“The practice of Care in a modern world” by Stefano Bettera

Care at the centre

I’m going reflect on the topic of care from Gotama, the Buddha, who puts at the centre of his ethical thinking system a cornerstone on which to base the development of reasoning on the role of the individual as a social being. This is the concept of appamada, which we can translate as “care”. He argued that care is like the elephant’s footprint, which contains the footprints of all other animals. Care is the most important of all virtues because it encloses all of them. On his deathbed, Gotama gave this last teaching to Ananda; “Life falls apart, thread the path with care”. Sometimes the word appamada is translated as diligence. But this does no justice to its deep meaning, at least in the context of modern thought, or ethical significance of Buddhist teaching.

Appamada comprises two parts: “a” (which means “not”) and pammada (meaning “drunk”). The literal meaning would be non-drunk. We return to the central role of awareness in social and individual action. Behaving like a drunkard is not just a lack of diligence, it is ill-considered acting, under the effect of elements that obscure the ability to choose and behave lucidly. It is a condition where we are unaware of the consequences of actions and their effect on ourselves and others.

In our modern social context, it is easy to see which and how many influences lead us to certain behaviours and choices. This concept of a life based on care is also implicit in social criticism: in Gotama’s time the complexity of life, especially in the urban context, was already sufficiently evident to impose a serious analysis of its consequences.

Gotama’s response to the confusion of living together lies in the choice of living and working under the aegis of awareness, rather than dragged by automatism. It is not a condemnation of the instincts, needs and desires that are part of our human condition. Rather, it is the formulation of a new paradigm of relationship with these drives, not set on reactivity, but on conscious response. The strength of this model lies in its ability to unite several levels: the spiritual/personal level that moves from the most intimate part of the soul with the ethical level that springs from a conscious relationship with the outside world. It brings this individual level into contact with the social, focusing on commitment, on the choice of a method of practice both transformative of the individual and of the context in which the individual operates. In short, Gotama tells us that we already have the problem and the solution, precisely because we are deeply human and because we are social beings. But we must find out and pursue it. As humans, we are inclined to act according to reactive schemes, but we have the talent, tools and freedom to go further and build the conditions so that it is not these schemes that drive individual and social choices. There is no distinction in his thinking between these two levels. Coincidence is implicit, and freedom of choice is the plan of synthesis.

A non-dogmatic vision

Gotama never faces a choice dogmatically or on the basis of absolute, abstract principles. Its perspective starts from the situation and takes into account the context, the conditions and the experience of the real person, not the idea of the person. This awareness is always of the present, of the contingent, of the situation. That is why the reference to attention of the experience of the body in the moment: every moment is unique and the body teaches us.

Similarly, every situation is unique and no answer is always and in any case good. Another useful “criterion” when facing a difficult choice is that of the common good: when a person performs actions clearly harmful to many or his “sacrifice” allows others to live in a more serene way, it becomes “simple” to understand the choice to be made.

Obviously, the more our decision brings suffering others, the harder it is to understand where to stand. Even a borderline situation such as violence against a woman or child, Gotama reminds us if we really cannot act for the good of that person, we at least are better avoiding evil. A case like this could result in trying to maintain an attitude of equanimity without aggravating a situation that is already a source of suffering.

A fertile heart

This perspective means giving ourselves freedom from preconceptions, fixed ideas, convictions that do not allow us to “feel” the other, to make him part of our own experience or let us witness what is there here and now. The fixed, discounted, pre-constituted schemes leave no room for knowledge, for encounter, but dry us and transform us into sandy soil when rain does not arrive.

A dead land, where nothing grows. An aridity that prevents us from facing and living in our bodies the great questions of human existence: the mystery of living and dying, as the Chinese masters said. In general, whatever favours this freedom, this sharing, this connection and does not hinder the process of living is wise and to be pursued. Wise not right, compassionate not true.

Whatever favors the dryness of the spirit, the chains, the denial of freedom is good to avoid, extracting it from our behaviors as an arrow from the wound so as not to infect the body. The focus is on what to do and how to do it, how to heal the wound and rebuild unity, not about why or where. Moving in this context requires a method. In this process lies the opportunity for freedom.

This is a freedom of both wisdom and experience. The body is the “master” who teaches us our limits and puts us in contact with the condition of others. This is our own and leaves us no other way but to share this transience, this imperfection that unites us. Here is compassion as a force and foundation from which to start for every choice that is authentically human: it is precisely in this way, looking with compassion, awareness and humanity at the situation that we can act.

Living with care

Not to be dragged by instincts, by reactivity means to live a life where care and instinctive generosity are central. This makes it easier to look for another way to stay in relationship with ourselves and others. Generosity allows care to express itself, to act directly. If we look honestly, we see our daily conduct is often an activity based on a closed heart. The generosity that is directed primarily towards ourselves, allows us to soften that protective fabric we surround ourselves with and become porous, available, affectionate. It allows the human warmth that puts us in immediate communication with others.

Do the right thing

We often read about heroic acts committed by “normal” people in extreme circumstances: after an earthquake or attack, some run into flames to save a woman or a child. At the risk of their lives, they defy logic to bring others trapped or stranded to safety. Such events are on the agenda. It almost seems that when conditions become so adverse that life is at risk, we drop all personal stories and simply remember what’s needed.

This is not a logical process. We do not ask ourselves if it is right, or what will happen to us. We do not care about how others see us or our gratification. We do not aspire to become heroes. We instinctively feel that being authentically human requires us to do so. It is a profound perception and not an act of heroism. It is the rediscovery of an even banal fact: we all share the same condition, the same nature of creatures that live by communicating, by living in relationships. And it is this condition that defines us as humans, that allows us to exist, to express what we are, to let our heart pulsate.

When we allow this mind of generosity to manifest, it is precisely there that we are authentically human. We are part of the situation, part of the process of life, part of the river that flows. We do not ask what the direction of the current is. We dive and swim. Gotama often used the metaphor of a stream to define the practice and says that it’s like entering the stream to go against the stream. So, when we act in harmony with the mind of generosity we act perhaps in a way that may be considered illogical, irrational.

An ethics of healing

Forgetting oneself does not mean cancelling one’s identity or personality. But don’t start exclusively from this when filtering each other and setting up the relationship. Knowledge does not mean not putting into action pre-constituted ideas and understanding one’s own ego not as non-existent but as a process, an element in transformation, porous and modifiable by the very relationship itself. It means being open to the new and to opportunity for transformation that can heal self and others. This ethic that includes others can be called an ethic of healing. There is no healing if we cannot heal ourselves first. Thus for Gotama, a profound understanding of the transience of our human condition counts, leaving us no other way than to share this transience, the condition that unites us all and represents us. Here is compassion as a coagulating force, as the foundation of ethics.

The energy of compassion

Compassion becomes the cement that holds together and overcomes the dichotomy of thinking in dichotomous terms. Compassion is a conscious act, a choice that comes from an inner path, not a rational scheme. It is context sensitive and therefore the only possible answer. This process would not be possible, while it is logically consequential, if he had not thought, seen, imagined this marriage, this coincidence of intentions and destinies between individual and society. Both share the only truly founding characteristic: impermanence. The ethics proposed by Gotama is an ethics of the process, rather than the rules, a practice rather than a system of thought. To use an image we can portray this form of social and individual ethics as two concentric circles where one includes another, without separation. The mission of the individual, aimed at “saving” himself, consequently becomes the realization of a spirit of participation and identification of self with the other.

Reach the other bank

Although there is profound philosophical and psychological acumen in his teaching, the main focus for the Buddha is always on the possibility of putting ideas into action, experimenting with the basic intuition about the mechanisms involving all humans. He is not interested in explaining the reason for phenomena but rather understanding the consequences of phenomena and their transformative capacity if seen as occasions for practice and awakening. In his vision there is no censor and moralist judge who punishes. It is as if Gotama said: “Be aware of the qualities of mind and the conduct that encourage practice. If you follow them, you will encourage the process of awakening, of healing. Otherwise you will hinder it.” The emphasis is always on individual responsibility and never punitive. If “life is burning” to extinguish these flames it is necessary to move towards the other bank, the bank of awareness, of compassionate action, of appamada, leaving the bank of acting like drunkards, which leads to suffering. It is not by chance that the first of these is precisely generosity, money, where generosity does not mean the simple act of giving, of getting rid of material possession. Rather, the focus is on the generosity of the mind, the transformative potential of the process of a practice focused on care, an ethics of awareness.

This is the end of the circle: to create a truly transformative practice these are the horizons: generosity, awareness, care and compassion. In this way we will take our raft to the other side of the river.