The Cycle of Violence Ends in Your Own Heart
by Jacoby Ballard*
So many of us do the work that we do in the world because the pain of injustice and inequity break our hearts, and many of us have been effected directly by that which our work seeks to heal or change. So often though, we spring into action, skipping a step: simply feeling the pain, just sitting with it, letting our hearts break open. This is an essential step to healing, for what we resist, persists. And I want to propose another essential practice in healing: forgiveness. Forgiveness is not condoning an action, and it is not the tender and intense process of reconciliation. It is processing and releasing the pain within our own hearts, and it serves our own hearts, our bodies, and the work itself.
The very first step of forgiveness is feeling the pain. That’s why some people never forgive. Pain is painful. It hurts. It breaks one down. It makes us squirm. It may bring up old harm. And yet, unless we forgive, we cannot be free, but are chained by the past. Unless we ourselves heal, we perpetuate violence. Healing happens on its own time-we cannot rush or force it, but we know when the opening has come. We must not skip over our grief, anger, and depression, but hold space for those powerful emotions and learn from them. Sometimes moving immediately into the realm of action is a bypass and an act of separation in which we miss important details about ourselves or others. I know that has been one of my habits in my own organizing and activism. It’s important to craft space for pain and discomfort without having to do, fix, and to watch our tendency to deny, avoid, resist, fight, and to wait to engage in action until we are in a place that we can truly move from a place of love.
My involvement in social justice has been deeply impacted in the past two years by my Buddhist practice of forgiveness, a meditation that I sit with at least once a week. I have found that if I want to continue living a life of justice, working to form alliance and friendship across various lines of difference, then I have to practice forgiveness-for myself, for those who harm me, and asking for forgiveness from those who I have harmed. Justice is a process, and we never completely arrive. In connecting this to our observations about injustice and trauma, it’s important to note that the core wound of the oppressed is shame and fear (which lays beneath the anger that so many marginalized groups are labeled with). The core wound of the oppressor is denial and dissociation. Consider then, how do you relate to pain and suffering in the world-do you get pissed? Do you turn off the radio? Do you act out against yourself or your loved ones? Do you go to a bar or liquor store?
I founded a worker-owned cooperative health center in Brooklyn, New York, called Third Root Community Health Center in 2008. Third Root is a holistic health center that offers yoga, massage, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and health education, with most of the services being offered at a sliding scale with the belief that everyone is entitled to holistic healing. Over 20 individuals have been part of the collective owning body over the past 7 years (usually around 7 at a given time), and the group has been diverse in terms of age, disability, race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and body size. This seems dreamy, but it is incredibly difficult, as our financial livelihood as a business and individuals is bound up with one another; we are working in profound intimacy with others across forms of difference, differences that impact and inform how we conduct our shared work; we each have trauma from injustice that can leak out and spill on each other and we have hurt each other our trauma, ignorance and misunderstanding; and in the ways we each hold privilege, we may represent the oppressor to our co-workers and colleagues and have to work to heal deep layers of personal and ancestral trauma.
Our identities at Third Root are complex and we are each oppressor and oppressed in different ways. I am white, and I am trans. I am a man, and I am queer. I am working class, and I am able-bodied and thin. And so, at Third Root, we hurt each other and rip off the scabs from old wounds (not intentionally, usually), and to stay in business with each other takes commitment and humility. We also heal each other, building trust and alliance over lines of difference-forming relationships and relying on each other in such a way that we and our ancestors never would have thought possible. This heals not only each other, but the histories, wounds, and trajectories of our families. I have a great grandfather who was a member of the KKK in Indiana; that history in my family propels my life to be one of racial justice; my commitment is profound because the damage of my family’s overt involvement in violent racism. My great grandfather would have never imagined his descendants’ financial (and indeed spiritual) livelihood being interdependent and equal with my colleagues of color; this is healing for my own family, and for those of my colleagues. What allows me to keep coming back to racial justice and other work against oppression, is equal parts commitment, patience, and forgiveness.
Forgiveness allows us to return to difficult conversations, situations, and dynamics, again and again, especially in addressing, confronting, and transforming power and privilege. Forgiveness is not about condoning the harmful actions of injustice, but rather letting go of the burden of pain that we carry, and seeing each persons’ Buddha Nature; seeing each other as our best possible potential, believing and investing in that. It’s important to note that we don’t forgive for the benefit of someone else, for the person that we forgive may never know. Forgiveness is different than reconciliation. Forgiveness is for ourselves, because as Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe says, “we don’t want to be carrying that shit around.” Or as Toni Morrison says in Song of Solomon, “You want to fly? You got to give up the shit that weights you down.”
Forgiveness is about ending cycles of violence. Forgiveness allows us to continue to be in relationship or to end it out of compassion for ourselves or someone else, and acknowledges that pain is inescapable-but suffering need not be perpetuated in the wake of pain. Buddhist teacher Noah Levine says that “Hurt people hurt people”. This gives me compassion for those who create violence on micro and macro levels, for their words and actions come from a place of confusion and pain. Hurt people hurt people also creates an imperative for me and my comrades: if we don’t heal, we are bound to pass on the pain. This is a commitment to justice, for as Buddhist teacher Larry Yang says, “Out of an acknowledgement of the preciousness of all of life, we commit to do everything we can to not add a single further drop of suffering to a world that already hurts so much.” I remind myself of this when I want to strike back in anger, when I want to ‘be right’, when I want others to feel the pain that I feel or have felt. This gentle reminder by Larry is to live impeccably, and with integrity. When I strike back intending to inflict pain, I am participating in the very injustice that I abhor. And its important to remember, that others’ actions and words are usually not about me-it’s about them and their pain, and in their pain, they hurt me. Hurt people hurt people. There is no such thing as enlightened betrayal or presence in violence-it is evidence of someone’s disconnection or dissociation. A great friend sent me this quote by James Baldwin a few days ago: “White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this-which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never, the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said in A Christmas Service for Peace in 1967, “Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’” There is a relationship between our personal practice and the collective experience. Transformation occurs internally and externally; what we do today, or any day on the mat or cushion is not just an internal experience.
The traumas of oppression, inequality, violence, and privilege are embedded in the body, hearts and minds of all of us; mindfulness is a tool to understand and process it. Yoga teacher and Somatic therapist Nikki Myers calls this “the issues in our tissues.” This is a multi-generational process to dislodge and release the tension, and takes great attention! It took many generations to get to this place, it will take as many generations to heal. Audre Lorde said, “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” As we work to decolonize our minds then, forgiveness softens it and brings us from a feeling of being isolated in our pain to a feeling of connection with all human beings—that every one of us here has been hurt, and everyone here has hurt someone. We have all hurt ourselves, and we have all been hurt by injustice.
Forgiveness practice is relevant in social justice conversations because we will inevitably contact discomfort and pain-our own, and/or someone else’s in the course of our work in justice. Compassion allows us to be with the pain, forgiveness allows us to release its energy, which contributes to the health of individuals, organizations, and movements for justice. Gina Sharpe adds that “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.” We cannot change what has already happened, and it does not serve ourselves or others to hold onto the pain-it literally makes us sick. Studies have been done on those who hold resentment, and the result is a higher blood pressure, greater percentage of anxiety and depression, a weaker immune system, and a shorter life span. Thus forgiveness is a commitment to healthy individuals, that compose healthy organizations, that compose healthy communities, which creates a healthy world.
We direct our forgiveness in 4 directions:
1: Forgiveness of ourselves: hurting ourselves is essential in shedding layers of internalized violence, shame, guilt. And forgiving ourselves for hurting others, repeating the injustices that we are steeped in.
2: Asking for Forgiveness of those whom we have harmed: this evokes humility and compassion, and reminds us of our intention in this work to not cause further harm in a world that already hurts so much.
3: Forgiveness toward others who have hurt us: this allows us to not be carrying around anger and resentment at an individual, a certain group of people, or even an identity category, but to use the wisdom of the anger to set boundaries and practice discernment.
4: Forgiveness of the First Noble Truth, that suffering and stress is part of the world, part of living. Of course we would want both the acute and chronic cases of oppression and violence to be otherwise, this is the world we live in, the world we have inherited. So we forgive the pain itself for existing. Forgiveness takes incredible courage, and every hero of mine has done this internal work. When we release stagnancy or tension, the samskaras of violence, injustice, abuse and harm conducted on individual and collective levels, we let our own life energy flow. That creative energy is where solutions to those great problems originate from, creating peace, harmony, and justice. Thus I ask you, what has hurt you and your family? How have you participated in violence in small and also profound ways? Who might you begin to let back into your heart? If you forgave yourself or that person, or asked for forgiveness, what might be possible? Just the questions are exciting!
*Jacoby Ballard is a yoga and Buddhism teacher and a social justice organizer, working towards liberation from the outside in and the inside out. With over 15 years of experience, he sees the need for a justice politic within contemplative practice and a need for healing within social justice work. Visit his blog at www.jacobyballard.com.