Monday, October 25, 2010

Finding Compassion for Those Who Hate

I have always allowed myself to feel justified anger for unforgiveable acts - things like blatant acts of racism, or homophobia, or sexual violence. It has been a hard, bitter place in my heart, where there is no room for opening.

Talking with my teacher Tony about this, he gave me a challenge one day. He invited me to try to extend metta or compassion to the homophobe and the skinhead. I mulled it over for quite a while. I was willing to try, but I wasn't very convinced that I could be successful.

As long as I can remember, I have been plagued by nightmares. There are many recurring themes, lots of things that I have examined and probed. And sometimes the dreams cycle towards healing, taking me to new places. Then they go back into deep hurt and terror, like that proverbial onion, always peeling one more new layer of fear and pain.

Recently, though, I had a dream that gave me an experience that I had never had before: a moment of grace.

Here is the dream:

I am a teenager, sitting with another teen on top of a car near the entrance to an alley, which leads to a path that heads to a park of some sort. We are sitting and talking, when we hear a sound. We look up, and see a man walking down the main street. He is kicking rocks, ping, ping, ping, slamming them up against people’s cars. I call out, “Hey, that’s not too bright!”

He ignores me. He turns in at the alley. I know there are dogs that live at the house at the corner, and I have a bad feeling. I see him continue to kick rocks. He hits one of the dogs with a small rock, then gives a half-assed kick to one of the dogs, then a stronger kick to the other dog. I yell at him to stop, but he ignores me.

I jump off the car, and grab my cell phone. I am going to call the police and report him, so they can pick him up somewhere in the park, and arrest him for animal abuse. Then I see him approach a stray dog. He grabs it, and starts to beat the hell out of it, kicking it and hitting it, just going and going and going. The dog is cowering, not trying to fight back at all. I start screaming as loud as I can. I wake myself up screaming, “No! No! No!”

I am sitting straight up in bed with my arms stretched out in front of me. I get out of bed, and I am sick to my stomach with the feeling of that man, beating the dog. I am standing up, but lay my head down on the bed. Sabrina woke up when I screamed, and she reaches out to me.

For some reason, I remember a Pema Chodron CD I just listened to, about putting yourself in the shoes of a person doing a horrible act, and I think of what Tony asked me to do, loving the skinhead or homophobe. And right in that moment, standing upright, with my forehead touching the mattress, I allow myself to feel what that man must feel like inside, to want to beat the dog. I am filled with an incredible sadness. It sweeps through my entire body.

It is not forgiveness, exactly, that I found. The experience has not erased that hardness I have. But it did give me one tiny glimpse into the possibility of compassion, in a place where I least expected it.


  1. Very thoughtful . . . thanks for posting this.

  2. Tonglin practice helps me deal with many situations. I have used it with the dying, used it in difficult communication situations and even used it on the Muni bus in San Francisco. If nothing else, I am placed in a calmer more receptive position and Tonglin practice diffuses my own anger and fear.

  3. Michelle:
    I have a Beginner MInd and am trying to resolve the same feelings of aversion/distress toward people who willingly choose to treat animals with violent cruelty. The best I can do is cultivate a desire for that person to become aware and to wish that they can find compassion for the innocent, defenseless ones. I try not to impose my perception of what constitutes a "cruel act", but one cannot deny there is pain and suffering when an animal is trying to get away (interesting the dog in your dream did not fight back--I have even heard of dogs who will lick the hand of an abuser) --which, makes me even sadder and more confused about how to
    resolve this lack of compassion I have toward the abuser. I have been told to "soften my glance" and I understand I cannot know what is absolutely real with respect to my emotional response. Seeing that you posted this in 2010, I would like to know if you have gained any new insights. Thank you.