In the Buddha’s teachings there is the notion that anything we observe is best understood by looking beneath the surface, beyond the appearances to see what is usually called “the causes and conditions” for the event or the behavior. Following this advice has always proved very helpful for me both in having compassion for individual actions and in understanding much of the social breakdown and chaos in the world.
The essay “All the Troubled People” gives probably the best short explanation I’ve seen of how that works. Though not from a Buddhist point of view, but rather from a scientific, psychological or behavioral science perspective, this essay reveals the underlying causes for so much of the pain, violence, degradation and suffering in our society.
Tony Biglan, author of the essay, says:
…children are unlikely to develop the ability to regulate their emotions or suppress impulsive reactions if they are constantly stressed. Abuse, neglect, and even criticism can rewire a child’s brain so that they are chronically aroused and unable to calm themselves. Chronic stress makes people have a “hair trigger.” They see threats where others don’t. They are more likely to react with fear or aggression to things that other people don’t find threatening. They do this for understandable evolutionary reasons. In a dangerous world, having your physiology “set” on high alert makes it a little more likely you will survive.
Unfortunately, despite some budding efforts to take a different approach, the dominant way of dealing with behavior we don’t like is to punish it. So very often people who have failed to develop the emotional and self-regulatory skills that they need simply get more stressful punishment from others.
Tony’s blog, “Nurturing Environments” presents the case for this approach in very convincing terms. [Full disclosure: his son Mike is married to my son’s cousin Jenny, which may explain how I found it!] He’s connected to the Oregon Research Institute and published a paper in “American Psychologist” in 2012 “The Critical Role of Nurturing Environments for Promoting Human Well-Being“, which I haven’t read but am working on reading now.
“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”