Sacred geometry

Heart Work

This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
To really care for ourselves includes both learning to work skillfully with difficult emotions, and developing, deepening and refining the practice of mettā, in meditation and in the world. This talk begins to explore both of these dimensions in some detail.
Date8th August 2010
Retreat/SeriesThe Lovingkindness (Mettā) Retreat


To really care for ourselves includes both learning to work skillfully with difficult emotions, and developing, deepening and refining the practice of metta, in meditation and in the world. This talk begins to explore both of these dimensions in some detail.

So much has come up in the groups, and they've been so rich, and so many strands to explore. And I think everyone's getting that sense that this really is a rich practice with a lot to it and a lot of nuance to it, and that doing mettā practice, we learn a lot. We learn an enormous amount about all kinds of different aspects of practice, of ourselves, of qualities of heart and mind. So I want to try to address at least some of that. The sort of sections of the talk, each one could easily be at least one talk by itself. But I want to just dip in, in quite a bit of detail on each one. I hope it doesn't feel like too much. It might be a bit long. I might just cut sections out. I'll see how we're all doing for energy. If it feels like a lot, and it feels like I'm just droning on, there are the tapes, and they usually repay repeated listenings. So sometimes there's a lot of information, you don't get it all at once, and listen again, and see, "Oh! Okay."

Sometimes we're doing the mettā practice, and I'm sure everyone has encountered the period of time when it just feels mechanical. And if you're saying the phrases, it just seems like you're turning some rickety bone construction of something or other. There's nothing really going on there. Well, first to say, in a way, that's still really, really okay. You're still putting the mind to very good use there. It's okay if it's mechanical. It's really okay that sometimes it's mechanical. Chris was talking last night about the inner critic. Is not the inner critic -- it might not feel like it -- if I look at it closely, is that not just a mechanical contraption? It runs on habit. It doesn't sometimes feel that way. But if I look at it, it's just a mechanism of habit, of thought, as Chris was saying last night. So what's the problem with the mettā being a bit mechanical at times? At least I'm feeding something in that's actually wholesome, beneficial, planting the seeds, moving in the right direction. So, fine. And we do want to, as I said, be creative, be responsive, to reinvigorate the practice at times, to juicen it up a bit if possible, to find ways to do that, to be flexible, to be playful.

This morning I used this metaphor -- it's good, but it's also limited in some ways -- of sailing: sailing a big sailing ship with different masts and sails and possible engine and all that, and being able to really respond to the currents, the wind, etc. And practice is just like that. Mettā practice in particular, but actually, all practice is like that. Just delineating, just for now, three kind of 'boxes' -- so you could say three configurations of sail or whatever -- but three boxes, three modes in which we might be practising. I can't remember if I said it in here this morning, but I certainly said it in the groups.

(1) One is the whole being coming more and more into a kind of harmonizing of the intention of mettā, and collecting and unifying around that, and not that much else happening, and just the sense, with that, of some degree of well-being beginning to emerge in the body, in the being. So that, in a way, is mode one.

(2) Mode two would be, something difficult is coming up in the context of the mettā practice: perhaps sadness, perhaps anger, irritation, could be lots of things, perhaps body difficulty. And I'm acknowledging it and including it very much -- I'm not pushing it away. I'm not ignoring it. But I'm sticking to my guns. I'm sticking to the helm or whatever my job is as the sailor. And I'm staying with the mettā practice. And in a way, it's like, "Yes, you're here, and I'm going to continue doing this. That's my strategy." Okay, number two -- very, very powerful and important as well.

(3) And number three is, okay, the ocean is throwing all kinds of stuff, and I am going to let the mettā practice go, the formal mettā practice, and actually turn towards the difficulty, and find ways of relating, responding directly to the difficulty in ways that are healing and helpful. And so that might be completely taking the sails down and turning the engine on or something like that.

Now, in the context of our life and a life of practice, all of those are important, and I would say we want to learn to be able to do them all, over time. And we can. We really can. In the context of this retreat, we're emphasizing, leaning, encouraging the first one, if possible. At the times when it's possible, we want to just gently, without forcing, want to tend that way, encourage that. We're a little bit prioritizing that. But we're open to the others, certainly. And in life, of course, we don't know what the ocean conditions will be. So we have this flexibility of response.

[6:05] So if I talk about, if I ask myself in my life, "What does it mean to" -- Chris was talking last night about self-love -- "What does it really mean in my life to care for myself, to nourish myself?" -- as I was saying in the opening talk. Two big parts of that, of really caring for myself:

(1) One is being able to be with what is difficult in a caring way, to be able, in my response, in my meeting what is difficult, to have that be skilful and helpful and caring. That's one big part of caring for myself.

(2) And the other part is this learning to actually nourish myself through gently, without force, developing a sense of well-being, and cultivating that sense of well-being, that harmonizing and unification.

Two big parts. And I would say caring for myself in life includes both. It includes both. So I want to go into each a little bit.

(1) Start with the being with, the being with what's difficult. And the first thing I want to say is, this we can learn. This we can learn. I can learn in my life, absolutely, without question, to be with what is difficult -- on a physical level, certainly. Primarily tonight I want to talk about on an emotional level. And that I can learn. I can learn all of it, but especially on an emotional level. It can feel like we're so challenged and so lost or overwhelmed in that realm of our emotional life. I can learn that. No question about it. I can learn how to be with it skilfully and helpfully and healingly.

The range of difficult emotions we can have as human beings, and even in the context of mettā, is huge. So I'm not going to go into them all. I'll leave some out. But one thing that was coming up in groups -- and I would very much expect it to come up on a mettā retreat -- is sometimes, actually, what happens is, because we're working with a heart-opening practice, this practice of heart-opening, the heart does open, and sometimes it opens in actually a very lovely way. What's coming through is very lovely, but we're so unused to it. We are moved or touched or open to life, to others, to ourselves, to existence. And what's coming through is beautiful. Maybe even some bodily energy that's actually quite strong, maybe even pleasant. And all of it -- there's an opening, and with that, there can be, and there often is, fear of opening, fear of the unfamiliar, and fear of vulnerability. So this is extremely common, extremely common.

I think it's really important to realize that we are actually in control here. It may not feel like that, but we are actually in control. We have the foot on the accelerator pedal. You know, we can back off practice when it just feels too much, and just stop and open our eyes, do something else, whatever. We are in control if it really feels like too much. But we learn, actually, that gradually, we can open more and more. And we can learn that what feels that our safety is threatened, or what feels vulnerable, actually isn't in itself. It's actually a lovely, beautiful resource. It's just that it's unfamiliar, and we may be pasting on a past habit of interpreting things as unsafe and vulnerable -- all of which is understandable.

[9:54] So we can take it gradually. If that seems to be happening either energetically in the body, or the heart feels open to something, or moved or touched, and you feel like there are tears, first of all -- this has come up in every group -- it's really okay to cry in here. It's really okay to let the -- whether it's tears of beauty, or being touched, or sadness, or whatever it is, it's really, really ... This is a space that allows that, and it is safe for that.

If it is something that's actually lovely moving through, like we feel like we're opening, also energy is coming through, or we're touched, usually -- in fact almost always, until quite far down the line -- when we open, two things are happening at the same time, and we don't often realize. Fear, as I said, on the one hand, and loveliness on the other hand. Fear and loveliness. Loveliness goes with opening. We may not realize it at first, and we may only notice the fear. So a first step is actually to just have a little bit of space, sit back a little bit, and notice two things going on. There is the fear. I'm not ignoring that. I'm not pushing it away. I'm not denying it. And there is also the loveliness of the opening, whatever kind of opening that is -- energetic, emotional, whatever.

I've yet to encounter someone who, given the choice of fear, which is unpleasant, and loveliness, which is pleasant, does not put all their attention and get sucked into that which is unpleasant and difficult, the fear. Why that is, I don't know. [laughs] But it seems to be pretty common. So just having the space, seeing that there are two things going on, not pushing it away, and just saying, "Well, I'll just lean over into letting myself feel touched by the loveliness, to feeling it, dipping into it." The very beauty, the very loveliness, the very feel of that in the body will reassure at a very deep [level], at a cellular level, and it's like, "Oh, maybe I can relax into this a bit more." And it calms the fear down, without denying it. In time, one can totally, completely abandon oneself into the opening -- fearlessly, completely fearlessly. And that comes gradually and with time and with practice, if we just get a bit of space and just incline the awareness in a certain way. And we learn that we can trust -- we can trust our opening. We really can trust our opening. So that's a possibility.

It's also possible (and I'm sure some of you have encountered this, as I have in the past) that doing mettā practice, what comes up is the exact opposite of mettā: it's anger, irritation, aversion, judgmentalism, rage, even. First time I did mettā twenty, twenty-five years ago, did my first exposure to mettā, a guided meditation, and I think steam was coming out of my ears! [laughter] I was just completely full of rage: "I'm sure this isn't supposed to be happening!" [laughter] And yet, who knows? It may well be part of the purification. Some people see it that way. It's sometimes also the case with more minor aversions, etc., that what's actually happening is, in the context of mettā and goodwill, the non-mettā is being highlighted. It's standing out more. Like, I'm looking for white, and so I see not-white more. It gets highlighted. It's not actually that it's happening more. And there can be all kinds, you know, a lot of resistance. And resistance is a form of aversion. So all this can be there.

You know, I think as human beings, but very much so as practitioners, we want to, in time, really get familiar with our emotional landscape, and really learn to befriend it and navigate it, and as I've said, a skilful response to it. So it's interesting -- and again, this has come up a little bit in the groups: sometimes what's opening in a person is actually feeling moved and touched. And yet, because there isn't so much familiarity with the inner emotional environment, one isn't sure: "Is it unhappiness? Or is it sadness? Or is it that I'm moved?" And this -- over time, it's important to actually begin differentiating these, because they're actually very different, and they move in different directions, and they require different responses, in a way. So sometimes a person just gets an intensity of feeling and assumes that it must be something negative. And maybe it's not. Maybe it's something beautiful wanting to open.

So this takes time, this learning to navigate, to know our inner emotional landscape. I think it takes time, for most people, because we're not really taught it. Unless you had a very deeply emotionally educational and healthy upbringing, it probably wasn't there. And it's not really there in the culture. It's not really talked about much. So a lot of us have to relearn this. And people share with me, "Well, you know, I get it, but I have to really realize that the last X years, I've actually been living in a kind of habitual self-distraction and disconnection from my emotional life." They say to me, "You know, it's my habit to watch TV in the evening and drink a few glasses of wine, especially if I'm feeling a bit iffy." And so if I do that, and I do it again, what can I expect from that? I will be disconnected. I will have, in relationship to my emotional life, a sense of fear of something: "Well, pff, heaven knows what's in there! And I'm not sure if I want to go close." But we can learn this. We really can. And to me, it's one of the most beautiful journeys a human being can take, is learning to open and learning to befriend and become familiar and navigate that whole territory -- and to care, to care for it all.

If we don't -- and you know, I meet so many people. And the truth is, I meet even practitioners, insight meditation practitioners of thirty-plus years' standing, who don't, who haven't taken that time to do that. And the result is insecurity, deep existential insecurity in life, a fear of oneself, a fear of how one is with others, spreading out into all kinds of ways. And it is possible, and if we do it, the opposite: freedom comes, confidence comes, grounding comes, opening comes, joy, lightness, unburdening. And this really, really, really is available to us.

So, in all of that, a big question is, how am I responding when something difficult comes up, when something difficult comes up emotionally? Do I judge it? Do I dismiss it? Am I overwhelmed by it? Do I sink into self-pity? Those are all options. Or am I touched by my own suffering? Am I moved by it? This is really helpful now in terms of practice suggestions: a gentle questioning, a gentle interest, and beginning to notice, what are my responses to difficult emotions inside? Someone a while ago was saying, "Such and such happens. Something like this sort of thing happens. Or I do something like this, like I act in a certain way. And then I feel fear and guilt in response." Okay. But then what was really interesting was the response to that, and he said, "And then ..." -- and they weren't even realizing that they said this -- "I can't believe this is still here! After all the practice, I can't believe it's still here." And they said, "Oh, Jesus!" And they just moved on to the next thing they were saying, completely unaware that that was a response of judgment. It was so habitual. And you know, this goes on a lot. It's so habitual, the quick kind of film of judgmentalism that wraps itself around some emotions.

[19:06] So to have a bit of space to soften and really notice that. In that space, a witnessing -- a witnessing and a curiosity, and then perhaps, through that spaciousness, we can experiment a little bit. What if I re-language this ... and take Jesus out of it? [laughter] What if I change the tone of voice? Or bring Jesus in in a different way? [laughter] Even better. [laughs]

So what we want to move towards -- and this is all practice. I'm really talking about practice suggestions, practice experiments. It's a very practical talk. We want the response, as I said, to move towards that -- healing and helpful, healing and helpful. Now, there's a lot of subtlety and art to this. What can I do to encourage healing and helpful responses to that which is difficult emotionally? So I can say, "Just be mindful of it." But that's kind of -- there's more to it. It's more subtle than that.

A question. Sometimes we can ask, as I'm with something difficult and I'm mindful of it or I'm being with it, sometimes you can drop a question in: "Is my being with right now -- is it helping or not?" And you actually get a sense of, "My being with -- it seems to be digging a hole deeper. I'm getting more tight around it, more upset," or something. Or does it have a sense of easing something, and allowing a bit of space and perhaps peace or soothingness, or holding something in a certain way? So we want to be monitoring our mindfulness or being with, and just seeing, "How is it? Is it moving in the right direction or not?" So I can respond.

[21:20] And it's come up several times -- sometimes I'd say, or Chris would say, or I would say, or we'd say in the group, something -- "Sadness is coming up. Can you hold it, can you cradle it and make this kind of gesture [holding gesture] and give it space, or like this [cradling gesture], like cradling a baby? Can you hold it? Can you surround it in warmth, in kindness, in love?" It's like, here's this dark, sharp stone of the pain, and around it is warm or cool -- however you like -- gentle waters lapping, lapping up against it. I'm including the awareness of the sharp, dark, nasty thing. And around it, I'm a bit more spacious, and I'm putting something else around it. Is that possible? I call it, sometimes, 'poached egg' mindfulness. [laughter] It's the Buddha's ... No, it's not. [laughter] Meaning, if it's not obvious, the yolk is in the middle -- that's the difficult stuff -- and around it is the white. It's surrounded it. It's embracing it. And we get a sense how to do that. Now, sometimes, I can just suggest that to a person, and immediately they get a sense of it. It's just something -- they just get a sense immediately, and off they go. Great! But also, sometimes a person in that moment cannot do that. They just can't make that happen. It's not accessible to them. So if that's the case, how might I move towards being more able to? So I've got a bit of a list here, seven suggestions. As I say, it's a lot, but you've got the tape. [laughter] I'm serious! [laughter]

(i) First one: "It's okay." Just repeating to yourself quietly, "It's okay." Internalizing the voice, "It's okay." This -- whatever's going on -- "It's okay." Just dropping that in in a gentle tone of voice. Whatever I drop into consciousness will ripple out and have an effect. Just kind of -- as Chris was talking about last night -- reparenting ourselves, self-parenting: "It's okay. It's okay." And dropping that in, even if it feels like, "It's not blooming well okay!" [laughter] "And stop pretending that ..." [laughter] Try dropping it in anyway.

(ii) Sometimes, funnily enough, we're in the middle of intense suffering, and we're so caught up in our reactivity -- this is number two -- that we don't actually feel it consciously as suffering. I mean, we would say, "Is it suffering? Of course it's suffering! Ridiculous. Of course it's suffering. We know that." But it's almost like deliberately having a bit of space from our reactions and feeling, "Oh, this is suffering. This is suffering," and meeting, sensing the actual suffering in it, having some space and feeling the suffering in it. And that can allow a natural response of compassion.

(iii) Sometimes it's helpful to more personalize it -- "This is my suffering, my suffering" -- and making it, "Oh this is my life, and my suffering," and bringing a sense of really holding oneself in response. That was number three.

(iv) Number four is the opposite. And it was interesting: for many years, when I lived in Boston, I was part of a class, insight meditation class, and an ongoing class, and very lucky to be a part of that. And one of the exercises for a whole week, sort of homework (we took it home) was, when suffering comes up, whatever it is, however it is -- physical, emotional, whatever (tonight I'm talking mostly about emotional) -- but in that moment, be aware of it, and then reflect that someone somewhere, maybe even right now, is going through something very similar. We tend to think, consciously or oftentimes unconsciously, "Somehow I'm alone in this. I'm alone with this particular kind of pain." And it's actually almost never true. It's almost never true. So deliberately bringing that in, a sense of widening the awareness to say (whatever this particular constellation is; I may be so used to it, it feels like just me, different from everybody else), just: "Someone else, somewhere, maybe even right now, is going through something very similar." And what that can do, basically, is open the consciousness and open the heart. And when the heart opens, and when the consciousness opens, automatically, inevitably, the suffering gets less. Heart opens, consciousness opens, suffering less; heart closes, consciousness closes, suffering more. This is a law of consciousness. It's a law of the heart. Oftentimes, unfortunately, when we suffer, our heart closes. This is partly why I'm talking about all this tonight. But we can actually do things deliberately that create the opposite -- see what happens. Experiment with this stuff, if you would like.

(v) Number five: how would I respond? I'm just imagining, here's this difficulty that I'm going through. How would I respond to a young child? And you can make the age up yourself: two, three, four, whatever it is. How would I respond to a young child who came in the door and came up to me and just poured out, maybe in a quite inarticulate way, poured out a description of exactly the suffering that you are in? What would you say to that child, or how would you be with them? And somehow externalizing it in the imagination, we can then internalize it.

(vi) Number six -- I've lost count. I think it's number six. When the heart softens, the body softens. When the heart softens, a lot of other stuff softens too. And one of the other things that softens is the body. Heart softens, body softens. Causality often works both ways in the inner workings of being. In other words, heart softening leads to body softening; body softening can lead to heart softening. So sometimes just focusing on softening, softening the body, even if it feels like stone and the heart feels like stone, just softening the body around what's going on, softening the muscles, softening the belly, over and over again. Softening, softening the body can allow the heart to soften too. And when the heart is softer, it's more open, and the whole thing is held in more healing and more space. So with all of these, somehow I need to find a vantage point of spaciousness and strength, spaciousness and strength. Somehow I need to encourage that. There are many more possibilities than these seven that I'm talking about.

(vii) Seventh one: to gently inquire, without judging, without forcing, "What is it that's preventing me from surrounding this with love, from cradling it, from holding it in this way? I can't seem to access it. What is it that's maybe preventing me?" I'm curious in that. Now, usually, it's something like judging. I'm judging the presence of this difficult emotion: "It shouldn't be here." Or I take it to mean something, perhaps about existence, more often about myself. I believe something about myself. A self-view is crystallized, which is usually very constricting and very unpleasant. Self-view -- that's enough to just block the whole self-love. Or I believe that it will go on forever, and that view, again, will usually lead to constriction and blocking. Shame is part of self-view as well. Fear of the emotion -- that's enough to block the love. All of this is normal, perhaps, but it's actually good to expose it a little bit.

[30:10] Sometimes, in fact often, there's a kind of forcing in relationship to the emotion. We get impatient. And I was just working with someone the other day who didn't realize that impatience was there until she said, "Right, I'm going to sit all night with this. And then it's like, it doesn't matter how long it lasts. And then suddenly it disappeared, the whole thing." Why? Hadn't realized that the whole thing was being supported by an impatience. So oftentimes, we actually don't notice these secondary reactions: judging, fear, impatience, etc.

I should really do this in a whole other talk. But with emotions there are different levels of the way we can relate to emotions. So, sometimes with emotions, there's a whole story that goes with it. And it's good to be able to relate at that level of story. But there's also the very bare physical aspect of what's going on. I have sadness, and how does it feel perhaps right here, or right here, or right here? The very bare perhaps unpleasantness or heaviness or something in the body -- we call that the physical sensations of what's going on. Both these levels are important. They're both really important, and to be able to move between these levels. So sometimes we get locked into a certain story around a certain emotion. Someone was telling me a little while ago, the story was of being unlovable, the feeling felt like of being -- you know, difficult emotion; going into it, and the feeling was, "I'm unlovable." And there was a story with that, a lifelong story with that. And yet as they sat with it a bit spaciously, with this sense, "Actually, well, hold on -- it's beginning to shift." And the feeling of unlovableness turned into a feeling of actually realizing that they were feeling concern for someone that they loved. Quite different. The thing just opens.

Stories are malleable, and they're amenable to different ways of looking at them. I can reshape the story. I can see it from a different angle. And then I have the option, in working with this, of just tuning in when there's a difficult emotion to a much, much simpler level, a much, much simpler stratum of the experience, which is just the physical, just the physical, the physical. And it's maybe unpleasant. There's just this tightness in the chest, and I'm just aware of that -- much simpler. And then, in that modality, the art is allowing, allowing, allowing this physical unpleasantness to be there. Just like that, just opening the fist [gestures], and allowing it to be unpleasant moment to moment. And that brings a sense of healing, a sense of helpful quality, and freedom too.

[33:25] Sometimes, oftentimes, people are afraid of dwelling too long at that simple level lest they lose the meaning of the whole narrative level, and the whole kind of attachment to the story, etc. And a sense, "Maybe I'll lose the meaning in my life." Do you understand what I mean by this? It's possible, as a practitioner, as I say, to learn to move between both these, and actually, even in one session, to move between the story level and the sort of very simple level, and the story level and the very simple level. And there's freedom in that movement, and it reveals something about the truth of all this emotion and our emotional life.

We begin to see, slowly it begins to dawn, if we're really open and really honest with ourselves and really looking carefully, it begins to dawn, the constructed nature of all emotion. The constructed nature of all emotion begins to reveal itself. Have to be very careful -- and this is why it would be much wiser to do this over several talks, just about emotion -- so we have to, again, have a wide range here. I really, really have to respect my emotional life. I really have to honour what comes through, and especially the difficult emotions, and the joys, and not dismiss them or overlook them or ignore them, anything like that. I really have to respect them on one side and be able to go into them and work with them. And as well, in time I have to have this full integrity of looking and actually see: "What is this emotion? What is this whole business of an emotional life? What actually is going on here?" And that is mostly hidden to the first glance. Something actually quite profound is going on, not immediately obvious. So I have to be careful not to disrespect, and at the same time to be courageous enough to fully expose what might be going on there.

If I'm really quiet in meditation, sometimes, I can see an emotion, I can catch it being built. Anyone ever experience that, ever? Maybe not. Okay, some nods. You can actually catch an emotion being built. There's a sensation in the body -- I mean, it can happen in different ways, but for example -- a sensation in the body, and then a thought that gets connected with that sensation, and/or the sensation is interpreted a certain way, and bada-bing, bada-boom! [laughter] There I have it. And I'm in -- "Oh, and I know this one. I've had this before." And that connection, through habit [snaps fingers quickly], so quick, so quick below the radar of consciousness. So interesting, as mindfulness practice just gets really quiet, not blocking any of this as we watch it, not stopping anything, not trying to stop anything, just allowing everything in consciousness, in awareness, and that very allowing -- the thing just doesn't get constructed. I'm not stopping anything. I'm just giving lots of space, and it doesn't get constructed -- very interesting.

So the whole realm of emotions is not quite what it seems at first, not quite what it seems at first. I have to have both: the full respect, the full ability to go into, and the full fearlessness of really unveiling the real reality about it all. Mettā practice is part of this. It's part of this learning about the constructed nature of emotions, actually using that to our benefit. So when I was saying this morning, when we drop a different phrase in, and can you notice in the sensitivity to the body that different phrases have different resonances? Well, what's happening there? We're actually in the business of constructing, in a way, the emotion of mettā. But it's natural -- we don't have to do anything other than sometimes just drop a word in. I'll say a word, and there will be that resonance; there will be that reverberation.

And then I also threw out this morning while we were meditating -- and I don't know if some of you played with it; someone said they played with it, and it was very strong -- what if I imagine touching the person with kindness? Did anyone try this this morning? No? [laughs] What happens then? Sometimes I imagine an action, and then I have a feeling. I have the very feeling of tenderness just through imagining the tenderness. Or sometimes, as the other suggestion this morning was, imagining the person smiling and happy. And that's interesting too. I imagine them happy, and I feel more -- it's like that comes more as well.

Did anyone ever try -- I think it's from Thích Nhất Hạnh -- did anyone ever try sitting for a whole period of meditation with a half-smile? Anyone ever done that? What happens if you can sustain it, if you have the -- you know, if you really stick in there and sustain it? At first you feel like, "This is ridiculous." [laughter] "He's Asian, and I'm English. I can't do this!" [laughter] But if you just stay steady through it, what happens? After a while, you cannot help but be happy. That's pretty interesting. What is going on in the realm of our emotions? It works that way. Don't think that it doesn't work the other way towards misery. Emotions -- at bottom they're constructed. Don't forget that other wing: being with, respecting, etc., honouring really deeply. But there's a constructed nature to them, too, that we want to unveil.

[39:43] I would say I don't fully understand my emotional life unless I can be with emotions and really respect them in that way and find ways to be with them in that way, and I understand their fabricated nature, their constructed nature. Until I've seen that, and both of those, I don't fully understand what it is to be a human being in the world of the emotions. And that's a journey. There's a real breadth and fearlessness required to explore both those extremes.

(2) Okay. Part Two. [laughter] Feeding the mettā, nourishing the well-being, as I said, more moving towards that sense of harmonizing and unification and kind of developing that, which is a nourishment for our self, going right back to the opening talk. So first thing to say is, am I seeing this practice as a kindness to myself? Because so easily in practice it becomes an arena for self-measurement. It's like, am I doing it well? Am I doing it right, well? Am I doing it not good enough? And I'm just measuring myself rather than seeing -- every time I sit, every time I come in here, every time I go to walking meditation, I'm actually giving myself something lovely. Seeing practice as a kindness -- really, really important. I think it was this time last year in the retreat I taught, I really emphasized that at the start of almost every sitting, guiding, and sometimes just lingering there. And what a huge difference it seemed to make to a lot of people. So habitual to see practice as something I should be doing, and very quickly it's just an arena for self-measurement. And usually, of course, I won't measure up.

So within this feeding, there's this responsiveness and the sailing and all that, and just letting the sail out a bit, and the rudder, etc. So a few different things here. The categories -- we're moving, remember, the categories, just from easiest, slowly, to widen it, widen it, widen it to include everybody. That's the function of the categories, nothing more than that. Sometimes I say to people, it's a bit like you're camping, and you're starting a campfire going. And I don't come -- you know, getting my fire going, and then I come with this huge damp log, and I plonk it down. Well, it's just going to go out. So if it feels, for instance, like the self is really difficult, start with the easiest person. I start the campfire with the kindling and the bits of paper and the little dry twigs, etc. Practice is the same. I want to get that fire going, especially mettā practice. I want to get that fire going. Then I can take the log and put it on there, when it's going a little bit.

Okay, I'll leave some other stuff out. We can also feed the practice in other ways. And some, as I said, I'll leave it out now and throw it in perhaps in instructions and things like that. But one quality that feeds mettā practice, that feeds love, is wonder. Wonder. Sometimes it's so easy to get swept up in the pressures and the busyness and the hassles of life, or even on retreat, when there is actually quite a lot of spaciousness, and miss the wonder, miss the wonder of our existence. And there's all kinds of wonder in our existence if I let myself tune into it, and open to it. So I found this lovely thing the other day. Well, actually, I've had it for a while, but just uncovered it again the other day. It's from -- does anyone know who Paul Hawken is? He's an environmentalist and writer and entrepreneur and things. He gave a fabulous lecture to a bunch of graduating students in the States, and this is part of it. So this is wonder from biological, reflection on biology, etc. And just notice what happens when you hear this. To me, it speaks to me, just on a biological level.

The first living cell came into being nearly forty million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and ...[1]

Wayne Rooney. [laughter] He didn't say that, but ... [laughter] He probably doesn't know who Wayne Rooney is, but anyway ... [laughter] I'm glad that you guys know! [laughter]

We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells [I think that's a million trillion cells], ninety percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without these other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has four-hundred billion [each human cell, okay? And there's one quadrillion of them. Each human cell has four-hundred billion] molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms.

It makes me want to bow, you know.

The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment.

At any one moment in your body, right now, there are one septillion actions, cellular activity. That's a one with twenty-four zeroes after it. [laughter]

In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe.

Amazing! Amazing! And so easily we can -- you know, you can, as you're doing the mettā, drop something like that in. Drop a reflection, something -- maybe that doesn't touch you. That's fine. There are plenty of ways to get wonder. Something that brings a sense of wonder in, in the background or the foreground, to help the mettā. Later on he says:

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked [he's talking about wonder still] what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television. [laughter]

Okay, so wonder and Wayne Rooney, and ... [laughter] But these are the sort of things, as we get more familiar with the mettā practice, it actually becomes -- and I'll talk more about this as we go on, and if this was a long retreat, we'd start to do a lot of this -- you can actually start bringing in other reflections and factors in the background that really start kind of turbocharging the whole thing.

Another quality is spaciousness, okay? Spaciousness. Years ago, again, when I lived in Boston, I was working with my teacher Narayan. I was doing a lot of mettā practice at one point, and it was very, very tearful for me. There were a lot of tears coming. At first I didn't know what it was, and then I realized, "Oh, it is this opening; it is this being touched and tears of compassion." Very, very strong and kind of intense. And I was talking to my teacher Narayan about it, and she was so skilful in her response, and she said, "Well, I don't want to" -- I can't remember her exact words -- "I don't want to get in the way of that, because that's something beautiful unfolding. However, mettā, as it gets truer" -- I can't remember her words -- "mettā, as it gets kind of more into itself, more developed, actually has the quality of more spaciousness to it. It's actually more spacious and kind of buoyant and happy, spacious, bright." But she wasn't saying you have to change it or anything, just that.

So, very, very skilful response, and that really helped me, and in time it changed. And of course, there's always a place for tears too. But the point I'm trying to make is that mettā has this quality of spaciousness to it when it really gets going. Mettā brings spaciousness. Spaciousness brings ... [yogis respond, "Mettā!," laughter] Spaciousness brings mettā. It works both ways. So, if we're not feeling very mettā-ful -- and I was doing it in the exercise a bit -- what if I just open to a sense of space? I'll come back to this in the retreat because there are different ways of doing that. But one is just a sense of physical space, just opening that out, and it allows a softer sense of mettā to come in. So how can I find the space? Can I be aware of a sense of space?

Are you guys okay still; is it too much?

Okay, another double causality thing. You okay? [laughter] When there is any mind state, any mind state, there is always with it a bodily corollary reverberation. In other words, the body reflects the mind state, okay? Now, we may be more or less aware of this, and we get more and more aware of it with more practice. But with any mind state, the body sense feels a certain way. The body perception also feels a [certain] way. The body feeling feels a certain way. You know, with anger the body feels a certain way: contracted and hot, etc., and unpleasant, all of it. With mettā, maybe a range of ways. With calmness, again, a range of ways. So if it works that way, it can work the other way too. So this is why, partly why I've been saying this thing about body, body, body. If it works the other way, it might be that it's worth emphasizing kind of gently finding a sense of, as I said, light well-being, openness, lightness, warmth, some comfortable kind of tone to the body, finding that first a little bit, and then, in a sense -- finding that softness, that well-being, and then using it, using it as the mettā, or interpreting it as the mettā, using it as the platform for the mettā. Does that make sense if I say that?

That tone in the body -- we can interpret it as mettā, and it will become mettā. It will become mettā. And then we can bathe in it ourselves, or we can radiate it out. So these resonances that we drop in, and I say, "May I be filled with happiness. May I be peaceful," and that resonance, too, I'm feeling that. And that begins to kind of collect and accrue a little bit. So in time people usually find, "Well, it's not like I'm creating the mettā so much. It's almost I can acknowledge it as a level of the being and a level of bodily resonance." It might not be that remarkable. But if I have this light, delicate, open attention to the body and sensitivity, it's almost like I begin to get confident that that level of vibration is there. Probably very unremarkable, probably, at times more so. And I begin to get sensitive to the nuances there and kind of, without pressure, without demand, draw them out a little bit, draw them out in the body, and focus them, collect them a little bit, spread them a little bit. Then I begin to wonder, "Am I developing mettā, or allowing mettā, or both? Or what's going on here? What's going on?" That's a question we'll come back to.

[52:59] Very easy in practice, and particularly this kind of cultivation practice, to get into black-and-white thinking: "I'm a complete failure at this. It's not working. Or it's success or whatever." And to let go of that black-and-white -- there's no failure here. As I said, we're just planting the seeds and having faith in that planting the seeds. There's no such thing as failure at this practice. If I just show up and I just keep planting the seeds, and have faith in that, they will -- it will do its work. I absolutely promise and guarantee that, and I've seen it so many times in so many extraordinary ways. Over time, over time it bears its fruit.

But that means that we have a spirit of not getting sucked into this black-and-white success/failure thinking. Cultivation practice requires perseverance, persistence -- which sometimes is steady, patient, sometimes even just slog, mechanical slog, going right back to the beginning of this talk -- but includes this playfulness and this responsiveness, this experimentation.

Part -- part -- of what we're developing through all of this is what we call samādhi. It's another Pali word, samādhi. Usually it gets translated as 'concentration.' So mettā is a concentration practice. I'm concentrating on the phrases. I'm concentrating on the feeling or whatever it is. As I said at some point, I prefer the word 'unification.' The body and the mind and the heart and the being is becoming unified, collected, harmonized. There's calmness in that collection, but also energy; it's an energized calmness. In that, it's very nourishing -- going right back to the beginning, opening talk -- and we're not dissipating energy as we usually do. We fritter energy with worry and thoughts and yesterday and tomorrow, and this and that, and "What do they think?" And we're not dissipating -- the whole system can start to gather energy in a state of harmony. And that's incredibly healing at every level of the being. It's incredibly healing for the whole system, and brings with it clarity, and clarity in terms of choices and all kinds of things.

With all this, through all this, everything that I've talked about, I begin to understand deeply, I begin -- this coin slowly starts to drop, deeply: the incredibly malleable nature of the heart and mind. All of this leads to that inescapable conclusion, and useful fact, something we can really use: the incredibly malleable nature of the heart and mind; and with that, how much, how much our well-being is dependent on the heart and mind, and what's in the heart and mind; and with those two, how central is the role of intention. And as we said, plant the seeds of intention. Plant the seeds of intention. Trust that. Doesn't seem remarkable when we're working on that level, but we're doing something incredibly powerful and deep, incredibly powerful and deep in the realm of our consciousness. Intentions are central. What am I investing in in my life? What am I investing in? It's the intentions that embody my investment, and I'm investing in intentions.

Some time ago, a person, I was talking with them, and they had a job interview coming up. And of course the recession is on and everything. And they were thinking about it, and they actually didn't want this job. It wasn't something that they really wanted to move into, for different reasons. But there was this pull, and a sense of financial insecurity, etc., and just -- we were talking, and I was sort of suggesting, "Well, are you aware of the different intentions operating as you move towards this interview? And maybe you will take it or whatever." So sometimes with intentions or with decisions or events, we're very focused on the outcomes: what will come of this? I go to this interview, I'm nervous, "They're testing me. Will I measure up?", etc. And I'm focused on that outcome: "Will I get the job? Will it turn out positively?" And that's very normal, of course. But a whole different perspective on the whole experience is, in choosing, in approaching this interview and in choosing whether or not I would take the job if they offered it to me -- so, lots of different movements inside -- what intentions am I feeding through my decisions and my choices? What intentions in myself am I feeding?

The first one, outcomes, that's actually inherently uncertain. I don't know if I'm going to get the job. I don't know if I get the job, and then I get fired after, when they really find out how lousy I am at administration or whatever it is. I don't know if the company goes under. I don't know. Actually outcomes are quite uncertain, interestingly. Much, much more certain is the huge effect, usually unnoticed, of investment in intention on my consciousness, and the whole unfolding of my existence that comes out of that.

So there are intentions, and floating around with all this, there are thoughts, and emotions, and perceptions. In this case, there's a thought. One of them was "financial insecurity," which brings with it -- a certain thought brings with it a certain emotion, a certain perception of the whole sort of field, the whole situation at this time. And then there are certain actions. Thoughts, emotions, perceptions, actions, and habits. And how much of all that is habit! And all these things feed each other.

So if there's a habit of a thought of financial insecurity -- and for this person there actually was, and she was conscious of it. That was her habit. Despite actually being relatively well off and having, you know, really being okay financially in terms of what was in the bank, and realizing this consciously, she recognized that she had a habit of feeling financially insecure. So seeing: "That's the thought. It colours the perception. That's how I perceive the situation. I have an emotion with that thought. The whole thing gets coloured more. And then I act out of that in response to that perception and the inner pressure of the emotion." And all of that reinforces each -- you know, the perception reinforces the emotion, the emotion reinforces the perception, the thought reinforces both the perception and the emotion, the action reinforces everything, and the whole thing just gets solidified.

And what happens? To quote the Buddha, "The character gets hardened."[2] The character gets hardened along certain rigid lines. So this is our life; this is what happens to us. And there's a lot of research recently about neuroplasticity, if you're into this kind of thing. The brain is very plastic -- same thing that I'm saying. The mind is very malleable. I don't know so much about the brain, whatever, but the mind is very malleable. I keep thinking a certain thing, I perceive a certain way, I act in a certain way, and certain neural pathways apparently get rigidified, and that's the groove of the whole consciousness, the whole brain. But it remains plastic till the day we die. It remains malleable. But when it gets hardened, if I'm not careful, it gets hardened into a certain perception, and then a certain tendency to certain kinds of actions. And what happens with that? Less freedom. Just the nature of it getting constricted that way means less freedom, freedom of choice. And if the thoughts and the emotions are built on fear, etc., less happiness. Less possible for happiness to find the space to reveal itself in that kind of environment, when certain thoughts, certain emotions are around.

Somehow, she was telling me as well, and I can't remember exactly, that she knew someone or something, there was a 24-year-old banker working somewhere who was talking to another 24-year-old banker, and one of them was leaving the bank, and the job at the bank, and the security of the job at the bank, to go to university. And the other one said, "Are you crazy? What about your pension?" [laughter] 24! 24. [laughter] The question is, do I know the consequences of the intentions that I'm investing in? And oftentimes I don't. It's not an area that I really pay that much attention to. So I talk about, what's my real investment portfolio? My real investment portfolio is actually in beautiful intentions and the cultivation of beautiful qualities of heart. And they will stand me in good stead, no matter what happens in my life. And I know that in the core of my being. And a practitioner who practises a lot knows that and lives by that. That is the more secure investment portfolio than anything that seems [knocking on wood] solid, more bricks and mortar and all that. It takes a lot of insight to actually really, really internalize that. Can begin to see, begin to see ... I'm not suggesting anything other than to explore it.

And it's not necessarily easy to be aware and to be honest and clear with oneself. What is the movement of intention there? So in this case, with this person, I actually suggested she list the different intentions, and then have a look and say, "Which are the ones that I want to get behind, that are helping me? And which are the ones that perhaps I don't want to get behind? They're actually more about fear."

[laughter] Still okay? Little bit longer or had enough? Little bit longer, okay. [laughter] One of those things -- talk about emotions, thoughts, perceptions, actions. Actions are part of that whole mess of multiple feedback loops. They're actually part of it, so actions, the actions we do in the world, influence the heart very much, very much. And again, this is something we can be aware of, but also take advantage of. So, loving actions, actions of generosity, even when I'm not feeling it, bring in time, maybe right then -- oftentimes right then -- but sometimes bring in time, bring that loving feeling. We tend to think, you know, "First I have the feeling. Then I have the action. Actions come out of feeling." Actually, again, it works the other way. I'll act some way and nourish a feeling that way. So I don't have to feel generous to act generously. I don't have to feel kind or loving to act kind and loving. Really, really important, and I will be feeding the heart by acting in a certain way. Now, I can do that, we can do that, in very small ways. And really important not to overlook the very small ways every day we can feed the beauty, feed the beauty of the beautiful streams of intention -- and, of course, big ways, big ways, massive ways, you know, at times. But not to overlook the small.

I read something recently, and I'd like to share it. It's not that short, but I hope you guys are okay. So feel free to move and stuff, you know. This is an example of -- as I said, the small is actually more where the action is, funnily enough. There's more transformation through small. But this is an example of big. I'll read you something, and I'm not at all suggesting that anyone follows this particular line of action. [laughter] I'm not saying you shouldn't, but it's quite unique, you'll hear. Not the specifics of the action, it's more the spirit of it and the insight that's being ... So does anyone know who Roz Savage is? She was, she is attempting to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific. Okay, so, I'll read you this. I hope it's okay. I was very, very touched by this. And while you're listening, I'm not going to translate it. So I hope it's fairly clear, a lot of this stuff that I've been talking about regarding meditation practice, but regarding bigger life stuff as well, in terms of intentions and all of that, and nourishment.

Several years ago, Roz Savage was a successful management consultant with a regular income, a home, husband, and little red sports car. Now all that is gone. And as you read this, she is alone in a rowing boat in the middle of the ocean.

The change began when Roz, feeling unfulfilled, sat down to write two versions of her own obituary: the one she wanted and the one she was heading for. "As I wrote my dream obituary, I felt excited and energized," she says, "and my pen raced across the paper." Then, writing the obituary based on her life as it was, the pen slowed. "It was a nice enough life, but not what I wanted. After half a page I got bored and gave up."

It was a huge wake-up call for Roz, who little by little began to shed the trappings of her life and realign it more with her values. "I pared life down to the basics to find out what really mattered to me, to see what was left when I was defined by who I was, not what I owned." Roz felt like she was making progress. "But I was like a carpenter with new tools and no wood to work on," she recalls. "I needed a project, and so I decided to row the Atlantic."

[laughter] As you do! [laughter]

"I used to believe I couldn't have an adventure," she says. "I just wasn't that kind of person." As her perspective changed, Roz first thought hypothetically about what preparations would be necessary, and then divided it into small steps.

There's so much insight in here. I'm not going to translate it, but just ...

"By the time I'd finished this list, broken down to a fine level of detail," she says, "there was nothing on it that I couldn't do."

Then it talks a bit about her, and on her Atlantic crossing:

Her Atlantic crossing saw her battle 20-foot waves, break all four of her oars, and be isolated without communication systems for the final twenty-four days of the row. She overcame self-doubt, depression, and continually wanting to give up. It was "very scary," and the toughest thing Roz has ever done. She says, "I was quite shocked by the ruthlessness of the ocean. I took it very personally."

[laughter] This is very Dharmic, you know. Translate a lot of it. It's wonderful.

"But eventually I realized it was just obeying the laws of physics, doing what oceans do. And I had to get on and do what rowers do: row."

Despite the dangers, Roz feels more secure now than ever. "I have found that everything I need lies within me, which enables me to have tremendous confidence that I can deal with whatever the future may bring," she explains, adding, "It was fear that kept me stuck in a job that I didn't like, earning money to buy stuff that I didn't need."

And back on dry land after a hundred or so days at sea, she feels a bit like an alien observing human society from one step removed. She continues, "I see all this busyness, pursuit of wealth and possessions, all this consumption, and wonder what it is all for. My goals in life are to be happy, healthy, and wise. I would have thought these are fairly universal human aspirations. But our behaviour generally doesn't support these goals."

She feels there are, however, increasing outbreaks of common sense [laughter], adding, "I hope that soon there will be a collective awakening before it's too late." As Roz's life changed, it became clear to her -- intellectually, emotionally, and intuitively -- that we have to look after our planet.

And then it talks about how she actually became an environmental activist and a UN Ambassador for the environment, doing a lot of really fantastic work for the environment, etc. And a little more, it says -- this is probably something she figured out while she was rowing:

"I worked out that each of my rows takes [across either the Atlantic or the Pacific] around a million oar strokes. One stroke doesn't get me far, but a million gets me across wide expanses of ocean."

I don't need to translate that, right?

"We've got into this environmental mess mostly through the accumulation of billions of short-sighted decisions that we each made day after day," she says, "and so if we start acting with a sense of individual responsibility for the future, we can still turn this around."

She talks about -- just little steps can actually ripple out and make a difference. And the final reflection -- she just says:

"I tell myself that if I'm never pushed outside of my comfort zone, then I'm not growing. I'm showing what an ordinary person can do when they put their heart and mind and soul to it."

I found that really, really beautiful when I read it, just really, really inspiring and touching.

So, as I said, just to end now, we begin to understand the incredible malleability of the heart and the mind, and how much our happiness depends on what's in the heart and the mind, and how much the intentionality and the investment in intentionality is wrapped up with that. And I learn to navigate the mettā, to navigate this practice, in whichever form, and slowly my confidence grows. And I really get a sense of what's possible here. And I have faith in the mettā. And that inner critic habit that Chris was talking about last night, it can change. I change it. It changes. In fact, all the patterns can begin to change -- really, really possible. And I begin to trust the mettā more, trust the mettā more, more even than my negativity, more even than my difficulty. I trust that. And sometimes we assume that the negative and the difficult is somehow more real. It's a very common assumption. This difficult emotion must somehow be more real. So we respect it, but actually, I really want to investigate that question. Turns out that love is less constructed, less constructed, than the difficult. The less we construct, the more love comes. We're going to revisit this. We're actually, we could say, allowing our Buddha-nature, our true nature to reveal itself -- allowing by building other stuff less.

Okay. So shall we have a quiet moment or two together?

  1. From Hawken's commencement address to the Class of 2009 at the University of Portland. See Paul Hawken, "You Are Brilliant, and the Earth Is Hiring," 271,, accessed 27 July 2021. ↩︎

  2. Rob may be paraphrasing a quote attributed to the Buddha in Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), 71: "The thought manifests as the word; / The word manifests as the deed; / The deed develops into habit; / And habit hardens into character." The quote has no equivalent in the Pali Canon. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry