May/June 2005 Spirituality
|Marc Ian Barasch|
Life offers up its own daily catechism, even if it's just seeing people in a little better light. Why not just resolve to give everyone the benefit of the doubt? "If we treat people as they ought to be," said Goethe, almost nailing it, "we help them become what they are capable of becoming." Or more to the point: Treat them as they already are, if we but had the Good Eye to see it.
Once, at a conference, I noticed a man striding toward me, his face alight. He seemed really happy to see me, but I didn't have a clue who he was. When he got closer, he pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, peered at my face, looked down at my nametag, took a step back.
"I'm so sorry," he said, embarrassed. "You looked just like a friend I haven't seen for years. You even have the same first name ... so when someone pointed you out. . ." He trailed off; the effusive warmth seeped away. I told him it was fine. His Good Eye had enveloped me in a gaze of anticipatory delight that made me feel golden. We wound up having lunch. He told me about his research (which coincidentally dovetailed with my own); he talked about the happiness and sorrows of raising a young daughter with multiple sclerosis (for everyone is fighting a great battle). We still stay in touch.
Maybe we should all take off our glasses and hope for more cases of mistaken identity. For that matter, it might be unmistaken. Why not welcome everyone as some long-lost cousin, sprung from our African mother, bumping into each other again after a fifty-thousand-year separation. Wonderful to see you after all this time -- you look great!
A friend of mine, a psychologist, works as a counselor to the obdurate, lethal men at Arkansas's infamous Tucker Max prison. She's well aware that most people look at her clients and see only dregs -- "ugly toothless hulks," as she puts it -- but she claims she can only see "radiant bulbs with these big lampshades blocking the light. I know they're supposed to be 'untreatable psychopaths,' but I feel like, Oh, take that fright-mask off! It could come off in two seconds!" It sounds absurd, but she's remarkably successful. In her presence, the toughest nuts crack wide-open; even their wary, death-row warders let down their guard and cry. She has an x-ray vision that goes straight to the human core.
"It's like there's this horribly thick suit of armor," she explains, trying to make me see it through her eyes, "and I know someone's trapped inside, so how do we get them out?" I ask her why she even bothers. "The joy!" she says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "Just the joy of being with people when they show up as they really are."
If we can't see who people really are, say possessors of the Good Eye, it's just our ordinary eye playing tricks on us, focusing on differences and defects, blind to deeper connection. If we mistake each other for strangers, it's just blurry vision. The Good Eye is the corrective to Einstein's "optical delusion of consciousness." As with the rearview mirror that cautions Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear, we might be closer, much closer, than we think.
The sixteenth-century Tibetan meditation master Wangchuk Dorje recommended a practice he called "the Activity of Being in Crowds." Walking through a throng, he said, is a "good opportunity to check your progress and examine the delusions, attachments, and aversions that arise." I find the bustle of a mall an especially good place to check my Good Eye for jaundice. It's not just the plenitude of people, but of everything under that fluorescent sun that pushes our buttons. With everything winking merrily, beckoning with comeons for instant gratification, and mirrors, mirrors everywhere (it is all about me, after all!), I go into a sort of mall trance. The mind itself gets into the spirit of things, hawking its tawdrier wares; my finicky responses to the goods on display merge with my reactions to the people I pass -- little covetous twinges, subtle flickers of attitude, petty judgments on how people walk, talk, dress, and chew gum. And here a surge of superiority, there a deflating thought of inadequacy; here a lurch of desire for a sleek, well turned-out woman, there a picador's lance of envy at her undeserving boyfriend in the slobby polo shirt.
I return from these shopping expeditions with a discount grab-bag of those feelings the spiritual traditions agree most occlude compassion. I'm collecting a set of action figures based on Augustine's deadly sins (and can we just define sins as "biggest obstacles to selfless love"?). Yesterday I snagged Mammon, avarice (a Buddhist would call him tanha, craving), and today my favorite, Leviathan, jealousy, complete with light-up green eyes.
The Koran describes jealousy as a "veil" that beclouds the eye of the heart. Jealousy turns other people into sources of resentment: If I had what you have, Leviathan croaks mechanically when I push the little oval button in his back, then I would be happy. Jealousy tints everyone in bilious shades of envy. It presents a perfect paradigm of insufficiency: I am less because you are more. It's a zero-sum game. Jealousy's only hope is that the other person will be diminished, imagining that would free up proportionately more for itself. (It extends all the way to that uniquely German coinage, schadenfreude, gloating over another's misfortune, the Good Eye turned into the Evil Eye itself.)
But just as there are emotional toxins, there are also antidotes, remedies, what the apothecaries of yore called specifies. In Buddhism, the supreme medicine for envy is said to be mudita, or "sympathetic joy," which calls on us to feel happy about another's success. Easy enough when it comes to rejoicing for those we really care about: Every parent kvells over their kid's triumphs; a teacher exults when her favorite student aces the math exam. But to expand this feeling from a narrow circle to a wider arena is like pulling wisdom teeth.
I once witnessed an exchange between a Tibetan lama and a questioner on this subject. "Rinpoche," inquired a pleasant middle-aged man in a checked sport shirt, "I adore my son. He's a linebacker for his high school football team. I find myself rooting for him to just cream the opposing quarterback. Is there anything wrong with that?"
"Of course not," the lama replied. "You love your son, and you want his happiness, and he's happy when he beats the other team. This is only natural."
There was an audible sigh of relief in the room. The spiritual path may be challenging, but it's not unreasonable.
The man smiled. "Thank you, Rinpoche," he said, making a brisk little folding gesture with his hands.
The lama laughed sharply. "I was only joking! Actually, this is not at all the right attitude. In fact," he said, glancing at the man mischievously, "a good practice for you would be to root for the other team. See them winning, see them happy, see their parents overjoyed. That is more the bodhisattva way." The man thanked him again, this time with an ironic groan at a homework assignment that stretched past football season.
I have a wildly successful acquaintance next to whose perfectly pillowed existence mine seems a lumpy mattress. I've seen him on magazine covers, a self-satisfied, cock-of-the-walk, air-brushed grin on his face. Even worse, he's in my field, though he does ever so much better (sell-out!). I've been training myself, as an antidote to a fulminating case of green-eye, that whenever I feel that little twitch of envy, I wish for more bluebirds of happiness to come sit on his eaves. "Don't you mean," asks a cynical friend, "come shit on his sleeves?" But the fact is, my good wishes provide an unexpected sense of relief. It's an unknotting, expansive feeling, as if what's his and what's mine suddenly, metaphysically, belong to both of us and to neither. I recently came across a line from Yoko Ono: "Transform jealousy to admiration / And what you admire / Will become part of your life." Maybe she did break up the Beatles, but I think she's onto something.
Don't believe me? Try it for yourself. Root for the other team. Visualize someone who makes you envious -- someone who squats smug as a toad in what is surely your rightful place in the world. Think of them in all their irritating splendor, enjoying the perks and accolades you no doubt deserve. Then ... wish sincerely that they get even more goodies.
Isn't this the mortal sin of "low self-esteem"? Well, not exactly; it's more like a metaphysical jujitsu. In rooting for someone else's happiness, we tune to a different wavelength. We feel more beneficent, less deprived, more capable of giving. The focus on another person's satisfaction becomes a lodestone that paradoxically draws us closer to our own. (Isn't most envy just our own potential disowned? We are jealous of what we ourselves might become.) Seeing the world through another's eyes (you in me, me in you) makes it feel there's at least twice as much to go around; not more money or fame or square footage, but what underlies the whole pursuit: more love.
It could be argued this approach might work in a monastery or on a mountaintop, but not in the hurly-burly of real life, where the game is tooth-and-nail and rooting for your own team is what keeps the opposition from eating you alive. I recently saw a quote from mega- mogul and master of the Squinty Eye, Donald 'I'rump, extolling the benefits of pure paranoia: "People you think are your friends in business will take your money, your wife, your pets ... Life's a vicious place. No different than a jungle." Yet I've met people who swim in the piranha-infested corporate waters for whom the Good Eye has not only been good karma, but good business.
Excerpt from Field Notes on the Compassionate Life
by Marc Ian Barasch
Published by Rodale; March 2005;$24.95US/$35.95CAN. Copyright © 2005 Marc Ian Barasch. For more information, visit www.compassionatelife.com