All we know is aggression but because we don’t see our aggression for what it actually is, we just we just see it as the normal way of being in the world. We don’t have any other modality of existence, we don’t know of any other modality…
‘Aggression’ means ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them to be’; on a deeper level, it means ‘imposing our own way of seeing things on the world without acknowledging that we are doing so’.
This sort of basic aggression is invisible, therefore – it forms the backdrop for everything, it’s the baseline for everything we do. It’s the baseline we work off. Any attempt to say to tell us that we are fundamentally aggressive, that we live in an aggression-based way world, will be met with honest incomprehension. Nobody will know what we talking about.
To not be aggressive is the ultimate ‘radical action’ therefore, even though it isn’t an action, strictly speaking. There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, than ‘non-aggression’. Non-aggression changes everything, whilst aggression (even though the whole point of it is to make changes) changes nothing. Nonaggression freezer; aggression locks us into the very situation that we are fighting against.
This is illustrated by the Buddhist story of Prince Five-weapons, as related by Joseph Campbell. The Prince in the story adept in the use of five weapons, as the name of the story implies, but when he encounters the forest ogre known as ‘Sticky-hair’ he quickly discovers that none of them are any use to him. Everything sticks to this ogre (his name is Sticky-hair for a reason) including his two feet and his two fists, when he uses them as weapons. When both arms and legs are firmly stuck to the ogre’s hair, he uses his head as a last resort and then this get stuck too. He’s stuck to the ogre in five places!
Prince Five-weapons then has the insight that whatever he does to fight the ogre is always going to be turned against him, and the results of this insight is that he has a change of attitude that allowed him to practice non-aggression instead of aggression, and this transforms the situation in that his own aggression is no longer being turned against him. In modern psychotherapy parlance non-aggression is sometimes called ‘radical acceptance’ – we are no longer seeking to change the situation, either overtly or covertly, but instead we are wholeheartedly surrendering to it. We are assenting to it one hundred per cent, with no reservations; we are surrendering to it peacefully, with an open heart, not as a tactic, nor as an act of despair. This interpretation doesn’t entirely seem to tally with the last part of the story because in the story Prince Five-weapons tells the ogre Sticky-hair that the reason he isn’t afraid (which Sticky-hair is understandably worried about) is because he has an ultimate weapon in his belly – a thunderbolt which will tear the demon to pieces. This is no ordinary weapon however: in Tibetan Buddhism a thunderbolt means the Vajra (or Dorje) which is a battle club made of diamond. This diamond club sumbolizes ‘immutable wisdom’ or the power of enlightenment to see through illusion. According to Barbara O’Brien writing in thoughtco.com:
The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.
A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”
In terms of the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism we can say therefore that the thunderbolt weapon is not ‘aggressive’ in nature. It sounds odd to say that a tremendous weapon like this is not aggressive but the truth doesn’t threaten anything, and it doesn’t try to change anything. The only thing that is threatened by the Vajra weapon is illusion, and illusion isn’t there in the first place! The difficulty we have is in seeing how not wanting to change anything’ can result in the situation being totally transformed. In the case of demon Sticky-hair, we would be very much inclined to say that Prince was actually defeated, since he could not overcome his opponent by force of arms. What self-respecting ogre is going to be put off by us not fighting it, by us not opposing it with every means at our disposal? In the real world – surely – the ogre is going to walk all over us. The ogre is going to eat us for breakfast. Isn’t that the way that things work in this world? If we are aggressive enough then we will be triumphant whilst the weak and the timid and the inoffensive will have to put up with being eaten…
The ogre in the story is essentially ‘an inner demon’ however and to not be aggressive towards our own inner demons (but to unconditionally allow them to be what they are, and see them for what they are) is not cowardice (or ‘giving in’) but the ultimate act of courage. Who wants to come face to face with their inner demons after all? No one wishes to get intimately acquainted with their inner demons, and so what we do instead (by ‘default’, so to speak) is to deny their existence and thereby allow them to possess us. As Jung says, very few of us have the courage to own up to the darkness that is within us, and as a result this darkness is rejected (or ‘split off’) and becomes an autonomous agent that gets to walk the streets unchallenged, free to work evil in the world.
Non-aggression doesn’t just radically transform our relationship with the demon(s) that possess us (by making that relationship conscious rather than unconscious), it radically transforms our understanding of ourselves and the world. It radically transforms everything, in other words! The essence of aggression, as we have already said, is that it is ‘us imposing our own way of seeing things in the world without knowing that we are doing so’. Because we are imposing our own viewpoint on the world without knowing that we are doing so we are very effectively trapped it; we are trapped in a viewpoint that we do not know to be a viewpoint and this is what our ‘unconscious aggression’ does to us. It backfires on us in a big way, in the biggest possible way, and we never know it. We are the ‘prisoners of our own device’; we have checked in but we can’t check out…
Why are we so very quick to be always imposing a framework on the world, we might wonder? What is it that causes us to do to do this? Why do we always have to contextualize everything within an artificial context? The best way to answer this question is simply to say that it is due to our ‘insecurity’ – we are insecure and so we impose our own familiar way of seeing things on the world. We are insecure and so we project our ‘automatically assumed framework’ on the world, and so we only see things within the terms of this framework, this context. When we impose our old familiar way of looking at things on the world that makes us feel secure – it gives us a feeling of ‘being in control’, a sense that we are ‘playing a game that we know about’. When we project the same old predictable ‘framework of meaning’ onto the world then that makes us feel secure – nothing is ever going to radically surprise us because we are always going to be ‘explaining the new in terms of the old’.
We are protecting ourselves against the new (or the unknown), in other words – we are maintaining our own narrow way of understanding the world and this is aggression pure and simple. We’re not allowing things to be what they actually are, but instead we are covertly forcing them to be that way that we unconsciously want them to be. We’re doing this without admitting that we are doing this – we’re saying that ‘we aren’t doing anything’! We’re imposing our own brand of order, our own brand of ‘commonsense’ on the world. We do this by squeezing the whole universe through our narrow concepts, through our narrow ideas, through our narrow mental categories. If something doesn’t fit our unexamined expectations then we don’t give it the time of day. There is therefore an all-out war going on – there’s a war going on between the meaning we want, and everything that disagrees with this meaning, anything that undermines our preferred way of seeing things.
This is ‘fundamental aggression’ – this is the aggression we engaging in every single day of our lives without ever knowing that we are. This is the ‘invisible aggression’ that we are engaging in every second of every day of our lives, just about. This is the fundamental aggression that forms the very basis of our lives – it’s our baseline and so we never look at it. We never question it or remark on it. We don’t understand that there is any other way of being in the world – to us anything else simply means ‘defeat’ or ‘losing’.
And yet as we have been saying, all this visible aggression rebounds on us; it backfires on us with a vengeance. It’s not benefitting us at all really; quite the reverse is true – we’re ‘shooting ourselves in the foot; we’re ‘scoring an own-goal’. We’re ‘self-harming’, so to speak – we’re self-sabotaging in a big way. We’re limiting ourselves cruelly and pointlessly without owning up to the fact that we are – we are putting ourselves into an airless sterile conceptual box and stubbornly pretending that the box is the whole world. We are suppressing our innate curiosity about what the world would be like if we left it alone and didn’t impose our own private meaning on it. We’re far too afraid, far too insecure to see what would happen if we did that. We can’t even allow ourselves to see that this is a possibility! That’s what aggression is therefore – it’s simply ‘fear in disguise’.
When we talk about ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them’ to be this is what we’re talking about – this is control in a nutshell. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong or unhealthy about control because clearly control has a vital part to play in life. We can’t just let ‘everything go to hell’! Control has a very specific domain of applicability however, which is to say, it’s good for some things but not for everything! When we have to control everything then – as we all know – this is profoundly unhealthy. We never apply this principle to the question of ‘how we perceive the world’ however; if we did then we’d see that ‘controlling the way that we see or understand the world without admitting to ourselves that we are doing so’ is the most ‘unhealthy’ thing there is? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves for no other reason’? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves because we’re afraid and don’t want to see that we’re afraid’? We can say that ‘non-aggression is the ultimately revolutionary act’ therefore because it marks the ending of this pointless limitation…
Image – Golden Vajra at Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal