Awakening the Kind Heart - Selections

How to Meditate on Compassion


168 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861716951

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The Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.

Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upward to the skies,
And downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Chapter 1: It’s Time to Change Your Mind

The Buddha was once an ordinary person like us. He had problems in relationships and problems within himself. He was disturbed by negative thoughts and emotions. Knowing that others experienced the same difficulties, he embarked on a spiritual journey to find an end to suffering. His search led him to the attainment of enlightenment and to his proclamation of the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, it has a cause, it can be ended, and there is a path we can follow that leads to the end of suffering.

Paradoxically, to understand the state of enlightenment the Buddha attained, you have to be enlightened yourself. But we can get an idea of it. It’s a state of mind in which all negative, harmful qualities—anger, hatred, greed, pride, ignorance, and so forth—have been eliminated. Conversely, all positive, beneficial qualities—universal compassion and love, generosity, patience, and wisdom—have been perfected. Someone who has attained enlightenment is free of all problems and suffering such as pain, sickness, death, fear, sadness, loneliness, and so forth, and is capable of helping all other beings to become free and to attain enlightenment. When we say we want to be happy, this is what we all are truly searching for.

The word buddha refers to anyone who attains the state of enlightenment. There are many who have already become buddhas, and in fact all of us have the potential to become buddhas. This potential—known as buddha nature—is always within us, a natural part of our mind. Our mind’s nature is clear and pure, like a cloudless sky or pure spring water, and is only temporarily polluted by obscurations such as negative emotions. These can be eliminated, allowing the true, pure nature of our mind to be revealed, which is compassion itself. A truly kind heart already exists in each and every one of us. It’s just a matter of learning how to bring it out and expand it so that we can feel it more often, for more people and more beings—and eventually for all living beings.

The Mind Is the Source of All

To appreciate the path that reveals the pure, compassionate nature of our mind, it’s helpful to explore what we mean by mind in Buddhism. Every being is endowed with a mind or consciousness, a continuously flowing, ever-changing stream of experiences including thoughts, emotions, sensory perceptions, memories, dreams, and so on and so on. Our mind is not physical—a collection of cells and atoms—but a completely non-physical kind of energy. It’s not the brain, the nervous system, or any part of the body, but it does interact with and affect the brain and the body. We could say our body is like the hardware of a computer and our mind is like the software.

The Buddha expressed the importance of the mind in this famous verse from one of the most concise summaries of the Buddhadharma, a collection of verses called the Dhammapada:

Mind is the forerunner of all states;
Mind is chief, mind-made are they.
If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows,
Like the wheel that follows the cart-pulling ox.

Mind is the forerunner of all states;
Mind is chief, mind-made are they.
If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows,
Like one’s shadow that never leaves.

In other words, mind creates our experiences, unhappy and happy. Unhappiness and problems are the result of “impure” or negative states of mind (such as anger, greed, and jealousy) as well as the actions they lead to, whereas happiness comes from “pure” or positive states of mind (such as compassion, love, and patience) and actions motivated by these. This understanding is not exclusive to Buddhism, but is also found in many other religions, spiritual traditions, and systems of philosophy.

Our mind is thus the source of suffering and peace. When the mind is controlled by delusions and karma, we suffer and circle in the neverending trap of cyclic existence known as samsara. When we free the mind from negative states and develop positive states, we become free from suffering and experience the peace and happiness of liberation and enlightenment. It’s just a question of changing our mind. And this process of changing our mind is one of the distinguishing marks of Buddhism: it gives us a variety of practices that enable us to deeply influence the direction of our mind and the behavior that results.

Changing Your Mind

We can transform our mind from negative to positive, miserable to peaceful, because our mind is impermanent, ever-changing. It is never the same from one moment to the next. Every moment brings new thoughts, feelings, and experiences, each of which lasts but a moment. Disappearing, each thought gives rise to the next. Since our mind changes naturally anyway, it is also possible for us to consciously change it. This is important to recognize.

You might think, “I’m just an angry person. This is my nature and I cannot change,” or “I’ve always been depressed and always will be depressed. I’ll never be happy.” This cannot possibly be correct! If you look carefully at your mind and your experiences, you’ll notice moments when you are not angry or depressed, and moments when you are loving or happy. If you think you can’t change, you won’t even try, but if you believe that transformation is possible, you will put your energy into it, and achieve it. Definitely.

I say this with great confidence, but not because I have been told to think this way. Rather, long experience has taught me that the mind can be changed for the better. When I was young, I was a very unhappy person. Although my external situation was quite good—I had a comfortable home, caring parents, plenty to eat, a good education—I was troubled and confused. Looking back now, I recognize that my mind was flooded with negative thoughts and emotions. I was often selfish, greedy, depressed, angry, and critical. And I had trouble getting along with people. I did not want to be like that, though. I wanted to be kind and happy, but I had no idea how to change.

In my teens I learned about Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual traditions through reading books and felt strongly attracted. Eventually I decided to travel to India, where many of these traditions have their roots. At the age of 21, I found myself in Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas, learning Buddhism from Tibetan lamas. One of the things that attracted me to Buddhism was its marvellous explanation of the mind and its potential for pure happiness and peace, as well as the fact that it presented a step-by-step method for how to achieve this. After working with these teachings for the last 35 years, I know that they work. It’s not that my anger and selfishness have completely disappeared. They still arise. But they arise much less frequently than before, and more positive thoughts and feelings arise in their place. I know for sure that my basic nature is pure and that a kind heart can always be awakened in any moment.

If you’re still skeptical about the changeability of the mind, try this experiment: Close your eyes and sit quietly for a few minutes. Let your body relax, and let your mind settle down in the present moment, right where you are. Just pay attention to your inner world, to what is happening in your mind. Let the thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and memories come and go. Don’t try to stop them. Don’t get caught up in them. Observe them as you would observe cars and pedestrians passing by in a street. Can you see how they change? Is there any experience that is permanent, frozen, always present in your mind, every single moment?

The transitory nature of our mind explains the confusing experience we sometimes have of opposing mental states: one moment we are happy, another moment sad; one moment steady with confidence, another moment shaky with doubt or fear; one moment full of love for a friend, another moment angry, seeing her as an enemy. This situation is normal and understandable considering the mind’s impermanent nature, and the fact that our mind is not enlightened, and thus not free from disturbing, negative emotions. But, if we understand the changeability of the mind, we know that these negative mental states are not permanent, existing eternally. They can be completely eliminated, leaving our mind in its pure, natural state.

In the Buddhist teachings, we say the mind is like the sky—clear, vast, unimpeded. Disturbing thoughts and emotions are like clouds that pass through the sky. Clouds are transitory: when the right conditions are present, they appear, but they quickly change and disappear. Similarly, due to conditions, thoughts and emotions appear in our mind but they are momentary and soon disappear. Also, like clouds, thoughts and emotions are not solid and cannot harm us, so we need not be afraid of them. Although certain emotions can be “destructive,” this happens only when we don’t know how to manage them and to transform our mind. They have no power in and of themselves to harm us.

Working on our mind to bring about a positive transformation is the essence of Buddhism, and the reason we do this inner work is to increase happiness and decrease suffering—both for ourselves and for others. The real purpose of Buddhist meditation is not simply to calm ourselves, but rather to transform the mind. The meaning of the Tibetan word for meditation, gom, is “to familiarize.” Meditation is making our mind more familiar with positive thoughts and emotions, and less familiar with negative ones. What we are most familiar with, or habituated to, is what arises most easily and frequently in our minds. If we have the habit of being critical, for example, always seeing faults in others, then critical thoughts will arise in us again and again, spontaneously, effortlessly. On the other hand, if we develop the habit of seeing the good in others and forgiving them for their mistakes, kind and forgiving thoughts will arise naturally in our minds.

Some people are born with an abundance of wholesome qualities. They are kind, peaceful, respectful, considerate of others, and enjoy doing positive deeds. The Buddhist explanation is that they made themselves familiar with these qualities in previous lives. Those of us who are lacking in these qualities did not do enough work in the past. In fact, we all do have these qualities. It’s just that in some of us they are less developed due to lack of practice in previous lives. Buddhist practice is like learning to play the piano. The more you do it, the better you become. The more we practice being kind and helpful, the more these qualities will arise naturally and spontaneously.

Antidotes to Disturbing Thoughts and Emotions

While working on transforming our mind, we will inevitably face negative thoughts and emotions. Simply deciding to be more positive won’t make all our negativities instantly go away. They may arise while we are meditating or during our daily life. In fact, in the process of working on our mind, we may notice negative thoughts and emotions we had not seen before. This can make us depressed, thinking we are hopeless and getting worse rather than better. We might even think that meditation is the cause of it, and that we should stop meditating. This would be like throwing away the medicine that can heal us just because we’re unaccustomed to its taste.

Meditation does not cause more thoughts to come up in our mind. It simply makes us aware of how many thoughts there are, all of the time. The disturbing thoughts and feelings you notice have always been part of your mind, but you just didn’t recognize them. Meditation naturally makes us more sensitive, more aware. When you enter the path of meditation, you need to be careful. Don’t become discouraged. Think instead that you are fortunate to be able to recognize your mind as it is, so that you can work on it. Negative emotions do not simply go away by themselves; we need to counteract them with positive mental states. We will explore remedies to specific emotions such as anger and jealousy later in the book, but it will help to begin by going over a few general remedies we can use when disturbing thoughts and emotions appear in our mind.

Be mindful or self-aware.
This means paying attention to your mind and learning to recognize negative thoughts when they arise. True mindfulness, though, is more than simply being aware of thoughts; it also involves doing something to counteract the harmful ones. It’s like a security guard in a bank, who doesn’t just observe what is going on but looks out for potential trouble and puts a stop to it. In some cases, just noticing a negative thought with mindfulness is enough. You can then let it go. But you may not always be able to do this, especially if the thought is strong or habitual, so you may need to apply other antidotes.

It is important to understand that you have a choice. Whenever a negative thought or emotion arises in your mind, you do not have to go along with it. There are other things you can do. Habit makes it so easy to get caught up in a negative thought or emotion. Saying “no” to it is more difficult because that habit is less prevalent, but you can develop it.

Reflect on the nature of the mind.
As we discussed above, think of the mind as the vast, clear sky, and thoughts as clouds that appear, pass through, and disappear. They are transitory, not permanent aspects of your mind. You can also think of them as dreams (because they exist only in your own mind), rainbows (they appear due to conditions, and disappear when conditions change), mirages, or waves that rise and fall in the sea.

Recalling impermanence grounds us. It can help us calm down when our mind is overly emotional with happiness, anxiety, anger, and so on. There is a story I love from the Zen tradition. A man went to see a Zen master, very upset. He told the master of a major crisis happening in his life. The master listened calmly, then said, “It will go away.”

After some time, the man again visited the Zen master, this time happily excited. He said, “Do you remember that problem I told you about last time? Well, now it’s gone!”

The master calmly replied, “It will come back.”

De-identify with thoughts and emotions.
We have the tendency to identify with whatever arises in our mind: “I am angry,” or “I am depressed.” This reinforces the negative thoughts and feelings, making it harder to let them go. It can also lead to guilt, self-criticalness, and self-hatred. In reality we are not our thoughts and emotions. As we have seen, they are merely momentary mental states, non-physical phenomena that arise and disappear, but it’s easy to forget that. To counteract the tendency to identify with our emotions, we can say to ourselves, “Anger is in my mind” or “Depression is in my mind” instead of “I am angry/depressed.” This gives us space and objectivity. It disempowers the emotion, enabling it to pass more quickly.

What a wonderful, liberating discovery! “I am not my anger, my depression, pride, selfish attachment; I am not my self-destructive tendencies; I am not my hurtful behavior to others. These are mere phenomena that pass through me, but not who I really am, so I don’t have to identify with them.” At first you may find it hard to believe, because you have been identifying with these thoughts and feelings for so long. But if you repeat this idea to yourself, every day, again and again, slowly it will sink in. Eventually, it will become your reality.

Be non-judgmental.
This remedy follows on from the previous two. Since negative thoughts and emotions are impermanent and not who we are, it’s incorrect to judge ourselves for having them. We are not bad or negative. We are simply beings with delusions in our mind, because we have not yet attained enlightenment. It’s not our fault. Judging and hating ourselves does not solve the problem of disturbing mental states. It just makes things worse, heaping more misery on top of what is already there. See if you can recognize the power of non-judgment, and if you notice self-criticalness happening, replace it with kindness and forgiveness for yourself.

Think of others who have similar problems.
When we are experiencing an emotional problem, we tend to get obsessed with it, as if we were the only person in the world who had such a problem. This is clearly not the case. Millions of people have the same problem. This way of thinking makes the problem seem worse than it really is. We’re making a mountain out of molehill, and we’re also making ourselves feel alone and isolated.

To counteract this tendency, it’s useful to recall that there are many other people who have the same problem or something similar. You can think of people you actually know, or imagine people around the world who have this problem. It’s also helpful to realize that there are people whose problems are even greater than yours. For example, if you are feeling grief over the loss of a loved one or a relationship that fell apart, you can think of people who have lost several loved ones at once, in a war or natural disaster. This reflection makes the problem seem more like a molehill than a mountain, and thus it becomes more manageable. Even more importantly, it increases your compassion for others.

Cultivating the Four Immeasurables

One of the most powerful, and beautiful, methods found in the Buddha’s teachings for transforming our mind is the practice of the four immeasurable thoughts: love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These four attitudes are essential ingredients for our own happiness, peace of mind, and health, as well as for beneficial, satisfying relationships and interactions with others. Cultivating these thoughts diminishes our habitual attitudes of self-grasping and self-centeredness, which disturb our peace of mind and lead to problems such as hatred for enemies, envy for rivals, and clinging to family and friends. These disturbing mental attitudes, if untreated, can lead to physical ailments as well. The four immeasurable thoughts help us overcome these problems and pave the way for good relations with friend and foe alike.

They are called “immeasurable” for several reasons. One is that we cultivate these attitudes for all beings, who are so numerous that they cannot be measured or counted. Another is that we create immeasurable positive energy and purify immeasurable negative energy when we cultivate them. They are also called the four “sublime states” or “divine abodes” because they represent the ideal way, the most rarefied way, for us to conduct ourselves.

The four immeasurable thoughts are expressed in the following prayer:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness;
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering;
May all beings never be separated from the happiness that is free from suffering;
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from attachment and anger that hold some close and others distant.

This verse can be easily memorized and recited from time to time during the day to remind yourself to have positive thoughts for the people you meet. It will help you develop a heart of kindness toward all beings. In the next six chapters we explore each of the four immeasurables and how it can be cultivated. Once you are familiar with the meaning of each of these and have some familiarity in practicing meditations that cultivate them, the short verse that summarizes the four will have even deeper meaning for you.

Practicing the Meditations on the Four Immeasurables

Each of the descriptions of the four immeasurables in this book is followed by one or more meditations—methods for gaining a deeper and more sustained experience of the topics explained. As mentioned above, the main purpose of Buddhist meditation is transforming the mind from negative to positive, and this transformation takes place by making the mind more familiar with positive states, and less familiar with negative ones. By practicing meditation regularly over a period of time, we will have fewer negative thoughts arising in our mind, and more positive ones.

There are many different kinds of meditation, but they can be divided into two main types: placement and analytical.

Placement, or concentration meditation, involves focusing on just one object, such as the breath or a visualized image of the Buddha, without thinking about the object or anything else, and gradually learning to keep the mind concentrated for longer periods of time.

Analytical meditation, on the other hand, involves thinking and analyzing. It is used to recognize mistaken concepts and attitudes that we have— those that cause suffering to ourselves and others—and to familiarize ourselves with correct and beneficial ones. The ultimate purpose of this kind of meditation is to develop the wisdom that sees the true nature of all things.

The meditations in this book are analytical, but while doing them we can also incorporate concentration. If your thinking or analysis gives rise to an experience about the topic you are meditating on—for example, you generate a genuine feeling of loving-kindness—you can stop thinking and just keep your mind focused on that experience for as long as possible. If the feeling fades or your mind wanders, you can then return to the analysis.

When practicing meditation, it is best to sit in a place that is as quiet and free of distractions as possible. Sitting cross-legged is generally most conducive for meditation, but it’s not essential. It’s perfectly okay to meditate sitting in a chair. Whichever way you sit, however, it’s important to keep your back straight, to enable your mind to be more clear and focused.

Begin the meditation with a few minutes of stilling your mind, letting go of all other thoughts and concerns. Focusing on your breath and counting it can help you to do this. Once your mind is calm, generate a positive motivation for doing the meditation—for example, “I want to practice meditation to decrease the negative energy in my mind and to increase my positive qualities such as love, compassion, patience, and wisdom. In this way, I will have more beneficial, positive energy to bring into my interactions with others, and to send out into the world.”

Then begin the actual meditation. There is no fixed rule about the length of a meditation session. Initially, you could try meditating for ten or fifteen minutes, but more or less is also fine. You can experiment with varying lengths of time to see what works best for you, according to your ability and schedule. The renowned teacher Lama Yeshe, who founded Kopan Monastery in Nepal, used to say that even five minutes of meditation can be very beneficial. And quality is more important than quantity. A short session in which your mind is very focused is more worthwhile than a long session where your mind is wandering all over the place.

When it is time to end your meditation session, bring what you have thought about and experienced to a positive conclusion. For example, you might resolve to practice loving-kindness with the people you work with, and with your neighbors. And finally, remember the motivation you started with, and dedicate the positive energy you created during the meditation to that same purpose.

The highest form of practicing compassion is the way of the bodhisattvas, those who feel that it’s not sufficient to free only themselves from suffering and attain liberation, nirvana; they wish to help others become free as well. They cultivate bodhichitta: the aspiration to become fully enlightened, to become a Buddha, to help all beings. This is an extraordinarily noble, selfless resolve, but one that we are all capable of cultivating. There are several methods for developing bodhichitta, which involve meditating on topics such as universal love and compassion, the faults of selfishness and benefits of cherishing others, and so on. In fact, most of the ideas and meditations in this book derive from the traditional teachings on how to cultivate bodhichitta. As a result of working on these consistently over a period of time, bodhichitta will arise in us, naturally and spontaneously, and at that point we become bodhisattvas. At times during my presentation of the meditations on the immeasurables, I may mention having the aspiration of bodhichitta as an option, but it is not a requirement for you to begin to discover and cultivate the kind heart that lies within all of us.

Practicing Mind Transformation

Awakening the Kind Heart concludes with a chapter on mental methods we can use to counteract the self-centeredness that thwarts our efforts to truly awaken a kind heart in our day-to-day life. It presents the practice of mind training, also known as thought transformation (lojong in Tibetan). Of the many texts in the Buddhist tradition that teach methods for cultivating compassion, some of the most direct and powerful come from the lojong tradition, which was first transmitted in Tibet by the great Indian master Atisha. It includes the now well-known practice of tong-len, or “taking and giving,” the powerful meditation technique that involves imagining that one is taking on the suffering of others, and giving to them one’s own happiness and virtue. Taking-and-giving practice and the other aspects of lojong give us incredibly effective and direct methods to undercut the self-cherishing that cuts off compassion.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama encourages the practice of lojong and explains it in the following way:

The essential message of the lojong teaching is that if we want to see a better world, we should begin by improving our own mind…We can spend our life trying to “tame” the world, a task that would never end; or we can take the more practical path of “taming” our own minds. The latter is by far the more effective approach, and brings the most immediate, stable, and lasting solution. It contributes to our own inner happiness, and also contributes to establishing an atmosphere of peace and harmony in the world around us.

In section two of this book, we will explore this wonderful practice in a very pithy way, by going over The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, written by a Tibetan meditator and teacher, Geshe Langri Tangpa, about nine hundred years ago. Each of the eight verses presents an aspect of practicing thought transformation, which you can incorporate in your daily life in a very real and practical way.

Making It Real

Our world desperately needs compassion. If there could be more compassion in people’s hearts and lives, if more people could wake up to the realization of compassion and think to themselves, “I don’t like being hurt and you don’t like being hurt, so let’s stop hurting each other,” there would be far fewer stories in the news about war, terrorism, violent crimes like murder and rape, child abuse, injustice, and starvation. All the terrible things that humans do to one another, as well as to animals and to our planet, arise from a lack of compassion. It is compassion that keeps us from harming others.

My teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, has pointed out that if we develop compassion for all beings, all beings will be safe from being harmed by us. All beings—or at least, everyone we encounter—will have nothing to fear from us, so indirectly our development of compassion gives them peace. Compassion is also the most effective way to bring about peace in ourselves and in the world.

Genuine compassion cannot be theoretical or hypothetical: “What will I do if…?” It has to arise naturally on the spot. The burning question addressed in this book, then, is how to develop and practice compassion in each moment. Practicing the four immeasurables together with the methods of thought transformation included in the eight verses will make compassion as real as our beating heart. In these pages, you will find the way to awaken the kind heart that lies within yourself.


How to cite this document:
© Kathleen McDonald, Awakening the Kind Heart (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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