For a number of decades, we have lived in a world where food and other resources have became increasingly available, but when things in general are going relatively well, we may not realize that we are lacking a critical psychological nutrient for human wellbeing.
Chapter 4 of the World Happiness Report 2023 describes how acts of kindness, particularly when they are unexpected, create warm feelings of happiness in actors, receivers and even in observing bystanders. It goes on to note that happy people are more likely to do acts of kindness, thus spreading happiness even further.
Perhaps some form of the “golden rule” is so universal precisely because we need to be reminded about how much benefit acts of kindness provide. Acts of kindness, especially when unexpected, tend to have a bigger positive impact than we may realize according to “Kindness Goes Farther Than You Think” by Amit Kumar (Scientific American, April, 2023).
Ironically, our human tendency to respond to crises with acts of kindness is contributing to greaterhappiness in our troubled world according to the World Happiness Report.
It was the beautiful design that first caught my interest. Online research revealed that this “taka” was made by the Ngadha tribe, who live on the island of Flores, in Indonesia. And although I read various theories, I would not be surprised if only the Ngadha know the taka’s true meaning and uses.
I was also intrigued by the fact that members of the Ngadha think of themselves first as “we” (not “I”) – a bit like how the taka includes two equal parts joined in intimate connection. Placing primacy on a first person plural identity is evidently quite rare among human cultures. That’s a bit surprising given how much we humans have always been dependent on each other for our very survival.
“individual independence is not a coveted state of being; rather being singular plural is the principal mode of existence. In this context, the nua is the central heartland for the spatial and material expression of clan unity, although the emotions of being singular plural transcend time and space….Ngadha practices of interdependence are reflected in the community economy, which privileges Ancestor worship, community cohesion and group distribution of resources above the needs and desires of the individual….Interdependence is a dominant feature of everyday Ngadha life and organization. Ngadha people’s view of their own society involves a sense of self that questions the conceptual separation of self from others. Frequently, people alerted me to the ways in which everyone and everything is connected.”
Intentionally working to form groups that provide a sense of belonging and adopt a “we” perspective (as is true of many religious communities, for example) seems particularly wise in perilous times like our own. At a minimum, that could provide access to a broader range of perspectives as well as to useful instrumental support. I tend to agree with those who argue that social capital can be very valuable even when other resources are not available.
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. “
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.1967 Christmas Sermon on Peace
Periods of walking meditation alternated with silent seated practice during a silent 7-day women’s retreat. Christina Feldman suggested that we might find it easier to sustain concentration during walking meditation as that was closer to our experience in the West. But, for some reason, I did not expect that to apply to me.
At first I walked all over the place to familiarize myself with the layout of the corridors and buildings of the retreat center. When I came across some stairs leading down to the laundry facilities, I decided I might as well get some exercise. Then I remembered – walking meditation is not supposed to be goal-oriented.
I noticed women walking back and forth in a lovely light-filled “walking meditation room” with many windows and lovely polished wood floors. I joined them walking in my lane by a large potted plant.
Suddenly, it was as if somebody turned up a dial; the newly felt intimacy with moment to moment experience had a quality like floating through space and time. Perhaps this was what Goldstein meant in describing an awareness that was “inwardly steadied, composed and unified. This is … concentration that is calm and refined, achieving increasing levels of mental purification” (page 276, Mindfulness; A practical guide to awakening).
As I walked to the meditation hall for the next period of silent sitting, it occurred to me that it might be possible to simply let go. Later I shared my dawning awareness that, “All we need to do is let go into the present moment” with one of the retreat teachers. Pointing a finger at me, she said “That’s it! It is simple but not so easy, as we all know.” Goldstein notes, “liberation is not about becoming or getting, not about holding on or craving or clinging, but about letting go and letting be” (p. 306).
Although I often get lost in planning and dreaming during my nightly sitting meditation, it is clear that this way to weed my “garden” has benefits that show up in daily life – greater openness, softness, and acceptance as well as appreciation and gratitude. I find it easier to sustain attention during more active relational mindfulness practices such as Insight Dialogue. And there is something special about bringing all the “let go” awareness I can muster to my daily walks in a nearby woodsy park where I find wonder in how much we can relate to other life forms and for that matter, to whole ecosystems, which have their own valuable lessons to teach us.
The Heart Sutra calligraphy on this plate called out to me. This sutra is central to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that still flourishes in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and China as well as parts of India and Nepal. In more recent times, Mahayana Buddhism has also spread to the Americas and Europe.
Commentaries suggest the Heart Sutra’s wisdom fosters compassion and harmony, and that it can make fear drop away. I like this modern chanted version very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=958qchBNs60&t=56s. One of many English translations appears below:
Heart SutraTranslation by the Kuan Um School of Zen.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita perceives that all five skandhas are empty and is saved from all suffering and distress.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.
The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease.
Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.
No ignorance and also no extinction of it, and so forth until no old age and death and also no extinction of them.
No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.
The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in Nirvana.
In the three worlds all Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.
Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is the great transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra which is able to relieve all suffering and is true, not false. So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra which says: