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This talk grew from hearing Dr Jeffrey Sachs give the 2007 Reith Lectures on ABC RadioNational.   Geoffrey Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at ColumbiaUniversity. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. From 2002 to 2006, he was Director of the UN Millennium Project and Special Advisor to Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed goals to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by the year 2015.  What a list!

Dr Sachs pulled no punches and painted a vivid picture of the environmental, social and political challenges we face.  At the same time he was optimistic that we humans have enough good will, courage and technological know how to meet these challenges and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, famine and extreme poverty.

His talks challenge and inspire me to continue working for positive change.  I am inspired by his confidence that human wisdom, compassion and know-how are equal to the task.

I am challenged because, although we do have the technologies, the resources and even the theoretical political commitment, he was clear that we may not reach the goals we have set that will be necessary to prevent global suffering on an unprecedented scale.

In effect he says ‘we can, but we might not’.  Why?

The answers to this are not technological – we have the resources, we have the technologies.  Whether we go the course and meet the environmental, social and political challenges facing humanity depends primarily on whether we can meet the psychological and spiritual challenges involved.

At the end of the fifth and final lecture, Dr Sachs named a major aspect of this challenge when he said that the greatest threat to the world today is cynicism.

He said: “FDR [Roosevelt] said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. John Kennedy said that to believe that war is inevitable is a dangerous, defeatist view. I say that cynicism is our worst enemy today. We must build on our successes, not feed our doubts. We have declared our goals and commitments, our Millennium Promises, but we lack the confidence to implement them.”

The power of the climate of cynicism, skepticism, and depressive thinking in the world today was directly and graphically evidenced by the responses of many of his audience members around the world.  Two of the lectures were delivered in England, one in Scotland, one in China and one in the U.S., and everywhere the majority of the responses – with a few notable exceptions – seemed to be affronted by his optimistic confidence and most gave a litany of reasons why what he was suggesting, could not happen.

In particular, audiences demonstrated a high degree of cynicism about something called ‘human nature’ which was not a concept used by Dr Sachs.  This mood is summed up by one person’s statement, “But what is the basis, the real basis for having such faith in human nature, because I’m not entirely convinced by the empirical evidence that you’ve produced.”

The big questions are these:  How does confidence in the human qualities of compassionate goodwill and intelligence, to at least soften the blow of major threats to humanity and nature, become so diminished?

In answering this question, I am going to suggest there are three major causes;  once we identify them, we can work with them so they become the remedies; they apply just as much to each of us individually, and to our meditation practice, as they do to our responses to global crises.

  • The first cause is a lack of the quality of mudita – appreciative joy, and joy itself.
  • The second cause is that confidence in ourselves and our abilities is undermined by toxic, fault-finding self-doubt.
  • The third cause is that our that the discriminating intelligence of awareness is confused and undermined by our perception of permanence and solidity.

Of course each of these causes gets tangled up with the others, each reinforcing one another, until it all starts to look like an intractable tangle.  The Buddha said to ‘untangle the tangled threads’, we need to grasp one thread and work with intelligent awareness, patient energy and persistence.  The first of the tangled threads we will grasp is:

Mudita – appreciative joy and joy itself

Mudita is one of the brahmaviharas, or divine abidings.  It is a type of emotional intelligence that includes the ability to value or appreciate good qualities in one-self and others.  As well as joy in others joy, it is also joy itself.

The direct opposites of Mudita are: cynicism, depression and boredom; mudita’s ‘near enemy’ (something it can be confused with) is vapid or undiscriminating enthusiasm.   When you get familiar with these distinctions, it’s easier to spot ‘disturbances in the mudita field.’

Looking at the dynamics of the audience response to Dr. Sachs, we see the personal is political.  The big challenge from a Buddhist perspective is to do whatever we can to heal the wound of cynicism and bring more Mudita into our lives.   Then we can engage whole heartedly in facing the personal and global challenges before us.

Let’s examine the responses of much of the audience to Dr Sachs’ confidence in the face of adversity.

  1. No one even said ‘thank you’ for the enormous efforts he puts in at the coal face of global challenges, let alone rejoiced with him at his perception that it is possible to actually make positive changes. (no Mudita)
  1. People in the audience attempted to show him as a naive or vapid enthusiast.  (i.e. as someone operating out from the ‘near enemy’ of Mudita)
  1. The attacks came from positions of cynicism and depression (the opposite of Mudita)
  1. Dr. Sachs, whilst acknowledging the problems, was still able to identify good qualities in people in general that could meet the challenges. (Mudita)
  1. He specifically identified cynicism, one of Mudita’s opposite qualities, as the key problem of our time.

I expect most of these audience responses arose in part, arise because the audience members themselves had not received sufficient mudita themselves.  It’s a rare person in our culture who has a ‘strong positive self regard’, who feels they have had sufficient ‘blessing’ with the good eye of real appreciation of our good qualities.   When we find it difficult to appreciate others and their positive points of view, to really en-joy them we are simply passing on the wound, the curse of the evil eye of fault finding and cynicism.

Cynicism is the most toxic and damaging form doubt.  It’s like a cancer of the human soul that eats away at passion, at compassion, at wisdom and robs us of joy.   Cynics tend to view life through their own shortcomings, which of course lead them to see shortcomings everywhere.

Cynics do not merely read bitter lessons from the past, they are also prematurely disappointed in the future.  Cynics give up on themselves, and on their children and grand-children and all future generations, even before they are born. It’s as though they’re mired in the destructive view of ‘original sin’.

Inspired Confidence

A Lao Buddhist monk once asked my husband John about his work for positive change. As John talked, the monk said several times, “I rejoice with you.”   This phrase ‘I rejoice with you’ is a Lao cultural expression of the appreciative energy of mudita.

To stop being cruel to oneself and others and practice kindness and appreciation for our good qualities, is the bedrock of faith.  When we rejoice in our own good qualities and the good qualities of others, we are inspired to live a life of greater fullness.

Inspiration is an excellent ally to mudita. Inspiration moves the heart and aspiration and intention move us into action.  We act on the basis of an ‘inspired confidence’.

In Pali, the language of the early texts, the word for confidence, ‘saddha’ is also translated as “faith” or “trust”.  Saddha literally means “to place your heart upon”, because confidence moves us into action.  It’s also called a ‘reasoned confidence’  as it is a developmental process of testing one’s ground, then going further. When we put our hearts into the practice, it is a sign of faith or confidence in that practice.

Often our first faith is what it called a ‘bright faith’ and may be more like enthusiasm than ‘reasoned confidence’.  We aspire to something different in our life, or we are inspired by someone or something, and we have sufficient blind faith or trust, for example to come to this retreat and sit down and close our eyes.  But until that moment, we are acting on trust, not direct experience.

The practice we do here, trusts the mind’s ability to discover processes that further its development, to discard bad habits and to become free.

As we begin to make friends with our minds, ‘bright faith’ gradually develops into mature faith and confidence.  Mature confidence is anchored in our own experience of the truth, centered in the deeper understanding of the nature of the mind and body that we discover in meditation practice. This deeper level of faith is grounded in our own enquiry, our own experience and knowledge, rather than belief in something or someone outside of ourselves.

As you meditated, the mind will have found itself in beneficial states such as awareness, happiness, stillness, contentment, inner peace – perhaps even accompanied by fresh insights and wisdom.  Some of the unwholesome states of mind such as self-criticism, worry, anger or craving will have loosened their grip, even if only momentarily. The progress is not linear, and the mind may seem to cycle back through ‘Groundhog Day’ more than you would like, but as your awareness deepens, you see subtle shifts, even in the midst of what seems like regression.

Then you become your own source of inspiration for positive change!

Of course it is also inspirational and confidence-building to practice mudita, appreciative joy on a daily basis.  Not all our sources of inspiration have to be the Jeffrey Sachs of this world.

An excellent practice is playing ‘Spot the Bodhisattva’ in the supermarket.  You never know for sure where a Bodhisattva will turn up.  They don’t wear any badges or insignia.  They look as ordinary as the rest of us.

Who is that somewhat harried woman pushing that trolley of coke and sweet biscuits toward the check-out?  Oh, she’s a local women’s refuge worker, supplying the kids with the only food they’re familiar with, so they won’t freak out too much while their mum gets some rest and kindness.  Say ‘thank you – I rejoice with your good work’.

And there is my friend from Adelaide, Peter Hawken.  He sent me a eulogy he wrote for the funeral of one his clients, who became his dear friend.  The following fragment demonstrates that presence, to both the truth of the moment and the truth of potential for change and growth, opens up creative thinking and flexibility.

“Stephen would never get out of the car to go into a cafe or visit someone’s house.  We had to bring the coffee out to him, open his car door and sit around him.  One day I decided to take him toMurrayBridgeto visit my sister and her children who were very open to people labeled ‘intellectually disabled’.  From experience, I knew that Stephen would get out of the car, go to the front door and run away as soon as somebody answered it.  I rang my sister first to ask if she and her family would leave the front door open, let us come in and sit in the sitting room and then they could quietly come in and gather round us.  This strategy worked and very soon after this, when Stephen realized he was perfectly safe to venture out with me, we started to go into shops, cafes, homes and public transport.

Many possibilities that enriched his life began to open up to him.  We would often catch the tram to Glenelg, which he loved to do.  We caught the Steam Ranger fromAdelaidetoVictorHarbourand picnicked on delicious Greek food his mother had prepared for us.  I established the goal of going on a camp together and in our third year together we went on a family camp where he did things we never thought possible including staying away from home at night AND sleeping!”

Thank you, Peter, I rejoice in your discernment – your clear noticing of the difficulties involved in Stephen’s life, and your skill in starting right where he was and just opening one door. Then by going forward with vision and commitment, step by slow step, your confirmed that change is possible and achievable.

Intelligent Discernment

Sati or ‘presence’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘attentiveness’ is only one aspect of our practice. Awareness also requires intelligent discernment and judgment.  In Pali, this is called sampanjanna – the clarity of clear comprehension.

Comprehension and discernment come with experience, and experience depends on memory, recollecting what worked in the past and what didn’t work in the past.  As we practice, our awareness becomes more refined, and we see more subtle layers of cause and effect.  We become good diagnosticians of our own minds, and once we have a good diagnosis, we can find cures.

Our increasingly subtle discriminating intelligence tells us which pathways, both immediately and over time, lead the heart away from pain, and which pathways lead the heart towards pain.  Practicing this way, we begin to have confidence in our own good judgment – if you like, in our common sense.

From that we can make inferences (not hard and fast conclusions) about what paths may be useful in the future, and what may not be useful.  One reason why I encourage you to spend time recalling your meditation sitting is so that your mind can recall, thus strengthen, the pathways that lead the heart away from pain and towards wholeness. Additionally, when we recall we can often have further insights about the experiences we had in meditation.

One pitfall of enthusiastic ‘blind faith’ is idealistic expectations and fantasies of a state of permanent unshakeable bliss and wisdom where we will live happily ever after.

If we only focus on some ‘big picture’ of enlightenment, we will miss the sweet subtleties of the ‘small enlightenments’ on the path, the light shining through the opening doorways, the signs that tell us we are making progress.  These are what give rise to reasoned confidence in the path itself

Noticing and remembering the subtle differences, developing the capacity to discern, is a major break-through – because one of the things that keeps us trapped is making similar things ‘the Same’ – capital ‘S’.  Insight sees the changes and shifts, the rising and passing of processes.  Confusion sees static states, and rubber-stamps previous experiences on to current situations that may only be vaguely similar. Confusion believes a story in our heads more than the evidence we are experiencing now. It sees a W-H-O-L-E thing in a process that is actually full of holes!

In meditation, when we truly pay attention, we see both suffering and the roots of suffering.  When we see cause and effect in this way, we have a tool that can begin to untangle the threads of suffering. It becomes less personal, as we see how it arises, and how it ceases.  We stop being so caught up in our identity, in a sense of a solid, unchanging ‘I’.  By inference, we can also let go of a solid, unchanging idea of ‘human nature’.

There is no pre-ordained human nature, and no pre-ordained human destiny.  It is our kamma, our choice of actions in each moment, and the way they unfold, that precipitates our destiny; it is kamma, our actions, that ultimately fashions the entire variegated landscape of sentient existence itself, according to the ethical tone of its associated moral roots.

Inspiration and confidence in the world

To engage in creating positive social or environmental change is an act of faith, in the sense that we can never be assured of a ‘successful’ outcome.  More importantly I think it is an act of confidence in humanity, as Dr Jeffrey Sachs said – a confidence in human goodwill, compassion and intelligence as capabilities that can create positive change.

We perceive injustice and we act with confidence in justice as a quality that is good in itself; we perceive a lack of compassion and we act with confidence in compassion as a quality that is good in itself; we perceive damage to the earth and her creatures and we act with love to repair the damage, with confidence in love as a quality that is good in itself.

This doesn’t require any external source of faith. We know the qualities of justice, compassion and love in ourselves; from our own experience we know their goodness, their skilfullness.  Our actions based in these qualities may not always produce the outcomes we would like in the world, but that shouldn’t make us doubt the qualities themselves.

What it is useful to doubt is the means we have used.  That kind of doubt leads to realistic re-assessment and to creativity and renewed energy for finding new pathways.  This is the kind of balance between confidence and doubt that is useful in our work for the world, and leads to insight.  Even some of Dr Jeffrey Sachs methodologies and strategies have been critiqued, inviting him to reassess them – while staying true to his good heart, his values, intelligence and best intentions.

Sometimes we manage to live with uncertainty because we have hope.  Passive hope is more often a curse than a blessing.  The Buddha said, “hope and fear chase each other’s tails.”  Passive hope leads us away from where we are right now, towards some imaginary future state.  One might say that passive hope is a longing for a future condition over which one has no agency.   So that kind of hope can leave us powerless.  Worse still, false hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

When you turn passive hope into active hope – a hope you are noticing around you – in your communities and in the rest of the world – a hope you are participating in – you turn away from fear and towards possibility

We go forth, we muddle on with confidence in ourselves.  With faith in the essential goodness of the human heart and the wisdom mind.  Each and every one of us in this room has experienced this – for yourself – over and over again.  And yes, everyone in this room has experienced times when we’ve not trusted and acted on our inner goodness and wisdom.

Nevertheless, I know that within each of you is a heart potent with the seeds of loving kindness, compassion, and wisdom.   Each time we nourish these seeds, we grow our confidence in ourselves, grow our courage to let go of old certainties and imagine new pathways on which to journey.

“To be confident in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people, including us in our own small ways, have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”  Adapted from Howard Zinn.


The basic premise we have to test is the Buddha’s assertion that cause and effect does actually operate and that you personally, are agent of your own awakening.

Both the Buddha’s journey and teachings, and my own experience of walking the path have inspired in me a confidence that humans can learn, we can transform.  The Buddha’s simple and profound truth is that nothing arises without a cause, but nothing arises from a single cause.  Whatever has a causal arising has a causal ending.  In short what we do has consequences.  What we build up, we can take down.  It makes no difference whether the ‘structure’ you are dealing with is the story you tell yourself about who you are, or a massive environmental threat.

Here is how Dr Jeffrey Sachs concluded his fifth lecture:

“What I can tell you, with certainty, is that there is a role for everybody and every community, and a need for everybody to become engaged. You must be the peacemakers, development specialists, ecologists, all. Do not lose heart.

He quoted Robert Kennedy : ‘It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against an injustice, they send forward a tiny ripple of [confidence], and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’ “

In an inter-existent and inter-dependent world, there are multiple realities and therefore multiple possibilities for solutions and positive change.  Thousands of those are being implemented right now; some will fail, and many will work.  Unless we know how to shift our gaze from the ‘all or nothing’ view, and look with the intelligently discriminating eyes of interdependence and possibility, we will fail to see them and will lose faith.  They are growing like small green shoots between the rubble of our collapsing superstructures; they need our helping hands.  Choose one of them, any one of them and pitch in.

As a tribute to Dr Jeffrey Sachs’ commitment to this journey, and to remind ourselves of ‘mudita’, I quote Andre Breton:  “I believe in the pure surrealist joy of the person who, forewarned that all others before them have failed, refuses to admit defeat, sets off from whatever point they choose, along any path save a reasonable one, and arrives where they can.”

Inspired and joyful action, active rather than passive hope, is the basis for true confidence.

Two and a half thousand years ago, the Buddha overcame his own doubts and committed himself to an unreasonable and ultimately joyful journey. Because of his commitment, we are here in this room together.  Don’t ever let the journey end.