The Capacity to Connect to Others

Monday, December 21, 2015 - 5:37am
Photo by Lulu Lovering

The Capacity to Connect to Others

When the Buddha introduced the idea of intention 2,500 years ago, the prevalent social structure in India was the caste system. All individuals were thought to be born to fulfill a certain duty or purpose in their lives; even inanimate objects and elements of the natural world belonged to categories that had specific natures to be realized. It was in a rock’s nature, for instance, to be hard, neutrally-colored, and textured, for grass to be green, grow, and require water. These were considered to be absolute truths.

The sense of morality underlying the caste system was, unsurprisingly, even more a thread when it came to the social roles and responsibilities of people in Indian society. Individuals born into the ruling caste weren’t merely candidates for leadership. To realize their nature as rulers was the thing that would make them good and worthy members of society.

Brahman males were expected to be the mediators with the divine. Caste lines were rigid: a member of the warrior caste couldn’t devote himself to reading scriptures, as that would dip into Brahman territory. Acting in accordance with expectations outside of one’s caste was seen as inappropriate, and even immoral.

Within the caste system, the answer to the question “What makes a good person good?” wasn’t a universally acknowledged truth. A Brahman being a “good” person was completely different than an outcast being “good.” Expectations were completely different between these two castes, and were very strict. (Similarly, men and women in a given caste had different criteria for “goodness.”) But the Buddha’s teachings came along, and basically said all of this was irrelevant:

“Not by birth is one a Brahman or an outcast, but by deeds.”

In the Buddha’s view, the moral implication of a given action is inseparable from the intention of the person performing it. Morality isn’t determined by one’s status, by birth or otherwise. “A true Brahman is one who is gentle, who is wise and caring,” the Buddha elaborated further, repudiating the fixed ethical framework of the caste system. Qualities like gentleness, wisdom, and care were — and are — not tethered to a particular social status. They represent a more universal sense of goodness, righteousness, or skillfulness — all according to the Buddha’s core idea of intention.

Only we can know our own motivations and intentions for our actions. I could give a gift to my friend out of a genuine and authentic desire to be generous, or I could do so to get a gift from my friend in exchange, or to feel validated by someone. One action, two very different intentions.

Recently, one of my students told me a story that speaks to the complexity of intention. This student was working as a pharmacist at a small pharmacy. One day, a belligerent man walked into the pharmacy to fill a prescription, and berated her. He was a known quantity around the neighborhood. When greeted by other pharmacy clerks or patrons, he would rage at or ignore them. “I was afraid and unwilling to talk to him for fear of being yelled at,” my student revealed to me. “My stomach would churn and I dreaded the days he came in.”

After several weeks of making herself sick from ill will, my student found herself muttering “I hate him” to herself. As a long-time meditator, she quickly felt disturbed by her strong feelings of aversion, and went home to send the man some lovingkindness.

Her feelings of hatred dissipated, and so she began a practice of sending him lovingkindness for several months. When the man would come into the store, my student would treat him with respect, even as he would go on ranting. By reconfiguring her intention, my student was able to heal herself of uncomfortable feelings by cultivating compassion for the man who was ostensibly causing her harm.

After many months of practicing compassion for the man, my student realized that he was in dire circumstances. He was an alcoholic who had no home and had been living in his car; he'd been re-using catheters to make them last. On Mother’s Day morning, my student was buying a card for her mother at the pharmacy when she saw the man in the parking lot. Caught off-guard, my student began to feel dread as she watched the man approach her. The man handed her a box of chocolates and wished her a happy Mother’s Day. “This is how I have come to understand the true meaning of metta,” my student explained with retrospective wisdom, telling this story years after the experience.

This student ultimately set the intention to open herself up to someone who was visibly suffering. Even as her kindness for the man defied some sense of logic or reciprocity, she acted out of generosity, realizing that there was indeed space to practice kindness for this man. By shifting her perspective away from thinking about interactions with this man in terms of one-upsmanship, this student let go of her judgments of this man as inherently bad or immoral. She allowed herself to feel a sense of innate connection to him as a human being, as someone worthy of love and respect. And clearly, from my point of view, this man eventually picked up on her feelings of compassion.

A man participates in The World's Biggest Eye Contact Experiment in Montreal, Canada.

(David C. Wong / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

Recognizing our intentions in the moments of our actions is, at its core, a recognition of the power of our minds. When we realize that we are able to renegotiate our relationship to our motivations, we empower ourselves to feel greater freedom, happiness, and responsibility over our own lives. With this teaching, the Buddha not only disrupted the ancient Indian notion of social class, but he taught that we are all responsible for making change.

Mindfulness creates the space for us to cultivate empathy. As with the practice of lovingkindness, which traditionally begins with sending lovingkindness to oneself, mindfulness invites us to open up to the full range of our experiences: emotional, intellectual, sensory, and more. When we heighten our awareness, we realize just how capable we are of perceiving in a given moment. That openness becomes the basis of insight. We don’t turn away from anger or sadness because it’s uncomfortable, nor do we cling to happiness and excitement. When we come to know our own deep capacity for feeling, we give ourselves the capacity to connect to others more deeply.

In the Buddhist teachings, the visual representation of conscience is the image of a feather held near a flame. The feather curls away from heat, just as we recoil from the prospect of causing harm. To me, it’s also important that this image is filled with light. In the light, morality is simple, and clear — and that clarity is precisely the foundation for compassion.

When I began practicing meditation, I felt like I had come home. Even as I felt more in touch with suffering, doubt, and plenty of other forms of emotional discomfort, I felt some sense of wholeness — not because of some inflated sense of self, but because of a deep recognition of interconnectedness.

The Buddha taught that if we truly love ourselves, we won’t harm one another. My student felt greater pain when she “hated’ the man who bullied her than when she sent him love. I’ve really come to see that when harming others, we diminish who we are. When supporting others, we support ourselves.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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This is good stuff .

My only comment is that as a Catholic Christian I am able to live in the grace of God without any meditation and live out the maxim that Jesus our saviour taught us "love your enemies !"
I obviously like and agree with this Buddhist practice/teaching .....but as a follower of Jesus Christ the path is much simpler and straight forward . I see no reason to meditate as a discipline because the constant state of 'being in Christ ' is a gift anyway .

whether on meditates or simply abides by a teaching or dogma is a matter of method. the important piece is arriving at that place of awareness to allow oneself to overcome ego/emotion in that type of interaction and transcend it.
this is the subject of sharon's essay. the subject is not faith, religion, or culture specific

Excellent response

Impressive discipline

Thank You ! What a great way to start my day. Many Blessings to everyone.....

Thank You! What a great way to begin my day.
Many Blessings............

How best to live?
This is the cure for hatreds and racism!
Make kindness,compassion and humility your priority.

Thank you for all your posts. They have invited me to look at 'difficult' people in new ways. May your holidays be rich with positive interactions.

Yesterday I began a 30 day spiritual journey. The first days goal is to set an intention. I have been living without intention for my actions and have been giving my power away to others. I find myself wanting to fit in, wanting to be invited to parties, wanting someone to tell me I good enough, waiting for someone to inspire me.
Before I set my intention I saw a ship. I am on this ship and on many days rather and being the captain I am down in the galley looking around for snacks. What if I was up on the deck,steering the the course, my eyes instead out to sea looking for the love that is present and seen only when I am paying attention. I find your words on the waters ahead and am moved toward your wisdom. I am intentionally moving towards deeds that fill my heart with loving kindness and self-acceptance and I am letting go of the outcome. Perhaps I will end up covered in feathers.

The very best of luck on this new journey. May your journey be full of wonder, goodness, blessing, and love.
(I've been trying to take the wheel in my own life as well - and it seems to be working!)

Thank you Pam.

lovely work.. I used to waitress at a busy country diner, and there was a mean old man that would often make the servers cry. Sure enough one day I got him in my section and I decided I would not let him get to me. I kept composure thru all his turns and twitches and flips and won him over. From then on he would want the same meal, at the same table, in my section, every time I was working, and he would also tip me Well. I understood the worth somehow, of the discipline for a love well won. Thank you for this story.

Sharon Salzberg writes:

> ....Her feelings of hatred dissipated, and so she began a practice of sending him lovingkindness for several months.

This might work with irritating or emotionally provocative people, but is probably not a functional way of relating to someone who's seriously dedicated to murdering you, your friends and your family.

My mothers surgical oncologist for her lumpectomy was disrespectful to my need to ask a few questions to truly understand what was found and what was going to be done. After the surgery he found me in waiting room and said mom did fine. I asked him if I could ask a question and he rolled his eyes" you starting again?"I was so upset/ mad that I spoke to a nurse manager. She asked him if there was a misunderstanding. He said no this lady asks too many questions look at that book, it's filled with questions!" ( that book was my journal). I was so angry that he could dismiss my need to know the basics about my moms surgery... Did it spread? Did he take out lymph? Questions I wouldn't have asked had he volunteered that information. I still feel anger. Sending him love and kindness feels impossible to do in a genuine way because he was mean and inappropriate... I could go as far to say that perhaps he is fearful of questions( he's 74), but I can't find it in me to forgive his bully- like behavior or to pretend to like or love him. I wonder what you would advise.

My response to Sharon Salzberg’s essay The Capacity To Connect To Others
On Being
Monday December 21, 2015

This past week I had the good fortune to come across Sharon Salzberg's Twitter account and to follow her. I have become a denizen of Twitter because IMHO there's never been a more useful medium for finding others with mutual interests. One thing that I've recently become very interested in is mindfulness meditation. I became aware of it in yoga class, where we are always instructed to “set an intention” for our practice, and sought to find out more about it. I'm now working on cultivating a daily mindfulness meditation practice. Just the little that I've done so far has proven to be incredibly powerful.

I recently experienced a situation similar to that of Sharon's student. I am a happy member of a lovely yoga studio that I've been attending for almost a year now. I've gotten much stronger and healthier. There is, however, one instructor that I had a falling out with. He is a young veteran who suffers with PTSD. The yoga studio has, in the past 2 years, become his second home, and he credits the practice of yoga and those with whom he learns and teaches with saving his life. He's also very active in reaching out to fellow veterans who are suffering terribly and seems to take it upon himself to be their savior via yoga. When he took it upon himself to be my savior, he wound up crossing some very critical emotional boundaries and traumatizing me. It was an awful experience for both of us. I had a dilemma because I wanted to avoid him but really couldn't without leaving the yoga studio, which I didn't want to do.

A few days ago I went a little bit early to class and set myself up on my mat with 2 blocks and a blanket, which I sat on and began to meditate. I decided that on the in breath, I would say to myself "I am..." and on the out breath "" I envisioned a bright light of love radiating from within me and shining all over the room. I only had a chance to do this for about 2 minutes, but when the aforementioned instructor put a mat down next to mine, I turned around and looked at him with love! I had no ill feelings toward him at all, and he seemed very benign towards me. I had mindfully changed my intention toward him and everyone else, for that matter. Two minutes of meditation was all it took to completely reverse my negative feelings toward him and to feel completely positive, comfortable and happy rather than using my energy to get all upset.

So thank you, Sharon, for sharing your student’s story and your love and wisdom with all of us.

Thank you Sharon for your wise and wonderful words a true holiday gift to keep and to share !