Bodhichitta is our heart – our wounded, softened heart. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die. This love is bodhichitta. It is gentle and warm; it is clear and sharp; it is open and spacious. The awakened heart of bodhichitta is the basic goodness of all beings.
~ Pema Chodron
BETWEEN THE LINES
I want you to pay attention
spaces, the silences, the pauses,
the gaps between the words,
the white of the page behind the black of the ink,
the calm that holds the chaos that spins through
this ever-turning world and I want to remind you of
the beauty of the unspoken,
the sweetness of the unresolved,
the invisible screen that holds the light and the shade
and the mystery that permeates everything,
the mystery that reads these words now,
and pays attention
spaces, the gaps, the pauses,
the endings that begin
and the stillness
that envelops it all.
– Jeff Foster
The noble heart of compassion is the wish to alleviate suffering for ourselves and for others. Loving kindness and compassion are distinguished from one another in the Buddhist tradition in this way: loving kindness is the wish for ourselves and others to be happy, and compassion is the wish for ourselves and others to be free of suffering.
In our effort to awaken compassion in ourselves, our ability to feel is essential. Our emotions are not an obstacle to love and compassion — they are the gateway to awakening more love and compassion for ourselves and for the world. Sometimes emotions come in gentle waves and sometimes they come in powerful waves that take you down and tumble you to the ground. Have you ever played on the shore of the ocean and experienced how sometimes the waves come just lapping up at your toes and other times they just pummel you? Emotions can be just like that.
Our first task as meditation practitioners attempting to live with open hearts and to generate love and compassion is to allow ourselves to feel how we feel. All of the ways that we disconnect ourselves from feeling are all the ways that we disconnect from ourselves and from each other. But we need support in doing that — in feeling– because it’s hard. Sometimes it feels overwhelming or even terrifying to open fully to our emotional landscape. Allowing ourselves to feel and meeting our inner world with compassion is the antidote to feeling overwhelmed.
It’s helpful to have a community of practitioners where you can engage practices to help you open your heart. Community can also help you find a feeling of hopefulness in the face of the world’s suffering, which can feel overwhelming at times. As we open fully to our experience and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the noble heart of compassion. Just as with loving kindness, acceptance is an essential first step in the practice of compassion
Compassion practice also brings a feeling resourcefulness. It reminds us that there is something we can do to attend to our own hearts, to offer kindness and compassion to ourselves, to hold our own feelings with equanimity and kindness and care. When you become aware of the suffering of others, compassion practice offers a way to open your heart and offer care. To be met with somebody else’s caring, even if all they do is say, “I’m sorry that you’re hurting,” can help alleviate the suffering. Think about it: when you are suffering and you know that people care about you, even if they can’t take the pain away, it can be a huge relief.
A few years ago, after one of the bombings in Paris, a news story featured a young French boy and his father who were standing at one of the sites that had been attacked. They were being interviewed by the television reporter and the little boy was being asked about his experience. He was talking about how there are bad people who have done bad things and because of this they had to leave their home to go to someplace safe. The little boy was crying and clearly terrified. Then they looked over and noticed that there were flowers and candles. The little boy looked at them and asked, “Those flowers are here to protect us?” and his dad said, “Yes, they’re here to protect us.” And you could see the little boy visibly soften into some sense of safety that there were these things here to give him hope, to remind him that people care, to show them that they’re not alone.
Sometimes when we’re suffering or we are with someone who is suffering, the suffering can feel like it eclipses everything else. Compassion practice can remind us that that’s not all that’s happening right now. Even in the midst of pain there is the possibility of joy. Even in the midst of sadness there is the possibility of happiness. When we feel like suffering is the only thing that exists, we have “dukha samadhi”, which is single-pointed focus on suffering. That’s all we can see. Compassion practice gives us a little bit of perspective and lets us see that while there is suffering here there are also lots of other things.
As we feel suffering and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the noble heart of compassion.
Tonglen Meditation: The Practice of Compassion
Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice that awakens compassion. Tonglen is a Tibetan word – tong means to take, len means to give, so it is often called the practice of giving and taking (or sending and taking). In Buddhism, we talk about Samsara, which is the cycle of pain and suffering that we are all caught in. This cycle is perpetuated by a misunderstanding. That misunderstanding is thinking that to be happy we must reject what is painful and seek what is pleasurable. On the Buddhist path, we are invited to step out of the cycle of suffering by confronting the misunderstanding the fuels it. Tonglen is one practice that helps us do that. We are invited to invite in what is painful and to offer out what is pleasurable. This can be a very challenging thing to do and it takes courage to open our hearts in this way.
Pema Chödrön is an inspirational teacher for this practice. Her book: Tonglen, the Path of Transformation, is an incredible resource. She writes:
“All sentient beings without exception have bodhichitta, which is the inherent tenderness of the heart, its natural tendency to love and care of others. But over time, in order to shield ourselves from feeling pain and discomfort, we have erected solid barriers that cover up our tenderness and vulnerability. As a result, we often experience alienation, anger, aggression, and a loss of meaning in our lives – both individually and on a global scale. Somehow, in the pursuit of happiness, we have unwittingly created greater suffering in our lives. Tonglen, or the practice of sending and taking, reverses this process of hardening and shutting down by cultivating love and compassion. In Tonglen practice, instead of running away from pain and discomfort, we acknowledge them and own them fully. Instead of dwelling on our own problems, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and appreciate our shared humanity. Then the barriers start to dissolve, our hearts and minds begin to open.”
We all have exquisite vulnerability and tenderness. This practice reveals that. We spend a lot of time covering that up and so this practice takes courage. While doing this practice, it is common to find that it is very challenging to do, and it brings us into immediate contact with all the ways that we usually turn away from or close ourselves off from feeling pain or discomfort (our own or another’s). Seeing this, we have an opportunity to begin to open. This is an extraordinary gift.
Tonglen is a practice that opens you up to see and connect with the pain in the world around you. It can feel overwhelming at first, but then it becomes an incredible resource. Seeing the suffering of the world, we can begin to turn towards it, instead of away from it, and feel compassion for our shared human experience. And we can awaken the wish for everyone, including ourselves, to be happy and free from pain. Noticing a moment of suffering in another being, you can pause, open your heart, breathe it in, and breathe out anything that you imagine might offer comfort.
Formal Tonglen practice has four parts:
1. Open your heart. Flash on a sense of openness, inside you and all around you. Recognize that this space is always available to you, and you can come back at anytime and reconnect with it.
2. Work with the textures of suffering and it’s absence and begin to synchronize these with the breath. Breathing in, open to the qualities of suffering – dark, heavy, hot, uncomfortable, agitated (whatever they might be for you). Breathing in, extend outward the qualities of freedom – light, fluid, cool, relief, sweetness.
3. Consider a specific life experience of pain and open to it completely. Breathing in, be completely willing to acknowledge the pain of it and to feel it. Breathing out, offer whatever you might imagine the antidote to be. Spend enough time considering the circumstances so that you evoke genuine feeling, but don’t get lost in the details of the story. Begin to let go of the specifics and let the qualitative experience ride the breath in and out. Continually moving with the breath, and still aware of the sense of openness, so that you are like an open window.
4. Expand the practice out to include as many beings as you can imagine. Opening to the pain of the world as you breathe in, sending out love, light, healing, joy, peace….whatever it feels to you that the world needs at that moment.
Always begin and end your Tonglen practice with at least a few minutes of Shamatha meditation, simply being with your breath. And at the end of your practice, offer a dedication of merit, offering your efforts with the wish that all beings everywhere (including yourself) find happiness and freedom.
In stillness, the silence of the divine becomes intimate.
~ John O’Donohue
My dear friends, suppose someone is holding a pebble and throws it in the air and the pebble begins to fall down into a river. After the pebble touches the surface of the water, it allows itself to sink slowly into the river. It will reach the bed of the river without any effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom of the river, it continues to rest. It allows the water to pass by. I think the pebble reaches the bed of the river by the shortest path because it allows itself to fall without making any effort.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“By learning to attend closely to another sentient being, with a quiet mind and an open heart, we break down the barriers between our suffering and others’ suffering.” ~ B. Alan Wallace
Loving kindness is a way of expanding our circle of self. It starts with really connecting with our own longing for happiness and a fundamental belief that we are worthy of being happy. We could work with cultivating loving kindness for ourselves for the rest of our lives, and this would be a very worthwhile journey. The foundation of loving kindness is an unconditional acceptance of ourselves and our experience in the moment. Our circle widens gradually from there to include all living beings.
The Opposite of Loving Kindness
If loving kindness has an opposite, it is judgment. Judgment and loving kindness cannot co-exist, but it is possible to hold even our judgments in the embrace of loving kindness. We are human after all, and judgment will inevitably arise. We often spend so much time judging ourselves and others, and we are often hardest on ourselves because we feel unworthy of love. It’s exhausting to keep fueling our stories of unworthiness, and yet somehow we do. They’ve been fed (often unknowingly) by our parents, our teachers, our peers, our communities, and our society. The path of loving kindness starts with being where we are, and who we are, and feeling what we feel, all while dropping the story line, which is so often permeated with judgment.
Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray writes:
“As practitioners on the path, we need to open ourselves to our selves. We need to provide a warm, open, welcoming embrace for ourselves. And ‘our selves’ means whatever shows up in our experience….The number one principle of maitri is: we mustn’t judge. Don’t judge. Simply be with experience without judging. This is really difficult….Now some of us come to really positive conclusions about ourselves—that’s judging. But equally, if we have an emotion or we say something to somebody that upsets them or we miss something or our meditation (according to us) isn’t going well, then we judge ourselves negatively. Maitri is ‘not judging.’ ”
My Happiness is Your Happiness
The ultimate expression of loving kindness is when we realize the profound and inextricable interconnectedness of all sentient beings. There is ultimately no self and other. When I realize that your happiness and my happiness are not two separate things; when I work for your happiness, that is the cause of my own happiness. When I work for my own happiness, that is also of benefit to you. There is no ultimate division or separation between me and you.
Guided Practice: Loving Kindness Meditation
There are five different stages of loving kindness practice. Each stage widens our circle of care. The practice of loving kindness begins with extending the hand of friendship to ourselves first, and then opening ourselves and extending this warmth and care to others. We move from ourselves to offering loving kindness to a loved one, then to a neutral person or a stranger (somebody that you don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other), then to a difficult or challenging person, then to all beings.
Begin by spending a few minutes of settling into your seat and connecting with your body and your breath. Establishing a stable ground from which to practice loving kindness.
Feel your body. Sense the alignment of your body from the inside out and sit with a long spine and an open heart.
Connect with your heart. Rest attention in your heart space for a few moments and notice what you are present to.
Bring attention to your breath, without needing to breath in any particular way, just allow attention to rest on the sensations of your body breathing. Rest with the sweet simplicity of the breath flowing in and out.
The practice of loving kindness begins with befriending yourself as you are. Simply sitting and being and breathing allows you to begin to know yourself and love yourself, as you are.
As you enter the practice of loving kindness, begin with a gesture of loving kindness towards yourself, perhaps by placing one or both of your hands over your heart space. Extend the warmth of friendship to yourself, from yourself.
Now, having connected with yourself in this way, extend loving kindness to yourself using these traditional phrases:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be peaceful.
May I live with ease.
See if there is anything else that you want to offer to yourself. Offer what you feel that you most need to receive. Allow yourself to feel fulfilled and freed in the deepest possible way.
Now, turn your attention now towards someone that you love and care about. Make a heart connection with this person.
Take a moment to really see them, not just with your eyes, but with your whole being. See them and receive them. From you heart to theirs, offer them loving kindness:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
May you live with ease.
See if there is anything else that you would like to offer this person, knowing that there is no limit to what you can give. See your loved one fulfilled by the deepest source of happiness and freed from every source of suffering.
Now, turn your attention to an acquaintance – someone you don’t know very well but know well enough to call them to mind and connect with them. Without knowing much about this person, you can trust that this person, just like you, would like to be happy and free from suffering. With this understanding, extend loving kindness to them:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
May you live with ease.
See if there is anything else that you would like to offer to this person. Trust whatever comes. Imagine them happy and free.
Now, turn your attention towards someone that you consider a difficult or challenging person. This person too, just like you, desires happiness and freedom. Open your heart to this person as best you can and extend loving kindness to them:
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.
May you live with ease.
Extend any other offerings of loving kindness that you’d like to give to this person. See them filled with happiness and freed from pain.
Now, open your heart in all directions. Imagine threads of connection extending from your heart to all of the people in your life. Let the feeling sense of opening your heart continue and imagine threads of connection to living beings across time and space, as many as you can imagine. Imagine that your heart really is this big — there is no limit to the love that you have to give. Radiating out, like sunlight, to the whole world, these wishes:
May all beings everywhere be happy.
May all beings everywhere be healthy.
May all beings everywhere be peaceful.
May all beings everywhere live with ease.
Offer any other wishes of loving kindness that you’d like to offer the world.
Allow yourself to rest with whatever feelings of open-heartedness and well-being are here for you to feel. Connecting with your body, your heart, your breath. Feel what you feel. This practice begins with befriending yourself and ends in the same way. Welcome your hands to your heart again, or any other gesture of self acceptance and love. Let yourself really receive this love.
Bring the palms of your hands together now in a gesture of prayer in front of your heart. Offer a dedication of your practice:
Mall all beings be well.
May all beings be happy.
Peace. Peace. Peace.
Silence is the voice of the mystery. Silence lets us dream again.
~ John O’Donohue
Acknowledging suffering is the first step to awakening sacred body, authentic speech, and luminous mind – which is who we truly are when we are fully present in each moment.
~ Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Where do you live?
How did you come to meditation?
Wanted to stop hiding from my problems 🙂
What inspires you to meditate?
How well it works! The peace of mind I can bring into the world helps me to be a better human to myself and those around me.
What does your meditation practice look like?
Daily morning journaling for 3 pages, at least 12 minutes of Shamatha meditation, and Yoga Nidra nearly every other day.
Do you have any rituals or routines that support your practice?
Doing my meditation as soon as I wake up in the morning so I can start my day on the right foot.
How is your life different because of meditation?
I am able to rest in the peace that is my mind when difficulties arise. I have a strategy to get back to the “original state” when I find myself out on a limb.
What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in your practice?
I think the biggest challenge has been learning to have patience! Allowing my life to unfold instead of trying to control every little aspect is a hard practice, and a lifelong one. The mantra “sometimes, it’s like this” tends to come in handy for me in that regard.
What advice would you share with someone who is just starting a meditation practice?
Meditation works. If you develop a small daily practice you will notice your world change, guaranteed.
What does your heart most long for?
That all the suffering in the world would cease.
Awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
~ John O’Donohue
Love is space. Love is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are. That is love… It is bigness. It’s allowance. It’s flexibility… Love calls us to include the humanity of everyone that we find ourselves in conflict with. How do we include more of us, more of the time, to be more whole and more complete and more in our capacity to love.
~ Rev. angel Kyodo williams
As you slow down and turn in… Suddenly there is so much space. Breath where none was to be found. You are already held by something vast.
~ Matt Licata