some, it would be great if our “leaders” and celebrities would just take charge and get all these issues taken care of! However, our leaders reflect ourselves. We cannot escape that behind every action of a leader is a collective of individuals who nurtured and created this leader. We’re are met every day with situations where we can be co-complicit followers of harmful separating worldviews and consequences, or we can remind ourselves that we, each one of us, are all gifted unique offshoots connected to one root, and welcome the task of being co-creators of the present and future filled with boundless possibilities.
To realize-practice-verify oneness in the midst of differentiation is way easier said or intellectually understood, than embodied and lived in the everyday. Because our lives are so short, conditioned by the past and our surroundings, and limited in viewpoint, even the most mature humans stumble at this constantly. No need to put anyone on a pedestal, we’re all equal in the deepest sense. I would go so far as to abandon the practice of over-glorifying humans altogether. It is just another old habit designed to separate and divide, a great excuse for the folks surrounding such an elevated human being from trying harder to spiritually mature and engage the world themselves. To become at peace internally with the world, one has to start including, recognizing, befriending, and owning everything that was previously thought “other”, until at some point nothing and no-one feels like a stranger any longer. Until everything and everyone is seen, met, and related to as, transparent and radiant to the great mystery. There is a very powerful poem by a Thich Nhat Hanh reprinted below. The monk who wrote this spend most of his life in monastic practice. Please consider and contemplate what it says about us, when a person who has to a very large extent practiced, and embodied peace all their life, and who was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. can write like this.
Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
- Thich Nhat Hanh