When you fight, you are always fighting yourself

Perhaps the internal batle for self-mastery is the only truly non-violent struggle.  Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

It isn’t very fashionable, to propose that, whenever we are fighting, we are just fighting ourselves.

In an age that likes to glorify (rightly I am sure) the quest in pursuit of a worthy cause, it does not seem very kind to suggest that the only object of improvement is ourselves, and that there is no external enemy at all.

I often puzzle about this aspect of Buddhist philosophy.  Just as with other philosophical approaches, there are many approaches to Buddhism, each with its slightly different focus.  But it does seem to be a cardinal aspect of many Buddhist value systems, that the only mastery that matters, is self-mastery.

This perhaps contradicts much everyday philosophy.  Someone treads on the rights of a minority group.  A protest is set up to do battle for those rights.  The fighters are prepared, if necessary, to do harm to the perpetrators.  In the recent climate change protests, for example, protestors are willing to cause damage to the lives of citizens, in order to draw attention to what they view as a greater damage to mankind, and the Earth, as a whole.

Equally, when a war starts, the fighters are prepared to do harm to the enemy, on the understanding that they are hoping to prevent what they regard as a greater harm, currently being threatened by the enemy.

This fighting logic is also the basis on which society seeks to imprison and punish those who break the law.  In the interests of the greater good, it is viewed as OK to harm the freedom and rights of those who are regarded as enemies of the public interest.


One problem of the large number of battles going on, is the chaos that can result.  If there were just one battle, then maybe there would be a chance of fighting it singly until the battle was won.  But look around you.  There are thousands of battles fought every day, by individuals, groups and countries, in which – in every case – some kind of ethical war is started, and it is considered OK to harm the interests of those on the wrong side of the ethical divide.

Such a world, full of competing ethical systems fighting for dominance, is astonishingly difficult to keep peaceful.  If everyone is always fighting something outside themselves, then we are simply a planet full of soldiers, each fighting for a peculiar amalgam of different causes.  The net result will be just like a school playground which has turned into a rather chaotic system of gangs, bullies, and competing interests.


One thing I like about many Buddhist approaches, is that the primary battle is internal.  If ever you find yourself fighting a war with someone else, then, probably, from this perspective, you have forgotten your main battle, which is for mastery over your own mind, heart and self.

Arguably, if everyone took this view, then the world might be a more peaceful place.

What world would you rather live in?  A world full of wars, where you have to decide what side to take on every issue, and you are surrounded by people who tell you that if you are not their friend, then you are their enemy?  Or a world that gives everyone a chance to breathe, where you have time to look inside, and examine what you think might be true, and what you think what might make you and others happy, until you have found a good way to be?


This is the world of meditation, of contemplation.  The idea is that two things matter:

  1. The understanding that everything you normally see is empty of ultimate meaning.  That your current perception is so distorted, that you are fighting pointlessly for things you hardly know anything about.  You can stop that now, and just be, peacefully.
  2. The understanding that, at the root of much happiness, is the ability to stop trying to defend yourself, and the ability to be actively compassionate.
This two-pronged approach means that we only need two ‘rules’ for living: the understanding of emptiness; and the exercise of selfless compassion.

In other words, you can stop fighting battles, which are only the external demonstration of your own internal misunderstandings.  Once you are free of false perceptions, you can just sit, peacefully, and start giving.