All humans are monsters.
That is not a good thing or a bad thing.
What makes a monster?
- Dangerous. Monsters may harm, kill, destroy.
- Irrational; unintelligible. The emotions and actions of monsters go beyond the supposed human range, and so are difficult to relate to from a human perspective.
- Inhuman. Monsters lie outside tidy concepts of what counts as human.
- Unnatural. Monsters don’t fit into categories. We break boundaries.
- Overwhelmingly powerful. Monsters are not just other—they are bigger than we think we are.
- Simultaneously repulsive and attractive. Monsters are disgusting, impure, hideous—and yet mesmerizing, beautiful, awesome.
None of these needs to be a problem—apart from destructiveness. That is something we need to come to grips with.
Relating to monstrosity
Here are three attitudes we can take toward our own monstrosity:
- Rejection. We can try to pretend we are not monsters, and try to not be monsters. Unfortunately, we are monsters, so this often doesn’t work well.
- Inversion. We can revel in our monstrosity and give it full rein. We can rationalize and pretend not to care about the harm that does to other people.
- Incorporation. We can embrace our monstrosity while cultivating our human nobility. We can allow each to transform the other, so we become cheerful, kind, useful monsters who are also overpowering, unpredictable, and dangerous heroes.
Humans mostly adopt the rejection strategy. If we are honest, though, we have to admit that each of the characteristics of monsters on the list applies to us. This is most obviously true when we feel strong, unwanted emotion: when rage, desire, sadness, or fear go beyond safe zones.
Elsewhere, I describe the three strategies in more detail. The rest of this page is about what makes us monsters.
We like to think that “evil” is something that people—and monsters—are, or aren’t. But this is mistaken. Only actions, not persons, can be good or evil.
Most people—ones we’d want to call “good”—will commit horrific acts when put under sufficient emotional pressure. Do you know about Stanley Milgram’s torture experiment? He showed that two thirds of ordinary Americans would torture other ordinary Americans to death—ones they believed to be entirely innocent. The torture and deaths were faked, but the experimental subjects believed that they had killed another person, simply because Milgram told them they had to. This is horrifying and almost unbelievable; but the experiment has been replicated several times (in other countries too), and appears to be accurate.
I think we each have a moral obligation to ask “would I have been one of the two thirds who chose to kill—or one of the third who refused?” Most people would immediately answer that of course they would have done the right thing—but the experiment shows that most people are wrong. So we need to be much less confident about the answer.
It is easy to act ethically in good conditions. When we feel threatened or confused, humans can become unboundedly destructive.
Pretending this is not true makes the problem worse. It is only when we acknowledge that maybe we would have tortured an innocent person to death, in Milgram’s experiment, that we can start the transformational work to make that less likely.
The most dangerous monsters are those who believe they are moral people. Because they believe monstrosity is alien (somewhere else, those bad people), “moral people” are capable of rationalizing horrifying acts of cruelty, which must be OK because “we are not monsters.”
Monsters who know they are monsters are harder to threaten or confuse. No werewolf would have cooperated with Milgram; they would simply have eaten him.
Inhuman, unnatural, unintelligible, irrational
The idea that we are not monsters is based on a fundamental misunderstanding: that we can and should conform to conceptual categories.
Monsters are things that are almost human—but fail to fit the mold. Monsters are unnatural: things that should not be, because everything should be clearly human, or not. Vampires—for example—are almost human, except they are dead. Werewolves are almost human, except they are also animals. Witches are almost human, except they fly and eat newts. Giants are almost human, except too big.
We are almost human, too, except—
Except when we aren’t. Except when what we feel, and do, and experience makes no sense, when measured against concepts of humanness. Except when we look in a mirror…
Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny,” tells a story. He was alone in a railway car sleeping compartment, preparing for bed. He looked up and was horrified to see a most unpleasant, nasty-looking old man coming out of his bathroom. It took him a moment to realize that its mirrored door was swinging open as the train rocked, and the monster he saw was himself—reflected.
Uncanniness is the experience of conceptual interpretation breaking down. Spookiness is frightening unpredictability and alienness—mixed with familiarity. Nothing can be more familiar than ourselves; and yet there are times when we find ourselves alien, chaotic, and confusing.
Monsters are driven mainly by emotion, not reason. Many recent experimental studies show the same is true of “humans.” We all pretend to be much more rational than we really are; our “reasons” are mostly just after-the-fact rationalizations of emotional decisions. We all treat each other as much more human than we really are; we demand unreasonable reasonableness from others.
In Buddhist meditation, one observes one’s thoughts and feelings without getting involved. After a while, it becomes obvious how absurd one’s own rationalizations are. It becomes obvious that one’s self-constructed account of “who I am” is nonsense; a social fiction. It becomes obvious that it is impossible to be coherent in the way humans are “supposed” to be.
Meditation shows that, paradoxically, it is only when you abandon the project of coherence that you can act congruently. It is only when you abandon the project of making sense of yourself that you become transparent—because you no longer try to fit your experience to pre-conceived categories of “humanness.”
Imaginary monsters—demons, witches, vampires—are based mainly on experience of strong emotion. Humans are terrified of strong emotions, which can overwhelm our psychological order. Then we might do something awful, or awesome; certainly something unpredictable. This disruption of me being me, a regular human is intolerable.
Emotions, no matter how strong, do not have to be a problem, if we are not attached to being me, fitting some concept of humanness. This too is something one learns through experience in Buddhist meditation. Given tools to drop the supposed meanings of emotions, they become simply biological energy, which can be put to use.
Destructive aggression is part of what we identify as monstrous, and we are right to reject it. But overwhelming power is easily confused with evil. In rejecting aggression, it is difficult not to reject also power, wildness, unpredictability, spontaneity, creativity, and joy. Sometimes it seems the only way to avoid destructiveness is to turn the master volume knob on one’s entire life way down. That has a terrible price, though.
Repulsive and attractive
If you didn’t feel the seductive appeal of monsters, you probably wouldn’t be reading a web site called “Buddhism for Vampires.”
Our paradoxical attraction and revulsion reflects our conflicted, ambiguous relationship toward our own monstrosity.
Rejecting monstrosity forces what is left of us into a narrow box. It is when we feel particularly cramped that we long for the freedom of monstrousness. We recognize lost aspects of ourselves in monsters, and are drawn to them.
So—how do we recover monstrosity, without going on a rampage and eating everyone?
(I begin to answer that in the next page in this series.)