Friday, February 15, 2013

Deep Thoughts on a Difficult Feeling

The difficult emotion I felt recently was vindictiveness. There must be a lot of it around, because the internet has lots of quotes like these, posted by people who understand karma exists, but have missed out on the rest of the message of Buddhism.

But it’s my own problem I’m thinking about just now, because one effect of Zen on me has been that I catch myself when I have mean thoughts.

Whenever I desire to "get" someone or "show them" or "pay them back" it seems to involve the ideas in my mind about how they should treat or respect me, that and pain.  More generally, aggression is aroused by threats to my Self - ego, me, protecting this Wun rather than considering the other’s situation and the entire context.

It may be a natural, or animal, reaction, to lash back if you feel hurt or threatened - the cat does.  And to want to feel part of your Tribe, to be equal, to be respected.  To be fully human is to be able to delay that lashing back and meditate on your difficult feeling.  There are great ethical reasons to delay acting in anger, and good personal reasons.  All forms of anger, including grudges, are painful to feel and hard on the body.  Sometimes don't realize that, and feel strengthened by the adrenalin.  In the military, the hatred of soldiers training for combat is deliberately whipped up; somehow adrenalin is courage.

Once I saw my mother feeling vindictive, and believing she was entitled to seek revenge.   

That story was so sad.  It was St. Patrick’s Day, the alcoholic's very favorite day of the year, and we all went to the local Irish club, Sons of Herman, to which Aunt Eileen belonged.  I can still envision her in a charming native costume she'd bought in Ireland, a green embroidered pinafore over a white puff-sleeved peasant blouse.  She was on the petite side and wore it very well.  She could do a little soft-shoe, too.

My father may have come from work, since he was in his suit and tie, all that.  Maybe he didn’t want to be there at all, and felt he had to be.  Or maybe he was just in one of his black moods.  He kept his fedora on, a childish gesture of sullenness; that simply was not done in those days.  This  was in the sixties, which were still the fifties in Akron, Ohio.

With that hat on, my father invited me to dance.  I hated having him dance me - he was a strong, contemptuous lead, held me too close and exuded too much testoserone.  He probably danced with Eileen, and the other women, her sister and sister-in-law.  But he refused to dance with my mother when she asked him outright.

Above, a popular quote.
A few days later Eileen was over visiting with my mother, and they were talking in the kitchen.  From another room I heard my mother say, “He’ll see if I dance with him.”  Of course dance has always been about sex.  Boy, was she mad.  I cringed at it.

He should not have done that.  It hurt her, and it shamed her.  That’s all you need to do to foster vindictiveness, right? 

Now, and this is important, vindictiveness involves aggression, which is considered in Buddhism to be one of the Three Poisons:  greed, hatred, delusion.  There is also a way it involves greed, my mother's enormous need for reassurance, and also delusion.  She never quite gave up her delusion that my father would love her better.  Abusive men can be very charming and sweet at times, and in a dry country, a teaspoon of water tastes like nectar.  Such men get women to stay with them by sweetness and apology.  Then, make-up sex.

And eventually he must have brought my mother around.  She wanted to love him with all her heart and soul, him above everyone, maybe even her children. She believed in eternal love and My Man.  But  maybe it scarred her a little, one more little scar on her vulnerable heart.  Hearts are made of flesh.  They can be damaged.
Who did I feel vindictive toward recently, enough so to write this?  I think I won’t put that out there to live eternally in the cloud.  Just meditate on it, perhaps.  Or maybe I just did......
And below, a nice summary of how Buddhism sees karma.  It's not about how we feel, but how we act.

[bonus:  Here is an interesting link to an informal discussion of karma in which many people have no trouble talking about their vindictiveness.]


  1. Watch the body sensations(vedana) that proceeded this feeling.
    Here is a good one for you that will bring up lots of feelings from American Buddhist's Blog:
    Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy.

  2. I think the, "Don't take revenge.....", quote is terrible. It does not come from the mind of one who practices any eastern spiritualiy, or believes in karma. This thought comes from the mind of a western thinker that still believes in the wrath of God. I know karma exists, I don't need or want to "watch" what happens. It's not my business. Your way is still about revenge, so watch your Karma! :)