September 18, 2013

For the annals of religion and violence: Did Buddhism inspire Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter?

WaPo has an article with the headline "Buddist community ponders apparent link between their faith and Navy Yard shooter." (Ponder that egregious spelling error.)
“As Buddhism has spread in the West, it has put forth and maintained an image of being a peaceful religion,” Buddhist ethicist Justin Whitaker, author of the American Buddhist Perspective blog, wrote Tuesday. “This is a myth.”

Buddhism can seem particularly appealing to “mentally unbalanced people seeking to right the ship of their lives, to self-medicate, to curb their impulses, or to give them a firmer grip on reality,” Clark Strand, a contributing editor to the Buddhist publication Tricycle magazine and a former Zen monk, said in an interview....

Are there particular issues for people who delve deeply into meditation but may not have a strong or well-developed connection to Buddhism’s history and theology?

“Meditation alone may have no effect whatsoever on one’s morals and hence overall life,” Whitaker wrote in the blog post. “And it might also, as many people find out early in the process, actually open up deeper layers of pain, anger, and guilt that have been effectively repressed.”
What Whitaker and Strand are not saying is that meditation could exacerbate the problems of someone with mental illness. We're talking about sitting silently within one's own mind, cutting off interaction with others and connections to the concrete world. If that meditating mind is irrational and disordered, why would the result be "a firmer grip on reality"?


traditionalguy said...

Buddhism is only a circular reasoning that allows one to escape from painful truths of life into a denial of its reality. Ergo: Buddhism leaves one hopeless and empty minded.

The violent video games then re-introduce into the mind a hope of winning a battle, and any hope is better than no hope at all.

gspencer said...

Don't remember the Wash Post doing any article exploring any self-reflection among Muslims and their 1400 years of violence against non-Muslims and Major Nidal Hasan.

Cedarford said...

It is fairly well known, I believe, that religion is one of the more common refuges of disturbed people. In most cases, I believe it can only help, save perhaps with Radical Islam and certain cults

Off topic - Flags at half staff as typical. What is the threshold for death that escalates it to "national mourning" and lowering flags? 7? 8? It isn't 5 because the government did't bother when 5 restaurant employees were butchered by thug robbers.. But wasn't 5 the magic number for the "Heroes of the Space shuttle"?? Or any "Hero in the military" in a combat zone, even if they die in an accident? Or cop in any state?

Unknown said...

The Christian stance on eastern meditation which requires emptying your mind and suspension of rational thought is that it is inherently dangerous because by doing so you may allow malignant spiritual entities to control you.

And yes, I know that the non-religious will comment that all religion, including Christianity, requires suspension of rational thought. That's why such well known thinkers like Pascal and Tolstoy abandoned Christianity and became such ardent atheists.

Robert Cook said...

Early reports would suggest Alexis was deeply emotionally disturbed, possibly schizophrenic. If so, there is no explaining his rampage by pointing to his religious beliefs or other such prosaic "causes." Rather, he was like a car out of control and it was inevitable he would eventually crash into others.

bbkingfish said...

Do Christians ponder the role their religion plays in the actions of Christian murderers? Has the role of Roman Catholicism in the crimes of Al Capone, for instance, ever been elucidated fully?

And, what about the religion that spawned Christianity? I never have seen Judaism considered for its culpability in the crimes of Bernie Madoff or Meyer Lansky. Why not, do you think? Or have I simply missed these discussions?

Fritz said...

Crazy is it's own excuse.

Matt Sablan said...

Crazy is crazy; the core is the problem, not the gloss.

RecChief said...

this is slightly off topic or rather tangential.

Does Buddhist meditation exacerbate or releive mental illness? Can a generalization be made or is it simply a case by case basis?

I've noted a number of people who think that we should bring back state run mental hospitals. While I am not a supporter of the catch all of prescribing more and more drugs, I am also not a fan of easing restrictions on involuntary commitment to point of making it too easy.

Careful what you wish for. Given the politization of the IRS, do you really want to make involuntary commitment easy for a partisan bureaucracy?

Policy is hard folks, a failure to think of the worst case scenario leads to unintended consequences.

Wince said...

Did Buddhism inspire Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter?

Well, yea, since it's been revealed that this was his Mantra.

"Bayashotgun, buyashotgun."

Peter said...

I'd think that if one is sufficiently disturbed, then just about anything might be an "inspiration."

If one has florid delusions (e.g., "hearing voices") then seeing a discarded red couch on the street might be perceived as carrying some enormous significance. Or a flock of starlings, a black dog barking- just about anything seen, heard, or remembered.

So, sure, he might have been "inspired" by some aspect of Buddhism. Or something else. or nothing.

Is there anything to actually grab onto in this speculation?

cubanbob said...

It now appears the shooter was a liberal. If that indeed is the case then liberalism is a mental disorder.

RecChief said...

"all religion, including Christianity, requires suspension of rational thought."

I disagree. Christianity does not require suspension of rational thought. A believer must recognize however that are aspects to God that surpass our understanding.

Take a look at Carl Sagan's explanation of why we can't picture a 4th dimension as a solid metaphor for what I am getting at.

Michael said...

Smart people do not go into journalism. Remember this when you see these kinds of misspellings, grammatical errors and logical failures. Which are becoming more common.

Anonymous said...

Schizophrenics' world exists in their heads. The idea is to get them out of acting on the impulses that their inner world drives them to by quieting the voices. Buddhism, or any religion or anything at all from the outer, real world are misinterpreted by the schizophrenic mind. Religion is one of those things that are routinely twisted in a sick mind. A very common theme of a schizophrenic delusion is a God/ devil/ evil/ good one.

Unknown said...

Per RedChief, I'm not saying Christianity or religion in general requires suspension of rational thought, I'm just noting that a lot of critics of religion hold the believe that religion is not rational and therefore believers cannot be, by definition, behaving rationally.

And in response to bbkingfish, one of the best commentaries I have ever seen on Christian believe vs actual behavior was in Godfather II where Michael attends a baptism as the child's godfather and renounces "satan and evil" while his henchmen are out violently murdering his enemies.

Finally, I don't believe that Buddhism
had anything to do with Alexis' killing spree.

Like Robert Cook, I believe that he was possibly Schizophrenic. Certainly he was mentally ill. That is the cause of his actions, not anything else.

lemondog said...

Whatever his problem was, at some point he seemed to recognize that he had a problem and, however feebly or misguided, struggled to overcome it through Buddhism and meditation.

It is a pity for all that the medical help he did seek eluded him.

kjbe said...

"We're talking about sitting silently within one's own mind, cutting off interaction with others and connections to the concrete world. If that meditating mind is irrational and disordered, why would the result be "a firmer grip on reality"?"

Those suffering from a mental illness are mostly not sitting in or connecting to a concrete world. Meditation is used to quiet the mind. Some use the as a path to a spiritual connection, some are just looking for some peace and quiet. I don't know if we'll ever find out what his motivations in this area were.

Bryan C said...

"Rather, he was like a car out of control and it was inevitable he would eventually crash into others."

Interesting analogy. It works right up until those "others" try to protect themselves, or prevent others from being mowed down.

At which point the authorities require everyone else to leave their own cars behind, shelter-in-place in the middle of the street, and fervently hope that the uncontrolled vehicle runs out of gas before it gets to them.

William said...

Most of what we know about Buddhism comes to us from writers who are sympathetic to its tenets. There are many aspects of Buddhism that are glossed over. No woman can achieve Buddhahood, for example. And karma is not exactly a democratic concept. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan is the guy with all the accumulated karma. Jay Gatz has just made his first small deposit in the karma bank.

Steven said...

I never have seen Judaism considered for its culpability in the crimes of Bernie Madoff

Then clearly you're doing a good job of avoiding some of the fever swamps online.

lgv said...

I don't think RecChief's question is off topic. I don't have a good answer to the question, other than neither.

I'm firmly in the camp that the Buddhist angle is no different than the "God told me to kill them" Christian analogy.

Maybe Tiger Woods can enlighten us by explaining how Buddhism helped him conquer his sex addiction. Remember that amazing press conference?

I'm willing to bet a $1 that, when all is said and done, the Buddhist phase of his life was abandoned before this weeks event.

Alan said...

The Christian stance on eastern meditation which requires emptying your mind and suspension of rational thought is that it is inherently dangerous because by doing so you may allow malignant spiritual entities to control you.

Read Teresa of Avila's "Interior Castle", St. John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul", "The Cloud of Unknowing" (Anonymous), anything by Thomas Merton or by Thomas Keating, or, heck, even Richard Rohr and get back with us on your "universal" proposition. Or visit a Trappist, Cistercian, Carmelite, or Carthusian monastery. Apparently, you have never encountered the "Contemplative" dimension of Christianity.

Carol said...

We'll probably never hear what psychotropic drugs he was on, that may have triggered the spree. Behavior blamed on "schizophrenia" is often caused by the Rx "cure."

Almost Ali said...

Paranoid schizophrenics are in a constant state of meditation. That's the very nature of the illness.

Ironically, it's also the one serious mental illness that responds almost completely to medication. In fact, medications are so effective, patients universally believe themselves to be cured - and stop taking the medication. Then the cycle repeats itself, as the voices slowly return.

A state of "meditation" may not be exactly the right definition as applied to paranoid schizophrenics; severe, solitary, psychological confinement might be better.

Jim S. said...

Buddhism has its history of violence, as does virtually all worldviews, religious, political, or otherwise. That says nothing about whether these worldviews promote violence or not. You'd think you'd be able to stave it off by saying "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Love your enemy," and "You can't love God while hating other people." But people are able to turn just about anything into an excuse to do what they want.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

People tend excessively to overlook the simplest solution for mental disturbance, namely greater mental rest. To obtain sanity or keep it when it is especially at issue, avoid overthinking, especially about fundamental matters such as morality or logic that can have wide effects on how the brain organizes itself. Don't skimp on sleep. I'd say that an excessive sense of presence of voices, spirits, etc., is more a symptom of the brain being overtaxed than a cause. A good approach is to not exacerbate the situation by exercising the mind further by taking what the spirits have to say seriously. The hard thing for the brain, apparently, is not obtaining "spirits" to talk to it, as in dreams, because when the brain is overtaxed, such spirits reveal themselves in abundance. The hard part for the brain is filtering out the bad ones. Even in dreams, that the dreams are so easily forgotten suggests the brain's filtering mechanism is poor enough that the dreams are usually best forgotten. The success of monotheism may well be mostly tied to its encouraging spiritual influences, whatever they are, to be taken very sceptically.

Whether meditative, internal thinking be more dangerous than external thinking depends. Obviously if the reason one has overtaxed oneself comes from within, say from an obsession or a tendency to view laziness wrongly as an addiction, replacing one's internal thinking with thinking about easy external everyday matters can be a relief. But understanding craziness can be a relief, and if you just take a drug to "cure" your obsessions, you won't gain skill in making yourself more sane.

And psychiatrists and psychologists tend to be an unenlightened lot. I'd say that perhaps the majority of crazy mental disturbance is caused by people dealing with matters that don't have anything to do with sodomy and treating them emotionally like they are a question of whether one will get one's ass screwed or not. If one really is in danger of getting sodomized, it is urgent to resist immediately for a long time in a very rational determined way (since addictions affect the emotions)--all very mentally exhausting. There are forces encouraging people to feel, e.g., that if they aren't striving hard to make money or if they are doing their schoolwork carefree and lazily, little minding the irrational denominators or pointless rules from the grammar and spelling nazis, well, their asses are screwed ("now you're screwed"), and--shame!-- some sort of exercise of willpower be appropriate. Oh bother. In this respect, Eastern views tend to be more enlightened, as with the Buddhist "2nd Noble Truth" that striving (tanha) is the cause of suffering (dukkha) or, even more, as with the Taoist praise of wu wei (purposiveless action). But it's better to see the danger correctly as the danger of confusing appropriate responses to corrupting addictions with appropriate responses to other dangers, something hard to do because the brain has a hard time emotionally sensing when something is addictive, and so the brain tends to be inclusive in emotionally identifying something as addictive. To generally fear craving will make one too blase about addictions and (from stupid sophistication) about dangers that don't really at all emotionally suggest sodomy, which dangers there is little need to fear craving the avoidance of. Being too blase won't tax the mind and so won't make you psychotic, but you'll turn into a crazy deluded fool, nonetheless, like the elites who just sort of assume that it's nutty to believe that elite Harvard educated bankers and financiers and government favoritism toward the same are ruining the economy.

Tarzan said...

It's not religion so much as ideology that people get swept away with from time to time.

A relationship (imaginary or otherwise) with God, Jesus, Allah, Karl Marx, Ronald Reagan, Abby Hoffman, the Void or what-have-you is one thing.

An obsession with 'waging jihad against the infidels', 'killing the sinners for their own good', or mowing down a row of innocents because they're not fond enough of Dear Leader is quite another.

Believing in God is simply a fact of life for some people. A subset of those have a religious mission of one sort or another, which is ideology. Plenty of folks worshipping secular idols are on missions as well.

In any case, Atheism is no cure for stupidity and that's for damn sure.

Unknown said...

Re Alan:

Yes I am aware of contemplative Christianity. That is why I referred to "eastern meditation" and "emptying your mind".

The Christian's goal is to quiet the mind so that God's presence is directly experienced, that is have a mystical experience.

Such practices are more prevalent in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. We protestants tend to be a bit uptight about such things.