Spiritually Responding to Fanaticism

Because of the world's difficult social and political environment, we are all being forced to ask ourselves some very important questions. The challenging conditions people are faced with around the world have opened the doors to extremist views that are often hurtful, violent and intentionally divisive. All we need do is pick up a news paper or tune into public media and it all quickly comes flooding in -- the loud, aggressive speech designed to drowned out any opposing opinion, the subliminally coded language designed to undermine, insult or exploit the opposing side. We are all exposed to the extremist views that have entered our social space and no cause or belief is too sacred. The violent and aggressive hate speech that was once marginalized by a common sense of decency has now gone mainstream. Screaming and verbally attacking someone you disagree with has taken the place of reasonable conversation and intelligent dialogue.

Author H.G. Wells once said that “People turn to violence when they run out of ideas.” Clearly we are living in a world where people are running out of ideas. There are those who are impervious to reason and factual information, grasping tightly to their own narrow views, even when they have been factually disproved or exposed as lies. These are individuals who are intimidated by fact-based knowledge and an educated perspective, so they aggressively react out of fear and insecurity to anyone who opposes them.

Research on such matters has clearly shown that hate speech and violent action are concrete evidence of a lack of factual knowledge and limited world view.That is why those who reject civil dialogue are so often intent on destroying the social norms of proper behavior, the rules that govern decent conversation and the proper exchange of ideas and beliefs -- rejecting even the right to agree to disagree. Fanatically imposing their world view on the rest of us is evidence of their intellectual and psychological limitations. The fanatic is philosophically bankrupt, thus why they cling so tightly to groups who think exactly as they do, forming what psychologists describe as “group think” or the “collective ego”. For them, there is no middle ground. They see the world in terms of them and us -- those who support their given beliefs while shunning all dissenting views. When we are confronted with extreme nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia and the obsessive views that are meant to instill enmity and division, we can be sure that they are not going to acknowledge factual information. We can be confident that we are not going to win these people over in any way or open their minds to new ways of thinking. They are, most often, trapped in their fear and they act out in fear.

After personally being confronted by such extremism, conservative author David Brooks wrote in the New York Times recently, “You can’t have a civil conversation with people who are intent on destroying the rules that govern conversation itself. It’s fruitless to engage with people who are impervious to facts. There are some ideas — like racism — that are so noxious they deserve no recognition in any decent community. You must accept the fact that you are not going to change some people’s minds anyway. If you engage, thus giving them an opening, you’re just going to give them room to destroy the decent etiquette of society. Civility is not a suicide pact.”


Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye just makes the whole world blind”. The point being that responding in kind to violence and anger is never the answer. In fact we may discover that some situations actually do not deserve a response at all. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said that when confronted with the violent words and actions of others, it is sometimes best to not respond at all. To have the courage and self discipline to simply walk away, sometimes even run away. Jesus Christ's response to such extremism was to maintain equanimity and show humility by simply turning the other cheek. These words of spiritual advice come from three great wisdom teachers who were put to the ultimate test of political and religious fanaticism. They realized that the best possible way to react to fanaticism is with compassion and love, and that it was the most moral, ethically productive response we could give for our own well being and for those who oppose us. If our opposition will not allow room for compassion and love, then simply turn the other cheek or walk away. These wise teachers relied on the intelligence of knowing that when we allow others to arouse our anger and aggression we destroy our own state of well-being and good consciousness. They understood that allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed with bitterness and anger is self-destructive in any situation and simply adds fuel to an already burning fire.


So how do we go about responding to fanatics with love? This seems so much easier said than done. One way to begin is by listening to what teacher Thich Nhat Hahn has to say on the subject. He tells us that when confronted with such situations we should consciously engage in what he calls compassionate listening or deep listening.

“Deep or compassionate listening is the kind of listening

that can relieve the suffering of another person.

You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her empty their heart -

When another person makes you suffer,

it is because they are suffering and their suffering is spilling over,

he does not need punishment he needs help.”

So we see, from the perspective of the great wisdom teachers, that the only way to confront fanaticism is with love. We can show that love by our willingness to simply listen. We must be willing to deeply listen without judgement, without preparing a response. This way we are not distracted by our own opinions and we can hear what’s behind their words -- gain insight into their personal suffering. Then we can calmly repeat back to them what we think they're trying to say so that they can see we are truly with them, truly listening. We may not like their language or their beliefs, but if we truly believe in compassion, we can care about their state of suffering. Many of the people in this world are lonely and sad, their fanaticism is emerging from a deeply wounded pride, a feeling of not being seen or heard or accepted. Certainly this is the case in today's political and social environment. Maybe by simply making someone feel heard, in some way you will allow for an opening within their own psyche to reflect -- reassess what they are actually doing or saying. A moment of compassionate listening from someone else has the power to open hearts and minds. I have personally heard and seen such transformation, and I know this wisdom has power to heal and restore a wounded individual.

Being able to put our own views aside to deeply listen to those of others, even of those we fiercely disagree with, can have a profound affect on them and us. I’m reminded once again of the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in this respect,

“When you talk, you are only repeating something you already know.

When you listen you may learn something new.”

Deep listening can open our hearts and minds in ways we have not yet imagined. It is a two-fold process.

When you engage fanaticism with the love of deep listening, you will overcome your own emotional negative urge to fight back, replacing it with the positive emotion of compassion. You’ll actually set a good example for all involved through your listening response to the harsh or extremist ideas. You may even find yourself learning something. Wise teaching doesn’t come from saints alone. A person doesn’t have to be right all the time in order for them to teach you where you might be wrong. A wonderful modern day example of an individual's ability to fight fanatical hatred with compassion was the great spiritual teacher and humanitarian Martin Luther King who "thrust his love into his enemies’ hearts in a way that was aggressive, remorseless and destabilizing”, yet never vindictive or cruel -- always raising the dignity of his cause with eloquent speech and intelligent reasoning when confronted with hatred and ignorance.

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Sangha Without Borders is currently physically located in London, UK