The Lion Sleeps Tonight
By Devika Brendon
I’m fairly sure most people aged 15 to 85 have seen ‘The Lion King’, in some form. Either as the Disney cartoon or on the stage as a musical. And in the jungle, the mighty jungle, young Simba’s worst enemies (apart from his evil Uncle Scar) were the hyenas. Remember them? Banzai, Shenzi and Ed.
Scrounging, servile somewhat grovelling creatures, scared of Mufasa, fawning over Scar, but threatening those weaker than themselves. Including, eventually, Scar, after his terrible reign has come to an end and his lies have been exposed.
It was the hyenas that were sent snapping at the heels of the wildebeest herd, in Scar’s attempt to kill Simba and Mufasa. Apparently, that scene made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s young daughter very upset, and the man we know as ‘The Terminator’ reprimanded the producers of the Disney film for that.
Hyenas are from the same biological species as jackals. And they are – by nature – scavenging poachers, unable to kill for themselves unless in a pack, and preying on the weak and defenceless. It’s easy to see, with these characteristics, why Jackals have been used by certain practitioners of more effective communication to represent the negative aspects of human beings.
Challenging Jackal Thinking
According to Marshall Rosenberg, we are brought up with ‘Jackal’ thinking. And a lot of the social issues we are crippled by – the cruelty, the carelessness, the ego-driven encounters, the bullying, the shaming, the sneering, the criticism, the judgmentalism and lack of empathy all come from this punitive mindset.
Rosenberg says: “At an early age, most of us were taught to speak and think Jackal. This... is a way of mentally classifying people into varying shades of good and bad, right and wrong. Ultimately it provokes defensiveness, resistance and counter-attack.”
Many of us have observed the rise in hate speech, cyber bullying and word-based violence in our societies in the age of the Internet. The violent words come from an angry and oppositional mindset, and can only be remedied by the opposite: a compassionate, empathic and gentle way of perceiving the self, and others.
Rosenberg points out the contrast between ‘Jackal’ (quarrelsome, aggressive) thinking and what he calls ‘Giraffe’ (heartbased, empathic) thinking:
‘The Jackal moves close to the ground. It is so preoccupied with getting its immediate needs met that it cannot see into the future... Jackal-thinking individuals believe that in quickly classifying or analysing people, they understand them. Unhappy about what’s going on, a Jackal will label the people involved, saying, ‘He’s an idiot’, or ‘She’s bad’, or ‘They’re culturally deprived’.
We see a great deal of this rapid and vindictive, sneering and dismissive classification of others on social media, and it is this that results in the often toxic atmosphere that is often complained about by participants on Facebook and Twitter platforms. Aggressive and opinionated individuals enjoy posturing and jousting on these public platforms, often venting private issues in public, for momentary relief, which of course then inevitably creates reaction in the person they have insulted.
This aggressive perspective is based in violence and creates violence in turn. Rosenberg asserts that ‘Jackals... view others as the source of their anger.’ They blame others for failing their demands and expectations, and for hurting their pride, or self-esteem, or desire to look good. They respond by saying ‘things designed to hurt, punish, or blame the person whom (they) imagine has hurt (their) feelings.’
The best way to dismantle this destructive dynamic is to respond to affront by going inwards instead of hitting out: by examining our own expectations, through self-reflection, and checking to see if they were actually realistic. This requires humility, and the ability to conduct self inquiry: to see more than our own needs and wishes in any encounter.
This is difficult for human beings. I have only recently begun learning about Non Violent Communication, a practice, which recommends that we do not judge and categorise but observe and work with ourselves and others. It seems to me that the compulsive reactivity we are trying to unlearn is ego-based. And ego is what has enabled us to survive.
A friend and colleague of mine who, after 5 years of conscious practice of NVC, describes herself as an ‘enthusiastic beginner’, says: ‘Jackal is a state of mind that we all experience. When I say, “He makes me so mad,” we are in jackal. In fact, even when we say, “Your racist remark is unacceptable,” we are also in jackal. Also, when we say, “That was very thoughtful,” that’s a form of jackal, too. Another jackal statement might be, “I don’t deserve to be treated this way.”
Can you see why? #1 is easy because we are blaming somebody else for our feelings. Nobody can make me feel anything.
In the sentence #2, years the statement is jackal for two reasons:
a) ‘racist’ is a label, and also the person is assuming that they are qualified to judge the other person’s meaning and intention; b) in saying “your remark is unacceptable,” rather than “I am having trouble accepting your remarks,” the speaker is making the other person wrong and responsible. The speaker is making the other person’s statement universally wrong, when it may have been ‘wrong’ to the speaker alone. The speaker is also behaving as if they hold the book on what is acceptable and what is not.
In the sentence #3, “That was very thoughtful,” the speaker is making a positive judgment but a judgment just the same. They are adopting a parental stance, and they are stating that they are qualified to know who is thoughtful and who is not.
In the sentence #4, “I don’t deserve this,” once again, the speaker is blaming the other and also playing God. Nobody knows what anybody deserves in Life.
So all these statements are jackal. But they are common statements that we use every day that carry violence within themselves. We all have the choice, all the time, between choosing the stance of the jackal and that of the giraffe.’
In our attempt to defend ourselves from the perceived and actual attacks of others, we categorise them to try and control and contain the potential damage their actions cause us. This is understandable, but creates and increases potential conflict in the dynamic between us and them, violence which NVC radically seeks to gradually deconstruct and diminish.
I, having been professionally trained to analyse, critique, assess, evaluate and judge, am learning that in NVC we avoid diagnosis of any kind. This is because the goal is not to classify intellectually which involves separation of self and other, but to heal human communication, and to see ourselves as fellow human beings who are often in states of suffering, discontent and anguish. My friend points out that in NVC, we offer compassion instead of condemnation to the Jackal and also to those we label as ‘unhinged’, or ‘irrational’ or ‘crazed’ or ‘neurotic’.
In a process of learning non-judgment, we achieve a better state of health and happiness. It takes a lot of energy to criticise and condemn others and ourselves. It’s draining and exhausting and counter-productive. NVC is a way of transforming that energy in a more positive way.
This healthy state of being which is most effective for human happiness is based on mindfulness, self awareness and a decision to live in harmony with others rather than in the constant, quarrelsome uproar of the ‘Jackal’ state.
Rosenberg says that this empathic communication is what he terms ‘Giraffe’ thinking, which comes from a high-minded or noble individual, whose mindset is elevated above the survival state of the Jackal:
‘The Giraffe has the largest heart of any land animal, is tall enough to look into the future, and lives its life with gentility and strength... Giraffe bids us to speak from the heart, to talk about what is going on for us – without judging others... Giraffe is a language of requests; Jackal is a language of demands.’
Giraffe thinking clearly enables constructive communication, in which both parties can progress and build better understanding. It encourages us to see the fellow human being in distress under the angry and aggressive individual who is acting out in front of us, and to try and help them identify their unmet needs, instead of ranting and raving in a destructive way.
Understanding the culture in which our collective character has been formed helps a lot in creating remedies for verbal aggression. A people who proudly call themselves the ‘lion race’ often focus on the warlike and powerful nature associated with the lion. Yet the Lion King himself, as Simba’s father Mufasa tells his young son, is fierce and angry ‘only when he has to be... There’s more to being king than getting your own way all the time’.
Rosenberg points out: ‘In a Jackal culture, feelings and wants are severely punished. People are expected to be docile, subservient to authority, slave like in their reactions, and alienated from their feelings and needs.’
This lack of choice and imposition of authority and threat of punishment causes fear and resentment in the responder, rather than respect. And respect for others is based in self respect, and awareness of the effects of our own words and actions.
When we see the serene faces of the Saints and the Buddha we are seeing the ‘pinbara’ face, which shows that the person is living a blessed life. Free of anger and fear, greed, hatred and delusion. Contrast this serene and joyful Giraffe countenance with that of the snarling Jackal, teeth showing, always ready to attack and scavenge. Which do we wish to be? It is our choice, in every moment.
If we today want a gentler and more peaceful society, we need to stop praising violent speech and actions, via worshipping the role models we hold up for veneration as idols: movie stars, showoffs, influencers, icons, the super rich, over achievers and pop culture celebrities, and start praising and appreciating empathy and gentleness and courtesy instead.
In doing so, we will be bringing to life the spiritual teachings of the Buddha himself, who we know and venerate as The Compassionate One.