Practicing Non-Self, III: Cultivating the Heart

hearts_29All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do? . . .

For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy. (Dhp 129 – 130, Byrom)

This happened to me last Sunday afternoon. I had just returned from a three-day mindfulness retreat, and discovered that my family was low on groceries. So about an hour after I got home, I was at the local supermarket, pushing my cart through the aisles, when I noticed the people around me seemed to have changed. I got the strong impression that they were all on retreat with me. Suddenly it was as if I could see how their hearts were expressing themselves in their facial expressions, their gestures and tones of voice. All at once I felt like I was connected at the heart with everybody I looked at.   All these strangers were just heartrendingly beautiful, even the people who were obviously irritated or bored. The supermarket seemed like it was full of angels or bodhisattvas. My own heart welled up, tears filled my eyes, and I had to get a grip on myself so I could make it through the checkout in one piece.

There’s nothing special about this kind of experience. I’ve had it before myself, and I know things like this happen to other people as well, especially after a retreat. In fact, I think what is most miraculous about it is that everyone has the capacity to realize their heart connection to other people, and if we investigate and cultivate this natural connection, we find it increasingly expressing itself in our lives.

A principal feature of this kind of experience is the realization that what so often seems of paramount importance – the details of my personal identity, the numberless needs and fears that drive my daily decisions – are really only just trivial accidents. Instead, we come to experience on a very visceral level that we share all the truly important elements of this life – our vulnerability and mortality, our desire for security and acceptance, our loss and grief, our need to see and be seen by others.

The net result is a kind of mystery.   Amid the messy details of my personal autobiography, at the same time this life is something shared, something that precedes me and will survive me, something of which I and everyone I see are just momentary expressions.   From this mystery arise, first, a poignant and powerful bliss; and secondly, the realization that what I do unto anybody else I’m ultimately doing to myself.

Andrew Olendzki writes about this in Unlimiting Mind as he analyzes Gotama’s parable of the bamboo acrobats. Apparently in ancient India there were street performers who would do balancing tricks atop bamboo poles. In the parable, the elder of an acrobatic duo says that if both of them just watch out for each other, they will both come down from their poles safely and successfully. No, the youngster says; I’ll look after myself, and you look after yourself, and we’ll both be successful.   Gotama says that the two perspectives are really the same:

Looking after oneself, one looks after others
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, loving kindness, and caring. (SN 47:19)


Notice (Olendzki writes) how the boundaries between self and other dissapear. By showing kindness and taking care of others, one is being kind to oneself and is caring for oneself.   Actually, helping others is the best way attend to one’s own most basic welfare, just as harming others will invariably harm one’s self or put oneself at risk. According to Buddhist thought, this is because all action, all karma, based as it is upon intention, affects not only the world “out there” but also one’s own disposition and character. Everything we say and do and think shapes who we are, just as we go on to shape, through the quality of our awareness and the depth of our understanding, everything else in our world. In fact, as I understand this text, it may not be particularly useful – or even possible – to say where one leaves off and the other begins.

To me, this is the ultimate lesson of anatta, of non-self. When we can perceive the humanity we share with other people, and in fact recognize it as just the nearest link that connects us with all beings who love and suffer, then the boundaries of our isolated, alienated selves begin to soften, we carry our burdens more lightly, and the lives of other people become real to us, too real to ignore.

While experiences like this seem to come out of nowhere, they don’t happen overnight. My first taste of this kind of seeing came after nearly five years of regular practice of cultvating the heart: metta, or loving kindness, meditation, forgiveness practice, tonglen, and the like. To this list I would add practices such as Insight Dialogue, and any other formal or informal activity that encourages to listen carefully and speak from the heart. As with many other people, these practices seemed terribly artificial, even silly, when I started doing them. But the practices are not the point. They are only a means to help us find a way to connect with the life of the heart; once the heart rediscovers itself as a window, a shared space in which we give and receive love in one simple gesture, then it will find its own wisdom if we just continue to listen attentively.

This Sunday, May 11, 2014, Practice Circle will meet to practice non-self by cultivating the heart. I hope you’ll join us!