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The Heart of the Matter
– Thich Nhat Hahn
My desire for achievement has led to much suffering. No matter what I do, it never feels like it’s enough. How can I make peace with myself? The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being. Suppose you’re eager to offer happiness, to make someone happy. That’s a good thing to do. But if you’re not happy, then you can’t do that. In order to make another person happy, you have to be happy yourself. So there’s a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing. If you don’t feel that you’re on the right path, happiness isn’t possible. This is true for everyone; if you don’t know where you’re going, you suffer. It’s very important to realize your path and see your true way.
Happiness means feeling you are on the right path every moment. You don’t need to arrive at the end of the path in order to be happy. The right path refers to the very concrete ways you live your life in every moment. In Buddhism, we speak of the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It’s possible for us to live the Noble Eightfold Path every moment of our daily lives. That not only makes us happy, it makes people around us happy. If you practice the path, you become very pleasant, very fresh, and very compassionate.
I am busy from early in the morning until late at night. I am rarely alone. Where can I find a time and place to contemplate in silence? Silence is something that comes from your heart, not from outside. Silence doesn’t mean not talking and not doing things; it means that you are not disturbed inside. If you’re truly silent, then no matter what situation you find yourself in you can enjoy the silence. There are moments when you think you’re silent and all around is silent, but talking is going on all the time inside your head. That’s not silence. The practice is how to find silence in all the activities you do.
Let us change our way of thinking and our way of looking. We have to realize that silence comes from our heart and not from the absence of talk. Sitting down to eat your lunch may be an opportunity for you to enjoy silence; though others may be speaking, it’s possible for you to be very silent inside. The Buddha was surrounded by thousands of monks. Although he walked, sat, and ate among the monks and the nuns, he always dwelled in his silence. The Buddha made it very clear that to be alone, to be quiet, does not mean you have to go into the forest. You can live in the sangha, you can be in the marketplace, yet you still enjoy the silence and the solitude. Being alone does not mean there is no one around you.
Being alone means you are established firmly in the here and the now and you become aware of what is happening in the present moment. You use your mindfulness to become aware of every feeling, every perception you have. You’re aware of what’s happening around you in the sangha, but you’re always with yourself, you don’t lose yourself. That’s the Buddha’s definition of the ideal practice of solitude: not to be caught in the past or carried away by the future, but always to be here, body and mind united, aware of what is happening in the present moment. That is real solitude.
Making Friends with Ourselves
– Pema Chodron
Whenever we practice meditation, it is important to try to refrain from criticizing ourselves about how we practice and what comes up in our practice. This would only be training in being hard on ourselves! I want to emphasize the importance of maintaining an atmosphere of unconditional friendliness when you practice and as you take your practice out into the world. We can practice for a lot of years—I know many people who have practiced for countless years, decades even—and somewhere along into their umpteenth year, it dawns on them that they haven’t been using that practice to develop lovingkindness for themselves. Rather, it’s been somewhat aggressive meditation toward themselves, perhaps very goal-oriented. As someone said, “I meditated all those years because I wanted people to think I was a good Buddhist.” Or, “I meditated all those years out of a feeling of I should do this, it would be good for me.” And so naturally we come to meditation with the same attitudes with which we come to everything. I’ve seen this with students time and time again, and it is very human.
Rather than letting this be something to feel bad about, you can discover who you are at your wisest and who you are at your most confused. You get to know yourself in all your aspects: at times completely sane and openhearted and at other times completely messed up and bewildered. We are all at times a basket case. Meditation gives you the opportunity to get to know yourself in all those aspects. Judging ourselves for how our practice is going or what might be coming up for us during meditation is a kind of subtle aggression toward ourselves.
The steadfastness we develop in meditation is a willingness to stay. It may seem silly, but meditation actually isn’t too unlike training a dog! We learn to stay. When you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, you “stay.” When you’re worried about what’s going to happen on Monday, you “stay.” It’s a very lighthearted, compassionate instruction. It is like training the dog in the sense that you can train the dog with harshness and the dog will learn to stay, but if you train it by beating it and yelling at it, it will stay and it will be able to follow that command, but it will be extremely neurotic and scared. As long as you give a very clear command in the way that the dog was trained, it will be able to follow it. But add in any kind of unpredictability or uncertainty, and the poor animal just becomes confused and neurotic.
Or you can train the dog with gentleness. You can train the dog with gentleness and kindness, and it produces a dog that can also stay and heel and roll over and sit up and all of these things—but the dog is flexible and playful and can roll with the punches, so to speak. Personally, I prefer to be the second kind of dog. This staying, this perseverance, this loyalty that comes with meditation—it’s all very gentle or compassionate in its motivation. This gentle approach to yourself in meditation is called maitri. This is translated as “lovingkindness,” or just “love.” In terms of meditation, we learn to be kind, loving, and compassionate toward ourselves.
I teach about maitri a lot, and it is often misunderstood as some kind of self-indulgence, as if it is just about feeling good and being self-concerned. People will often think that that’s what I mean by maitri. But it’s somewhat subtle what maitri is and what it isn’t. For example, you might say that taking a bubble bath or getting a workout at the gym is maitri. But on the other hand, maybe it isn’t, because maybe it’s some kind of avoidance; maybe you are working out to punish yourself. On the other hand, maybe going to the gym is just what you need to relax enough to go on with your life with some kind of lightheartedness. Or it might be one of your 65 daily tactics to avoid reality. You’re the only one who knows.
So it’s important to be clear about what maitri means and not to come away with a misunderstanding of maitri as some kind of indulgence, which actually weakens us and makes us less able to keep our heart and mind open to ourselves and the difficulties of our life. I often use this definition: maitri strengthens us. One of the qualities of maitri is steadfastness, and that’s developed through meditation. So through boredom, through aches, through indigestion, through all kinds of disturbing memories, to edgy energy, to peaceful meditation, to sleepiness, it’s steadfastness. You sit with yourself, you move closer to yourself, no matter what’s going on. You don’t try to get rid of anything—you can still be sad or frustrated or angry. You recognize your humanity and the wide gamut of emotions you might be feeling.
When we cultivate maitri toward ourselves, we are also generating equanimity. Equanimity means we are able to be with ourselves and our world without getting caught in “for” and “against,” without judging things as “right” or “wrong,” without getting caught up in opinions and beliefs and solidly held views about ourselves and our world. Unconditional friendliness is training in being able to settle down with ourselves, just as we are, without labeling our experience as “good” or “bad.” We don’t need to become too dramatic or despairing about what we see in ourselves.
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The shimmering reflections of consciousness
-Andrew OlendzkiWinter 2010
Andrew Olendzki is the senior scholar at the Integrated Dharma Institute and is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Wesleyan University.
“The mind is luminous, but is polluted by the toxins that are dumped into it.” This is a translation, updated for our times, of a well-known passage found in the early discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya 1.49). It has been interpreted by some people to suggest a transpersonal consciousness—a consciouness that is outside the consciousness arising each moment in a person’s experience—somehow outside the experience of sense object impinging upon a sense organ. But that is not the sense in the early Buddhist literature. Rather we find the image of a pool of water that, when still, can clearly reflect the nature of whatever impinges upon it. Consciousness is not a force larger than ourselves but a process taking place within ourselves. This process has no individualizing characteristics beyond the basic function of “knowing” an object. Mind is thus neither the source of light, like a shining sun, nor the reflected light of something greater, like the moon. Mind is instead a shimmering pool of contingent potential, capable of reflecting sun, moon, and any other object that happens to dance upon its surface. Its function is more important than its essence. The mind is influenced significantly by the qualities of what gets stirred into its naturally pristine waters.
The diversity of experience comes not from consciousness itself but from the other four aggregates (form, feeling, percepton, volition) in the mix. There is an apparently infinite array of physical and mental objects; the interpretation of these by means of the symbolic language of perception; their texturing with varying shades of pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones; and both the active intentions and passive dispositions that respond each moment to the impingement of these objects with the enactment of karma. In this sense, consciousness itself is like a mirror whose only function is to reflect whatever it encounters—the content of experience is provided by other mental processes. In particular it is the karma formations of the sankhara aggregate that color the experience of an object with mental states and emotional responses. Whenever we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think of an object, we do so with a particular attitude or emotion that gets stirred in like an additive to consciousness. These can be either wholesome or unwholesome— healthy or toxic—and can thus either clarify or contaminate the mind’s ability to know itself and its environment.
The image of polluted water is elaborated upon in the Numerical Discourses (Anguttara Nikaya 5.193). “Suppose there is a bowl of water,” says the sutta, going on to describe the water as impinged upon in some way by an external factor that pollutes its depths or agitates its surface. Under such circumstances, “If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would neither know nor see it as it really is.” The text goes through a list of mental states called the five hindrances, showing how each one of them can be seen to obscure the natural luminosity and reflective ability of the mind.
Sense desire, the subtle inclination of the mind toward alluring objects, is said to be like a bowl of water “mixed with lac, turmeric, blue or crimson dye.” The pellucid quality of the mind is ruined by dumping such distorting and obscuring substances into its clear waters.
Ill will, the equally subtle inclination of the mind away from all disturbing or unpleasing objects, is said to be like “water being heated over a fire, bubbling and boiling.” Even in English we refer to this sense of anger and hatred as fires that heat the mind up with destructive emotions. Boiling furiously, the mirroring potential of the mind is lost.
Sloth and torpor, those mental factors contributing to sluggishness, sleepiness, or laziness of mind, are likened to “water covered over with water plants and algae.” Such growths take root in indolence and a lack of diligence, and so encumber the mind that its surface becomes obscured.
Restlessness and remorse, their opposite qualities, are identified with “water stirred by the wind, rippling, swirling, churned into wavelets.” When the mind is agitated by gales of anxiety, hyperactivity, multitasking, or incessant internal chattering, it is no longer capable of seeing things as they are.
Doubt is the hindrance that causes us to lack confidence, questioning ourselves, our actions, our teachers, and almost everything else. It is said to be similar to “water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy, or placed in the dark.” Here too, the conditions for the mind’s natural reflectivity are hampered so much that it can no longer function.
Such a model of the mind encourages us always to take on the dual projects of tranquilization and purification. Meditation can be understood as an enterprise of quieting the mind, in order to allow its surface to settle into a reflective plane. But the quality of the water itself also needs attention. This involves, among other things, examining its depths for the presence of toxins, neutralizing these contaminants at every opportunity, and developing diligent moral habits to ensure that new pollutants are dumped into the mind as little as possible. Fortunately, the texts also offer a set of antidotes for each of these poisons, so pouring in such dispersants as non-attachment, lovingkindness, energy, tranquility, and confidence, is sure to have a wholesome, purifying effect.
It can be exceedingly difficult to entirely shut off the source of toxic influxes into the mind, especially those that flow in from the deepest reaches of the psyche. This is finally accomplished only by an arahant or a buddha. Yet there are plenty of ways in which we can stem the flow, working each moment to calm the waters, siphon out the debris, and catch glimpses of what the world looks like when the mind is able to let it all come and go without attachment, appropriation, or interference. Everything becomes clear and luminous when we settle the waters.
Wonderful indeed it is to tame the mind.
A challenge to subdue—ever swift, seizing whatever it desires.
A tamed mind brings happiness.
Adapted from: Limitless Thoughts
by Thanissaro Bhikhu
During loving kindness meditation, we radiate goodwill: goodwill for ourselves, goodwill for the people around us. And we can take this further. We can try to develop a contunal attitude that arises from the loving kindness meditation. Keeping in mind the wish for your own true happiness and wishing for the true happiness of the people around us. Loving Kindness is one of those thoughts that doesn’t need to have a limit. However much true happiness you gain, you’re not taking anything else away from anyone else. However much they gain, they’re not taking anything away from you. It’s good to be able to put the mind in an unlimited state by thinking of unlimited things like that.
The Buddha talks about greed, anger, and delusion as things that make a limit. As long as we allow greed, anger, and delusion to hold sway over our minds, we’re limiting ourselves. Then there’s a whole question of self identification: That too is a limit. The Buddha says that whatever you identify as your self, that’s a limit on you. We counteract these limited contactions with limitless thoughts of inclusion and loving kindness. In other words, while your mind is dwelling on the idea of goodwill for yourself, goodwill for other people, You are creating a wholesome state. You’re not creating any opening for the limitations of greed or anger to come in to the mind. That way you help to open things up, open up the windows in your head, let the air come in. That puts you in the right frame of mind for meditation, focusing on your object of meditation.
One may forget that what determines the pain and pleasure in the mind, the stress and ease in the mind, the sorrow and happiness in the mind, comes from our perceptions and interpretations. It doesn’t come from things. So as we’re meditating, we’re learning how to focus on our minds to see what we’re doing, to see where there are slips in our awareness, lapses in our mindfulness that allow us to do things that are not in our best interest. This is why meditation focuses so much on developing continual mindfulness and alertness. These are the two most helpful qualities in the mind. Mindfulness simply means keeping something in mind. Alertness means noticing what you’re doing, and what’s happening around you. We already have these qualities to a certain extent, but we’ve never fully developed them to see how far they can take us. So as we’re meditating, that’s what we’re doing: developing these two most helpful qualities in our mind. Keep the object of meditation in mind. And watch the minds movement. Alert sensitivity requires being fully present, and also being very open to noticing what’s coming in through your senses.
When you’re not really paying that much attention to the present moment, there are lots of distractions arising, and they fragment your attention. But the more fully you can immerse yourself in the object of meditation, the less room there is for unwholesome states to arise. The mind becomes more fully here so that you can observe it, so that you begin to watch it in action.
The Buddha’s approach to dealing with the untamed and distracted mind is not so much tracing things back to what you did as a child, as is done in psychotherapy. BUddha tells you to focus more on looking at your habitual patterns as they arise, as they keep coming back again and again and again. You don’t have to ask, “What happened when I was a child, why did this happen?” You just have to look at what you’re doing, to see the unnecessary suffering you’re causing yourself. Or you can keep an eye out for any lack of openness and honesty in the mind: What’s that doing to the mind? Do you want to do that? Do you continue wanting to do that as you see the stress that it’s causing?
Sometimes this may seem threatening, opening up these unwholesome patterns of behavior, but as meditating, staying with the object of meditation, making it very comfortable, you’re also developing an attitude of gentleness, being gentle, not forcing it too much, just allowing yourself to feel really good and uplifted. The gentler you are inmeditation, the more collected the mind gets. The more collected the mind is, the more you can really look into what’s going on, with a gentleness that doesn’t scare these things away, and a clarity that doesn’t get swayed by distraction. That way you don’t have to be afraid of the things that get come up. You don’t have to rejectl. You can acknowledge, yes, there is that the mind.
The world tells us that things that are happening and other people are on the other side of the world are the most important thing going on. But you don’t have to believe that, because your world is being shaped by your what you pay attention to right now. You want to understand this process of attention and intentions. What does it mean for the mind to act? What’s the difference between a simple event in the mind, the appearance of a feeling, and an action, the intention? How are intentions formed? What goes into that process? What kind of perceptions, what kind of questions do you ask yourself? What kind of connection in the mind and the body drives your decisions? Often you’ll catch yourself doing something, and you’ll say, “Wait a minute, what did that come from?” The decision seemed to be made by itself, and little tiny things triggered it. That’s what you’ve got to look into, so that you can be more sensitive and actually see the trigger. Often the trigger, on closer inspection, will seem have to produced an over sized response. Why on earth did that trigger spark that intention,
spark that action?
This is probably one of the scariest things about our own minds: Our minds are shaping our lives, and yet we don’t know how and why they’re doing it. As meditators, we’re putting ourselves in a better position to see the how and the why, and gain more insight about and more control over those actions. But before you can see the movements of the mind, you have to be very still.
Cultivating this stillness in meditation is a very immediate way of showing goodwill to yourself and other—because it is both a wholesome and nurturing state to abide in and a way of developing skillful means to spread loving kindness in your daily life.
1. Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows one like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
2. Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows one like his never-departing shadow.
3. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.”
Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
4. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.”
Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.
5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal.