lovingkindness practice

“Unconditional Confidence,” by Pema Chödrön

Unconditional Confidence, by Pema ChodronIs unconditional confidence possible? Famed meditation and dharma teacher Pema Chödrön argues that it is, says Vicky Matthews, and that the secret is a surprising one: unconditional confidence comes from being gentle with oneself.

Title: Unconditional Confidence: Instructions for Meeting Any Experience With Trust and Courage
Author: Pema Chödrön
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 1-59179-746-2
Format: 2 CDs (2 hours)
Available from: Sounds True and Amazon.com.

The opportunity to review ‘Unconditional Confidence’ arrived at a time that couldn’t have been more pertinent. It had been the finale of a project I had been involved in, with a final pitch. The whole event had been a high-pressured affair, and the final fruits seemed non-existent.  Fear, in the form of blame, was abundant, and my confidence had plummeted. A week later the CDs arrive. Hallelujah!

Pema Chödrön is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who has authored several books including The places That Scare You and The Wisdom of No Escape. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey monastery in Nova Scotia.

The 120 min two CD audiobook offers practical tools for cultivating “tender-hearted bravery” in time of challenge and change, and a three-step method for overcoming fear and uncertainty. 

“The root of true confidence,” teaches Pema, “grows from our ability to be in unconditional friendship with ourselves, to train in gentleness, and to trust in our natural intelligence to navigate life.”

The book covers how to move in the direction of freedom through discovering “shaky tenderness,” why being right or wrong doesn’t affect true confidence, steps for learning to “leap into, smile at, and experience all of life” even when fear is present, and how to be kind to yourself, even when you don’t feel kind and keep the root of confidence growing strong.

I appreciated the informal, conversational style and the warm and inspiring insights from her own life. She offers clear and concise instructions.
  
As I’m listening, I can feel a hard shell of protection around me. It feels like a scary prospect not to be surrounded by this hard shell; to run away and avoid the experience seems like the obvious plan, but what we need to do is be receptive to the experience, tap into the well of tenderness and get to know the nature of fear intimately. Pema explains how meditation is the key: “touch what’s coming up, then let it go.” 
 
I take from “Unconditional Confidence” instructions of what do when fear arises. I am furnishing myself with useful skills to enable me to become a ‘Spiritual Warrior’ and approach fear with the ‘tenderhearted bravery’ she describes.

Chödrön describes situations that are all too familiar, such our culture of distracting oneself from our “ubiquitous nervousness” (or being slightly panicked at all times) so easily with music, drugs, and general distractions. She explains that the root of confidence is gentleness to oneself. Be brave enough to stick with the self through think and thin.

What to do when you panic? Chödrön advises to surround it with loving kindness and an attitude of gentleness.

What wonderful tools to have! I shall be practicing turning towards my fear with a huge open heart, which will hopefully allow confidence to flow into my life!

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Learning to love ourselves

Young girl in a green jacket catching a bubble

It happens so often among spiritually-minded people. We give our all to love and care for others, and yet when it comes to ourselves, we’re full of criticism and judgment. Sunada shares her experience of working with the practice of loving kindness, specifically learning to love herself.

It’s important to note that when the Buddha taught how to practice compassion, he always began with ourselves. This isn’t selfish. After all, if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others? Any reticence, anger, or doubt we carry — no matter how hidden – will color all our relationships. As a colleague aptly puts it, “we can’t be the solution until we stop being part of the problem.”

if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others?

Somehow we’re never good enough. I admit I often think this, though I’m getting a lot better about it. I’ve spent many long hours on my meditation cushion learning to love myself. The practice I’ve done is called the metta bhavana, or the Development of Loving-kindness. And I’ve spent a lot of time on that all-important first stage, which focuses on myself. The whole practice has never been easy for me, and to this day I still find it generally more elusive than Mindfulness.

I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned through this practice. What I describe is something I did in the context of a formal meditation (and specifically as the first stage of the metta bhavana), but I think it could also be done as an informal contemplation outside of meditation.

We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves.

First of all, it’s important that we find a time when we can quietly just sit and do nothing for a while. So don’t do this while jogging, doing yoga, or eating dinner. I mean we literally sit still with no other agenda.

We begin by bringing our awareness inward to ourselves. As a warm up, it’s helpful to start by sensing all the parts of your body from the inside, one by one, from your toes all the way up to your head. We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, relaxed, and open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves. This is a great start!

Next we notice how we’re feeling. Literally just notice. We don’t need to analyze, judge or change anything. Is it a good feeling – happy, easy, content, calm, or peaceful? Or an icky one – restless, angry, impatient, bored, or depressed? Or is it sort of gray or blank, with no particular feeling tone at all? Maybe you’re feeling “something,” but you can’t put words on it. That’s fine. Any of this is fine. We’re just noticing.

We … accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

What we’re doing is opening up to and receiving whatever we’re feeling RIGHT NOW. The degree to which we can be mindfully aware of what state we’re presently in, the better off we’ll be. How clearly are we seeing it? How willing are we to be with it, and not try to push it away or fix it, judge it as “bad” or “good,” but just be openly present with it?

Because we think this is supposed to be a practice of loving ourselves, we might be tempted to try to make ourselves feel happier and more lovey. Or that we somehow shouldn’t be feeling any of the bad feelings that might be there. In the traditional method, it’s suggested that we repeat the phrase, “May I be happy” to ourselves. That’s never worked for me, because it feels like I’m trying to change whatever bad feelings that are there. So I don’t do it. We need to start by simply accepting ourselves right now, in this moment, as we are, in whatever way works for you. There is no right or wrong.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way.

Once we have a clear picture of what’s happening, then what’s our response? Is it kind, positive, helpful? When we practice the Metta Bhavana, on one level we’re learning to see the difference between what we can and can’t change. We need to accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

So then what if we can’t stop the judgmental, critical thoughts, or that “I must fix this” sort of feeling? Well, how would we respond if we found our best friend in that state? Would we tell her she’s being bad? Or tell her to just stop it? I doubt it. I’d want to sit down with her and be supportive, find out what’s underneath all those thoughts, and why she’s feeling that way. I’d want to at least just listen and let her know I care. Can we do that for ourselves? Now THAT is a practice of kindness.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way. It’s not an admission of failure. I’m not condoning my critical thoughts, but I AM forgiving the person who is having those thoughts.

When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion.

So the whole idea here is to learn how to BE kind, right now, and not to try to shape myself into some future-oriented image of what I think I should be. The more we practice the act of being kind now, the more it becomes natural to us. This is the practice.

The Buddha was right. He said that in all things, when we eliminate the cause, the result ceases to exist. When we stop our negative responses, our habitual negative tendencies begin to weaken and fade away. When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion. Like water flowing downstream into a lake, it eventually settles to a naturally calm, clear, and peaceful state. Effortlessly.

And that’s how I’ve begun to learn how to love myself.

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“29 Gifts” by Cami Walker

"29 Gifts" by Cami Walker

Diagnosed with MS at age 32, Cami Walker thought her life was over. But when she took up a challenge to give 29 gifts in 29 days, her life started taking off in amazing directions. Sunada reviews 29 Gifts, the remarkable true story of how one woman rose above her debilitating illness — and started a worldwide movement that has inspired thousands to work toward reviving the spirit of giving in the world.

Cami Walker seemed to have everything going for her when a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis put a screeching stop to all her plans. Her condition had degenerated rapidly in just two years — she lost vision in one eye, and found it increasingly difficult to walk. Unable to work, deep in debt, and with her brand new marriage under strain, she fell into a suicidal depression.

The gifts didn’t need to be big. Anything would do, as long as it was given authentically and mindfully.

It was her friend and spiritual teacher, Mbali Creazzo, that gave her a seemingly ridiculous prescription: give 29 gifts in 29 days. Mbali told Cami she was focusing too much attention on the disease, and hence was feeding it. So instead, try turning that momentum around by giving to others. The gifts didn’t need to be big. Anything would do, as long as it was given authentically and mindfully.

Many of the things Cami gave were indeed very simple — a tissue for a tearful friend, spare change for a homeless person, a homemade meal for her husband. The book chronicles the amazing shifts that began to take place for her over the month that followed. It’s a true-to-life testament to how the quality of our thoughts has a direct effect on the quality of our lives.

It’s a true-to-life testament to how the quality of our thoughts has a direct effect on the quality of our lives.

Some of the gifts weren’t even “things,” and brought along surprising lessons to the author. For example, on Day 2, Cami realized she could stop apologizing every time her acupuncturist friend came to pick her up to take her to the clinic for appointments. Letting go to her newly emerging sense of gratitude, she thought, “Just as I am trying to give consciously now, I will try to receive consciously, too.”

On day 6, a particularly rejuvenating yoga class inspired her to chant spontaneously, “May all beings everywhere, including me, be joyous and free.” Later when she began to doubt whether this gift was good enough to count, she realized how her own perfectionist nature had been getting in her way her whole life. And so by allowing that simple mantra to count as her gift for the day, she found yet another way to let go and open herself up to life.

by stepping outside of our small, self-contained worlds, we become part of something greater than anything that any of us can be or do by ourselves.

Cami understood from the very start what the true spirit behind this exercise was. It’s not about literally giving 29 gifts. It’s about living every day with a generous frame of mind — kind, gracious, and willing to open up to whatever life brings our way. Gradually, she began to see larger lessons as well – that by stepping outside of our small, self-contained worlds, we become part of something greater than anything that any of us can be or do by ourselves.

A year later, Cami’s life looks very different from where she began. She still lives with MS, but her symptoms are much improved. Her vision is back, and she walks on her own most days. Recent diagnostic tests have been clear, showing that her disease has stopped progressing. Her relationships with her husband, family, and friends are more intimate and fulfilling. She’s still in debt, but is paying off the loans regularly. She no longer worries about money, and sees it as “an endless resource that exists in the world and I trust that God will provide us with the funds to meet our needs.”

Her story has also shown me that one person can make a difference, and that wholeheartedly giving of myself – and just as importantly, believing that I am worthy of doing so — is really all that’s needed.

I have to be candid here for a moment. I typically don’t go for books of this genre. Autobiographies about life-changing spiritual awakenings are generally not my cup of tea. But what really impressed me about 29 Gifts is how far the author has gone to walk the talk. It turns out 29 Gifts is far more than just a book telling Cami Walker’s personal story.

It was somewhere around Day 5 that Cami started thinking big. What if thousands … or even millions of people committed to give 29 gifts in 29 days? What effects might that have on the world? And so she started with a simple idea to launch a website, www.29gifts.org, to encourage others to take up the challenge and share their stories. Three years later, this little idea has blossomed into a thriving global community with several thousand members from 38 countries. Its mission is to create a grassroots revival of the spirit of giving in the world. The last section of the book contains nine selected stories from members of the 29 Gifts community, and the website has thousands more.

29gifts.org has also spawned humanitarian projects all around the world that have done some powerful work. There’s Operation Teddy Bear (www.teddybearcare.org), which provides teddy bears, food and other personal gifts for children living in poverty in South Africa. And there’s Seattle Youth Garden Works, which trains homeless and underserved youth in basic job skills by helping them grow organic fruits and vegetables and sell them to area farmers markets. You can see a long list of wonderfully inspiring projects at the 29gift.org website.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Cami beautifully summarized what she learned as follows:

I didn’t know that when Mbala gave me this suggestion, what she was really trying to help me to do was to open up. I don’t know who said this …but a closed hand cannot receive. And that was me. I was just this tightfisted, resentful, angry, frustrated young woman at the time that she gave me this suggestion. Over the course of those first 29 days I really did feel myself open up and begin connect on a higher level with people and have more meaningful interaction with others…

I was not someone who was good at accepting support or assistance from others before doing this, and certainly before my diagnosis. I was very independent, and the loss of certain abilities — my physical abilities, and even some cognitive abilities to some extent — was a huge blow. The giving is what has helped me stay centered and balanced. It’s something that’s made me feel like I’m a part of the world at large. I hope that’s what it does for others too — to help them see they’re not alone in this world.

So what started as an exercise to get herself feeling better grew into an inspiration to be a force for good in the world. Her story has also shown me that one person can make a difference, and that wholeheartedly giving of myself – and just as importantly, believing that I am worthy of doing so — is really all that’s needed.

So … it’s gotten me thinking. How can I start giving of myself more, starting today? And perhaps you’d you like to join me?

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“Self, meditating,” by Robert Wright

New York Times: This Friday I’m heading up to rural Massachusetts in hopes of getting born again — again.

Six years ago, in the same locale, I attended my first and only silent meditation retreat. It was just about the most amazing experience of my life. Certainly it seemed more dramatic than my very first born-again experience — my response to a southern Baptist altar call as a child, which I wrote about in this space last month.

I came away from that week feeling I had found a new kind of happiness, deeper than the kind I’d always pursued. I also came away a better person — just ask my wife. (And neither of those things lasted — just ask my wife.)

So with the retreat approaching, I should be as eager as a kid on Christmas Eve, right? Well, no. Meditation retreats — at this place, at least — are no picnic. You don’t follow your bliss. You learn not to follow your bliss, to let your bliss follow you. And you learn this arduously. If at the end you feel like you’re leaving Shangri-La, that’s because the beginning felt like Guantanamo.

We spent 5.5 hours per day in sitting meditation, 5.5 hours per day in walking meditation. By day three I was feeling achy, far from nirvana and really, really sick of the place.

I was sick of my 5 a.m. “yogi job” (vacuuming), I was sick of the bland vegetarian food, and I wasn’t especially fond of all those Buddhists with those self-satisfied looks on their faces, walking around serenely like they knew something I didn’t know (which, it turns out, they did).

Yes, the payoff was huge. But it’s unlikely to be as big this time around. It’s famously hard to replicate the rapture of your first meditation retreat. Last time, during the first half of the week, my apparently prescient unconscious mind kept filling my head with that old song by Foreigner, “It feels like the first time, like it never will again.” I’ve never especially liked that song, and during those first few days it joined the list of things I hated.

What I hated above all was that I wasn’t succeeding as a meditator. Now, as the two leaders of this retreat were known to point out, you’re not supposed to think of “succeeding” at meditating. And you’re not supposed to blame yourself for failing. And blah, blah, blah.

Well, they were right: To “succeed” I really did have to quit pursuing success, and quit blaming myself for failing. And some other things had to go right.

And what was “success” like? Well, to start at the less spiritual, more sensual end: By the time I left, eating the food I’d initially disdained ranked up there with above-average sex. I’m not exaggerating by much. When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it.

Also, my view of weeds changed. There’s a kind of weed that I had spent years killing, sometimes manually, sometimes with chemicals. On a walk one day I looked down at one of those weeds and it looked as beautiful as any other plant. Why, I wondered, had I bought into the “weed” label? Why had I so harshly judged an innocent plant?

If this sounds crazy to you, you should hear how crazy it sounds to me. I’m not the weed-hugging type, I assure you.

And as long as we’re on the subject of crazy, there was my moment of bonding with a lizard. I looked at this lizard and watched it react to local stimuli and thought: I’m in the same boat as that lizard — born without asking to be born, trying to make sense of things, and far from getting the whole picture.

I mean, sure, I know more than the lizard — like the fact that I exist and the fact that I evolved by natural selection. But my knowledge is, like the lizard’s, hemmed in by the fact that my brain is a product of evolution, designed to perform mundane tasks, to react to local stimuli, not to understand the true nature of things. And — here’s the crazy part — I kind of loved that lizard. A little bit, for a little while.

Whether I had made major moral progress by learning to empathize with a lizard, let alone a weed, is open to debate. The more important part of my expanding circle of affinity involved people — specifically, my fellow meditators.

At the beginning of the retreat, looking around the meditation hall, I had sized people up, making lots of little judgments, sometimes negative, on the basis of no good evidence. (Re: guy wearing Juilliard t-shirt and exhibiting mild symptoms of theatricality: Well, aren’t we special?) By the end of the retreat I was less inclined toward judgment, especially the harsh kind. And days after the retreat, while riding the monorail to the Newark airport I found myself doing something I never do — striking up a conversation with strangers. Nice strangers!

My various epiphanies may sound trite, like a caricature of pop-Buddhist enlightenment. And, presented in snapshot form, that’s what I’m afraid they’re destined to sound like. All I can say is that there is a bigger philosophical picture that these snapshots are part of, and that I had made some progress in apprehending it by the end of the retreat.

The “apprehension” isn’t just intellectual. This retreat was in the Vipassana tradition, which emphasizes gaining insight into the way your mind works. Vipassana has a reputation for being one of the more intellectual Buddhist traditions, but, even so, part of the idea is to gain that insight in a way that isn’t entirely intellectual. Or, at least, in a way that is sometimes hard to describe.

On Thursday night, the fifth night of the retreat, about 30 minutes into a meditation session, I had an experience that falls into that category, so I won’t try to describe it. I’ll just say that it involved seeing the structure of my mind — experiencing the structure of my mind — in a new way, and in a way that had great meaning for me. And, happily, this experience was accompanied by a stunningly powerful blast of bliss. All told, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dramatic moment.

This retreat is coming at a good time for me. In June I published a book that I’ve been feverishly promoting. Publishing and promoting a book can bring out the non-Buddhist in a person. For example, when book reviewers make judgments about your book, you may make judgments about the reviewers — ungenerous judgments, even.

Also, you’re inclined to pursue the fruits of your activity — like book sales — rather than just experience the activity. Checking your Amazon ranking every 7 minutes would qualify as what Buddhists call “attachment.” And attachment is bad. (Oops: I just made a judgment about attachment.)

In fact, in general I’ve been living like someone who hasn’t been meditating with much regularity or dedication, who has strayed from the straight and narrow. It’s time to start anew.

At the end of my first retreat, still reeling from that Thursday-night experience, I told one of the meditation teachers about it. He nodded casually, as if the insight I’d had was one of the standard stops on the path to enlightenment — but far from the end of the path. Through truly intensive meditation, he said, the transformation of your view of your mind — and your view of your mind’s relationship to reality, and your view of reality itself — can go much deeper than I’d gone.

That would be interesting! But this week I’d settle for half as deep.


Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and, most recently, “The Evolution of God.”

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“Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With” by Gaylon Ferguson

Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon FergusonA new book by Gaylon Ferguson argues that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the materialism that has us all in its grip, and that meditation and spiritual community are the antidotes. Pam Dodd is our guest reviewer.

Gaylon Ferguson, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, has studied and taught meditation for over 30 years. During that time, he has probably met all kinds of people from all walks of life who have actively pursued, or fallen onto, the spiritual path. Ferguson believes that the normal human condition is natural or basic wakefulness. Wakefulness is the fundamental goodness of who we really are, independent of our circumstances, that lies dormant in each of us, waiting to be actualized.

Unfortunately most of us have learned from infancy to be distracted by thoughts and feelings that keep us reacting to life automatically, like robots. We get stuck in the past. We fantasize and daydream. We think incessantly, allowing our monkey mind to jump wherever it pleases. Ferguson calls these habitual patterns reruns. We blindly move through our lives, in prisons of our own making, and we don’t even know it. Looking outside ourselves for our inner well-being, we live with a restlessness that never goes away.

Title: Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With
Author: Gaylon Ferguson
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-657-4
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

The way to wake up from this “sleepwalking” state is not by trying to force or fix ourselves but by gently befriending ourselves in the practice of lovingkindness that is meditation.

Meditation is a commitment to being here now, no matter what. It’s accepting ourselves exactly where we are, working with what’s available in us, and bringing ourselves back to the present again and again whenever we our minds wander. Ferguson maintains that “sitting quietly in meditation is the best research lab to observe the mind’s behavior when it isn’t being interrupted” (p.98).

Meditation is nothing special. Yet if practiced consistently and regularly, it wakes us up to the basic goodness of our lives, not while we’re squirreled away in some far off, quiet sanctuary, but in the midst of living out the ups and downs of each ordinary, busy day.

Ferguson goes to great lengths to provide useful insights and instructions to the practitioner (for the reader of this book must be an active practitioner if the lessons are truly to be learned). It’s clear he knows the ins and outs of meditation.

 Practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change

After the initial chapters on wakefulness and natural training, the middle chapters cover guided exercises, reflections, stories, and student questions on the most important aspects of meditation practice. Central to the book’s approach is the idea of “bare noticing.” This is not “thinking about,” reflection, deliberation, or theorizing, but rather the application of one’s unadorned attention to what currently is. Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.

The book’s meditation lessons start with guided training on mindfulness of the physical body and breathing and move on to mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of feelings.

Along the way we learn how important it is not to be too tight or too loose; how to touch the texture of our emotions; how to lean in to unacceptable thoughts and feelings without being hooked by them; and how respectfully to watch the inner critic or voice of judgment that continuously comments on and criticizes what we think, say, and do.

The last two chapters discuss two central contexts for awakening, the nightmare of materialism and the spirit of community.

Ferguson maintains that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the world of materialism that has us all in its grips. He traces the roots of our constant sense of inadequacy, anxiety, and feeling like something is missing to our neurotic pursuits and thinking. We “fake it,” putting on masks to compensate for what we think we lack. We constantly chase after physical comfort, security, and pleasure. We rely on belief systems and concepts to filter our perceptions. We become addicted to altered or higher states of consciousness through drugs, prayer, yoga, and even meditation.

One antidote to materialism is genuine community. Communities of sanity, generosity, and celebration help us learn how to overcome a sense of scarcity and fear. In community, we work productively with our attention, care, and concern as we learn how to be present with others’ strong feelings without running away or trying to fix things. We nurture the compassionate heart, strengthening our wishes for the well-being of others. We learn to be skillful, waking up into trust and living courageously with others. In this larger sense, “practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change” (p. 170).

 Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.  

The hopeful message of Natural Wakefulness is much needed in today’s stressful times. Unfortunately, the book’s structure gets in the way of a full appreciation of its wisdom and lessons.

First, the wording of the chapter titles is too abstract. The clearer descriptive subtitles would have made better titles. Also subheadings throughout the book are uneven; some make sense while others are too vague.

This lack of clarity carries over to the numbering of the guided contemplations and exercises, which doesn’t follow a consistent style from chapter to chapter. Also, the exercises would have stood out more if each had been put in boxes or otherwise highlighted so the practitioner could return to them easily. The same goes for the valuable question-and-answer exchanges; their inconsistent formatting is distracting, making it difficult to follow the insights meant to support the main instruction.

Other issues include the lack of a bibliography, a few muddled metaphors and analogies, and several abrupt or incomplete transitions that leave the reader hanging.

Last, teaching meditation necessarily involves using abstract language. While much of this language may be familiar to the seasoned meditation practitioner, it can be difficult for the neophyte. Add the burden of structural issues like this book has, and despite the great content, it will be a challenge for some to read.


Pam Dodd, PhDPamela Dodd has practiced Korean Zen Buddhism since the mid-1990s. She’s always returning to beginner’s mind as her love of learning takes her into new fields of knowledge.

Pam has a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. She’s the co-author of The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques, an Amazon bestseller.


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Auntie Suvanna: Breaking up, the Buddhist way

The Break-Up Movie poster

Dear Auntie,

I only recently decided to become a Buddhist, so I’m still trying to work out how best to apply it to some situations in my life. I was especially wondering if there is a good way to break up with someone in a Buddhist manner. I am currently in a relationship that just isn’t working out, but I can’t think of what to say to end it without causing a negative situation. I really don’t want the person to be hurt, or for there to be bad feelings between us. Break ups most often do seem to end that way, but I was hoping that by taking a new approach this time, in keeping with the Buddhist tradition, it could work out better for both of us. Do you have any advice for me? Thank you very much!

Signed,
Concerned Beginner

Dear Concerned Beginner,

Your question is not an easy one. You might as well have asked, What is the best way to separate someone from what they desire?

Traditional Buddhism has had little to say about relationships. Part of the reason is that Buddhist texts were preserved by celibate monks who spent their days memorizing suttas and doing formal practices such as Recollecting the Loathsomeness of the Body. So you probably wouldn’t want romantic advice from these people (or perhaps Auntie underestimates them?)

At any rate, Buddhist practice generally focuses on the cultivation of impartial love, friendliness and awareness. How can you apply this in your situation? What might it mean to break up with someone “in a Buddhist manner”? Might it mean, for example, leaving in the middle of the night while they’re asleep? That’s what the future Buddha did before his awakening. This really pisses people off. Turns out, this story is apocryphal; the Buddha probably was never even married. Ha Ha!

Considering the celibates and the accounts of the deadbeat Buddha-dad, not to mention the various Buddhist abominations to good taste (at least in titles) such as ‘If the Buddha Dated,’ we don’t have much to go on here. Perhaps Auntie may be excused in turning now to a non-Buddhist source, such as Richard Nixon, for guidance.

Here’s what he said at the White House after he resigned:

Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.

Not that your former girlfriend or boyfriend will necessarily hate you, but they might. And even though you seem pretty mellow at the moment, you could start hating him/her later. (And all this in response to the person we gazed at with doe’s eyes perhaps only days before — tragic!) And even though of course in many ways he was an unethical person, take the good advice from Tricky Dick and try not to get swept away by aversion. Set an intention for yourself to speak in a way that you can be proud of later – or at least in a way you will not regret.

Beyond this it’s hard to make specific suggestions about how to approach this without knowing the particular personalities. [Dear readers, when you ask for Auntie’s advice PLEASE give her more detail!] Moving into the future, examine your mistakes as much as possible and resolve not to repeat them or, at worst, resolve to bring more awareness to them next time around. Try not to base choices in your life on what is essentially a pheromone fog. This will reduce suffering for all.

Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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What Rikers Island taught me about meditation

Prison can be a tough environment for those who work there as well as for inmates. Psychotherapist Steve Bell reflects on a few tough months spent in Rikers Island and realizes how much he learned.

I find myself on Rikers Island

For four months last year I worked with women detainees on Rikers Island in the Intense Treatment Unit, or ITU. Those four months were an adventure, but I won’t easily forget the trauma and abuse the women reported, and eventually the need to live a simpler life led me to give up working there.

The idea of the ITU was to try and apply the work of Marsha Linehan — who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) — to an incarcerated population. One of the core skill areas was mindfulness, and we began every skill group with a short meditation.

Some of the women were waiting for trial: there because they couldn’t pay the $500 bail before their trial for possession of drugs. A few were doing their sentences there or were detoxing before going upstate. If you’re sentenced to less than a year, you stay in Rikers instead of going upstate.

Most of the detainees on the intense treatment unit (ITU) did not initially buy into meditation and mindfulness. At times the women would mutter in frustration during meditation sessions as they tried to stay focuses in the face of the noises outside our group room. A few, more mentally disorganized, gave up, jiggled and sat there during the short meditation, not participating. Many initially thought meditation was weird but after a while took to it and could see the benefit.

Lovingkindness and mindfulness are one

I was there to teach mindfulness, but I learned a lot about mindfulness as well. The first thing I realized in teaching meditation was how important it is to bring metta, or loving-kindness, into the mindfulness of breathing practice. Usually I regard the practices as separate, and alternate them, but I came to see them as two sides of the same coin. When I made a suggestion like, “Kindly and gently bring yourself back to the breath,” I realized that lovingkindness had become integrated into my practice of the mindfulness of breathing meditation. One woman took this idea and used it to the maximum, seeing care and gentleness towards herself as an essential skill she’d never been taught. Kindness towards herself, at a very basic level, unlocked something within her. She came in to the program very upset, detoxing off drugs, and could not talk without crying. She left with more self-possession, more in control, more aware of herself, and with a new tool to fight her addictions.

Mindfulness and acceptance

Mindfulness isn’t “clearing thought” or “stopping distractions” but merely being aware what is going on, with whatever arises. If you’re patient and diligent, things settle and there will be more space, and you can become less distracted, more concentrated, and have more continuity of purpose; that is more long-term goal, the fruit of the practice.

The immediate goal in meditating is to just observe what arises as you try to follow the breath or connect with your metta. Afterwards you may feel more concentrated and mindful, but while meditating you might not. You might realize how distracted you are, and almost feel like meditation is making you more distracted. It’s not the meditation, though; that’s how you really are and you’re just not aware of it.

You may hope “distractions” go away when they are present, but that’s not always helpful. I worked to develop a curiosity about the contents of my mind, not being judgmental about what was going on in my experience. Seeing others’ frustration helped me to identify my own impatience and frustration.

Start where you are

When we watch our mind in meditation we can perhaps notice layers of judgment, impatience, and frustration about what is happening when we tune into ourselves. We can be mindful of that too. We have to know what is present before we look to change it. I heard someone say the essence of Pema Chödrön’s teaching is, “start where you really are,” and that expresses what I’m trying to describe. Only after we accept ourselves can we can begin to explore what tools we have for transforming ourselves, evaluate what works, and experiment with new ways of working with what is really going on. Learning that balance of acceptance and of exerting effort is a very important skill, not just in meditation.

If you see an express train coming, get out of the way

Another thing I had the privilege of learning while teaching female detainees is that it’s mettaful not to attempt the impossible in meditation. Sometimes I have thoughts that are like an express train; they have so much momentum that focusing on the breath isn’t even an option for a time. What’s the best thing you can do when an express train is coming through? Make sure you’re not standing on the tracks. Get out of the way. Let it go by. Don’t try to stop it. Watch it pass.

Meditation becomes less exhausting when I don’t try too hard, don’t try stop express trains, stop trying to do the impossible. There is a quality of metta in dropping the impossible project, accepting what you find, and opening up to new more subtle ways of working with your mind than unmindful and crude brute force.

You can even learn from your “distractions” – “Why am I having this daydream?” It’s important to not get too caught up in the investigation, but it’s also helpful to employ a sense of kindly curiosity.

“Metabolizing” distractions

Instead of doing something to get rid of difficult feelings, I observe them, honor and validate them, face and “metabolize” them. I met someone who thought doing that was masochistic, but I think distracting oneself, tuning out from your experience, can be masochistic because it’s more harmful in the long-term not to deal with difficult mental states.

The thing about accepting whatever arises is that often I’m not going to like what I find when I tune in. I might find a closet full of unwanted bric-a-brac: unwanted memories, racing thoughts, unpleasant emotions and memories, unresolved nagging questions I have avoided, etc. I stay with my experience, and watch how it evolves. Have you ever noticed that if you look at a cloud long enough it will subtly change shape?

I tune out for a reason. It’s a fundamental axiom of Dharma, and I think human nature, that we push away the unpleasant and pull towards us the pleasant. That includes the contents of our mind. There is a cost for denying our experience, a kind of violence towards ourselves.

In teaching meditation, I saw my own maneuvers to avoid my painful feeling reflected in what others were doing, and this helped me be aware of my own habitual tendencies. I worked to try and draw people out and put words to their experience, and listening to others’ accounts of meditation was fascinating and an opportunity to learn. I also saw the importance of articulating to others my experience.

Marsha Linehan points out that those who face their suffering mindfully learn from it. Being abused isn’t a predictor of how good a parent someone will be — it’s whether they have faced their traumas. Those who don’t look at the whole of their lives, even the unpleasant bits, do not learn from it. Meditation can be a way of facing our suffering and metabolizing it, making use of it. That’s the best thing you can do in a bad situation.

Suffering becomes a trigger for mindfulness

We can even make suffering into a trigger for mindfulness. Milarepa says a dog chases sticks that are thrown. The tiger turns and faces the stick thrower. I sometimes feel like that is what therapy and meditation have in common: Facing the stick thrower.

When people expressed what was really going on I saw the most spontaneous and genuine outpourings of support and empathy from others in the group — and these were tough women not prone to flights of spontaneous empathy. I found myself saying often, “I’d probably be dead if that happened to me,” when they recounted their traumas.

There’s something about talking simply and directly about the content of our minds that makes for a connection. It’s a model of communication, more accurate, less blaming, pure. Simply saying “I feel this way,” has the power of connection. When you say, “you did this,” someone can debate that. But our descriptions of our feelings isn’t really something to debate about.

And so by teaching meditation to these woman who were damaged and suffering, I saw more clearly how I try to avoid my experience, how I could work to start where I really am. I closed the distance between us, could see the circumstances that swept them into a more negative life, see myself not as so separate and not so different from them. By teaching others, I learned about myself; we learned together. I was proud to work to metabolize their suffering for a short time.

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“True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

True Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Title: “True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart.”
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 1-59030-188-9   

Bodhipaksa reviews a new book by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and finds a treasure-trove of teachings on love.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master, is one of the foremost Buddhist teachers in the West. He is rightly known as a preeminent teacher of mindfulness meditation, having burst into the reading public’s attention with his now-classic “The Miracle of Mindfulness.”

His style, however, is not the dry-as-bones, here-are-the-traditional-lists style that you find with many eastern teachers of mindfulness. His manner exudes warmth, friendliness, and compassion. He appreciates. He is understanding. He has a rich and creative approach to communicating spiritual practice. And it’s therefore no surprise that he has much to say about love, nor that on the whole he says it in a simple and eloquent style.

No background is given to the origin of the teachings in True Love, but they read as if they were initially delivered in the context of a retreat in the United States. The style is relaxed, informal, and often gently humorous. If you’re familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking style you can hear his slow and accented voice as you read the words on the page.

True Love is a very practical approach to cultivating lovingkindness, but it’s a practical approach that does not skip on profundity. There’s a classic line near the start of the book where the author says, “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free,” and in which, as is so often the case, Thich Nhat Hanh finds a fresh, original, and penetrating way of expressing an otherwise elusive truth.

  You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.   

For Thich Hant Hanh, mindfulness and lovingkindness are not separate qualities. Although they may theoretically be seen as distinct, he regards mindfulness as incomplete without an infusion of metta; mindfulness is a warm, appreciative, and integrated faculty rather than a cold and objective gaze at our experience. Likewise, he sees lovingkindness as being incomplete, or rather impossible, without mindfulness: “Love Is Being There” is the title of one chapter, in which he reminds us that “the most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence.”

He offers four “mantras” that we can use to help us enact love in our lives. He explains that in Buddhism a mantra is a spoken formula that, when spoken in a state of concentration, can alter a situation (a neat if unconventional definition). By extension then he regards anything said in a state of concentration to be, in effect, a mantra. And so he offers mantras such as:

  • Dear one, I am here for you
  • Dear one, I know that you are here, and it makes me very happy
  • Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you
  • Dear one, I am suffering, please help.

Some of us may not be comfortable with the precise form of the wording — I can’t imagine calling my wife “dear one” — but the message in these four mantras strikes me as being a simple but powerful application of lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and compassion.

In True Love, Nhat Hanh places the cultivation of mindfulness and lovingkindness in an existential context. He reminds us that

We have a great fear inside ourselves. We are afraid of everything–of our death, of being alone, of change.

He also points out that “mindfulness helps us to touch nonfear.” We do this through transcending “the notions of being and nonbeing,” and the “notions of birth and death,” and this in turn is achieved by “looking deeply” with mindfulness.

He also puts the teaching of love in a firmly nondualistic framework:

Every time you have an energy that needs to be transformed, like jealousy or fear, do something to care for this energy, for this negative energy, if you do not want this energy to destroy you… There should be no conflict between one element of our being and another element of our being. There should only be an effort of taking care and being able to transform. So we must have a nonviolent attitude with regard to our suffering, our pain.

This nonviolent approach to transformation is rooted in love. We do not look at our destructive tendencies as things that must be destroyed (for that would be employing violence in the pursuit of nonviolence) but as confused and hurt parts of ourselves that must be befriended and understood. Love is the nonviolent conqueror, transforming through a mature and loving care, “the care given by the big brother to the little brother.”

The task of the meditator is not to chase away or to suppress the energy of anger that is there but to invite another energy that will be able to care for the anger.

The book has some peculiarities. For one thing there is a recurring theme about how quick and easy transformation is. Sometimes we’re told “three weeks are enough to transform the pain,” while other times “the result could be there, maybe, in three or four minutes.” It’s certainly good to remind people that change can happen quickly, but more often people need reassurance in dealing with the relatively slow pace of change that they experience, and in my view Nhat Hanh goes a little over the top in a way that sounds rather like salesmanship.

And Nhat Hanh has a longstanding habit of “quoting” the Buddha, when what he’s actually doing is at best paraphrasing him and at worst putting words into his mouth.

But these minor quibbles aside, this is an excellent book. There are some interesting asides that branch from the main narrative, including an amusing discussion of “telephone meditation” (including a warning not to expect the phone to be picked up immediately — or at all — when calling his retreat center in France), and a discussion in which he points out that we have a right to demand that our political leaders cultivate mindfulness and lovingkindness.

Complete beginners to meditation and Buddhism will find in True Love a systematic guide to cultivating love, mindfulness, and wisdom, and old hands will find enough freshness, inspiration, and profundity to enrich their practice for months or years to come.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or join him on Facebook.


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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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Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Everything’s impermanent, but rather than be depressed by this fact we can use it to our advantage. Bodhipaksa looks at the Buddhist practice of developing lovingkindness and offers six lessons that can help us keep love alive.

Lovingkindness meditation presupposes a number of factors that cause love to grow. If you’re not familiar with the practice of lovingkindness meditation I wholeheartedly recommend that you try it. This kind of meditation is a gentle but powerful way of working with our emotions, and I’ve noticed the following principles embedded in the form of the meditation:

  1. First, we have to pay attention to ourselves. If we’re not aware of ourselves and our feelings then we’ll lack the responsiveness that allows us to love others. In the formal practice we bring our awareness into the body and into our hearts.
  2. If we don’t cultivate a basic sense of caring for ourselves and our own well-being then we’ll also find it hard to love others. So we need to start here and develop a wholesome relationship with ourselves. The sitting practice of lovingkindness always begins with us cultivating love for ourselves.
  3. Then we have to give others our attention. We can’t include love in a package of multitasking. We need to spend time with others, and to give them as best as possible our full attention. When my attention is divided between my daughter and, say, some article I’m trying to read, an unpleasant tension arises that can easily lead to impatience. It’s much better just to put down what I’m doing and focus just on her. The more we give people our undivided attention the easier it is to cultivate love for them.
  4. We need to relate to others as feeling beings, and to take their happiness seriously. When we see others as being either means or obstacles to our own happiness we’re not relating to them as feeling beings. To love is to take another’s well-being seriously, and we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the need others have to be happy.
  5. We need to communicate that we love others. In lovingkindness meditation we commonly repeat phrases like, “May you be well. May you be at ease.” Even if we never speak those words to the other person they have an effect on how we feel. But outside of meditation it’s even more powerful to communicate with another person that we love them. This doesn’t have to be done in words, of course. A glance or a kind act can be an effective way of communicating a sense that we love others. But the words themselves are less ambiguous and often more powerful.
  6. We need to repeat the above frequently. Love, if it’s not being cultivated, is beginning the slow process of withering. We need to bear others in mind as often as we can, calling to mind our love for them. We need to spend as much time as we can with those we love. In this way, our love can keep being reborn and our irritability, intolerance, and indifference towards others can fade quietly away.

Buddhism teaches that everything’s impermanent, which can seem like a real downer until you look more closely into what that means. At first glance it can seem rather depressing: I’m impermanent, and everything I love is impermanent too. I’m going to die. Everything I love is going to die. Love itself is impermanent. Oh, oh! Here comes bleak existential despair!

But the fact that everything is impermanent is actually the most wonderful thing about life. If anything about me was not impermanent then that would be something I couldn’t change. If my personality was not impermanent I’d never be able to change it. I’d be stuck with those aspects of my personality (like my irritability and my distractedness) that cause me most suffering. And the same’s true for you. If you have a tendency to depression, or to over-eating, or to anxiety, those tendencies are impermanent. They can be changed. They can become less predominant in your life. They can even disappear entirely.

What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events…

Love dies, but it is also reborn. Hatred is reborn, but it also dies. What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events being born and dying and being reborn again.

We tend to think of death and rebirth in “macro” terms — about the end of one life of the beginning of another, but actually death and rebirth are taking place in this very moment as cells, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts are coming into being and passing away. Left to their own devices — without our conscious intervention — the overall texture of our personality won’t tend to change much over time. Things keep changing, but they change in such a way that the stay the same, much as you can look at an eddy in a river and see that in every moment it’s different, but it still has about the same size, shape and position.

Generally it takes conscious intervention to bring about a change in the balance of the various mental factors that constitute a personality. A mindful awareness of our mental states, combined with skillful action, helps shape the process of death and rebirth that’s moment by moment unfolding within our consciousness. Something as simple as letting go of a critical and angry train of thought helps that part of ourselves to pass on into oblivion. Choosing to think about what we’ve achieved helps bring about more happiness. Contemplating the fact that, just as we do, others experience suffering and wish to be happy helps to bring into being the forces of compassion and love.

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do.

Events can shape us, of course. Tragic events, unpleasant events, unexpected blessings, and the responses of others can bring about profound changes in our personality and outlook. But it’s the way we respond to outside events that is the true shaper of our being. It’s we, ultimately, who change ourselves.

It’s good to bear all of this in mind when we contemplate love. Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a “thing” that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

If we are not bringing love into being, it is in the process of dying within us. If we don’t sustain our love, it withers — slowly perhaps, but inexorably. We have to pay attention to love in order that it continues to live and grow within us. And this means that we have to pay attention to others in order that our love continue to flourish.

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