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There is a key moment, says Pema Chödrön, when we make the choice between peace and conflict. In this teaching from her program Practicing Peace in Times of War, she describes the practice we can do at that very moment to bring peace for ourselves, for others, and for the world.
If we want to make peace, with ourselves and with the world at large, we have to look closely at the source of all of our wars. So often, it seems, we want to “settle the score,” which means getting our revenge, our payback. We want others to feel what we have felt. It means getting even, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with evenness at all. It is, in fact, a highly charged emotional reaction.
Underlying all of these thoughts and emotions is our basic intelligence, our basic wisdom. We all have it and we can all uncover it. It can grow and expand and become more accessible to us as a tool of peacemaking and a tool of happiness for ourselves and for others. But this intelligence is obscured by emotional reactivity when our experience becomes more about us than about them, more about self than about other. That is war.
I have often spoken of shenpa, the Tibetan term for the hook in our mind that snags us and prevents us from being open and receptive. When we try to settle the score, we cover over our innate wisdom, our innate intelligence, with rapidly escalating, highly charged, shenpa-oozing emotionality. We produce one hook after another.
What are we to do about that? We could say that this emotionality is bad and we have to get rid of it. But that brings problems, because it’s really the same approach as getting even with other people. In this case we’re basically saying that we have to settle the score with ourselves, get even with ourselves, as it were, by ridding ourselves of our emotionality.
Since this approach will not work, what we need to do is to neither reject nor indulge in our own emotional energy, but instead come to know it. Then, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, we can transmute the confusion of emotions into wisdom. In simple terms, we must gain the capacity to slowly, over time, become one with our own energy instead of splitting off. We must learn to use the tools we have available to transform this moment of splitting in two. Splitting in two is the moment when peace turns into war, and it is a very common experience.
Let’s say you’re having a conversation with someone. You’re one with the whole situation. You’re open and receptive and there and interested. Then there is a little shenpa pulling-away, a kind of uneasy feeling in the stomach—which we usually don’t notice—and then comes our big thought. We are suddenly verbalizing to ourselves, “How am I looking here? Did I just say something stupid? Am I too fat? That was a stupid thing to say, wasn’t it, and I am too fat….”
Some thought or other causes us to split off, and before we know it we’re completely self-absorbed. We’re probably not even hearing the words of the person we’re conversing with, because we have retreated into a bubble of self-absorption. That’s splitting off. That’s dividing in two.
The Buddha taught about this basic split as the birth of dualism, the birth of self versus other, of me versus you. It happens moment after moment. When we start out, we are “one-with.” We have a sense of our interconnectedness, though we might not use that fancy word. We’re simply listening and there. And then, split! We pull back into our own worry or concern or even our own elation. Somehow we’re no longer together. Now it’s more about me and self, rather than them and other. By contrast, being “one-with” is neither about other nor about self. It’s just totally open, present, there.
Settling the Score
If the path of the peacemaker, of happiness, is being open and receptive and one with your experience, then settling the score is the path of making war, whereby aggression gives birth to aggression and violence gives birth to violence. Nothing is settled. Nothing is made even. But the mind of settling the score does not take that into consideration. When you are caught by that mind, because of the highly charged and ever-expanding emotionality you’re going through, you do not see what settling the score is really doing. You probably don’t even see yourself trying to settle the score.
If we started to think about and talk about and make an in-depth exploration of the various wars around the world, we would probably get very churned up. Thinking about wars can indeed get us really worked up. If we did that, we would have plenty of emotional reactivity to work with, because despite all the teachings we may have heard and all the practice we may have done, our knee-jerk reaction is to get highly activated. Before long, we start focusing on those people who caused the whole thing. We get ourselves going and then at some irrational level, we start wanting to settle the score, to get the bad guy and make him pay. But what if we could think of all of those wars and do something that would really cause peace to be the result? Where communication from the heart would be the result? Where the outcome would be more together rather than more split apart?
In a way, that would really be settling the score. That would really be getting even. But settling the score doesn’t usually mean that. It means I want my side to win and the other side to lose. They deserve to lose because of what they’ve done. The side that I want to lose can be an individual in my life or a government. It can be a type or group of people. It can be anything or anyone I point the finger at. I get quite enraged thinking about how they’re responsible for everything, so of course I want to settle the score. It’s only natural.
We all do this. But in so doing we become mired in what the Buddhist teachings refer to as samsara. We use a method to relate to our pain. We use a method to relate to the underlying groundlessness and feelings of insecurity. We feel that things are out of control, that they are definitely not going the way we want them to go. But our method to heal the anguish of things not going the way we want them to is what Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche calls pouring kerosene on the fire to put it out.
We bite the hook and escalate the emotional reactivity. We speak out and we act out. The terrorists blow up the bus and then the army comes in to settle the score. It might be better to pause and reflect on how the terrorists got to the place where they were so full of hatred that they wanted to blow up a bus of innocent people. Is the score really settled? Or is the very thing that caused the bus to be blown up in the first place now escalating? Look at this cycle in your own life and in your own experience. See if it is happening: Are you trying to settle the score?