Mindfulness of the Quality of the Heart and Mind
Note: This topic is inserted between Weeks 5 and 6 because Gil once taught it as the 6th week, and it is a beautiful quality to explore along with all the other topics. There is no homework sheet for it.
Here is the transcript, starting after Gil's introductory words:
Transcribed and Lightly Edited from a Talk by Gil Fronsdal on 11/4/07
As I think many of you know, the basic idea of mindfulness is to learn to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. And for many people, it’s a challenge to really maintain attention in the present moment, in the lived experience, in the experience of life as we’re living it. There is such a strong tendency of the mind to relive the past, or rehearse the future, or be in fantasy about the present. And to really have a quality presence, a stable here—to really notice what is happening here—is somewhat unusual. And even for people who are in the present moment fairly well—for instance, many of you probably were pretty well in the present moment driving here; if you drove here, you couldn’t be too far away from what was happening—but the quality of that attention may not be as strong as it’s possible to be. And one of the things we’re trying to do in mindfulness practice is to strengthen the capacity for the attention to be stabilized in the present moment so we can see much more clearly what is here.
So when we teach mindfulness, we often teach about some of the areas of your life that you could pay attention to. It is kind of like giving a map of the terrain of a territory, and once you have the map it is easier to find your way in it. We could just give the instructions very briefly and say “Pay attention,” but that’s pretty vague. What are you supposed to pay attention to? So we draw the map and the map we give here at IMC in the Intro Class generally begins with mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing is a very good place to stabilize and train the attention to be in the present moment. Your breathing is always in the present moment.
Then the next instruction has to do with mindfulness of the body and the body is also always in the present. Your body is not going to be anywhere else, so if you are connected to your body, you are connected to the present moment. And much of our life is expressed through our body so being embodied is a very helpful practice for cultivating attention. It’s also an antidote to the idea that attention or mindfulness is all about the mind—some disembodied kind of attention. A lot of the attention or awareness we are cultivating could be said to be mediated through the body. The Zen master Dogen talked about the four foundations of mindfulness and he said “Mindfulness of the body is the body’s mindfulness.” So it’s not so much that you’re mindful of the body as it is that the body itself has a sensitivity and awareness. And then in the third week I usually talk about mindfulness of feelings or emotions; a huge part of human life. Then the fourth week is mindfulness of thinking.
So the way I often teach is that these four areas are part of the terrain; the territory being pointed to. What I added this time around was another area that is not just another thing for the mind to focus on. Rather it is, in a sense, to turn the attention around and notice the mind itself—not just the content of the mind, the thoughts and the feelings or something like that—but to turn around and actually look at the quality of the mind, the mood of the mind, the state that the mind is in. And sometimes it’s not so easy to notice the overall state or mood or quality of the mind because we are focusing so much on the details of what’s happening. If there is something that we really want, we might be focusing on the thing that we want. If there is something we’re trying to avoid, we may be focusing on avoiding that thing. But we don’t pay attention to the quality of the mind. Maybe this is somewhat like if you take your hand and want to grasp something because you really want that thing or if you want to push that thing away. You’re focusing on what you are trying to accomplish, not the degree of tension in your hand. And so you might be surprised at the end of the day at how tired your hand is because there might have been a lot of extra effort in the hand in grasping or pushing away. But if you paid attention to what’s happening in the hand, the quality of the muscles in the hands, you might notice: “Oh, there’s a lot of extra tension in the way I grasp or in the way I push. Maybe I didn’t need to do it that way. “ Or “I didn’t even notice I was grasping, look at that.” And so you’re turning away from the objects you want or don’t want and looking at the quality of the mind.
Now to get at this in a little different way: I like to say that there are two things always happening in any given moment. There is what is happening, which is the definition of mindfulness; paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. And there’s also your relationship to what’s happening. So in almost everything that’s going on, we have a relationship to what’s going on. We’re for it or against it. We have some opinions, judgments, ideas about what’s happening. We bring ourself as a certain kind of individual, a sense of self, self-identity. We measure what’s happening according to how it benefits us or how it takes away from us. We come with some motivation, some attitude, something we want. It can be quite beautiful. It could be that what we want is compassion; we want to help someone. So that’s the attitude; that’s the relationship we have. Someone’s suffering and we want to help. Or we see the beautiful bell here at IMC and think, “I want that bell.” There’s the sound of the bell, and the relationship to it is “I want,” “I want something.” So in almost every possible thing we could pay attention to, we can notice that there is also embedded in that, or holding that, or entangled with it, is the way we relate to it, our attitude to it, the way we approach it, what we want, and how we are motivated in relationship to it. And so to turn the attention around or take a backwards step and look: “What’s the relationship I have to this experience?” Or “What’s the attitude I have toward the experience?” And that attitude can be in relationship to the specific aspect of what is happening here and now.
So I’m driving on the freeway and the traffic is slowed down—that’s what’s happening. And then there’s the attitude about slowed traffic on the freeway. And that attitude might be specific to that particular day. I might be late to get somewhere. So there could be the attitude of irritation: “The world is holding me up. Doesn’t the world realize I’m an important person, and I have important places to go?” Or it might be that the attitude comes with a long history of being stuck in traffic on 101. So there is the frustration of having this repeated problem with the traffic. The added frustration is there as well. So it’s not just what’s specific to today but it has to do with the much bigger picture of what is happening. And if we don’t notice the attitude we have to what’s happening, then that attitude can be there and fester. It can build up stress and tension. And one of the things many of you can realize is that when relatively mild tension or stress is chronically held or chronically reinforced throughout the day, it can build and build and build. And even though it is innocent enough in the moment having it build up all through the day can result at the end of the day in a lot of tension or a headache.
So there is a specific attitude and the same thing in meditation practice. And in meditation practice, in particular, I’ve found that for many people and also for myself, I can be very focused on the instructions: “I’m supposed to be with the breath. Oh there is a pain. Oh I have to be with the pain, pay attention to the pain. Oh there’s an emotion. I’m supposed to be with the emotion, that’s what I was told to do. Pay attention to the emotion, feel that emotion. Oh there’s thinking. Look at thinking.” So I’m engaged in focusing in this way and it might not occur to me to turn around and look at how I’m focusing. What is the attitude with the focus? Because the way of focusing is not the practice, the practice is to look at the breath, right? But actually how we’re looking, how we’re paying attention, how we’re present, the attitude that comes with it, is a very important part of the mindfulness practice. And I’ve known a lot of people for whom, especially on longer retreats, it becomes obvious that they have an attitude about how to be mindful or how to pay attention which is a little bit off. And in practicing half an hour or an hour every morning meditating at home, that little attitude, the stresses of that attitude, the fault, the weakness of that attitude, does not stand out enough. But try meditating all day for several days in a row or a week and the weak links begin to crack or break.
So I’ve had the experience on my early retreats where I went in with an attitude about meditation that was “Me, me, the great doer, the great agent, the great successful meditator. I am in charge here and I’m going to get concentrated and I’m going to focus on the breath and really zero in.” I ‘d been meditating at home for 40 minutes at a time and basically I was kind of stressed out and just the fact that I stopped and wasn’t running around with my life was relaxing. I just was unwinding a little bit. And I took credit for it because “I’m the one who is meditating, I’m the good concentrator, look what I did.” But I didn’t do anything. I just stopped and my muscles relaxed. So I took credit for it. Then I would go on retreat and that initial relaxing would settle away and the attitude of “Me! I’m supposed to concentrate. I’m the one who concentrates,” was still operating. And that attitude just didn’t work for getting settled, getting peaceful, really being present in a quality way. And so on retreat this stood out and was highlighted for me in a very painful way. It didn’t occur to me to turn the attention around and look at my attitude. And so in my unfortunate circumstances, I had to burn and crash. Meditation is not usually associated with burning and crashing but you know I burned and crashed finally because I was trying so hard to push and push and trying to focus. The more I tried, the less it worked, and so finally I just gave up. And when I gave up that’s when the meditation started. That’s when it began unfolding for me.
So that’s a rather unfortunate story to illustrate that it is possible to ignore the attitude because you’re trying to accomplish something. I think that meditation practice unfolds much more peacefully, much more smoothly, if periodically (not every minute) you turn around and see: “What’s my attitude? What’s my approach? What’s my relationship to the meditation? What’s my relationship to the breath, to myself, as I’m doing this?” Include that in the field of what’s happening. And the relationship and attitude we have is also connected to the overall state of the mind.
And I would say that in Buddhist spirituality, the heart of Buddhism, is not so much about what is happening in terms of the breath, the feelings, the thoughts, or about sounds or whatever we say that’s happening. The heart of Buddhism really lies in the relationship we have to whatever is happening. That means that, at least in a sense, we’re not trying to change what’s happening. We’re trying to discover a new relationship that is healthy, wholesome, and ultimately a relationship that is liberated or freed. So we’re always trying to go back and look, that’s where the heart of it is—in the relationship. The relationship we have, the attitude we have to what is going on, is so central to who we are that, in my interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha, this is called “the mind.” The mind is characterized by this attitude or relationship we have to our experience.
The word for mind or mind-state is “citta” and citta in Buddhist language also means heart or it can mean heart-mind or mind-heart. I like this because if you say mind; for some people that doesn’t seem very warm. But if you say heart; for people that is core or central to who they want to be, who they are. Citta is central to the third foundation of mindfulness that the Buddha taught. The third foundation of mindfulness was not thinking or emotions. (Some people think that I’m teaching the Four Foundations of Mindfulness when I teach breath, body, feelings, and thoughts in the Intro Class. That is not actually the case, even though there happen to be four.) The Buddha has different foundations and the third foundation of mindfulness for the Buddha is mindfulness of the citta or the mind-state, the overall state or attitude that characterizes the mind. And that attitude is sometimes specific to a particular event but sometimes an attitude of the mind is actually much more like a disposition that we carry with us regardless of what’s happening in the moment. So there might be an attitude of impatience. Regardless of where you go that sense of impatience is there with you. Or there might be an attitude of aversion and so no matter where we are that aversion is there. And perhaps even though a particular moment is characterized by desire or delight in a particular thing, the background mood is still there—a background mood of aversion. It may be masked for the moment, but give it half a chance and it will resurface. There could be a background mood of compassion or kindness that may not be operating in the moment because it is superseded by something in the moment. But if that thing in the moment goes away then the background attitude comes back to this default of compassion. So where does the mind go as a default? What’s the background attitude that we have? And this background attitude is for some people at the heart of what makes them tick; what motivates their life; and for many people, what causes suffering. It is where people are trapped or caught in their suffering or in their life. So to turn around and look at the attitude is not just to look at the attitude of the moment but if you are stable and calm and begin to look clearly, it begins to surface and show an underlying attitude that might be very pervasive.
When I taught this subject in my Intro Class on Wednesday, there was someone who spoke up and said that he was surprised to realize that fear or anxiety was always there for him. He had no idea. He knew there was an issue in his life around anxiety, but he had no idea that it was always there. And that’s not uncommon for people to come and tell me that they were surprised to discover a background attitude or mood. Sometimes what’s there in the background is not so healthy or helpful. It also can be connected to a belief—a belief about what the world is like. It can be a belief that the world is a threatening a place, or a belief that to be successful in life you have to have a lot of things, or you have to look smart, or you have to look beautiful, or people have to like you, or a belief that the world is here to serve you or the world is here to benefit you. The attitude is often connected to beliefs about ourselves.
So in the teachings of the Buddha, it is the third foundation of mindfulness that focuses on this quality of the mind, the state of the mind, or the overall mood. So the way that this is talked about in the ancient instruction is: “How does a person abide mindful of the mind as mind? Here a person understands mind affected by lust as mind affected by lust and the mind unaffected by lust as a mind unaffected by lust.” Lust can be expanded to include greed or craving or desire. So there can be a strong desire that is not just a desire of the moment, the particular thing in the mind, but actually colors the whole mind. The whole mind is suffused with this attitude of desire, a background of desire, filled with desire. You can see people sometimes and notice “Wow, that person’s on fire with lust. Look at that! It’s so obvious, and he doesn’t even realize it.” So it’s not just simply a desire that arises for the moment but a desire that colors the whole state. So it’s possible to know for oneself when craving or clinging or lust is present and to know when it’s not. “One understands a mind affected by hate as mind affected by hate and the mind unaffected by hate as a mind unaffected by hate.”
So there is a dichotomy being looked at; the presence and absence; either it’s there or it’s not there. You can’t be partially pregnant they say. So either there is desire in the mind or there’s not desire. There’s not partial desire because partial desire is desire. The instruction here is simply to notice the presence and absence of these things. And it’s very instructive that it doesn’t say “Notice the mind is characterized by lust, and then criticize yourself for that.” It doesn’t say “Notice the mind is filled with hate and then hate yourself for that, or justify the hatred.” It is very simple—just notice the presence and absence. And there is an advantage in noticing the absence. Absence is kind of a strange thing, because absence is like nothing is there, right? You’re supposed to pay attention to what’s there. But if something has been present for a while—a strong mood or mental state or attitude—it’s very helpful or instructive to get a sense of what the mind feels like when it’s not there. And for one thing, knowing when it’s not there, really recognizing, “Oh it’s not there now” reinforces the value of it not being there. Perhaps you can feel that when the mind is not driven by hate, when the hate is no longer there, there is a higher quality of mind. It’s a more satisfying mind, a more peaceful mind. And so it’s nice to see what the mind is like when it’s not filled with hate. Then when the hate reappears, that contrast helps to highlight it, helps you understand more deeply what’s going on. Also, the more you can appreciate the absence of something, the more it’s like getting a massage. You’re getting used to the experience of not being caught in the grip of a particular mood or attitude.
So then it goes on and says “One understands a mind affected by delusion is a mind affected by delusion, and a mind unaffected by delusion as a mind unaffected by delusion, and one understands a contracted mind as a contracted mind and a distracted mind as a distracted mind.” So it’s possible to sit down to meditate for example, and realize, “Wow, my mind is really distracted.” And 5 minute later “Oh, yeah, I’m really distracted today. That was 5 minutes where I wasn’t even present.” So then you can get curious. What does a distracted mind feel like? And this is as opposed to criticizing and pushing it away and “Oh I’m not supposed to be distracted, I’m supposed to be focused on the breath.” Maybe the breath is not the point. The important place now is to turn the attention around to look at the quality of the mind or the heart and see “Oh, the quality is one of distractibility, of being contracted, being scattered, being fragmented.” And then to take that in because taking it in, feeling it, being present for it, helps us to not be caught in the midst of it, caught in the grip of it. Taking it in is, in some degree, healing. And the way I like to describe that is that if we give our system space, air, room, then things have a chance to unfold, unravel, dissolve, evolve in whatever way that they are supposed to evolve, dissolve, unravel. But if we’re claustrophobic in the mind, if we’re so preoccupied and concerned, upset, and pushing it away, and lost in thought, there’s no room for things to unwind. And mindfulness has the function of creating room in the mind, space in the mind. So if you notice, “Oh this is a distracted mind” and you step back and make room for that and stay present and feel what that is like, then you are making room and perhaps that distracted mind can settle itself, can relax.
And then it goes on: “One understands an exalted mind as exalted mind and an unexalted mind as an unexalted mind.” And exalted mind is translated as a mind that is starting to get concentrated and is coming into a little bit of an altered state. Not in its normal state of being distracted or preoccupied, the mind has become spacious, light, open, soft, and malleable. So the quality of the mind is beginning to shift to a higher quality of heart or mind. And you can know “Oh this is a good quality.” And I would say, the most precious thing that any of us has is the quality of our mind, the good quality of our mind or our heart. And the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen in this universe of ours is not art, is not some beautiful thing in nature, not looking deep into the galaxies in the beautiful way we can these days. But rather, the most beautiful thing I’ve seen is the purified heart, the liberated heart, a settled, peaceful heart. And I think that’s something that all of us have access to, something that is a possibility for all of us.
I remember a little story. When I went to Nepal to practice I had very little money. I think I had $300 to my name. There I was in Nepal to practice. I’d gone to Asia for the duration. It was the end of the line for me. Nothing else had any meaning for me. I was gone to practice. And the teacher that I wanted to practice with was doing a month-long retreat in Nepal and so I went there to practice with him with my $300. I had a few days to wait before the retreat started so I was walking around Kathmandu. In Kathmandu, they have these kind of tourist shops that sell a lot of Buddhist art. And in the windows is Buddhist art and there was one window where there was a statue of the Buddha that really spoke to me. It really struck me. It was $100. And so I went around for a couple of days, “Should I buy it? It really speaks to me. It’s meaningful for me.” So I was going around debating in my mind about spending a third of my wealth to buy a Buddha. “That seems too much.” So I was wandering. Then lo and behold out of the blue something happened. I made a phone call back to Berkeley where my girlfriend lived and her roommate said, “Oh. She left yesterday for Nepal to be with you.” I said, “Oh. Kathmandu is big.” How do you find Gil? How was she supposed to find me? And so I went out to the airport and put a big note on the bulletin board hoping that she’d see it. And eventually we were connected. So she showed up but she had even less money than I did. And so here we were, the two of us in Kathmandu, and me thinking about buying this Buddha. And then my decision was that I would not buy the Buddha because the most beautiful thing I knew was a purified heart. And I would save my money to help her so she could practice in Asia. I think that’s a nice story!
So to know the beauty of one’s own heart. So to be the caretaker, the custodian of your own heart, of your own mind. To take it seriously. It’s a really precious resource, a precious part of who we are, and it’s very easy to take it for granted. It’s very easy to lose touch with it. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day concerns. Even in meditation it’s easy to get caught up in the ideas we have about what’s supposed to be happening and to get caught up trying to accomplish something and to not take in, or stay aware of, the quality of this heart-mind that’s always here. The heart-mind always has a quality, almost always has an attitude, and almost always has a relationship to the details or to the big picture. There is an attitude or relationship to life itself or what our life is about or who we are. So to inquire what is this attitude, what is this relationship that we have, what is this quality of mind-heart that’s here. And then it’s important to remember that the instructions that the Buddha gave place no emphasis whatsoever on judging or criticizing or being upset with what you see. It’s really a phenomenal thing, it’s really an amazing thing, to just see how it is to be present and to see clearly. It’s so phenomenal to see clearly without judgment, without criticism, without trying to change it. I understand that kind of seeing as a kind of love, so even if what we see within us is unfortunate and maybe does not speak very well about who we are or what’s going on, there’s a way of being present for that, seeing it, and allowing it to be there. Seeing it very clearly, and not being caught in it is actually an act of love in relationship to what we see. And slowly, I believe that what will happen is that we keep coming back, and trying to find that place of being present, and seeing the attitude that we have. We step back and we see the attitude, a very little bit at first perhaps. We’re stepping out of the gravitational pull, out of the orbit of that attitude. We’re not caught by it and the act of seeing helps us to step out of it and because we’re not in it, the unhealthy attitudes and approaches begin to settle away, relax away, and amazingly enough, as we step back, the beautiful qualities of the mind-heart have a chance to shine and grow and become bigger and bigger. One of the miracles of the human heart is that the act of attention—careful steady, ongoing mindfulness—has a way of unraveling those forces in the heart that cause suffering, and tends to augment or feed or nourish those forces in the heart that are the best in us.
So your attitude, your relationship, and the quality of your mind are part of the introductory instructions in mindfulness. So we have a few minutes. Does anyone have any questions or comments? Now I wonder what attitude is out there. What relationship do you have with this?
Student 1: Thank you. So I get what you’re saying and why it’s important. What I don’t get is how you examine the attitude except maybe through the first four things. Maybe by becoming aware of those things, you can understand or get that attitude.
Gil: Great. Thank you. Yes, I think that the more that we’ve cultivated mindfulness of breath, body, emotions, and thoughts, the more access we have to noticing the attitude. The attitude is often in some degree being manifested through those things. So the more embodied we are, the more we can notice the feeling tone. So these instructions are all closely connected. But for some people it is possible, if they are sensitive enough, to turn around and look at the quality of the mindfulness. Being mindful and noticing what’s here sometimes comes together with baggage. Being mindful sometimes comes together with other approaches or attitudes. So there might be a sense of trying to push, or of pressure in the mind, or resistance, or “Oh no, I don’t want to pay attention to that.” So a feeling of pulling back. Or the mind is contracted. Sometimes I feel like my mind is really tight and small, it’s caught up in a little world of concerns. Sometimes my mind is bigger than this room. It’s like “Wow, I can handle anything. Bring it on. It’s so big, there’s space for everything.” And that sense of space is there. Is that helpful?
Student 2: Kind of on the same topic of the contracted versus the expanded mind: It’s easy to be expanded when you are in a group like this. People are positive and you’re talking about purified mind and you can get in the mood and really feel it. And then you go visit some friends who are making $20,000 a year and they’re really struggling. And you’re trying to say “But if you just had a purified mind you would be happy. “ It’s really hard to maintain that sense of openness and beauty when people are really suffering. So you feel like pulling in and not sharing because you’re going to make them feel bad or inadequate. How do you maintain the expansiveness when other people are suffering?
Gil: So again, we want to look at our attitude. It could be that we have a wonderful, expansive mind and the attitude towards that expansive mind is “I want to keep this. I want this. This is important. I finally got it. And everyone should have this.” There can be an attitude like that. So I think for you, rather than trying to maintain it, I think what’s more important is to bring mindfulness to what’s happening for you in those kinds of situations. What attitudes, what relationship do you have, to their pain, their suffering, their demands? What attitude and relationship to where you’re at? What beliefs do you have connected to it? Try to understand what’s going on with you. Probably there’s a lot to unpack, to understand about yourself, in that relationship. And it might take awhile to unpack everything that’s going on but until you unpack it you might not be able to go into those situations without being pulled into something or getting hooked. So how are you getting hooked? For me, one of the ways I’ve gotten hooked plenty of times is my sense of responsibility, my Achilles heel, my sense of responsibility. I’m responsible somehow for this person’s well-being so I have to get in there, adjust, and fix. So I’ve had to learn to have an appropriate sense of responsibility. Partly, for me, that’s meant to back away from feeling responsible for other peoples’ suffering. I can try to be helpful but I’m not responsible.
Student 2: But can you go into that situation—for example, you know that if they had a better understanding of finances and how to plan their money better, they would do better and they would feel better. But they aren’t ready for that, so you say “Well okay I can’t help them.” Can you still feel compassionate and mindful of their suffering if you make the decision that you can’t help them?
Gil: If you really can’t help them, you would feel a lot better accepting that as fact than trying to help them knowing you can’t. Right? So yes, you could still have a lot of compassion and care for them but realize regardless of your care and compassion and your willingness to help you can’t help right now. I can’t help them figure out their finances, but what can I do? Maybe it’s enough to be there and empathic with them. Maybe it’s enough to tell them “This is really hard. I’m sorry for you.” Maybe it’s enough just to sit there on the couch with them and cry. This is really hard and no one’s every cried with them. “Oh, this is more serious than I thought. Maybe I better do something; someone’s crying.”
So the Buddhist practice that’s most connected to what you’re talking about here is equanimity. And the practice of equanimity is the practice of staying balanced or non-reactive in a situation where we can’t make a difference. We have to realize that other people are responsible for their choices and even if we’re trying to help or even if we have other wishes for them, we’re not going to be caught, reactively, by the choices they make.
Student 2: Then the last piece. How do you truly convince yourself you’re trying because saying “I can’t” is always easier because then you can stop. How do you convince yourself that you really, honestly are being expansive and have done the most you can do, rather than “Well, I tried for a couple of hours and that’s the most I feel like for today so now I’ll decide I can’t and so I’ll quit.”
Gil: It’s hard. I wish there were easy solutions to life and I think that sometimes it takes a lot of attention to ourselves. I think the more mindful you are, the more you can pick up the cues in your own heart and mind to know what’s going on with you. And so at least you’re not messing up the scene or yourself. You’re coming as clean as you can be to the situation. That’s helpful. Try to do your work. And it sometimes takes years to be clean enough to go into very difficult situations. And so then it’s a matter of trying to do the very best we can. And sometimes doing the best we can, we do together with help from others. So you’re asking here, but perhaps going for a walk with a friend, or talking with a therapist about these kinds of dynamics. Try to get to the bottom of some of the important issues for you before you enter into a difficult situation. There’s a lot of things that can be done, and doing them depends on how much time and homework you want to do. Sounds like an important one. Sounds really tricky and difficult and it sounds like it could be really rich for you. It sounds like potentially a great opportunity for you to delve into some of the core beliefs that you have, and that affect the quality of your own heart.
So we should stop now. If some of you would like to come and talk afterwards, that will be fine. I’ll stay a little bit. So I hope that each of you can appreciate how beautiful your heart is when it’s really left alone. Thank you.