meditation and compassion

“The Heart of the Buddha,” by Chogyam Trungpa

heart of the buddha trungpa

Trungpa Rinpoche was a deeply flawed man, but an inspiring teacher. A new book gives Suriyavamsa a chance to reflect on Trungpa’s genius, and on the visceral and striking teaching it gave rise to.

I remember studying with my teacher Sangharakshita in a group of Triratna Buddhist centre teachers a couple of years ago. He expressed his admiration for Chogyam Trungpa and, using Gurdjieff’s distinction between the narrow saint and the broad genius, considered Trungpa to be a flawed genius of intelligence, flair and imagination. Sangharakshita went on to encourage us all to become ‘geniuses’ – to be broad and other regarding, and to develop the many diverse talents necessary to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

Title: The Heart of the Buddha
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-0-87773-592-2
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

This memory returns to me on reading The Heart of the Buddha, a recently re-released collection of Chogyam Trungpa’s articles. Trungpa was certainly broad. He had the genius, the flair and talent necessary to inspire many people to take up the Buddha’s teachings and he has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world. Many of the famous Buddhists teaching today such as Pema Chodron, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, Judith Zimmer Brown and Reginald Ray owe their foundation in the Dharma to Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world.

It pays to watch some of the YouTube videos of his lectures and get a sense of the author before reading this book. On these we see him sitting calmly, holding court before hundreds of people. He is immaculately dressed in a suit and tie and is carefully emphasizing each sentence with an impeccable elocution acquired during his stay at Oxford University in England. This is not a traditional Tibetan teacher fresh out of the Himalayas with trumpets and robes but someone deeply immersing himself in Western expressions. Someone out alone in a foreign culture determined to communicate the heart of the Buddhas teachings in a language accessible to the people before him. Trungpa’s presentations combined a thorough training in traditional Tibetan Buddhism with a radical re-visioning of what it means to practice the Dharma today. He tapped into a broad range of sources from Erich Fromm and psychology to Zen flower arranging and military discipline, and was keen to avoid the distracting allure of exotic Tibetan cultural trappings.

The articles in The Heart of the Buddha were chosen to represent “as complete a range of Rinpoche’s teachings as possible,” according to the introduction. There are edited introductory talks with questions and answers as well as more scholarly essays. In the first section we have a more experiential evocation of what is involved in meditation practice, in devotion and in the integration of intellect and intuition. Here is a taster from the article on mindfulness:

‘It (mindfulness) is a worldwide approach that relates to all experience, it is tuning into life. We do not tune in as part of trying to live further […] Rather we just see the sense of survival as it is taking place in us already. You are here, you are living: let it be that way – that is mindfulness. Your heart pulsates and you breathe. Let mindfulness work with that, let that be mindfulness, let every beat of your heart, every breath, be mindfulness itself. You do not have to breathe specially; your breath is an expression of mindfulness. If you approach meditation in this way, it becomes very personal and very direct.’

I’ve never found a clear overview in a Chogyam Trungpa book. He never wrote a 101 of Buddhism. I have thoroughly enjoyed my wanderings through these articles, but have been glad of my studies in my own tradition for an underlying framework to help hang it all together. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend even this broad compendium as an introduction to Buddhism. What you do get with Trungpa Rinpoche is something at least as important – vivid evocations of spiritual experience and a living sense of the scale and detail of the Buddhist perspective. He uses unexpected and surprising imagery which is often visceral and always striking. Reading his books is like making out the Buddha’s Dharma by flashes of lightning – you are left with memorable impressions and a stack of vivid quotes. Here are a few:

‘People have difficulty beginning a spiritual practice because they put a lot of energy into finding the best and easiest way to get into it. We might have to change our attitude and give up looking for the best and easiest way. Actually, there is no choice. Whatever approach we take, we will have to deal with what we are already.’

‘True admiration has clarity and bite. It is like breathing mountain air in winter which is so cold and clear that we are afraid that it may freeze our lungs. Between breaths we may want to run into the cabin and throw a blanket over our heads lest we catch cold – but in true admiration we do not do that.’

‘Spiritual shoppers are looking for entertainment from spiritual teachings. In such a project devotion is nonexistent. Of course if such shoppers visit a store where the salesman has a tremendous personality and his merchandise is also fantastically good, they might momentarily feel overwhelming trust of some kind. But their basic attitude is not desperate enough. Their desperation has been concealed or patched over, so they make no real connection with the teaching.’

The second section of the book contains three articles chosen to represent the three phases of the Tibetan Buddhist path –  taking refuge, the self transcendence of compassion, and the tantric path of ‘Sacred Outlook’.

The chapter on “Sacred Outlook” is the longest article at just under forty pages. Originally written for the catalog of an exhibition of ancient Buddhist Silk Route art, it is one of the best introductions to Tantric Buddhist practice I have come across, both in the thoroughness of its description and in its simplicity.

I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination…

The final section is a bit of a mixture with articles on relationships, death, poetry, money, Buddhist/Christian dialogue and a piece on drinking alcohol. This is where Trungpa’s dangerous side comes out. He writes on the limitations of a moralistic attitude to pleasure and on the difference between alcohol being poison or medicine lying in the level of one’s awareness. A meditator undertakes ‘conscious drinking’ as a means to keep connected to others. It is difficult to read this as anything but naive in the light of his early demise at forty seven from cirrhosis of the liver and the chaos of his community after his death.

Nevertheless, I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination in contrast to the formulaic, safe and commercial nature of so much of today’s music. These articles come from a time when Buddhism in America was more radically alive. Their vitality, originality and indeed danger, as well as their deep rootedness in the Buddhist tradition contrast strongly with so much of what passes for Dharma today. Amidst the mountain of secular Buddhism, domestic Buddhism for couples, therapeutic Buddhism for stress management and a strange fixation on our everyday, commonplace laundry, this book stands out for its ability to inspire and stir us from our complacency. Cold, clear mountain air indeed.

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Compassion: The new wonder drug

New research suggests compassion helps buffer women against the physical consequences of emotional stress.

Compassion for others is a pathway to health and happiness. While that basic tenet of Buddhism may seem paradoxical to self-involved Westerners, newly published research suggests it has an actual physiological basis.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found compassionate women are acutely receptive to emotional support offered by others, and this buffers the health-damaging effects of psychological stress.

A research team led by University of Maine psychologist Brandon Cosley conducted a study of 59 San Francisco residents, all white women in good health. Each filled out a survey in which they rated their level of agreement with a series of compassion-related statements, such as “it is important to take care of people.”

One week or more later, the women participated in a laboratory session in which they were asked to perform a stressful task: Giving a five-minute long extemporaneous speech to two evaluators. Before, during and after, monitors measured three physical indicators of their bodies’ stress response: their arterial blood pressure, cortisol level and high-frequency heart rate variability.

Half the women were assigned to the support condition: Evaluators nodded and smiled throughout their performance, and interrupted after 30 seconds to tell them they were doing well. The other half experienced the neutral condition, in which the evaluators provided no feedback except to re-state the instructions.

For those who were provided social support (i.e. the nods and smiles), “the higher their compassion (as measured on the earlier test), the lower their systolic and diastolic blood pressure, the lower their cortisol, and the higher their high-frequency heart rate variability during the speech task,” the researchers report.

In contrast, for those who did not receive social support, there was no relationship between compassion and reduced levels of physical stress reactions. The stress-buffering effect seems to occur only when a person both feels and receives compassion — a virtuous loop the body responds to in positive ways.

One obvious limitation of the study is it only looked at women. “Females may respond to stressors differently than men,” the researchers concede. In addition, they note that “giving support to others may be negatively associated with health over time if that support is not, or cannot, be reciprocated” — say, in the case of caring for an infirm relative.

“Nevertheless,” they conclude, “our data lend credence to the Dalai Lama’s belief that compassion for others may ultimately serve to benefit the self, particularly when compassion is reciprocated by others in stressful situations.” It points to a potentially powerful prescription for stress-related maladies: Feel genuine concern for the well-being of two people and call me in the morning.

[via Miller-McCune]
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Practicing compassion

Most of us probably think of the practice of compassion as synonymous with altruism. Giving. Helping. Being of service. Sunada flips that idea on its head — that it may be just as important to be vulnerable as it is to be strong, and to receive as it is to give.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.” It leaves a huge opening for our ego to step in. I don’t know about yours, but my ego is a sneaky little beast! It’s so easy to get duped by that guy.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.”

One way he tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind. It’s such an easy trap — to fall into acting from that mask rather than a fuller experience of my being. To put it in the worst terms, I suppose it’s like the compassion gets a bit institutionalized. I act by rote because I know that’s what’s I’m supposed to do. An example is giving spare change to a homeless person because I had decided that I’m going to be kind to a homeless person today. If I just drop some coins in her cup without making an effort to at least smile and make a connection with her, then I’m probably acting from my role of “be kind to a homeless person today.”

One way [my ego] tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind.

I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s not true compassion. It’s more a contrived act than something springing from a fresh, alive connection to my feelings in that moment about the person and the situation. I’ve been taught that this called a Near Enemy of compassion. A Far Enemy is something that’s an obvious opposite, like cruelty. A Near Enemy is something that sort of looks like the real thing, but isn’t on closer examination. It’s that tricky ego sneaking in.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world. It makes my ego feel good to think I’m strong and capable, someone who can step in and be of help. And yes, of course, there are times when I AM being of help. After all, that homeless woman probably really needed the money. But the Buddha always taught that it’s not the action that counts, but the true motivation behind it. Am I using my kind acts as a way to make myself feel better and compensate for all the icky stuff inside that I don’t want to deal with? If so, that’s not true compassion. That’s self-deception.

So then what does real compassion look like? It’s a lot more than just reaching out to help. I also need to open myself up to let others touch me. It’s just as much about being vulnerable as it is strong. And receiving as it is about giving. In other words, it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place. And that’s a MUCH bigger challenge than simple helping or giving! And boy, it takes some real courage to do.

it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place.

A few years ago, I was on a retreat that focused on becoming more ourselves and living up to our potential. We spent a lot of time on what was holding us back. What was our biggest fear about boldly stepping forward into what we wished we could do. One “secret” I shared with the group was how I wanted to be a singer, and to have the courage to perform publicly. Well of course, it’s impossible to say that to a group like this without getting prodded into singing before the weekend was through.

So I did it. I screwed up my courage and sang a solo unaccompanied song in front of everyone. I was nervous as hell and my throat felt all dry and tight. My voice cracked, and the notes at the higher end of the piece squawked. Yuck. It didn’t feel good at all. It probably didn’t sound all that good either. But of course, everyone gave me a big round of applause and kudos, because this was SUCH a supportive group.

But you know what? There was one person who was silently sitting there, watching me in tears. She hadn’t said much the whole weekend, and I knew that she too was struggling with her demons about taking a stand and openly being herself in front of others. Her response, more than all the others combined, is what has stayed with me. We didn’t talk about it, so I’ll never really know what was going through her mind. But it was obviously genuine, and obviously profound. For that one moment, I felt a strong connection with her because something real in me touched something real in her.

Experiences like this are what keep reminding me to get off my ego’s high horse. As much as it wants to see itself as the proverbial cavalry riding in to save the day, it’s not the most helpful way to see things. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just be a human being, here to share the fullness of who I am. It’s when I stop trying so hard to be something I’m not that something genuine pops up out of nowhere. It’s really very simple, though it’s sure not easy.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, wrote a poem about this. In closing, I’ll leave you with that poem, called “The Unseen Flower.”

Compassion is far more than emotion.
It is something which springs
Up in the emptiness which is when
you yourself are not there
So that you do not know anything about it.
Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it.
(If they knew it, it would not be compassion);
But they can only smell
The scent of the unseen flower
That blooms in the heart of the Void.

I first came across it over ten years ago, but it’s only now that it’s starting to sink in what he meant.

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Mental exercise like meditation can literally change our minds

Vancouver Sun: Richard Davidson, one of the world’s top brain scientists, believes mental exercise, specifically meditation, can literally change our minds.

“Our data shows mental practice can induce long-lasting changes in the brain,” said Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

His startling scientific research on the impact of meditation on brain function has implications that go beyond the physical.

Buddhist monks believe mental attributes and positive emotions such as compassion, loving kindness and empathy are skills that can be cultivated.

Science is beginning to back that up.

Davidson started meditating in 1974, when he was a Phd student at Harvard. Back then, meditation was seen as a somewhat faddish eastern import right up there with the dashiki and the Jesus sandal.

“The culture at the time was not so receptive,” Davidson said, “nor were the scientific methods so well-developed.”

It was when he met the Dalai Lama in 1992 that he “decided to come out of the closet with my interest in meditation.”

He became excited about the possibility of applying rigorous scientific study to the practice of meditation.

Read the rest of this article…

“I made a commitment to do my best to take the tools we have so well honed in studying fear and anxiety and apply them to kindness and compassion.”

Davidson began an ongoing study of the brains of Buddhist monks, the so-called “Olympians” of meditation, each of whom had accomplished at least 10,000 hours of meditation.

“The work was framed within the research on neuro-plasticity, the understanding that the brain is built to change in response to experience,” Davidson said.

Just as an injured brain can adapt by mapping out new neuron pathways to accomplish tasks, “brain circuits [for] regulation of emotion and attention are malleable by the environment and are potential targets of training,” he said.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery, Davidson showed that compassion meditation, even in short-term practitioners, induced significant changes in patterns of functional activity in the brain.

“The most important thing is hard-nosed evidence,” Davidson said. “We were able to measure the results through experiments we did.”

Davidson, who has published his findings on meditation in the world’s most prestigious science journals, believes that even the so-called “happiness set-point” of a person’s brain can be altered for the better.

The potential applications include non-pharmacological interventions or supplemental treatment for depression, as well as behavioural and stress-related issues.

Davidson hopes to convince educators to include meditation training as part of core curriculum in Grades K-12.

“It’s very clear that disruptive behaviour, bullying, ADD dramatically affect learning and have led to progressive declines in North American institutes,” he said.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, also began meditating while in college and is a proponent of mindfulness, a form of secular meditation.

Goleman said in an interview: “Mindfulness seems to strengthen an array of neurons in the left prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the stress reaction driven by the amygdala, that triggers the cascade of stress hormones in the fight or flight response.”

Regular practice is key. “It’s exactly like building up a muscle. What you begin to notice as you strengthen it is the absence of the negative state.”

By cultivating the mindfulness muscle, Goleman believes we will develop greater emotional intelligence. We can become more self-aware, better at handling distressing emotions, and more empathetic, a combination that creates greater social effectiveness.

“Meditation is both calming and focusing, which are two essential elements for well-being,” Goleman said.

Dr. Adrianne Ross is a Vancouver mindfulness and meditation leader who first turned to the practice when she experienced a serious illness.

She has practiced meditation in different forms for more than 30 years, studied with mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, and taught the practice for more than a decade.

“The mindfulness program is for people who aren’t sure they’re interested in Buddhism, but want to learn to meditate,” Ross said.

“It helps you to be able to live more fully and more effectively, so you’re causing less harm to yourself and the people around you and you’re happier.”

Mindfulness can be practised while driving, or standing in line at the bank, Ross said, — but it is not a panacea.

“Some people have depression that comes back. Some of us have the chemistry or life experience that make [difficult] thoughts come, but it can help us work with the thoughts,” Ross said.

“Some people have severe illness. It won’t make the illness go away, but helps them live a full life.

Ross has seen patients become happier and more accepting, in spite of difficult circumstances.

It begins with “learning to be with the breath,” Ross said. Bringing focus to the breath and body. You don’t try to eliminate your thoughts, but focus with “loving kindness” and watch your habitual thoughts — the ones that might hijack you emotionally.

“You learn to recognize my mind is really spinning right now, you’re aware of what it’s doing, you’re not lost in what’s happening. Then if your mind is not going in a useful direction you have a choice.”

Davidson, who still meditates regularly, said he doesn’t measure his own brain systematically. He doesn’t have to. “My practice has given me a kind of equanimity and balance,” he said.

“It may be a period of time, but by 2050 I believe mental exercise will be understood as being as important as physical exercise.”

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Buddhists across the world meditate for compassion

News 8 Austin: For three days, Buddhists across the country and across the world took part in a meditation marathon, wishing for lasting happiness for all beings.

The marathon started Sunday at Diamond Way Buddhist centers, including one in Austin. The meditation is designed to strengthen compassion in participant’s own minds, as well as to have a broader effect on society.

“Meditation in Buddhism is really like a science of mind where we look deeply into what mind actually is,” participant Christopher Melson said. “So behind all the thoughts and feelings, they’re looking for some awareness that has some lasting qualities and one of those is compassion.”

The meditation on the Buddha of Compassion is one of the main practices of Diamond Way Buddhism.

Each participant is repeating a short mantra for 72 hours.

The organizers hope to collect more than 100 million mantras in total. For more information, visit DiamondWayBuddhism.org.

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The play of causes and conditions

Bodhipaksa and daughterParenting can be a hindrance to spiritual practice or the main driving force of a spiritual practice. Bodhipaksa shares what he’s learned from his daughter.

Short of taking up Buddhist practice, the biggest seismic shift in my life was becoming a parent. Originally I’d seen parenthood as a distraction from my spiritual practice — after all having kids would take up more of my time, make it harder to meditate, and prevent me from getting on retreat as much as I was used to. And although all those things turned out to be true, I’m finding that there’s a lot of ways in which I’m learning and growing from being a parent. In fact I’d say that if anything the challenges of parenthood have accelerated the pace of spiritual growth in my life. I’d like to tell you how.

One rather deep thing has been watching the evolution of my children’s awareness and inner lives. We adopted my daughter at four months old, and what I noticed was how happy she was compared to anyone else I know. Happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.

Now you and I probably don’t experience things quite that way most of the time, but in meditation we can see that the mind just has to settle down and it becomes happier. All we have to do is let our swirling thoughts sink like mud to the bottom of a jar of water, and the mind, like water, becomes clear. My daughter reminded me of what life can be like — joyful, and alive, and loving.

Bodhipaksa and his daughter

I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her. And that reminded me too of what life can be like. The greatest pleasures are to be found by being exquisitely attentive to and appreciative of the simplest things — looking into someone’s eyes, sipping a cup of tea, looking closely at the world around us.

I realized that my daughter was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — and she’d suffer agonies of despair. So that was a reminder of how craving and grasping lead to suffering. It was a reminder of how we create suffering and repress our own happiness. Joy is the most commonly repressed emotion.

Developmentally, hot on the heels of craving arose anger: now when she’s deprived of something she wants, my daughter is likely to have a tantrum. She’s two, which is the right age for this mental development — and I have to say she’s doing a good job of dealing with her emotions. But this was another confirmation of a Buddhist teaching — that anger arises from frustrated desire. So far she’s still incapable of hatred, and that’s inspiring. She’s literally incapable of hating another human being. That’s something she’s going to have to learn. Hatred is learned and is not innate. There’s another lesson.

Bodhipaksa and his daughter

So she acts as my teacher in some ways, this little girl of mine. She’s always reminding me of Buddhist teachings. But she challenges me in other, more practical and direct ways too. She’s insisting more and more on doing things for herself — a natural and welcome development. Welcome, that is, but for that fact that she has her own timetable for getting things done, and her timetable and mine often don’t match. I may want her to get strapped into her car seat right now because we said we’d be somewhere at a certain time, but getting into the car is a big game for her, and she wants it to last as long as possible. So I have to learn to be patient, and to learn how to be playful as well. I’m challenged to find fun ways to get her to do things that I want her to do — whether it’s eating the food we’ve prepared or going to the potty. I’ve found I have to be playful and silly, and that those things work a hundred times better than stern lectures and raising my voice.

But the most profound thing I’ve been learning is to accept the truth of impermanence and not-self (anatta) when I’m dealing with her. I’ve been reflecting a lot on these topics as part of my researches for a book I’m working on. Sometimes, when she’s frustrated, my daughter will try to strike me or will do something like spit at me (honestly, she’s a very sweet kid — it’s just a phase she’s going through and it doesn’t happen a lot). When a baby does that kind of thing you just shrug it off — you don’t take it personally when a one-year-old clonks you on the head with a building block, because you reckon they’re just learning to coordinate their actions and aren’t aware that they’re really hurting the person they’re doing this to. But at a certain age you stop regarding your child as a bundle of joy and start seeing them as more of a person.

Bodhipaksa and his two children

And this happened in my relationship with my daughter a couple of months ago. She’d hit me or spit in my face in anger, and I’d find I was taking it personally and I’d get angry. But then I started reflecting that she was really a stream of “causes and conditions.” Rather than seeing her as a “person” (which implies something rather static) I started thinking of her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions. She doesn’t know why she acts in certain ways. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing all the time. She’s experiencing new emotions (imagine that!) and having to learn to deal with them. And so she’s just going through phases of development as she tries to make sense of the world around her and of herself. Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).

But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.

I’m not saying that I never get frustrated with her. Sometimes I lose sight of the perspective I’ve been describing — which involves, fundamentally, appreciating my daughter’s impermanence and her lack of a fixed self-nature — and I get frustrated. But this is just another thing to play with. I too am a struggling and growing being, and when I remember that I’m a stream of causes and conditions I find that self-forgiveness comes easily.

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Aldous Huxley: “We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge…”

Halfway between “the season of goodwill” and Valentine’s Day, Bodhipaksa looks at Huxley’s understanding of what love really is. Is love a feeling, or is it a way of knowing?

What do we mean when we say the word “love”? What does it really mean to love someone? In what way is love “a mode of knowledge.” When we’re talking about the fact that we love ice cream we obviously mean something very different from the love we talk about having for a person. One’s just a simple desire for sense-fulfillment while the other is much more complex. But even when we talk about loving another person there are many different forms of love. At one extreme there’s a kind of “love” where we don’t really see the other person at all: a love that’s based on projection and on wishful thinking, a love where we idolize the other.

Lovingkindness is not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person.

In a similar vein, there’s also a form of love that’s highly conditional. We love the other person as long as they’re enjoyable to be with, or as long as their desires are in accord with ours, as long as we get what we want, perhaps as long as the other person doesn’t change. When conditions change — for example when we stop getting what we want, or when the other person ages, our “love” collapses.

The love that Huxley talks about here is something very close to what Buddhism calls metta or lovingkindness. It’s not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person — or to put it more simply, we are aware of the other person as a feeling being, we are aware that just like us the other person wants to be happy and wants to escape suffering. This is just about the most basic thing that we have in common with others. Although this is a very basic form of knowing, it’s not an easy thing to remember that others have the same basic aspirations as we do. But when we do experience metta we can hold love in our hearts for others whether or not we like them or even know them. It’s a completely unconditional love.

Whenever we want something from another person, there’s a danger that we’ll lose sight of that basic commonality, that sense that we’re all in it together, sharing a mode of being in which suffering and its end are our deepest drives and our deepest connection. We can lose touch with this understanding very easily. Just think about when you’re in a hurry and other people do things that delay you — they stop you to have “a quick word” or they drive in front of you more slowly than you would like. We can very easily see another person as an obstacle rather than as a fully-fledged fellow human being. Whenever we crave something from another person we’ll tend to lose sight of their humanity and see them primarily in terms of what we want from them, even if that’s just to get out of our way.

When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them.

As Huxley says, we can only love what we know. When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them. Without that awareness, we can’t love other being in any full sense. So metta (lovingkindness) involves a certain kind of knowing, or insight, into the nature of sentient beings. Lovingkindness requires a degree of insight.

Talking about love in this way though is very general, though. All beings want to be happy. All beings want to be free from suffering. But we don’t just love people en masse. We can love humanity, but we’re not ourselves fully human unless we love particular human beings. This is perhaps why the development of lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just include the last stage, which is where we send thoughts of lovingkindness out towards all beings. There are a number (either four or five, depending on the exact form of the practice) of stages where we cultivate lovingkindness towards people we know personally. In cultivating metta in this way we are developing relationships based on love and appreciation, especially when we’re cultivating metta for someone we already regard as a friend.

Love involves curiosity and appreciation.

A word for this particular form of love is friendship (as opposed to the general “friendliness” of the final stage of the practice), but even that doesn’t do the word justice. The powerful bond that can form between two people, whether or not they’re romantically connected to each other, can’t really be called anything but “love,” no matter how ambiguous and overloaded that term is. Love that seeks to “know completely” is what I think of as real love, with the other meanings of this multivalent word being mere shadows and distortions.

What Huxley’s quote reminds me is that this kind of love involves curiosity and appreciation of another person. We want to know the other person on ever deeper levels. Even clashing with a person we really love leads to us wanting to understand them (and our relationship with them, and hence ourselves) even more. This kind of love involves a deep desire to know and understand another person intimately, because that kind of knowing is the most satisfying thing we can do in life.

Wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities. They are one thing.

This I think takes us somewhat beyond simple lovingkindness (although there’s nothing very simple about it) and into the realm of insight. There are many words used to describe insight, but one of the more interesting is “vidyā,” which Sangharakshita parses (PDF) as “aesthetic, appreciative understanding.” One Sanskrit dictionary includes in its definition of vidyā, “knowledge of soul.” Vidyā, as a form of wisdom, is a “mode of knowledge,” and it seems to unite in some way the traditional understanding of wisdom (as a kind of cognitive understanding) and compassion.

Wisdom and compassion together are the two “wings” of enlightenment, and are considered to be inseparable. Vidyā makes it clear that wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities. They are one thing, which the unawakened mind persists in seeing in a dualistic way. The term vidyā rather beautifully helps us to overcome that dualistic tendency.

So this I think is what love is in its fullest sense: it’s vidyā, a desire to know ourselves and others completely, an appreciative desire to understand reality to its very depths. Love is a mode of knowledge, or even a mode of exploration. The more we love, the more we want to understand, and the more we understand, the more we love.

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Compassion meditation may improve physical and emotional responses to psychological stress

Medical News Today: Data from a new study suggests that individuals who engage in compassion meditation may benefit by reductions in inf lammatory and behavioral responses to stress that have been linked to depression and a number of medical illnesses. This study focused on the effect of compassion meditation on inflammatory, neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress, and evaluated the degree to which engagement in meditation practice influenced stress reactivity. Read more here.

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Engagement, anxiety, and news addiction

twin towers attack, 9/11/2001

A Wildmind visitor called Cory asked:

I want to keep watch on world events so that I’m not naive with regard to politics, yet remain unburdened by worry, fear, and attachment of those events which I cannot conceivably control. My question to you is, what is the way to endure when a shadow of worry or fear pervades your heart? Loving Kindness has helped, but the worry returns again and again, as does foreboding of what the future will bring.

This is an issue I struggle with myself, and not always successfully. I’ve sometimes found myself addicted to the news, especially on the web. I’ve sometimes found myself endlessly browsing news stories. When I say I was addicted I don’t mean to imply that this was destroying my life or anything, but I would spend more time than was needed just to keep up with the news.

One thing I tried doing was having a “news fast” for a couple of weeks, where all I allowed myself to do was to read the headlines and lede of news stories. So I’d look at the first page of the New York Times’ website, for example, but not go any further. That definitely helped me break out of the cycle of news-addiction that I’d been experiencing, and at the end of the fast there was much less of a sense of compulsion and anxiety about my news reading.

I found over that time that I could basically get all I really needed from just the headline and lede (the one or two sentence summing-up of a news story that accompanies the headline). The rest is really just too much detail.

People’s stress after 9/11 was proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV

You might want to think about your sources of news. The images on television news are designed to have an emotional impact. And the TV news will repeat images over and over again in order to heighten that emotional impact. They want you to be afraid and horrified and anxious so that you’ll keep tuning in to find out what’s happening next. It’s been shown that people’s levels of stress after 9/11 were directly proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV. I don’t watch TV, so I didn’t actually see the towers falling until a long time after the event. It was horrifying, and I wouldn’t want to watch it a second time. Some people saw it hundreds of times. Newspapers, on the other hand, are much less sensationalistic. The images are static. They can’t repeat as much as TV does because you’d get bored and go away. A TV news program could show you the towers falling ten times in one show and you’d watch it. A newspaper isn’t going to tell you 20 times in one story that the towers fell, and even if it did the emotional impact would be much less. Public radio news (speaking about the US here) is also much more considered and less dramatic than TV.

There’s a notion out there that you’re avoiding engagement if you’re not subjecting yourself to all this violent imagery on television; you’re “avoiding reality.” But television takes us beyond merely knowing about what’s going on and into the realm of being a victim of what’s going on. We can become traumatized and stressed by being a participant in the world’s disasters. How does that help us? I don’t think it does. I think it disempowers us.

Another meditative method I’ve found useful in disengaging when I’ve found myself overly-caught up in news-surfing is to become aware of the craving as an object of mindfulness. So I’ll be sitting there surfing the net, becoming aware that I’m in craving mode where there’s a sense of compulsion beginning to mount. And I’ll turn my attention inwards, away from the news itself and towards the feelings I have about the news. In the pit of my stomach there is a sense of anxiety and longing, and I become mindful of that feeling. I surround it with a compassionate and gentle awareness that doesn’t judge but simply holds those feelings in my attention. At that point I can feel the emotional link with the news dissolve away, and I find it’s completely painless to close my laptop. No willpower required!

When we become addicted to the news we’re being overwhelmed by it and we’re attached to it. There’s a lack of balance in our relationship with the news. We’ve lost our equanimity.

It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved.

But I think Cory’s question was perhaps less about the phenomenon of being attached to the sensory input of news than to the actual content of the news itself, “attachment of those events which (he) cannot conceivably control.”

I have a few suggestions here. The first is compassion. It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved. Instead we get sucked into anger, or pity, or anxiety. All of these emotional responses are painful and unhelpful, and rooted in ego. When we cultivate genuine compassion for those involved in the news, not taking sides — not seeing good guys and bad guys — but simply seeing the human beings involved as human beings, there’s less ego involved. This isn’t easy for me to do. I tend to take sides. I tend to see political figures whose policies I’m opposed to as being either stupid or evil. I have to remind myself that in their own eyes their actions make perfect sense.

Having compassion where there are victims and perpetrators involved can be hard too, but it’s important to remember that everyone suffers, both those causing harm and those being harmed. It’s easy to demonize wrong-doers, but we’ve all thought of doing stupid things, and it might be wise for us to remember that when we see someone who has let thoughts turn into reality.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are various conditions — often hereditary — which make it harder for some people to empathize, to imagine the consequences of their actions, and to exercise self-restraint. If someone has such a condition and hurts others, their actions are reprehensible and we need to protect ourselves against them, but perhaps we could bear in mind that there’s an involuntary component to their actions. If we don’t blame a diabetic for having a faulty pancreas, perhaps we should also refrain from blaming a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder, which involves a defect in the way the brain processes information about relationships. We still have to hold people accountable for their actions — that’s not in question — but we can refrain from wishing them harm.

When we exercise compassion, we still suffer (suffering is inevitable in life) but we suffer in a healthier way. The sense of connectedness we have when we’re compassionate has an “immunizing” effect whereby suffering is in our system but can’t harm us. The pain hurts but doesn’t harm.

This reminds me that we also need to have compassion for ourselves. When we watch or read or hear the news we’re inevitably going to experience pain, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Often we can have a sense that we’ve failed if we experience pain, and we can try to push ourselves onwards, trying to ignore it. But if we’re suffering we’re suffering. And we need to respond to our own suffering in the same way we would if we were responding to the suffering of a child or a dear friend. Rather than brushing our suffering aside we need to hold it compassionately in our awareness and send it our love. In this way we can deal with our suffering in a kindly way. It’s like when you get a cut; you’d clean the wound, take care of it, and cover it in order to prevent infection. You wouldn’t just pretend it didn’t happen or see it as a sign of failure. Similarly, with our mental pain we need to take care of it. This doesn’t mean retreating to our bedroom for a week and sulking — it’s just a question of noticing our pain and being compassionate with ourselves. We can even do this while engaged in other activities.

…we also need to have compassion for ourselves

My second suggestion is that we practice rejoicing. In the Brahmaviharas meditations we start by cultivating love, then compassion, and then “empathetic joy.” And the balance of those qualities provides the basis for experiencing equanimity, which is what’s at the heart of Cory’s question. So if you hear bad news about, say, a famine in some far-off country, we can at least rejoice that there are people bringing this to our attention. Our focus can be completely on the negative — there’s something bad going on in the world — and this can lead to us thinking that there’s nothing but bad going on in the world. The very fact that someone cares enough to report on bad news is a good thing in itself. Then there are the people who are trying to help — aid workers, emergency responders, etc. And then there are all the other people out there who care; you may not be in touch with them but you can be certain they exist. Rejoicing and compassion complement each other, and as I’ve mentioned they lead to a more balanced state of mind that we can equanimity.

Thirdly, there are indeed many things that we can’t change, so it’s maybe worth thinking about getting engaged in those things that we can change. That could be volunteering one night a week, or giving a donation to Amnesty International, or writing letters to politicians. But if we do one thing where we feel we’re making a difference, we’ll feel less alone, and we’ll feel a sense of empowerment. We may not be able to do much individually, but no individual can sort out life’s problems. However many individuals doing a small amount can do a lot of good.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: How to love Dick

"Dick Cheney: WANTED for War Crimes" Poster, Canada, 2011.

Ever despair at how to cultivate lovingkindness for Dick Cheney, or ponder the effect of anti-depressants on Buddha Nature? If so, check out Auntie Suvanna, who applies her unique wisdom and wit to your queries about life, meditation, Dharma, family and relationship issues, or anything else that comes up. Why not write to her and tell her your troubles? They don’t have to be Buddhist troubles – any kind will do!

Dear Auntie,

Although I don’t (or haven’t yet), a number of people who know I am working on cultivating lovingkindness ask me how to do so for Dick Cheney and his ilk. Actually, their question is more like “How can you? He’s so evil.” I would sure love to hear your response!

Signed, A Canadian Trying to Love a Bad American

Dear Canadian,

I have noticed that it is sometimes easier for Canadians, such as Jim Carrey and Nelly Furtado, to cultivate lovingkindness. However even for them, some Americans can be challenging, eh? In general, my readers are a kind and noble people who have struggled throughout history to cultivate lovingkindness for the likes of John Ashcroft, Genghis Kahn, Paris Hilton, and finally, Vice President “Shoot First and Ask Questions Later” Cheney.

The Buddha’s position was clear: He encouraged us to cultivate love for all beings as if each were our only child.

Before we delve into the question of loving Mr. Cheney, let us explore the alternative, which is, of course, to hate him. Suppose we wish for him, say, four heart attacks, and several painful operations including a coronary artery bypass, stenting, and balloon angioplasty. We could also wish that his popularity would plummet, that he would get drunk and accidentally shoot a friend, and that his daughter would not only come out as a lesbian but decide to write a memoir. Of course, all these things have already come to pass. His suffering may have greatly benefitted various late-night talk show hosts in terms of providing material, but has it done the rest of us any good?

If not, perhaps it is because the ills we wished upon him were too minor. Even a peace-loving Canadian might argue that what would really help us is for Mr. Cheney to…die. We will find out no doubt in the not too distant future. But what to do in the meantime?

The Buddha’s position was clear: He encouraged us to cultivate love for all beings as if each were our only child. My advice to you then, is this: Firstly, firmly establish in your mind the image of Richard sound asleep in giraffe pajamas. Richard is the name you gave him. You also gave him the pajamas. Notice the device inside his chest, poised to deliver a shock to restore the beat of his worn out, sad and violent heart.

Tell your friends that even though he has made many terrible mistakes, you can’t help but love him. Tell them you are always honest with him and encouraging him to do the right thing. Perhaps in the future they will think twice before they speak, knowing they are talking about your beloved son.

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