Where Does Torture Start? Where Does It End?

07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I watched the YouTube clip of President Obama with Chancellor Merkel and Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel placing individual roses at the memorial at Buchenwald death camp, I was deeply moved. I felt both sadness at the horrors we as a species are capable of, and encouraged by what we as a species are capable of acknowledging about ourselves, however painful. To evolve into intelligent, caring beings we have to be able to soberly tell the truth about our most base instincts. Until we are able to look into our own lives, our own personal hatreds and our own desires for others to suffer, we will live superficial lives of blame and justification.

Torture is not new. Every age has had its version of Inquisition, genocide, death marches and death camps. As Americans we have to face our own complicity in the government-sanctioned torture of our time.

There is no torture without some fabrication of justification for that torture. Our minds are capable of generating whatever narrative is needed so that we can cause hurt and still feel all right. It is an agonizing moment as we realize that our leaders have used the justification of protecting us to perpetuate barbaric behavior.

So what is at the root of this ancient and present capacity to cause profound suffering in others? What do we have to say to ourselves so that we can live with ourselves after inflicting such pain? How is our conscience co-opted in this horrific way? How do we pass on this capability to hurt mercilessly, generation after generation even as we condemn it in others?

The question is deep and the answers complex, but we can begin answering it by examining our own individual thoughts. What are the thoughts that support and encourage suffering and pain as methods of punishment or tools for protection and control?

I was raised in the 1950s, when spanking children and beating dogs was usual.
Sometimes praise and often humiliation were used to teach. In the name of learning, dirty looks from parents and teachers were normal experiences. Feeling bad about myself was an impetus to improvement. In the generations before mine, punishment was even tougher.

And is that all in the past? Now most caring American families realize that love and support are best for fostering learning in their children, and when women and children are battered, our society no longer condones it. But what aspects of allowing gross mistreatment remain inside us? And how does the way we treat ourselves affect our willingness to mistreat others?

We can use this moment in history to inquire deeply into these fundamental issues.

We can begin by recognizing the voices of punishment and retribution within our own internal narrative. We can see how in "obeying" the internal voice that uses hate and belittling, we imprison ourselves (and consequently others) even though our internal justification may come from the lofty intention of betterment or even enlightenment.

Hitler claimed that he was bringing in the new age by "purifying" the German race. How do we justify our internal abuse? Purification? Becoming a better person? What aspects of our personality do we condemn to banishment?

If we are willing to look deeply inside, without banishing any aspect of ourselves, we find the capacity to face the horror of our own inclination to inflict pain. If we refuse neither to gloss over the most base of our instincts nor to hate and demonize ourselves for having those instincts, we can actually come face to face with the worst in ourselves. Without torturing, without punishing, without hating, we can open our hearts to the worst. When the worst of ourselves is brought into our hearts with love, the worst can be seen with clarity and compassion.

Corrections of individual destructive habits don't come more quickly with destructive, hateful internal behavior. Corrections occur naturally from seeing clearly and responding with reason and understanding.

The horrors of the past can serve. We can stop just speaking to the perpetrators when atrocities are uncovered, and realize that we are speaking to us all, individually and collectively. And in speaking to us all, how do we speak? With at least respect and maybe even love, or with belittlement and hatred?

When you find fault in your behavior or thought, how do you speak to yourself? That is where we each can begin, and perhaps it is the biggest step.

Gangaji will be holding meetings and retreats this summer in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Baden-Baden, London, Dublin, and Dorset Read more about Gangaji's events and catalog of books and videos online.