beach with docks at nighttime

This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper


As I write this, the controversy over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh is filling the internet with such fury—from both sides—that I think my computer may explode. The situation feels like a microcosm of all public controversy in a time when technology has given individuals the power to voice their thoughts and feelings more openly, to a larger audience, than ever before. Globally, individuals have a greater power to be heard than at any other time, and because of that, light is being shone on forms of injustice and oppression that have historically been kept secret. The system has barely changed, but the people are communicating. I believe this is the way forward to a more just society. It’s also a radical change, inciting intense emotion from all sides.

I’ve been in a situation similar (on a much smaller scale) to the one Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is enduring now. I believe her, but if you don’t, I accept that. Either way, it’s certain that abuses of power and crimes against humanity happen every day, to millions of people, all over the globe. I’ve felt the anguish of the survivors who are sharing their stories in so many forums. At times, their pain is so great that I’ve been swept away by my own “fight, flight, freeze” response. Fight tells me to lash out—at men, at politicians, at anyone who doesn’t agree with me. Flight tells me to save my own skin and let other survivors fend for themselves. Freeze tells me to stay in bed, pull the covers over my head, and give up. All of these are fear responses. And none of them can ever come to any good.

Some psychologists divide all emotions into either aversion or attraction, fear or love. Acts of violence or aggression—all of them—come from the “fear” side of the spectrum. From schoolyard bullies to genocidal dictators, violent people claim “self-defense” or “defense of our way of life” as justification for their actions. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao all killed millions to “defend” against those they saw as ideological or personal threats. Psychopaths feel no empathy, but tremendous self-pity, and justify their actions as normal responses to their own fear.

When I was the one whose name was making news because I had accused someone of sexual assault, I lived in a state of fear so intense I expected my heart to stop beating at any moment. But at some level, I could see that fear was the seed of all violence, and that if I obeyed it, I would become another source of the dark energy I hoped to change. The other choice—to act in love—sounded to me like a slippery slope to what Buddhists call “idiot compassion,” the kind that forgives and condones evil without ever acting to change it.

You, reading this, might be someone devastated just from reading the social media and watching the news. You may be a survivor of sexual assault. You may have spoken out with your story, or you may not be ready to do so yet — which is absolutely fine, because when we do speak out, the reaction can be horrific. We can all see that right now.

When I was awash in the worst hurricanes of my own fear I found a tiny safe harbor in a Tibetan practice called “lovingkindness.” It’s taught as a way to embrace all beings, but at first, Tibetan masters teach their students to offer “lovingkindness” to themselves. This is not selfishness; it brings calm and peace that gradually fill the self and then filter out to others as love and service. When I was most afraid, when strangers were sending me anonymous threats and public shaming had nearly destroyed me, I would repeat to myself, over and over, “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” This kept me from disintegrating into a million pieces—barely. Now, many years later, lovingkindness is easier for me to access. When I’m scared, as you may be today, I turn to it immediately. I am turning to it right now.

The magic of this practice is that after resting in the light of our own compassionate wishes for months and years, we begin to see how powerful love is. We understand from our own experience how those who do evil would be transformed if they were truly well, truly happy, truly free from suffering. We can hold them accountable for their actions, proclaim our truth, and defend all human rights while still seeing that the source of evil is fear and misery. Universal lovingkindness is meant to eradicate evil, not facilitate it. But again, no one goes there right away, and to fake it is to invite idiot compassion, which makes all problems worse.

In his poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” Jack Gilbert writes, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Today I hope we can all turn some measure of our attention to our own gladness. We can stubbornly repeat, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering,” until the power of love begins to rise up like a tranquil island in the sea of fear. This is the place to stand while we act for change.

As I check my social media posts, still filled with their mélange of personal stories, validations, accusations, and all forms of controversy, I think how much this capacity to communicate has changed the world already. I think of Malala Yousafzai, who became one of the most influential people in the world as a little girl blogging from a Taliban-controlled state. In this new era, all bets are off. Anything could happen. All stories can be told.

I believe that the vast majority of women and men desperately want to choose love over fear, peace and joy over misery. How we go about ensuring this choice for all people is far beyond the scope of this article. What I hope I can offer you is that safe harbor that saved me when I could feel nothing but terror and despair. I want to invite you to stubbornly accept your own gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. I have faith that this small, personal act will ultimately have large, universal consequences. And when that faith trembles, I repeat to myself what I’m saying to you, right in this moment, wherever and whoever you are: May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.