You are good

April 18, 2012   |   20 Comments

painting of pink yellow rose Screen Shot 2012-04-18 at 7.53.55 PM

I want to speak to you about the most controversial, incendiary notion in the entire world, the one that, if you are looking to cause a commotion, disturb the status quo, or get into a fight, is the thing you should say.

Are you ready?

Are you sure you’re ready?

All beings are basically good.

There, I said it.

What is your response? If you’re anything like, well, everyone, your response is, “Wait a minute—everyone? Surely not everyone. What about Hitler? What about people who hurt babies and animals? Surely they are not good.”

You know, I really don’t know how to counter that with anything that makes sense from a debate team point of view. However, how can this be debated: Our most basic qualities (those we were born with) are openness, intelligence, and warmth. We are able to receive love. Instinctual drives for survival, acceptance, and connection are present. Most of all, we anticipate and turn towards kindness. If kindness is not present, whether on a gross or subtle level, it is a shock and great pain is caused. It’s not the other way around—meaning, we are shocked when kindness is present. Not at all.

In Buddhist thought, if problems arise, even horribly egregious ones, they are considered to be an indication that we’ve become confused about our basic goodness and it has been covered over. The defilement is on top. The basic goodness is always underneath, which is kind of the opposite of some Western thought that basic badness is at the core and basic goodness is somewhere “out there.”

Somehow this notion of being born whole, intact, worthy, has gotten lost. This is a really big problem. It can result in incredible acts of aggression.

The style of aggression I see most often is self-aggression. Those of you whom I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter through the Open Heart Project or the retreats I teach sometimes break my heart because I see over and over how hard you are on yourselves. I see this in the constant self-criticism. The endless comparing of self to others. The expectation of rejection and the need to always, always prove your worthiness, which, once proven, feels hollow and insignificant—there is another level of worthiness to aspire to.

Of course I’m talking about myself here, too. Today, I was talking to a friend on the phone and we were having a conversation about this and that. At one point, I wanted to refer to a moment in a previous conversation from maybe 5 years ago. I said, “You probably won’t remember this thing that you said to me, but…” Before I could go on, he said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean I won’t remember? I remember what we said. I remember what you were wearing and where we were sitting…” and so on. My expectation, and perhaps you share it, is that no one is actually going listen to me or remember that I’m here. On some basic level, I don’t feel worthy of being remembered and I try to give people an out for that. (The opposite—expecting everyone to remember every single thing you say as a moment of great import—is simply the flip side of this anxiety over being seen.) Anyway, that’s just one small example of how, throughout our days, we actually discount ourselves over and over. It’s hard to remember that we are all basically good and if I could open your minds, insert one factoid, and then close it back up, it would be this: you are basically good.

But when it comes to basic goodness, I’m not asking you to believe anything I say. I’m not asking you to point out all the possible examples of basic badness and I’m not asking you to enter into a theological debate with me, which I will surely lose because I’m really not a good arguer. All I’m asking you to do is to periodically close your eyes and place your hand over your own heart center. Feel its warmth. Touch in with the tremendous vulnerability and passion you possess and know that this is synonymous with your goodness. Say to yourself, “I am basically good.” Try it on. Believe it. If you can’t, pretend that you believe it. Then open your eyes and see how or if the world looks different.

Our meditation practice is of course the way we connect with this goodness over and over. Breath by breath, we experience openness (by letting go of thoughts to reconnect with space), intelligence (by experiencing over and over those moments of awareness that go, “hey you’re not focused on breath—come back,”) and warmth, or the increased tenderness and compassion that are the inevitable result of meditation practice.That is why it is so important to practice and I get on you (and myself) to please, please practice. It’s not just about lowering your high blood pressure or increasing activity in the left prefrontal cortex and what have you. It’s about opening our hearts, acknowledging our brilliance, and extending ourselves to this world without hesitation.

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  • Posted by:  --

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      You are welcome!

      • Posted by:  Kate

        Dear Susan, you have been a God send. Yes, I believe in my heart and soul that we are aspects of the Divine experiencing Itself. Therefore, in all my sense I know that I came in whole (holy); there are moments that I forgot (forget) for the experience of a particular moment. In all my experiences, when I can see them from this vantage point my practice is a journey to “recall” my Godness – goodness in each experience as well as “namaste’ see the goodness in all those who participated with me. In this remembering I am not separate from God, myself or other. My mantra, “I am holy, I remember I am whole, I am an aspect of the Divine expressing in this time and in this place…with you!” In this place there is no separation, there is no competition, there is no judgement! My goal in a day…to remember and to forgive myself when I haven’t been able … this I pray.
        I thank you from the depths of my heart Susan, Namaste’ Katelyn

  • Posted by:  Lewis E. Ward, Figure in the Wood

    Thank you so much for such open and critical thinking of how we tend to view ourselves in this competitive culture. We break free of this thinking by meditating and examining our thoughts and actions.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Yes, meditation is the foundation for exploring this notion for me too.

  • Posted by:  Rick O'Neill

    Hello Susan:
    I feel I must comment on your talk for today about basic goodness.
    It was significant that you said other people will say “everyone, ? what about Hitler ?”
    I am a Canadian, and I was once proud to be a Canadian. I traveled in Europe in the 1960’s, and Canada was one of the most admired and respected countries in the world . We are now one of the least respected in the world. Canada is now an exporter of asbestos, which we know causes cancer. We are exporters of dirty oil ( tar sands bitumen ) and exporters of dirty coal. We are importers of fighter bombers from the American Military Industrial Complex . I have found myself mentioning Hitler frequently in discussions about our government . Our prime minister, Stephen Harper, has the same policies , the same platforms, and the same ethics as Adolph Hitler. He is determined to push a pipeline through one of the last remaining wilderness areas on earth , to carry tar sands bitumen from alberta to the coast of B. C. to be loaded on giant tankers and carried along the coast of B.C. to be shipped to China. There will be spills which will destroy our Land, our Fresh Water, and out Coastline. It will destroy the homeland and culture of our Native People.

    You can not tell me that our Prime Minister, Steven Harper, and his supporters are basically good people. They are ruthless murderers of Nature which includes humans.

    Rick O’Neill

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Rick, I understand that there are people who do truly awful things and in no way do I mean to defend them or make light of their actions. And it is awful to lose a sense of pride in your country. Bad, bad things definitely happen in our world. Still, our basic nature, I believe, is goodness–goodness which can become extremely obscured.

      An interesting question to me (and one that I have no satisfying answer to) is what, then, do we do in the face of these terrible actions? What actions can we take that will neither excuse their actions nor polarize the situation further, which is always the result of “us vs them” thinking? When I reconnect with the notion that maybe, somehow, no matter how unlikely, it is still possible for us humans to reconsider our actions and change, I find inspiration and energy to face things. I find myself willing to look at others, no matter how much I hate them, as my fellow humans, made of the same stuff as I. This at least is a starting point with possibility.

      Again, not trying to excuse anyone’s horrendous, awful, truly destructive behavior. Just don’t want to become one of them!

  • Posted by:  Craig Sonnenberg

    Dear Rick O’Neill,
    The concept of basic goodness runs deeper than selfish acts that some human being may commit in the course of their lives. Basic goodness is a universal quality, present form birth. Everyone has it, and it cannot be taken away. It is a primal force, if you will. It is often evident at times of large-scale tragedy, such as 9/11, or natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. At times of great stress such as these ordinary people, who might otherwise find countless reasons for not getting along with each other, manage to come together, regardless of race, class, or religious differences, economic background, sexual preference, or political party affiliation to come to the aid of their fellow human beings, simply because their basic humanity (basic goodness) kicks in and their genuine heart opens and says “my fellow human beings around me are in trouble, and I have to help”. When 9/11 occurred New Yorkers forgot about their differences and they formed a community to support each other as fellow human beings because they cared about each other at the most basic level of humanity. If you Google childhood photographs of so-called evil people (Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, serial killers, and savage dictators you may be surprised to see the faces of seemingly beautiful children, smiling and full of innocence, without a shred of evidence to suggest that they would later become known as monsters. That innocence and purity is always there within all of us. The problem is that over time we receive messages from the world telling us that we are bad, stupid, ugly, worthless, weird, awkward, lazy, pathetic, obnoxious, you name it, and we internalize these messages and believe them. It doesn’t mean that the beautiful, basically good person that we were born as isn’t still there, but it may be buried underneath the weight of countless messages and experiences that have devalued us to the point that our self-esteem is so warped that we no longer even know who we are. When we see these “awful” people, a part of us sees ourselves, because we know that under the right (or wrong) combination of circumstances, almost any of us could become capable of doing horrible things if we are pushed hard enought to go over the edge.

  • Posted by:  Cathy S

    So many of your posts recently have resonated with other things in my life, and this is no exception. Thank you for sharing your wisdom through writing.

    Although not the main point of this post, I was struck today by your example of not expecting people to remember what you say. I know I am surprised when people remember me on a second or third meeting. I think I have a good visual memory for faces, so I often recognize others before they do me. I’m always so pleased when someone remembers ME!

  • Posted by:  Vicky

    Thank you, Susan. What struck a chord in me most was this sentence: “The expectation of rejection and the need to always, always prove your worthiness, which, once proven, feels hollow and insignificant—there is another level of worthiness to aspire to.” Such a true statement! You have shown us the subtle/hidden trap of self-criticism, comparison, and judgments of any kind: there is ALWAYS something we feel, see, or believe is lacking. Then, we are sucked into the vortex of trying to fix that need and the next one and the next one…

    As I was reading your post via email, I kept hearing Alanis Morissette’s “That I Would Be Good.” I remember the first time I heard that song, tears filled my eyes and streamed down my face. I experienced such a longing for something I already possess. Thank you for reminding me again!

  • Posted by:  Kathy Willard

    Ohhhhhhhhhh, Susan you lift me up up up!!! Yes, yes and yes to your words today. Another one true thing a friend said to me some time ago. We can have days when near perfect Divine Love appears, and on such days it feels like it was never otherwise. I have experience this as has my friend, and so on days when things are so messed up, I think what another friend said too. She said I maybe can’t do that today, or tomorrow, but I WILL do it maybe next month, or next year. I do know I am a very good person, but I can forget this in a nano second. I need your support, your wisdom and how you open my heart more with every single posting. And my small close spiritual circle of friends too. SO GRATEFUL.

  • Posted by:  Kate

    Dear Craig
    Thank you for this post.
    Dr. Hew Len’s work ho’ onoponopono, an ancient Hawaiian act of reconciliation. Much like “loving kindness meditation”. In this healing when I get to “zero” I stand in for “all my relations” noting that if I see it in another, an aspect in me is ready to heal no matter what degree it is in me. I pray that I refrain from judgement ( in this act ) and I ask for the grace of the Divine to release this separation in me. In this I stand with all my relations past present and future. I then bless the other with the same and thank them for showing up.

  • Posted by:  Michael

    Dear Susan, honestly, I don’t take a whole lot of comfort in the statement that all beings are basically good, because I think that in a society where we live among people, whether someone is good or bad is defined by their conduct toward others and not whether they have some innate ability underneath to be good notwithstanding horrible conduct. Lions kill their prey, and sometimes other lions (or even lion cubs), but I don’t think in the scheme of nature we would regard them as “evil.” So is the point that Buddhists would view even a Hitler as basically”good” because he is really no different than the lion who kills other lion cubs so he can extend his domain? He is part of the world/nature, a fortiori, he must be good because it is not possible for anything living to be “bad”…? Some philosophers take the opposite view– that people are basically NOT good. But I think this misses the point– whether we are inherently good or bad at birth is really not the issue as I see it (and possibly even irrelevant), as we all have the ability to conduct ourselves in a compassionate and loving manner; ie, being good or bad is, in my view, a personal choice. “As human beings we are endowed with freedom of choice, and we cannot shuffle off our responsibility on the shoulders of God or nature. We must shoulder it ourselves. It is our responsibility.” — Arnold Toynbee.

  • Posted by:  Dan

    I remember reading once how a Westerner explained to the Dalai Lama how so many in the West suffer from a lack of self esteem, that they think poorly of themselves. The way the story was recounted, the Dalai Lama was astonished and did not realize that this was so common. I guess in Tibet, this is not the case.
    It is surely true that our feelings of unworthiness are the underpinnings for so much of our behaviour and our attitudes. Right now i am seeing the most wonderful woman and she finds it hard to believe that she deserves all the love and affection that I give her. I too, remind myself on a daily basis to be patient with my opportunities and to keep working with them as we are all works in progress. All of us good people are imperfectly perfect as we go from day to day. I think your message, Susan, to remind of ourselves of our basic goodness and indeed worthiness is so important and is always worth hearing. Thank you.

  • Posted by:  Shelly Immel

    Fearing we are (I am) not good is a distorting way to view self and world. It lessens everything. Letting go of excessively harsh self-criticism and accepting myself as good makes more room for me to accept others as good, and bring out that goodness.

    This is not the same as naivete or innocence. How can we NOT be aware that much is wrong in this world? Believing in the good within, we look on self and world with eyes wide open, and grow our hearts big enough to face it all from a place of compassion.

    It can be difficult to say simple, positive things when you know some people will think you naive. Thank you for speaking your truth, Susan. Many of us believe as you do, and our experience reinforces this common belief.

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“With wisdom, creativity and artistry, Susan Piver brings a Buddhist lens to the spiritual map of the Enneagram. The results are vibrant and nourishing; a banquet of insights that help us transmute our difficult emotions into pure expressions of our basic goodness.”

 – Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance