Thoughts and Prayers and the Violence Within

In the aftermath of tragedies like the Las Vegas massacre, we hear the familiar counsel to offer “thoughts and prayers.”  This week some voices have spoken up to suggest that this phrase is simply a by-word for inaction, that thoughts and prayers are simply not enough to overcome the spiral of gun violence in this country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers are NOT enough,” Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, during his show Monday night, lamented the lack of political action and said, “Your thoughts and prayers are insufficient.”

While I agree that more action needs to be taken to help curb gun violence, the interesting question to me is whether offering thoughts and prayers actually accomplish anything .  My feeling is they mainly help the person generating  the thoughts and/or offering the prayers.  They help us process our grief.  They make us feel that we are taking action, at least spiritually.

This begs another question: do thoughts and prayers transcend space and time?  I would say, yes.  Metaphorically speaking.  Do one’s prayers actually touch and help the person prayed for?  I’m doubtful.  In this context the kind of thoughts and prayers we’re talking about are externally directed, and as a Buddhist, I am skeptical about relying on external solutions.  If we really want to stop violence then we must look within ourselves, for that is where the causes for violence lie.

Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Creating Peace:

“Violence is never far.  It is possible to identify the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech and actions.  We can find these seeds within our own mind, in our attitudes, and in our fears and anxieties about ourselves and others.  Thinking itself can be violent, and violent thoughts can lead us to speak and act violently.  In this way, the violence in our minds manifest in the world.”

So, to find a real solution to violence, we must look within.  Like “thoughts and prayers,”  “looking within” has become a bit of a cliché, but what it represents, inner-directed reflection, is a universal truth.  Just as universal, I think, is the idea that real social change is only possible when each individual accomplishes a radical change within themselves.  It’s what the famous Gandhi quote means about becoming the change you wish to see in the world.  (There is no evidence he actually said that, but he did say this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”)

Changing the world through changing ourselves is not like sending out thoughts and prayers.  As Thich Nhat Hanh mentions, looking within, developing self-awareness, and actualizing positive inner change manifests in the world through our thoughts, speech, and actions just as our inner violence does.

At Psychology Today, Allen R McConnell Ph.D. writes,

“A variety of theories on self-regulation (i.e., how people direct their behavior in the pursuit of their goals) emphasize that change requires two things: a goal, and an awareness of where one currently is in order to assess the discrepancy between the two.  In short, we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”

If our goal is stop gun violence, then we must to look within ourselves and develop an awareness of our own inner violence.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

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