Weekend Meditation ~ On Cherishing Others

cherishing others


When we shift our focus away from ourselves,

we can experience a sense of liberation and peace.

by Katy Brennan

I recently wrote about meditating on the kindness of others and how it helps develop a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude. While we are considering how completely we depend upon others for our very existence, we may notice something profound. In turning our attention away from ourselves and toward others, our hearts may lighten and lift, and we may feel a sense of freedom and expansiveness that deepens the more we contemplate the importance and preciousness of others.

According to Buddha’s teachings, there is a simple (though perhaps not so simply understood) reason for this. In our ordinary, unenlightened state, we have a strong tendency to focus on ourselves in a painful way, even if we are not suffering. This phenomenon is called “self cherishing” and is considered a “delusion” in Buddhism. What makes self-cherishing a delusion is not the “cherishing,” it’s the “self” with which we are identifying: an independently existing, inherent self, one that feels fixed and isolated from others.

If we investigate, we realize that there is no self that is independent of others. Without “other” there can be no “self.” Yet we are constantly under the influence of what Buddhists refer to as “self-grasping” and tend to perceive all phenomenon, including (and most significantly) ourselves, as existing separately, in a fixed state.

In reality we, like all phenomena, are a “dependent arising” relying on others for our very existence. This is why, when we focus on this independent self, “looking out for number one,” we feel some pain. When we perceive ourselves as dependent upon and deeply connected to others, we see clearly and with wisdom, and thus feel a sense of harmony and inner peace. We’re tuning in to a more enlightened state.

If when we consider others we feel pain, we need to look more closely at the actual source of that pain. We may think, “There are people starving” and feel compassion. But along with it, we also experience a sense of hopelessness or helplessness because we personally cannot possibly feed everyone. Where is that pain coming from? Compassion? No. The pain is coming from this limited sense of a self not able to fix things.

Pure compassion for others and a wish that they be free from suffering feels good. When we bring ourselves, and our perceived limitations, into the picture, we introduce pain. In our meditation we can think, “Others are important and their suffering matters to me” and then generate a wish that they may be happy and free from suffering. Just for a few moments, we can leave ourselves out of the picture and see how that feels. It takes practice.

Cherishing ourselves over others comes so naturally, and is so culturally reinforced and encouraged, we may need to engage in this meditation many times to cultivate any meaningful regard for others that will resonate in our daily lives.

In fact, according to Buddha’s teachings, the habitual self-centered focus is the source of all our suffering. In an important twelfth-century root text entitled Training the Mind in Seven Points, the great Tibetan bodhisattva  Geshe Chekhawa includes the line “Gather all blame into one.” By this he means that all suffering comes from the self-cherishing mind.

In the classic eighth-century Buddhist poem, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva puts it this way: “All the happiness there is in this world arises from wishing others to be happy, and all the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing ourself to be happy.”

In terms of active compassion and kindness, Mother Teresa saw this deep connection to others as a direct relationship to the Divine. “People are often unreasonable and self-centered.” She said, “Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

Like Buddha, she is saying, in essence, that we ought to open our hearts without concern for a self who may not be treated well or be highly regarded by others. If we are tuned in to a deeper truth, the good we do for others is not about reciprocity for ourselves. If we cherish others purely, and hold them dear in our hearts, we touch on something far more important than ourselves; something that transcends the very idea of self. Isn’t this the essence of spirituality?

Share your comments below.

Katy Brennan teaches Buddhist meditation in New York City and writes frequently on dharma and spirituality. Check out her previous Weekend Meditation column here.

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