Rev. angel Kyodo williams | Beyond idiot compassion

Rev. angel: Gandhi’s work is an example we can all recognize. Everyone talks about his focus on nonviolence, but he also taught that you couldn’t continue to engage the system—you couldn’t continue to buy British clothes, for example—and think you were undermining the British. That’s informative; that’s analysis. If you didn’t want to support a system that was continuing to extract resources from you, then you couldn’t continue to enrich it. If you couldn’t remove other people from the equation, you could at least remove yourself. I mean, if someone is going to pay to enslave me, at least it’s not going to be me. This analysis woke people up to the possibility of doing things differently. Then Gandhi took it up a notch and said, “If you want to stop the violence against your people, you can’t do it in a violent way. You can’t undo violence with violence—because even if you won you would have embedded violence into the new system.”

We’re human beings: if something works, we keep doing it. If people learn that hitting works, they keep hitting. If we find out we can get what we need by not hitting—that’s new information.  Even more important, you actually feel more aligned with what you’re after, no matter what the outcome.

I think that if Americans can experience having heaven on earth right now by living in a more equitable, balanced, sustainable way—at least within our own organizations and communities—then we’ll actually be empowered to go further and live out that dream in the larger society. If we operate from the belief that we can get away with hacking everyone to death and still end up in heaven, we’ll have simply reinforced that violence is the only thing that works.

It’s human nature to continue to do what you’ve practiced.  If you’ve practiced violence and aggression as a means of liberating people, you’re going to practice violence and aggression to keep that in place. You won’t have learned another way; you’ll have repeated the cycle.

The sustainable, transformative change I’m looking for is one that embodies the change we are seeking. It’s very much about how we do what we do. That’s not going to be quick, but in the process we will learn new ways of being, thereby eradicating the way of being that has kept us in cycles of increasing violence, damage and destruction.

At the moment we are numb to anything other than the sense of using the Earth’s resources to please ourselves for mere moments. We’re numb to the problems we are creating. Even with our green movements, we’re way out of relationship with our impact—I know I am.

The truth is, those of who are the greatest perpetrators of the problem are going to be the last to feel the impact. By the time the environmental situation is so bad that we in America feel it, all the indigenous peoples of the world will have been destroyed. They’ll feel it way before us.  We’ll take our technology and build walls around ourselves. We’ll build a wall down to the core of the earth if we have to, to close ourselves off from the truth what’s happening.

I think that when environmentalists warn us, “The frogs are disappearing” there are a few people who think, “Oh my God, the frogs are disappearing!” But most of us think, “Whatever. We don’t really need frogs. Yeah, the frogs, the bees, they pollinate, the web of life, I get it.” But really, we don’t get it. We can still get in our cars and do what we want to do. I’m being funny, but really I’m describing how most Americans react.

The MOON:  I know. We think, “Sorry about the frogs, but there are way more important issues.”

Rev. angel:  Yeah, there’s me. And I’m human and I have more of a right to be here than any frog or bee, and can’t technology come up with a frog substitute?

In other words, we don’t have a sufficient relationship to the Earth and we have sufficient buffering from the real impact so that if we wait until Americans are painfully impacted to alter how we’re doing things, we’re in dire trouble. We will subject most people on the planet to destruction before we’ll actually deal with the consequences of our own behavior.

The MOON:  So are you saying that the hope for change has to come from Third World peoples because they will be on the knife’s edge first?

Rev. angel: I think they have to be the leaders, they have to be empowered—which is tricky too, because we’ll just try to buy them—or their leaders—out. But in theory, they’re the ones on the edge; they’re better equipped to tell us what needs to happen. And I think that the answer also needs to come from us developing a sense of compassionate accountability.

Compassion is great, but if it doesn’t extend itself to actual accountability, it doesn’t matter.  Compassion alone isn’t sufficient. It has limited reach for most of us. We feel most deeply what’s in front of us. It takes a more active compassion—compassionate accountability—to accept responsibility for how we’re moving through time on the planet and accountability for the impact we create, whether it’s on ourselves or on others. So far our inner work may have helped some people become more compassionate, but it hasn’t yet engendered accountability. Heck, I don’t think it has even engendered accountability in our own families. So far all we’ve got is soft, sticky, sweet compassion…what the Dalai Lama calls idiot compassion. If our compassion doesn’t engender a wise response, it’s idiot compassion.

I always imagine that the Dalai Lama must be deeply disappointed, being one of the most publicly recognized figures in the world, given massive entrée to teach compassion from the Buddhist perspective in America, and it catches on like wildfire. Yet are we helping the Tibetan people? Yeah, a little. But mostly we’re standing by while the Tibetan culture is destroyed and systematically absorbed into an imperialist oppressor.

The MOON:  Yes, but you say we are to give ourselves completely, without a trace, holding nothing back, and then we are not to let ourselves be attached to the outcomes. So isn’t that what we’re doing in the case of Tibet? How does one know when one has given oneself completely in a meaningful way, a way that makes a difference?

Rev. angel:  When my students ask me questions similar to this, I liken it to “How will I know when I’m in love?” But when you’re in love you never have to ask. So as long as you have questions, you should honor them.

The MOON:  So we’re all letting ourselves off the hook. We’ve signed a petition. We’ve bought a bumper sticker: Free Tibet.

Rev. angel:  Right. So we have to find our way to the place where that nagging question, “Is this enough?” stops. Because living with the question is not healthy over time. So I encourage people to find out what they need to do to satisfy their own nagging questions. There’s no single answer; we don’t have a single problem.

Getting to some kind of solution will probably take the form of some combination of small, incremental, individual, and collective change, because that awakens us to the problem. We all have to start where we are.

At the end of the day, we human beings are a set of internal structures and systems, just as society is a set of external structures and systems. We keep trying to change the external structures and systems, but we haven’t done enough work on the internal structures and systems to support what we’re trying to do externally. So our change work collapses, over and over again. We see the external world and try to make changes, but the external world is rooted internally—in our beliefs and attitudes. It’s the internal structures and systems we have to transform if we want to have any hope of lasting change. Change that can’t be reversed.

In some ways slavery represents that level of change. I think it’s really unlikely that we’ll go back to the crude slavery we had in this country. We just won’t bear it anymore. I don’t mean that it would hurt our feelings; I mean that we have a sufficient number of people whose internal attitudes and beliefs allow no place for slavery. That’s a transformed society. As long as it’s happening in Thailand, maybe it’s okay. But we can’t bear it right here in front of us. So now we have to close the gap so that we can’t bear it in Thailand, either; or in Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan, or the foothills of China, or Iraq, or anywhere. Not only directly, but even indirectly on our behalf. We can’t bear it, and we’re willing to give up our perception of our freedoms and our privileges in order to stand with that.

The MOON:  Can you say more about the difference between compassionate accountability and idiot compassion?

Rev. angel:  It’s about separation again. Idiot compassion exists in a place of separation where you are “other” and although I have compassion for you, I want to keep you separate from me. Compassionate accountability, on the other hand, recognizes how inextricably bound we all are—whether that’s direct and traceable in the moment, or not. Compassionate accountability abides in a fundamental sense of our interdependence, recognizing that all of our experiences are inseparably interwoven. We’re feeling with because we’re impacted. As opposed to acting so as to cast off this feeling of discomfort we’re experiencing because of what’s happening to you people over there. Idiot compassion motivates us to do something about what’s happening to you so I don’t have to face how tied in my experience is with yours. It enables me to avoid dropping into the full feeling of interconnectedness out of which arises compassionate accountability.

The MOON: My fear would be that if I really connected to what is happening—for example, in Japan because of the earthquake and tsunami, or the Philippines because of the typhoon—I would be overwhelmed. My heart would break and I’d fall down into a puddle of tears, and what good would that do? Distance preserves functionality.

Rev. angel:  We should all fall down into a puddle of tears. And from that puddle we’ll have a clearer sense of what is ours to take on—which may be nothing, depending on our circumstances and capacities. Or it may be something as apparently unrelated as working with young people who are being steered into criminal institutions from the time they’re six years old. So long as we maintain separation, we can’t see that those two sets of conditions might be inter-related. We look at very direct responses as the only options we have. Going to Japan to help rebuild it might be an appropriate response for some people. Re-upping our commitment to work we’re already doing—with a new sense of our profound interconnectedness—might be an appropriate response for others. It’s counter-intuitive and doesn’t fit into our linear, transactional framework of cause and effect. But we can only know what’s appropriate for us in a deep way when we’re living not in our heads but in our hearts—which might be in a puddle on the floor.

The MOON:  In another interview you said, “If we developed more awareness practices, we would tap into our original operating instructions.” Can you elaborate on that?

Rev. angel:  Yes. It occurred to me some time ago that human beings have been on the planet for a really, really long time, and there are many cultures of people, who were not without their challenges, but who have managed to be in good relationship with people and planet without the need for “self help.” Yet at this time in history we find ourselves with more access to more information, with more details, and instructions, and particulars, about “how to be” than ever in history; yet it’s probably not likely that the instructions we need are in these books.

We come as emanations of the universe itself. We come with universal intelligence—with innate operating instructions—already built in. But we’ve lost our sense of connection and an awareness of ourselves so that we can draw on these instructions. So we live much more externalized lives that draw our attention away from the internalized instructions that we came with—our operating instructions. By developing a greater sense or awareness of ourselves, we are endowed with a direct connection to be able to tap into those instructions and put them into action in the way that we were all designed to do.

The MOON: Do you speculate on where those instructions came from?

Rev. angel: I think they came from our original source, whatever we want to call or name it. We are seeds of the universal intelligence. We can’t possibly be separate from it, in truth. What we are battling with is the illusion of separation from that intelligence. As a result, separation becomes what we are motivated by and in relationship to, rather than the fundamental belief in ourselves as an expression of universal intelligence. The truth is that we are universal intelligence, or whatever you want to call it. We can’t be separated from it.


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