Dear Still Water Friends,
There is a paragraph in Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh that is like a biblical parable. I keep coming back to it. I keep understanding it in new ways:
When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the Fourth Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, and especially on the habit of blaming.
Personally, I grew up with blaming that was so deeply ingrained it wasn’t even seen. When something went well, I was praised. When something didn’t go well, I was blamed. It was as if there was an inner me that each day was either getting cookies or getting electrical shocks. As I grew older, and had more words, I learned that I could be the one that gave cookies or gave shocks.
I continued to blame others (in the sense of judging, censuring, and holding responsible) because blaming appears to work. It appears to make life easier.
Blaming reduces complexity; it provides a simple and agreeable explanation. Blaming takes responsibility for the distressing condition away from us and makes others responsible. We create a world of villains and heroes, or villains and victims. In our distress, we simply ignore the ways we have acted that have conditioned someone else’s actions.
At a more subtle level, often when we blame we implicitly make others responsible for our emotional response. It is what they did that caused us to be angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or disappointed. We ignore or play down the power we have to create our own emotional reality through the way we frame a situation or work with the hurts we have suffered in the past.
Blaming others for that which distresses us allows us to create a self-satisfying (and morally superior) narrative about our lives. Our shortcomings are explained away by the actions of others. Erica Jong writes in How to Save Your Own Life:
How wonderful to have someone to blame! How wonderful to live with one’s nemesis! You may be miserable, but you feel forever in the right. You may be fragmented, but you feel absolved of all the blame for it. Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.
In perhaps its darkest aspect, blame is used to justify force, violence, and punishment. Once we have established that the situation causing us distress is “their” fault, because of their evil actions or evil natures, we may feel justified in taking action against them if “they” don’t agree with us and change their ways. We may seek to forcibly prevent them from acting in certain ways, to hurt them as they have hurt us, to teach them to see it our way through punishment, or to destroy them.
Why do we use blame? Perhaps the simplest answer is that we blame because that is the only way we know of dealing with situations that distress us. However, every time we judgmentally blame others we reinforce the notion that we exist separately from them, that what happens to them materially, psychologically, or spiritually, will not affect us. Mindfulness practice encourages another approach: We are intimately interconnected. The boundaries between us are permeable.
The tradition teaches us that if we always see ourselves as existing separately from others, every relationship has a seed of struggle in it. If when any physical or emotional resource is scarce we ask: “Will it come to me or to her, to us or to them?” it is difficult for peace, or ease, or joy to come into our lives. If we can come to see that despite the apparent separateness, we are all part of the great flow of being, life becomes less confrontational. We come to understand that just as our right hand cannot be happy when our left hand is in pain, so also the suffering of others is our suffering; their joy is our joy.
You are invited to be with us this Thursday evening. We will talk about our experiences with blaming and our discovery of alternative approaches. Have we learned to lovingly tend the garden rather than blaming the lettuce?
In the first excerpt below, Meryl Runion, a business consultant, explains the critical differences between blame and accountability.
In the second excerpt Thich Nhat Hanh recommends mindful letter writing as an alternative to blaming.
Warm wishes and many blessings,
Touching Life Deeply: A Day of Practice. Sunday, May 26, at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, Maryland.
Lotuses, Food, and Mindful Friends. Sunday, July 15, 2012, at the the National Park Service’s Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens.
Blame Versus Accountability
by Meryl Runion
Here’s what blame does:
Blame examines responsibility to condemn and punish.
Blame focuses only on what went wrong.
Blame is black and white in its assessment.
Blame is emotional.
Blame is personal.
Here’s what accountability does:
Accountability examines responsibility to discover what can be done.
Accountability focuses on what happened and what needs to be corrected.
Accountability explores the complexity of situations.
Accountability is reasonable.
Accountability examines situations, decisions and behaviors rather than people.
Blame tends to err on the side of being unreasonable and unforgiving. Accountability forgives the forgivable but does not accept the unacceptable.
Letter Writing as Practice, from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh
Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. As you read your words, you can visualize the other person receiving your letter and decide if what you have written is skillful and appropriate. Your letter has to water the seeds of transformation in the other person and stir something in his heart if it is to be called Right Speech. If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting, rewrite it. Right Mindfulness tells you whether you are expressing the truth in the most skillful way. Once you have mailed your letter, you cannot get it back. So read it over carefully several times before sending it. Such a letter will benefit both of you.
Of course you have suffered, but the other person has suffered also. That is why writing is a very good practice. Writing is a practice of looking deeply. You send the letter only when you are sure that you have looked deeply. You don’t need to blame anymore. You need to show that you have a deeper understanding. It is true that the other person suffers, and that alone is worth your compassion. When you begin to understand the suffering of the other person, compassion will arise in you, and the language you use will have the power of healing. Compassion is the only energy that can help us connect with another person. The person who has no compassion in him can never be happy. When you practice looking at the person to whom you are going to write a letter, if you can begin to see his suffering, compassion will be born. The moment compassion is born in you, you feel better already, even before you finish the letter. After sending the letter, you feel even better, because you know the other person will also feel better after reading your letter. Everyone needs understanding and acceptance. And now you have understanding to offer. By writing a letter like this, you restore communication.