Sacred geometry

The Place of Love in Insight Meditation

Date29th December 2005
Retreat/SeriesNew Year Retreat 2005


[beginning of talk not recorded]

... and some sense of well-being, some deep sense of well-being in life. And this is a big part of the practice that we often overlook. Are we moving, in our lives, towards really developing inner qualities that bring with them a sense of healing, a sense of well-being, a sense of ease, a sense of happiness? This is a huge chunk of the practice, and not to be overlooked: wholesome nourishment, and all the ways that that comes about, and the exploration of the ways that comes about.

And the other factor is the factor of investigation, that we're coming close to our life and seeking to understand our life. And 'understanding,' in Dharma terms, means understanding that brings freedom, that brings peace. It's not intellectual, abstract, or cocktail party conversation. It's something that really makes a difference in our life. That's what understanding means. So investigation is to look at our life in ways that bring the understanding that leads to freedom.

These two aspects, wholesome nourishment and investigation, in a way, form the whole path. And the Buddha keeps emphasizing this. They have an interrelationship, though. With the investigation, brings freedom, brings a sense of ease, and so is nourishing. And the nourishment itself, the wholesome nourishment, the cultivation of those qualities has almost inherently in it a capacity to develop a space, a climate inside that is conducive for investigation. So we might want to investigate, but if the mind is scattered and we feel ill at ease -- of course it's possible, but the well-being and calmness really aid that investigation.

So when we work with the breath, and now we've introduced the mettā practice -- these practices are for this wholesome nourishment. And they create a climate in which we can investigate. So I know, for myself -- and I think it's probably true for all human beings -- that we only really grow in a climate of kindness. I don't know if you've been in certain relationships or teachings, student situations where that climate is not there, where there's a sense of pressure or judgmentalism, and how stifling it is to our growth. So if we're interested in understanding, if we're interested in growing, we have to really address our inner climate in some way. And can that move towards being a climate of kindness? It's a hugely important question for human beings.

We may come to places like this and have a bit of an agenda, sometimes without even realizing it -- an agenda of self-improvement or getting rid of some aspects of our personality that we really don't like, basically, that we're rejecting. And that agenda is almost -- well, a bit like a cancer, actually. It's going to be a burden. It's going to affect the whole process in not very good ways.

Aspiration is important in practice. We are moving towards what is beautiful. We are cultivating what is beautiful. Can we find a way of moving towards what's beautiful, of cultivating, that's actually coming from a place of kindness, and that carries with it kindness, so it's not something about judgment, self-improvement, and beating ourselves up?

Sometimes we understand this situation. We understand that we're in it. And there's an awareness that we're putting pressure on ourselves. And sometimes, just the awareness of it is enough to ease it, to let it go -- sometimes. Just to notice, "Ah, it's that pattern of pressure," and it eases. Sometimes it's not enough. You know, we talk about mindfulness, but it's just not enough. It's not enough. And sometimes these patterns are deeply ingrained. They may start very early in our lives. So can we actually have some space and patience to work around what might be, you know, in the lingo, might be our karma, might be deeply held patterns? And just, that's part of our humanity. That's part of our inheritance. And can we just say, "Okay, this is what's on my plate. This is what I'm dealing with. It's okay"?

When we do the mettā practice, or when we invite kindness into our mindfulness practice, it's important -- as Catherine was saying today in the instructions for the mettā, it's important to realize, love is not just a feeling, okay? It's lovely when there is that feeling of love, and that is something that we yearn for as human beings, and when it's there, you know, open to it. Lovely. Enjoy it. But if we go into the question of what love is, it's not just a feeling. It can't just be that. That would limit it. Perhaps, actually, love is something infinite.

So we can't rely too much on the presence of a feeling. Perhaps if we expand what we're talking about a little bit, maybe to say love might be just the intention, at times. All we're doing is planting the intention of goodwill, of kindness, of acceptance. Like planting seeds, and some will bear fruit. We don't know when, but nature has its course.

This factor of kindness to ourselves, when we start the mettā practice that way -- and it's absolutely an indispensable factor in the process of the path unfolding -- we have to really address that question. So kindness to ourselves, acceptance of ourselves.

But in a way, there's a bigger picture than that. And what's happening here is, we're a group of people, a Saṅgha, a community that's come together to practise together. Can there be, running through our time here, running through our meditations, informing our meditations, a sense of that, a sense of love, concern, extending out to everyone who's practising here? That I'm not here, alone, practising; I'm in a community, practising together?

It's difficult sometimes with the silence, because we don't know each other, mostly, so we just see a few impressions, and then the mind jumps in and starts making assessments and judgments based on very little information. This is what human minds do. And of course that kind of judging doesn't just happen on retreat.

I was reminded a little while ago of something that happened many years ago when I lived in America. I went, one beautiful summer's day, to be at a beach by the ocean, really amazing place calling Singing Beach. It was late afternoon. There were a lot of people around, and I was sitting there, really just soaking up the sky and the whole thing. And then I noticed this man walking around with a metal detector, an old man with a metal detector on the beach, you know, on the sand. And I don't know how quick it was, but it was pretty quick -- I immediately assumed: "He's grubbing around, looking for old coins that may be worth something, that he can then sell, and try to get a little money. How can you do that? Such a glorious day, and the sky. So small-minded, and oh ... jabber jabber jabber jabber."

And I'm pretty sure he started talking to me, because I was probably too stupid to engage him. And it actually turned out -- well, he told me that he was going around the beach with this metal detector to find sharp pieces of metal that people would leave on the beach or whatever, or would find their way onto the beach, to stop people cutting themselves. So completely different from what I had imagined. And luckily enough, we got into a conversation, and he told me a little bit about himself. And he was a very old man. He had been a fisherman all his life, until his wife got cancer, and he didn't have insurance, being a self-employed fisherman. In the States, there's no National Health like we have here. So he had to sell his whole business and everything to pay for his wife's treatment. And it ended up that she actually died anyway. So now he had no job or anything. And he would spend a lot of time doing this kind of thing.

I was just completely -- it made a real impression on me, just how wrong I could be. And afterwards, you know, he said, "Thank you for talking to me." And it was obvious that, probably, he'd be on the beach doing this kind of thing, and pretty much ignored. You know, just an old man -- he didn't look particularly smart or anything, just going about his business. And it's when we don't have that interaction, when we don't know about people, how quickly the mind comes in.

And so here, there's the situation of silence. It's quite packed in the hall. And we don't know. To just have some space around what the mind is doing without words. It's possible, it's very possible to be in the silence, and that somehow the quality of silence lends itself to developing a sensitivity, to a flow of love, a flow of care and connection with each other in the silence that isn't communicated by words. And that's something magically in the silence that can be opened to. We can open to that sensitivity.

[12:14] I think it's natural for us as human beings to begin practice with a sense of 'my practice' and 'what I want' and 'where I'm going to go,' and we're practising for ourselves. And that's completely normal. You know, we feel the suffering in our lives. Buddhist teaching purports to address that suffering, so we come to it for that reason. But I wonder how long that can last as the sort of fuel for our practice. I don't know. If it's just about 'me,' just me and my practice and my process and my problems and my path and da-da-da, maybe the fruit that it will bear will be a little bit dry and shrivelled, maybe. Can we really expect a different kind of result than the approach we're taking? If the approach is a little bit constricted and selfish, can we really expect this sudden blossoming of complete, unconditional love that's supposed to be a goal?

So we're a lot of people in the hall. And it might be that this time of year, there are colds and whatever going on, and someone coughs, and there's irritation. Or they shuffle. You know, "Can't you sit still?" Very normal. Or maybe they are sitting still, and you're shuffling, and you think, "Who do they think they are?" [laughter] Or it's the other way around: we're coughing. Or as someone told me a while ago, they didn't want to come into the meditation hall, they were too afraid to come to the meditation hall because their stomach was gurgling. They thought that would disturb people, and it was really a lot of anxiety for them. That's a high level of anxiety, you know.

Either way, whether it's irritation with others or fear of how I'm seeming -- either way, it's a bit wrapped up in myself: my practice, what I want here. Can we actually, is there a possibility of tuning into something bigger, a bigger sense, a bigger picture? If we think about, what is the bigger picture, the really bigger picture? It's that, well, the really, really bigger picture is that the universe is, I read the other day, 13.7 billion years old, which is ... a long time. [laughter] And we're coming together for a very brief period in that, so short. And the context of our lives, even, within that, is so short, so brief. To have this sense of the briefness of our lives as an almost constant backdrop. Our lives -- what, sixty, eighty, a hundred, max, years? In the context of this absolute vastness of time and space. We get a sense -- and then within that we're coming together here for some days -- people who are wanting, having similar aspirations, wanting freedom, wanting peace, wanting love, wanting to understand. And that's the bigger picture. Can we remind ourselves of that, and have that inform how we are here?

[16:23] Practice, ultimately, is for all beings. It's not just for our self, not even for the people here, or Buddhists, or people we feel in common with. It's really for all beings. I think, very realistically -- this isn't something that's just a sort of nice, fuzzy idea -- I think people do come to a point in their practice when something kind of shifts inside, and it's more of a sense of, "I can't quite go on orienting my life, my practice, my sense of journey, just for this, for me, or for a few people around me." Something just, "Hmm," just doesn't fit that way any more. Something snaps. And so, one has a genuine sense that really, really, really, practice is about the welfare of all beings, and it's something very real.

Now, that might sound lofty. And it actually is lofty. But it's the case that we don't usually start that way, as I said. But intentions in practice transform over time. So if I think back to when I started practising, I was at university, and I just saw a poster. And it said something about meditation, da-da-da-da-da, something about clarity of mind or something, was one of the things it said. And I thought, "Great! I'll go to this meditation class." [laughs] "I'll get some of this clarity of mind business." [laughter] Then I can study more quickly, shrink the studying time, and have more time to drink!" [laughter] Which at that time seemed to be the main purpose of university life. [laughter]

So since that time, my intention has changed, grown a little bit. [laughter] But these things change. So not to expect this sort of vast aspiration at first, but to have that as a possibility. There really is that. That is really the direction that practice is going. And can we encourage that direction and have that, just a sense of that informing what we're doing here?

So kindness to ourselves, kindness to the Saṅgha here, kindness to all beings -- that's very much in what we might call the field of what ordinarily gets talked about when we talk about mettā, about loving-kindness, kindness towards beings. I'd like to go a bit deeper into this question of love, what love is, and what its place is, a bit deeper also into the question of what mindfulness is.

When I started, after a few years of meditation, it seemed what I was trying to do was try and make the mindfulness as precise as possible, very clear: "What's going on? Am I with it clearly? Am I really with it, really noticing it sharply? Is my mind clear, bright, and noticing very precisely?" That's a hugely important aspect of what the mind can do, and what mindfulness is. Very important, and we have that power of mind, that ability of mind to really go close and investigate with a real precision. But it's only one aspect of what mindfulness is about. And if that aspect gets overemphasized, then for some people, sometimes, it can lead to a kind of dryness and a sense of disconnection. And you know, I think maybe I had a period where I sort of became this mindfulness machine. You know ... [makes machine noises] [laughter] It was helpful to some extent. I have to be honest. But really, it wasn't all that helpful in the long run. And there was a sense of disconnection emotionally.

If we think more broadly, what are the qualities involved in mindfulness? There are a lot of qualities involved. So mindfulness has a quality of presence to it, quality of attention. Patience is part of mindfulness. Non-judgmentalism is part of mindfulness. Acceptance is part of mindfulness. If you think about all those qualities, they're actually qualities of love. Acceptance -- think about someone coming to you that you love. Maybe they have a difficulty. How are you with that, with acceptance, with patience, with non-judgmentalism, with attention? So these kind of factors of love are actually developed, in a broad sense, in mindfulness.

I want to take it a little bit deeper. There's a Mahāyāna sūtra called the Lotus Sūtra, which I've never read. I think it's like that big. But one line in it says:

See all things with the eyes of compassion.[1]

Which is very -- well, I think, very beautiful poetically, to say that. But it's not saying, "See all beings with the eyes of compassion." It's saying, "See all things with the eyes of compassion." So in the Mahāyāna tradition, 'compassion' and 'love' are used interchangeably. So see all things with the eyes of love. So what's this telling us? What's it pointing to?

"Things" means anything: so a thought, an emotion, a sensation in the body, the foot touching the floor, a feeling, a sight, a sound, anything at all that makes an impression on consciousness. What would it be to see that with love? What would that mean? And how might we actually practise that way?

So mindfulness has this one quality of precision. We could draw out another quality: this quality of acceptance, acceptance being something very similar to love. Could just draw that out a little bit, and begin -- at times, if you want -- instead of emphasizing just the precision, noting, being very clear, what would it be to shift the balance and completely go into a kind of radical welcoming mode, radical acceptance? Or even to begin to actually direct a flow, a sense of love at our experience, at an emotion, at a body sensation, at a mind state, at a thought -- a sense of bathing it in love, holding it in love, the way you would hold a child? Or just this sense of a real open door, and everything is completely welcome in that. So things arise, and they stay, and they pass. Things arise, and they stay, and they pass. And their arising is in that complete welcoming, complete love, and their staying also, and their passing.

Sometimes when we notice the fact that things are changing, and when we look closely, they're changing very quickly, and we actually begin to notice that, in a way, they're calling out for our love, they're calling out for our compassion because of their very fleeting nature. So here's an emotion. It just lasts a couple of seconds, then nothing. Maybe it comes again, maybe it comes again, and then something else. Its very fleeting nature is asking for a sense of love. Can we somehow find a way of working that that's very much a part of our practice, really, really emphasizing that? Acceptance, welcoming, kindness towards the elements of our experience.

Now, of course, sometimes we try, or we want to, but what happens is we have resistance. Something just says, "No, I don't want to know," or "This is stupid," or whatever. But in a way, love has this quality -- that can be included. We can direct a sense of complete welcoming, complete acceptance to the resistance itself. So sometimes we assume, when we're being mindful, that there already is acceptance in it. But what if we let go a little bit of being so clear about noting what's going on, and give 98 per cent of the energy to this acceptance quality, and imbuing that? So in a way, even if there is resistance or difficulty in just accessing any sense of that, we can include that. There's nowhere outside where we can include our acceptance, nowhere that's not included in our acceptance, our welcoming.

If we take this approach on to practice, if we take this approach on, I think it ends up being very interesting. What happens to sensations in the body, to feelings, to emotions, to mind states, thoughts, etc., perceptions when we do this, when we just bathe them in kindness, bathe them in this radical welcoming? What actually happens, you notice -- and it is a practice, but what actually happens is the thing itself begins to soften. It begins to fade. It begins to lose its definition and its edges. So an emotion begins to sort of just soften and kind of lose what it is -- or even a painful body sensation.

What's going on here? What is going on? What's going on is that the quality of mind, the state of mind is affecting the appearance of things. It's affecting how things are. So the presence of love or the presence, say, of anger -- when we're angry, we say, "I'm seeing red." You know, there's an awareness, hopefully, that when there's anger, it's affecting my perception. So I'm angry because they said this, and my friend looks like a complete jerk, and I see the horns, you know. The anger is affecting the perception. Love, too, affects perception.

Sometimes when we are angry with someone, you can do a little experiment. Sometimes, if you've been around these circles for a while, the initial impulse might be, "Well, I'm angry at them. I need to give them mettā, because I shouldn't be angry at them, because that's not spiritual." And so one does that. But what if, just as an experiment, you direct the love to oneself? When there's anger, it's a burning of the heart, and it's suffering. So maybe we need the loving-kindness at that point. So we're angry at this person, and we direct the loving-kindness towards ourselves, not to them. What's very possible that will happen is the sense of the situation begins to soften, begins to relax a little. The sense of the perception of the other person begins to change a little. So the presence of love is something that affects how things seem to be.

[29:53] Now, we may say, "Well, I thought we were trying to be with things as they are. I thought that's what mindfulness and meditation was about." And we can maybe talk about different approaches. So there is the place for that, for being very precise. And there's a place for this too. We might discover, though, if we go into it a bit more deeply, that there's an assumption involved in what mindfulness is. We assume -- and actually, it's because we as teachers tell you ... [laughs] We assume that mindfulness is something that's kind of neutral. So here's an object, whatever it is -- an emotion, a body sensation, a feeling, a thought. And mindfulness is something neutral. It's just going to observe the thing just as it is, and I'm just going to be with things as they are, be with what is. And there's a certain amount of truth to that. But actually, mindfulness is not something neutral. It's a bit of a myth.

There's always some degree of love or acceptance or pushing or pulling with mindfulness. There has to be. There has to be some degree of acceptance, even, some degree of love. That degree will influence how things appear. So the question is, which amount of love reveals the real way things are, the real object? There has to be some degree, with mindfulness. I'm being mindful. There's some degree of acceptance. I can either emphasize that or not. But it's always some degree. Which degree tells me how the thing really is?

We might say, "Well, but mindfulness does, or equanimity -- that thing, equanimity, that I've heard about." But I think with very deep practice, when the equanimity goes deep, the sense of a very steady mind goes deep, that also begins to change objects, begins to change the appearance of things, so that things begin to soften, to dissolve, to fade. They make less of an impression on consciousness. We can see this on the cushion, you know, with a pain in the knee. If we really, really emphasize this aspect of total kindness towards it, like a flow of kindness towards the pain, or an emotion, can see how it changes. This is assuming there isn't a hidden agenda of trying to change it; this is a genuine welcoming.

And we can see it off the cushion. We can see it, as we walk around our lives, that some situation happened, and the presence of love and acceptance even changes how important the situation seems to be, or whether we even notice what's going on. Maybe this all sounds a bit complicated, but there's something very, very significant here on a number of levels.

So the first level is going back to what I said at the beginning. This is what the Buddha would call a 'skilful means.' It's a way of finding some ease in the present moment -- that to bathe the present experience in kindness and love is actually a very skilful thing to do. And as human beings, we need that resource of wholesome nourishment, of easeful abiding. So there's that -- very important.

[34:05] But there are also insights here. The first one is that it's the relationship with things that matters more than the thing itself, and what's going on. So it's possible, it's very possible to have pain in the body, and because there's a relationship of welcoming, of acceptance, there's a real okayness with that pain being there, because the relationship is one of okayness, one of ease. The thing doesn't matter as much as it seems to, in terms of our happiness. This is a lesson that we learn over and over again in practice, until it goes down deep, and we absolutely know it, that nothing by itself is enough to cause us suffering.

That's not to say that it's at all always easy, working with some of the difficulties we have as human beings, but that we know that the suffering comes from the relationship. When the relationship is one of complete welcoming, complete acceptance, one of kindness, the suffering goes out of a situation. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in looking at the object, at what's going on -- this pain, this mind state, this thought -- so sucked into looking at it, or just caught up in the attentiveness to that, we don't have the space to see, "What's my relationship with it? And can I make that relationship one of love, even?"

I mean, to put it very, very simply, either we have a relationship of peace with what's occurring, or we have a relationship of struggle -- basically two options. Love is a relationship of peace. Anger, irritability, rejection, judgmentalism is struggle.

At an even deeper level, there are other insights here. How a thing appears to me depends on my degree of love, on a spectrum, we could say. If how it appears depends on what's in the heart, what's in the mind, the climate in the heart and mind, and we can see that, then we see what's, in Dharma language, called the 'emptiness' of things, the emptiness of the way things are. It means that they don't exist in any way independent of the mind and the heart that's looking at them.

To begin to see into that relationship, the relationship of awareness to what's going on, the relationship of mind and things, of awareness and things -- any things, internal or external -- to begin to look into that relationship and understand that relationship in this way, is to begin to look into what's called 'emptiness,' is to begin to look into emptiness. And to begin to look into emptiness is actually to begin to open to freedom. They go completely together.

If a thing doesn't exist independently, it doesn't have the reality that it seems to have. Things seem to exist independently. And not having that reality, it's almost like suffering doesn't have a place to stand, doesn't have anything real to stand on. And we know instead the interdependence of things. We are completely not separate. Nothing in the world, nothing out there, nothing in here, is separate from us, from the mind, from the heart. Complete and utter interconnection, complete and utter interpenetration, even, more than interconnection.

You can see this at a very deep level in meditation, or even, if you come back to a more sort of mundane level, again, we're here in a crowded hall, or in our life somewhere, and there's a sense of maybe irritation at someone. You don't like the way they do something or whatever it is, or they said something. And again, we come here -- it's normal to approach, to come to Gaia House for a retreat, and six days. You could spend New Year all kinds of places. So I come here with what I want: I want to get concentrated, and I want to get calm, and I want to get whatever. So this what I want is something that's in the mind, sitting there ... [laughs] Whether we know it or not. And it's affecting how we're seeing. It's affecting the perceptions that we have, what I want. The world, people, ourselves, the situation is seen, whether we know it or not, through the lens of what I want. If I want to get calm and I want to get concentrated, and then someone is doing something noisy or distracting or whatever it is, it's going to be a problem. What they're doing will be heightened in our consciousness. We'll pick that out. The mind goes to that because it's been given importance by what I want.

Would we dare to begin to play with the views we have, even the very views of being here? So instead of what I want, maybe, what it would be to -- here's the irritating person -- what would it be: "I'm just here to learn love"? Could we do that, maybe just for a little bit? To see, "Here, this is something, and it's pushing my buttons, and I can see the possibility here if I change my agenda." What is the agenda? Maybe we don't even know what our agenda is. Can I play with it? Do I have that freedom? I can play with it. What if I'm just here to learn love? Then that whole them being irritating -- well, "Thank you very much. You've given me an opportunity to practise." If you're really bold, I mean, you might try, "Actually, I'm just here to love you. That's all I'm here for." [laughs] We can play with this, you know. Oftentimes, we don't realize what the agenda is. Can we let go of a certain -- if there is some -- rigidity, and begin to explore this relationship? When the view changes, the irritation may change. And even the perception of the person changes. So the view, the mind, affects the perception.

So if there's really, really, really a deep flow of acceptance and love, if we practise this way and we develop this -- and it is a practice -- what can happen is that things begin to fade. They just begin to fade from our experience. This is something very, very odd, if we think about it. If I can have a total, complete welcoming, this thing -- my experience begins to fade. So someone was telling me, when they had a pain in their back, I think it was -- this was somewhere else -- and they practised this way, just really, really just bathing it in kindness, bathing it in love, it disappeared. And they were scratching their heads and thinking, "What is going on here?" So what is going on?

Love, similar to the quality of equanimity, maybe, in its depths, in the depths of what it means, it might have the quality of non-grasping. So we don't usually think of love that way. And especially with all the sort of Hollywood portrayal of love, it's a very sort of grasping and attached kind of love. Maybe there are depths of love, and maybe in its depths, love has something very, very much to do with non-grasping. Actually, maybe they're completely intertwined. And what we begin to understand at a very deep level, what's possible to understand is that our grasping, our pushing or pulling or hanging on in any way, our non-acceptance, is what colours the world. It makes the way things appear. But even more than that, it makes the world appear at all, which is completely not the way we regard things. If we understand this, if we begin to see this -- the way grasping at very subtle levels creates our world -- this is then really to see the emptiness of all things. And this leads to, in a way, we could say, the deepest kind of freedom, and the deepest kind of love, because we know that interconnection.

Again, talking about love and what it means and all that, we could use the language that -- I don't really like the word, but maybe there are 'levels' of love. I don't like the word, but I can't think of another one right now. Maybe there are levels of love. So sometimes, all we can do is try and have the intention for kindness, either with ourselves or with another or with what's going on. That's all we can do. We can't find that feeling. All we can do is plant the seeds of that intention. And that is an act of love. That is a movement of love. And then there's the humdrum kind of love we have: "I love my cat, I love my mum, I love ..." You know, and it's just very homely and lovely and normal, human kind of love. And maybe love also has other depths that sometimes the heart -- you know, just something breaks open, and there's really a sense of boundless love for everyone, for all beings. And that's very much possible. And even, perhaps, even a love beyond that, that can't even be put into words, doesn't even seem to be about all things, doesn't even seem to have an object.

And what we find, as human beings, is that one of the amazing things about being human is that we have this enormous range of our minds. Our minds can move -- such an enormous range. Our hearts can open and close, and this whole range of love available to us, and that's very much a part of being human. It goes with being human. So the way our experience of love ... [remainder of talk not recorded]

  1. This quotation does not appear in the Lotus Sūtra, though the text does include a description of Avalokiteśvara as sarvasattvakṛpamaitralocano: "having eyes of loving-kindness for all wretched beings." Also see the translation from Chinese at Tsugunari Kubo and Akira Yuyama, tr., The Lotus Sutra (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, rev. 2nd edn 2007), 302,, accessed 26 June 2021: "The pure seer Avalokiteśvara ... Sees the sentient beings with his benevolent eyes." ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry