signposts

A friend just sent me a link to a blog post discussing the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, described in the post as the “legendary Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist.” I also subscribe to this blog, Brain Pickings, by Maria Popova, but I missed this one. Almost a lost opportunity because Nhat Hanh makes a marvelous connection between love and my use of “care.” I have walked quite gingerly in writing about love because its use is likely to be misunderstood by the largely technical/professional audience for my work. But after reading this blog, I’ll not be so cautious. I ordered the book, How to Love, that is widely quoted and expect to find an even richer source.

Popova quotes a number of passages, but this one is particularly meaningful for me, “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering.” The following quote conveys a similar sense: “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen. His use of “understand” is virtually equivalent to the way I have used “empathy.” And suffering is a Buddhist way of relating to care or concern. Suffering is an assessment that something one cares about is yet to be satisfied. I believe that he is using “listen” as a metaphor for empathy, as it takes more than whatever comes via the ears to understand what is going on over there.

Another point that Popova picks out of his book is that to love another, one must love oneself: “When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.” While Nhat Hanh does not use the word “flourish,” at least in the parts of the book that are extracted in her blog, I find that this word is deeply embedded in his work. Love (his word) or authentic care (mine) is the medium through which flourishing passes. It is to be found, not within, but between. Nhat Hanh writes about “interbeing,” echoing the betweenness that characterizes the way the right-brain works, according to Iain McGilchrist. When we are able to escape from the hold that the left-hemisphere has taken on our modern brains, we become capable of compassion and empathy, both of which require that we gather in the concerns of the other, even if non-human, unfiltered by the generalities stored in the left.

I did not refer to any of Nhat Hanh’s work in my forthcoming book. Given what I am learning about his way, I am quite sorry because his words complement the more clinical language I use. In any case, I am more and more confident in the story I am telling as I continue to find evidence of its verity in works, rooted in very different worlds.