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The heart, as the great Chinese Sage Mencius defines it, is the sense organ that knows the good just as the tongue knows the delicious and the eye the beautiful. The good is beautiful to the heart. Here’s what Mencius said:
” . . . all palates have the same preference in taste; all ears in sound; all eyes in beauty. Should hearts prove to be an exception by possessing nothing in common? What is it, then, that is common to all hearts? Reason and rightness. The sage is simply the man first to discover this common element in the heart. Thus reason and rightness please my heart in the same way as meat pleases my palate.”

What Mencius means is that the heart ‘knows’ what is reasonable and right, the way the eye knows what is physically beautiful. When we embody, or live out, what is reasonable and right, the heart is pleased. Through a devoted practice to being reasonable and right, we find the heart. When this inherent sense is optimally cultivated this ends in the ultimate moral development, which means becoming a Sage.

For Mencius, the heart is the seat of compassion. Mencius describes compassion as the “unbearability of suffering of any creature.” This natural reaction to the suffering of others is Mencius’s primary proof of the inherent goodness of people. The universality of this empathic faculty is captured in his statement, “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others.” He uses as proof the argument that any sentient human would react with horror if they saw a child about to fall into a well. This feeling would occur spontaneously, and not for any extrinsic purpose. He suggests that this natural attribute is the most important aspect of humanness, and is what needs to be cultivated in order for one to achieve jen, or to be truly humane.

A significant story of the heart from the Mencian text is his tale of the king who could not allow an ox to die because of the unbearable feeling brought on by seeing the fear and suffering of the animal. This capacity for empathy, even for a dumb beast, is the essence and realization of heart, the measure of the profound man.

In perhaps the first recorded example of empathic attunement, a central skill of the effective psychotherapist, Mencius grasps and reflects the king’s experience in such a way as to bring awareness to him when he had none. Mencius conveyed his understanding of the king’s motivation in saving the ox by saying, “The heart behind your action is enough to make you a true king.”

Astounded at Mencius’s insight, the king first quotes The Odes. The Odes are one of the earliest Chinese writings that are often referred to by the Confucian philosophers as a source of eternal wisdom, in the same way that the Greeks quoted Homer. This quote is a wonderful inspiration for the therapeutic process.

“The Odes say,
The heart is someone else’s,
but it is I who have surmised it.”

The king went on to say to Mencius, “This describes you perfectly. For though the deed was mine, when I looked into myself I failed to understand my own heart. You described it for me and your words struck a chord in me.”

Mencius understood better than the king himself that his reaction was one of compassion for the ox, and this sensitive feeling made him a “true king,” or one who embodied the Heavenly Mandate. This meant that he lived from his essence, or compassionate heart.

The heart is the seat of empathy. Since empathy, a form of goodness, is the sense of the heart, we do not have to rely on external authority for guidance of our behavior. All morality extends from the heart’s ability to feel what others feel, and the greater we extend our emotional relatedness, Mencius believed, the greater the order in the universe.

Central to the Confucian philosophy is the concept of shu. Shu is the golden rule: “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” This is the idea of reciprocity. The Chinese character for shu is of a heart and “alike.” This further validates that we all share a common essence, and we call this essence heart.  Shu, in this sense, means compassion and empathy, or the ability to enter the emotional world of the other. The golden rule is based on this fellow feeling; the extraordinary leap that we can feel as others do. Therefore, we can use our own feelings as a guide to relationship with others. In this sense the Confucian test in looking for the ethical answer is to “find it in yourself.”  The place we find this moral direction is within the heart.

Mencius asserts that the natural realization of heart is yi, or, rightness. By fully developing what is within us, we become capable of knowing and acting in accordance with the good.

The chief virtue of the Confucians, which emerges from our capacity for empathy, is benevolence. Benevolence means that we act with the good of others foremost in our hearts. When we have a cultivated heart and are connected to our essential goodness, we embody this virtue. To have found the heart means that we not only treat others, but also treat ourselves—each and every self—with benevolence.

Mencius claims that goodness is not learned but rather unearthed. We all have the inherent potential for compassion. If such compassion was purely being added to us from the outside, we would simply never grasp the concept. When moral behavior is imposed from the outside, it has no strength. Instead, goodness emerges from something natural within, which is the only true source of power. This inner place of goodness is the heart.

In one of Mencius’s most compelling arguments for human intrinsic goodness as the heart, he says,

“Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes when the trees are lopped day after day. Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine? Others seeing his resemblance to an animal, will be led to think that he had never had any native endowment. . . But can that be what a man is genuinely like?  Hence, given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, while deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.”

Here Mencius connects the heart, goodness and our entelechy. Like the tree, if we receive the proper cultivation, we will become that which we are meant to be, which Mencius calls the good. To the contrary, just as the mountain will not thrive if it is not properly treated, destructiveness —  toward others or the self — is not the expression of one’s essential nature, but rather the results of poor cultivation.

This is a hopeful philosophy. It is one that gives us the greatest possibility of achieving happiness, because we are neither permanently estranged from the good due to being evil nor broken, nor are we simply the subjects of fate and luck. Rather, our destiny is in our hands and getting what we want out of life is simply dependent on the realization of our intrinsic nature. This also forces us to take responsibility for what goes wrong in our lives. If we do, then we can improve our aim. As Confucius said, “The archer can be taken as an analogy, in some respects, for the man of noble character. For when he fails to strike his target squarely, he turns his gaze inward and seeks the cause in his own individual capacity.”  All that one needs to do to find fulfillment is find the heart through its cultivation.

This exemplifies Confucius’s and Mencius’s core psychological insight: problems in people’s lives are a manifestation of living out of harmony with their own, and universal, nature, which is moral. This place of morality where the universal law meets human law is the heart. The universal law is manifested internally in one’s state of being and the internal is manifested externally in the conditions of our life. To quote,  “When one has something within, it necessarily shows itself without.”

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