Kind Heart, Clear Mind

Lost types of love can exist in the presence of their opposites, hatred and indifference. Furthermore, when love comes, jealousy and despair, fear and the desire to control and dominate commonly follow in its footsteps. If love really is the solution to all our problems as some say, or if it is a divine gift as others maintain, then it is difficult to understand how this can happen. But if we see love as a conditioned psychological state, certainly an exalted one and undoubtedly the most attractive one that can abide in the human heart, then this incongruity becomes less perplexing. The truth is that love can sometimes be found in very bad company.

A mother can genuinely cherish her son but in a way that suffocates and stunts him. A husband might love his wife but be always insisting she do what he wants so that she is robbed of all her individuality and freedom. Because she loves him she might surrender to his demands, whatever her misgivings. There have always been individuals capable of the most tender care for animals while being indifferent or even hostile towards their fellow human beings. A notorious example of this would be Adolf Hitler. While being directly responsible for unimaginable human suffering he was notably affectionate towards his pet dog, was a strict vegetarian and a strong opponent of hunting and vivisection. As a down-and-out in Munich he used to give food scraps and bread crusts to the rats that infested his dingy room. Having often been hungry himself he took pity on the little creatures. When Lord Halifax was in Germany on a hunting trip in 1937 he had a private interview with the Fuhrer. Learning that Halifax had been hunting Hitler said to him coldly: “I can’t see what there is in shooting. You go out armed with a highly perfected modern weapon and without risk to yourself kill a defenseless animal.” [1]

It is commonly said that all religions teach love but- whether or not this is so- many people are motivated by their religious zeal to be very unloving towards others. The depth of the fundamentalists’ love of one particular god is sometimes only equalled by the fierceness of their hatred towards those who worship another god. Some strongly religious anti-abortion activists have been responsible for harassing, physically assaulting and in a few cases even murdering doctors who perform abortions. They say that they are motivated by a deep concern and compassion for innocent unborn children, and while we must doubt their judgement there is no reason to doubt their sincerity.

So despite Virgil’s “Love conquers all”, experience shows that love can be, if not conquered, then certainly distorted by self-righteousness and intolerance. Saint Peter said “love covers a multitude of sins” and it may well do so. [2] But covering resentment, hatred and other defilements can simply mean they are hidden from view while still being able to exert their ugly influence. Contrary to the Beatles’ attractive and ever-popular “All you need is love”, it is clear that love is not enough, that it needs to be guided, informed and strengthened by other spiritual qualities. From the Buddhist perspective the most important of these qualities would be mindfulness (sati).

When I was staying in Berlin a few years ago, a friend asked me to meet him so that he could accompany me to one of the city’s fine museums. We arranged to meet in front of a big department store. I arrived early, he was late, so I spent about half an hour waiting beside the several large swinging doors at the entrance of this store. As I stood there observing the people going in and out I noticed something I had seen before but never realised the significance of, that people pass through swinging doors in two different ways. Some approach a door, push it open, walk through, let it go and continue on their way. Others do the same but with one slight difference. Once they have passed through the door, rather than just letting it go and proceeding, they turn around and if there is someone behind them they hold the door open until that person has reached it. Only then do they walk on. It occurred to me that this seemingly minor difference between the two behaviours indicated something very important about the nature of mindfulness.

Presumably both types of people are fully aware of where they are, what they are doing and where they want to go. Yet the second type has a slightly different quality to their mindfulness. While being aware of their present circumstances, their mindfulness extends beyond themselves to their surroundings and others who might be in it. They are aware of themselves but not just of themselves, and this results in a small courtesy to others. When mindfulness is focused only on the self it may more closely resemble self-absorption than the mindfulness the Buddha taught. It is interesting to note that the Buddha often mentioned mindfulness together with another related quality he called sampajañña, which means something like “knowing around”. So we might translate the term sati-sampajañña, which frequently occurs in the Buddha’s discourses, as “mindfulness and all-around awareness”.

Just as love goes from being projective to becoming pervasive as it transmutes into mettā, mindfulness has to go from self-projected to pervading others in order to become Right Mindfulness (sammā sati). Mettā adds this other-regarding dimension to mindfulness. Mindfulness without mettā can lead to a self-preoccupation that cares little for others or simply does not notice them. Mettā without mindfulness can lack focus and involvement. A balanced spiritual practice requires the clear vision of mindfulness and the warm other-regarding engagement of mettā.

Once I was staying with a group of other monks, all of them good Dhamma companions. One very hot afternoon we were sitting together having a discussion about meditation. As I was speaking a monk who had gone out that morning returned and I invited him to sit and join our discussion, which he did. When he sat down I continued with what I had been saying. A few moments later one of the other monks rose, went outside and returned with a flannel and a glass of cool water for the recently arrived monk. He had been contributing to the conversation and listening to me but this did not prevent him from noticing that the newcomer was hot and thirsty. I on the other hand was so absorbed in what I was saying that I had not noticed this.

A great deal of the suffering and unhappiness in the world persists not because people are necessarily uncaring, selfish or indifferent, but because they just do not notice. Mindfulness allows us to notice, mettā compels us to act. Although the capacity for mettā is innate within us it has to be coaxed out and cultivated. Likewise, mindfulness is a naturally occurring ability but it is often deadened by habit and routine and has to be consciously revitalised. Just as mettā can be cultivated in two different ways, by practising Metta Meditation and by acting with mettā, mindfulness can be cultivated in two ways also, by practising Mindfulness Meditation and by acting mindfully. Different meditation masters teach different techniques of Mindfulness Meditation but all of them involve these elements, arousing a clear-minded awareness of our experience from moment to moment and being detached from it rather than reacting to it. (See Appendix II)

Of course, if we can only be mindful when we are sitting in meditation we will only ever be mindful of a very small part of our day and the least interesting part of our lives. This leads us to the second way to develop mindfulness, being as mindful as we can during our normal daily activities. In fact, the true purpose of Mindfulness Meditation is to make it more likely that we will have periods of mindfulness when we are not meditating. To help develop this skill we can select some activity that we do every day, perhaps dressing in the morning, preparing breakfast, washing the dishes, tidying our rooms, vacuuming the floor, taking out the garbage, going to the toilet, walking to the bus stop, etc., and make a commitment to try always to do that activity with complete mindfulness.

Let us say you decide to do this and you select dressing in the morning. You get out of bed, do your morning ablutions and now you are ready to start getting dressed for the day. From that moment on and until you are finished dressing you do everything required with mindfulness and all-round awareness. You open the wardrobe mindfully, reach for the clothes mindfully and take out your shirt fully aware of what you are doing. You feel the shirt as it touches your body, the collar on your neck, the sleeves on your arms. Fully conscious and attending to the present, you do up the buttons one after the other, tuck your shirt into your trousers, put on your socks and shoes, and so on until you are fully dressed. It is not necessary to do any of this very slowly although being mindful of each intention, movement and act may make you do them a little slower than normal. This practice together with regular Mindfulness Meditation will mean that we will have more moments of being mindful and aware as we go about our daily life.

The Buddha described the practice of mindful living like this: “When walking, he knows ‘I am walking’. When he is standing still, he knows ‘I am standing still’. When he is sitting down, he knows ‘I am sitting down’. When he is lying down, he knows ‘I am lying down’. So whatever his bodily posture, he is aware that it is like that. Again, when he is coming or going, he acts with all-round awareness. When he is looking in front or behind, when he stretches out his arm or draws it back, when he is carrying his cloak, robe and bowl, he acts with all-round awareness. When he is eating or drinking, chewing or tasting, when he is going to the toilet, when he is walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep or waking up, talking or remaining silent, he acts with all-round awareness. As he lives like this, diligent, ardent and self-resolute, those memories and plans that are worldly are got rid of, and so by itself the mind is inwardly settled, calmed, focused and concentrated.” [3]

The result of this practice is that habitual behaviour gradually becomes more conscious and deliberate. Thoughts and emotions that were previously barely noticed are now seen with clarity. Rather than being carried along by habits and impulses, we can start to live with increasing awareness and self-understanding. Just as importantly, we will also start to be more aware of those around us. This noticing will bring to our attention the impact that our presence is having on others or can have on others. It will illuminate for us numerous ways that we can be thoughtful, considerate and helpful towards them.

Notes

  1. Quoted in J. Toland, Adolf Hitler, 1976, p.120 and p.580. [back]
  2. 1 Peter 4.8. [back]
  3. M.III,89. [back]