The common response to such acts is returning the favor, an eye for an eye. But despite our defensive act of aggression, we typically feel aggrieved. Or we get very angry and upset, but that only takes the pain of the hurt even deeper.
What is a better way to respond? How should you as a Buddhist respond to such situations so as not to experience suffering and thus truly protect yourself? The answer is not the Christian one of turning the other cheek, providing the aggressor with another opportunity to injure as well as not responding with revenge.
The Buddhist response is two-fold. The first is to understand that the person’s act of aggression comes from their trauma, their life-experience. It is not about you, it’s really all about the person. He acts out against you because of the way he feels about himself.
Understanding that this is an expression of their trauma, don’t take it personally. Also, instead of feeling anger or other negative feelings towards the person, have compassion for the person. You know what it’s like to be a victim of and controlled by your past trauma. Note that this compassionate attitude does not resolve the person of responsibility; even if the devil made him do it, he is still responsible.
Many teachers would say it’s important to forgive. But I would disagree because I have a different take on forgiveness. Forgiveness, in my view, requires guilt; and guilt requires free will. If someone is being controlled by their trauma, if he is acting as he acts because he is programmed to do that, then there is no guilt because there is no true free will. (See my post, “Forgiveness – A Different Take.”)
So the first part is how you should respond emotionally. The second part is how you should respond physically, which is usually not discussed but very important.
If the person is a stranger, get yourself out of the person’s space if at all possible. Even if you don’t take it personally and have compassion, you do not want to keep yourself in a position where you will receive such abuse.
If the person is someone you know, let alone a friend, lover, or spouse, the situation is more complicated. The first question you must ask yourself is whether the act of aggression/abuse is part of a pattern, habitual. Also, how harmful was the aggression? Was it intentional? And what is the overall nature of the relationship within which this has happened; is it healthy and loving?
Regardless, you must speak the truth. Tell the person how they have harmed you and ask them to promise never to do the act again.
If the person looks at you like you’re crazy, then you should consider walking from the relationship. Depending on how close the relationship is, how healthy it otherwise is, how much you’re invested in it, you will probably want to suggest talking about it or, if appropriate, seeking joint counseling to see whether this disagreement can be resolved. But honestly, if you get this reaction, there’s probably not much hope, whether it’s an isolated incident or a pattern.
If the person has remorse and this is an isolated incident in an otherwise healthy and loving relationship, then trust the person and give them a chance.
If the person has remorse and the act is part of a pattern, the situation is more complex, but the same principle applies. The first truth you must remember in such situations is that nothing you can do or say is going to change the person. If the person has remorse and says he’ll never do it again, he may have the best intention but he has no control over himself, which is why he has acted with aggression repeatedly to begin with.
Only if the person is in touch with his spiritual true self and commits to sitting with his repeated acts should you give it a chance, again assuming this repeated action occurs within an otherwise healthy and loving relationship. But do not expect miracles or a quick turn-about.
In this situation, you will need to be patient; undoubtedly the situation will repeat itself with some frequency before the person is able to resolve it through meditation. Remember that the person is acting out of his trauma and trauma is very difficult to heal. It requires real commitment and discipline. And it will require you to always be in touch with your faith and trust in this person.
It’s also important for you to be aware that you bring something to this situation as well. This act of aggression so upset you because of something in your past, your trauma. It pushed your buttons. You were not able to react with dispassion. For your own benefit, as well as that of the relationship, you should work with that trauma. Especially if this is an ongoing, meaningful relationship, it’s essential to see things clearly.
Ultimately, it is for you to decide if and when your best interest requires that you walk away from the relationship or stick with it. But if the situation does not resolve itself, that should remain an option.