Monday, February 7, 2011

The Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad presents us with dire and compelling images of ‘what evil lurks in the hearts of men1’, exploring in his turn of the century novel, Heart of Darkness, geographic, political, and very personal levels of malevolence. His setting, the ‘dark continent’ (as Africa continued to be called) and Western human rights atrocities are examined through the eyes of Conrad’s naïve, but increasingly questioning narrator as he seeks out the shadowy Kurtz, the anti-hero of Heart of Darkness, a rogue ivory trader consumed by his self-aggrandizing needs, greed, and lack of compassion – ego, in the context of last week’s posting. (Think Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.)

Gandhi describes having ‘only three enemies’: the British Empire, the Indian people, and himself. He ranks these three adversaries, in order of the challenge they represent to him and, counter-intuitively, places himself at the top of this list, pleading little or no influence over ‘him’.

Shared in the above is the, again perhaps counter-instinctive view that the ‘heart of the matter’ lies not outside of ourselves, but within. And our challenge is less in identifying and cataloguing our ‘enemies’ transgressions, strategizing means of, at best protecting ourselves, at worst revenging the insult / attack; and more in cultivating means of self-examination and compassion. Rather lofty goals!

My mentor and friend, John Heider, in his re-working of the Tao Te Ching, offers a simple, first response to ‘encounters’ – a 1970’s euphemism for an attack. He suggests reacting to criticism or challenge in a manner that will shed light on the event; remaining centered and viewing the encounter as a ‘dance’, not a threat to one’s ego or existence. But just how might one approach this prescription?

A useful mindfulness practice – and starting point -- is contained in the Metta meditation, often translated as a ‘loving-kindness’ or ‘loving-friendliness’ meditation. The process is very much like peeling an onion. . . in reverse. At its core, it represents a simple recitation of blessings, compassionate affirmations and assertions, and, as the translation indicates, kindnesses. It begins, however, by directing our attention to ourselves, the ‘heart’ of the onion; then progressively working out through the layers to the ‘really difficult folk’ in the outer rings, our enemies. Jack Kornfield describes this process as ‘stopping the war within’ – before we address the war without. The intent is to purify, forgive, and accept ourselves (our hearts) – well before we take on the really big and long-entrenched challenges of those with whom we struggle.

As a preparation for this form of mindfulness practice, you might try a simple exercise as follows:
- Take a cleansing breath or two.
- After settling, think back over your recent life experience and identify two good deeds you’ve done.
- As you examine each of these deeds, consider how their performance affected your consciousness, how they made you feel, the impact on others, the ‘after-glow’, the resolutions that may have followed.
- Consider the precursors of these two acts, what led up to them, what choices you made that facilitated, allowed these actions. How did you get there?
- Consider the ‘unconditionality’ of these actions. Were they ‘agenda-free’? Performed without expectation of ‘repayment’.

Metta is intended to address ‘how the heart acts’, fostering simple, compassionate, perhaps altruistic, and connecting (with others) / unifying awarenesses; in place of divisive, alienating, isolating, perhaps vindictive or acquisitive postures. In essence the intent is to ‘train the puppy’, in Kornfield’s parlance, replacing a set of counterproductive behaviours with more salutary ones. The goal is to not merely suppress the former behaviours – but to substitute generosity for greed; benevolence for hatred / resentment; compassion for self-absorbing, self-serving behaviours. Cancelling undesirable behaviours with desirable ones. It’s not very effective to pronounce ‘bad dog’ – without offering a viable alternative.

The process is a simple one – as are most things associated with mindfulness. As you begin your sit, having settled and centered, recite to yourself a variation on the following cycle of affirmations / intentions:

May I be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to me. May no difficulties come to me. May no problems come to me. May I also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, failures in life.

Then progress to the next ‘layer’: May my family. . .

Then on to my teachers. . . my friends. . .my neighbours. . .all persons who are strangers. . .my enemies. . .all living beings.

Like most contemplative activities, this simple recitation is not intended as ‘intercessory’; neither requesting, nor even expecting all these desirable states to appear in our lives – just because we asked for them. The intention is to subtly and regularly – even each time we sit – to adjust our ‘heart’ to a more open and compassionate posture.

Next week: Right speech, the transition of loving-kindness into the other 23 ½ hours. (Read any good P G Wodehouse lately?)

1The Shadow knows. . .

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