What Does it Take To Really Open the Heart to Love?

To enhance your Dharma practice, Tsoknyi Rinpoche requested that a series of short papers based on his retreat teachings. The Teachings section on the main web site also contains a library of previously published materials and chants.

What Does It Take To Really Open The Heart To Love?

What is conventional love? What is essential love? What is boundless love? What does it take to really open the heart to love?

So many questions…so let’s focus on this one: what is essential love? It’s an aspiration that all beings, including our selves, find happiness and the causes of happiness. This is not ordinary happiness based on something as unreliable as health, wealth, a beautiful appearance, a good education, a good holiday, a good job, being loved, being held in high esteem or any of the other common circumstances we hope will bring happiness.

Essential love, basic love is the experience of well-being. So we start by finding the experience of well-being that’s not dependent on causes or conditions. We have to really feel well-being in our physical body, our subtle body, our mind and our perception. It has to spread throughout our life. It’s not some kind of romantic intoxication or sentimental attachment; it’s just a simple sense of well-being, an unconditional happiness that abides naturally within us. Once we’re able to identify what it feels like, the seed of wishing happiness for all beings can get the moisture it needs to grow. The heart of compassion starts to awaken through this well-being.

But what keeps this from happening easily in today’s world? Perhaps the obstacles presented by our complex lives often make the subtle body quite disturbed and subject to situations of hope and fear. It’s hard to stay fully open and present under such conditions.

Actually, when children are born, if there’s no strong karma or genetic problem, they’re usually quite healthy, very open and always present. The subtle body is at ease and functioning correctly. If the child is cared for with an attitude of complete, unconditional love, then an inner well-being takes root and blossoms into a sense of lovability and the ability to love. The child doesn’t feel this well-being as anything special because it’s not. Their well-being doesn’t depend on what they do or don’t do. Their lovability and their ability to love is never in question. They can endure the natural limitations imposed by growing up and they use the challenges of growing up–the rewards and disappointments of school, health, and relationships–to become resilient, responsible adults.

However, most people have something go a bit wrong with this openness, this basic love and well-being. Perhaps their parents aren’t able to love unconditionally or perhaps situations happen in which there’s a lot of hope and fear, particularly fear. As children grow, all of this is absorbed into the developing ego’s self concepts and consequent emotional reactivity. Soon the energies of the subtle body start to circulate when and where they shouldn’t be circulating. Sometimes the energies become blocked and sometimes they go in the wrong direction and start to speed up the physical body. The symptoms of subtle body disturbance can become quite severe in the physical body, but treating it as a physical problem doesn’t help very much. We try all sorts of things to feel better, but none have lasting effect or go to the root of the trouble.

It seems that a lot of today’s problems are connected to this nervous speediness, problems that keep us from feeling the pulse of basic love. If you look at our own heart right now, can you say it’s really open and at ease? Actually look and see. Chances are our hearts are not able to stay consistently open because we don’t feel that basic ease of well-being.

What we can do to help our hearts open to basic love. It seems to me that the Four Applications of Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in that regard.Through them we can train our minds to become more relaxed and remain still. Only then can we really help ourselves. The Four Mindfulnesses are forms of shamatha practice designed to calm the mind and focus and strengthen our awareness. They are applied to the body, sensations, mind, and meditation. Of these four methods, the most important for our purposes is mindfulness of the meditative state. Through this practice our minds reach a state of calmness, stillness and openness, within which the experience of well-being, the basis of genuine love, starts to happen. However, properly developed mindfulness of the meditative state depends on the other three, so let’s take a look at them.

In this tradition, mindfulness of the body means our minds just rest within the body, with a sense of mind and body being inseparable. With resting comes awareness that simply knows what is going on in the body without the need to modify anything. Once we’re able to know the body without jumping into thoughts of the past and the future, the mind can rest in the present moment without getting involved in all the thoughts and feelings of hope and fear related to the present moment. It’s said that the body rests on the meditation cushion, and the mind rests on the body. With this as the basis, one can move to mindfulness of sensations.

Mindfulness of sensations relates to the energies within the subtle body. When we practice mindfulness of sensations, we deal with these energies, which in Tibetan are known as lung. It’s quite helpful to do a practice called jam lung, which is gentle breathing. With it we bring lung down so it resides in its natural place below the navel and the mind and body can be at ease. It’s like a French press coffee maker because we gently press the breath down from the top of the head through the body to below the navel, mindfully moving the energy down on the in-breath and holding it gently down without exhaling until feeling the need for our next in-breath. By doing this over time, restless, speedy lung can become normal lung. During post-meditation, in which we maintain the mood of the meditation, it’s good to keep about 10% of the energy below the navel with very slight muscle pressure above and below lung’s “home.” This helps keep the energy down and enables us to function well in the world. With 10% of the energy held below the navel we can breathe normally, our minds can function normally, and we can get on with whatever we’re doing.

The third application is mindfulness of the mind. We observe the mind just by being aware of whatever is happening in the mind and recognizing it as such. Through mindfulness and knowing, our attention is focused directly on the mind, examining the mind’s activity. From where does it arise? Where does it stay? Where does it go when it disappears?

The stillness generated by these awareness practices is the state of shamatha and, with this as our foundation, we’ll enter mindfulness of the meditative state, the fourth mindfulness. The important feature of the fourth mindfulness is the cultivation of non-clinging to any physical, sensory or mental/emotional phenomena. Through the practice of the four mindfulnesses, harmony is established between body, energy, consciousness and feelings. This harmony is experienced as calmness in the body and stillness in the mind. It’s the origin of natural well-being, the essence of unconditional love, unhooked from ego’s clinging to likes and dislikes.

Once we’ve experienced well-being and unconditional love, we need to nurture its essence. There’s no use finding this treasure and keeping it to ourselves. Ignoring love’s ability to radiate to others will only cause us disappointment in the long run. The essence of love is a precious seed who’s function is to blossom into boundless compassion, great joy and complete equanimity which radiates to all beings. Together, basic love, boundless compassion, great joy and complete equanimity form the “Four Immeasurables”.

Although explained separately, experientially the four arise in an interconnected way. When we experience love that arises without familiar causes and conditions, there will be genuine appreciation for life. This is unlike the limited, conditional love upon which we’ve been taught to build our lives. Actually, conditional love is nothing but a contraction of the heart’s basic love in the service of the ego. But ego can never stay satisfied because it’s as impermanent and unstable as all other phenomena. So conditional love, filled with grasping and clinging, inevitably runs into its own limitations and just as inevitably becomes painful and disappointing. But once we’ve experienced unconditional love, the contrast between it and what is commonly called love is very obvious. Then, as we see or interact with others caught by the delusion of conditional love, we’ll surely see they’re still tormented by so much suffering. This can sadden our hearts or, if we’re grounded in knowing the impermanent nature of everything, it will give rise to a heartfelt compassion that’s not directed at anyone in particular, but available to all. This unconditional, unbiased compassion wishes that all beings could be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. This genuine impartiality towards others is the birth of boundless love, great joy and complete equanimity.

Genuine unconditional love and all of the Four Immeasurables start with the first step–the development and experience of well-being within us. So find that well-being that opens the heart. This love is not a thought, not a mood, not an emotion. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t fall into desire, attachment, or lust. It’s a well-being beyond any of these extremes. This well-being flows on top of thoughts and moods that may arise, but the thoughts and moods no longer stop the continuity of well-being. By practicing in this way we create the conditions for well-being, the essence of love. Once you experience it, simply rest with it for as long as it sustains itself.  When thoughts and moods come, welcome them, but don’t change the basic flow. Once well-being flows and can be sustained, it’s possible to experience the active, dynamic energy of all Four Immeasurables needed to benefit ourselves and other beings. That is the essence of love, the precious blossom of the heart.

(copyright 2011 Pundarika Foundation)