Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Freedom in Your Heart

When I read the newspaper or follow the news on tv or the 'net, I'm constantly confronted with the difficulty and suffering of human existence. The awful flooding in Pakistan. The grisly bombings, poisonings and deaths from many other causes in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The still looming world-wide economic crisis. The simple difficulty that people all over the world, even in this country, have in getting enough food to eat. Of course the list could go on and on.

And then there is all of the fear, hatred and distrust in this and in many other countries. It often seems that the world is just spinning out of control. It brings to mind the first stanza of William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

At times of uncertainty and hardship like these, the human mind and heart seem to just naturally move towards more simplistic, black-and-white and fundamentalist views of life, as though security can be found through these. But I've been reminded by two teachings that true security and peace lie elsewhere.

The first teaching has to do with the way so many people are responding to the heightened sense of uncertainty in their lives. It has to do with the response of hatred, and also with how we deal with hatred. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. We can investigate this in our own experience. I find when I'm caught up in hatred, my heart is contracted, my body is tense, my mind is obsessed with and narrowly focused on the object of my hatred. There's little space for anything else other than my hatred. Then when a little mindfulness kicks in and I'm able to get a little space around the hatred, I can notice that it feels pretty awful to be caught up in it. The mind and heart are agitated, tight, and the body is tense. It certainly isn't a peaceful state of being.

When the mind and heart are filled with non-hatred, another way of saying unconditional love, there is a relaxed and spacious feeling, sometimes with joy, sometimes with equanimity, in the mind, heart and body. There's a simple trust in life and an opening to whatever is in this moment. It is quite a contrast with the inner experience of hate.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both understood this lesson quite well. They understood that the battle for social change and justice has at it's core the hard work of inner transformation, meeting hatred with determined non-hatred rather than with more hatred.

Which brings us to the second teaching on true security and peace. This is a teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh who said:

The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.

Freedom in your heart: what does this mean? What is this freedom like? We've already touched on this in exploring the Buddha's teaching on hatred. One of the characteristics of a free heart would be one that is filled with non-hatred, a heart and mind that is filled with an unconditional receptivity towards whatever is encountered.

Another quality that fills our hearts and minds so that there is no space for anything else is the quality of greed. When this mind and heart are caught up in greed, there is a burning quality of wanting but also a deep feeling of being unsettled, of being agitated. Being caught in greed really isn't a very pleasant experience. There's also a belief that we can escape from the burning and agitation, if only we can get what we want. Sometimes we can be so driven by this that we are willing to run right over other people, other forms of life, just to get what we think will make us happy, what we think will make the burning of greed go away. And if we feel that someone or something is standing in our way of getting what we want, the intensity and passion of the greed can easily flip into hatred.

So another characteristic of a heart filled with freedom, and capable of true happiness, is the quality of non-greed, which we can also call generosity, an attitude of generosity towards oneself and others.

The Buddha was very clear that what keeps us from experiencing the happiness of a free heart is not seeing things as they really are. Not clearly seeing the world of experience and how the mind and heart operate. When we investigate our own experience with this quality of mindfulness, with non-judgmental and receptive kind of awareness or attention, one of the things that we begin to see is that things are always changing. For example, we have an intention to meet life with an open and loving heart, but the next thing we know we're feeling angry about something. Or, we have an intention to keep our attention focused on the sensations of breathing and the next thing we know we're thinking about the vacation we have planned for next year. Or, we still think of ourselves as being relatively young, but then we look in the mirror and see the body of our mother or father with gray hair and wrinkled skin. Or, we think we have our personal finances in good shape and then we discover that the bottom has dropped out of our investments.

It is said that the Buddha's very last words to his disciples were about the reality of change:

Now, monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay — strive on untiringly.

All conditioned things are of a nature to decay. If we really got this, do you think there'd be the anger, the fury about the changes that have happened in our society in the last couple of decades? If we really got, deep in our minds and hearts, that everything is in a constant state of flux, would we keep fighting so hard to have or to not have certain experiences? Or would we set goals and strive for them untiringly while also understanding that everything we want and do is subject to change, other than the peace that the Buddha called "the unconditioned", the peace that Christians call "the peace beyond all understanding"?

When we investigate our own hearts and minds and see for ourselves how greed and hatred, grasping and pushing away, lead to agitation and suffering, it becomes easier to let go and let be. This is the opportunity that meditation offers us, whether on the cushion or in daily life.

In two well know verses from the Dhammapada the Buddha said:

Mind precedes all phenomena,
They are led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with an impure mind,
and suffering follows
as the cartwheel follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all phenomena,
They are led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a pure mind,
and happiness follows
as a shadow that never departs.

The impure mind and heart that the Buddha speaks of is filled with greed, hatred and confusion about the way things really are. And the pure heart and mind is filled with unconditional love, generosity, compassion, equanimity and a clear seeing how things really are. When we investigate our own experience and find for ourselves whether the words of the Buddha are true or not, then we also have the possibility of finding at least a moment or two of freedom, maybe even more. And through the goodness of these moments, we help to transform this world.

Quotation Sources:
- The Second Coming: Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, edited by M.L. Rosenthal, Collier Books, The MacMillan Company, 1966, p. 91.
- The Buddha on Hatred: Dhammapada 1.5, Gil Fronsdal trans., Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005, p. 2
- Thich Nhat Hanh quote: found in the Upaya eNews, August 30, 2010,
- The Buddha's Last Words: Dīgha Nikāya 16.6.7, Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, Maurice Walshe trans., Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987/1995, p. 270.
- The Buddha on the Role of the Mind: Dhammapada 1.1, 1.2, adapted from translations by and by Gil Fronsdal