Spiritual Benefactors and Unconditional Love
This recent Dharma talk featured on Tricycle, reminded me that I’ve been blessed to have met many spiritual “role models”. I also realized why I enjoy reading biographies so much.
As we grow older, we learn to pay attention to things that society considers more real and significant than the loving care of all those people. According to the social discourse around us, it seems much more important to identify those whom we should hate, fear, or compete with for affirmation, power, and wealth. Meanwhile, television news and magazines focus our communal attention each day on the horrible things that some people have done to others, as if that is all that happened in the world that day.
Much of our discourse is spent propping up this negative worldview: “Oh, yes, I know what you mean, my relatives are horrible too.” “I can’t stand that politician either.” “Can you believe how stupid those people are?” We have become so smug in our cultural cynicism we don’t notice that even the people we generally look down upon have had moments of integrity and kindness.
… So as adults, we need to become newly aware of the love that has infused our lives all along, to turn our attention to it afresh with the eyes of a child.
… The first step is to learn to pay new attention to what has been ignored. Many people are extending love, the simple wish for us to be happy—and have been since the day we were born. What is remarkable to me is what happens when we are willing to notice it. And even more remarkable is what happens when we are willing to receive it. The simple act of accepting a stranger’s wish for our happiness empowers us to experience the world in a completely different way.
… It is important to learn to recognize deeply spiritual people in your world, past or present, who function as spiritual benefactors. These are persons that you feel embody great goodness, a force of love and compassion that extends to all without partiality, including yourself. … You can keep a picture of a spiritual benefactor near you to help you relate to this person. … This is part of the reason that images of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and other revered spiritual teachers are so important to Tibetan Buddhists—such figures are sources of spiritual energy and inspiration for those who regularly commune with them.
… Benefactors need not be infallible or perfect people. Just allow yourself to become newly aware of moments when someone’s unreserved love came to you—through a kind word, a gesture, a smile, or a comforting presence. It could be someone well known to you or a seeming stranger.
… When you feel ready, try to think of a few other people you adored being near as a child. An uncle or aunt, perhaps? A schoolteacher that you loved to be with? A friend of your parents whom you looked forward to seeing? … If you do this exercise repeatedly, you will recognize more benefactors not only from your early life but also from other periods. Even now there are people you have probably overlooked who make a wish for your happiness, but you haven’t realized yet how important and life-giving it is to pay attention to them.
As your practice progresses, you may find yourself widening your range of benefactors by spontaneously recalling instances when you were the recipient of unconditional love, even from people that you long characterized as unloving. … Again, we are not looking for infallible people; just moments when genuine, unreserved care came through.