A-  |  A  |  A+  

Chapter 4 of Befriending the Mind:

Kindness and a Patient Heart

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately."

Well — one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help," said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been canceled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we're fine, you'll get there, just later. Who is picking you up? Let's call him."

We called her son, and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her — Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

– Naomi Shihab Nye(1)

Kindness is near and dear to the heart of Buddhism. The Buddha wasn’t interested in other worlds or metaphysical pronouncements. He saw such views as distractions from his more earthy intentions: relieving suffering and cultivating well-being. Part of his path to freedom from suffering was cultivating the four so-called Brahmaviharas or “heavenly abodes." These wholesome qualities are metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha — kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The Pali word metta is usually translated as loving kindness." The root of metta might be better translated as "friend." Metta is friendliness toward all. True kindness is not highfalutin. It’s ordinary, unpresumptuous friendliness, like the way Naomi Shihab Nye cared for the older Palestinian woman, the way the woman shared mamool, and the way everyone at Gate A-4 began to smile.

I’ve studied Buddhist practice for over 40 years. From this I’ve learned a lot about kindness and friendliness. Buddhism is probably better known for mindfulness, insight, and wisdom. But wisdom without kindness is not wise. And kindness without wisdom is not kind. Friendliness, wisdom, and peace are intertwined. They are different ways of looking at the same wholesome quality.

The last three Brahmaviharas flow naturally from simple kindness. If we are with someone whose levels of suffering and well-being are about the same as ours, the outflowing of the heart feels like kindness. If they are suffering more than us, the same flow of kindness feels like compassion. If they are in better shape than us, the flow of kindness feels like joy. If we can do nothing about their suffering, the same flow feels like equanimity. Metta, or gentle kindness, is the root of all of the Brahmaviharas.

So I’d like to explore how to cultivate kindness and the patient heart.

 

Tenderness and Spaciousness

The model for moving from hurt to tenderness to spaciousness (which was briefly introduced on p. 40) looks like this:

We all experience dukkha: suffering, hurt, pain, angst, discouragement, fear, and bummers. Is there anyone who has never suffered?

The Buddha never said, "life is suffering," or "life is a bummer." He only said that "life has bummers" — along with love, contentment, peace, and other things. Dukkha is part of the mix.

When we look gently and openly beneath our suffering, we notice tenderness. Without tenderness we wouldn’t hurt.

When we look gently and openly beneath tenderness, we notice spaciousness. Without this openness, we’d feel numb rather than tender.

On the spiritual path, many of us seek spaciousness and the clarity and wisdom that come with it. To find these we may try to fight off pain, push aside hurt, or distract ourselves from upset. We may try to make an end-run around discomfort.

But it doesn’t work in the long run. When we turn away from discomfort, we also turn away from the natural tenderness and kindness beneath.

It’s more effective to face toward the discomfort and relax into it. We can gently ignore our stories and justifications and soften until we feel the tenderness. We can continue to relax into the tenderness until we sense the simple well-being waiting to be noticed. Then we can savor the well-being and let it soak into our bones.

This is the path to kindness I’ve learned from the Buddha: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring.

 

Wired In

To say this differently, kindness is inherent in us humans. The tendency is wired into us. It’s embedded deep in our neural circuitry. It swept through those people at Gate 4-A because it is infectious. It’s in our nature to be kind.

If you think this sounds naïve, I don’t blame you. We live in polarized times. Ill will flows from some of the most powerful people in the world. Mean-spiritedness can drown out friendliness. Hurry and worry, stress and fear, greed and me-ism can push our kinder inclinations under a rock.

Turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring are simple. But they aren’t easy. So I’d like to explore these three practices.

 

Three Essential Practices

The three essential practices have been passed down to us as "The Four Noble Truths." But if we read how the Buddha actually described them, it’s clear they aren’t declarations of capital "T" truths. They are simple observations of life. And each observation has a practice associated with it. They are meditation instructions that are pithy and effective enough to be used in daily life.

The Buddha first introduced the four truths in his first talk with the five ascetics in the deer park in Sarnath. That talk is now called the "Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11). My article on my website called "Turning Toward" goes through the Buddha’s words line by line showing how the four truths are actually these three essential practices. The fourth truth is an eightfold checklist of things we can do to fine-tune our practice. But the first three are the essence of the practices.

For now, I want to just focus on the first three observations and practices.

 

Turning Toward

The first practice is called "fully understanding suffering." The text (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11) reads:

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, pain, lamentations, grief, and despair are suffering; association with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering…

"This is the noble truth of suffering”: thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

"This noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood”: thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

"This noble truth of suffering has been fully understood”: thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.(2)

The repetition in the text indicate that it’s been stylized to aid memorization and oral transmission. Much of text was not written down until centuries after the Buddha died.

Parts of the passage may sound like braggadocio. This tone probably crept into the text over the years out of reverence for the Buddha and the desire to impress listeners and win converts. I doubt the Buddha actually bragged.

The first line lists various experiences the Buddha considered to be suffering. We’ll come back to this list in the next chapter (p. 71) when we look more closely at the nature of experience itself. For now it’s enough to note that the list was not meant to define suffering but to give examples of it.

The essence of the passage is repeated three times, as is common in oral transmission. In this case he says, (1) there is suffering, (2) suffering is to be understood, and (3) suffering has been understood by me. Saying he understood suffering could be interpreted as bragging or as trying to inspire them by implying, "If you do the same, you’ll achieve what I have achieved." I doubt he was bragging.

To fully understand someone, we have to do more than diagnose them. We have to know the person empathetically and intimately. We have to know how they tick, what motivates them, how they see the world, what frightens them, what they aspire to. To fully understand ourselves, we need the same kind of empathy for ourselves.

Similarly, the Buddha said that to lead fulfilling lives we must fully understand the nature of suffering, dissatisfaction, and bummers. Arms-length analysis is not enough. We have to know how bummers feel, how they arise, how they move, how they pass away. It’s not helpful to get wrapped up in the stories and thoughts about the bummers. But it helps to see their underlying processes.

We’ll never find this deep understanding if we’re turning away or trying to shield ourselves from discomfort. We must experience it intimately without resistance, beginning with turning toward it. Here’s a metaphor:

I lived in Houston for my first 16 years. Once or twice a week in the hot summers, my siblings and I tumbled into our family’s blue-and-white Chevy station wagon, and our mother drove us to Galveston so we could play in the Gulf of Mexico.

Houston is 60 miles from Galveston and 60 feet above sea level. The land slopes downward at a rate of one foot per mile: about as flat as one can imagine. The Gulf floor is only a little steeper. We could wade out several hundred feet and only be waist deep.

When big waves came, trying to escape them was futile. Running through the water was exhausting, and the shore was too far. If we tried to get away, the waves caught us from behind and knocked us flat.

So we planted our feet and braced as the waves crashed upon us. This worked for the small waves. But water is heavy. Big waves outweighed us ten to one. We got knocked over.

Finally we learned that the best way to greet a wave was to surrender into it. When the wave was really big, we’d relax and dive into it.

As scary and frothy as the waves seemed when they roared toward us, if we relaxed into them, the surf passed over us and left us in the essence of the wave: sea water, plain old sea water. Not so bad.

Then our natural buoyancy brought us to the surface so that we floated in that little trough of peace between the waves.

If we try to run from discomfort, it’s likely to catch us from behind and knock us flat. If we brace against the discomfort, we get worn down quickly. If we try to push discomfort below the waves like a beach ball, when we tire or relax it pops back up in our faces.

The Buddha said, "Face discomfort openly until you know how it works. You must fully understand."

Our lives get washed over with many kinds of good and bad waves: love for our kids, worry about our kids, falling in love, relationship ruffles, financial strain, good fortune, illness, health, brouhahas, embarrassments, accomplishments, satisfaction, political inanity, and more.

When we engage life’s difficulties openly, we see how all these waves arise and pass. But we don’t have to be passive. Sometimes there are important actions to be taken. However, before we act it’s helpful to cultivate a little peace and kindness so that our actions are more likely to be born of wisdom.

 

Relaxing Into

When we turn toward and open up to life’s difficult waves in this way, we come to see that the experience of suffering is rooted in tension. This brings us to the second of the three practices. I call it "relaxing into." The text reads:

This, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: the craving which leads to further becoming — accompanied by delight and passion, relishing now here and now there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming…

"This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering": thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

"This noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned": thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

"This noble truth of the origin of suffering has been abandoned": thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

 

>par?

In short the Buddha is saying the origin of suffering is tanha, a Pali term translated here as craving. He elaborates by saying (1) suffering has its origins in tanha, (2) suffering is to be abandoned, and (3) suffering has been abandoned by me. If you do the same thing, you’ll get what I have gotten.

 

Tanha

Tanha is an instinctual tightening that usually arises without forethought or conscious intention. When we are about to step off the sidewalk and notice a car coming our way, the body tightens. It’s a survival reflex that energizes us to deal with a potential threat. We don’t think about it, contemplate it, or decide to stiffen. It just happens. When we see something delicious, the body and mind tighten slightly to prepare to move toward it. We may not notice the tightening because our focus is on the situation out there and because the inner tightening can be subtle.

The tightening is not willful — it’s not something we decide to do. It may be followed by thoughts and decisions. But tension itself is a preverbal, preconceptual, complex reflex. This tightening is the root of a sense of self — identifying various phenomena as part of "me" or belonging to "myself. "

Tanha is often translated as "craving." It can be large and powerful, like a junkie with darting eyes and trembling hands craving her next fix. But it can also be as subtle as an inclination, as wispy as a soft yearning, as quiet as a niggling worry, as light as a fantasy. When we’re bored, we may feel the mind thicken into a fog. These are different flavors of tanha.

 

Abandon and Relax

How do we abandon tension? We relax. It’s that simple. We relax the body, the emotions, the mind.

Notice that we don’t abandon suffering; we don’t try to turn away from it, rise above it, turn lemons into lemonade, push it under water, or grin and bear it. So it feels like relaxing into. We may relax into anger, relax into fear, soften into loneliness, let down into grief. Whatever comes along, we soften into it. We accept our experience without holding onto it or pushing it away.

Relaxing may not bring us immediate relief. But without tension, the suffering runs out of fuel. When there is no more tension, new suffering does not arise.

When we relax, we may even experience moments of pure awareness or awareness without an agenda or conditioning. The more we feel this ease, the more we suspect it’s been here all along.

It’s as if we’re in a classroom of rowdy kids who are banging chairs, throwing erasers, yelling, and punching. Over in the corner someone is writing poetry. We don’t notice her because of the hubbub.

Then one morning we arrive early to class. The room is empty except for the young poet. We talk quietly with her or sit silently as she composes. Gradually the other kids enter with their boomboxes and carrying on. Soon the room is back to cacophony.

But now, even with all the noise, we can sense the poet because we know what our experience of her feels like.

Like the poet in the classroom, pure agendaless awareness is always with us. Without the pure awareness, there’d be no awareness of any kind. Distorted awareness is pure awareness covered with junk.

What’s pure awareness like without the junk? It’s like asking, "What’s the sky like without clouds?"

Let’s experiment and see if we can get the clouds out of the way for a moment. Ready? Okay, now…

STOP THINKING!…

What happened? Maybe you were startled. Or felt irritated. Or amused.

But before you reacted, was there a flicker? A split second when the mind was blank for a moment? A tiny pause that went by quickly? What was that pause like?…

Maybe it was too short to tell.

Let’s see if we can do the same thing in a gentler way.

Sit with your lap exposed and your hand held up in front of your shoulder. Then let it drop freely to your lap.…

Now, do it again. This time, as your arm drops, drop your thoughts. Don’t push them away or manage them. Just abandon them by letting them fall away the same way you let your arm fall.…

Do this a few times…

Did you notice a moment when the mind was relatively free of content? The Tibetan Mahamudra tradition calls this the "natural mind."

After a short time, maybe less than half a breath, the thoughts start up again. But for a moment, the mind has no content, just pure awareness of awareness. This is peacefulness — awareness without tension or distortion.

Now, relax as you look around the room. As you notice various objects, see if you can feel that quiet, open space of pure awareness — the natural mind — behind your thoughts and perceptions.

As you notice various thoughts and images in the mind, drop them and see if you can feel the awareness that holds them. It’s like shifting your attention from the clouds to the sky. You don’t even have to get rid of the clouds. Just notice the sky. Notice the space of the open mind…

Pure awareness is not just an absence. It has a feel and texture of its own. It’s peaceful, kind, vast, simple, wise, impersonal, and patient. It has many of the qualities associated with a benevolent God. You don’t have to believe in God to feel them. Call it "God," "human essence," "Buddha nature," "mellowness," "the Force," "fairy dust," or "spadoodle." Those are labels and stories. The concepts aren’t important. What’s helpful is being with the experience itself: turning toward it and really letting your experience be whatever it is.

 

Savoring

This brings us to the third practice: savoring peace, well-being, or other wholesome qualities. The text reads:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it…

"This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering": thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

"This noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized": thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

"This noble truth of the cessation of suffering has been realized": thus, monks, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

The phrase "remainderless fading away" means the tanha ceases without a trace — nothing remains behind. In short the Buddha is saying, (1) cessation happens, (2) realize when cessation happens, and (3) cessation has been realized by me. If you do the same thing, you’ll get what I have gotten.

The text uses the word "realize" as in "make these qualities more real by experiencing them directly." A simpler way to say this is "savor the experience" — let it soak in.

There are various depths of realizing peacefulness. The first comes from savoring quiet moments.

When we abandon tension, it subsides. The remaining peacefulness may be so quiet that we don’t notice it. The mind is drawn to tension; peace has none. So awareness may slide right over the peacefulness without noticing it.

Sitting in meditation or walking in the woodlands, sometimes my mind becomes soft and luminous without my knowing it. I’m more familiar with striving and figuring things out. Peacefulness doesn’t jump up and down and wave its arms crying, "Notice me! Notice me! " Sometimes I’m oblivious to the glowing, lovely quiet.

It doesn’t help to grab hold of the peacefulness. It does help to enjoy it. This allows us to know it is real. As we savor the quiet, we let the fleeting moments of stillness stretch out a little so we know them better.

When our kids were growing up, my wife Erika and I tried to keep them away from soda and other sugar. But we didn’t want them to develop a complex about it. So once a week, they could have a small glass of soda. Usually it was on Saturday morning.

Damon, our youngest son, would look at the little glass of cola, smell it, feel the fizz on his cheeks, take a tiny sip, let it swirl around his tongue. He’d close his eyes and savor it while it lasted.

Savoring means absorbing the loveliness.

 

Fading of Desire

As we savor peace and the kindness that grows out of it, it goes deeper, and we begin to realize where it came from. Imagine we’ve been hungering for something sweet all day. Finally we get a first bite of a mango or chocolate: "Ahh." The taste brings bliss — at least for a moment until we start hankering for a second bite.

The problem is that we may believe happiness comes from getting what we want. The advertising industry preaches the philosophy of getting what we want and getting rid of what we don’t want.

But if we shift our attention from the chocolate or mango to the quality of awareness, we see that with the first bite, the hankering disappears. We no longer want it because we have it. Too often we confuse getting what we want with not wanting. So rather than savor that lovely state of mind, we focus on getting the next bite. Aversion and greed are back all too soon, and the bliss is gone.

A deeper contentment comes from realizing that the happiness didn’t come from a mango tree or a cocoa bush. It didn’t come from "out there." It came from "in here" when the mind-heart abandoned the tension of liking and disliking. Lao Tzu wrote, "We’re rich when we know we have enough."

As desire fades and contentment grows, kindness makes more and more sense. This shift can feel dramatic, like Saul of Tarsus being struck by light from heaven on the road to Damascus. More often it is subtle, ordinary, and unpresumptuous, like seeing an old woman crying and being reminded of your grandmother: the only thing that makes sense is putting your hand on her shoulder and asking, "Can I help?"

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded."

With this we sense that the peace, well-being, and kindness has been with us patiently all along, like the poet in the classroom.

Can you feel it now?

 

Contemplation

Let your eyes close, or rest your gaze in some undistracted place…

Think of some difficulty in your life. Perhaps it’s something that pulls your spirits down…

Let go of your stories and ideas about it. Let them wander off while you turn toward the feeling of the situation. What’s its texture? What’s it like inside? What’s your mood as you look at it?

Do you notice any tension? It could be in your body, mind, or emotions…

If so, invite it to soften. Don’t push the situation aside. Just let any tightness or thickness in your mind or heart soften…

If any relief or ease comes up or sits quietly in the background, relax into it. Savor it…

Smile a little. See how that feels.… Savor.…

 

Notes

1. “Gate A-4" from Honey Bee: Poems & Short Prose, (Greenwillow Books, 2008).

2. These passages were rendered from translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Copyright 2019 by Doug Kraft

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You are welcome to use all or part of it for non-commercial purposes as long as you credit the author. Specific licensing details are here.
How to cite this document (a suggested style): "Kindness and a Patient Heart" by Doug Kraft, www.dougkraft.com/?p=BefriendKindPatience.

 

Comments