Nov 2010 12

by Brad Warner

I just read a horrendous news story about the Petit family in Connecticut who were murdered by a group of assholes.

According to CNN, “On July 23, 2007, men wearing ski masks attacked the family as they slept in their suburban Cheshire home. The father, a physician, was beaten with a bat and tied to a pole in his basement. His wife was raped and strangled. The girls were tortured for nearly seven hours, one sexually assaulted, then killed when the attackers set the house on fire.”

The CNN report goes on to say that Joshua Komisarjevsky, the accused mastermind of the murders, kept journals and letters that reveal details of the crimes. Apparently, Komisarjevsky wrote frequently to author Brian McDonald from jail, and these missives “show a man of keen intelligence who takes responsibility for masterminding [the Petit attack].” The news report also states that much of the writing “is rambling self-analysis about how the accused killer’s own alleged childhood rape stoked his ‘menacing mind’.”

When I checked out the comments section below the article I found statements such as, “This man is barbaric and outrageous!!,” “I think both criminals should be set on fire alive to die,” and “Don’t try to put a human face on these monsters.”

I can’t say I’m truly able to step into the mind of a man like Komisarjevsky. But I believe I understand where he’s coming from. That used to scare me. But it doesn’t anymore.

In my years of meditation practice I have been able to confront some of the deepest and darkest aspects of my own mind. What I’ve seen there is that I’m really not so very different from Komisarjevsky. Which is not to say I have any desire at all to commit crimes like these. But that I, like all human beings, have within me both the potential for incredible evil and the ability to justify absolutely anything at all.

Most of the people who posted comments on the CNN piece seem to believe that Komisarjevsky is some kind of weird abomination. And there is some truth to that. It’s one thing to have the potential to do this stuff and quite another to actually do it.

We’d like to think that any human being ought to be able to differentiate what is and is not acceptable behavior when it comes to something as atrocious as the actions he is accused of committing. And, thankfully, most of us can make that distinction, at least in a very gross and obvious area such as this. That’s why society is able to function at all.

I’d like to speculate a little on what I think may have gone on in Komisarjevsky’s mind if, indeed, the accusations against him turn out to be true.

We all have desires. They arise in our minds constantly. Most of us are able to filter these desires. We have layers of psychological repression in place that keep us from even being consciously aware of many of them. For most of us, the compulsions to do things like what Komisarjevsky is accused of do not seem to arise at all because we effectively repress them before they even have a chance to emerge as conscious thoughts.

However, those desires of ours that are not repressed in this way bubble up into the conscious mind. When they do this, our sense of self grabs on to them and calls them its own. So now what we have is not simply an impulse, it’s [i]my[/i] impulse, [i]my[/i] desire.

Once you claim ownership of a desire, or to put it in Buddhist terms, once you “attach to a desire,” you feel that it is part of who you are. This is one of the mechanisms by which we all create our sense of ego or self. We combine our memories of past experiences with our present desires with all sorts of information we obtain from the outside world with our thoughts and with a bunch of other stuff and we create a composite image in our minds that we label as “me.”

When someone attaches to a desire that is deeply at odds with society, such as a desire to commit murder, that person will often falsely believe that his “self” has a desire to murder. This sense of self is so strong that most of us are willing to follow it just about anywhere. Because our brains are capable of amazing feats of creativity, we can then justify our desires through thought. We can create excuses that can make it seem like absolutely anything at all is justifiable behavior.

I’ve sat quietly and watched my own brain at work doing this sort of thing, and it scared the bejesus out of me.

In Zen practice we’re told that the sense of self is unreal. As something unreal, we don’t need to listen to its demands. This sounds nice. But it takes a lot of work to be able to truly see it this way.

Pop culture spiritual guys who write best-selling books make it seem like it’s enough just to grasp concepts like these intellectually. But it isn’t. The intellect is powerful enough to be able to justify unfathomably cruel actions and to plot how to make them happen. But it cannot see itself for what it actually is. As long as we’re caught in the realm of the thinking mind, we’re lost in its endless ability to make its own creations appear to be real.

It’s only with practice that you can begin to actually understand the activities of your brain in a deeper way. I know some folks don’t like to hear this. But it’s just a fact. Imagining it could be otherwise is like imagining you could get a body like Adonis or Aphrodite on a steady diet of Cheetos and French fries.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that if Komisarjevsky had engaged in Zen practice he would never have done what they’re saying he did. I don’t know. There have been murderers who were meditators. I’m not really talking about Komisarjevsky at all here, though. It’s too late for him.

Instead, I’d like to say that it would be better for all of us to understand ourselves more clearly. For myself, I’ve gone through the process of seeking even those desires that I am not consciously aware of and of seeing how the ego operates to justify any desire it claims as its own. It’s an amazing thing and not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of practice just to be able to open up to this at all.

But if you’re able to manage this, what you find is a world of previously unimaginable freedom. You can literally do anything you want because you can discover the sense of understanding what you truly want as opposed to what you think you want.


Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

Buy the new CD by his band Zero Defex at CD Baby now!

On Sunday November 14 at 7 PM Brad will be at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore at 8585 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA talking about his new book Sex, Sin and Zen. Later that same evening, he’ll be live in-studio on SG Radio (from 10 PM til midnight on sharing his unique perspective and philosophies, and taking calls (877-900-1031) from listeners. Click HERE for full details.



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