Monday, January 24, 2011

Some Thoughts Prompted by Dick Cheney's Heart

I promised yesterday to post some thoughts about Dick Cheney's heart--thoughts prompted by a glimpse of the former Vice President on a television morning news show the other day. With his familiar glower and sudden, scary, lop-sided grin, he was showing off the technology he wears these days under his jacket to keep his heart beating and himself alive; and I thought to myself—as I’m sure did many others of my political persuasion—how appropriate.

All joking aside—and I confess to having enjoyed the Tin Man and Darth Vader jokes as much as anyone—I have been concerned for a number of years about the condition of Mr. Cheney’s heart. One concern, to be sure, was the possibility of a man with so shaky a vital organ ending up in the Oval Office. Another was of an even more speculative nature: is the physical heart—that muscular pump—truly the source and generator of human compassion, or is it simply an age-old metaphor for the same?

I do not, of course, have the pleasure of any personal acquaintance with the former Vice President; but based on what I have seen through media reports about his actions and his words, my judgment from afar is that he is markedly lacking in the quality of compassion. Most recently, aside from the television news interview mentioned above, I saw an excerpt from a report covering his participation in George H. W. Bush's reunion with some of the former President’s key cabinet members. On both occasions Cheney seemed remarkably affectless, remarkably disconnected from the human consequences of his actions—particularly his aggressive promotion of the invasion of Iraq. For him, it seemed to me, an action that cost countless human lives and caused unfathomable misery was nothing more than a business decision.

My cheerfully uninformed judgment, then, is that this is a man whose severely dysfunctional heart is the physical manifestation of an equally severe spiritual and emotional dysfunction.

As readers of "The Buddha Diaries" will know by now, it is my habit when I find myself making powerful negative judgments about others, to spend a little while looking in the mirror, in order to see what I might need to learn about myself. In this instance, my mirror reminds me of the many years I spent in denial of my own heart. While my head was wonderfully well educated, my heart was taught at an early age to armor itself against the dangerous and hurtful world outside. In this I became so skilled that by the time I entered into young adulthood, the very mention of the heart was an embarrassment to me. In poetry, my chosen medium, I deemed it capable of generating little more than squishy, self-indulgent sentimentality. I dismissed the heart as a foolish and inconsequential thing, though in retrospect I think this was probably because I was afraid of what I might find there if I dared to explore its hidden depths.

It took me, I regret to say, more than fifty years to admit to myself and the world that I actually possessed a heart. I described the painful process of discovery in great depth in a book I wrote nearly twenty years ago. It was called While I Am Not Afraid, and its subtitle was “Secrets of a Man’s Heart.” The short version is that I was confronted with a moment of appalling crisis which shocked me into the understanding that I could no longer continue my journey through life neglectful of the need for a functioning heart; my own deficient organ was revealed to me in all its shrink-wrapped vulnerability in the course of a memorable weekend’s retreat in which I was quite simply cracked open like an egg. It was a humbling and a shattering experience, and one that radically changed the direction of my life.

I have made every effort, since then, to keep my heart in mind, and I look back at certain youthful acts of heartlessness with shame. I have come to believe, in good part through what I have learned from Buddhist teachings, that the heart is the true center of our humanity, the seat not only of the love we put out into the world but also of the courage and honesty with which we observe our actions and evaluate them; and of the loyalty that characterizes the best of our relationships with others. I love the notion of “a stout heart,” and aspire to have one.

The heart, as Blaise Pascal reminded us, also “has reasons which reason knows nothing about.”(“Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point.”) It has "a mind of its own," a thinking capacity as powerful as the brain’s, and one we allow the brain to override at the risk of losing touch with our humanity. For this reason, it is also the seat of our integrity—if we think of integrity as the way of having all our faculties in balance and ensuring that they work together for the benefit of others and ourselves. This way, according to what I know of Buddhist teachings, lies happiness. Here’s Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

If we think of the heart as the side of the mind that wants happiness, the head is the side that understands how cause and effect actually work. If your head and heart can learn to cooperate — that is, if your head can give priority to finding the causes for true happiness, and your heart can learn to embrace those causes — then the training of the mind can go far.
Thanks to Dick Cheney’s mechanical heart, I have been more careful in the past few days to watch the workings of my own. The best moment to do this is during meditation, when I can observe both its physical and its emotional activity. I bring my attention to its location in the chest and hold it there, intently focused on the physical sensation of the beating organ, the muscular contraction and release; on the flow of blood as it pulses out through the arteries and saturates the furthest extremities of the body; and on the cleansing process as it returns to the point of origin for recycling.

All this is fascinating to watch. But the other part of the work is to activate that cooperation of which Thanissaro Bhikkhu speaks. I find a special additional delight in using the intentional focus of the mind to open up and soften the heart. The practice of metta affords me the opportunity to practice compassion toward, first, myself (if I fail to feel it for myself, how could I feel the same for others?) and then to the human and other living beings with whom I share this planet.

My thanks, then, to Dick Cheney--but this is not intended to let him off the hook. I find it instructive to look back at the Cheney/Bush relationship in terms of the head and heart. Seen in this light, George W. Bush would be all heart (not necessarily the compassionate kind!) and no head; and Cheney all head and no heart. But rather than working in a benign, symbiotic collaboration where each would have corrected and modified the other—head softened by heart, heart tempered by head—the pair charged ahead in the grip of the worst impulses and excesses of each. The result, fatally, was the most disastrous eight years for America in living memory, and a cautionary tale about the consequences of ignoring either head or heart when it comes to taking action in the world.


CHI SPHERE said...

Hear A word full of life

Richard said...

You are right Peter, it can be very very difficult as a man to listen to the heart. I lay the blame for this partly at the feet of our culture.

During my own time as a "New Atheist" I lost touch with that emotional side, I allowed my logical side to rule the roost. Now, thanks the the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism, I'm much more aware of it, and much happier for it!

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the "chi" spirit, Chi!

I suspect we may have much in common on this front, Richard.

mandt said...

"a benign, symbiotic collaboration" does not apply to sociopaths. Read John Dean's, "Conservatives Without Conscience". very interesting account of the political world. I disagree that men in general have problems listening to the heart. I've known great hearted men,who are warriors of the spirit and excellent Dads. I put my own father at the head of the list. Welcome back Peter!

PeterAtLarge said...

Hello, MandT, I agree that there are many "great-hearted men"--I know many who fit that description. AND I also agree with Richard's suggestion that "it can be very difficult as a man to listen to the heart." He did not impute this to "men in general." Thanks for the welcome back!