Letting the light of your heart shine forth
A few weeks ago I published an article setting out four possible dimensions of cultivation in a meditation practice: samadhi (focusing the mind), wisdom (investigating who and what we really are), energy practices (promoting good health and longevity), and heart-opening practices. Over the next few weeks we'll take a closer look at this last category of practices.
I've previously written about the Big Four heart opening practices in early Buddhism (most commonly known as the Brahmaviharas) - loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) - so, rather than repeat what I've already said in those articles, I'll see if I can find something fresh to say. Let's see how I get on!
Why bother with heart opening - isn't Buddhism all about enlightenment?
In the Buddha's earliest recorded discourses, those of the Pali Canon, he says over and over that he teaches one thing and one thing only - suffering and the end of suffering. (If you wanted to nitpick, you might say that's two things.) Indeed, what seems to have been the Buddha's primary 'curriculum' for his monastic students, the so-called 'gradual training', is very much focused on the alleviation of personal suffering, starting with ethical behaviour (to live a wholesome life and remove the immediate causes of suffering both for oneself and others), to focus the mind with the jhanas (providing a mind which is well suited to insight practice), and then the cultivation of wisdom aimed at uprooting the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and delusion which give rise to suffering. Opening the heart doesn't usually feature in that scheme at all - in fact, my teacher Leigh has a chart on his website showing the various presentations of the Gradual Training, and the Brahmaviharas only feature once in 32 discussions of the path.
So can we infer from this that heart-opening practices are not really a big deal, not really favoured by the Buddha, not really something of interest? Nope! Because when the Buddha does talk about heart-opening practices - and he mentions them frequently - it's invariably in glowing terms.
Here's one example, taken from (appropriately enough) the Discourse on the Cultivation of Loving Kindness (Iti 27):
Mendicants, of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth a sixteenth part of the heart’s release by love. Surpassing them, the heart’s release by love shines and glows and radiates.
It’s like how the radiance of all the stars is not worth a sixteenth part of the moon’s radiance. Surpassing them, the moon’s radiance shines and glows and radiates. In the same way, of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth a sixteenth part of the heart’s release by love. Surpassing them, the heart’s release by love shines and glows and radiates.
It’s like the time after the rainy season when the sky is clear and cloudless. And when the sun rises, it dispels all the darkness from the sky as it shines and glows and radiates. In the same way, of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth a sixteenth part of the heart’s release by love. Surpassing them, the heart’s release by love shines and glows and radiates.
OK OK, but I still don't like metta meditation - I don't like the phrases, they're stupid!
It's true, the traditional formulation of loving kindness practice is a barrier for many people.
The instructions for metta in the early discourses are pretty sparse - essentially, the Buddha just says 'meditate spreading love in all directions', which is all well and good if you can just do that, but if not, it doesn't give you a lot to go on. So when a later generation of Buddhist commentators came along and tried to expand and explain the Buddha's sometimes cryptic teachings, they developed a more systematic way of generating loving kindness, based around the repetition of certain phrases, such as 'May you be happy', 'May you be well', 'May you be at peace' and so on. The basic idea (as detailed on my Brahmaviharas page) is that you work with a series of people, starting with those you already feel warmly towards, then gradually increasing the difficulty until you can send loving kindness even to your enemies, using the phrases to evoke the feelings.
The trouble is that many people find that the phrases don't evoke the feelings! If anything, they can have the opposite effect, coming across as a bit cheesy, a bit artificial, a bit make-believe, with the result that the heart actually ends up more contracted. Oops.
So many teachers (including my teacher Leigh, and his teacher, the venerable Ayya Khema) instead teach metta using visualisations. For example, you might imagine a golden light shining in your heart, and as that golden light touches the people around you, it transmits loving kindness. Or you might imagine a flower garden in your heart, and each person you bring to mind gets a bouquet of your heart's flowers. (For a big list of visualisations, complete with full written instructions and, in most cases, guided audio by Ayya Khema, check out this page on Leigh's website.)
That's no good either, I can't visualise!
Tough customer, huh? Actually, I can relate - while most people seem to be naturally fairly skilled at visualisation, a small minority of us, myself included, are much less visual. Personally, I find that I can get a brief flash of a mental image, but I can't sustain it for any length of time - certainly not long enough to do some of the very elaborate mental image-based meditations I've sometimes attempted.
However, a tip that's really helped me with these kinds of meditations is that you don't actually have to see what's going on in your mind's eye. If you're able to imagine something, whether or not you 'see' it, that actually works well enough in the vast majority of cases. So although I can't necessarily 'visualise' the flower garden in my heart, I can 'imagine' what it would be like to have a flower garden in my heart, and how it might be to give flowers to people, one after another. And when I'm calm and focused on keeping this imaginary scenario going, I find that it will often help to spark a feeling of loving kindness - which is, after all, the point!
The phrases and visualisations in metta meditation are really just a means to an end, the end being to get in touch with the emotional quality of loving kindness - so anything you can do which gets the feeling going is good enough. For me, I'll often skip the more elaborate phrases and visualisations entirely and instead just call to mind a memory involving a positive interaction with someone dear to me - that's usually enough to light the flame of metta in my heart, after which I can simply stay with that feeling for the rest of the meditation session. Sometimes I'll bring in people one after another, sometimes I'll rest directly in a non-specific, universal sense of metta - both are beautiful practices.
OK, I'm convinced, I'll give it a try - do you have a guided meditation I can use?
As it happens, I do - check out my Audio page, where you'll find a whole host of metta/loving kindness guided meditations. There are two ten-minute recordings in the shorter practices section - one using phrases, the other using a golden light visualisation - and two fifteen-minute recordings in the heart-opening practices section which are slightly more elaborate.
Give them all a try and see how you get on - and maybe you'll find out why the Buddha said that of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth even a sixteenth part of a well-cultivated loving kindness practice.
May all beings be happy!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!