I want to speak to you about the most controversial, incendiary notion in the entire world, the one that, if you are looking to cause a commotion, disturb the status quo, or get into a fight, is the thing you should say.
Are you ready?
Are you sure you’re ready?
All beings are basically good.
There, I said it.
What is your response? If you’re anything like, well, everyone, your response is, “Wait a minute—everyone? Surely not everyone. What about Hitler? What about people who hurt babies and animals? Surely they are not good.”
You know, I really don’t know how to counter that with anything that makes sense from a debate team point of view. However, how can this be debated: Our most basic qualities (those we were born with) are openness, intelligence, and warmth. We are able to receive love. Instinctual drives for survival, acceptance, and connection are present. Most of all, we anticipate and turn towards kindness. If kindness is not present, whether on a gross or subtle level, it is a shock and great pain is caused. It’s not the other way around—meaning, we are shocked when kindness is present. Not at all.
In Buddhist thought, if problems arise, even horribly egregious ones, they are considered to be an indication that we’ve become confused about our basic goodness and it has been covered over. The defilement is on top. The basic goodness is always underneath, which is kind of the opposite of some Western thought that basic badness is at the core and basic goodness is somewhere “out there.”
Somehow this notion of being born whole, intact, worthy, has gotten lost. This is a really big problem. It can result in incredible acts of aggression.
The style of aggression I see most often is self-aggression. Those of you whom I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter through the Open Heart Project or the retreats I teach sometimes break my heart because I see over and over how hard you are on yourselves. I see this in the constant self-criticism. The endless comparing of self to others. The expectation of rejection and the need to always, always prove your worthiness, which, once proven, feels hollow and insignificant—there is another level of worthiness to aspire to.
Of course I’m talking about myself here, too. Today, I was talking to a friend on the phone and we were having a conversation about this and that. At one point, I wanted to refer to a moment in a previous conversation from maybe 5 years ago. I said, “You probably won’t remember this thing that you said to me, but…” Before I could go on, he said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean I won’t remember? I remember what we said. I remember what you were wearing and where we were sitting…” and so on. My expectation, and perhaps you share it, is that no one is actually going listen to me or remember that I’m here. On some basic level, I don’t feel worthy of being remembered and I try to give people an out for that. (The opposite—expecting everyone to remember every single thing you say as a moment of great import—is simply the flip side of this anxiety over being seen.) Anyway, that’s just one small example of how, throughout our days, we actually discount ourselves over and over. It’s hard to remember that we are all basically good and if I could open your minds, insert one factoid, and then close it back up, it would be this: you are basically good.
But when it comes to basic goodness, I’m not asking you to believe anything I say. I’m not asking you to point out all the possible examples of basic badness and I’m not asking you to enter into a theological debate with me, which I will surely lose because I’m really not a good arguer. All I’m asking you to do is to periodically close your eyes and place your hand over your own heart center. Feel its warmth. Touch in with the tremendous vulnerability and passion you possess and know that this is synonymous with your goodness. Say to yourself, “I am basically good.” Try it on. Believe it. If you can’t, pretend that you believe it. Then open your eyes and see how or if the world looks different.
Our meditation practice is of course the way we connect with this goodness over and over. Breath by breath, we experience openness (by letting go of thoughts to reconnect with space), intelligence (by experiencing over and over those moments of awareness that go, “hey you’re not focused on breath—come back,”) and warmth, or the increased tenderness and compassion that are the inevitable result of meditation practice.That is why it is so important to practice and I get on you (and myself) to please, please practice. It’s not just about lowering your high blood pressure or increasing activity in the left prefrontal cortex and what have you. It’s about opening our hearts, acknowledging our brilliance, and extending ourselves to this world without hesitation.
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