But in fact, there’s nothing that we need to escape. It’s all right here. Whatever we’re seeking is right here.
I had that somatic bypass tendency when I was younger. I thought I could transcend the flesh and go to a higher plane. But in fact, when we do that—either with our ideas or with our practice—we actually leave behind a really important and valuable wisdom teacher. There are many different goals for spiritual paths, but the goal of my practice is to be embodied, compassionate, and wise. For me, there’s nothing more than that. And if we’re not living through the body, we’re missing something, because compassion and wisdom do not live somewhere else. Somatic bypass is disconnecting from the source of everything.
That speaks to me. I remember huge groups of meditators who gathered in one place believing they could create peace in the world. And researchers, some of them good friends, trying hard to prove that it was all true. Plus, millions of dollars spent trying to prove that prayers could heal at a distance. Over the decades, that fell apart.
I’m not saying gathering is a bad thing. Or praying is a bad thing. But the expanding discoveries of neuroscience keep saying, “Hey, we’re embodied beings! Consciousness is embodied! Deal with it!” And this seems exactly what you’re saying—where your spiritual practice leads. Embodying kindness seems to me a lot more helpful than thinking kind thoughts and hoping they’re going to spread.
Yes. You cannot be kind if you are not present. And we are often not all that present. One of the most important wisdoms is that the body lives in the here and now. The body brings us into the present moment, while the mind is running around with its stories. The mind dives into the past and anticipates the future. It’s worrying about this and trying to fix that. The thinking mind is the agitated part of our experience, while the body is centered in the here and now. I think that’s really the key.
So how do we embody kindness? It starts with being in the here and now—and we discover that there’s no other place to experience or to express kindness or compassion than right now. We don’t need to worry about some time in the future when we are going to be a kinder person. We just need to stay in the here and now and attune to our own state and to the state of others. Real love comes from that. The body is speaking that truth all the time.
I think one of my biggest mistakes has been thinking that I know what it means to be kind. Before kindness, we need a sense of curiosity. We need to ask questions. Because what I think would be kind is not necessarily what someone else needs at all. You have to ask what someone needs and then follow through with an appropriate response.
In Buddhist practice, we take this big vow called the Bodhisattva Vow. The vow is to have compassion for all beings no matter what. The first part of that word bodhisattva means “to awaken,” and the second part means “courageous one.” So a bodhisattva is a courageous one who is on their way to awakening. That could be any of us, at least in theory. It takes courage to put kind intentions into action, because we know we will sometimes fail spectacularly. We have to be willing to take a few risks, even when we know we will make mistakes. But it’s really important to take risks, because otherwise we are not walking our truth. Kindness is as kindness does.
How can anyone actually remain kind and compassionate?
Here’s the thing about compassion. In the West, our idea of compassion has to do with giving selflessly to others. There’s not much in our compassion narrative that has to do with giving kindness to ourselves as well. And I would say that becoming really intimate with your own experience—intimate with your body/mind—is one of the deepest kindnesses you can show to yourself.
When you’re grounded and intimate with your own experience, you are embodying compassion for the self. When you become really good at compassion for the self, you can come towards others with compassion in a way that you aren’t thrown off balance.
When we are off balance, we have compassion, but we undermine our own wellbeing—especially if we’re particularly empathetic. We think we’re giving kindness or service to another person, but in fact, we’ve actually made ourselves needy. We need to be taken care of because we’ve forgotten to take care of ourselves.
The most effective form of compassion is a balance between care for the self and care for the other—and realizing that those two things are really the same. We have to do both in order to be a sustainable caregiver in the world.
That’s very helpful. Thank you. Looking back over the last 30 years, two of the biggest discoveries about consciousness are the mirror cells in the brain that allow us to feel other people’s emotions and that microbes in our gut impact our thoughts and moods. These discoveries have shifted how we think about our minds. What I love about your book is that your teaching makes complete sense in terms of what science is discovering.
Recognizing how much the gut influences our thoughts and behavior is profound because we tend to think we’re in control. We think our prefrontal cortex is the manager of our experience, that it’s in control of everything. In fact, the body is taking the lead on so much. Hormones, too. Our hormones can change pretty much everything about our behavior and our thoughts. And still we think we’re in control. I think understanding the science is really helpful because it undermines the sense that we’re in charge and encourages us to surrender a bit and practice listening to what’s going on in the body.
Mirror neurons also help explain a lot—like my experience in Nepal where I felt changed by looking at the images of gods and goddesses on the temple walls. These Tibetan masters were saying, “That is you, you are that.” And looking at them, I am Tara and Tara is me. The images mirror back compassion and kindness and wisdom and beauty.
How do we hang on to that kindness and wisdom?
Intimacy is key. When we become intimate with ourselves, we realize that we’re always going through something. And then we realize that everyone is always going through something. That’s the beauty of being human. It’s also the pain of being human. So, I like to keep this phrase in my mind: “Everyone is going through something.” When you do that, it’s really easy to stay open and curious when you are in the presence of another person. When you wonder what they’re going through, you soften because everyone is going through something— just like me. That’s the kindness mantra: “Just like me.”
Four people I knew well died this year. For two of them, I was at their deathbed. And it really brought front and center to me that we’re all going to die, and we don’t know when. That’s another key: For anybody that you meet, this may be your last interaction with them. That brings up natural compassion. And then it’s easier to be kind.
The deepest answer for me is this: Know that kindness is innate. Kindness is innate, and yet you can also commit to working on it. Both of those things are true. And that’s also true with what we call in Buddhism the Buddhanature. It’s innate—and we also have to work on it. We have to refine it. We have to burnish the jewel. And that’s true with compassion.
How do we know that—that kindness is innate?
You know that by getting in touch with the most authentic essence of who you are.
There is a witness in each of us that is naturally loving. It’s a dimension of who we are. And when we slow down—and introspect—we can find a gaze on our own experience that is loving. And that’s innate. We don’t know it unless we slow down and wait. Slow down and make space to see through the eyes of the loving witness. The loving witness is already gazing. But we’re not always in touch with that loving witness. No one can know that for us. If we try to grasp it, we won’t find it. But if we relax, it will come forward—because it’s our natural state.
That’s what my teachers told me. I trusted that, but I also tested it. And that was my experience. By slowing down and relaxing and looking within, the essence comes out of its secret cave. And then of course it goes back into hiding. And for me, that’s what meditation practice is, what yoga practice is. It’s making space for that essence to keep coming out of hiding, to become more manifest. Then we contract. I contract. I get caught up in my thoughts and my ego, and I lose the thread of connection to the innate loving witness. Practice for me is coming back again and again to the gaze of that loving witness.
And I’ll add one more thing. Meditation helps us develop a nonjudgmental awareness, which means we learn not to demonize our thoughts and emotions, and also not to glorify them, either. That nonjudgmental awareness can also be directed towards others.
When we’re less judgmental with others, we can truly feel compassionate for them. As long as we’re judging others, that thwarts the love that we could have for them. That’s what I believe to be true and what I have experienced to be true. But I’m also open to other perspectives on human nature. We are complex creatures!
It strikes me that your somatic mindfulness is both modern and indigenous in the sense of connecting to the consciousness of other animals as well as to the natural world. When I was a kid, for example, you weren’t really supposed to talk to your pets because that was anthropomorphizing them. They weren’t conscious. Now it’s okay to have a conversation.
I talk to my dog a lot. I’m totally guilty of that.