Peace, joy, and blaming the victim: What the Dalai Lama got wrong

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.

No.

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:

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26 Comments

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  1. Everyone has to find his or her own way through this difficult journey we call life. Friends and family can help a lot more than sayings. Don’t even let the head cheese in YOUR frig in the first place.

  2. Interesting post. (By the way, I read your other post yesterday about your excruciating PT! Wow.)

    I see what you mean about how this type of advice sounds like blaming the victim for the pain they experience at the hands of another. People will be assholes (or worse), and we have no control over that, but we do have a fair amount of control over how much of others’ rotten behavior we allow to seep into us and spoil our opinions of ourselves. Obviously, in the case of abuse, especially childhood abuse, this philosophy of handling things internally isn’t helpful and can even be destructive. But in many other lesser situations, such as dealing with garden variety assholes & bullies at work or school, we can limit their destructive influence on us by “getting zen about it”– the phrase I use to remind myself that THEY are the ass, I can’t stop them from being an ass, and I’m not going to give them my attention, respect, or time. Externally, that can look like passive acceptance, but internally, I am active in my efforts to squelch them from my thoughts.

    By the way, I don’t think assholes should get by with bad behavior. I think it’s totally justified to call them out, an sometimes it feels empowering to engage with them in a fight. But it’s up to you how much energy you want to put into something that almost never gets resolved in your favor, and only prolongs the time you spend on that awful thing you wish wasn’t there in the first place.

    Have you read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning?” He wrote “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This attitude is what helped him survive his years in a concentration camp. That book had a powerful influence on me, and I often find myself thinking that if he could hang onto his core identity through the concentration camps, then surely I can figure out a way to not let this random jerk ruin my day.

    I like the notion of the head cheese being like rotten behavior that’s impossible to ignore. This reminds me of the time I forgot about some ramen noodles in my microwave for 4 weeks. I’ve never smelled anything worse, before or since. It smelled like the devil’s B.O. There’s no way I can ever forget it and I feel like it took several years off my life.

    • Yeah I totally agree about not losing your cool over garden-variety assholes, and picking your battles. I am thinking more in terms of scenarios like bigotry or abuse in your personal or professional life (bigotry being a form of abuse, I think), where there really are steps you need to take to manage the problem/problematic person besides coping in your own headspace.

      The Frankl quote is really interesting and I can see all kinds of implications there — the ability to survive a horrific scenario, but also the ways that a rotten situation you can’t escape or believe you can’t escape can force you to change in order to cope, and then the way those changes might seem abnormal or antisocial when you get back to a healthier world, but really are remnants of how you needed to be to survive. Sort of like the way a soldier can have trouble adapting to civilian life after a long spate in a dangerous combat zone.

      As women we definitely have to get “Zen” about a whole lot of things, I think, including stuff like street harassment — you just need to be able to walk on without getting riled up or fighting back every time, sometimes just for your own safety.

      I’m sorry but your story about the ramen noodles had me in stitches. Good lord, four weeks!?! You must not use your microwave much. Makes me think of one of my own life’s worst smells: that time we got home from a family vacation in my childhood and the cat had let her wet food sit out in the hot air for seven days. I couldn’t even go into the house for an hour or two.

  3. Great post. LOVE that last nugget of wisdom. Hope you and I both live happily ever after.

    • Yeah it’s pretty damn good advice in a lot of cases. Thanks Roz!

      • I really like your comment about it being primarily women who post all those lovely quotes about internalizing everything and that will make things better. I realize that is a bit of an exaggeration but I have my own theory on why that is. as children we are taught by society that women are the gentler, more thoughtful breed. that being said we are expected to be calmer, more forgiving, more lenient, more adaptable, more gentle, and nicer then men. as a result women tend to put far more pressure on themselves to be what others want/need them to be; and in my opinion are more likely to suffer from depression and other ailments because of it. Women tend to internalize emotions for such a long time that they eventually “explode” which is never good for anyone around them. Men on the other hand are not brought up believing those things about themselves…so what do they do? They SHOW emotion!!! they get angry, they yell, they scream they communicate in whatever way they need to to get their emotions out. they let their frustrations show, and they work them out. In my own experience this ends up being a much healthier way to life, there is no bottling up of emotions and no “explosions.” The hard part is getting the rest of the world to except that and to not be seen as crass or a “class A B^$&%.” Always a pleasure reading your stuff 🙂

      • Thanks Lindsey. That’s all so interesting, b/c I think you’re right about a lot of this, but there’s also this weird flip-side where women are stereotyped as over-emotional and men are stereotyped as/expected to be taciturn and unfeeling. Neither stereotype is good for any of us. Men and women need to be equally able to live in their emotions and not try to constrain them out of some cultural expectation of gender.

        But for angry emotions, at least, it is very true that we see it as much more acceptable for men to behave this way than women. Many people have told me that I need to be less angry, in lots of different ways, when the things I’m angry about are legitimate griefs, and I think if I was a dude, no-one would’ve scolded me b/c I wrote a piece that was too strongly worded or “too angry,” instead of being fuzzy and funny.

        Yelling and screaming your emotions out is sometimes warranted, for men and women, but it should never be in a way that abuses another person (which both men and women can do, but I’d guess men have a greater propensity to do; look at domestic abuse/violence statistics).

        I think the thing about which gender suffers more depression is a really tricky thing. I think statistically a lot more women than men are diagnosed, but I have no idea if this is because women have a greater propensity for it, if cultural factors set women up for depression more so than men, as you posit, or if just as many men are depressed as women, but men are much less likely to seek medical/mental health care than women are, and so their diagnoses don’t make the roles.

        Thanks for reading and replying!

  4. Sorry about the headcheese. I really did enjoy what I ate of it…

    I know there’s nothing to be done about it now, but my heart aches at the thought of how hard things have been inside you – especially during high school – and me/us not knowing about it. Sending you retroactive love… (and current, of course).

    • To each her own (headcheese).

      The thing to be done now for my younger self is just to continue the internal work I’m doing now, which no-one else can do for me, but thanks for the support. In retrospect it’s kind of shocking what I’ve gotten through without anyone knowing. But every person has probably experienced something in this realm.

  5. Love that you had the courage and insight to say this, couldn’t agree more!! Thank you, this message came at just the right time for me.

  6. Very interesting piece. I often wonder if those memes are authentic, given the ease of creating them. Regardless, some make sense and can readily be applied to how we deal with various issues in our lives. Others border on being trite, a bit too touchy-feely to be taken seriously. As the late, great Bruce Lee said, “Take what is useful, disregard the rest”.
    Life is always going to present us with difficult situations, people, etc. The key thing to remember, I’ve found, is to not let them define who we are. There is no up side to giving them too much real estate in our heads.
    Two concepts which help me through the rough times are as follows, not in any particular order:
    1) You only get as much s#!t as you allow yourself to take. This has worked for me on several occassions when a situation was getting beyond civil. A situation can be diffused and brought back from an arguement to a discussion if the other person realizes that verbal bullying and yelling are ineffective.
    2) We can’t control what happens to us in life, but we can, to a certain extent, control how we respond. This takes time to internalize and will always be a work in progress. Sometimes we have to change the way we usually respond in order to grow and obtain personal power.

    I enjoyed your writing.

    • Thanks for stopping by and responding. Yes, it’s true we can choose not to give the jerks too much “real estate” in our thoughts. Your #1 is true a lot of the time, but again, it’s a fine line between the positive view that you’re in control of how you interact with others and allow them to affect you, and blaming the victims of things like abuse or institutionalized bigotry. In some situations, it’s not true that you you can decide how much shit you’ll take b/c sometimes the world just doesn’t operate that way. That’s because there are people in the world who won’t realize, no matter what you do, that verbal bullying/yelling isn’t appropriate. In those cases, there’s no diffusing things back into a conversation; you just have to get out of the situation (if you can). Very true that we can’t control what happens, but we do have to take responsibility for how we respond.

      • I can’t disagree with you. The world can be a harsh place and no philosophy, approach, attitude or what ever you want to call it will work in all situations. You’re right in that some people will never stop bullying regardless of our efforts at diffusion, but I believe we still have to try. If for no other reason than to know we did try. Sometimes you just have to remove yourself from a situation if that is a possibility. It isn’t always an option, but people quit jobs, companies fire people, marriages end in divorce, etc. We move on when we can.
        In the end, we have to do the best we can knowing that it may not be enough. It can be a hard reality to accept, and maybe a constant struggle depending on the situation, but when you stop trying you risk the danger of resigning yourself to an outcome you may not want. Kind of like giving up. Never give up.
        I am not the eternal optimist. That’s why I wrote that it’s a work in progress. I can live with that.

      • Yeah, sometimes the most realistic and productive thing to do is move on, if other efforts don’t work, as in the case of leaving a job or ending a marriage. There is so much practical difficulty and baggage that comes with those choices, but when they’re made with your own health and sanity at stake, they’re necessary. Yes, no matter what, life is work in progress.

  7. This was interesting, the moment I realized what this was going to be about I knew two opposing things simultaneously. One, I found taoism as a philosophy to be very beneficial in my adult life. Two, I would have drop kicked the dalai lama for that quote, as well as the rest of the examples, when I was a child. I HATED, DESPISED quotes like that. My childhood self knew not to blame it, but wasn’t actually any better and built many false protections that I didn’t replace until damage was well done, but is my life really any better today? It’s not my fault I had no parenting and no guidance back then (another peeve of mine is the rampant “friends and family” usage – not everyone has those). I would get way too long winded and I didn’t take the time to read all the other comments here yet, so my reply may be confusing and vague. Sorry.

    I had this uncomfortable non-argument argument with my therapist last year about this sort of subject. I cannot remember it well enough to relay, even what brought it up, but I’d told her how I read on taoist philosophy while studying Chinese medicine, and it brought me a lot of peace. I was talking about the idea that trying overly hard made me feel like I was constantly pushing against my goals rather than achieving them, but she urged me not to be passive because then I would be pushed over and that taoism is from a different time period which isn’t relevant anymore. I didn’t think she was thinking on the same plane that I was, I understood her feelings as my past ones, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t express what I wanted to. I can’t now, either, but as you reminded me of this maybe an explanation of my feelings will come eventually. The idea was that life would be easier and make sense, NOT that I would be overcome by a harmful source. Along these thoughts https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei
    What I at first thought was written to sound overly magical and appeal to people, I think actually has a very fine and realistic source.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sorry about the experience in your therapist’s office — I hope you’re in a place now where you can express what you want to express, to whomever needs to hear it. Something can be “magical” and appealing and still have realistic roots. We just have to find the balance of what we’ll incorporate into our lives.

  8. I agree with you. I think that there is such a thing as justice, which is messy and which demands new kinds of words and language that are sometimes uncomfortable. Sometimes, speaking up for justice can seem whiny, even “politically correct.” It can make people nervous to raise questions that challenge the status quo–such as what should we do about the legacy of Woodrow Wilson? Or how seriously should the reproductive rights of young women be taken–are they human beings with full sovereignty or are they baby pocketbooks? Or why were 900 Americans shot by police in 2015 by the same date at which British police had shot 1 British citizen? What about the way Muslims are being treated by politicians these days? Yes, it can be awkward, embarrassing, and painful to raise questions such as these when they arise–even at the family dinner table or other occasions. But sometimes, it’s important to speak for human dignity, for what one believes,

    • Yup. Widespread dignity, safety, and equality are not going to come by shutting our eyes and believing everything will be ok. I wish we could revise the phrase “politically correct” to “evincing basic human decency.” Thanks for stopping by and leaving your two cents.

  9. I agree with Stewartdesign. I also know that a lot of the sayings such as the ones posted are not blanket statements and to take them as such would be a disservice to ourselves, whether man or woman. In my mind they are just reminders of another path to take. This is why I believe in our ability to make a choice. We all have the choice to decide how and if we want to react/act to/on things. You do have to stop at times and go inside yourself and ask the question…is this worth my energy and time.
    Thank you for your post Alaina, it made me think 🙂

  10. Janine C. Duke June 7, 2016 — 9:37 pm

    I’m not sure the theme of the Dalai Lama’s and Hicks’ messages are to passively sit back and allow horrible behavior to pass us by or to feel like something is wrong inside us for reacting against the horrors of life. I think the idea IS to fight back against injustice, violence and inequity, be it on a personal level or world wide. The “trick”, for lack of a better word, is to not allow these things to define who you are, shape or distort your view of yourself. Yes, get angry. Get real angry and if moved to do so, fight back. But fight back because it’s your duty as a human being to stand up against fear, hate and violence. Fight back to bring justice to our world; and in fighting back, understand that DESPITE the horrors and meanness and inequities, your personal self worth is NOT determined by these things. You’re a divine being as is. As a woman of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, a single mother, I could see myself as a victim, a minority of a minority of a minority – based on society’s views of my “status & labels”. However, I’ve learned and am still understanding that I am divine and perfect and whole as I am. To hell with what society says. And in THAT stance, external forces will not shape my view of who and what I am. And I fight, in small ways, on various levels, by my very existence – all the while not allowing the fight to be all that I am or define me entire experience. If I move someone to reflect differently about their views, good. If I don’t, it’s all good as well. I’m still Divine, or as I say Divinity In Action.
    Thank you so much Alaina Mabaso for opening up real dialogue.

  11. I so wish we could talk!!! I am a mom to seven great kids. I was married 15 yrs to a psychopath. He abused me and my four oldest. I finally said enough and left. Met an amazing loving man and had three more. Meanwhile, kids stuck in legal system due to ex continued to be beaten by their father and judge refused to give me custody. I got a lawyer for my kids. Even she was deceived and recommended they stay as they were making straight A’s. Two of my children were sexually abused by other children. According to Abraham Hicks, whom my husband loves, and just introduced me too, it’s all our fault. I loved all she was teaching til she said it’s my fault I was raped, it’s my kids fault they were beat because their father had a negative vibration and they started vibrating negative fear which caused him to beat them. My kindergarten child was molested every day on playground by a peer. It was her fault according to Abraham. I don’t know how to deal with this. I have extreme guilt and loathing because of the abuse my kids suffered. I tried to get them out for ten years. The system fought me. That’s my fault?? Ultimately they ran away and the judge let them stay because they were 14 and 16. But TEN years dinner plate size bruises and they asked for it. I’m a Christianbut very open spiritually. I have a gay daughter and get severe rejection by christians. I just want some type of guidelines of how to traverse this world without victim blaming or insane hypocrisy. It’s hard watching my kids grow up in such a heartless world. Now the new way is its all your fauit you were abused. REALLY. THIS DIRECT FROM BEINGS CHANNELED ROM HEAVEN. Sounds like HELL wrapped in sheep’s clothing. Do you throw the baby out with the bath water. Take son of these teachings or reject all. I’m so confused and tired of guilt. The only thing for sure I know is my kids feel loved. I make sure of that daily. The rest…I taught them to be warriors. To call out abuse. Now hear it’s all our fault… I don’t buy it. But my husband is getting influenced by this.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sorry your family has been through so many tragic things. I hope you can keep healing and continue to remember abuse is NOT the victim’s fault. A lot of my own healing from abuse is still a work in progress, and Abraham Hicks can stay the hell out of it.

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