“Often we show more kindness to others, even complete strangers on the street, than we do to ourselves.”
I was at a place grandly called “The Shambhala Meditation Center of New York.” In the ordinary course of things, the pleasant young man who uttered those words would have been tending to his administrative duties. Yesterday, though, perhaps because someone else was running late, still wearing his tie and pushing up his coat sleeves, he sat cross-legged on a cushion in front of our class and introduced us to meditation in this particular tradition.
His instructions conformed more or less to this:
[T]he complete teaching of Buddhism is how to re-discover who we are … This is what we call the journey or the path: continuously trying to recognize that we can actually relax and be who we are. So practicing meditation begins by simplifying everything. We sit on the cushion, follow our breath and watch our thoughts. We simplify our whole situation … What we’re doing is taming our mind … How we tame the mind is by using the technique of mindfulness. Quite simply, mindfulness is compete attention to detail. We are completely absorbed in the fabric of life, the fabric of the moment … We might feel that thinking about the past or the future makes our life richer, but by not paying attention to the immediate situation we are actually missing our life. …
Who we are, according to these Buddhists, is basically good. Good in what sense? Think of the sun! Warm, whole, life-sustaining. Think also of wisdom, confidence, compassion, goodwill toward ourselves and others.
Can that be right? I have it on good authority from ministers and Sunday School teachers in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church — the wonderfully enlightened* Protestant denomination with which I was affiliated in my childhood — that basic badness, not goodness, is the human condition. Granted, some of us are worse than others. Jews, I was taught, are obviously badder but actually (since, after all, Jesus was himself a Jew) Catholics are the baddest. (Because Catholics worship Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. And for other reasons which I was given to understand a child did not need to know. Atheists I don’t recall ever being mentioned. The very notion was incomprehensible, I suppose, or too shocking to bring up in polite company.)
But Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, we’re all rotten to the core.
So that’s one element of the personal context in which I was hearing this young man’s instructions (“Be a friend to yourself!” Oh good grief.). Another element is noblesse oblige. You know, the notion that people of a higher rank have obligations of generosity and kindness and setting-a-good-example to those of lower rank. I grew up with that, too.
And what I began to realize yesterday, as I tried to be open-minded, is that the combination of the two — original sin and noblesse oblige — is really rather ugly. At one level, it has this implication: I am worthless while the rest of you, I am required to believe, merit help, kindness, guidance, patience, compassion, etc. At a deeper level, it has this implication: my real vocation in life, putting aside all that pretense of self-sacrifice and duty to others, is to ensure my own salvation, in furtherance of which my good works on your behalf may provide some assistance. (So thanks for being needy! A big help to me!)
Somewhere in the literature I was given I found a seemingly paradoxical Buddhist claim, namely, that by becoming a friend to yourself, you can become less self-involved. In other words, to know yourself is to forget yourself.
That sounds about right. Or righter than the other. Open mind, open mind, open mind. Even if the suggestion that I re-discover who I really am makes me feel very slightly nauseous.
*The aforementioned enlightenment of the ARPs is made abundantly clear in the following position statements, which I take directly from their unapologetic website:
- In Christian love we declare that God’s Word clearly forbids homosexual practice as a sin against God. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ we affirm our obligation to show Christian love and concern for homosexuals, and call them to repentance, cleansing, and deliverance in the saving power of Jesus Christ.
- The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches.
- Women as Elders and Ministers?—The qualifications for serving as an elder or minister are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Because the qualifications are phrased in male terms and because of the teaching in the previous chapter (1 Timothy 2:11-15) that “a woman is not to teach or to have authority over a man,” the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has rightly concluded that Scripture does not permit women to serve in the office of elder, and that the role of spiritually authoritative teaching and discipline in the church is reserved for male leadership. (N.B. The challenge to the biblical doctrine of male headship that is part of the argument for the ordination of women to the eldership poses a potentially devastating threat to the family structure.)
By the way, isn’t it remarkable how well a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, selectively applied, justifies a person’s conviction that homosexual “practice” is sinful and that a woman’s place is in the home?