Middle of the Middle Way

by Sharon Salzberg

The teachings of the Buddha are known as the Middle Way, or the Middle Path, because they avoid the extremes of overindulgence in the senses on the one hand, and excessive asceticism and self-mortification on the other. The life of the Buddha before his enlightenment, as it is told, exemplified both of these extremes. When he was still called Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha lived surrounded by the glitter of sensual delights. It is said that his parents were so concerned that he be protected from any unhappiness that they employed a crew of gardeners to work throughout the night in order to pluck out any blossoms that were wilting, so that the prince should not be troubled by the sight of something that was imperfect.

Eventually, when Siddhartha finally witnessed the suffering that does exist in the world, he was compelled to pursue the truth. First he followed a path of self-mortification that lasted for about six years. He lived a life of exceeding renunciation and asceticism. In India at that time, it was believed that by torturing or humiliating the body, one could free the spirit, enabling it to soar beyond the confines of the material world.

The Buddha, however, after the many years of his intense asceticism, realized that neither the extreme of indulgence nor the extreme of deprivation led to the goal of true liberation.

The world of indulgence is intoxicating but hollow, and it surrounds us in a fog that keeps us from looking for anything deeper. Meanwhile, when we are intoxicated with the senses, the pain of others threatens the feel-good complacency that accompanies our self-indulgence. Thus we tend to disregard the suffering of others, along with trying to cover up our own inner suffering. And so we end up living isolated from the fullness of life.

Similarly, the path of self-mortification and asceticism only reinforces feelings of self-deprecation and self-hatred, which keep us separate from the love that is at the crux of spiritual transformation. These days we might not be very attracted to becoming ascetics and practicing self-mortification, but we still abuse and humiliate the body in hopes of finding happiness, as seen in the epidemic of eating disorders in our society.

Another, perhaps more hidden, form of self-mortification is to create tormented relationships with our own mind, as if the abusive force of self-judgment and self-hatred might somehow liberate us.

Following the Middle Way between these extremes does not mean taking a little indulgence and a little self-mortification and mixing them together. It isn't as if we say to ourselves, "Well, I have spent the last few days in self-indulgence; maybe it's time for some self-mortification. If I spend an equal number of days in each, they'll balance out." Nor is the Middle Way about being mediocre, finding the lowest common denominator of the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification and simply being indolent. Rather, it is about seeing the tension and unhappiness of each extreme and arriving at a completely different place, one that doesn't fall into either category. We are not drawn by these two extremes.

Walking the Middle Way is a process of continual discovery every moment. We cannot rely on the Buddha's walking of the Middle Way twenty-five thousand years ago, or even our own discovery of it yesterday. Open and vulnerable and alive, we must realize it over and over again in each moment. Out of awareness and compassion for ourselves and others, we uncover the place within us that is the expression of the liberated mind.

The Mistake

A few years ago, in Tucson, Arizona, the Dalai Lama gave a week-long series of teachings on patience. Over twelve hundred people attended the event. We all stayed in a resort hotel outside of town, transforming what was a commercial venue into something of a retreat center. Every morning and afternoon, the Dalai Lama would teach, and in the evenings, we Western Buddhist teachers would speak on a particular aspect of patience. Sylvia Boorstein and I were the first Western teachers scheduled to speak. I must admit to feeling a little anxiety in talking to such a large audience, and I wanted to be sure to get it "right." Fortunately, a few nights later, the Dalai Lama, in his wonderful way, gave us all a profound teaching about what "getting it right" is truly about.

He was explicating a chapter of Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, an eighth-century text covering the entire path to enlightenment. Moving line by line through the manuscript, the Dalai Lama presented his commentary in Tibetan, and while it was being translated, he examined the upcoming lines he would speak on next. The Dalai Lama's English is quite good, and at one point during a translation, he looked up from the manuscript and said to the translator, "You're mistaken. That's not what I said." The disagreement that followed was about a matter of syntax; whether Shantideva, in establishing a point about patience, had said, "She said that to him" or He said that to her." The translator responded by saying, "No, Your Holiness, I did not make a mistake. In fact the text says 'He said that to her.'" The Dalai Lama replied, "No, it says, 'She said that to him.'"

The translator again disagreed, and they discussed it back and forth for a while. The Dalai Lama then turned back the pages of the text until he got to the disputed section. He looked at it, then burst into loud laughter, saying mirthfully, "Hah, hah, hah! Oh, I made a mistake."

There he was, having been caught in an error in front of twelve hundred people, laughing uproariously about it. I doubt that I would have been laughing as freely had I made a mistake when addressing those people a few nights before.

He was a wonderful role model of a non-constricted heart, of the natural ebullience that comes when we are not defending a concept we have of who we are.

When we try to project a certain image, or be someone special, or be perfect and never make a mistake, there is a tightening in the heart. When we relax the heart, not trying to "be" someone special, we can be who we really are, with honesty, with perspective, and with compassion. These qualities are the conditions of liberation, whatever is happening. And when we are truly free, we might, like the Dalai Lama, be able to laugh loudly when we make a mistake.

Self Forgiveness

The poet Rumi said, "Pain will be born from that look cast inside yourself, and this pain will make you go behind the veil." When we clearly see the ways in which we have hurt others, in that moment of recollection, we experience pain. And this pain can become a tool for our transformation. Going "behind the veil" of illusion, we stop viewing ourselves as "bad" and open to the suffering nature of the experience.

We know it can be terribly painful to recall the harm we have caused others. I have sat in meditation with a woman whose husband sexually abused their child for years while she ignored her intuition with the thought, "It couldn't be true." I have sat with a man who has beaten up women when lost in rage, and with a man on death row who killed someone twenty years before in the course of a robbery. And I have sat with my own painful recollections of the harm that I have caused others. No matter what the degree, inflicting pain on another being inevitably results in experiencing pain ourselves.

We might think that reviewing a harmful action over and over in our mind with lacerating self-hatred counts as some sort of atonement, but actually compassion is atonement.

When we are filed with guilt, our identity collapses, and we think, "This is who I really am, the one who ... " As our sense of ourselves narrows in this way, we punish ourselves repeatedly through unhappiness, disconnection, loneliness, hopelessness. This is what we feel we deserve. We may even hear something like the Buddha's teaching that all living beings want to be happy and have the full potential to be happy, but it only makes us feel more isolated.

Many years ago, when I was sitting in meditation during a retreat, I found myself looking back at a difficult period of my life. I did not enjoy recalling some of my actions, but I found that as I began to see my behavior as part of an interconnecting flow of events, I could more easily view myself with understanding and forgiveness. I could see clearly how, as each event came into being, it created the ground for the next event to arise.

In the traditional teachings, an analogy is used to describe such an interconnected, causal sequence of events. When the great ocean swells with the tide, the rivers swell; when the rivers swell, the smaller rivers in the delta swell. When the ocean ebbs, the rivers ebb and the smaller rivers ebb. The moon's gravitational influence on earthly bodies of water is such that the waters, except in rare instances, act in concord with each other. With the arising of one thing, there is the arising of another that is linked to it. The existence of one event is conditioned by another. In the same way, all the elements of our existence - this mind and body, our internal and external worlds - are interdependent.

During the retreat, I saw that the events of my life, like the oceans and the rivers, had unfolded in a logical sequence. I saw that I had done the best I could in the circumstances as they were. Given the conditions leading up to that time, there wasn't much likelihood that I would have behaved in another way. Different behavior would have required a changed understanding that would have necessarily been based on different information and experience.

We cannot undo what we have done, and we cannot escape the results of our actions. But rather than hate ourselves or dwell in helpless shame, we can dramatically change the field in which our karmic seeds ripen by developing mindfulness and lovingkindness. This is the basis of a spiritual life.

The law of karma, which is the moral and spiritual understanding of action, means that the intention or motivation behind an action determines the kind of seed we plant in each moment. This seed, given the right conditions, will bear fruit sooner or later. But the law of karma does not operate with mechanical rigidity. If the world were that way, there would be nothing we could do to alter the course of our lives. There would be no way to see the end of suffering and no point to spiritual life.

Just as nature allows for a multitude of variables in the ripening of a seed, the seed of our intention does not exist in isolation. The fruit resulting from an action depends not only on the seed but also on all the characteristics of the field in which the seed is ripening. Because we are continually re-creating the quality of influences in our lives, the field in which our karmic seeds are taking root or ripening is constantly changing. Thus, there exists the possibility of a spiritual life and the opportunity to end suffering.

If we have done something inappropriate or unwholesome, and if our lives then become strongly influenced by compassion, mindfulness, and lovingkindness, the field in which our karmic seeds have been planted becomes radically altered, and this changes everything. This is a transformation that we can begin right now.

We start by using mindfulness and lovingkindness to look directly at the pain we have caused others and the pain we are experiencing ourselves. We look at our shame, our guilt, our fear, and our sadness with understanding and compassion. We see the difference between saying, "I am very wrong, and that is all that I am," and saying, "I did something very wrong, and I feel remorse about it." When we can experience the flow of our feelings with clarity, equanimity, and loving presence - not judgment and narrowness - our minds become like a mirror reflecting all that is arising. In the course of that process, themirrorlike mind also reflects back its true nature: natural radiance, purity, and luminosity. As the Buddha said, "The mind is shining."

We can discover the capacity of the mind to be aware, to love, to begin again. Even though we might have acted unskillfully before, we discover the clarity and peace that are the essence of who we truly are, rather than the greed or anger or fear that motivated us to harm someone. It is not as if we have to do something to deserve this essence - it is simply natural to our being. We may have lived separate from it all our lives, but it has not gone away or dimmed. We may have dishonored it or violated its promise of wholeness, but it remains unchanged and is waiting for us to claim it.

When pain moves us to "go behind the veil" of apparent separation, we connect to the entirety of life and our place in it. Life accepts us; it is only awaiting our acceptance of ourselves. Forgiving ourselves does not mean condoning everything we have ever done, or imagining that the pain of recollection will simply go away. It means understanding the large web of conditions that helped create each action, and through that understanding, gaining compassion for ourselves and others.

Reclaiming Our Power

In the course of our lives, we too often fail to stop and recollect who we are, and the consequences are painful. As Wordsworth wrote, "Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Not only in "getting and spending," but in many of our actions, our energy - our own power- is scattered and unavailable to us. A thought arises in the mind, and we end up subsumed in a cascade of associative thinking. When we emerge, we may wonder how in the world we ended up thinking longingly about Paris when the last thing we remember is thinking longingly about lunch! At times, nearly every feeling we have has the possibility of overwhelming us. We might feel delighted in one moment and stricken in the next. We run after what we think is desirable, and we pull back from what we think is undesirable. And so, lost in the past or future, swept up in judgment or worried speculation, we move onward in a state of constant reaction. Scattering an immensity of energy into all of these distractions, we sabotage our chance for equanimity and peace, and truly "lay waste our powers."

Imagine gathering all that energy back into yourself, so that it is available again for you to expend consciously - rather than having your mind scattered here and there. When we live in the present moment, we develop concentration and are reempowered. We know what we are thinking as we are thinking it, and we know what we are feeling as we are feeling it. We are not pulled into everything that arises in our minds. When the mind is concentrated, there is a sense of emotional balance. While not rejecting or cutting off feeling, this kind of concentration, known in Pali as smattha, brings forth an amazing steadiness and stability of mind.

In the traditional practice of concentration, we place the awareness on a single object, such as the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, or the phrases of lovingkindness, and we let go of everything else that passes through our mental and physical senses. There is almost a sense of cherishing the concentration object; sometimes, it is as if we are protecting it. But we never need to clutch it tightly or grimly; we simply practice with a quality of devotion. Devoted to the chosen object of our concentration, we stay connected to it, gently letting go of whatever distracts us from it.

Michelangelo was once asked how he would carve an elephant. He replied, "I would take a large piece of stone and take away everything that was not the elephant." Developing the force of concentration is simply seeing what is "not the elephant" and letting it go. The art of concentration is a continual letting go. We let go of that which is inessential or distracting. We let go of a thought or a feeling, not because we are afraid of it or because we can't bear to acknowledge it as a part of our experience, but because it is unnecessary. When we are practicing concentration and a thought arises in the mind - a memory, a plan, a comparison, an inviting fantasy - we let go of it. If anger arises, or self-judgment, or eager anticipation, we simply let it go, calmly returning to the object of concentration. This is what is meant by renunication.

Gandhi described his life's mission in just three words: "Renounce and enjoy."

Gandhi's renunciation was a great refinement of the mind, not a terrible or bitter austerity. In the same way, through the practice of concentration, when we let go of distraction, our feeling tone need not be one of angry rejection. Rather, it can be an expression of our deepest motivation for freedom. We let go with the same gracioiusness that we might apply in offering a gift to somene. We let go as an act of generosity. Strengthening cooncentration, we "renounce and enjoy." We renounce that which is inessential, and relaxing into stillness, we become fully focused on the present moment.

The more we are caught in reactive movements of clinging and condemning, careening toward some thoughts and feelings and away from others, the more we suffer.

Distracted from fully experiencing our lives, we "lay waste our powers." The practice of concentration is a potent method of freeing ourselves from the entanglements and limitations of this kind of instability. And so with heartfelt devotion to our deepest intention, we find ourselves letting go over and over and over again.

Happy to Concentrate

When I first started practicing meditation, I assumed that it took a great deal of laborious, grim effort to tame the mind and develop concentration. In my first meditation retreat, I became so frustrated with the persistent wanderings of my attention that, in a frenzy, I declared to myself that the next time my attention wandered I would start to bang my head against the wall. Fortunately, the lunch bell rang just then. Standing in the lunch line, I over heard a conversation between two students I did not know. One of them was asking the other how his morning had gone. The other man replied with apparent great lightness of spirit, "I couldn't really concentrate strongly, but this afternoon may well be better."

I turned around in great shock and regarded him with disbelief. "Why isn't he as upset as I am?" I wondered. "Doesn't he take this stuff seriously at all?" This was my first meeting with Joseph Goldstein. Five and a half years later, along with Jack Kornfield and many committed friends, we would be the founders of the Insight Meditation Society. By that time, I had come to understand what lay behind Joseph's lighthearted statement.

As my practice evolved, I learned that the conditions required for concentration to develop were far from the kind of tormented struggle I had engaged in. In Buddhist psychology, every wholesome quality of mind has what is called a proximate cause. This is the condition, or the basis, that most easily and readily gives rise to a particular quality. For example, the proximate cause of metta, lovingkindness, is seeing the goodness in someone, so metta most easily arises when we can see the good in someone.

I had expected the proximate cause of concentration to be something like intense zeal or valiant struggle. Instead, much to my surprise, according to the Buddhist teachings the proximate cause of concentration is happiness. As I had realized, straining to keep the mind on an object does not create the condition for concentration to most readily arise. However, when the mind is at ease, serene, and happy, we can more easily and naturally concentrate. Happiness in this sense does not mean the fleeting experience of pleasure, which inherently contains a quiet anxiety based on knowing that the moment will pass. The kind of happiness that is the proximate cause of concentration is a state of tranquility in which our hearts are calm, open, and confident. This is the fertile ground for the growth of concentration.

But how do we arrive at this state of happiness?

To some degree we arrive there by having a correct perspective - the perspective Joseph was evincing in that lunch line so many years ago. There are always what we perceive as ups and downs in practice. Meditation is a cyclical process that defies analysis, but demands acceptance.

As my practice developed, I found that the ability to accept and allow for changing experience was connected to my degree of self-respect. When my sense of self-respect was strong, I could go through difficult periods without being so disheartened. Difficulties did not reflect a lack of self-worth to me. And I could go through pleasant periods without trying to get a death-grip on them, for fear they would change and leave me feeling badly about myself. For me, self-respect definitely seemed a key component in maintaining the happiness that, in turn, helped give rise to concentration. And it became clear that my level of self-respect was rooted in how I behaved during the rest of my life, when I was not sitting on the meditation cushion. I found this truth not only in my practice, but in the classical Buddhist teachings as well.

These teachings are often presented in a causal sequence, which shows how one state of mind helps create the conditions for the arising of the next. In the Visuddhi-magga (The Path of Purification), a famous commentarial work of the Theravada tradition, happiness takes its place in a logical unfolding that leads from morality to ultimate liberation.

The text opens by telling us that morality is considered the foundation for the development of restraint. In Buddhism, morality does not mean a forced or puritanical abiding by rules. Morality means living with intentions that reflect our love and compassion for ourselves as well as others.

As the philosopher George Santayana said, "Morality is the desire to lessen suffering in the world." When we live in harmony with the innate truth of our interdependence, we want to refrain from doing harmful acts. This leads to the next mental condition of restraint. Restraint is the foundation of the development of the absence of remorse. When we restrain a momentary impulse to do a harmful act, we are able to see the impermanence and transparency of the desire that initially arose. Having avoided harmful action, we also avoid the guilt, fear of discovery, and the confusion and regret that come when we forget that what we do has consequences.

The positive condition that results from restraint is called "gladdening." Absence of remorse is the foundation for the development of gladdening. Gladdening is the state of lightness and ease we find in our lives as we increasingly care for ourselves and other beings. Because we genuinely experience a connection to others, we let go of actions that are hurtful and do fewer things that keep us feeling separate from others. Thus our common, dispiriting sense of loneliness and alienation is relieved. Gladdening is the foundation for the development of happiness.

In this way we arrive at happiness - the happiness of peace, composure, and strength.

This is happiness that is not going to fracture as conditions change, as people behave in disappointing ways, as we do not get what we want. This is happiness based on knowing our interconnectedness, on the integrity of acting from our deepest values. It is based on a mind at ease. This is self-respect.

It then follows, according to the Visuddhi-magga, that happiness is the foundation for the development of tranquility. Rather than the turbulence and agitation that we experience when the mind is full of worry, remorse, and guilt, the mind is quieter. Because there is not a great bundle of complexity that we need to disentangle and make amends for, we can be more peaceful in this moment. Tranquility, arising from happiness, is the foundation for the development of concentration. (It was obviously this tranquility that I was lacking in that retreat long ago.)

Concentration is steadiness of mind, the feeling we have when we are one-pointed and powerful in our attention. When we can concentrate, a door opens to insight and wisdom.

Concentration is thus the foundation for the development of correct knowledge and vision. This means being able to see things as they actually are, without so quickly distorting the experience through the filter of our hopes and fears. It is the release from these filters that leads us personally, intimately, to trust in our own sense of truth. Correct knowledge and vision, once firmly a part of our lives, is the foundation for the development of dispassion.

Dispassion does not mean coldness or indifference but, rather, a spaciousness of mind in which we enjoy a sense of wholeness and sufficiency no matter what the particular transitory life situation. It is the equanimity in the face of the changing circumstances we continually meet. Whether we get what we want or not, we can see things in perspective. We can do what needs to be done to try to alleviate our own or others' suffering, and we can do it from a place of inner peace. This was Joseph in the lunch line, though at the time I thought he was frivolous for not torturing himself, as I was doing myself.

Dispassion is the foundation for the development of the fading away of greed and anger. Once we are moving through life's circumstances with more balance and the happiness of self-respect, we are not so mechanically driven by old habits of reaction, like desperately trying to hold on to pleasure or flee from pain. These old habits cannot take root in our hearts in quite the same way. Even when they arise, there is a porous quality to them, so that we need not be afraid of them any longer, and we can choose not to follow their call.

The fading away of greed and hatred is the foundation for liberation.

Liberation is "the sure heart's release"- an understanding of the truth so powerful that there is no turning back from it. When we are not approaching our experience with an agenda, trying to have it complete a sense of lack in ourselves, we can pay careful attention to what is arising. We can open to life and learn from it, for our own experience reveals the truth of all of life. When we can pay careful, unbiased attention, we discover the cause of our suffering as well as our freedom from suffering.

This sequence, as described by the Visuddhi-magga - morality, restraint, gladdening, happiness, tranquility, concentration, dispassion, the fading away of greed and anger, liberation - is as natural as the movement of the wind. When happiness is seen in the context of this process, it becomes an integral part of our spiritual life. We dedicate our intentions to nonharming, to love and compassion, and we are led to the prospect of freedom.

While happiness is an end in itself, one of the fruits of meditation, it is also the state of mind we can have right now, simply by respecting ourselves and living a life of caring. This is the happiness that is an essential ingredient for the ultimate liberation of our minds from suffering.

Compassion Is a Verb

As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, points out, "Compassion is a verb." It is not a thought or a sentimental feeling but is rather a movement of the heart. As classically defined in Pali, compassion is "the trembling or the quivering of the heart." But how do we get our hearts to do that?

How do we "do" compassion?

Compassion is born out of lovingkindness. It is born of knowing our oneness, not just thinking about it or wishing it were so. It is born out of the wisdom of seeing things exactly as they are. But compassion also arises from the practice of inclining the mind, of refining our intention. The Dalai Lama once said, "I don't know why people like me so much. It must be because I try to be compassionate, to have bodhicitta, the aspiration of compassion." He doesn't claim success; he claims a commitment to really trying.

Is there a difference, in quality or quantity, between the compassion any of us might feel and the compassion of the Dalai Lama?

Is it that he experiences more compassionate moments in a row? Or is the actual quality of compassion different? While this can be seen from many different perspectives, one traditional view would say that a moment of compassion any one of us feels is as pure, as deep, as direct as anyone else's; but what happens is that we may lose touch with it more often. We get distracted, we forget, we get caught up in something else, or we confuse another feeling for the state of compassion.

We might at times think that we are feeling compassion when in fact what we are feeling is fear. We may be afraid to take an action, to confront a person or a situation, to be forceful or to reach out. Under the guise of believing we are being kind and compassionate, we hold back. From the Buddhist perspective, this lack of effort to ease our own or another's suffering is seen as lack of courage. Because it is not easy to see lack of courage in oneself, we prefer to think we are being compassionate rather than afraid.

Another state of mind that is often confused with compassion is guilt.

When we see someone who is suffering while we are fairly happy, or if we are happy in a way that anther person is not, we might inwardly feel that we do not deserve our happiness, or that we should hold back our happiness out of pity for the other. But guilt, in Buddhist psychology, is defined as a type of self-hatred and a form of anger.

Certainly there are times when we recognize that we have acted unskillfully, and we feel concern and remorse. This kind of remorse can be important and healing. This is in contrast to the guilt we feel as a state of contraction, in which we endlessly review what we might have done or said in the past. In this state of guilt we become center stage; rather than acting to serve others, we act to get rid of the guilt and thus only serve ourselves. Guilt drains our energy, whereas compassion gives us the strength to reach out to help others.

In order to let go of the feelings of fear and guilt, and move into true compassion, we need to see without hesitation whatever we may be feeling or doing. One of the virtues of awareness is that we can simply look without judgment at what we are actually experiencing. Not being afraid of our fear or guilt, we can say, "Oh, yes, that's fear, that's guilt; that's what's happening right now." And then we can reestablish our intention to be compassionate.

When we practice compassion, we may make the mistake of trying to lay a veneer of caring on top of whatever we are actually feeling: "I mustn't feel fear, I mustn't feel guilt, I must only feel compassion, because that is my dedication." It is important to remember, though, that the clarity at the heart of compassion comes from wisdom. We don't have to struggle to be someone we are not, hating ourselves for our confused feelings. Seeing clearly what is happening is the ground out of which compassion will arise.

What is most important is the mind's unshakable intention to see through to the root of suffering. We need strength, courage, and wisdom to be able to open so deeply. And then the compassion can come forth.

The state of compassion is whole and sustaining; the compassionate mind is not broken or shattered by facing states of suffering. It is spacious and resilient. Compassion is nourished by the wisdom of our interconnectedness. This understanding transcends a martyrdom in which we habitually think only of others, never caring about ourselves. And it transcends a self-centered caring in which we have concern only about ourselves and never bother about others.

Wisdom of our interconnectedness arises hand in hand with learning to truly love ourselves. The Buddha said that if we truly loved ourselves, we would never harm another. For in harming another, we diminish who we are. When we can love ourselves, we give up the idea that we do not deserve the love and attention we are theoretically willing to give to others.

By bringing awareness to the truth of the present moment, and also holding a vision of our heart's deepest wish to be loving toward all, we establish our dedication to compassion. Perhaps the shining manifestation of compassion in the Dalai Lama is a reflection not only of the number of moments he is compassionate, or of how these moments transform the quality of his presence, but also a reflection of his complete confidence in the possibility and importance of being a truly loving person.

The Bridge of Empathy

Contemporary psychological research shows that some individuals, when they are in a highly agitated state of mind, are oblivious to how they are feeling.

Their hearts may be racing, their blood pressure climbing, and they may be sweating profusely, yet they are not aware of being angry or afraid or anxious. About one person in six exhibits this pattern. Being so unaware of their own pain, is it possible that they could understand or empathize with what someone else may be feeling? Being unable to empathize, how can they live complete lives?

When we practice mindfulness, one of the qualities that we are developing is empathy. As we open to the full range of experiences within ourselves, we become aware of what we perceive in each moment, no longer denying some feelings while clinging to others. By coming to know our own pain, we build a bridge to the pain of others, which enables us to step out of our self-absorption and offer help. And when we actually understand how it feels to suffer - in ourselves and in others - we are compelled to live in a way that creates as little harm as possible.

With empathy acting as a bridge to those around us, a true morality arises within.

Knowing that someone will suffer if we perform a harmful action or say a hurtful word, we find we do these things less and less. It is a very simple, natural, and heart-full response. Rather than seeing morality as a set of rules, we find a morality that is an uncontrived reluctance to cause suffering.

In Buddhist teachings an image is used to reflect this quality of mind: a feather, held near a flame, instantly curls away from the heat. When our minds become imbued with an understanding of how suffering feels and fills with a compassionate urge not to cause more of it, we natural recoil from causing harm. This happens without self-consciousness or self-righteousness; it happens as a natural expression of the heart. As Hannah Arendt said, "Conscience is the one who greets you if and when you ever come home."

Two qualities are traditionally attributed to this beautiful and delicate sense of conscience that gives rise to harmlessness: in Pali they are known as hiri and ottapha, traditionally translated as "moral shame" and "moral dread." The translation is somewhat misleading, as these qualities have nothing to do with fear or shame in the self-deprecating sense. Rather, they have to do with that natural and complete turning away from causing harm. Ottapah, or moral dread, comes from feeling of disquietude at the possibility of hurting ourselves or others. Hiri, moral shame, manifests in the form of a reluctance to cause pain in others because we know fully in ourselves how that feels.

In this sense, opening to our own suffering can be the source of our deep connection to others. We open to this pain, not for the sake of getting depressed, but for what it has to teach us: seeing things in a different way, having the courage not to harm, recognizing that we are not alone and could never be alone.

Sometimes we are afraid to open ot something painful because it seems as though it will consume us. Yet the nature of mindfulness is that it is never overcome by whatever is the present object of awareness. If we are mindful of a twisted or distorted state of mind, the mindfulness is not twisted or distorted. Even the most painful state of mind or the most difficult feeling in the body does not ruin mindfulness. A true opening, born of mindfulness, is marked by spaciousness and grace.

In our culture we are taught to push away, to avoid our feelings. This kind of aversion is the action of a mind caught in separation. Whether in the active, fiery form of anger and rage, or in a more inward, frozen form like fear, the primary function of these mental states is to separate us from what we are experiencing. But the only way that we can be free from suffering ourselves and avoid doing harm to others is by connection - connection to our own pain, and through awareness and compassion, a connection to the pain of others. We learn not to create separation from anything or anyone. This is empathy.

Faith - To Place the Heart Upon

The word for faith in Pali is saddha. While sometimes translated as "confidence" or "trust," the literal meaning of saddha is "to place your heart upon." When we give our hearts over to a spiritual practice, it is a sign of confidence or trust in the path we have embarked upon. Faith opens us to what is beyond our usual, limited, self-centered concerns. In Buddhist psychology, faith is called the gateway too all good things, because it sparks our initial inspiration to practice meditation and also sustains our ongoing efforts. Faith empowers us to move toward compassion, lovingkindness, and freedom.

Yet the concept of faith can be difficult for some people. Faith may be associated with mindless belief, or it may imply the need to proclaim allegiance to a creed r doctrine. Then we fear being judged, by ourselves or by others, for our degree of compliance. When we use the world faith in Buddhist context, it is quite different from this. And this difference is crucial.

To "place the heart upon" does not at all mean to believe in something s rigidly that we become defensive about opening our minds to new ideas. Nor does it mean that we use what we have faith in as a way of feeling separate from and superior to others. We do not need too subjugate others because of our faith, or declare the vessel of our faith as the one true vessel. When we talk about saddha, we are talking about a heartfelt confidence in the possibility of our own awakening.

Faith does not need to be viewed as a fixed, solid thing that we either have or don't have. We experience faith on many levels. In a classical Buddhist text entitled the Questions of King Milinda, a monk named Nagasena uses an allegory to illustrate this. A group of people, gathered on the edge of a flooding stream, want to go to the far shore but are afraid. They do not know what to do, until one wise person comes along, assesses the situation, takes a running leap, and jumps to the other side. Seeing the example of that person, the others say, "Yes, it can be done." And then they also jump.

In this story, the near shore symbolizes our usual confused condition, and the far shore is the awakened mind. Inspired by witnessing another, we say "Yes, it can be done." This is one level of faith. But after we have jumped ourselves, when we say "Yes, it can be done" because we know it from our own experience, then we have entered into quite another level of faith.

The first instance is an example of what is called "bright faith." This is the kind of faith that happens when our hearts are opened by encountering somebody or something that moves us. Perhaps we are inspired by a person's qualities of wisdom or kindness. Whether it is someone we know or a historical figure, like the Buddha or another great being, we begin to sense the possibility of a different, happier way to live.

Bright faith is a wonderful feeling and an important beginning, but it is also unreliable. We might encounter one teacher one day and another teacher another day, and be moved powerfully by each of them, but in different directions. If we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to sustain our faith, we can easily become distracted by whatever influence comes into our lives next.

The deeper level of faith is called "verified faith," meaning that it is grounded in our own experience. This is a mature faith, anchored in our own sense of the truth, centered in an understanding of the nature of the mind and body that we come to through our own awareness. The inspiration and confidence we feel, rather than coming from something outside of ourselves, arises from within, and it fuels further inquiries into our own understanding.

It is a great turning point in our lives when we move from an intellectual appreciation of our spiritual path to the heartfelt confidence that says, "Yes, it is possible to awaken. I too can." A tremendous joy accompanies this confidence. When we place our hearts upon the practice, the teachings come alive. The turning point, which transforms an abstract concept of a spiritual path into our own personal path, is faith.

Facing Suffering

During my first visit to India in 1970, I saw many shocking things. The most shocking experience I had was when I found myself walking down a street in Bombay where young women were displayed in zoolike cages to be sold as prostitutes. Many of them were children who had been sold by their relatives to the criminal organizations who control the sex trade in India, so that the children's families would not starve.

The memory of that scene is still vivid in my mind - a horrible portent of things to come. Now, twenty-five years later, Bombay has an estimated 100,000 prostitutes, and the ate of HIV infection is over 32 percent. HIV is spreading so rapidly throughout the country that the United Nations estimates that India will soon lead the world with the largest population of people who are infected with the disease. The tide of suffering is already inconceivable, and it seems certain to get worse.

The rapidity of the spread of HIV in India is being brought about by many factors. Pervasive poverty means that even government hospitals frequently run shore of supplies, so that needles and syringes are often reused at great risk of further infection. The powerlessness of women in the culture means that prostitutes who ask men to use condoms might well starve, and wives who do so might be beaten or simply put out on the street. So, the anguish only grows.

One of the primary conditions for the growth of suffering, in India or anywhere else, is denial.

Shutting our minds to the experience of pain, whether in ourselves or others, only ensures that it will continue. Yet when we witness immense suffering, and do not deny it or find some way to put it out of our minds, it can seem overwhelming. I remember walking down that street in Bombay, seeing those girls, feeling helpless, wanting to do something but not knowing what.

In order to do anything about the world, we first must have the strength to face it without turning away. By just walking down that Bombay street, I faced a lot: the suffering of women and children, the suffering of unimaginable poverty and disease, the suffering of ignorance, the suffering of being able to help only a little bit when so very much needs to be done, and the suffering of not know what to do.

In India there are not as many closed doors that hide anguish, but the most crucial door, anywhere in the world, is in the mind. By opening to the pain we see around us with wisdom and compassion, we start to experience the intimate connection of our relationship with all beings. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said,

In a real sense, all of life is interrelated. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

When we recognize the truth of interrelatedness, we are moved to act in ways that can make a difference. And whatever action we take, however insufficient it might seem, stands as testimony to our willingness to make someone else's yearning for release part of our own.

The truth of our interconnection - of how our suffering and our freedom from suffering are intimately interwoven with that of others -is present at all times for us to see, if we are open to it. It is present in the worldwide spread of AIDS, a disease that knows no boundaries. The first time I heard of AIDS, it was an exotic and rare disease and it was unimaginable that I would ever know anybody who would die from it. Now I have several friends who are suffering from AIDS, and several who have died because of it. There are few people anywhere on the planet whose lives have not been touched in some way by this disease.

So, in some subtle but very real way, I see that my own suffering and freedom from suffering are clearly interwoven with being willing to face the pain of those caged children in Bombay, as well as facing my own disquiet in becoming aware of their situation. The shift in my world view to include them - rather than ignore them or reject them as not having anything to do with me - is the same shift in perspective that dispels our deeply held mirage of isolation.

In the delusion of separation, we may sense an oasis of connection to just a few people, maybe just our families and friends. We may create a fence around the oasis to protect and defend it, then a fort, and ultimately a whole way of life perpetuates the illusion. We get lost in feelings of disconnection and a sense of the futility of caring. It is only by not denying reality that we move into a knowledge of our interconnection with the whole of life. When we relate with wisdom and compassion, there we find true shelter in a community of all beings. Opening to the suffering of others may bring us uneasiness, but we, and potentially the world, are transformed by that opening. We become empowered to respond to the suffering with an unfathomable love, rather than with fear or aversion. Only love is big enough to hold all the pain of this world.


A Heart as Wide as the World - Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg. "From my earliest days of Buddhist practice, I felt powerfully drawn to the possibility of finding a way of life that was peaceful and authentic. My own life at that time was characterized largely by fear and confusion. I felt separate from other people and from the world around me, and even oddly disconnected from my own experience. The world I experienced was sharply dualistic; self and other, us and them. This view increased my fear, which of course also increased my suffering. Stepping onto the Buddhist path, I saw that it was possible to be free of feelings of separation and defensiveness; that one could live with a seamlessness of connection and an unbounded heart.


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