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Reflections on Evil, Harm and the Consciousness Path

by J'aime ona Pangaia
Copyright 2013

A former student of mine was contemplating this quote about evil.
"Evil [is] defined as the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending and preserving the integrity of our own sick selves." – M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie, p.119
We might even say, more simply, "….and preserving the integrity of our own selves." This is done quite automatically whenever we're firmly entranced by and righteously attached to firm ideas about who (we think) we are. It takes many (inner) deaths to become free to be… nobody. By nobody, I mean 'no-self' in the Buddhist sense of not 'clinging' to seeing yourself in a fixed identity and that you will then endeavor to preserve no matter what, or however it affects others, or however implausible. That's the kind of 'nobody' that it's my humble pleasure to have the universe continually remind me of; my sense of 'me' is conditional, provisional and so temporary an illusion as to hardly lay a claim on it. Nevertheless, there is this multi-faceted and changing 'I' that is immersed in experience, believing in itself! But what do we mean by the term 'evil'?
Our ideas about "evil" are very much governed by the predominance of Western-Christian-biblical thought. (And certainly Peck writes from within Christian beliefs.) Given that, is delusion "evil"? And by delusion, I'm speaking specifically now about the fixed delusions we carry of: "This (ego-identity) is who I am, and therefore I believe such and such to be true." Would that not make us all 'evil'? Who now can truly claim to be free of all mental (egotistic) delusions? Who? We may strive not to harm others (because of accepted moral values or periods of awakened consciousness) but who is permanently awake or without unconscious moral lapses and is egotistically free of delusions? For my part, as I can, I do my best to stay open to my moving feelings of sorrow, fear, anger, etc., in the face of the pain caused by harm, delusions, and to also (egotistically) cultivate compassionate acceptance for "what is". In this, I am mightily "in practice" every day! And when I am brought to awareness of my own delusions and (previously) unconscious moral failings, I likewise strive to stay open to my true feelings of remorse, truth-longing and to forgive/accept my imperfect humanity and then . . . keep practicing.
I was raised by one parent who was, in part, a spiteful and aggressive narcissistic and the other who was (in part) a masochistic (self-harming), incestuous and depressed alcoholic - both who caused me (and others) great pain when I was a child living with them. I say 'in part' to acknowledge that there were certainly other facets to their personalities - and there were many ways in which they supported my life in very practical terms. Still, were they pathological (in the medical or psychological sense) and therefore, governed by genes? Was it their (our) fate/karma to live with their irremediable traumas and the limited healing resources available in those times? Were they therefore incapable of different behavior? Were they then "innocently harmful"? Or, were they evil, in the biblical sense, for the harm they generated and therefore culpable and damnable? The better question for me, is not which is the right answer to these questions, but how and what in me, does each potential answer serve. And how do I then choose to respond to life? I reveal this family background only to point out that we all have compelling stories about the harm and pain that some other person has caused us. But do we use these stories to justify long held judgments or victimhood? What harm do we cause ourselves by righteously holding onto these negative judgments?
Philosopher Bernard Gert defines being harmful as causing: pain, death, disability, loss of ability or freedom, or loss of pleasure. At what point do we say that a harmful action is reprehensible? Because it causes pain in another? Or only when the intent is to cause pain? Now we circle back around again to the lens of perception that we choose - is that kind of 'intent' inherently pathological (produced by disease) or is it biblically evil? Current scientific thought now considers psychopaths, for instance, to be born with brain structures that are 'wired' so differently as to preclude the emergence of conscience or of empathy for others.
By being a living creature on the planet, we all cause, inadvertently, or indirectly or through ignorance - harm to others. We live in an indivisible, interrelated web of life. How do we draw the line on where we allow ourselves to cause pain in another? If that other is someone / something we don't like or strongly disapprove of? Do our moral values about not causing pain in another only extend to humankind? What about animals? Or the animals we eat? What about Nature as a whole? How might our (direct and indirect) actions and ignorant choices that harm Nature also cause harm to ourselves and other living beings?
Many people are willfully ignorant: "I don't want to know all the details of how this food came to my table." "I don't want to know what happens to the garbage I throw away." "I don't want to know all the details of where my money is invested in." "I don't have the time and energy to think about the poor, the homeless, people in prisons, the shuttered elderly." "It would be too inconvenient to stop using so much fossil fuels." We delude ourselves to think that all our choices don't have consequences, many of them harmful to others. Or we protect ourselves from feeling our link to those who do suffer from our choices. Is that evil?
How do our lifestyle choices cause pain and disorder to the 'other' we call Nature? What about the real harm we bring to ourselves, by not treating ourselves with care, forgiveness and kindness? How do we hold the truth of our imperfect awareness, the truth that we delude ourselves around our (often unconsciously conditional) moral values - against our ideals? Where does compassion, humility and forgiveness come into focus? Where does wisdom - wise action- bloom in the face of ignorance and the pain of existence? As the personage of Jesus was quoted, "He who is without 'sin', cast the first stone."
"Evil" is nearly always considered in opposition to 'good'. This situates us firmly in a moral dualistic belief/perception, in which we are guided that one must be sought and embraced and the other renounced. This kind of splitting can itself be considered an operational delusion about reality as it is; Reality is not bound by dualistic concepts and therefore this moral dualism is a delusion that causes suffering.
This is what my conscious egoic path is: to practice surrendering to 'what is'. Surrendering to what is does not mean that we passively allow others to harm us either. Sometimes we must accept the truth that we are being harmed by someone and take whatever available steps we can to remove ourselves from harm, out of self care and kindness. Sometimes, the one who is harming us may respond to our selfprotection with anger or hurt feelings. Did we harm them? I would argue no; we are not responsible for how others respond to our actions, even if we can predict that to protect ourselves may trigger the other person to feel rejected, hurt or anger. We are each responsible for attending as honestly as we can to the contents of our own minds and hearts and the actions that flow from there.
I practice accepting both my deepest values as guidelines while practicing acceptance of my innocently imperfect consciousness. To cultivate equanimity in the face of all things beautiful and horrific. To step forward as a changing, evolving being representing my values of compassion, beautiful spirit and acceptance of a life full of mystery, lovingkindness, emerging wholeness with all beings. To practice mindful effort in keeping myself open and vulnerable to truth as it reveals itself anew. Yet, along this way, I will also discover what fate, karma and the deep well of psyche in its imperceivable wholeness has in store for my life. As Jung would point out, there's the limitless territory of our unconscious nature: 'the shadow." Recognizing this brings the prompt to balance conscious intent with humility.