Love breaks out
I finally got around to watching Children of Men this week. It’s a 2006 film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, about a near-future where global civilization has collapsed, Britain has become a fortress against waves of mass migration, and human fertility has abruptly stopped. No child has been born for 20 years, the playgrounds are silent, and people’s hearts have hardened.
The lead protagonist, played by Clive Owen, numbs his pain with booze. Then he gets drawn into the resistance movement by an ex-girlfriend, and given a secret mission to conduct a young immigrant woman out of Britain to a place of safety and freedom. The young woman, miraculously, is pregnant.
In one of the last scenes, they’re trying to escape a concentration camp, where a battle is raging between the British army and an immigrant uprising. Clive Owen goes to find the girl in the midst of this conflict, and hears a baby’s cry. It’s been born, in the middle of the fighting. He helps the mother up, and the three walk through the battle. Suddenly, everyone stops firing, and gazes at the miraculous infant, the first they have seen for 20 years. They are stunned into peace and love.
As a friend of mine said, it’s the ultimate Christmas movie. We have sugar-coated the nativity story, and forgotten the original version. Jesus was born in a stinking manger, at a time of war and mass infanticide. Into the bloody carnage of the world is born a tiny, defenceless baby. Love broke out – love, the weakest, most vulnerable thing in the world, and yet the most powerful, the most revolutionary.
In Chinese Buddhism, there are lots of stories of the past lives of the Buddha. In one story, the Buddha was born into hell. One version suggests he was already a bodhisattva, and chose to be reborn in hell to save others; another version says he was there because he wasn’t always a perfect being, and he’d really fucked up. I prefer the second version.
His punishment in hell is to be chained to a chariot, which he must pull along like an ox. There’s another sinner next to him, pulling away. And above them on the chariot is a demon, screaming at them to move faster, and stabbing them with a trident. The sinner on the Buddha’s right collapses, and the demon gets even more angry, stabbing him in the back repeatedly. Something rises up in the Buddha’s heart, and he turns to the guard and tells him to leave the other guy alone. ‘Attack me instead’, he says. The demon is absolutely furious at this selflessness. The Buddha is killed, and he instantly reincarnates out of hell and into a human form.
Love is the secret elevator between hell and heaven. You open your heart a tiny bit to other beings, and it changes your universe. One moment, you’re shut in a cocoon of misery, fury and self-pity. Then you shift your focus and open your heart. Love breaks out of hell.
Lama Thubten Yeshe, a Tibetan teacher who died in 1984, wrote:
According to Buddhist tantra, we remain trapped within a circle of dissatisfaction because our view of reality is narrow and suffocating. We hold on to a very limited and limiting view of who we are and what we can become, with the result that our self-image remains oppressively low and negative and we feel quite inadequate and hopeless. As long as our opinion of ourselves is so miserable, our life remains meaningless. Tantra challenges this unreasonably low opinion of human potential by showing us how to view ourselves and all others as transcendentally beautiful – as gods and goddesses in fact.
Yesterday on a crowded tube, two women got on, and had to move down the carriage to let on other passengers. The first woman bumped into the second, and the second one muttered ‘so fucking aggressive’. She jostled the other woman, as if by accident but not really. I sat watching, and thought, oh God, here we go, another screaming match on public transport. Right before Christmas. And I tried to open my heart and transmit loving-kindness to the second woman. I projected love and hoped she remembered how amazing she is, that she’s a divine being, a vessel of limitless love, infinitely worthy of love herself. I wished her joy and healing and love and a wonderful Christmas. I did this for about five minutes, between Russell Square and Piccadilly Circus. And she didn’t punch the other woman. A Christmas miracle! The first woman got a seat and sat down. When it w as my station, I got up and gave my seat to the second woman, and she said thank you, and sat down.
Maybe I imagined my own role in that moment. Maybe a person cannot magically transmit love to another person. Maybe that is wishful egotistic thinking. But personally, I 100% believe we can. I think our hearts are far more powerful than we realize. And if we practice sending love, I think our hearts increase in that power. That is magic, the only magic worth the name.
Love is a glimpse of our potential. Aldous Huxley spent his whole life thinking about human potential. A very clever man himself, he thought our greatest superpower is not cleverness or physical prowess. It is love. At the end of his life, he wrote: ‘It's a little embarrassing that, after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.’
I am very prone to self-pity. Particularly at Christmas. And I also have a horrible gift for seeing others’ flaws. When I nourish the habitual tendencies to resentment and self-pity, my heart closes, I sink like a stone, and find myself in hell. The colour drains from life and I am in a cold, grey shadow-land without hope or meaning. I look around bewildered and think ‘how did I get here?’
When I open my heart, just a little, reality changes. The colour comes back to the world and the warmth comes into my body. I see you for your infinite potential, and it reminds me who I am too. That shift can happen in a moment, in the tunnel between Russell Square and Holborn.
When we love - -when we open our heart just a fraction to another being, to our relatives, our neighbours, our co-workers, that angry woman on the tube, to those suffering this Christmas alone, in hospitals, in prisons, in mental asylums, in cages, in abattoirs, in refugee camps, in fear of violence, frozen in addiction, lost in false stories of their own worthlessness – when we open our hearts in love, we glimpse what we can become, and who we really are.