The Most Important Thing
Several years ago, when Elizabeth and I were in Rome, we came across an old church called Santa Maria della Cappuccini, beneath which lies what’s known as the Capuchin Crypt. When the monks arrived there in 1631, they brought three hundred cartloads of the bones of deceased monks and proceeded to arrange the bones in decorative motifs throughout the several underground chapels.
It’s quite a sight, but the thing that struck me the most was a phrase on the wall above some of the bones: “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.” It was a particularly effective wake-up to what’s most important.
Elizabeth has talked about Alfred Nobel before, but I imagine he had a similar wake-up when he opened the newspaper to find his own obituary in it. It may have been doubly shocking because the obituary stated, “Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died this week.” It was actually his brother who had died, but what was most upsetting to Alfred was the realization that he would be remembered for inventing dynamite. The shock of this realization motivated him to reflect on what he considered to be most important. As a result of his reflections he sponsored what came to be known as the Nobel Peace Prize. Sobered by reading his premature obituary, he thenceforth put his time, money, and energy into supporting what he valued most—namely, people who were learning to live from the awakened heart, as evidenced by their pursuit of world peace.
When I reflect on what I consider to be the most important thing, the answer I keep returning to is learning to live from the gratitude and kindness of the awakened heart. Unfortunately this is not so easy to do; often, to awaken the heart, we first have to experience adversity. We may have to lose things we cherish, where we feel our secure future dissolving right in front of us.
When we experience great difficulty, either on a societal or on a personal level, it often helps break down our self-protectiveness and sense of separation. There are many historical examples on a societal level—from World War II, 9/11, and others—where people come together in shared purpose and shared heart when faced with overwhelming adversity.
This is certainly true on the individual level as well. When we consciously face our deepest tragedies or suffering, we often feel a sense of connectedness with others who are in pain. We can begin to appreciate our common humanity. The experience of “my pain” is transformed into “the pain”—the pain all human beings share. This is the essence and definition of compassion.
One path to awakening to what is most important is through the intentional cultivation of gratitude. Our culture, which is based in self-centeredness, does not actually foster the natural cultivation of this feeling. Gratitude may be given lip service, such as the moral dictate that we should be thankful, but in reality, we’re taught to protect “Me and Mine.”
This is not true in every culture. There’s an African tribe where an anthropologist proposed a game to the children. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that when one of them could have had all the fruits for himself, they said, “Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?” “Ubuntu” in their culture means, “I am because we are.”
Even though gratitude is an intrinsic aspect of the awakened heart, we often have to work with the barriers that prevent us from connecting with it—barriers such as selfishness, fear, and self-protectiveness. One way to work with these barriers, and to cultivate our natural gratitude, is to do a daily gratitude practice called Nightly Reflection.
Nightly Reflection is a relaxed meditation that is done right before going to sleep, where you quickly review the events of the day, starting from your first memory of the morning to the moment you began your evening’s practice. You focus on the main events—the thoughts and feelings you experienced throughout the day—as if you were watching a movie.
During Nightly Reflection, it’s important not to get pulled into thinking, analyzing, or judging, but instead to review what actually transpired as objectively as possible. The instruction is to try to stay physically grounded by maintaining awareness of the breath in the area of the center of the chest. Without this grounding, the exercise can easily become too mental.
Once the review is finished, you ask yourself : “What am I most thankful for?” In doing the Nightly Reflection regularly, we become not only more appreciative during the meditation, we also become more aware and receptive during the day. In effect, by reviewing our day through a focused Nightly Reflection practice, we’re remembering what is most important.
Along with gratitude, one other essential aspect of living from the awakened heart is kindness. In fact, when asked what he considered to be the most important thing, the Dalai Lama answered, “Kindness.” Yet, kindness, like gratitude, needs to be cultivated; and one way to cultivate it on a daily basis is through the Loving-Kindness Meditation.
There are many different versions of this meditation, but the essence is to extend unconditional friendliness, both to ourselves and to others. The version I am currently using can be found in my last book, Beyond Happiness. Whichever version you use, the point is to learn to live from the awakened heart, where we naturally desire the welfare of everyone.
Perhaps the one thing that most prevents our natural loving-kindness from coming forth is the solidity of the judgmental mind—finding fault with both ourselves and others. And perhaps the one most effective way to undercut this tendency to judge is through staying grounded in the breath in and out of the heart, while at the same time saying words to direct our attention toward awakening our natural wish for the well-being of everyone.
The Loving-Kindness Meditation is perhaps the single most transformative meditation practice I have ever encountered. However, for it to take root in our lives, it needs to be done on a daily basis. The good news is that when we do it regularly, it gradually becomes not just an exercise but our natural response to life. It allows us to live from what is most important.
As the saying goes: we get good at what we practice.
Ezra Bayda, excerpted from The Authentic Life
(Shambhala, April 2014)