Sunday, 11 November 2007


I've been re-reading Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs since I recommended it here, and thought I'd share from his chapter on compassion. I really need to apply this wisdom to my daily life. Listen to this:

Notice how the way you perceive people reinforces your feelings about them, and how the way you feel about them reinforces your perceptions of them. The image we have of another becomes a confused mix of objective facts (long nose, glasses, bald) and our own ideas about him (arrogant, stupid, doesn't like me). So as well as being someone in his own right, the person is cast as an actor in our own private psychodrama. It becomes increasingly hard to disentangle him from the emotionally charged image formed by our own desires and fears.

To escape this trap is not to pretend to feel otherwise but to start looking at things differently. We are free to choose how to perceive the world. Upon reflection, we may discover that no matter how strongly we feel about a person, that feeling is often based entirely on an image we have formed of him. . .By suspending our judgments, we are able to look at the person from a fresh perspective.

Batchelor goes on to suggest a meditation where you imagine three persons sitting in front of you: a friend, an enemy and a stranger. He says to contemplate first the friend, imagining her newly born and covered in blood, following through her toddler years, adolescence, what she was like before she knew you; to picture her as someone who has her own values and thoughts and who treasures them in the same way you do your own. Imagine her aging and dying, her whole life span. Then do the same with the enemy, then with the stranger, until you have before you not a friend, an enemy and a stranger, but three fellow human beings, 'equal in birth and death.'

Are you able, even for a moment, to witness these people in all their autonomy, mystery, majesty, tragedy? Can you see them as ends in their own right rather than means to your ends? Can you notice the restrictive and selective nature of the image you have formed of them? Can you let go of the craving to embrace the friend and banish the enemy? Can you love the stranger?

This message is not a new one, obviously. Most world traditions teach us to look at our fellow human beings as equals and to see our common bonds, to rise above our petty concerns. But can we do it? It's so hard to step outside my perceptions, to release this notion of, as Batchelor calls it, a 'fixed, immutable nugget of self at the core of experience.' It's this self-absorbed, deluded little 'nugget' that causes so much trouble!

What I perceive as my self is no more real than my perceptions of others. The self that I so nurture and cherish and protect is in actuality an ever-changing manifestation of a matrix of conditions, cultural and biological. Unique, yes, but not something existing in its own right. So if I am not what I perceive myself to be, how can others be what this self attempts to perceive them to be? It's all delusion, based on craving to avoid pain and always get what we want, to never sicken, or be in pain either physical or emotional, and to never die. We all build up these defenses in our heads, this idea that we are independent individuals, that there are people and things on our side and people and things that are against us. But that's the not the truth of the matter. The truth is, not only are we not independent, we also cannot protect ourselves against any of the things we spend so much energy trying to ward off. It's all a big fantasy.

Other people are no more the beings that I have created in my imagination than I am. The image I have created of others stems from the big fantasy inside my head.

That's a good thing to remember.

Batchelor urges us to 'persistently challenge the validity of the emotionally charged images by which we define others.'

Even if other people are behaving poorly toward us as a result of the fantasy going on in their own heads, that doesn't mean we have to respond in kind, or form a perception of them based on our emotional responses to their behavior. It doesn't mean we have to condone or excuse their behavior, either, or even pretend to understand it.

This is a lot to take in, and I'm not sure I've done a good job expressing it, but I know I need to remember this in my daily life when dealing with people, and thinking about it is giving me a new meaning to the lines from the Metta Sutta: 'By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, is not born again into this world.'

May all beings be at ease.


santiago said...

I will try to get this book and read it, sounds interesting. I liked this line "We are free to choose how to perceive the world" sounds silly but holds so much true. If we could keep this fact present in mind things would be different...

Morandia said...

"Upon reflection, we may discover that no matter how strongly we feel about a person, that feeling is often based entirely on an image we have formed of him. . .By suspending our judgments, we are able to look at the person from a fresh perspective."

wow... that one really hits home -especially after a heartbreak. He did fit the image I had preconceived, but the question is - did he fit that image really or did he fit it because I thought he fit it.