TOBIN HART is a humanistic transpersonal psychologist, professor in the University of West Georgia’s Humanistic, Transpersonal and Critical Psychology program, and co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute. In this three-part series, he is interviewed by VICTOR KANNAN, Director of the Heartfulness Institute USA, and in part 2 they focus on Tobin’s book, The Four Virtues, and especially presence, wisdom and the heart.
Q: So, Tobin, in your book you basically talk about presence, heart, wisdom and creation as four virtues. In each of these, you also add and talk about other things. For example, in presence, you talk about the beautiful, the sensing, the focusing, the witnessing, and the opening.
Can we dig a little bit deeper into this one particular virtue of presence? And then see how that is perhaps the most important starting point in one’s life?
TH: Presence, for example, really tracks with beauty. So the extent to which we’re present to another or present to the world, is the extent to which the world opens to us. And in that opening, we find and hear things (and people) as beautiful. To really sit with and see somebody beyond their persona and beyond their actions, we find that they have this incredible quality of luminosity. We get the sense of feeling a soul. What comes out of that is often a sense of love and a sense of beauty.
Sure. In the West, the most enduring depiction of the good life is captured with the words “the good, the true and the beautiful.” So, for me, I was surprised to see those tracked with each of these things that you mentioned, and we’ll add another one, too.
I have a friend who was on a mission to be with people on death row, years ago. Those people had committed horrific crimes, there was really little doubt of that. At some point my friend stopped trying to preach anything, convert anyone, or change anything. Instead, he simply was present to these inmates, listening to them to see who they were. What really surprised him was that when he really allowed himself to lose his own agenda and just be with each person, their soul poured out and their beauty was revealed. It shocked him how much he felt love for them, despite what they had done. In his being present for them, they were able to be present for themselves and begin to feel a glimpse of their own divinity. This is how he described it. It’s magic in some way.
It’s so simple, yet we come in with an agenda that we’re trying to get something from this encounter rather than being there, and we lose something. While an agenda can be a good motivator, a good starting point, it can also cover deeper experience – whether that is to get my walk in today, my 10,000 steps, or whatever else it is. It’s a good motivator but we can lose the opportunity of presence if we don’t leave the goal behind and be present in what we’re doing. If we can’t suspend the surface goal or agenda, whether it’s meeting a death row inmate or going for a walk, beauty stays in the background. It’s not there in the same way.
Q: So presence is to be present to the extent that we can appreciate the other.
TH: I think that appreciation is both an outcome and also a portal – to lead with curiosity and to move into contact with the other to see who they are. It’s what Martin Buber would call an “I–thou” relationship, and through it appreciation emerges organically.
Q: So the quality of time spent in the encounter is one way to look at presence, right?
TH: Yes, I think quality is the right word for this. I remember one time when my wife had to go out of the country. I had our two little kids and my work, and I was also filling in for some of her work. I was overwhelmed. I remember the first night putting the kids to bed and sort of shouting with frustration, “Okay, just go to sleep now!”
I was overwhelmed, and after realizing the energy I was giving out, I basically said to myself, “Oh, this is awful. I love my kids. I love chance, but The extent to which we’re present to another or present to the world, is the extent to which the world opens to us. And in that opening, we find and hear things (and people) as beautiful. INNERVIEWI’m hating this. So what can I drop away? What’s really the priority here?” I hadn’t let go of my self-imposed agenda of “I want to get this done this week. I want to finish that.” I finally calculated what I absolutely had to take care of during that week, and just let everything else go. I ended up having the most glorious week with my kids. I fell more deeply in love with them than ever before. As you said, it was the quality of time spent and a change in commitment and priority.
Q: So how do you recognize that you are not present, even though you’re physically there? What are the tools and techniques that we can use to recognize and remedy the patterns of non-engaging presence?
TH: I think one of the most powerful ways is through the body. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, says that if you change how you think about something, it will change how you feel. Other folks have gone a different way, for example, Eugene Gendlin created something called Focusing. He discovered that in psychotherapy it wasn’t simply insight, but also a felt sense that helps make change and growth happen. We know insight is helpful, but it’s not the same thing as when you have a felt sense, that is, a bodily sense of meaning. That’s when change actually happens in therapy, for example. It becomes embodied.
One of the trailheads toward presence is to increase embodiment; increase awareness of subtle cues in our heart, in our mouth, and in our gut. For example, we know that the enteric nervous system (the gut brain) is full of neuropeptides and their receptor sites. We used to think they were only in the brain. We understand that they’re involved with thinking. We discovered in the ’80s that they’re also in the gut and throughout the body. So the whole body is this thinking, feeling being. Even to make a distinction between thought and feeling is very difficult. This felt sense is our constant available touchstone to check in to see how present we are, and what we’re present to.
For example, if I say, “Wow, something isn’t right,” and “I feel a little tension in my abdomen, what’s that about?”, that’s the trailhead to follow so that I can be present to myself in order to be present to something else.
The extent to which we’re present to
another or present to the world,
is the extent to which the world opens to us.
And in that opening, we find and
hear things (and people) as beautiful.
Other times, things come from the outside; we’re grabbed by beauty, or by something unexpected. Toward the end of his life, after he had had a couple of heart attacks, Maslow had what he called plateau experiences, instead of peak experience. He began to talk about presence. He said that in that state you get stabbed by things, by babies, by flowers, by beautiful things, and just the very act of living. It’s this idea that the outside creates this real resonance if we’re open to it in some way.
Q: So, that’s where he probably says that beauty kills, right?
TH: Kills the separate Self. Yes.
Q: You also talk about the heart. You assigned the beautiful to presence, the good to the heart, and the true to wisdom. The heart is also a place of enormous duality and emotion, right?
Q: So both pain and suffering as well as good and kindness are all in the heart. How do you feel the heart through the duality of emotion? I ask this because most of us are trying to avoid pain and seek pleasure. How do we make sure that the heart – either as an instrument or as an organ of feeling – can navigate through these dualities and also become either a tool or an indicator for how we are leading our lives?
When you mentioned connecting as part of the heart, if I take “the good” with the connection, how do we connect to the good, while also recognizing the connection to the bad and the impact of that?
TH: That’s a big question, isn’t it?
What I see is that the heart is not discriminant. It’s here just to feel and to love. It’s about compassion, it’s about empathy. It’s about connecting. This may be a more limited notion than your use of the word “heart” or “heartfulness.” But for me, to be in the world, and to feel it in some way, are essential to bringing wisdom into this life. We can only do that by first really encountering the heart as fully as we can. Then we have a chance not to be consumed by feelings, but to be able to be with them in a way that is transformative.
In the United States, we have this thing called “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s a mixed bag, right? These days we have an expectation that if we’re not happy, if we’re not doing something that we’re happy about, something’s wrong with us. So it becomes a value. That’s an imposition. It can really throw us off course. People indulge in moments of pleasure, for example, to find happiness, or they try to make a lot of money to find happiness. I would say that, instead of that pursuit of happiness, the goal is the pursuit of fullness in some way. We all want to feel good rather than jealous; we want to feel playful rather than overly serious. But putting feelings into Remarkable people have an undercurrent of joy, even an undercurrent of equanimity, even when they’re in the midst of darkness and despair. They may be desperately sad, but still there’s something else that they tap into or stand in. It’s a place of rest. It’s a place of steadiness.categories of good versus bad, which is a fashion these days in psychology, really sets us up for an oppositional adversarial relationship to ourselves. I would argue that we’ve created an opponent, and the opponent is us. So, instead, the question might be, “How can I have a sense of welcoming them all?”
Rumi has a wonderful poem that many people know as “The Guest House.” Essentially he says to welcome all feelings, “a joy, a depression, a meanness,” and then, “The dark thought, the shame, the malice”… invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, for each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” They’re just feelings. They’re just here, leading us somewhere, to pay attention, inviting us to be present with them, welcoming them all, rather than having prejudice for one or another. There’s a s sense of, “Ah, okay, what do you have to show me? Can I be with that?”
What this implies is that there’s another order of awareness and capacity to be with this and have equanimity, balance and even joy in this. Usually the way we define happiness is that we feel happy when something good happens, whereas the etymological meaning of the word “joy” is an exaltation of spirit. Joy means an exaltation of spirit.
Remarkable people have an undercurrent of joy,
even an undercurrent of equanimity,
even when they’re in the midst of darkness and despair.
They may be desperately sad,
but still there’s something else
that they tap into or stand in.
It’s a place of rest.
It’s a place of steadiness.
So remarkable people have an undercurrent of joy, even an undercurrent of equanimity, even when they’re in the midst of darkness and despair. They may be desperately sad, but still there’s something else that they tap into or stand in. It’s a place of rest. It’s a place of steadiness. It’s a place of clarity that says, “Yes, yes, this human world is indeed about all these ups and downs, this roller coaster ride, and it’s so easy to fall down any one of these holes, pleasure or pain. But from this other position, we can see that it’s bigger than that.” We see that fundamentally there’s the possibility of equanimity and joy.
Q: Nice. So, this is wisdom, right? Is it something we can cultivate or are we born with it?
TH: Well in Zen, they tell us to have a beginner’s mind. In the Book of Matthew in the Bible, the instructions are to turn and become like a little child; only then shall you enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So there’s something about this presence of being that seems to be tied to wisdom.
Wisdom doesn’t come through calculation. It doesn’t come through shrewdness. Those things may be intelligence and they may be really useful for life, but I would argue that wisdom comes from something else. It comes from being in rapport with the mystery of reality.
We can recognize that it involves a couple of different things. For example, Aquinas, who’s influential in Western spiritual thought, said that wisdom involves what he called “the virtue of gnome,” which means higher discernment or seeing into the heart of something. There is some way that the mind of a child sometimes sees into the heart of something, or can instantly grasp the emotional reality. If somebody is in pain, even though they are denying it, the child gets it; they see something present. Rather than shrewdness or calculation, it involves a capacity, a willingness and an ability to enter in with wonder, with radical openness, seeing from a greater height, seeing into the heart of something.
Can we cultivate it? Well, cultivating heart and cultivating presence lead to this. One of my favorite things about wisdom is the capacity for possibility. Often, our minds construct things in a certain way, because our family and our culture construct things in a certain way. We believe that this is the way it is. But wisdom really believes in the possibility of all things. It’s this radical ability to step beyond the frame we’re in to see it from a greater height from within the heart.
Sometimes great spiritual guides, great discoverers, inventors, and others have these moments. We’re so conditioned by our surroundings, by our worldview, by our family, and by our experience, that it’s hard to leave the gravitational pull of that conditioning in order to get another point of view. And yet wisdom engenders and enables another possibility; always another possibility.
Tobin is a professor in the University of West Georgia’s Humanistic, Transpersonal and Critical Psychology program, and co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute, a non-profit educational and research hub exploring and nurturing the spirituality of children and adults. His work explores human consciousness at the nexus of spirituality, psychology, and education. His recent books include: The... Read more