There’s a story passed around about Karl Barth. I don’t know if it is a true story, but it’s the kind of story that tells the truth, whether it happened or not. The setup is simple: the community is asking pressing questions of the theologian. One concerned and earnest woman asks, “Is it true that we’ll see our loved ones again in heaven?” It feels clear that this question was about the existence and nature of the afterlife. So - “Is it true that we’ll see our loved ones again in heaven?” And the doctor replies, “Not only the loved ones.”
“But,” I can hear some folks saying, “in heaven, we’ll all be changed! It will be easy to love each other there, because everything will be perfect!” And that is what always catches my attention; this aspiration is something we can work with, even in the here and now. The ability to imagine a world, even a heaven, where people can joyfully and peacefully live in community is one of the defining features that makes us human. Dr. Samuel Paul Veissière wrote that:
“Altruism, cooperation, and caring for the vulnerable is what made our species unique. It is empathy and cooperation, not self-interest and competition, that drove our physiological, cognitive, linguistic, cultural, social, and technological evolution. We wouldn’t be the large-brained, neurally-plastic, intelligent, cumulatively-learning, empathetic beings that we are without the mutual help that characterizes our everyday interactions. Our evolutionary history is one of collective child-rearing, cooperative hunting and gathering, caring for elders and the sick, and freely sharing information.”
This is, as he described it, a “collective miracle” that came “before we domesticated plants and animals and settled in cities,” connecting us to each other across geography and history. This capacity is obviously not a guarantee. The injustice and suffering that has characterized the last several thousand years of human history and today’s headlines demonstrate that clearly enough. As Veissière pointed out, we have other capacities, too, that can lead us astray. For example,
“We behave according to the way we expects others to expect us to behave in any given context. This is a highly complex embodied cognitive operation that we engage in without conscious effort in all but the most trying of everyday actions, from knowing how and where to sit on a bus or waiting room to ignoring the homeless or experiencing xenophobic shivers. Bystander experiments in social psychology have shed ominous light on this angle on our social minds: as strange as it may seem, someone being harassed in public is more likely to be helped by a stranger if there are less people around; if the collective mode of attention is one of callousness and ignorance, breaking that spell becomes counter-intuitive and very difficult for all involved.”
So when this is the case, what can we do when our social norms have come to embody injustice, oppression, and violence? First, let’s remember that there is no virtue in staying in unhealthy, especially abusive, relationships and communities. And you cannot coerce yourself into having trust or gratitude. But we hold this caution alongside our capacity for cooperative, kind relationships. And we use the wisdom of both to learn how to establish wellbeing in ourselves and healthy relationships with others. This “both” aspect is very important. We aren’t pretending that there aren’t ways for this to go wrong, or that we can guarantee that we won’t hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally. But by honestly looking at and learning from how community can become unhealthy, we can be intentional about cultivating the skills we need to make those wounds less likely, and to heal from them when they do occur. And we know it is worth our effort, because we also recognize that capacity within and between us for cooperative, kind relationships. And we understand how important and joyful it is to have those kinds of relationships.
One of my favorite reminders of how we can practice this comes from the Buddha. In a teaching called “The Bonds of Fellowship,” he described four “grounds” or habits that nurture healthy, mutually caring relationships:
“Generosity, kind words, beneficial help,
& consistency in the face of events,
in line with what's appropriate
in each case, each case.
These bonds of fellowship [function] in the world
like the linchpin in a moving cart.”
(AN 4.32, tr. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The linchpin is what prevented a chariot wheel from sliding off the axle and causing the cart to crash. It’s a small part that plays a big role. It doesn’t matter how wonderful and fancy the chariot is, it will come apart without the linchpin. That is the role of our practice in maintaining healthy relationships, helping us relate to our suffering in a more skillful way and create conditions that support compassion and wisdom.
Generosity is something that is easy for us to take for granted, especially in an age where more and more of our interactions are reduced to transactions. We very easily lose touch of how we are part of the complex web of life, both wellbeing and suffering. Losing that awareness, it is easy to get lost and miss how generosity is a vital part of building relationships. Generosity is an opportunity for us to recognize our mutual dependence and intentionally connect this with our empathy and kindness. I often think about a short teaching the Buddha gave that, “even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings.” Recognizing and naming the value of our generosity and mutuality is also part of the practice. It connects us. We learn to listen to each other, understand what our needs are, find ways to meet those needs together, and celebrate. Generosity allows us to cultivate mutuality and solidarity, so that community can flourish. And we directly experience how our wellbeing is bound together.
Reflecting on “Kind words” is a remembrance that communication is not neutral. As Thich Nhat Hanh taught, “Every time we communicate, we either produce more compassion, love, and harmony or we produce more suffering and violence. Our communication is what we put out into the world and what remains after we have left it.” (The Art of Communicating) Every time we speak is an opportunity to express care or contempt, and to build cultures and communities of care or contempt. When we carry with us a deep remembrance that “words can create happiness or suffering,” we can increasingly use our words as a gift. By paying attention to how our words impact one another, we become more skillful in choosing what to say and when to say it in a way that helps, instead of hurts.
Practicing “beneficial help” is an invitation to not just give a helping hand, but also to encourage each other in developing virtue, kindness, and wisdom. We take the time to learn how to 1) refrain from hurting one another and 2) actively support one another’s wellbeing. This is another example of how our wellbeing is bound up together. Restraining from harming and supporting wellbeing are vital skills, and they depend on our ability to pay attention and practice discernment. Discernment depends on the relationship we have with our experiences, ourselves, each other, and impacts. When I teach meditation, one of the most common questions I hear is, "am I doing this right?" This is fine, except that it often is connected to a very antagonistic relationship with our experience. We get stuck in a loop of approval and disapproval, praise and blame, without ever giving ourselves the opportunity to understand our needs and our experiences. This is not beneficial help.
So I try to help people shift more into the question, "what happens when I do it this way?" Pay attention; does this lead to well-being in myself, others, and the world? Or to suffering? Start training the heart-mind in these small, more neutral moments. Learn how wisdom and compassion can arise naturally with discernment. Restraint is not difficult when it arises out of discernment and a commitment to non-harming. And acting with the confidence born of discernment empowers us to more fully be present with and enjoy what we choose to do. We also know that, if a hurt does arise, we have the tools we need to notice and address it, and to do so before it grows so large as to become intractable. This allows us to be more relaxed and present with ourselves and each other.
In another teaching, the way we treat one another is also connected to gratitude. Put simply, “A person of integrity is grateful & thankful.” This is a wonderful insight: we can’t separate gratitude from ethics. If we are really paying attention, we begin to understand how much our ability to live ethically is connected to the decisions that others make. If a feeling of self-righteousness is developing in us, that we are somehow separate from or better than others, that’s a sign that we need to pause. There is ultimately no way for me to cultivate my wellbeing at the expense of your wellbeing, and there is no way for you to cultivate your wellbeing at the expense of my wellbeing. Our wellbeing depends on one another. If we cultivate awareness of this, then when the conditions are supportive for virtue, generosity, compassion, and wisdom, we will naturally feel gratitude. We just need to learn to pay attention.
And we do all this consistently, over time. This isn’t haphazard; it is a habit. And it is the consistency that allows it to become something real. In each situation we find ourselves in, we discern the most skillful way to respond, “in line with what’s appropriate in each case”. In time, these choices become cultures and processes that support wellbeing.
Saying all this, we realize that community is a practice and, again, there are no guarantees. We know what it feels like to be crushed by injustice, wounded by conflict, traumatized by violence and abuse. Sometimes, there is no linchpin and the only path for us is to go our separate ways, to break a cycle of harm, hopefully before the wheel flies off the axle. There is pain in that, but also peace and even some happiness. This is a very hopeful and practical approach, even when our family relationships are not ideal, and even when our parents, partners, or children are strained or even broken. We are helping create conditions where the possibility of healthy, wise relationships is something real, and that is a great gift and a cause for happiness. Our growing wellbeing becomes an invitation and an example that invites others to cultivate wellbeing – because, again, our wellbeing is bound up together.
This is something we can do. It is part of our deep history, the gift of unfathomable millennia of evolution: “collective child-rearing, cooperative hunting and gathering, caring for elders and the sick, and freely sharing information.” We can be intentional about consistently practicing generosity, kind words, and beneficial help. We can reconnect with these evolutionary roots, both honoring all that is good and healing all the harm that we inherited from our ancestors. We might not ever make this a heaven on earth, but we can surely make it a lot less like hell.