Who Is Invisible to You?

Lisa Ernst asks us to notice who we don’t notice.

Lisa Ernst
4 August 2021
Illustration of a woman picking fruit in the grocery store.
Illustration by Carole Hénaff

There’s a man who works in the produce department at my neighborhood grocery store. He’s usually present in the morning when I shop there, but for more years than I’d like to admit, he was essentially invisible to me.

One day that changed. My hands were dripping wet from handling some particularly wet produce, and he rushed over with a paper towel for me to dry myself with. This simple act of kindness penetrated my heart. Tears welled up as I realized how often I had overlooked him, unconsciously making him invisible.

Some of us make certain parts of ourselves invisible.

Metta, or loving-kindness practice, teaches us that all humans have the same needs for safety, well-being, and freedom from suffering. To unconsciously make someone the “other,” to render them invisible, strips away this reality. And it separates us from the compassion, kindness, and love that naturally dwell in our hearts.

The remorse I felt after this encounter changed my loving-kindness practice forever. I began looking around the store when I went shopping, noticing the people who were stocking the shelves, working the cash registers, and sweeping the floor, and offering them wishes of kindness and well-being. Invariably, a friendly hello or a smile followed. As an introvert I often keep my attention to myself in public places, but these simple acts of acknowledgement broke me out of my conditioned patterns and created warm interactions. This was a new way for me to recognize and appreciate the interconnections we all share.

I’ve been doing traditional loving-kindness, or metta, practice for twenty years. The practice starts by offering kindness to people you find easy to love, then to people you are indifferent or neutral toward, people you may not even notice. Then you offer loving-kindess to people you find difficult, and finally to all beings.

Since my interaction with the employee in the produce department, I’ve changed the way I teach the practice. Now, when I’m offering a guided metta meditation, I ask people to explore what categories of humans are invisible to them.

Is it someone carrying a sign asking for help, or a houseless person? Do you overlook people of different ethnicity, ability, gender identity, women, or the elderly? When you see them, do you label them with biased stereotypes and assumptions about who they are? Because when that happens, their true humanity is invisible to you.

For your metta practice to truly embrace all beings, notice who may be unimportant to you or cause you to look away. Make sure to bring them into your practice of loving awareness. Buddha encouraged us to offer kindness to everyone without exception, even if it’s just a simple gesture or a smile.

In addition, some of us make certain parts of ourselves invisible. To make ends meet after leaving home at sixteen, I was a temporary worker going from job to job for years. I worked long hours, often for less than minimum wage. I felt completely invisible, even to myself. I went home at night deflated and dejected.

Finally I realized that I needed to see in myself what was invisible to others, to offer the love and kindness to myself that was missing. This practice of self-compassion helped me appreciate the inherent value of my humanity. It was the one thing that got me through.

This practice of including invisible people more explicitly in our metta practice is not a panacea for the systemic inequities in society, but a simple invitation to make visible and explore what has been hidden. May all beings be seen. May all beings be heard. May all beings be cared for with compassion and love.

Lisa Ernst

Lisa Ernst

Lisa Ernst is a meditation teacher, artist and founder of One Dharma Nashville. In her teaching, Lisa emphasizes both transformational insight and everyday awakening as an invitation to embrace all of the path’s possibilities. Lisa has been meditating for 30 years in the Zen and Vipassana traditions. She received dharma teaching authorization through Trudy Goodman in the Thai Forest lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield, etc.