One of the wonderful teachings of the Dalai Lama, something he says quite regularly, is “My religion is kindness.” When we hear that, it resonates, because it points to something at the core of all spiritual and humanistic paths. If we just dedicated our lives to kindness, to the qualities of friendliness and care, we would be directly serving peace on earth. We’d be serving social justice and the healing of our environment. Imagine it—the world that would emerge if we all committed ourselves to cultivating kind hearts.
Love, and its expressions in compassion, generosity and joy, is innate to us. We can either stay in our habitual conditioning and have these qualities be latent, only partially expressed, or as we wake up, we can become more intentional about having them flourish.
One of the promises of Buddhism and most other spiritual traditions, is that we have the capacity to awaken our hearts. There are ways to train our attention so that we actually feel tenderness and responsiveness in a visceral way. Our physiology has the ingredients that allow us to wake up. The frontal cortex has the structures to feel empathy and compassion and bonding. We have the mirror neurons that help us have that feeling of “I understand where you are.” We have the chemical oxytocin that enables us to feel our connection with others.
So what blocks us from cultivating these capacities? We spend many moments of our day in a trance that arises from the perception of separateness and a feeling that something is wrong. This experience gives rise to the emotions of fear, shame and anger.
When caught in the trance of separation, the limbic system and the more primitive parts of our brain are overriding the parts of our brain that need to be activated to feel love. Survival emotions are there for a good reason. We need to scan our environments and respond when there is danger. We are pre-disposed to remember painful things, the wounding that happened, and not to remember the pleasant moments from our past. We are like Velcro for the negative experiences and Teflon for the good. Yet we can lock in to an ongoing sense of “something is wrong” and chronic emotional reactivity. Often, when we grow up in difficult family or social circumstances, we develop a nervous system that has a hard time with intimacy, because we’re fixated on detecting what might go wrong and protecting ourselves. We spend many moments in judgment and reactivity, defending ourselves or being aggressive in order to control what feels to be a threatening world.
We begin to awaken from trance when we notice the patterns of thoughts and emotions that keep us feeling separate, unsafe and deficient.
You might take a few moments to reflect on several encounters you have had recently. As you scan each, notice if you wanted to appear a certain way, to prove anything. Sense if you wanted to get something—such as approval–from that person. How did you want that person to experience you? Were you trying to avoid being judged for something? Was there an underlying belief that you were inadequate, or that the other was threatening to you? Were you trying to get that person to be different in some way? What was the quality of intimacy in your interaction?
Perhaps you find that you were fully present. Rather than wanting anything from the person, rather than wanting to protect yourself or for that person to be different, your were just attentive and available, appreciating the moment and the person. What was the quality of intimacy in your interactions?
As we deepen our longing and our commitment to waking up our hearts, the first step is noticing, with curiosity: What’s my pattern? Is there an agenda? Are there beliefs that keep me feeling distant and endangered? If there is a gentleness and interest in your inquiry, whatever is revealed will guide you in becoming increasingly present with others.
When we’re together, paying attention is the most basic and profound expression of love. In a moment when you offer attention– real listening, real presence in that moment the heart naturally opens. This is the most basic training in awakening our hearts: Mindful attention. Just being there. It often starts with being aware of our own experience, and that extends to the capacity to offer our attention to others. When we arrive in this space of presence, we come home to the intrinsic caring that expresses our deepest nature. Like the Dalai Lama, we discover “my religion is kindness.”
Taken from my book Radical Acceptance 2003
Photo by: Shell Fischer