“Every man has in him that which is exalted,”  Mencius tells us, and that is the heart, the best within the person. The heart is a symbol of our greatest aspirations. As Tang Chun-I, (1880-1978) a contemporary interpreter of Mencius stated, this symbol of heart inspires us to reach “supreme humanity.”  Mencius stated that our moral nature has four essential aspects. The first is ‘the heart of compassion’. This is proved by our natural abhorrence of the suffering of others. Second is ‘the heart of shame,’ which is proved by our disgust at atrocity. ‘The heart of courtesy and modesty’ emerges from our reverence. Finally, the ‘heart of right and wrong,’ emerges from the heart being the sense organ of goodness.  Each of these four aspects has its virtue, or optimal realization of its capacity.

The cultivation of the heart of compassion leads to the realization of benevolence or jen. This notion of jen represents the achievement of our ultimate humanness, or being humane.

The cultivation of the heart of shame, leads to rightness or dutifulness known in Chinese as yi. Our healthy shame leads us to take the right action even when no one is looking.

The heart of courtesy and modesty, when cultivated leads us to have the virtue of decorum or li. This means following the right form of behavior and an observance of rites.

Finally, the heart of right and wrong leads to wisdom or chih.

Though Confucius concerned himself deeply with what was called, li, or external, ritualized form, the felt experience was what was essential for aligning with the ethical value. He tells us that symbolic actions without embodied emotional qualities are meaningless. In this sense, for the outside to have meaning, it had to derive from the inward, the heart. Confucius said, “In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.”  Authentic feeling is our goal, not fulfilling some outer ritual.

In the same way, the virtue, the integral quality of the person, is what is of significance, not some external marker like station, wealth or success. “The Master said, ‘High station filled without indulgent generosity; ceremonies performed without reverence . . . wherewith should I contemplate such ways?’”

For each of these virtues to be authentic, they must emerge, as Augustine also asserted, from the heart. To simply follow the form of jen, yi, li or chih without an intrinsic, natural motivation for doing so, is merely to have the conduct, not the virtue. Authentically embodying these virtues means that we are in harmony with the principles of nature. Living by the dictates and form rather than the intrinsic principle inevitably leads to inner, and outer, conflict.

Without proper cultivation, these incipient capacities can be easily lost. This is tantamount to the loss of our original heart. Since for Mencius these potentials are the defining characteristics of human beings, to not develop them to the utmost is to lose the heart, where heart means essence. To be distanced from our essential nature is to go against the principles of universal nature which inevitably leads to an unfulfilled, unhappy and unsuccessful life.

The extent to which we live out of harmony with universal law or the heavenly mandate is revealed through symptoms both individually and collectively. The laws and principles of nature are not explicated magically, where the result proves the cause, like in the early Old Testament view, promoted by the likes of Pat Robertson even today, who claimed that AIDS and the hurricane and Katrina were examples of God’s retribution against sinners. In this view, any disastrous event proves in some way to be God’s punishment for some unrelated wicked deed. Instead, in the Mencian view, there are natural consequences to living out of harmony with universal law. If we can see the tragic lawfulness behind occurrences, we come to understand principle or the order of the cosmos. Natural law is proven by our inability to escape the consequences of living out of harmony with nature.

Despite the fact that we can lose touch with these aspects of ourselves does not mean that they are destroyed or that they are not natural.   They can be found again. They can be cultivated, which is defined as the act of searching for the heart.  Mencius focused on our own efforts as the path to finding or retaining the heart. To find the heart means accessing the right way to live according to universal principle and human nature, as exemplified by an ideal inspired by a timeless, ancient form. This defined the moral. By pursuing the good, we could find the heart. The way to find the heart was to seek it. As Confucius put it, “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.”

Keeping the original heart is a defining characteristic of the Confucian ideal of the profound person. Mencius says, “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart.”

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The great Chinese Sage Mencius tells us that “Self-Cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” The first question that this text invites us to ask is: what is the heart?

Around the time that the Sage, Mencius, lived, a great stirring was occurring in the hearts of humankind. German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) referred to this time as the Axial Age, where axial means pivotal.  Masters of wisdom appeared in India and Greece, as well as his home land, China. It was the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, the Indian writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and Isaiah of the Old Testament, among others. It was also the time of Confucius and his disciples, the writers of the Chinese Classics, The Four Books. Civilization was flowering. Some of the world’s greatest thinking emerged on the nature of the ultimate realities, all contributing to the liberation of the human spirit.

A central contribution of Mencius to this understanding was his notion of heart. But Mencius was not alone in this conception. When we explore the writings of other cultures, we discover an amazing fact. The symbol of the heart spans the globe. It has been of monumental significance since man could contemplate the ineffable and the existence of the immaterial in virtually every culture, religion and philosophy. From the beginning of conscious man recording his experiences, beliefs, thoughts and feelings in a sophisticated and organized way, he has attempted to convey something essential about himself and the cosmos through the metaphor of the heart.  As it appeared virtually simultaneously with writing itself, we can surmise that this symbolic image emerged with the dawn of thought.

Before reviewing the teachings of our Sage, his forbears and his disciples on the heart, we will illuminate the meaning of this symbol through the use of wisdom texts from this world-history of heart-ideas. (more…)

StAugustineHow do we change?

Change takes one tiny step, but to take that one step can require a journey of a thousand miles.

So many of us can dream of the life we want to have and the person we want to be. It can be especially frustrating when we get to the stage in our adventure where we acknowledge our problems and have agreed to do the hard work of self-cultivation and still find change slow in coming. Despite our efforts, which may include years of therapy, we may still suffer from shame and self-denigration. Perhaps we still feel socially anxious, can’t find a lover, procrastinate or binge eat. For those of us who experience unremitting emotional suffering, being told to have patience provides small solace.

The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, which is so popular because it makes change sound easy and simple, tells us that if we just imagine something it will come to us. Unfortunately, what we discover when we try to implement this program is that though this is a necessary condition for change, it is not sufficient. We do need to imagine a better life, but sometimes we find it impossible to truly believe the vision. The Work of Byron Katie provides us with the wisdom that if we believe our thoughts we will suffer. Her solution, then, is to question, and modify, our thoughts. This too, is good and true, but all too often we find that our thoughts grip us with such a rigid tenacity that they won’t let us go.

The truth is, change is hard.

We find the archetypal story of the longing for transformation in St. Augustine’s Confessions. St. Augustine was a pagan who felt compelled to drink and screw around. He was exposed to Christianity, and understood the value of the virtuous life that Christ represented. But he also knew that if he took on the behaviors that he knew were good, he would be a hypocrite, because they were not congruent with where he was in his heart. He knew that if we was to change his behavior it had to come from the true center of his being. He would have to discover this good person within, so that he wouldn’t want to behave in the ways that he knew were wrong. If he stopped himself from those behaviors by forcing himself to, it wouldn’t be authentic, and it wouldn’t work. His book is his struggle to figure out how to truly transform.

At the key moment in this story,  St. Augustine’s struggles and suffering reach an unbearable point. He is overtaken with shame. He fights an inner battle between two aspects of himself. One part wants him to continue his self-destructive behaviors. These parts do not want to surrender their power over him. These parts  want him to stay as he is and do the things that, though they provide momentary relief, keep him miserable. On the other side he hears the voice that entreat him to a better way. These parts hold little sway. Unable to tolerate this struggle, and the pain of his existence, he finally  surrenders utterly. He throws himself under a fig tree and allows his tears to flow. He cries in a profoundly deep way. The measure of the length and depth of his struggle to change is felt when he asks God, “How long?” How many of us have asked this question about our own suffering?

At this moment Augustine hears a young boy chanting from a house near by, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He had never heard this particular chant. Believing that he is receiving the direction of an oracle, he determines to follow the direction of the boy. He opens the gospel to any random page and reads what he finds there. In the instant that he reads the passage, his suffering falls away. He is absolutely transformed.

What happened to Augustine in that instance and what can it tell us about the essence of transformation? Augustine’s story has many of the classic elements of the process that leads to transformation. These include a long period of struggle with no success, an inner battle that has no solution, total emotional surrender, a connection with a mythic symbol like the tree, the voice of an oracle that provides direction, a connection with a text of the heart, and total transformation in an instant.

But isn’t this just a 1500-year-old myth? How can this apply to our life today? Though aeons have passed since this moment, something similar happened to an acquaintance recently. He wrote me about the experience. Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.

“This spring, I had an experience which I would like to describe here, if you don’t mind. One day, I went to a museum. I went alone, and I was generally having a good time. At one point, however, I was overcome by some extremely strong (and possibly long-suppressed) feelings of anger. These feelings could have been directed at people who have harmed or betrayed me in the past, or at myself; I was not sure. In any case, my anger was not directed at anyone in the museum! Nonetheless, I had been feeling such upwells of anger quite regularly at that time. And the anger I felt in the museum that afternoon was potentially explosive, and I needed to confront it–although I did not want to act on it, and I certainly did not want to unload it onto anyone around me! So I stepped aside and let myself consciously experience these explosive feelings of anger. All of a sudden, the words “I hate you” entered my mind and–silently–passed my lips. These words, like the feelings, could have been directed either towards tormentors from my past, or towards myself; I did not know. As soon as I acknowledged those three words, a large amount of my anger quite literally melted away. I could actually, PHYSICALLY, feel much of my anger melting away. After that happened, I felt much more relaxed, peaceful and calm. I was astonished. It was an unbelieveable experience, quite visceral and soul-cleansing. Before that night, I had been feeling physically stiff and blocked in some parts of my body, especially around the middle region of my back–it was as if all the cells in that part of my body had been tightly crammed and jammed together; after experiencing, acknowledging and (silently) articulating my anger, I began to feel like many of those “crammed and jammed” cells were suddenly being set loose (although still connected to one another) and were allowed to breathe again. I suppose that this is one of the more physiological consequences of successfully confronting anger and other extreme emotions resulting from traumatic experiences. I still feel some blockages, but they are nowhere nearly as great or as powerful as they once were. Since then, I have been experiencing fewer upwells of anger, and these upwells are nowhere nearly as intense as they once were. Even so, I continue to confront them whenever necessary. In any case, this experience confirmed one thing which I already knew: There is a major difference between experiencing a feeling and acting on a feeling! I would very much like to know your thoughts on all that I have described here. I’d be grateful for anything you have to say on this matter.”

What had happened to this person in this situation that was so like what Augustine experienced? Very often, what causes us suffering is not our emotions themselves, but our struggle against our feelings. One way that so many of us have been chronically hurt as children is that we are taught that our emotions are unacceptable. We then experience our emotions as bad things, not to be felt. We learn how to get rid of our emotions when they come up, either by suppressing them or acting them out. These unlived emotions transmute into shame. Rather than feel our anger and sadness about what was done to us, we blame ourselves and see ourselves in a negative light.

We may not only learn that our negative feelings are bad. We may also learn that we shouldn’t have our excitement. Then, if we are excited around people, we feel shame. We want to hide this feeling. We experience the danger of the exposure of these feelings as anxiety. This anxiety is correlated with all kinds of distorted thinking. We assume we will be judged and hated for who we are and what we feel, as we project our self-loathing onto others. Wanting to avoid our emotions and listening to the voice of shame, we act out compulsively, with drugs, drink, food. Just like with St. Augustine, an inner battle goes on between parts of the self. One side shames us for our behaviors, the other side agrees, but says we’ll deal with it tomorrow. And so it goes on.  In this way our unfelt emotions lead to the symptoms of our life.  Often we are not aware of the deep suppression of feeling that is under our compulsive behaviors. We are just aware of the suffering the behaviors cause. If we simply did not avoid these feelings we wouldn’t need our destructive behaviors, and we wouldn’t have the problems that plague us.

We want the suffering to end, but we won’t do the thing that will bring us eventually to the place of transformation. We will not feel the core emotions that are underneath our anxious, depressed, misery. How do we do this? The first part of the journey is the realization that we must search for an answer. This may require a long period of being lost in the woods. During this time we come to an experienced realization of where we are in the moment. We need to journey within as St. Augustine and my friend did. There we discover our early wounds, our patterns in the present that hurt ourselves and others, our underlying shame, our physical and emotional restrictedness and the unresolvable inner arguments that go on within us.

As we come closer to our hearts, we then feel our longing for that which we never got. As the inventor of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, would say, we reach the “hurt child” layer of the personality. This is a time of protest and complaint where we feel our unmet needs acutely. This takes us one step closer to our authentic pain but it is still not enough for transformation.

Finally, when we have traveled along the yellow brick road long enough, we slay the witch. We can no longer hold ourselves together, and we feel all the feelings that we have contained for a lifetime. We experience our pure sadness or anger at having been hurt in the ways that we were. We may not be able to articulate it in that moment, but our longing for getting unconditional love in our childhood turns into grief. This comes with the recognition that we will never get that which we never got. We cannot go back in time, we can never relive our childhoods, we can never get our parents to treat us differently than they did because we will never be two-year-olds again. Once we surrender  this hope and fully grieve our loss, change happens automatically. Once we allow ourselves to feel the totality of our feelings and penetrate to our core of emptiness that which keeps us spellbound magically dissolves. The inner battle ceases to rage. What seemed impossible a moment before become inevitable. All Dorothy needs to do to get home in the Wizard of Oz is click her heels, but it takes her the whole movie to figure that out.

When we grow up being shamed for who we are, including our feelings, we store these wounds in the cells of our bodies. We learn chronic habits of muscular restriction in order not to feel. Our unfelt experience then lives outside of our awareness in our bodies. These traumatic experiences also live in our brains, unprocessed, alive like they are happening presently. Our natural ability to realize the fullness of our potentials remains restricted until we can free our bodies and our minds. When we face what we fear, and reown all of our feelings, we experience a tremendous release. We find access to the lifestream of energy, our ch’i. Just like in Einstein’s formula, E=mc2, there is almost an infinite amount of energy in every atom.  When we free this energy that is bound up in our muscles and psyche, we are wholly changed and we are motivated for a lifetime to accomplish all we want and to become all we want to be. We find an alignment with our own nature, and the nature of the universe.

As the great psychologist, William James discovered in his exploration of the change phenomenon, The Varieties of Religious Experience, an absolute recentering of personality is almost without fail preceded by a time of absolute emotional despair. But by the testimony of endless pilgrims who have made the journey of the heart before us, this suffering itself is reason to hope. If we let ourselves fully go into this feeling, without resistance, change will happen.

We discover in the end  that our very desire for wanting to change, for being something other than what we are, means that we are still stuck in the shame of negative self-judgment. When we free ourselves from the bonds of our emotional wounds we realize we do not need to change. Instead, we simply become what we have always meant to be. We become ourselves. We find the lost heart.

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Jesus on the mainlineOn the website, personallifemedia.com, Brian Johnson’s podcast tells us about the obscure New Thought guru, Wallace D. Wattles. Wattles suggests that in order to be great we need to be able to read the thoughts of god, and we can only do this when we do not feel fearful or anxious.

This parallels the wisdom of the Chinese classic, The Highest Order of Cultivation. This is the text that tells us that in order to live in harmony with the intrinsic order of the universe we have to cultivate  serenity. It is only when we do this that we find our hearts, which means that we live out our potentials for wisdom, passion, strength genius and love. Through finding inner peace, we do our part to bring our relationships, our culture, our politics and the universe into balance.

The only part that Johnson gets wrong is that all we need to eliminate our anxiety and fear is to do something in the moment, like take a bath, or have a run.

If it were that simple, we’d all be enlightened, and Brian and I would be out of a job. To overcome the intrinsic wiring and life-long conditionings that lead us to experience fear and anxiety require a life-long commitment. As Mircea Eliade explains it in his book of the same name, this is the definition of the word yoga (see page 4-5), which is any intensive, ongoing practice that leads to liberation from our conditioned existence.

In all likelihood no one of us will be wholly freed from that which keeps us from that mainline with god. But it is our life task of seeking that brings us, and humanity, ever closer to that goal.