Violence against Self
Whenever I introduce the topic of violence against self in a Dharma talk, almost everyone squirms. No one wants to hear it. I will directly ask the question: Are you, in an obvious manner or in a series of subtle, covert actions, being violent with yourself? Usually people want to assure me that while they may work too hard at times, stay in an unhealthy relationship, eat too much, or sleep too little, they would not characterize their behavior as violent toward themselves. Yet, person after person, once they've closely examined their lives, experiences a moment of self-recognition that at first can be painful and embarrassing. This initial discomfort is often followed by a sense of liberation as new possibilities arise in their imaginations for how to live more peacefully.
Most people perpetrate this violence against self through mistakenly identifying with various thoughts that arise due to impersonal conditions coming together. The body and mind's well-being are the innocent victims. Each individual has a unique pattern, but the common ground is that you relate to yourself in a manner that results in your life being more emotionally or physically violent than it need be.
You may have limited your understanding of self-violence to physical abuse or other blatant self-destructive behavior that calls for a 12-step program. The word "violence" may sound too harsh to you, but its dictionary meaning is "an exertion of extreme force to cause injury or abuse in the form of distortion or infringement." The extreme force can be a mental act that then shows up in the body or an act that is done repeatedly to an extreme.
You can think of violence as any highly energetic form of relating to a person, including yourself, that is jarring, turbulent, and distorting. Can you identify any times in the last few days in which you treated yourself in a discordant, abrupt, or distorting manner?
The Trappist monk and spiritual author Thomas Merton once said, "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times." Obviously Merton wasn't speaking about pathologically self-destructive behavior. Instead he was drawing our attention to the shadow side of normative, even seemingly positive, culturally approved behavior. He was referring to how we do great violence to ourselves simply in the manner in which we go about arranging our lives.
Gradually I've come to realize that violence against oneself is one of the great denials of our time. People are very willing to talk about the violence that the world does to them, but they're much less willing to own the violence that they do to themselves. Violence against self can most easily be recognized in your experience of the body in daily life. You already know the general health problems that come about because of stress, sleep deprivation, and constant strain. You may not identify them as examples of violence to self, but anytime you make yourself sick or dysfunctional, it is an act of violence for which you need to take responsibility. We all know people who are overworked or have too much stress, which causes problems with the digestive system, heart, or other parts of the body, but who never label their behavior as violence to the self. But is there any description that is more apt?