Wisdom, contemplation and action

This is the second of a series of three articles by Carmel Shalev on the topic of Uncertainty, Care and Responsibility.

The wisdom of not-self

The wisdom of the dharma has many faces. One that strikes me is the insight of not-self. The classical teaching of not-self deconstructs the impression we have of a fixed self into five interactive aggregates of form (body), feeling, perception, mental fabrication, and consciousness. These are all impermanent, imperfect, and empty of substance in and of themselves, as is our very sense of self as a solid essence. This is a humbling insight into the transient, flawed, and vulnerable conditionality of our lives as human beings, and it is also a teaching on non-attachment to self-identity. With regard to all the aggregates of self, the teaching reminds us, ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’ (The Discourse on the Characteristics of Not-Self, Anattalakkhana Sutta, SN 22.59.)

But for me not-self also points to our complex interdependence and interconnectedness, or what Thich Nhat Hanh called interbeing. The illusion of the egoic self is that I am the center of the universe, yet there are eight or so billion others just like me on the planet who feel the same. In fact, we are miniscule elements in an infinite universe, prone to live and die in a vast dynamic web of interrelatedness with other living beings, as well as with social circumstances and forces of nature far beyond our control. The idea of not-self does not infer that there is no responsible moral agent, no person with the potential to make a difference in the world. To the contrary, it is a reminder that we are intrinsically connected to each other, and our choices can affect others in a ripple effect much as in chaos theory a tsunami in Japan could be the effect of the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon.

When we open to a perspective that goes beyond the limited boundaries of the self, we see we are not alone and what is going on is not just about me. With the opening of our awareness to the presence of others come empathy and compassion towards them. It might take some effort to imagine ourselves in the place of others with whom we find ourselves in a conflict or disagreement, to rise above our self-justifying grievance and view the conflict through the eyes of their discontent. But this is something we can practice in daily life, even if we fall short of our standards of perfection.

The dharma’s wisdom is not just in the head. It is also an embodied emotional intelligence that comes from an open heart free of the poisons of greed, animosity, and illusion. This is how I understand citta – the heart mind that complements the rational intellect with consciousness of emotions, sensual perceptions, and intuitions. There is also in my understanding a gut intelligence that is about survival instincts and might be seated in the microbiome. The education I received as a child was focused on cognitive skills of language and reason. There was a binary view of human nature based on the distinction between what was above and below the navel. Man’s higher nature was cerebral and rational, in the head and brain. His lower nature was that of any animal’s base needs of survival, reproduction, and bodily excretions. As I understand it now, the heart is the center that integrates the head and gut energies and through the practice of meditation we can learn to sense, recognize and experience the heart mind that is free of selfish reactivity.

Meditation practice

In meditation we stop the race of our daily lives for moments of reflection and contemplation. We find a quiet spot to sit and simply bring awareness to our breath, our feelings, our thoughts, and our bodily sensations as they come and go. We find that we can observe our inner worlds without identifying with them, disengage from the small ego and open to a larger sense of being. We discover that spaces can appear between the thoughts that seem to run incessantly through our head, like blue skies that appear in the gaps between clouds. These pauses in mental activity can bring moments in which both body and mind come to rest in a cool still expanse of equanimity that is empty of self-involved thoughts and reactivity. We might understand intellectually that the self is empty of fixed substance, and that the misconception of being a permanent, independent and separate self is a cause of suffering. But meditation serves as a practical training to transform the conceptual understanding of not-self to a lived experience, if only for a split moment.

Unskillful states of mind, the reactive thoughts and emotions that cloud and fire our minds, are all self-centered. When they are absent there is a coolness which is the literal meaning of nibanna. Ajahn Buddhadasa, the Thai teacher, taught that nibbana is ‘the coolness that remains when the defilements – greed, anger, fear, delusion – have ended’. Nibbana For Everyone, 1988, p. 2. Although it may be a temporary coolness or quenching of the heat of reactivity, it is still nibbana, an awakening. In the practice of meditation we recognize these nonreactive spaces, learn to appreciate them, and become attuned to their presence or absence in our everyday experience.

Buddhism has a spiritual methodology with a wealth of contemplations including Tibetan tantric practices of reciting mantras and visualizing deities and mandalas. Non-ritual meditations include mindfulness , which has been adopted as a mental health therapy for coping with anxiety, stress and depression. But mindfulness is far more than that. It cultivates a self-aware sensibility that brings a deeper and broader perspective on myself, my life, and my place in the world. Other forms of meditation cultivate focus and concentration.

In the Zen tradition, the practice is of questioning and not knowing, of perplexity, curiosity and wonder. The Korean teacher Kusan Sunim taught a meditation on the question, ‘What is this?’. The practice is to stay with the question, asking without expecting any answer beyond opening to the very mystery of the moment. From Bernie Glassman, a socially engaged Zen teacher, I learned a related notion of bearing witness to the suffering we encounter even when we do not know what to do about it or are helpless to make any difference. It is better to face reality and acknowledge the multiple forms of suffering around us than to turn a blind eye. Bearing witness and not knowing what to do is a practice of compassion, humility, patience and courage.

The wisdom of not-self together with meditation practice cultivate skills of ‘response-ability’, which enable us to bring a non-selfish awareness to the situation at hand and to respond as best we can, instead of reacting automatically out of self-centered habits of mind. We tend to be self-involved and get swept away in repetitive inner dramas in which we play the leading character or protagonist. With the skills of mindfulness, we can contemplate the impersonal, ever-changing dimensions of our lives and open our hearts to the mysteries of the world as well as to its uncertainties.

Kind caring

Traditional Buddhist writings speak of four ‘truths’ that explain the origin of suffering with the goal of bringing it to an end in the sense of being free from rebirth, while a secular dharma thinks of them as ‘tasks’. We embrace suffering as part and parcel of living and dying. We let go of thoughts that revolve around the self’s desires and aversions. When they pass, we see that what arises is a caring benevolence. We can then choose how to act in response.

In the absence of greed, animosity and illusion certain qualities of heart become apparent – the four brahma viharas or ‘heavenly abodes’ of kindness, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity, which are unconditioned by selfish preference. In the early Pali canon there is no instruction about their cultivation as if these ‘immeasurable” qualities of heart are innate in the mind when it clears of reactivity. Similarly, in the Mahayana tradition the notion of buddha nature, the potential for awakening we all have, is a core of benevolence that becomes present when the clouds of selfish repetitive patterns of thought clear from the mind.

Later teachings bring lists of noble qualities of character, or virtues, called perfections, excellences, virtues (pāramīs) that can be cultivated. They include generosity, patience, courage, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity. All are skillful mindsets that rise above self-centeredness or egocentricity. And Buddhaghosa, in the 5th century, rendered a guided meditation of metta to cultivate an indiscriminate attitude of benevolence and caring towards all sentient beings. It starts with visualization of the self and expands to friends, neutral others which one neither likes or dislikes, those which one dislikes and lastly to all sentient beings, with the heartfelt wish that all be happy, free of suffering, and live in peace and harmony.

It might not be easy to open our hearts to people we think of as evil or the enemy, but the idea of expansion is helpful. In my experience of mindfulness practice, when negative emotions like anger appear, I sense a contraction in the body, often around the heart, the chest, and the solar plexus; and simply opening to the physical sensation has a beneficial effect. Momentarily, when I bring mindful awareness to the anger and its expression in the body, I am no longer identified with it or caught in its snare. Instead of indulging in self-righteousness or thoughts of retaliation, I open to the discomfort, embrace it with compassion and observe its energy moving, spreading, and expanding through the body as it takes its course, until it dissipates of itself and the mind cools and calms down into a more balanced or equanimous state.

It is said that the caring intelligence of buddha nature is innate in all sentient beings. I can sense this when I observe my dog, for example, who is a sweet and loving creature. But there is a difference between being human and a non-human animal. It seems to me that my dog has little self-awareness or ability to exercise restraint when driven by instinct, while human beings are gifted with an awareness that can free us to rise above our animal drives and selfish states of mind, be moved by something beyond our egocentric perspective, and exercise self-restraint.

I have always felt that there is more to being human than self-preservation and biological procreation, and that there is an element of choice in what we do that frees us from being slaves to base instincts and gives purpose to our lives. Viktor Frankl said that even under the brutal conditions of survival in Auschwitz there were always opportunities to exercise ‘the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.’ Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946, p. 75. He referred to this as human dignity.

Moral agency

As self-aware human beings we have the spiritual freedom to rise above selfish concerns and choose what sort of person to become according to our moral values. This freedom of choice is what gives our lives meaning. We are here not to merely survive and reproduce as part of  the evolution animal life, but to make a difference even if it’s only a smile rather than a frown or apathy. We are moral agents.

The dharma has a list of 32 dimensions of awakening which includes four qualities of mind, referred to as bases of spiritual power (iddhipādā). These are often associated with supernatural yogic powers such as appearing and vanishing, going through walls, walking on water, flying and touching the moon and the sun. But from a secular reading of the dharma the qualities themselves – will (chanda), energy (viriya), heart mind (citta) and investigation (vimamsa) – are relevant to living ethically in the world. I am no scholar of the Pali canon, but I would like to suggest that they be understood as powers of moral agency, the capacity of human beings to exercise good will.

Chanda means the will or desire to act, to achieve a goal. It has a different flavor than the desire of impulsive craving, tanha, which is one of the links in the chain of dependent origination that leads to repetitive suffering. We might understand chanda as a commitment to resist egoistic urges and a motivation to do good. Viriya might be interpreted as the effort needed to exercise self-restraint and channel our energies for the benefit of others. Citta denotes the wisdom and intuition of the heart as distinct from mental reason and gut instinct. And vimamsa might be the inquiry of inner deliberation we undertake when we reflect upon a conflict before acting, and experiment mentally with possible courses of action and their outcomes. These powers of moral agency are transcendental not in the sense of magic, but in that of rising above our tendencies toward selfish and impulsive behavior and choosing to act for the good of all.


Carmel Shalev is a now retired academic public interest lawyer who specialized in human rights, health policy and bioethics. Her latest book is In Praise of Ageing: Awakening to Old Age with Wisdom and Compassion (2020). These essays are part of a work in progress on the ethics of uncertainty, care and responsibility from a secular dharma view.


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