Apr 24, 2009
Henri Matisse: “When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature.”
If science is about the study of cause and effect in the physical world, meditation is, Bodhipaksa argues, a form of inner science that helps us to understand how to avoid creating pain for ourselves and others.
Matisse said: “When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.”
Although Matisse was an artist rather than a scientist, he has a lot to say to those of us who are interested in the inner science of meditation and of living mindfully.
I can’t hear the suggestion to “view ourselves with … curiosity and openness” without thinking of mindfulness, in fact. Mindfulness involves not just seeing our experience, but activity investigating it. When we’re not open to our experience — where we assume for example that we already know what’s going on — we’re unable to learn much about ourselves. Openness implies suspending judgment. Openness implies that we don’t accept or reject our experience prematurely, that we’re prepared to look below the surface. Curiosity is where we actually dive in to our experience, trying without fixed preconceptions to see how our experience actually ticks.
Hana, woman I don’t really know except online, recently wrote to me to say that she been helped by my response to a critical comment that someone had left on Wildmind.
Openness implies that we don’t accept or reject our experience prematurely, that we’re prepared to look below the surface.
Here’s the story. A man, “Matt,” whose grandfather had been murdered took great exception to some of the work I do teaching meditation and Buddhism to inmates in the New Hampshire State Prison. As it happened, his grandfather’s murderer was incarcerated in the same prison I visit each week. Matt accused me of “bullshit,” of not being a real Buddhist, said that the only people who would put up with my company are prisoners, and accused me of a lack of empathy of the victims of crime. Hana had recently been on the receiving end of some hate mail as well, and she said that the way I’d responded to Matt’s criticisms had helped her to see a way out of the pain and anger she was experiencing. She now had an idea how to respond to her own attacker.
I was pleased to hear that. In case it was helpful I wrote to Hana and explained the process I’d gone through to arrive and what I hoped was a compassionate response to Matt.
First, I was hurt and angry. I wanted revenge. I don’t like being accused of BS-ing, not being a real Buddhist, of lacking empathy, etc. Lots of defenses and counter-attacks readily leaped to mind — I’m actually quite good at being defensive! I’ve had a lot of practice at it, in fact. My mental picture of Matt was of someone who was out to be hurtful, who was emotionally volatile, and who may even have been drunk.
But rather than blasting off a withering response I decided to try practicing openness and curiosity. The kind of over-the-top attack that Matt had made was either the result of someone “trolling” for a response (some people online get their kicks from trying to find people’s emotional weak-spots), or it came out of a great deal of pain. Ah, now pain. There’s something I’ve experienced, and in my past I’ve sometimes made outrageous attacks on other people because I’ve felt hurt. So I now felt a bit more curious and open to Matt’s experience, although the anger and defensiveness were still there.
I say to my pain, I know you’re there. I know you’re hurting. I’m here and I understand.
So what next? It wasn’t enough to try to be empathetic with Matt’s pain, I had to be empathetic towards my own pain. That’s not always easy to do. I’ve noticed that sometimes I move so quickly from feeling hurt to feeling angry that I don’t even really take on board that I’ve felt hurt. And not having taken that on board I’m not able to empathize with myself.
Also I’ve noticed that I can sometimes see feelings of hurt as being a sign of “weakness” (Real Buddhists are above feeling hurt) and therefore don’t want to acknowledge them. But an attitude of curiosity and openness revealed that my hurt was in fact fully present and functional.
So I embraced my feelings of hurt in an attitude of compassion, using techniques I’ve learned in the development of lovingkindness meditation. This is quite different from wallowing in pain: this is simply saying to my pain, I know you’re there. I know you’re hurting. I’m here and I understand. And what happens then is quite amazing: the pain doesn’t go away, but it ceases to give rise to anger, resentment, and defensiveness. Wallowing in pain involves being immersed in it, giving ourselves up to it, and feeling self-pity. And that doesn’t help anyone.
Suddenly, I no longer needed to defend myself. I could now sense Matt’s pain and respond to it without needing to feel that I had to justify myself, or to make him feel bad, or to punish him. I could simple acknowledge the pain he was experience, know that it was natural for such pain to lead to anger (well, hadn’t I just seen that for myself?) and respond in what I hoped was a kindly and factually-based way to Matt’s pain and anger.
I’m not boasting about being terribly compassionate or having been helpful. In fact I don’t have a great deal of confidence in my ability to be able to handle my hurt and anger, which are things that have troubled me a great deal in my life. But I do know that I’ve made progress over the years in my ability to empathize with myself and others, and so I was pleased that Hana (and a few others) wrote to say they appreciated my response.
The point I’m making is quite simple: without mindfulness and its attendant qualities of openness and curiosity, I wouldn’t have been able to respond positively to Matt’s comment. I might have just deleted the comment. Or I might have responded by attacking. Or by defending myself. And I wouldn’t have learned anything about the dynamics of hurt and anger, and how we can avoid causing ourselves unnecessary pain. And maybe (I hope) help others in the process.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.