meditation and compassion

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”

Martin Luther King Jr

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation for such method is love.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I feel it when driving — that desire to get back at the person who cuts me off, or who tailgates, or who nearly hits my car while talking on a cellphone — that surge of fear and anger that causes the heart to beat faster and the hands to tighten around the steering wheel and the thoughts to turn to revenge. If I wasn’t holding the wheel my hands would be fists, ready to defend, to injure if necessary.

Then my higher cortical functions kick in, the gray matter overriding the reptilian brain that’s telling me to lash out. Anger hurts, I recall. I remind myself to breathe into the belly, to relax my body, to keep a safe distance. I repeat my driving mantra: “Driving’s not a competition. Just get there safely.” And I remind myself that the other driver is a suffering being and wish him (sometimes her) well. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” I remind myself to acknowledge and accept the fear that I’m experiencing, compassionately allowing it to be there, seeing it not as a problem to be solved but as just part of the richness of my experience. And as I do these things I start, sometimes remarkably quickly, to feel happy, to be living from my heart again, to have a sense of balance, well-being, and compassion. Nonviolence works.

See also:

Dr. King’s nonviolence went beyond dealing with merely personal problems and was one of the most potent political tools in transforming 20th century America, leading to the end of some of the most egregious forms of racial oppression that had degraded and humiliated millions of people solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

The nonviolent approaches that King advocated are part of a direct lineage that runs back to the Buddha himself. King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who helped avoid what could have been a bloody end to British rule in India. Gandhi is the man who shamed an empire into dissolving itself.

Gandhi’s nonviolence was in turn inspired by the example of King Ashoka of India, who lived approximately 304–232 B.C.E and who established the first nation committed to abstaining from violence. King Ashoka was a Buddhist convert, giving up a lifetime of brutal conquests that had built an empire with uncountable corpses, grieving widows, and orphaned children as its foundation. Disgusted, Ashoka disbanded his armies, sent missionaries of peace around the world, imported medicinal plants to help his people, established a public health care system for people and animals, and abolished capital punishment. As H.G. Wells put it, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history … the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone.”

Nonviolence then is a powerful tool that has been passed down the millennia and that has transformed societies and saved millions of people from death, injury, and injustice. But it’s not the only powerful idea in the world, as we can easily see by reading newspapers or catching the news on the radio or TV. In the world around us we see a profound conviction that violent retaliation (or acts of preemptive violence) is a valid and effective strategy for attaining political and social goals: from the 9/11 attackers and suicide bombers in the Middle East, to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the genocide in Darfur.

It’s true; violence is sometimes necessary and justified. The most clichéd but nonetheless valid example is the rise of Hitler. At the time his ill-equipped army made its tentative march into the Rhineland he could have been stopped by even a minimal show of force. His poorly-armed troops had orders to flee at the least sign of opposition. But the European powers, still revolted by the carnage of the first World War, decided to let the matter slide, and in doing so gave the Third Reich access to the industrial tools and raw materials it needed to build a near-unstoppable military force. The rest, as they say, is history.

But more often violence represents the triumph of the reptilian brain over the higher cortex, the primacy of the fear/anger response over reason, more broadly strategic thinking, and a rational consideration of the consequences of our actions. Ironically, the example of the Allied Powers failing to act to oppose Hitler’s rise was the self-same reptilian brain trumping higher thought, although in this case the brain-stem produced a paralyzing fear accompanied by wishful thinking that ignored the clear evidence of a looming menace.

Turning to our own time, it was obvious to me, and to millions of other ordinary people, that the results of invading Iraq would be far more catastrophic than those of continuing to contain Saddam’s Baathist regime with sanctions and the ongoing United Nations inspections. But apparently that was not obvious to those who wielded power.

Perhaps the further away we are from the actual decision-making process the easier it is to think rationally without the reptilian brain-stem screaming that we must do something.

The clarity that living at a distance from power brings is, I believe, the reason why ordinary people — and especially those who profess to live a life of reflection and of commitment to spiritual values — need to voice their concerns to those in power. We’re in many ways more in touch with the world. It’s our children, after all, whose lives will be put at risk. We have to become the conscience of our leaders when they are too overwhelmed by primitive impulses (including, unfortunately, not just fear and pride but also the profits to be made from their investments in oil and Halliburton) to think clearly.

It’s a major undertaking requiring a great deal of self-awareness and commitment when we decide to practice nonviolence in our own lives — eschewing not just the grosser forms of violence but also subtler forms of manipulation, verbal abuse, and even violent thoughts. But it’s not enough that we simply practice a kind of “personal spirituality,” a form of practice that affects only ourselves and those with whom we are in direct contact. Our silence in the political and social realm is what enables governments, corporations, and other collective bodies to make bad decisions. Nonviolence — love — is not a passive virtue but one that seeks to transform the world in which we live.

So I urge all who believe in the power of nonviolence, who reflect even dimly the shining light of the Buddha, Asoka, Gandhi, and Dr. King, to act: to write to the editor, to donate to campaign groups, to email our political representatives, to write in blogs or to comment on the blogs of others — even to march in the streets. We’ve been indoctrinated to think that we are unimportant, and that our voices do not count. And as long as we believe that it will be true. But Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to believe those lies. They spoke up, they acted, and they changed the world. Let’s see if we can too.

Read More

Bob Thurman talks on interconnectedness and compassion

Bob Thurman

In December 2006, Dr. Robert Thurman talked to an exclusive audience at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in New York City. Dr. Thurman discusses themes of interconnectedness, technology, and compassion. In this 12 minute talk he explains that in an interconnected world we can have instant access to the suffering in the world and that this can help to encourage our spiritual development.

He also discusses breaking through the misconception that we are separate from others and entering a state of compassion, and the paradox that in empathizing with the sufferings of others we actually become happier because we release ourselves from the iron bonds of self. Compassion, he says, is fun.

Bob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and co-founder of Tibet House US, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization.

Thurman’s focus is on the balance between inner insight and cultural harmony. In interpreting the teachings of Buddha, he argues that happiness can be reliable and satisfying in an enduring way without depriving others.

He has translated many Buddhist Sutras, or teachings, and written many books, recently taking on the topic of Anger for the recent Oxford series on the seven deadly sins. He maintains a podcast on Buddhist topics. And yes, he is Uma’s dad.

Read More

“Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place” by Melvin McLeod

Support local booksellers: Buy from Indiebound (US) or (UK).

Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place by Melvin McLeod, editor. (Wisdom Publications, 2006. Paperback, $16.95).

Available from and

There are some books on engaged Buddhism that tend to be rather polemical or academic in style. ‘Mindful Politics’ is not one of them. Its editor hopes that it will serve as a guide or a handbook for those who wish to draw on Buddhism to help make the world a better place. His hopes are well justified. It is an anthology that draws on the accumulated experience of much learning – rich in flashes of insight and practical wisdom. Anyone who feels some connection between the transformation of self and world is sure to find some fresh perspectives and directions among its many and varied contributions.

All but a few of the contributors are American or America-based. Given the subject matter of the book, it is perhaps surprising that this bias is unexplained and barely acknowledged. And yet its rootedness in the American Buddhist experience is also a real strength. This is a book that could not have been compiled twenty or thirty years ago. It bears witness to a generation of practice in the West and engagement with real-life suffering in the world. It is a sign that the Dharma has not only taken root outside of the East but has begun to bear fruit, too. The result is a collection of pithy writings that have an immediacy and accessibility to any Western reader.

See also:

It is not, as several contributors point out, that Buddhism offers an alternative political program, nor even that it has the answer to every political question. Most of the book is about how we might bring about change, rather than what change we might seek to bring about.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The cause of peace has long been widely accepted as a Buddhist political value. To this end, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh both advocate a more effective, democratic United Nations. The Dalai Lama suggests that we each need to develop a sense of ‘universal responsibility’ for humanity. This means thinking beyond both individual and national self-interest.

Are there other basic political principles that we can agree on as Buddhists? Stephanie Kaza makes a clear, concise case for environmentalism, via non-harm, interconnectedness and systems thinking. Sulak Sivaraksa also cites interconnectedness in his response to globalization. Jigme Thinley, Home Minister of Bhutan, enlarges on the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an alternative economic agenda that his government is trying to pursue. And David Loy introduces his incisive analysis of institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion. This is the idea that the traditional root poisons can take on a collective dimension, and that they need to be addressed on that level as well as in our own hearts. All of these writers offer tools for clear thinking. Their ideas will be useful not only to those who are actively involved, but also to those who simply wish to make sense of politics, or figure out for whom to vote.

One of the most direct and thought-provoking pieces comes from the feminist political thinker bell hooks. She sees Buddhism as a means of letting go of all forms of ‘dominator thinking’. In order to do that, however, the institutions of Buddhism in the West need to transcend the ‘politics of race and class exclusion’ with which they themselves are permeated.

Most of the contributors focus on issues that may arise for the practitioner who might engage in politics, or who might even in some small way wish to be a positive influence. What if, for example, I find myself consumed by anger – how do I not bring more rage into the world? There is a wealth of practical wisdom in this book on that subject from which to draw. Pema Chodron, Ken Jones, Ezra Bayda, and Rita Gross all speak from many years of personal experience and give very useful from-the-heart advice and reflections on cultivating patience and non-enmity. These are teachings we need to constantly remind ourselves of if we really want to break the cycle of reaction, polarization, and revenge.

Other questions may arise. I want to change the world, but where do I start? Do what you care about, advises Stephanie Kaza. How do I know what is the right action in a situation? Don’t be afraid to stay with ‘not knowing’, advises Bernie Glassman. And do I protest like Allen Ginsberg or engage in the system to transform it, as advocated by Chogyam Trungpa? Do whatever works, suggests Joseph Goldstein – whatever helps you to cultivate mindfulness, compassion and wisdom.

Some of the contributions paint a picture of what a politically engaged Buddhist might be like. Charles Johnson describes the ideal as someone who is ‘peace embodied – nonviolent, dispassionate, empathic, without attachment to recognition or results. David Loy identifies the three important Buddhist contributions as spiritual practice, nonviolence and the humility that comes from a sense that our liberation is inseparable from that of all others. And from the Order of Interbeing come the fourteen mindfulnesses, or political precepts. These are very practical guidelines for involvement in the world. Any of these chapters would be worthy of careful study, particularly by any group of engaged practitioners.

There is a still deeper level of questioning underlying all of the contributions to this book. What can it mean to live in a world of great suffering and danger? How can I seek happiness and peace in such a time? How do I even stay sane? Occasionally such questioning comes to the fore, as in Margaret Wheatley’s ‘four freedoms’. From her own years of practice, during which she has borne witness to much suffering, she describes how she has learned to practice being free from hope, free from fear, free from safety and free from self. Somewhere beyond these is the place we need to be coming from. There lies the wisdom that does not seek results and yet contains the most potential for change. The most poignant glimpse of it, containing, perhaps, the crux of the whole book, comes through a passing quotation from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – ‘when you recognise the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns, uncontrived and effortless.’

Read More

Altruism hard-wired to pleasure centers in brain

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the US government National Institutes of Health have shown that helping others makes us happy and that altruism is hard-wired into the brain, according to the Washington Post.

When volunteers were asked to imagine two scenarios — keeping a large amount of cash for themselves or giving it away — the more generous scenario activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Altruism, the study suggests, arises not as the result of high-minded philosophy, but is wired into the brain.

The study represents one more way in which scientific research — and particularly brain-imaging — is illuminating the way in which human beings are inherently wired for moral decision-making. Research by Professor David Richardson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown that cultivating lovingkindness and compassion leads to a greater sense of wellbeing.

Neuroscientist neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues have also recently shown that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers. Such brain-damaged patients lacked the moral qualms most people experience when making choices that harm some people but bring benefits to others, and adopted a cold and clinical form of decision-making.

As a results of other studies Harvard researcher Marc Hauser has proposed that people in all cultures have similar moral processing mechanisms, although the way that these manifest is culturally conditioned.

The sum total of these research studies suggests that empathy is not only the key to moral behavior, but that it is also a way of becoming happier. By performing or even just imagining acts that benefit others we directly benefit ourselves. This confirms the experience of generations of meditation practitioners who have found that lovingkindness and compassion meditation brings feelings of happiness and even bliss.

Read More

The Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Dalai Lama

While it’s quite clear that others may benefit from our compassionate activity, the second part of His Holiness’s observation flies in the face of an assumption that is, for most of us, extremely deep-rooted: that is, the assumption that my individual welfare is best served if I primarily focus on my interests.

But recent scientific research on happiness and brain function suggests that we do help ourselves — by becoming happier — when we help others.

Time magazine recently named Professor Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers. For years Davidson has been researching happiness, sometimes studying Buddhist monks in his lab, the Brain Imaging Laboratory, to examine how feelings of well-being correlate with activity in the brain.

See also:

In experiments run by Davidson and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied the brain functions of experienced meditators. Each of the practitioners – six were Buddhist monks and two were lay people – had completed over 10,000 (and up to 50,000) hours of meditation, which is about the same amount of time it takes to become expert in a musical instrument.

These experienced meditators were compared with a group of 10 students who had undertaken a week of meditative training involving 45 minutes of practice a day.

Davidson’s principal tool for examining the meditators was functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which reveal in real time which parts of the brain are most active. In earlier experiments Davidson had shown that fMRI can image where different emotional states take place in the brain. When people experience negative states such as anxiety or depression, brain areas that are most active are the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. When people experience positive emotions — happiness, love, confidence, etc — activity in the left prefrontal cortex is heightened. So remember: left is positive, right is negative.

In the more recent study, brain activity was studied both when the meditators’ brains were in a neutral state and while they cultivated unconditional loving-kindness (metta) and compassion. For the beginners there were only minor changes in brain activity between the neutral state and the meditation on lovingkindness, but for the experienced meditators there were massive changes — the degree of change being correlated with the number of hours of meditation each individual had done.

When the experienced meditators generated strong feelings of compassion there was a strong increase in activity in the left (or positive) side of the prefrontal cortex and a decrease in activity on the right (or negative) side. Developing compassion, then, results in the same kinds of brain activity that are shown when someone is in an particularly strong state of wellbeing and happiness. Meditators of course have long known experientially that feelings of love and compassion are accompanied by feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and even of bliss, but in scientific circles these subjective observations have to be backed up by measurements before they can be trusted as reliable data.

But why does compassion make us happy?

Three reasons spring to mind: diversion, perspective, and connectedness.

  1. First is “diversion.” As His Holiness wrote in Ethics for the New Millennium, “When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense.” Taking our focus away from what’s wrong in our lives helps us to be less self-obsessed. Compassion therefore diverts our attention away from problems which, when focused upon, loom large in our minds. Compassion in effect displaces negative emotions from the mind because we can only focus on one primary emotional state at a time.
  2. Second, concern for others reminds us that we are not alone with our problems, and that others have even greater difficulties. From time to time in our lives we’ll be struggling with our normal quotient of suffering — worrying about paying bills, bickering over some disagreement, for example — when we encounter real suffering, such as bereavement or a serious accident. At such times we realize that we’ve been giving undue attention to problems that are, in reality, not such a big deal. So compassion helps us to put our own difficulties into perspective.
  3. But third, the very act of connecting with others in a compassionate way enhances our lives in a very positive way. We are at heart social beings, and we cannot be truly happy unless we establish positive connections with others. Compassion and love give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, and compassion is inherently pleasurable and rewarding. When we are caught up in our own anxieties and longings we are not fully able to connect with others and so our experience is impoverished. Compassion is therefore enriching.

This doesn’t of course mean that we should neglect ourselves and be concerned only with others. Compassion for others is ideally an extension of a healthy self-cherishing attitude in which we take our own needs seriously. In Buddhist practice compassion is developed for all beings, including ourselves, and in fact in meditations such as the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) and karuna bhavana (development of compassion) we begin by cultivating love towards ourselves. Ultimately, however, the best hope we have for attaining happiness ourselves is to pay more attention to the wellbeing of others.

Finally, for anyone daunted by the thought of 10,000 hours of meditation (that’s three hours a day for nine years, in case you’re wondering) remember that even those who had been meditating for 45 minutes a day for only a week showed greater happiness and even improved immune function. That’s a big reward for a modest effort.

Read More

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor was formerly a Tibetan monk, a monk in the Korean Zen tradition, a respected translator (of Shantideva’s “Guide to the Buddhist Path”), and a student of existentialist philosophy. He’s now a determinedly freelance Buddhist practitioner and thinker, and “Buddhism Without Beliefs” is an uncompromising guide to his existentialist, stripped-to-the-basics, agnostic Buddhist practice.

As such I found the book both irritating and deeply inspiring, although on balance I was more inspired than annoyed. Batchelor got me thinking — which is very much his aim — about the way in which a well-lived life should be conducted and, if this doesn’t sound too grand, about the nature of reality.

Batchelor is a deep thinker, and he guides us step-by-step into an appreciation of “emptiness”, the Buddhist teaching that all things are “interactive processes rather than aggregates of discrete things”, and how an experience of emptiness necessarily results in the experience of compassion. It’s hard to convey in writing the effect this has, but ordinary things cease to look so ordinary, and begin to have an aura or wonder. It’s the depths of experience to which Batchelor leads us that I found particularly inspiring, as well as the freshness of his thinking and of his writing.

The irritability? Well, on occasion I got the impression that Batchelor thinks he has “got” what the Buddha taught, while just about everyone else is just “doing religion” — saying the words without understanding or practicing them. In fact he comes across as being rather dismissive (and unfairly so) of traditional Buddhism. Does this mar an otherwise excellent book? To me it does, and yet I found it worthwhile to breathe deeply and to let go of my irritation and delve joyfully into the many insights that Batchelor presents.

On balance, I found this to be a deeply satisfying and practice-provoking book.

Available at and

Read More

“The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology,” by Lorne Ladner

The Lost Art of Compassion, by Lorne Ladner

Available from and

There has been a steady trickle of books by Buddhist therapists recently, exploring the overlaps between western therapeutic models and practices and traditional Buddhist approaches to dealing with human suffering (see Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance” and Tara Bennett-Goleman’s “Emotional Alchemy”). Both systems have as their aim the reduction of suffering, and while at times the approaches may differ, there is also considerable overlap. There exists considerable possibility for cross-fertilization, and Ladner’s book is to my mind the finest fruit of that process to date.

Ladner’s book is more Buddhist than the other two examples I have picked, and for me that’s a bonus. While Brach and Bennett-Goleman look mainly towards a rather secularized form of mindfulness meditation for the Buddhist component of their mix of Buddhism and therapy, Ladner draws more widely from Buddhist mythology, meditation, and ethical teachings. “The Lost Art” contains so much Buddhism that this book would almost (but not quite) serve as an introduction to the subject even for a complete novice to the topic.

Choose any two pages at random from Lorne Ladner’s book, “The Lost Art of Compassion”, and there’s likely to be enough wisdom there to keep you thinking and boost your practice for months or even years to come. Ladner’s writing, perhaps because he doesn’t strive to write in a way which is ornate or poetic, has a rare clarity and is devoid of the sentimentality that I thought detracted from both “Radical Acceptance” and “Emotional Alchemy”.

I particularly appreciated the way in which at the end of the book Ladner outlines a summary of compassion practices for easy reference, showing how traditional Buddhist practices can be used as therapeutic tools, and how we can each become our own therapist.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning to deal better with their own suffering, or who is interested in the overlap between Buddhism and therapy. This book will certainly make a lasting difference to my own practice and my own approach to teaching.

Read More

“In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Green Berets,” Strozzi-Heckler

In Search of the Warrior Spirit

Available on and

Note to Hollywood: this book would make a great movie. Take a bunch of aggressively skeptical and highly macho Green Berets, the U.S. Army’s elite special forces unit, and throw them into intensive training in meditation, aikido, and biofeedback — led by a bunch of guys heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy and wearing, believe it or not, lilac uniforms — stand back, and wait for all hell to break loose. Which promptly happens.

Some of the instructors are virtually eaten alive by the troops, who are on high alert for any sign of insincerity or lack of integrity, and who have a talent for finding buttons to press. At one point the Green Berets, on an intensive meditation retreat, are in open revolt, crowding round and yelling at the instructors in the middle of a “silent” meditation period. One of the soldiers steps forward menacingly and gives each of the three retreat leaders the finger, yelling, “F___ you and f___ you and f___ you!”

Fast-forward to a quieter moment on retreat, and Strozzi-Heckler opens his eyes to see a Green Beret sitting in blissful meditation. Below the still, relaxed, and concentrated face of the warrior is a T-shirt that reads, “82nd AIRBORNE DIVISION: DEATH FROM ABOVE”. And so on… Not your average meditation retreat.

Lest you think that the program was all confrontation and culture clash, the program, stormy as it was, produced stunning results, with massive increases for example in the soldiers’ abilities to control their body temperature in extreme conditions and to recuperate quickly after exercise. And on a more personal level, it’s fascinating to witness these warriors contact their softer sides. One of the soldiers, who was a Christian, is thrown into turmoil because he’s unsure whether he could kill someone now that he’s learned to meditate and come to a deeper appreciation of the compassion taught in his own faith.

This kind of quandary represents the central question that Strozzi-Heckler returns to over and over in his writings, which are based on a daily journal he kept over the six months of the project. Can he teach these men to be warriors rather than soldiers — fully feeling human beings rather than alienated killing machines — and have them still function as soldiers? It’s not a question that is ever likely to be resolved, but nonetheless this is a fascinating account of a bold experiment in bringing awareness disciplines to the U.S. Special Forces.

Oh, and Hollywood, Kevin Costner is a natural to play Strozzi-Heckler.

Read More

Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space”

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

In the Buddhist meditation called the Six Element Practice, we reflect in turn on each of the six elements—the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—plus Space and Consciousness.

In each case we reflect on the presence of the element within our being: for example, with Earth we note the presence of bone, tissue, teeth, hair, etc.

We then reflect on the element outside of ourselves; in this case we consider rocks, stones, earth, buildings, plants, the bodies of other beings, etc.

Then we note how everything that is in us that pertains to the element under consideration came from the element outside.

Originally our body started as the fusion of one cell from our mother and another from our father—neither of whom was us. Then our body grew as our mother passed on nutrients that she’d ingested from the outside world. Again, those nutrients weren’t us. Later, we ate on our own, but still everything that went into building up the body was and is merely borrowed from the outside world.

Finally, for each element we recollect that everything in us that is that element is constantly returning to the outside world. Our muscles and other tissues, and even our bones, are constantly dissolving and being rebuilt (which is why your muscles and bones waste away through inactivity). We lose hairs, shed skin cells, and have to make regular trips to the bathroom to rid ourselves of waste. All of this returns to the world outside us and to the wider element. And when we die, we stop even trying to hold on. Everything that was “us” returns to the wider element.

This practice is completely liberating. It frees us from the “prison,” as Einstein called it, of the delusion that we are separate from the universe. We come to realize instead that we are nothing but interrelatedness, that we exist only in relation to the world, including other people, and that we have no separate existence in any real sense. We are completely and inseparably connected on a physical, mental, and emotional level with other beings.

The six element practice gives us a realization of this truth—a realization that goes far beyond the intellectual—and other Buddhist practices such as the Brahmaviharas help to ignite the emotions of relationship that follow from this insight into interconnectedness, widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.

Read More

Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”


Mahatma Gandhi never actually said this quote, which is commonly attributed to them. Instead he said something similar: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

So that’s a little teaching in itself. Do we want to see more truth in the world, or more falsehood? I know which I prefer.

When we look at the world around us, with its many serious problems, including poverty, injustice, war, overpopulation, and environmental degradation, we can become angry and frustrated, or passive and despondent. Not only are these responses ineffective at bringing about change, they are also part of the problem to begin with.

In order to bring about positive change in the world we need not only engagement with the outer world, but also engagement with our inner world. If we want to see greater awareness in the world, we have to cultivate awareness. If we want to see more love, we need to cultivate love. If we want to be genuinely helpful we have to learn to be less hateful and frustrated, and more compassionate.

Meditation can of course help here — a notion that Mahatma Gandhi would have agreed with. Meditation helps us to recognize unhelpful emotional patterns and to develop the mental freedom to choose more helpful responses.

The cultivation of mindfulness helps us see what’s going on within us. It lets us see our own reactivity, and also our potential for change.

The cultivation of lovingkindness helps us to find alternative and more compassionate responses to life. If we want to see greater harmony and less strife in the world, we need to learn to respond to frustrations with more patience and kindness than we do at present.

Trying to change the world without changing ourselves is largely pointless. We simply inflict our impatience and ignorance on others, and there are enough of those qualities in the world already. So we need to work on developing the qualities that the world most needs — awareness and compassion.

Of course changing ourselves without attempting to make the world a better place is just a form of selfishness — trying to curate personal experiences of happiness with no regard to others — and there’s enough of that in the world as well.

The world needs our help, so we need to do what we can to help ourselves to be better, so that we can make the world better as well.

Read More