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“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear” – Gandhi
I felt scared. My thoughts raced to waking up dead, thousands of miles from home, after having a snooze in my bed. My chest tightened.
I didn’t like feeling that way.
I glanced, fearfully, at the spider, with the red marking on its back, crawling on the roof of my 90 square foot cabin.
My instinctive response was to get rid of the source of my fear, the spider – even if it meant killing something, which had done nothing to harm me.
Sharing the Forest
I was at a Zen monastery in California, living in a 90 square foot cabin, overlooking a gorgeous forest. The monastery oozed compassion and kindness – from the kind smiles on the faces of the monks to the vegetarian food served.
And here I wanted to KILL an innocent spider. A spider that hadn’t chased me or bitten me! All because I was feeling scared.
At orientation, we were asked to watch out for bears, rattle snakes and black widow spiders, which share the forest with the monastery. I wasn’t paying much attention, and only remember hearing that female black widow spiders (the poisonous ones!) had a red marking on them.
The spider crawling in my cabin did have a red marking on it, and my mind immediately assumed the worse! I felt anxious, scared, and angry. I just wanted to be rid of the spider.
Beneath my desire to kill the spider was a very powerful emotion – that of disgust. I was absolutely disgusted by the spider creeping around in my cabin. And the disgust made me want to kill it. To get rid of it forever. RIGHT NOW!
Paul Ekman is one of the leading researchers on emotions in the world. You may know him as “the world’s leading deception agent,” Cal, in the TV series “Lie to Me.”
In his book, with the Dalai Llama, “Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion” he writes that disgust is responsible for far more violence and killing than hatred.
Ekman writes that disgust – much more than hatred – is what motivates horrific & gruesome acts of violence such as holocausts.
He says that Hitler and Goebbels (Nazi Minister for Propaganda) primarily talked about Jews with disgust (as opposed to hatred).
“Jews were ‘lice;’ they were ‘vermin.’ You had to exterminate them because they were a pollutant. It was not hatred. It was disgust.”
[They thought] Jews were vile, a scourge on the earth, if you look at the language used.
This is very similar to a phrase used during the Rwandan massacre, where the goal was “to crush all the cockroaches” as the Tutsis were called. This again uses the language of disgust to justify wholesale slaughter.
It Doesn’t Matter If It Is a Baby, Male, or Female Spider
“When I see a cockroach, I do not worry, is it a baby cockroach? Is it a lady cockroach? I just want to get rid of it, because it is vile, repulsive. When you feel that toward people, it is the most dangerous”
Similarly, in that moment, I gave no thought to whether the spider was male, female, or infant. I didn’t consider if it had a family. That it was a living creature, worthy of life, just like me. Or that it was probably scared of me too!
I. Just. Wanted. The. Spider. Destroyed!
And just like that, I suddenly felt the discussions we had earlier in the monastery, about staying present and attuned to my body and feelings come alive for me!
To be clear – I still felt anxious and scared about the spider.
And yet, as I sat with those feelings and let them pass through me, I was able to see where my disgust and desire to kill the spider came from.
It came from feeling scared, frightened, and uncomfortable. And I would do anything to not feel that way. Include killing it without any thought!!
I had a first-hand visceral experience that MY fear and disgust leads me to violent acts. I feel scared of spiders. So I want to harm and kill them, for no reason than to TEMPORARILY feel better inside my body.
And yet there is another way out.
I can stay present with the uncomfortable feeling. Where do I feel the fear in my body? What are the voices in my head saying? What are they making me do?
I tried to relocate the spider using the “bug bus” (basically a jar to scoop up the spider or bug and then place it safely outside) provided in each cabin, and the spider scurried out of sight.
So I went to sleep (not without wondering if I’d ever get up again!) with the spider crawling around the cabin. And I was able to relocate the spider outside when I saw it the next day!
After this incident (and Ekman’s analysis of disgust), I had a new awareness – in my body as opposed to an intellectual understanding – of how disgust made me act in uncompassionate, unkind, and unloving ways.
The fear and anxiety makes me feel threatened and uncomfortable. And instead of seeking greater understanding or presence, I seek to destroy and kill.
When I think of any group which has faced persecution, oppression and domination, be it Women, Jews, Blacks, Gays, Muslims, it is usually because the more powerful group at the time was scared and uncomfortable. And they didn’t want to feel that way!
So they labeled certain behavior as “disgusting” which made it much easier to use violence & hatred and forget the inherent humanity in the source of their discomfort.
This was a powerful reminder that the next time I see human (or insect!) behavior that disgusts me, to not allow my first reaction to control me. Pause. Take a deep breath.
Seek to understand and accept. This brings me calmness instead of anger. And this will add warmth and compassion to my relationships – with myself, colleagues, friends, family, and all living beings.