Our lives are full of many stories. Each story has a beginning and an end, but it's rarely clear when a story will end. The time in between can be stressful as we wait for closure. Maybe you have an exam approaching, you're writing a dissertation, or preparing an important speech. Maybe your business is failing or your relationship is on the rocks. It's tempting to believe that life will return to normal once these things are resolved, that you can finally relax once the dust has settled. The problem is that when that happens, another story has taken its place.
That feeling of stress is the fear that reality will not closely match your ideal. With multiple stories playing out all the time, and it being unlikely to resolve every story at once (that's called dying), we must find a way to live in this limbo. There are two solutions to this dilemma:
- Detach from the ends, attach to the means.
- Attach to the ends, detach to the means.
To detach from both the ends and the means is to live an empty life. To attach to both ends and means is to live an anxious life. But to attach only to one or the other allows for a flexible path to goals and to enjoyment. I will focus on option 1.
I often struggle with stories that involve injustice in my own life. The pages of those stories are the roughest. I can feel my heart rate increase as I mentally read and re-read those stories. But injustice is just another word for ideals not matching reality. If I zoom out far enough, it's clear that this is only one angle. People have different ideals, people have different experiences of reality. This makes it hard to know what, if anything, is right. It makes our sense of injustice seem silly when viewed in this way. That is not to say we should become a passive observer of our own lives, allowing others to take advantage at every turn. But it does raise the question of what action, if any, is correct? And what mental state is appropriate in the course of this action? Allowing injustice to influence my body and mind is clearly not a desirable way to live. It leaves me feeling terrible. It is an example of attaching to both the ends and the means. I would greatly prefer in this case to attach only to the ends, to set my sight on a goal and work patiently to achieve justice.
The principle of non-violent resistance, heavily utilized by Gandhi in the movement to create an independent India, is one extreme way to do that. In his writings on non-violent resistance, Gandhi explains that resisting violently gives cause to perpetuate an existing system. If your end goal is to achieve a free India for example, using violent methods, like the English, will only perpetuate your servitude. You must then be flexible on the means. You must detach from the means. Non-violent resistance is a mental state that exists in the balance between attachment and detachment. It is an attachment to the ends, and a detachment from the means, like a mystical judo of caring and not caring at the same time.
Non-violent resistance requires the resister to accept greater suffering in order to achieve the desired outcome, like a cosmic conservation of wants. But you and I are just not programmed like this by default. This usually happens because we are quite attached to most everything. We want, want, want. We want money, we want justice, we want power, or whatever other things we are told to want. But you can't always get what you want, as Mick Jagger reminds us.
Gandhi employed non-violent resistance to make a radical change in his country's political structure, but can it also be employed by regular people to accomplish regular things? I actually think it's extremely difficult or impossible to implement true non-violent resistance while participating in a capitalistic system, but I wonder if there aren't lessons to be learned. The ends may somewhat violent by nature (because they are greedy), but we can work to remove the violence of means inside ourselves. One thing that strikes me about the non-violent resistance movement, is how peaceful it was conceptually—like a calm ocean slowly engulfing an island. What if we approach interactions without hatred for the opposite party? What if we bring awareness to the internal struggle? What if we detach from the means? Awareness and observation are the way towards this acceptance. When you find yourself struggling in the process of moving toward an end, remind yourself that accomplishing an end requires sacrifice of the means.