Taking a look at our in-built zoom lens
There's a story in early Buddhism - specifically number 127 in the Majjhima Nikaya, the 'middle-length discourses' of the Pali canon, the collection of texts which purport to record the teachings of the historical Buddha - in which a householder, Pancakanga, approaches a senior monk, Anuruddha, with a question.
"Sir, some senior mendicants have come to me and said, 'Householder, develop the limitless release of heart.' Others have said, 'Householder, develop the expansive release of heart.' Now, the limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart: do these things differ in both meaning and phrasing? Or do they mean the same thing, and differ only in the phrasing?"
In other words: these people are telling me to do one thing, but these other people seem to be saying something else. What's going on? Are these two ways of saying the same thing, or are they totally different?
This is a common question in today's oh-so-complex spiritual world as well. In the age of the Internet we have access to so many traditions, so many teachers and so many practices that it can be hard to tell what's what. (My website alone has about a dozen practices drawn from two different traditions.) Are there meaningful differences between them? And do they all end up in the same place eventually?
While you can find people at both extremes of the spectrum, I personally incline toward a moderate view. It seems clear to me that there's great commonality between the world's great contemplative traditions. Equally, though, there's a great diversity of methods available, and different ways of describing and understanding the territory that those methods lead us into, and those differences make a tangible difference to the practitioner's experience along the road. So, while I'm willing to believe that we're probably mostly heading up the same mountain, we're definitely taking different routes up, and some of the terrain is going to be quite different.
Let's get back to Pancakanga's question. Specifically, he wants to know about the 'limitless release of the heart' and the 'expansive release of the heart'. Are they the same, or different? It's a fair question! One person's 'limitless' might well be another person's 'expansive'. That's the problem with language in general - although two people might use the same word, the meaning behind it can easily be different, and sometimes the difference is enough to matter a lot. And that's the case here too.
"The limitless release of the heart and the expansive release of the heart differ in both meaning and phrasing. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing.
Anuruddha gives us a nice clear answer: the limitless release of the heart is not the same as the expansive release of the heart. Even better, he's going to explain what they are! (We don't always get an explanation in the Pali canon, so it's always nice when we do.)
"And what is the limitless release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of compassion ... They meditate spreading a heart full of rejoicing ... They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. This is called the limitless release of the heart."
This is a description of Brahmavihara practice - the cultivation of four wholesome and beneficial emotional qualities, which I tend to translate as loving kindness, compassion, resonant joy and equanimity. (If you're familiar with Brahmavihara practice, you might wonder where the instructions to send each emotion to a friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person etc. are. Those instructions are actually not found in the early discourses themselves, but were developed as part of the later commentarial tradition, to give people a more step-by-step approach to cultivate these qualities.)
OK, so that's the limitless release of the heart - what about the expansive release?
"And what is the expansive release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of a single tree root as expansive. This is called the expansive release of the heart. Also, a mendicant meditates determined on pervading the extent of two or three tree roots ... a single village district ... two or three village districts ... a single kingdom ... two or three kingdoms ... this land surrounded by ocean. This too is called the expansive release of the heart. This is a way to understand how these things differ in both meaning and phrasing."
What's being described here is quite different to the Brahmaviharas. Instead of cultivating particular emotions, the practitioner is instead being invited to contemplate spaciousness - starting small, and gradually getting bigger and bigger.
What's this all about?
A mind like space
Take a moment to look around you. (I'll wait.) You'll probably find that your eye falls naturally on the objects, the things around you - computer, phone, table, chair, wall, floor, that kind of thing. You probably don't notice the space in the room - you look straight through it to see the objects.
And this is quite a natural thing to do - after all, 'space' isn't actually a 'thing', so much as an 'absence of thing'. But - as chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing reminds us - the space in a room is what makes the room useful. If there were no space in the room - if the room were a solid block of stone, with no doors or windows and no interior space - we wouldn't be able to enter the room, see into it or store anything in it. It wouldn't be a room at all.
So take another look around, and notice the space. There's the space between things, and there's also the space occupied by things. The space is not disturbed or marked by the coming and going of the things - the space doesn't try to cling to whatever object is placed there, and it doesn't feel sad when the object is taken away. The space is simply there.
And it turns out that our awareness is like this too. Awareness isn't a thing - you can search for it all you like (and you should - it's a good insight practice) - but you'll never find it. And yet without awareness, we wouldn't experience anything. But because we have awareness, we can experience everything - no matter how big or small, delightful or terrible. Awareness itself doesn't judge or cling, resent or reject - all of that comes later, arising within our awareness in the form of emotional reactions and thoughts.
Zooming in and out
Awareness itself has a kind of panoramic quality - we can rest in total openness, aware of all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings in our experience in a gentle way, and in fact that is where the Silent Illumination practice leads us.
Most of the time in daily life, though, we don't use awareness in that way. Instead, we use our faculty of attention to 'filter' our awareness, focusing on certain aspects of it at the expense of others. Sometimes we focus deliberately, but often our attention is drawn, seemingly automatically, to something in our experience.
Thus, many meditation techniques work deliberately with the attention, training it to go where we want it to. (Samadhi practice is basically all about training the attention.) And once we have a bit of skill with the attention, we can start to play with it in ways that can be quite helpful, especially once we start to notice the effect that focusing the attention has on our overall experience.
Focusing on something is a bit like 'zooming in' on it. If we focus on a particular sensation for an extended period of time (e.g. the sensation of the breathing at the nostrils), it can sometimes feel like the sensation is actually getting bigger. It isn't, but what's happening is that our mind is becoming so focused on the sensation that everything else is falling away - that sensation is becoming our whole (subjective) universe in that moment.
If we 'zoom in' on a pleasant sensation, or even a neutral one, the resulting experience is often very nice. Amongst other things, by zooming in like this, we take our attention away from the habitual negative thoughts and emotions which otherwise swirl through our minds. As a result, we tend to find those thoughts and emotions calming down and dwindling away, because we're no longer supplying them with the energy we normally invest in them. Thus, we become calm and peaceful, and have a nice meditation experience.
Conversely, at times we may find ourselves 'zoomed in' on something unpleasant, such as a feeling of fear, pain or sadness. Needless to say, having one's whole subjective universe become an experience of sadness is not especially pleasant. And while it isn't wrong to feel sad from time to time, it's also quite legitimate to use our meditative skills to alleviate the pain - at least so long as we aren't using those skills to avoid dealing with situations in our lives that do need some attention.
One way we can work with negative experiences is to 'zoom out' deliberately - using the same faculty of attention that we previously used to 'zoom in' on a pleasant or neutral sensation, but now moving in the other direction, opening out towards a more expansive view, bringing more of our peripheral awareness into the picture.
What we find in this case is that expanding the scope of our focus has a kind of 'diluting' effect on the unpleasantness of the negative experience. If you put a spoonful of salt in a small glass of water, the water becomes totally undrinkable, but if you put the same spoonful of salt into a huge freshwater lake, the net effect is basically nothing. In the same way, the great space of awareness can become a kind of refuge for us - a space which is vast enough, open enough, non-judgemental and neutral enough to hold whatever comes up for us without being overwhelmed.
So this is Anuruddha's invitation to us - to practise working with the scope of our attention, and in particular practising this 'zooming out' move, providing a greater and greater space in which to hold whatever's coming up for us.
Give it a go!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!