Unlimited Heart

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images.

After caring for his ailing mother for nine years, Ajahn Viradhammo reflects on self-sacrifice and the importance of cultivating a strong and expansive heart.

One thing that comes up a lot for me is the limitation of personality. There’s something about it that doesn’t change very much. The extrovert remains the extrovert, the introvert remains the introvert; our personalities seem to be hardwired. And yet we’re all working to liberate the heart from suffering—we want to find that spacious, peaceful place. I don’t know about you, but I’ve given up on trying to find it in the personality. If you think you’re going to liberate the heart by getting the perfect personality, it’s a losing game. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to become more considerate people, or that we can’t do things to be different in some external way, but the emphasis has to be on finding the place that is not personality, the place of stillness and silence that can know the arising and ceasing of personality. That’s a different project. It’s not the project of self-development, of becoming, getting rid of, or judging; it’s the project of simply taking the time to know the way things are. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. I took care of my mother for nine years until she died, about a year and a half ago. During that time I lived in her condominium, which was a bit of a workout for a monk. I’m not used to living in condominiums. But looking after her was a very beautiful thing to do. As I say to people, the two best things I’ve done with my life are becoming a monk and taking care of my mom. My mother and I had an extraordinarily warm, friendly, loving relationship, and in those nine years we had only one disagreement, which lasted about fifteen minutes. That time with her was a pretty special experience; not everyone has that kind of opportunity.

One of the things that is probably more difficult to develop in monasticism than in lay life is a sense of self-sacrifice from the heart. When I was with my mom and loving her, being really attentive to her needs from a very natural and caring space in my heart, self-sacrifice came quite easily. I think that if laypeople choose to create a family or live with a partner, and do it well in a loving way, self-sacrifice comes easily. Monastic life can sometimes be challenging because it’s not based on the deep, close relationships that we have as family. Instead, it’s based on respect, and sometimes it’s not so easy to manifest the heart side of our practice as monastics. If the heart doesn’t open profoundly, monastic life can become a really dry affair, constantly self-referenced as “my practice, my practice, my practice,” which doesn’t work well.

You don’t hear much about self-sacrifice in the West. You hear more about it in Thailand. When Buddhists there talk about dana, it is in the context of sia sala, which is giving up, or self-sacrifice. I noticed that I could do a lot for my mom, and it wasn’t from a sense of duty, which is a very tiring way to function. With a true sense of empathy for someone’s illness, old age, or any challenging situation, one can put forth tremendous effort. This is very different than acting out of obligation, when we think, “I have to do this. I have a sense of duty!”

Oddly enough, one of the ways we can learn to come to that sense of self-sacrifice is through meditation. Meditation is a very personal affair; you just sit there on your cushion, quietly watching your mind or your breath. But in meditation there is an opportunity to no longer be a person willfully trying to do something, become something, figure something out, or get somewhere. I found questioning that sense of self-referencing,making an inquiry around effort and will, very helpful. Not questioning intellectually, but viscerally, intuitively, as an observer. That’s an extraordinarily subtle attitude to bring forth into life. So much of life calls for our attention—we have to attend to things, organize, shop, deal with problems, and so on. In the meditative posture, when we sit quietly, there needn’t be a sense of becoming (though often there is); there can be a sense of spacious witnessing. That’s a huge lesson in understanding the space of the heart, which is peaceful.

One of the dangers of Buddhism is that it’s such a clever system of teaching and so beautifully laid out. Its intellectual structures are second to none; they are all very elegant and fit together nicely. This makes it easy to remain engaged with Buddhism just on an intellectual level. I think we all contemplate the difference between doctrine as something that awakens and doctrine as dogmatic position-taking. Take a simple word like anatta, or not-self. It can be used in a doctrinal statement that becomes a kind of dogma: “We don’t believe in a self.” For me, that idea just remains in my head, but if I’m in a situation where I’m getting confused and self-referencing a lot—thinking, “Oh, what am I going to do?”—I can awaken consciousness with the language of the Buddha instead: “Not me, not mine.” Then suddenly my attention becomes objective, and I’m no longer self-referencing. That’s using language to awaken, which is different than using it to take as a position.

Anicca, or change, is standard Buddhist stuff: “Life is changing.” Well, of course it is. It doesn’t take a Buddha to figure that one out! If that’s all it meant, it would be a silly teaching. Instead, we use perceptions of anicca and make them conscious as something that is actually going on in our lives. If I feel inspired by something, the reflection “This is changing” brings me back to witnessing. I see objectively, “Oh, this sense of inspiration feels this way.” It’s in this attitude that we find true peace of mind. We don’t find it in inspiration, and we certainly don’t find it in depression. This is using the Buddha’s teachings reflectively, using language and awareness to awaken.

What is reflection? What do we mean by that? Reflection is mirroring our experience rather than believing things intellectually with a host of positions. Take something like right speech: speaking in concord, speaking truthfully, speaking beautifully to bring about harmony. Wrong speech is the opposite: lying, discordant speech, gossip. Say you read the precept on right speech. If you just believe in it, you might feel guilt or some other painful emotion when you’re not using right speech. But if you take up the precept and repeat it regularly, maybe every morning, that wording may arise as you’re speaking with people. Perhaps when you find yourself putting someone down, there’ll be a voice inside, an echo, like a mirror reflecting concord, beauty, and compassion back, that shows you that your words are not right speech. Not to make you feel guilty, but to awaken you to wrong speech so you can make choices toward right speech, which are choices for happiness and peace. That’s an awakening quality rather than a moral imperative whereby you feel guilty if you don’t live by right speech.

This is the way to use a beautiful teaching. But taking essential features from the teachings and using them profoundly means constant effort. When I find myself in a negative mood but can still say, “Not me, not mine,” there’s effort, but it’s not a willful attempt to be something else; rather, it’s an opening to what is. Then I can sense the silence in consciousness that is not the personality, that is not this particular human formation and isn’t self-referencing. It is just the way it is.

Something we have a chance to do in sitting meditation is develop skills that manifest in ordinary life. One of those skills is the capacity to be awake and present to the unpleasant. For example, maybe you’re used to sitting in meditation for thirty minutes at home, but you sit for forty-five minutes here. After about twenty-five minutes you may get restless, your bottom may start to hurt, or you may experience unpleasant sensations. Perhaps then you start to look at the shrine, at the other meditators, at your watch— that’s a disaster!—and you get fidgety because it’s unpleasant.

In sitting meditation you can begin to train to be objective with the unpleasant, with dukkha-vedana. It sounds rather like a form of self-mortification or torture—“I’m training in dukkha-vedana”—but in the arising of unpleasantness, you can really begin to see objectively that “This is changing” or “This hurts; this feels this way.” The little bit of training in a session of sitting practice might only be five minutes and then you move, or it might be thirty minutes and then you move. This effort brings a kind of strength and power into the mind when you need to be with something unpleasant that is more emotionally powerful. You’ve intuitively understood how to be with the unpleasant in a way that’s not intellectual, but more like a craft. If you do weaving or carpentry, you learn about the elasticity of the yarn or the grain of the wood, and as you work, your hands begin to know what the yarn is like and how to weave well, or how to plane a piece of wood. It’s in your body; it’s visceral. Similarly, in meditation you learn things that aren’t just opinions about meditation. Through your struggles, you learn how to meditate. Your whole body begins to understand what it means not to grasp, to be at peace with the unpleasant in little ways. That is a powerful force when the unpleasant really comes at you, in a committee meeting or maybe during a family squabble, or when sickness comes. Then you’ve got some kind of equipment, some kind of understanding: “Unpleasantness feels this way.” This is powerful and very helpful. The real depth of practice comes in ways that are perhaps hidden to you, in the little events of unpleasantness in a session of sitting meditation or in the capacity to bear witness to something to which you might want to react. Over time that builds a lovely strength of mind.

It might seem quite trivial just to be patient with your third vertebra, or with a mind that keeps muttering on, but over time that patience can actually be the source of a more profound freedom. If you’ve trained in qualities of wakefulness that are not willful and don’t have a constant agenda—becoming, getting rid of, and all the other self-referencing habits—and if you have a kind of consciousness that can become more and more timeless, present, and empathetic, you’ll begin to find something in yourself that gives you deep faith and trust. You can’t really trust your emotions or your personality, but you can trust the witnessing of and listening to emotions because it’s something that allows life to present itself as it is.

Listening is an interesting attitude. Just stopping and listening—there’s something very profound about that. It takes effort to listen, but it’s not willful in the sense of trying to do something, to become something. Listening is a form of empathy. You’re allowing the experience of sound to come into you and then understanding it, not intellectually, not as an idea, but as a felt experience. You can apply that same quality of inner listening to your fears and desires, hopes and expectations, and disappointments—to your personality and all the rest of the business of being human.

What would listening and empathy do to this sense of being incarnate in a body with emotions and histories? To really listen, I have to be present; I have to be available and allow that listening to come into consciousness. Our capacity to listen with empathy to powerful feelings is often not very strong because those feelings can be deeply negative, unpleasant, and very painful, with a lot of history in them. That’s the kind of work we often do in meditation, and it begins in little ways. Listening with empathy to some painful negative state and not self-referencing, not blaming oneself or projecting it onto someone else, but just allowing it to be, is a very profound practice. Listening is the way of allowing ourselves to be, and in the listening we begin to see with awareness, see the stillness of being. It’s a silence and space that can allow feelings of vulnerability, pain, and loss.

We are hardwired to be drawn to a kind of magnetic force called the unpleasant and the pleasant. If you observe consciousness, you’ll see there’s a pull toward beautiful things: something grabs your attention and you’re drawn to it because it’s beautiful or it looks delicious; that’s just the way you are wired. Comforts, beauty, warmth— these kinds of things are attractive to us—and things that are repulsive, negative, or ugly repel us. We don’t want them. It’s like a magnetic force that exists in consciousness. Our senses are constructed that way; they have to be constructed that way. We need pain in order to move out of pain. We need to like food or we’d never bother with nutrition. So that magnetism is very natural, but the trouble is that it’s an endless push-pull-push-pull. It’s endless and it’s not peaceful.

Seeing the magnetic forces that exist around the unpleasant is a deeper level of understanding of consciousness. Let’s say that superficially I feel intimidated by someone; that’s the storyline. Behind this, there are thoughts and bodily feelings; maybe my guts are tight or my heart is closed. Then even deeper, there is just a sense of “unpleasant.” This is where the grasping takes place: “This is unpleasant; I want the pleasant.” To allow consciousness to rest with the unpleasant, not getting caught by the craving that comes from that, is a profound exercise. Quite often you remain very much at the level of personal history, self-referencing all the time, but you can go more deeply into consciousness rather than just staying with superficial thoughts. Then you start to see more clearly “This is unpleasant,” but the mind doesn’t engage with that. You begin to touch a deeper kind of silence, a deeper kind of peacefulness no longer dependent on pleasure and pain.

My own sense is that there is something profoundly beautiful about human consciousness, that we have this tremendous potential to realize the deepest peace. That seems to me to be the whole meaning of this human existence. In giving and serving, I find social meaning. But I know all the issues of burnout. If giving is our raison d’être, if that’s all there is, it’s a recipe for disaster, because the giving is not balanced with inner silence and clarity. But if giving, self-sacrifice, is balanced with a sense of witnessing, wonderful things are possible.

While taking care of my mother, I made sure I kept a strong sitting practice going: every morning, every evening, and at midday if possible. Sitting regularly can be very helpful, because you can always monitor where you’re at. With sitting practice you see, Oh, this is what I picked up today; this is the kind of emotional stress the body is feeling now; this is the kind of material I need to process now. That kind of maintenance work—awakening—is tremendously important for developing the path. Meditation done haphazardly or infrequently is better than none at all, but the deeper insights and understanding of oneself come from a really steady sitting practice. That’s probably one of the reasons why I became a monk—I couldn’t do it without the reminders and support of the monastic form. I wasn’t a very disciplined guy. It’s as simple as that.

Lay life is hard because there usually aren’t the cultural reminders of silence, of stillness; the common cultural reminders in lay life usually involve distraction. So when we come to a monastery, we really appreciate the reminders of silence, stillness, morality, Buddha, awakening.

These reminders are what you need to bring into your home, through shrines, through discipline, through friendships. Sitting practice is important because there’s a stillness there, an inquiry and a presence that is edifying. It shows us a great deal and also builds a lot of parami, or perfection of one’s character, and a lot of subtlety that then plays out in the more coarse, difficult, and complex parts of our lives.


Ajahn Viradhammo is abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery near Perth, Ontario, which is in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. He took bhikkhu ordination in 1974 with Ajahn Chah.

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