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Lions Roar : March 2016
Matthieu Ricard: We have this faculty for caring and valuing others, which I think comes to us from evolution. The question is, how can we extend that? It’s natural to think, “I don’t want to suffer. My children don’t want to suffer.” But what about other children, other sentient beings? We know they don’t want to suffer either, and they’re trying to achieve happiness in their own ways. Why shouldn’t we be concerned about them? Where does our concern stop? At our own child? Why not other children? All these barriers start making less and less sense: “I can feel benevolence toward all sentient beings—except those fifteen guys I can’t stand.” Buddhism says we should extend our concern to all sentient beings. Some people say that feels sort of vague. It’s not like the child who’s right in front of you. How can you really feel altruism for some abstract, infinite number of beings? But it’s not about that. It’s more like a disposition or attitude that, a priori, you will relate in a benevolent way to anyone who comes into the field of your attention. That’s the way to extend your concern outward. Peter Singer: Can we use meditation to train ourselves to be more altruistic and extend our compassion? Matthieu Ricard: Maybe meditation needs to be demystified a bit first. Usually you’ll hear clichés about meditation, like “Oh, you have to empty your mind and relax.” If you try to empty your mind, it’s not going to work. If you look at the Sanskrit and Tibetan words that are usually translated as “meditation,” they indicate a process of cultivating, or becoming more familiar with, something. What surprises me is that we acknowledge the need for training in most skills, from reading and writing to playing chess or piano. But when it comes to our basic human qualities, we think, “Well, that’s just the way I am. I have to love my defects as much as my quali- ties.” As if we could do nothing about who we are. We have the potential to cultivate focused attention, emotional balance, altruism, and compassion. The great discovery of neuroplasti- city is that through exposure to novel experiences and training, you can change. That’s what practicing meditation does. ♦ “Buddhism says we should extend our concern to all sentient beings. But it’s not about some abstract, infinite number of beings. It’s the attitude that you will relate in a benevolent way to anyone who comes into the field of your attention.” LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2016 65