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Are People Good At Heart?

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Often, political debates between liberals and conservatives boil down to the question of whether we are good or bad at heart. Generally, liberals, who tend toward the former view, are criticized for being pollyannish and naïve, while conservatives, who tend toward the latter, are scolded for being dour and cynical. In terms of policy, these philosophical outlooks have clear consequences. Conservatives tend to be more skeptical of treaties than liberals are, and more fatalistic about the need for war. They usually favor harsher systems of punishment, more morality in public law (to curb our vicious natures), and less regulation of the free market (since we're all out to get as much as we can anyway). They also deride "bleeding heart" liberals and their overly compassionate social policies, emphasizing instead personal responsibility and the fact that it's a mean world out there.

Who is right? Obviously, if we are speaking metaphysically, it's impossible to say. Over the millennia, people have been good, evil, and every shade in between. But if we are speaking empirically, surely the old computer science adage of GIGO, Garbage In, Garbage Out, applies to the mind and heart as well. Whether we are good or bad depends on the conditions of the mind.

To explore the mind -- not the physical brain, but the array of mental processes conventionally referred to as the "mind" or the "heart" -- it makes sense to observe it scientifically, under controlled conditions. In Asia, this has been done for centuries in the process of meditation, which slows down mental activity enough that it can be observed, and slows down emotional reactions enough so that they, too, can be observed with a degree of dispassion.

As my readers here on HuffPo know, I've been meditating for a while now, including for a five-month stretch last year when I barely spoke at all. And as my friends know, I'm generally cynical and skeptical when it comes to claims about the goodness of human nature. Anne Frank wrote well, but we all know how she ended up.

And yet, while it may seem heartbreakingly banal to say so, my experience, and that of every other person who has tried the same method of observing the mind and bothered to write about it, is that when the conditions are right, the heart is indeed open and generous, without any "oughts" from us. When the mind is concentrated enough so that you really get down to basics, underneath all the neurosis, alongside the deep wounds from childhood, you find yourself to be a compassionate person who, just like all the rest of us, simply wants to love and be loved, and to live life right. At least, that's what I've found. And it's what, in near unanimity, generations of other contemplatives have also found.

This is not necessarily "goodness" in any conventional sense. I love the stories of Ikkyu, the Zen monk who, after his enlightenment, would carouse with prostitutes and get drunk, much to the chagrin of the traditional authorities. But a natural goodness does tend to arise, when one no longer needs to defend the boundaries of self. In a seemingly paradoxical way, when the spiritual work is being done, the good heart emerges on its own.

This is quite different from the view that you must repress your deepest instincts because they are evil or animalistic. Of course, animal instincts do exist, and it is not reasonable to expect everybody to go on on extended retreats and observe their minds; doing so is a privilege, conditioned by economic ability as well as by taste, luck, and circumstance. So the usual ethical rules and regulations remain. But when the path is allowed to unfold, the contemplative practice of seeing clearly--not superimposing moral thinking atop some rotten foundation, but just seeing what is--leads to more justice and more peace. For example, allowing the ego to relax, even if only in part, tends to slow down our historical moment's seemingly unstoppable urge to convert nature into property, earth into wealth. The more ego, the more need; the more need, the more consumerism, objectification, property, and waste. In short, the more self, the more stuff.

To repeat, this is not to deny our basic survival instincts, which we share with animals, and which seek to aggrandize the self so it can survive and reproduce. But humans also have countervailing instincts, which we also share with some animals, to nurture and share and care for one another. Now, I don't think one set is more fundamental than the other: it depends on the conditions. Quiet In, Quiet Out; Garbage In, Garbage Out. The more screaming on talk radio, the more howling in protest, the more anger and fury, the more one will believe that people in general are heinous and selfish beasts. The more stillness, the more one uncovers not just "inner peace" in the New Age sense but real inner peace: calm inside which leads to calm outside.

The Tanya, a central work of Jewish mystical philosophy, called these two sets of instincts the animal soul and the human soul. Like other religious texts, it understood that the essential religious impulse is to cultivate the latter, and rest (or sublimate, channel, or repress) the former. It does take work. And all who have experienced the natural lessening of the "animal soul" in peak experiences, spiritual practice, or the everyday love of others know that when the selfish instincts are lessened, compassion and love do naturally arise. We are good at heart after all, at least partly so.

From that place, which many people regard as sacred or even Godly, ethical reasoning can begin. The awakened heart does not say anything about specific norms and responsibilities. It does not demand pacifism or war, vegetarianism or meat-eating, or any other particular ideology. Rather, it enables calm reasoning to begin. It sets the ethical wheels in motion. Yes, a loving heart does tend to slant in a certain direction: it makes obvious the folly of defending the self when there is nothing there to defend. It does call our attention to when acts of violence are truly necessary, and when they are simply desired by the ego (again, usually the male ego) seeking to establish dominance and hierarchy, or by simple selfishness and greed. But it is the beginning, not the end, of justice.

On a personal note, I can't convey to you how transformative it was for me to see not merely that "all people are good at heart," but that I am - or can be -- in particular. Me! Clumsy, fumbling, needy me; ironic, cynical me; underneath, or rather alongside, all those pieces and strategies is really a very simple loving person who is--gasp--good at heart. This can be very embarrassing to realize, let alone express. But knowing that goodness is within, rather than superimposed from without, has nonetheless been deeply empowering as I go about the business of trying to live gently and justly.

Anne Frank was not naive. Imagine her knowing, even as she was victimized
and brutalized beyond our capacity to conceive, that what was happening was not the evil essence of humanity, but a mistake. Imagine a surrender not to despair, but to the unfolding of Being itself. Imagine the slightest loving smile, held even amidst tears.

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