One of my key teachings which flows from the earliest Zen teachers in China is regarding Heart-Mind. Our very own little heart-mind is also the heart-mind of the universe. Or in Buddhist terminology, our own Buddha-nature includes within it the entire universe.
In my next couple of posts, I will discuss the five following dimensions of heart-mind. As we open up more and more to each of these dimensions, we are able to rest quite naturally in heart-mind without getting all tangled up in our heads. The dimensions are:
Physical; Mental; Emotional; Openness; Full/Empty.
The physical dimension can be a wonderful source of our energy and it is such an important component of our meditative effort. Zen meditation is all about anchoring ourselves in our immediate experience of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight without discriminating between good and bad sensations with no contamination by our thoughts and feelings.
Once, many years ago, I ran into my first Zen teacher on the sidewalk in San Francisco. He was carrying what appeared to be a large grocery bad. “Look what I have!” he exclaimed, and he opened the bag so I could peek in. I was greeted by green spinach, red tomatoes, yellow squash, purple onions—myriad of colors, textures, and odors.
“Delightful,” I exclaimed to myself, crisp and fresh and ready to be eaten. When we are immersed in the physical, before the intrusion of evaluation, judgment, or criticism, we often feel a sense of vitality. The next moment he exclaimed further, “Only two days old. Almost fresh!” I looked into the bag again and this time the vegetables looked brown and shriveled, maybe even moldy and wormy. “Disgusting!” I said to myself, and I rushed off, afraid we would invite me to dinner.
The physical dimension invites us to experience life directly without thought as a mediator. If I hadn’t been swept up so quickly by my judgment, I might have had a wonderful time sitting in his small den attached to his kitchen, eating a bowl of almost-fresh vegetables in a soup. Instead, my heart closed down, my mind flew up into my head and I rushed off.
Both my first and second teacher emphasized how important it is to do our physical actions with easy attentiveness. How we move a chair across the floor or handle our food affects our ability to keep the mind from splitting off from the heart. At Tassajara Zen monastery years ago, Suzuki Roshi made me attendant of the young Zen adept Chino Sensei, who was a master of ritual. He had brought Chino to Tassajara because Chino was able to embody ritual. It was like a dance for him. I was pretty clumsy at ritual, but Suzuki said, “Chino Sensei will show you something every day.”
It was difficult being Chino’s attendant. I tried to follow along and pay attention see where Chino put his cup down so I could get it back to him when the moment came. In Japan, the teacher’s attendant completely immerses in the physical to support the teacher’s specific movements.
Chino had me come to his cabin every evening after dinner but instead of teaching me ritual, he whipped up ceremonial green tea. It was delightful to watch him whip the tea into thick foam and then serve it in such a delicate way- as if he was attending me! Every evening, he asked questions about American culture or about books I was reading.
I discovered that Chino didn’t even like ritual. Neither of us had much interest in it, so he didn’t teach me anything about ritual. But when Chino did ritual, he completely gave himself to it.
He taught with his body. When he moved, it was as if his whole being was moving, with a gentle and natural one-pointed focus. Once a small group of us were trying to cross a raging creek on a log. Chino didn’t have better balance- but he crossed the log with ease- with no intrusion of thought or fear. The rest of us were freaking out, struggling to stay on the log and worrying about falling off. Chino didn’t seem to worry; he just walked.
The second dimension of heart-mind is the mental. Often meditators believe they need to slow down their thinking, inhibit it, or transcend it. Instead of doing that, can you notice whatever comes into your mind without judging it? Can you honor each thought as it presents itself? As the story changes, can you just watch it and notice if your mind seems to be stuck in a closed loop? Can you practice opening up through that constriction?
We are only imprisoned by the mental dimension because we cling to a single point of view. But one of the best ways to help the mind sink into the heart is to open up to other points of view than the one which is predominating. When we practice the tetralemma which originates with Nagarjuna we can remove beyond a single point of view to experience its opposite. Then we can move on to embrace both. When we do this, we free ourselves from the tyranny of one, or even two or three descriptions.
Let’s say you are obsessing about giving up smoking but making no progress. Can you move beyond your thoughts about what an awful habit you have and open to the other side? How much you enjoy smoking because it is relaxing for you? And can you create enough mental space so you can hold both your desire to quit and your enjoyment of it simultaneously. If you do this as a regular practice, you may be surprised to discover that your mind can let go of both sides. But first they both need to be acknowledged and honored. As you continue this tetralemma practice, your mind becomes both supple and resilient and it quite naturally descends into your heart.
It seems as if thoughts slip into our mind fully developed without any inclination to fall into the heart. But if we continue our meditation practice, our comparing, criticizing, and complaining are replaced by just opening to each story without getting caught by it; a good sign that the mind is descending into the heart, which is its true home. In my second piece on heart-mind, I will discuss the final three dimensions: emotional-affective, openness, and fullness-emptiness.
Too often we cover over the vital energy of heart-mind and feel helplessness and/or hopelessness. We do this to protect ourselves from acknowledging and accepting our darkest thoughts or feelings. Dan began coming to our Zen center 15 or 2o years ago. He was still in a 30-year marriage that had been very unhappy. And during an early retreat at our center, the thought kept coming up for him, “This will never work, this will never work.” We talked about this persistent refrain and how important it was for him to see the situation from his own eyes not his wife’s or adult children or other family members’. As he followed my advice to continually put awareness of heart-mind first, which meant listening to his own despairing voice as it persistently bubbled up during his meditation, he moved toward separation and then actual divorce. He realigned his life and after a period of disorientation, found a steady balance that he had not had for years.
Seeing life through your own eyes not the eyes of a parent, boss, spouse, kid is not selfishness. As we open to heart-mind, we grow and connect with ourselves and others at a deeper level, self-protection becomes less important, as happened with Dan. At the same time, we no longer need immediate gratification. Our socialized false self becomes less prominent. We are no longer hung up on problems from the past in an echo chamber which id continually reverberating. Heart-mind is not ruled by past. It is not dominated by mandates from the family.
I’d like to end these three pieces with 3 haiku to help us open to heart-mind. The first by Issa:
On a branch,
a cricket singing
Our own lives are like this. We are small beings resting on a tumultuous and unpredictable world (with COVID, social unrest, and climate change) floating toward our demise. Can we be fully in each moment, paying attention to and expressing heart-mind?
Here is a haiku by Basho that may help your heart-mind open.
to eat even a rice cake
peach trees in flower
As Basho writes this, he seems to be unfastening himself from a single story about his experience. This reminds me of my examples of Barbara and Dan. Barbara, who realized that her duty and loyalty to parents and brother meant that she was overlooking her deep desire to have her own family; and Dan, replacing his story about his obligation to stay in an unhappy marriage with a more deeply satisfying story.
What is your single story that you are stuck on? We have just ended the most difficult year in our country since I was born during World War II. If you find yourself thinking, “the world is going down tubes,” is it possible to bring in an alternative story?
Here’s a second haiku by Basho:
Two sea slugs
We see the slugs on a winter walk and go, “Ohhh!” As we feel their suffering and the suffering all around, and then, “Ahhh,” we see their connectedness and feel our own connectedness with all life.
When is it heart-mind and when is it ego? Heart-mind never feels helpless and hopeless. Heart-mind doesn’t go on and on with rumination or criticism. Heart-mind doesn’t rationalize. Heart-mind is not captured by waves of emotional turbulence. It simply allows them to pass through, regardless of how strong they are. When we speak from heart-mind, our expression is generally simple, since we don’t have thousands of opinions based on thousands of fears. We’re able to simply be who we are without worrying about being left out, rejected, or not fitting in.
Finally, heart-mind rests in a “don’t know” space, trusting the feelings and images which emerge from it, both cloudy and clear.
Many people have fallen into despair during this past year, a year of social isolation and loss of relationships. Each loss creates a hole in our heart-mind, whether it’s the loss of people, animals, or some other committed relationships. Because of this, I have been counseling people over and over to risk more than in the past, reaching out to others to make new or bring back old heart connections. As Anais Nin says:
And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
By taking this type of risk, you may find yourself acting more and more from your own heart-mind, the heart-mind of the universe.
Here’s what the Buddhist author and activist Joanna Macy says about empowerment in despairing times: “Unblock our feelings of despair about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.”
We may have been despairing, but we are never helpless. Helplessness and hopelessness are learned. When they dominate our psyche, we have generally blocked opening to our despair. If we feel paralyzed, frozen, especially as we look toward our future, that’s despair. We may feel a tightness or squirming in the pit of our stomach. Can we open up to those sensations and any accompanying thoughts or feelings without saying, “I should just get over it”? Can we acknowledge, pay attention, and be present with the stress in our body we have noticed, even if we have an apparently functional life?
Helplessness and hopelessness are psychological defenses that help us avoid bad feelings and may even soothe us, but let’s not forget that they are learned, and they cover the natural joy that emanates from heart-mind.
If you are having trouble acting from heart-mind and instead feeling despairing, here are some things you might do:
1.) When you were a kid, did your parents fail to support your dreams because this reminded them that they lost? If this is the case, unblock the despair through your bare awareness, then notice what deeply interests you and take a small step toward activating that interest.
2.) Realize that your helplessness may just be due to inexperience. Maybe your hopelessness is only due to your fear to step beyond your comfort zone. How about taking one small step and then another as I did when I was petrified of dancing at my daughter’s wedding in Paris in front of a bunch of French people. These actions are completely necessary if we want to move beyond the limitation of any despair we feel.
3.) Scan your consciousness to make sure you are spending your time doing things that you have enjoyed in the past, cared about, or been committed to. The more we do these things, the more we will be able to tolerate ups and downs, no matter how severe they are.
I worked for several years with an aspiring Zen student who attended 20 plus days of retreat over a two-year time span in spite of the fact that his body began to shake each day after two or three sittings. I suggested limiting his participation in retreats in which we do our most intense sitting. But he declined, after saying that what he cared most about in his life was getting a taste of the deep calmness and spaciousness that he had learned comes from arduous sitting. He stuck with it. His shaking stopped and now he himself is a teacher.
4.) Put yourself first so you can put others first. Many spiritual practitioners have a horror of being thought selfish. Do you cringe if your kids come home from kindergarten with a note saying they have been not sharing with others? We were taught to avoid selfishness like the plague and yet to be authentic, we need to be in touch what we really care about. It’s possible to get in touch with our deepest desires and aspirations instead of straining so much of the time to do the right thing. When we allow this to happen, we are getting in touch the deepest part of our being, of all being. Heart-mind has been there since birth but has gotten covered by the superficial personality we show to others. If we open up to it, instead of feeling helpless and hopeless, we can experience a deep love pouring out from our still center.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher