lovingkindness practice

Chogyam Trungpa on Warriorship

Woman in warrior pose, in front of what appear to be orange flames

In these extracts from a forthcoming book from Shambhala Publications, the late Chogyam Trungpa defines his vision of the peaceful Buddhist warrior and explains the joys of the warrior’s path.

The warrior’s weapons

If victory is the notion of no enemy, then the whole world is a friend. That seems to be the warrior’s philosophy. The true warrior is not like somebody carrying a sword and looking behind his own shadow, in case somebody is lurking there. That is the setting-sun warrior’s point of view, which is an expression of cowardice. The true warrior always has a weapon, in any case … The definition of warriorship is fearlessness and gentleness. Those are your weapons. The genuine warrior becomes truly gentle because there is no enemy at all.

From the manuscript of CONQUERING FEAR: THE HEART OF SHAMBHALA. Forthcoming from Shambhala Publications in 2009.

* * * * *

The joy of warriorship

When we speak of fearlessness, we are describing a positive state of being full of delight and cheerfulness, with sparkling eyes and good posture. This state of being is not dependent on any external circumstance. If you can’t pay the electric bill, you might not have hot water in your house. The building you live in may not be well insulated. If you don’t have indoor plumbing, you may have to use an outhouse. Millions of people in the world live this way. If you can raise your good posture of head and shoulders, then regardless of your living situation, you will feel a sense of joy. It’s not any kind of cheap joy. It’s individual dignity. This experience of joy and unconditional healthiness is the basic virtue that comes from being what we are, right now. You have to experience this natural healthiness and goodness personally.

When you practice meditation, that brings the beginning of the beginning of this experience. Then, when you leave the meditation hall and go out and relate with the rest of reality, you will find out what kind of joy is needed and what kind of joy is expendable. The experience of joy may be a momentary experience, or it could last a long time. In any case, this joy is an eye opener. You are no longer shy of seeing the world. You find that the joy of warriorship is always needed.

From the manuscript of CONQUERING FEAR: THE HEART OF SHAMBHALA. Forthcoming from Shambhala Publications in 2009.

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True heroism is to practice love

Buddha and his protector, Vajrapani

Life as a battle is a common metaphor — even in Buddhist teachings. Bodhipaksa shows how the Buddha subverted the language of violence so that true heroism was to practice love.

If you look closely at life you’ll probably see that in at least some respects you see it as a battle.

Sometimes we say we “struggle” to keep up with our responsibilities. At times it seems we’re in “competition” with others for approval, status, or power. We talk about “fighting off” a cold. We say that “forewarned is forearmed.” We say that we made a suggestion, only to have it “shot down.” Doctors are constantly searching for new “weapons” to fight disease. Law enforcement workers “fight crime.” Advertisers “target” us with ad “campaigns.” The language of battle is a part of everyday life, as are the emotional attitudes that come with competition.

And we often see success in terms of how many victories we have, how well we’ve protected or expanded our turf, and how successful we’ve been in fighting our way to the top. Power, and its trappings — money, possessions, and the deference of others — are our society’s measure of success.

This verse from the Dhammapada —

If one should conquer thousands in battle,
and if another should conquer only himself,
his indeed is the greatest victory.

— is a reminder that there are other kinds of attainment.

These words are also powerful example of an instructive device that the Buddha often employed, where he takes an externally-performed action that is highly valued and shows that it gains even greater value when turned inwards.

The Buddha lived in a world that to us would seem superstitious and even barbaric. Society was in the grip of a rigid social system where people were judged not on their intelligence, capability, or attainments but on their birth origins. The way to happiness involved fulfilling without question the duties of one’s caste. One of the main religious practices was to slaughter animals in order to propitiate the gods. In order to purify oneself from ethical lapses it was believed that all one had to do was to bathe in rivers — even if the rivers were literally polluted. And war was not only common but brutal, and warriors believed that if killed in the heat of battle they would be lifted directly to heaven.

And in the midst of this madness was the supreme sanity of the Buddha.

According to the Buddha:

  • The true “Brahmin” (religious person) is not someone born into a certain family but someone who acts in an ethical manner. Anyone can become a holy person, irrespective of birth.
  • The true outcast is not someone born into a lowly family but someone who neglects his or her human potential and acts ignobly, by speaking or acting in a selfish or violent manner.
  • The way to happiness does not consist of following externally-imposed duties, but of following an inner path of cultivating wisdom and compassion.
  • True sacrifice doesn’t involve slaughtering animals but practicing generosity and renouncing our addiction to violence.
  • Purification comes not through external rituals but through living ethically and by observing the mind in meditation.

Over and over again the Buddha attempted to subvert the common understandings of his time. This was a subtle and intelligent approach to take. Rather than directly oppose those who saw things in a deluded way, and thus giving rise to resistance, he tapped into their concerns. He suggested, for example, not just that battle was cruel and destructive, but that you could become a greater warrior by seeing that there is a higher form of battle — an inner struggle against destructiveness, selfishness, and delusion.

And sometimes, just as the outer world can seen as combative, so too the inner world can seem like a battleground. There are times when we are involved in a struggle with ourselves, when our thoughts seem to be assailing us and when we are trying to fend them off.

Martial metaphors are in fact common in Buddhist teachings on meditation, with Shantideva encouraging us to pick up our mindfulness as swiftly as we would pick up a sword dropped in battle, the meditator being compared to a fletcher straightening an arrow, and the Buddha’s monks being compared to warriors battling sensual distraction.

But we have to be careful with these martial metaphors, perhaps even more so than with other figures of speech, although there are dangers in all forms of literalism. We do have to do inner work, and sometimes that work will seem to be hard and unrewarding — or to be a “struggle.” We do need qualities that are traditionally associated with the warrior spirit, qualities such as courage, clarity, steadfastness, loyalty to a cause, and the ability to handle discomfort.

But we need to be careful not to bring attitudes of ill will into our meditation practice. In meditation it’s ourselves we are struggling with, and in a battle where we regard ourselves as the enemy we can’t win. Elsewhere in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

Hatred is never overcome by hatred.
It is overcome by love – this is eternally true.

Ultimately we need to love the thoughts and feelings that assault us in meditation. We do need to overcome our selfishness, our ill-will, and our delusion, but we can’t meet them on their own level. We need to meet them with love and compassion. And when we experience victory over ourselves in this way, we have a happiness greater and more lasting than any external victory can bring.

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Healing the mind’s wounds

Every time we have a thought tinged with ill will, jealousy, anger, hatred or revenge, we are self-harming, and we are causing a wound to the mind. Whether the thought be about ourselves or another being, or an inanimate object, we are injuring the mind.

Lama Rangdrol, at a talk in the Bay Area, spoke about how we don’t even trust that our minds will heal when we injure them. He said when we cut our hand, we find some ointment, and a band aid, and trust that it will heal, but we never trust our minds will heal when we have dark thoughts, or fall into depression.

I went away from this talk reflecting on what was the ointment and the band aid for the mind, and I realized it was metta: The practice of loving kindness. It was the meditation that the Buddha gave to his disciples who while meditating in the forests came running back to there teacher crying: “There are monsters, ghouls and evil spirits out there.” The Buddha smiled, calmed them and taught them the metta bhavana, the practice of friendliness, the release of the heart, which shines forth, blazes and penetrates all beings. Loving Kindness. He sent them back into the forest and not one monk returned out of fear. They had healed their minds.

Before we can soothe our minds and heal our minds, we must begin to slow our lives down so we can hear our thoughts.

The Buddha taught pain, and the cessation of pain. He gave us many formulations and methods to work with the pain. Metta, part of the four immeasurables, or the sublime abodes, is one of these methods.
Before we can soothe our minds and heal our minds, we must begin to slow our lives down so we can hear our thoughts. We must learn to allow our thoughts to arise and cease. We must learn not to hold on to our thoughts, or chase our thoughts like a child who is chasing his or her kite. We must learn not to dwell in our thoughts. We must trust the essence of the Buddha’s teaching, the universal law: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.” This is the universal law of conditioned co-production.

In simpler terms we must trust that everything is impermanent, that things are always changing. If you tried to count your thoughts you would be amazed at how many thoughts you have in half an hour, and how many thoughts you try to hold on to.

Metta is one of the ways we can begin to soothe our thinking.

This is my reflection for the summer and fall months. I offer this poem, which I wrote some time ago. With Loving kindness,
Vimalasara.

Advice For Your Anger

There is nothing worse than seeing flaming red
With Butterflies churning away in your stomach.
And your body has ignited into a blazing fire
Extinguishing all the love in your heart.
It’s a warning. Your mind is full of toxic passion.
It’s your bull inside your head, charging with raging anger.

And when your body is consumed with anger
You need to stop when the stars before your eyes are red.
You need to realize that you’re not in control of your passion
If you can feel your breath palpitating inside your stomach.
It’s a warning that you’ve abandoned your heart
You need to find some love to put out your intoxicating fire.

If you ever hear yourself hissing and spitting like a fire
Take a deep breath and try to control your red hot anger.
This will help you dampen your worst thoughts inside your heart
Otherwise you may trigger another person to see sizzling red.
And they’ll stoke up everything from the depths of their stomach
And you will retaliate with a fuming and burning passion.

God forbid you don’t commit a crime of passion.
And pray that you manage to put out your bush fire
With the hope that you can calm your head and stomach
And douse out the fanning flames of your anger.
Try to ignore, every time someone winds you up and waves red
By remembering that it’s important to pause and connect to your heart.

Beware that when hatred sparks up inside your heart
Jealousy and revenge will become compulsive passions
Not even a street traffic light stuck on flashing red
Will stop your anger – It will flare up into a scorching fire.
Hatred is also resentment, prejudice and ill will mingled with anger
Try not to harbor these smoldering poisons inside your stomach.

Anger and hatred mustn’t become flammable luggage inside your stomach
Otherwise you’ll be unhappy and have fear stalking your head and heart.
And not even your family and friends will cope with your fiery anger.
Try to let go of all your pollutant and heated passions
Because they will stoke your head into a combustible fire
And you’ll be like the colored blind bull lunging towards the color red.

So when you feel a flicker of fire inside your stomach
It’s a warning that you’re full of anger and imagining red
What you need is compassion purifying your heart.

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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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All Embracing Urge: Motherhood and Practice

SrimatiMotherhood has opened up a new emotional realm for Srimati. But how to love wholeheartedly and continually let go is the ground of her daily practice.

Against the odds and ahead of hard evidence, I instinctively knew I was pregnant. As I lay in the bath there was something magical in the air. I found myself, hand on belly, making a heartfelt pledge in a tender whisper: “If you’re there, you’re welcome and I’ll do my best for you.” This was the beginning of the greatest love of my life. One week into my relationship with this unknown, unexpected being, I was howling with an ancient grief as I bled, and feared it was over. The pain of that love had also made itself felt.

But all was well, and that feeling of love and pain gathered substance during the months of pregnancy. My body surrendered more and more to its task, and love for my unborn became increasingly tangible with the growth of the life in my belly. So did the fears. Dreams of the coming birth were mostly beautiful, but my heart was full of the fragility of human life. I felt I would do anything to protect this life inside me, and yet there was so little I could do to ensure its wellbeing. That was ultimately out of my hands. Even before my child was born, I was learning that maternal love means letting go.

I spent an unforgettable night bringing my son into the world. In the calm and comfortable aftermath of that struggle, I lay stung awake by wonder, gazing at him. The blacks of his eyes shone in the dark, peacefully apprehending his new world as he lay between us, his parents, the very flesh that had created him. A few days earlier I’d dreamt I was begging a Nazi soldier not to shoot me, to give me one more week so I could see the face of my unborn child. Becoming a mother has shown me that the death of a child is the cruelest loss imaginable.

As a practicing Buddhist, such strong feelings have raised many questions for me. What gives rise to such powerful and self-sacrificing maternal love? To what extent does this love help or hinder us in living a spiritual life?

Some Buddhists claim parenthood is unhelpful from a spiritual point of view, partly because it opens you up to such incredible attachment. It is generally true that the more emotionally involved you are with someone, the more you are liable to be caught in attachment. At worst this can mean limiting, insecure ways of relating, and unhealthy dependence. Attachment is difficult to recognize and can be easily rationalized as something less selfish. For a Buddhist, however, identifying and uprooting this clinging is the very heart of practice and for a Buddhist parent it is no different.

Nevertheless certain Buddhist traditions take the image of maternal love as a metaphor to describe metta, universal loving-kindness:

As a mother watches o’er her child,
Her only child, so long as she doth breathe,
So let one practice unto all that live
An all-embracing mind.

Parenting, especially early parenting, can seem incomparably unselfish — but is it really? What enables such incredible resources to be unstintingly roused in the service of another human being? Perhaps it is because there is cellular identity with the child, especially in the mother’s case: My child is me. There is quite a leap between this and the empathetic identification of a Bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, with all living beings; but it is a powerful analogy.

I have come to value the power and vitality of maternal love and motherhood has given me a depth of experience that enriches my spiritual life. I have contacted a huge reservoir of passionate love for my son such as I have never experienced before. Most parents speak of this kind of love for their children. I prefer to see parental love as a spiritual opportunity. The answer is not to back away from the strength of that love, but to dwell deeply in it; to penetrate its nature and the nature of that which you love.

As a parent you have almost no choice but to love your child passionately, and this demands that you find the same intensity of wisdom. The more your heart is open, the more you can allow any wise reflections to touch you and let them transform you.

The story of Kisa Gotami is probably my favorite from the Buddha’s life. Kisa Gotami comes to the Buddha cradling her dead child. She is distraught, even a little crazed, and cannot accept that her child is dead. She has heard the Buddha is a great man, a great healer, and begs him to provide medicine for her ‘sick’ child. The Buddha replies that he will help her. She must find a mustard seed as medicine, but there is one condition: it must come from a household that has not known death.

Kisa Gotami sets out on her quest, knocking at doors. Those who greet her are happy to give her a mustard seed, but shake their heads when they hear of the condition. The living are few, but the dead are many. Kisa Gotami cannot find a house in which no one has died, and gradually a new perspective dawns. She sees the universality of death and this allows her to acknowledge what has happened. She buries her child, returns to the Buddha, and commits herself to the spiritual life.

Kisa Gotami “wakes up” during her quest. She sees that death and loss are universal, so she can finally grieve and let go of her child. This is a deeper engagement with life and death that sees it in a spiritual perspective. In accepting the death of her child, Kisa Gotami gains insight into the nature of human life. Obviously this is challenging ground. Kisa Gotami had the Buddha’s help. But it is not that she stopped loving, just that her love was placed in a much vaster context.

Tibetan Buddhist texts dwell on the mother-child relationship in many ways to evoke the intensity of love that human beings are capable of. The difficulty lies in transforming exclusive love into one that includes all beings. The prospect of loving every being like one’s only child is awesome, but life offers glimpses of such an experience. For example, when one grieves the death of a loved one, the combination of feelings arising from a personal loss, with an acknowledgment of the universality of death, can open up an intense love for all humanity.

Compassion comes with realizing that all beings will one day share this moment in their own way. Similarly, dying people sometimes reach a serenity where they accept impending death and are imbued with a sublime love for their family and for life itself — as if only this fullness of love is important, more important and powerful than death itself. Over the years I have thought a great deal about the nature of human love, ordinary human affection and intimacy with all its imperfections. It is this middle ground between the lofty climes of metta and the grip of unconscious attachment that I am interested in — that is where many of us stand for much of our lives.

When I first became involved in Buddhism I latched on to the notion of non-attachment because I was hurt by loss and death. I was 19 and didn’t know myself well. Although fairly bright and positive on the surface, I was unconsciously on the run from painful experiences. My adolescence had ended abruptly with my father’s illness and death, and I had witnessed the agony my mother suffered in losing him. I felt mature beyond my years, and my world of teenage rebellion became meaningless.

So, too, did my relationship with my first love, who had recently held such passion and promise for me. I had thought he was my soul-mate, the man I’d spend my life with. But my need for him melted away and I felt strangely alone. Suddenly, I found myself telling him it was over and telling my mother that I was leaving home.

Within a few months, my inner searching brought me to the Glasgow Buddhist Center, and I instantly recognized I had found the means to understand life and death that had been invisibly beckoning ever since I can remember. Although my response to the Dharma was largely sincere, I misconstrued some of what I learnt. While I rejoiced in my fortune at having come across the Buddhist path so young and unencumbered, I did not realized how much emotional backlog I had to deal with. It was during this initial phase that I developed a sort of defended pseudo-independence and fooled myself that I was free of attachments.

Fortunately meditation and spiritual friendship sorted me out. I threw myself into the spiritual life, and moved to the London Buddhist Center where I could participate in more intensive situations for practice, and be around more experienced Buddhists. Meditating every day, living in community with other Buddhists and working in a Buddhist Right Livelihood business was like being in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I looked, my being was reflected back. There was no escape. So the pain of what I had been running from caught up with me. It was a journey into the underworld and I came more deeply into relationship with the love and pain that had been stirred by these losses.

By fully grieving, in opening up my heart to what had happened, the psuedo-independence crumbled. I was heartbroken, and from that broken heart a bigger heart was released. I began to see that non-attachment was not about holding back, being self-contained and trying to limit the inevitable emotional damage that comes through being in relationship with people. Ironically, I’ve found that non-attachment is about loving deeply, letting my love flow, admitting how much friends, family and partner matter. It involves being willing to love them, give myself to them, even though we will one day be parted. There’s nothing we can do to stop death, to end separation. Non-attachment means being prepared to take the pain of losing loved ones because the sheer experience of love is worth it.

My attitude to love began to change as I acknowledged the truth of impermanence, and the inevitability of the suffering implicit in loving. From feeling I made myself vulnerable by loving, I began to experience a greater robustness in my love. What did I really have to lose? I started to see love as giving rather than losing myself. Really to love I must be prepared to give everything and let go of everything. I must learn to release my love, love for its own sake, with no desire for a secure pay-off.

More than a decade later, with a partner and a four-year-old son, those ponderings have a new arena. The issues of attachment are different. I cannot choose whether or not to love my son, whether it is ‘safe’ to invest emotional energy in him. It is absolutely what I must and will do. I am only beginning the journey of loving as a mother, and every time I think I have understood what is involved, it changes.

And yet I sense that the lessons of this decade are the same. Only insight into to my son’s true nature, indeed into human nature in general, can free me from attachment. Every so often a tragic news story rips through the day-to-day illusion that this love is forever, never to be disturbed by accident, illness, separation.

I do not want to have to face what Kisa Gotami experienced in order to wake up to the human situation, but I do want to wake up. I want to feel unbounded love that is passionate, full and wise. Living with the tension of loving fully and letting go is not easy: it involves simultaneously holding two apparent opposites.

But hopefully the tension will allow a larger perspective to emerge. In the meantime I feel it is the only option. Love is not about binding another or oneself to a status quo because of insecurity. That is essentially an impossible task: things change, like it or not. It means taking a stand on a deeper, spiritual knowledge. To love fully is to open oneself to the truth of the human condition.


SrimatiSrimati is a freelance spiritual teacher, writer and co-founder of Thrivecraft Coaching, and a former member of the Western Buddhist Order.

She is currently engaged in publishing her whole body of work via books, articles, CDs, films, and the internet. Her aim is to contribute accessible and relevant spiritual intelligence to mainstream modern life and business.

Srimati’s CD, Answers: Finding Wisdom from Within, is now available from her website, Thrivecraft.


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“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” Ann Landers

ann landers

In the long run we inevitably hurt ourselves more than others do. Someone in the past did something that we found hurtful. They did or said something, or failed to do or say something, and we experienced physical or emotional hurt. It’s bound to happen. Each instance of hurt only happened one time in our past, and yet we have the faculty of memory that allows us to recall that incident over and over, and thus hurt ourselves over and over again. That’s how in the long term we can end up hurting ourselves more than the other person did.

Of course we often don’t think of this is as hurting ourselves. We tend to take the mini-dramas that unfold in the mind as being real, and indeed we respond to them as if they were real. When we recall someone saying something cruel to us we feel hurt in much the same way we would if they were here, now, speaking those words.

It’s absurd, really, that we do this — that we keep running through painful scenarios in the filmhouse of the mind. We watch the same movies over and over again, experiencing the same pain over and over again. It’s a form of self-torture.

In fact we often embellish the hurt, imagining whole scenes that never actually happened or imagining that we know the thoughts and motives of another person, as if we were omniscient. Sometimes we even invent scenes that might take place in the future, rehearsing for conflict. These imagined arguments and conflicts may never happen — the future is always uncertain — but we manage to feel the pain of them right now. Self-torture.

I sometimes find myself replaying clashes from the past. Sometimes I think I’m doing it to try to convince myself that I was in the right: “Look how awful he is. Hear the terrible things he says. I’m the injured party. I deserve sympathy.” But when I notice that I’ve slipped into one of these resentment-fests I often try to break out of it by thinking “Who’s arguing with whom?”

It’s obvious when I think about it that I’m arguing with myself. The figure in my imagination who looks like that Fred isn’t really him. It’s not a real person. It’s just neurons firing in my brain, creating a virtual reality representation of Fred (that weasel!) through which I can talk to myself. I create a virtual representation of Fred (the louse!) from one set of neurons and one of myself from another set, and the two parts of my brain have a battle with each other. Isn’t it crazy! And yet we do this all the time.

And it’s so hard to let go of our resentments sometimes. We can keep noticing resentful thoughts arising and try to let go of them and we can keep doing this literally for years and the thoughts will still keep emerging.

Ann Landers’ quote (Esther Lederer was her real name) is a good reminder about the ways in which, through resentment, we give space in our minds to people we have conflicts with. Although of course it’s not really them we’re renting space to.

As well as stopping myself short by reminding myself that both parties in these resentments are myself, I’ve found that I need to have empathy for myself. That, ultimately, is what I think I’m looking for in harboring these resentments. I want sympathy. The drama I’m imagining in my mind is played out for an audience. So who’s the audience? It’s me. But it’s not the same me who’s involved in the argument. That me, remember, is a virtual reality version of myself, conjured up to play a part in a struggle with the virtual Fred (that no-good hound!). No, I think who I’m looking for sympathy for, ultimately, is my real self. And it’s because I’m not giving myself empathy that I have to play the fantasy over and over again.

So why am I not giving myself empathy? Generally it’s because I’m too busy identifying with the virtual-reality me who’s busy fighting with Fred (the snake!). I’m too busy taking his part, thinking I’m being attacked by someone else, to realize that both actors in the drama are parts of me.

So what does it mean to give myself empathy? It means that rather than taking the part of the virtual me against the virtual Fred (the bounder!) I need to realize that I am in pain. The whole drama is unfolding because I, for some reason, am in pain. This isn’t the virtual me I’m talking about, but the real me. So I need to empathize with my pain.

First I need to acknowledge the pain and accept that it’s there. That’s often hard to do because we can feel a sense of shame around feeling pain, as if it’s a sign of failure or weakness.

Next I need to accept the pain. Pain is not something “bad” that has to be banished from our experience. Pain is unpleasant, but it’s simply another experience. So we need to allow pain to be there.

Next I need to send metta (lovingkindness) to the pain. I have to love my pain. Loving my pain doesn’t mean that I want more or it. It’s not a masochistic act to love your pain. Rather, it means relating to the part of ourselves that is in pain, not blaming ourselves and not seeing the pain as something to be gotten rid of, but simply offering the hurting part of ourselves our compassion. Sometimes this is wordless, and other times I use phrases from the Metta Bhavana (lovingkindness) meditation practice: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”

I find that in doing this I’m addressing the underlying sense of hurt that gives rise to the recurrent resentment. When I wish my pain well in this way I find that there’s a sense of reconciliation and even of relief, because I’ve finally realized exactly what it was I was looking for. When instead of simply appealing for sympathy we actually give it to ourselves we start to become healed. We’ve begun to address the underlying cause of our inner dramas and we realize that we no longer have such a need to rent out space in our head to conflicts.

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Looking into our fetters — and finding freedom

Sky reflected in a mirror that's lying on grass.
As we practice meditation it’s inevitable that we’ll outgrow some of our initial understandings, and sometimes an aspect of practice that at first seemed straightforward is revealed to be richer and more textured than we’d assumed.

For me, mindfulness at first seemed clear enough; one simply notices one’s actions and one’s experience. A person who is being mindful remembers where he has left his car keys, while a person (maybe the same person) who is being unmindful may not even remember where he parked the car. We know we’re angry when we’re angry, and we know we’re content when we’re content. It’s that simple — or so it seemed.

A few years ago my understanding of mindfulness started to undergo a shift. Mindfulness is no longer simply knowing what one is experiencing, or remembering where one has put things. It is richer and more multifaceted than that. As my practice has evolved there are four aspects of mindfulness that I’ve particularly come to appreciate: acceptance, curiosity, lovingkindness, and insight.

Acceptance

Acceptance leads to integration and wholeness. By “acceptance” I mean being with one’s experience without reacting, without experiencing craving or aversion towards it, without experiencing elation or despondency. In order to deepen our mindfulness we have to practice sitting with experiences, even if they’re unpleasant or involve unskillful emotions.

Sometimes we can be quick to jump in with various tools we’ve learned to deal with the various emotional states that that arise and take us away from the object of our meditation practice — emotions such as ill will, craving, despondency, embarrassment, and anxiety — not allowing time to really be with the distraction and to see what we can learn from it.

But if we can patiently sit with our experiences, unexpected transmutations can take place. Ill will can evaporate to reveal tender sadness, or beneath craving we can come to see a wholesome yearning for completeness.

However, the habitual use of antidotes to distractions can lead to a subtle form of repression in which these parts of ourselves are forced out of consciousness, and when reaching for antidotes becomes a habit we’ve lost our freedom — and all meditation practice is about finding greater levels of freedom.

Curiosity

Mindfulness is active rather than passive. Mindfulness doesn’t have to merely notice experiences, but can explore them. For example, an experience to which we apply the label “pain” can be seen not as one thing but as a series of processes becoming and un-becoming.

As we investigate an experience of physical pain we can see interweaving currents of pressure,
heat, cold, tingling, throbbing, and pulsing — and sometimes the pain seems to vanish altogether. An experience we may have wished to escape now becomes a source of fascination and an object of concentration.

We can also come to see pain as part of an interconnected system, noticing how the body responds by tensing up, how the emotions respond with aversion, how thoughts of self-pity arise. And as we bring those responses into mindful awareness we realize that we don’t have to amplify our suffering through reacting to pain but instead can simply experience it as it is.

Lovingkindness

The Persian poet Rumi writes of how when dark thoughts appear we can “Meet them at the door laughing / And invite them in”. I often recall those words when challenging experiences arise. If a friend turned up on my doorstep full of self-doubt, anger, or hurt, how would it be most helpful to meet him? Would I want to try to cheer him up, or send him away, or even to try solving his problems for him?

Although I confess that trying to solve people’s problems can be hard to resist, what I’d ideally like to do is to greet him with compassion: inviting him in, sitting him down, and listening. Ideally I’d like mostly to just listen, and to provide the curiously, love and encouragement that my friend needs to let his story unfold.

When I take this approach with myself and my own dark thoughts, embracing troubling experiences with loving mindfulness and sensing the often unacknowledged pain that accompanies each one, a profound sense of relief and gratitude often emerges; the kind of sense you might have if you’d been lost without hope in a dark wood and had at last found a path home.

Insight

The Buddhist tradition offers us the paradox that freedom comes not from trying to escape our inner fetters, but from looking deeply into them and seeing their impermanence and insubstantiality.

As mindfulness develops it becomes permeated with insight. As we notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences, skillful and unskilful emotions, as they arise and fall, we come to appreciate the transience of all our experiences, and we can further come to see that those experiences – pleasant or unpleasant, skillful or unskilful — are not an inherent part of who we are.

Our sense of who we are starts to shift, and a greater degree of freedom, spaciousness, and contentment begins to emerge as our fetters dissolve into emptiness.

Mindfulness has many facets — many more than those I’ve touched upon here — and I’d encourage you to let your mindfulness reveal these and other hidden aspects, not simply noticing your experiences, but accepting them with equanimity, actively exploring their texture with an inquiring mind, embracing them with metta, and looking deeply into them with an awareness of impermanence and insubstantiality. The more deeply you look into your inner fetters the more you will find yourself to be free.

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Lyman Abbott: Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

Lyman Abbott

Once when I was listening to the Dalai Lama talk in Edinburgh, he was asked a question that went something like this: “You keep talking about changing the world through meditation and compassion, but isn’t anger faster?” His Holiness answered to the effect that it’s precisely because anger acts so swiftly that we have to be wary of it.

His Holiness’s reply reveals Buddhism’s ambivalent attitude to the emotion of anger. Anger’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can accomplish a lot of good in the world. Anger can simply be a passionate response to something that we know in our hearts is wrong. His Holiness has himself admitted that he frequently feels angry when he thinks about injustice, and particularly the way that the Communist Chinese have treated his homeland and his people. It’s natural — and even right — for us to feel anger in such circumstances. We’d scarcely be human if we didn’t.

At the same time, anger can be such a powerful force that we lose our mindfulness and find that the heart has become filled with ill will or hatred, which is a desire to hurt others. We move from being angry to wanting to punish or wanting revenge. Just as the Dalai Lama says he experiences anger towards the Chinese, he also says he holds no hatred for them in his heart.

The difference between hatred and anger

Hatred, with its inherent desire to hurt and damage others is never seen in Buddhist practice as being an appropriate response. Anger may be passionate and fiery, but it simply wants to remove an obstacle or to change things for the better, not to hurt.

Yet although anger and hatred are different emotions — one potentially skillful, the other very definitely unskillful — many people fail to see the distinction. The experience of being angry — the sense of physical arousal, the quickened pulse, the tingling in the hands as we prepare for action — is in many ways very similar to the experience of hatred. And anger, once aroused, can easily lead to the less healthy emotion of hatred, just as a campfire can lead to a forest conflagration.

Seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger

So how can we teach children — and ourselves — to experience anger in a healthy way? Here are seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger.

1. Accept your anger

First, we can learn to accept that anger is a normal, healthy, and potentially creative form of energy. Too often we’ve been taught, as Abbott suggests, that anger is something to be avoided and believe that we’ve failed when anger has stirred. When we try to confine our anger it’s inclined to burst out uncontrollably, or to gnaw us away from the inside, as resentment. When we accept our anger we can relate to it in a more healthy way.

2. Breathe

Second, breathe! Create a sense of space between you and your emotions by breathing deeply into the belly. Connecting with the body helps stop our emotions spiraling out of control, keeps them in perspective, and helps us to calm down so that we don’t do or say anything rash. If you’re angry when you receive an email, don’t reply at once but wait until you’ve had time to quiet your mind and reflect more calmly.

3. Take responsibility for your anger

Third, we can appreciate that our anger is our anger. Other people don’t make us angry. Our anger is not their fault. Our anger, rather, is our response to our interpretation of our experience. We need to own our anger and to see that it’s something we’ve given rise to, ourselves.

4. Distinguish anger and hatred

Fourth, we can learn to recognize the difference between anger and hatred. To do this requires a great deal of introspective practice, especially since it’s harder to be mindful when our energy is aroused in anger. We have to examine our motivations, our thoughts, and our words: Do we have a desire to hurt? Do we use belittling, condescending, or insulting language? Are we fixated on winning at any cost? Do we distort the truth? Do we still feel a basic sense of sympathy, friendliness, and compassion towards our opponent?

5. Acknowledge your hurt

Fifth, we can acknowledge our hurt. Often anger arises in response to a sense of hurt. Even when someone else has suffered an injustice, this can lead to a sense of hurt arising in our own experience. And that in turn can lead to anger. When we mindfully acknowledge the sense of hurt that we ourselves are experiencing we find that we’re less inclined to lash out.

6. Let go

Sixth, we have to be prepared to let go of our anger. Healthy anger arises quickly and departs quickly. It doesn’t hang around and fester.

7. Cultivate lovingkindness

Seventh, and lastly, we can cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice and in daily life. As we go about our daily activities we can repeat phrases such as “May you be well; may you be happy; may you live in peace.” The basic sense of sympathy that this practice helps cultivate makes it easier to avoid anger in the first place and makes it possible for us to experience anger “cleanly,” without it slipping into hatred.

These seven steps can help us to experience anger less frequently, less intensely, and more cleanly. Rather than experiencing anger as a destructive force we can use it creatively. Rather than our anger hurting people it can become a powerful tool for putting our compassion into action.

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“The State of Mind Called Beautiful,” by Sayadaw U Pandita

The State of Mind Called Beautiful

Visiting IMS in the 90s, I heard U Pandita speak during a three-month retreat. His key image was a dying tree, its water supply cut off. It was actually a recommendation: remove the causes of kilesa (unwholesome reaction), and kill the kilesa tree. I found the image upsetting. Yet I was impressed with the man.

Kate Wheeler, who edits this new book, calls Sayadaw “a Buddhist version of fire and brimstone.” His style is certainly hard-hitting. Indeed, without the funny anecdotes in her preface showing his sincerity and depth of insight, one could take offence at Sayadaw’s moral injunctions, even dismiss him as simplistic: but one would be quite wrong.

What makes this book new and special is Sayadaw’s lively communication of the moral dimension of meditation training. Chapter One is an overview of Dharma training in which we are shown how lack of moral sensitivity “chars” and darkens the mind, making us reckless of the disturbing consequences of moral breaches. Sayadaw is particularly clear on the dark inner detail of our personal kilesas. For example: “if that person appears to be happily getting away with what they have done, one may well decide to take matters into one’s own hands, gaining satisfaction even from petty meannesses such as ignoring them.”

Writers on meditation rarely go into this territory, perhaps because of the popular wrong view that meditation is a one-stop practice through which we simply get high, bypassing any need for ethical consideration. Some meditation teachers feel that since people are generally good hearted, it is inappropriate to stress Buddhist ethics or precepts. This seems to be something of an avoidance. The reality is that the awareness induced by meditation often exposes our petty-mindedness in the most humiliating way.

Pointing out that nearly all of our outer problems are in fact caused by kilesa, in the following two chapters U Pandita presents two “Guardian” meditations that in particular protect from moral defilement. According to him, the essence of the first, the Buddha-anussati or recollection of the Buddha’s virtues, is the recognition that the Buddha is an enlightened being. We approach this recognition through a detailed enumeration of exactly why Buddhas are so amazing. This includes an illuminating discussion of the importance, for any Dharma teacher, of developing both wisdom and compassion. Sayadaw also comments interestingly on the relationship between a general lack of moral training and current world politics.

Metta or loving kindness, and the other brahmaviharas (compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), are given detailed treatment. Issues such as the distinction between metta and selfish love (tanha-pema), and the near and far enemies of each stage of practice, are tackled in the context of each of the brahmavihara meditations. This chapter is very useful for practitioners of meditation and would on its own justify buying the book.

Chapters four and five are at least as useful, since here U Pandita gives an excellent presentation of insight meditation. Chapter four contains notes on helpful attitudes to practice, qualities necessary for success, suggestions for retreat schedules, and some basic instructions.

Chapter five is a “Technical Discussion of Satipatthana Vipassana” which is pure upadesha, commentary on practice arising straight from the master’s experience. I found this to be the best part of the book, offering much to reflect on. Sayadaw manages to communicate here his deep passion for mindfulness and insight, making it into an exciting prospect – it’s a rare and inspiring gift he has.

The book concludes with a Question/Answer session and a Pali-English glossary.

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Metta in Motion (Yoga Journal)

Anne Cushman, Yoga Journal: Learn how to infuse your hatha yoga practice with the meditative quality of metta, or "lovingkindness."

Early last year, in the heart of a stormy winter during which the country was hurtling toward war and my own life felt like it was falling apart, I decided to use yoga to dive into an extended investigation of the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahmaviharas—literally, the “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, which are also extolled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

At the time, I was worried and brokenhearted. A funky left knee, an inflamed wrist, and chronic exhaustion as a toddler’s mother kept me from taking refuge in a sweaty, endorphin-inducing yoga flow. The brahmaviharas seemed to be exactly what I needed to focus on in my spiritual practice.

They also seemed, quite frankly, as remote as Jupiter. But the teachings of both yoga and Buddhism assured me that these luminous qualities were my true nature, a heavenly inner realm into which I could be reborn at any moment, and that my job in my spiritual practice was simply to find my way back to them…

Hatha yoga has always been one of my primary tools for conjuring up the qualities I want more of in my life. So I asked the students at a class I co-lead (along with several other yoga teachers and vipassana teacher Anna Douglas) at the Buddhist meditation center Spirit Rock to join me in an exploration: Could we infuse our asana practice with the spirit of the brahmaviharas? Could yoga’s physical techniques, in turn, induce an embodied experience of these spiritual qualities, which we could then express in the world? Could the brahmaviharas be touched through bones and muscle, blood and prana, in the midst of our ordinary lives of e-mails and diapers and credit-card bills and listening to NPR in freeway traffic?

The Basics of Metta

In the oldest forms of Buddhism, the first brahmavihara that practitioners work to cultivate—the cornerstone of all the rest—is metta, a Pali word translated as “love” or, more often, “lovingkindness.” Metta is not the emotional train-wreck version of love celebrated in Danielle Steel novels or television shows like Married By America. It’s not passion or sentimentality; it’s not laced with desire or possessiveness. Rather, metta is a kind of unconditional well-wishing, an openhearted nurturing of ourselves and others just as we all are. And—most crucially—it’s a quality that can be methodically cultivated through formal practice.

In traditional metta meditation, we systematically offer lovingkindness to ourselves and others through the silent repetition of classic phrases. We begin by offering metta to ourselves: May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be joyful. May I be free. We then extend the same wishes to others: first a dear friend or benefactor; then a neutral person, such as a checkout clerk at our local supermarket; then someone we find extremely difficult. (According to Patanjali, difficult people are especially suitable recipients of lovingkindness.) Ultimately, we extend metta to all beings everywhere, in an expansive blessing that takes in everyone and everything from the mosquito buzzing around our head to space aliens in distant galaxies.

Practice Metta on the Mat

To invite more metta into our hatha yoga practice, my students and I began taking five or 10 minutes, when we first came to our mats, to hold ourselves in the embrace of loving awareness. We’d set ourselves up in a receptive, nurturing posture; my personal favorite was Supta Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a reclining supported backbend that gently opened my heart and belly. Then we would take some time to notice—without judgment—the emotional weather in our hearts and the precise physical sensations that accompanied it. Did our hearts feel like clenched fists, budding orchids, buzzing bees, ice cubes? Did we have a hard time finding them at all?

Next we’d set an intention to move through our yoga with lovingkindness. Sometimes we’d focus this intention with metta phrases: May I be peaceful and joyful. May my body be well. One student said it helped her to synchronize these phrases with her breath—she’d visualize flooding her body with metta as each breath poured in. Sometimes I found it helpful to use an image instead, such as rocking myself in my own arms the way I rock my son Skye when he wakes up crying. Some days, we’d direct our metta to body parts that particularly needed attention. We’d wrap our attention around our aching hip joints, our throbbing knees, our exhausted eyes. Then we’d direct our good wishes there: May you find ease and well-being.

As we began to move through our asana practice together, I’d invite my students to modify my suggested poses to cherish their own unique bodies, taking special care to support, not aggravate, any weaknesses or injuries. In my own practice, I tried to choose the postures and techniques that would nurture me most. This didn’t mean that I spent an hour just lolling around on the floor. If I came to my mat after a morning of answering e-mail, what felt kindest was a vigorous sequence of standing poses that wrung out the tension from my muscles and sent prana pulsing and coursing through my body. When Skye had kept me up all night with nightmares about dogs in his crib, it was kinder to drape myself over some bolsters and just breathe deeply.

To generate and intensify feelings of metta, my students and I found it particularly useful to explore poses that opened our heart chakras, such as backbends, side stretches, and twists. It was easier to send and receive love, we found, when our physical hearts were less constricted. Kindness came easier when our breaths were full and deep. We could come to our mats seething with resentment and yet leave after a vigorous vinyasa flow with our hearts singing.

As I focused on practicing with metta, I began to notice how much of my inner dialogue on the mat was subtly oriented toward critiquing what was wrong with my body and my practice: a subliminal commentary on my pooching belly, my wandering mind, the place where my hip froze during Revolved Triangle. I saw ways that my yoga practice had been reinforcing and refining my ability to criticize myself, rather than training my capacity to wish myself well.

Metta practice gave me a systematic way to shift this inner narrative.When I was struggling in a pose, I experimented with sending metta to the shoulder or hip or muscle that was squawking the loudest: May you be happy. Then I’d let the correct response arrive intuitively: whether to stay in the pose and continue to send metta, adjust it, or exit. One of the things I found useful about my metta exploration was that it was so nonprescriptive—it wasn’t dogma but an infinitely creative response to each situation.

Find Your Metta In Meditation

Cultivating lovingkindness in asanas felt like a good start, but I knew it was only scratching the surface of true metta practice, which aims to transform our relationship not just with ourselves but with the world. To build on the insights from our asana practice, my students and I would follow it with a period of seated metta meditation in which we practiced extending to others the lovingkindness we had been cultivating on the mat.

To link our meditation practice to our asana practice—and truly embody our insights—we tracked the effects of the metta meditation on our bodies. As we sent metta to ourselves and others, we observed the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our hearts contracted and released, the tightening or softening of our pelvic floors, the deepening or constriction of our breaths. As we explored sending metta to friends, acquaintances, and difficult people, we brought to mind how we responded to the pleasant, neutral, and difficult sensations in our asana practice. For instance, was there any similarity between the way I responded to my intransigent hip joint and the way I responded to the neighbor who was threatening to sue me for floodwater runoff into her yard?

Like many of my students, I quickly discovered that it was infinitely easier to generate a rush of warmth and tenderness toward a good friend than toward myself. One of the blessings of regular metta practice is that it puts me in touch with how many people I truly love—and feeling this love, I discovered, could be an immediate, somatic source of nourishment and joy, no matter how much stress I was under. Metta could connect me, in an instant, to people I cared about near and far—from my son, asleep in the next room, to his former baby-sitter, now volunteering on an organic mulberry farm in Laos. It could also connect me to people I’d never even met, like a child in Iraq whose face stared out at me from the front page of the Times. And this sense of connection flooded not just my heart but my whole body with positive sensations.

Certain days, my students and I discovered, our hearts felt full of lovingkindness; other days, we were anxious and agitated and angry, and doing metta seemed only to make us more upset. We tried not to use our metta practice as an excuse for beating ourselves up about not being more loving. As our vipassana teacher, Anna Douglas, noted, “Metta is a purification practice, so it often brings up its opposite.” Just as our attempts to focus on the breath illuminate, first of all, how unsteady our minds are, our attempts to contact our innate lovingkindness may immediately illuminate the ways in which we have been conditioned to be less than loving and kind. This does not mean that the practice is not working. On the contrary, it means it’s working perfectly.
The Meta of Metta

One of the delights of metta practice is that it’s so portable. I am finding it tailor-made to my current life as a mom, in which I spend more time reading Winnie-the-Pooh books and walking at a toddler’s pace to the park than I spend on the meditation cushion.

One of my students, a stay-at-home mom, told me she likes to send metta to her family while folding their laundry: May you be joyful, she says as she holds her daughter’s sock in one hand and vainly looks for its match. May you be safe.

Another friend tells me she pretends that her stationary bike at the gym is a Tibetan prayer wheel; instead of watching CNN, she pumps out metta to the recipient of her choice with every cycle of her legs. Someone else I know uses every stoplight or traffic jam as a signal to send metta to the person in the car in front of him.

One student reports she has been regularly practicing metta while watching various political leaders on the news. Instead of raging and arguing with the television set, she silently sends them metta: May you be happy. May you be well. “I figure that happy people rarely start wars,” she tells me.

And me? As I’m falling asleep, instead of retraveling the day’s peaks and swamps in my mind, I send metta to myself and the people I love. (I’ve found metta particularly helpful when struggling with insomnia at 2 in the morning.) Sending metta to strangers I read about in the paper has transformed the way I experience the headlines. And in the midst of an argument, I try to remember to take a few breaths and sense what’s going on in my heart and belly, just as I do on my yoga mat. I silently send metta to myself and the other person. Then I go on with the conversation and see if it proceeds differently.

Like most of the students in my class, I’ve found that consciously infusing my yoga practice with lovingkindness has given me greater access to it throughout my life—even when my life is not going precisely the way I’d like. Metta practice helps us not just understand but feel that we are woven into a great web of relationships, which we can light up through the power of our attention. And it helps us shift our focus from getting love to creating it, from improving our bodies to cherishing them, and from fixing life to embracing it.

See also Cultivate Goodness: How to Practice Lovingkindness

About our author

Anne Cushman is the author of Enlightenment for Idiots and From Here to Nirvana: A Guide to Spiritual India.
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