Cultivating Love: Seeing the Sacred in Others
During the end of the 20th century, an unlikely elderly woman living in India achieved intenational renown. Her name: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. You may not have ever heard of this name. That’s okay—she never sought attention. You may, however, know her by her more common alternate name: Mother Teresa.
Agnes, or Mother Teresa, became an international symbol for many because of who she decided to spend her time with. No—she was not networked into the celebrity elite. Rather she spent every day of her life with the poorest of the poor. And yet she was admired, almost universally, because of her unrelenting, tirelessly giving heart. How did she do it? How did she cultivate such an endlessly merciful, compassionate core?
Perhaps one of the greatest secrets to her becoming an unstopping stream of compassion was revealed in her own words. Said Agnes, “I see God in the eyes of every child.” Keep in mind that for Agnes, the person and image of Jesus represented the highest good, the purest, and the most sublime imaginable. In this context, it is unendingly significant to consider her words: “O beloved sick people, you are doubly dear to me, because you personify Christ, and it is indeed a privilege for me to be able to care for you.”
Personify Christ? How in the world is it possible that the poorest, the filthiest, the sickest, the most outcast could EVER personify an image someone considers to be the most sublime, most sacred, highest good? As most of us stand around scratching our heads and wondering how in goodness’ name we can see the sacred in the poorest or the sickest, there stands the enlightened Agnes, calmly and resolutely declaring, “I see God in the eyes of every child.”
The author Lorne Ladner asks us consider what would happen if we were able to see in every person something good, pure, sacred, or noble. He uses a parable to illustrate the point: imagine you were emptying trash, and you saw in the dumpster a stack of one-thousand dollar bills, lodged between the filth and rubbish. Or, if it makes the image more dramatic, imagine you saw the Hope diamond in the dumpster. What would you do? I don’t think any of us would second guess our response—we would work vigorously to get through the garbage in order to reach the valuable reward. We may even dive in completely if it were the only way to get our hands on the treasured prize. Imagine, then, how our minds and emotions will respond if we are able to truly look at other human beings and to see in them something more valuable than money or diamonds.
Is this just abstract thought experimentation? I don’t think it is. For Agnes, later Mother Teresa, this was anything but abstract.
The question stands: HOW do we cultivate a vision of the sacred in others?—especially for others who might be annoying, unattractive, or generally difficult to us? For starters, I think that cultivating awe will put us in the right direction (see the earlier post about starting the “awe revolution” in our lives). Beyond this, some other practical ways to begin cultivating this type of vision may include simply making a decision to be aware of what we say and think of other people. Make a decision that if you are thinking or saying anything negative, that you are going to stop and consciously look for something good or admirable. You won’t necessarily make the negative go away, but that’s not the point. The point of the exercise is not to become naive: it is to cast off our terrible blindness to the sublime that exists in every human, universally.
Another idea: contemplate deeply the meaning of the word “Namaste.” Translated into English, this greeting may be rendered, “I salute the light in you that is also in me.” Think deeply on how every human being you meet is—like you—the product of billions upon billions of years of experimentation by the physical universe. Every human being you meet will be a vessel of the magnificent light of consciousness. “Namaste!”—I salute the light in you that is also in me!
A third possible activity: for a particularly vigorous vision exercise, start by thinking about a person in your personal life who is the most difficult for you to see as good—someone who just really gets under your skin. Then—as parochial as it may feel initially—take out a sheet of paper, and try your best to write down a list of positive or admirable traits, qualities, or abilities the person has. Really—go through the physical act of doing this—as an experiment. Even if you can no more than write down, “Wow–this person is alive. That in itself is amazing,” you have made your start.
The role of the sacred has had various and varying levels of importance in cultures and traditions throughout history. (For very interesting studies on this phenomenon of the sacred, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and William James are three intellectual heavy-weights to read.) One thing is clear, though—if we can begin to see the sacred in one another, we will begin a natural unfolding of positive regard, good will, and compassionate disposition for every human we encounter.
What are your ideas for how we can cultivate a vision of the sacred in other human beings? Especially in those who we might otherwise perceive to be less lovable than others? Comment with your ideas, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you think.