Growing up, I was schooled by my grandmother on rang: “If another kid at school wants the toy you are playing with, give it to them, even if you had it first.” It felt unfair and unpleasant to give away the toys in my hand, but I did. At home she would analyze the effect of my actions on others. The key was to act as selflessly as possible, putting the interests of others above my own.
When I moved to the U.S. and met my parents for the first time, they were horrified by my grandmother’s philosophy. My parents were convinced I would be eaten alive in my New York City public school. “America is a competitive society,” they’d say. They undertook a campaign to undo her teaching, emphasizing the importance of looking out for myself and putting my own interests first.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with balancing the two. What does it mean to practice compassion and loving kindness? What do we do when people take advantage? Where to draw the line?
In Chinese medicine, the liver is associated with the emotions of anger and aggression. In order for our liver energy to flow freely, we must allow ourselves to experience the coming and going of these emotions. Anger and aggression are considered part of our normal physiology, as long as it stays in balance with other emotions.
The ancient yogis also recognized the necessity of aggression, or healthy channeling of aggression. Though ahimsa (nonviolence) is one of the moral codes of yoga, “Warrior” is among the most commonly practiced postures.
What does this tell us? Practicing compassion and claiming our inner power and aggression are actually two sides of the same coin. If we practice compassion while embodying our full power and aggression, we will not risk becoming pushovers. Likewise, if we keep compassion and loving kindness in our heart, we will not be at risk of abusing our power.
Returning to Chinese medicine, liver belongs to the wood element. Wood generates fire, the element associated with the heart. That is, our inner anger and aggression, when properly expressed and channeled, can transform and feed our love.
How does it do this? Anger teaches us where our boundaries are, as my mentor likes to say. By listening to our anger and understanding our boundaries, we are better able to take care of ourselves and practice self-love, the foundation of love for others.
This applies not just to individual life, but also group dynamics. In my years as a community organizer, I’ve seen again and again the importance for marginalized peoples, such as people of color, women, queer, working class and more recently the 99%, to claim our inner power and aggression (rather than say, focusing attention on our victimhood). By embracing our power, anger and aggression, and simultaneously keeping compassion in our heart, we can build a more loving and just society. Compassion frees us from the risk of abusing our power and perpetuating the oppression and exploitation we’ve experienced onto others, as we’ve seen so many times in history.
I think we can do this, for ourselves and the world.
How have you balanced compassion and aggression in your life?