Do No Harm

In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate
Only love dispels hate
This is the law
Ancient and inexhaustible

~ Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada


How many times we think of ourselves as caring, loving, compassionate and in general “good people” because how we live, the work we do, the practices we follow or the causes we care and fight for?

The “Do no harm” precept involves much more than not killing sentient beings: as individuals, as part of relationships, families, groups and communities we may be not only doing, but also thinking, expressing and supporting directly or indirectly, practices that in fact, harm others.

Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, activist and poet Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”

He then continues: “We cannot say ‘I’m not responsible. They did it, my hands are clean.”

The systemic forces that kill and harm or support killing and harming are rooted in the often unconscious reactivity of many individuals, and this crystalizes into institutions, policies and ideologies (Donald Rothberg, “The Engaged Spiritual Life”, 2006)

We cannot work on us as isolated individuals (i.e. changing our diets, exercising, meditating, rejecting all what’s “wrong”), the work has to happen both and at the same time within ourselves and including our relationships with others and the way we actively create, build and change things to create systemic change…the opposite is also true: working as groups and “activists” but without caring for the inner work and each other, we may be perpetuating with our everyday acts, unconscious harm that just changes hands when a power structure is dismantled.

How many followers of yoga, vegans and “clean” people are out there? Have anyone noticed a pattern on where they are from, how they look like and how their individual practices are changing the world (and how)? What systemic patterns have been changed (if any) because of their individual efforts? What destructive, manipulative and uncaring businesses have been created as a result of these practices? And how this has helped, elevated or changed others, humans and sentient beings, ecosystems, etc.?

And what about the activists? How many miles of flights have accumulated, how many hotels have been making businesses, how many slaughterhouses sprouted? What about families and friendships strained, how many have suffered from burnout? And how the world has changed? Any less pollution, CO2 or animal suffering?

In my experience and observations, people tend to gravitate to either “working on themselves” (inner transformation, and not necessarily deeper exploration about how these changes affect others and the world as a whole)…or they choose to engage in “activism” either environmental or social, “the outer”, this practice oftentimes leads to burnout and an excessive attention to systemic dynamics without a deep exploration of individual and relational ones.

A good critique of the “self-care” practice and its obsession with being positive can be found here: “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless (by Laurie Penny).

Either way, the work is ineffective because is either approached through “self-love” and an undefined “love for all” that does not translate into social and environmental actions or meaningful systemic change happens…or is approached as a fight against powerful forces “out there”.

Both, taken separately, are ways of disengaging and negating one side of reality, both are positions of privilege and oppression and a manifestation of the inaccurate dualistic paradigm of separation: soul/body, female/male, individual/community, meditation/action and so on…

In the case of those “trying to find themselves” through diet, meditation and going off the grid, they may not realize how privileged that position is, even if they opt for a simpler, non-consumerist lifestyle. It is also a position that says: “I’m OK, I’m pure or looking for purity. It’s not my fault. I’m not engaged and I don’t support harm”…as such, it is also a position that segregates, discriminates and judges others, even if superficially seems to come from love and compassion.

The obsession with “being positive” and “staying away” from the “toxic” (and “toxic” is here applied to people, places, stuff or things actually happening in the world) is, if nothing else, deeply harming: it is easy to love and gravitate towards the easy, clean, nice and beautiful. What’s challenging (but also soul-shaping) is to stretch ourselves beyond our egos and reaching out to those who are not so nice and wonderful because they have been systemically oppressed, hurt and exploited. The challenge is to work with what and those who don’t make us feel so “comfortable”  or what may not be so “convenient”, but is still necessary, as Martin Luther said: “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

In the case of active engagement in social, political or environmental causes, the segregation comes from not accepting the different levels of engagement of others who may not be at the same place. It also comes from a detachment from themselves as individuals who carry the same seed they are trying to fight and may, inadvertently, be spreading the same prejudices and power struggles they are trying to change.

Similarly, in psychology and traditional therapy approaches, we see a pattern of trying to change or fix the individual and her family or work dynamics. The practice, no matter the underlying “theory” assumes that there is something wrong with the individual or her close relationships and the goal is to get this person to “adapt” to the system out there so they can be “happy and productive”.

That the system is broken and may be the root of many of the individual and relationships “wrongs” is not an option considered too often.

But eco-psychology and eco-therapy both try to see the intersection between these two: that both the individual with her close relationships and the system as a whole are the root causes of all what’s wrong in the world: wars, violence, oppression, racism, extremism, segregation, exploitation, pollution, etc.

In his book “The Engaged Spiritual Life” Donald Rothberg proposes a series of exercises for us to integrate both approaches.

The first one being to carefully observe and take inventory (mindfulness) of the patterns of thoughts, language, attitudes, emotions and actions in our individual lives with which we support harming to others (all sentient beings and the systems necessary for them to thrive).

When possible, share these insights with others we trust and look at ways we can start changing this.

For the first step is to look inside so we can see how that mirrors the outside and vice-versa…


Those who awaken
Never rest in one place.
Like swans, they rise
And leave the lake.

It is better to conquer yourself
Than to win a thousand battles

~ Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada


3 Comments on “Do No Harm

  1. Very thoughtful, thought provoking, and informative. I especially like the quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh. I’d never heard of him. Now I’m off to look him up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He is a Buddhist monk and activist who created the concept of “Engaged Buddhism”, or Buddhism that is not only about perfecting ourselves and meditation, but also engaging for social and environmental justice and change

      Liked by 1 person

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