Nothing human is alien to me

October 26, 2017 Ian White Maher 4 comments

I am a human, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.Terence, Heauton Timorumenos
This poetic phrase lends itself to cocktail parties and moments of solidarity, but, for me, this line is most important to remember when I am busy finding fault in others—which is a good portion of my day.
Earlier this month, I moved back into the Cambridge Zen Center after a 15-year hiatus. I lived here for two and a half years while in seminary. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To live at CZC a person must commit to a minimum of 10 hours of practice a week. The treasure and the trial of this much practice is that you really get to see your thinking very clearly. And, in my case, it is not all that pretty.

I actually believe this process of seeing our thinking is the main reason most people stop their meditation practice. It is not that the discipline is actually that hard. I mean, all you’re doing is sitting. But what we’re presented with is the raw reality of our thinking, which, more often than not, is fairly crazy. Over and over again we are presented with the fantasies our mind loves to entertain. And they are selfish, angry, greedy, lust-filled and self-righteous. It can be a lot. Sometimes I get up from the cushion and all I have to say is, Whew.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that people get exhausted by consciously seeing the state of their minds and want to stop. Like Cypher from the Matrix, we long to go back to how it was before we understood how crazy our thinking really is. Often we make up excuses like, I am too busy or I don’t have the discipline. Very rarely do we say, I stopped because I just didn’t enjoy seeing how frenetic and judgmental my thinking is. Or I stopped because I was making myself uncomfortable.

The fantasies of my mind can be very seductive. There is a certain power I feel when I am clinging to an anger fantasy or a self-righteous fantasy. Even if I know that the power I feel in that moment is not real and masking a deeper feeling of powerlessness or shame. Still, those fantasies call out to me like Sirens on the rocks and I want to listen. I love the indulgence of entertaining them.

And I don’t love it. It can also be painful to see how they make me feel.

Taking time to see your mind while sitting on a meditation cushion is helpful in that it also allows you to see your mind as you move through the world. Identifying the thinking habits of selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and self-righteousness while in a state of concentration and focus helps me identify them elsewhere as well. My mind does not have these fantasies solely when I am trying to meditate. They are running either in the foreground or the background all the time, but usually I am distracted and don’t notice that they are running and affecting my behavior.

The discipline of meditation allows me to become very familiar with this thinking. By clearing out all of the other distractions, I come face to face with my mind and we become intimate in a new way, a conscious way. I begin to see patterns, which helps me as I move through the world of humans. When I find myself wanting to treat another human being, animal, or the planet a certain way I have the opportunity to recognize the familiarity, the intimacy, cultivated in meditation see my selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and self-righteousness.

This can be very frustrating. I would like to be someone who leaves the world in a better condition than how I inherited it. But on my dark days, I see my thinking…and I see this thinking playing out in millions of other people…and I say there is no hope for me, for us. I feel trapped behind this wall of thoughts and behaviors I wish I didn’t have and I don’t want to meditate because I don’t want to see the state of my mind. Claiming ignorance or living with illusions just seems easier.

But on my brighter days, I am able to engage with this line from Terence and find compassion, not just for myself, but more importantly for others.

I am a human, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.

This line cuts through the deception of my uniqueness. The fault I find in others…well, that fault is hardly alien to me. The motivations of other people driven by the thinking habits of selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and self-righteousness…well, I understand those motivations intimately. And it is here that I am able to be helpful.

The hard work of meditation affords me the opportunity to see the motivations of my thinking, which offers me a choice on how I want to behave. It also gives me an opening through which to see myself in the behaviors of others and to recognize that I am not that different (if at all) from them. There are behaviors of others that I don’t like and there are behaviors of others that create harm, but by seeing my own motivations I am able to respond to each of them appropriately.

Meditation has never been easy for me, mostly because I don’t enjoy how it can make me feel. And harm reduction is not the sexiest reason to do the practice. The fantasies of a blissful experience sound much better. But those have rarely been part of my practice. But I stay committed because the one change I can make in the world begins with learning about my own thinking. Without this I have very little choice on how to behave because the fantasies of selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and self-righteousness dominate my thinking, even when I don’t know they are.

I do believe there is a more beautiful world possible for us, for all sentient beings, and it is this belief that keeps me practicing even during the hard times.


4 Comments on “Nothing human is alien to me

  1. A question and a thought come to mind: (1) How to be friendly to selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and self-righteousness? (2) Recently I heard the idea that pride is THE door to an utterly compassionate and connected life. I wonder if when meditating I will at some point feel the unpleasantness you mention and it will mean I’m pushing the door of pride a tiny bit.

    1. I’m not so invested in being friendly to selfishness, et. al. as much as just recognizing them. In so many ways they are very intimate…and part of who I am. So on that level I somewhat resonate with the Dali Lama who has referred to the Chinese government as “my friend the enemy.” But I don’t practice befriending that which destroys my connection to others. However, I don’t try to be adversarial with it either. Lovers and warriors seems to have a similar dance and I would like to find a different way. Each morning I bow 108 times in repentance. This is not a word that many people like any more, but I feel my pride so acutely and watch it direct my behavior towards others so powerfully I really treasure these morning bows. I don’t see them as a lash as much as a desire for release and an awakening to the interconnected life. Pride is certainly something I work with every day.

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