Week 4: Awakening the Heart

The idea here is that bodhichitta, this capacity for love and care, is inherent in us and we can tap into it; the image often is given of a spring of fresh water that is encased in rock and then make a crack in the rock by starting to do these practices. It is like a crack in your heart, breaking open your heart. And once the crack is there the force of the bodhichitta is so strong that it is unstoppable. The crack starts getting wider and wider and wider amd wider until the capacity to love, the capacity to feel compassion is actually unlimited. This is what is said: do these practices to connect to what you already have but what you actually find is that by doing these practices the force of the bodhichitta, just like the force of water that has been encased in rock, will expand by itself.

-Pema Chodron

The word bodhichitta refers to our awakened heart-mind, a natural state of wisdom, clarity, warmth and compassion. This week we discussed the way that specific yogic teachings can help to awaken this bodhichitta.

It is important to start with a clarifying distinction-- we are not contriving or "efforting" to be more kind or loving. We are doing the practices that help to awaken the naturally occurring kindness and warmth that is intrinsic to our nature. The wisdom traditions understand that as we awaken, compassion is our natural, expressive response.

We can begin at the fundamental level-- bringing warmth and gentleness into our everyday foundation practices. In fact, we can practice anything -- yoga, meditation, inter-personal communication-- with gentleness and warmth. Practicing anything with lightness, gentleness, open-ness -- a true generosity of spirit -- calls on and brings out the intrinsic warmth and openess that is at the essence of who we already are.

We can also learn the specific practices that help these innate capacities to expand and unfold with more fullness of expression. Metta Practice -- the practice of generating goodwill towards ourselves and others -- is one of the foundation practices of the Buddhist tradition. Metta is Pali word (the original language of the Buddha) that translates as "friend". Metta is the form of meditation practice that helps us to generate a genuine friendliness towards ourselves, others, and the world at large. This friendliness is not contrived, or syrupy sweet. It is a solid, grounded, courageous quality of open-ness and warmth. It is our willingness to soften our defenses and let the tenderness of our hearts shine through.

Here are some classic metta phrases. Try practicing metta by repeating one or more of these phrases for 5-20 minutes. (I often practice metta at the end of a shamatha or vipassana practice.)

May I be at peace. May all beings be at peace.

May i be free from harm. May all beings be free from harm.

May I be at ease in body, heart, and mind. May all beings be at ease in body, heart, and mind.

May I be happy. May all beings be happy.

May I be well. May all beings be well.

As a final suggestion: practice being kind to yourself throughout your day, especially when you notice that you are not being kind. Keep in mind that our areas of challenge and messiness so often stem from places where we've been hurt, places where we've disconnected from ourselves because we don't know what else to do. The nature of this material merits extra tender, loving care. True compassion practices starts with making friends with ourselves, even our shadows. Especially our shadows.

These teachings run radically against the grain of the typical way we interact with ourselves, so it can be helpful to have resources that support your inquiry.

1. Poems of Self Compassion, by David Whyte (This is CD that can be ordered from David Whyte's website. On this CD, David Whyte collects a number of extraordinary poems related to the path of personal awakening and weaves a beautiful journey of poetry and inspirational teachings all with the theme of self compassion.)

2. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddha.
This beautifully written book, by psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, guides us in integrating some of the most powerful practices of the wisdom traditions into our daily lives.

3. Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron.
Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron
Awakening Compassion ( CD) by Pema Chodron


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