Gently revised by Cole Mannella, LoAn Nguyen, and Nicole Kramer
According to Buddhism, there are four elements of true love.
The first is maitri, which can be translated as loving-kindness or benevolence. Loving-kindness is not only the desire to make someone happy, to bring joy to a beloved person; it is the ability to bring joy and happiness to the person you love, because even if your intention is to love this person, your love might make them suffer.
Training is needed in order to love properly; and to be able to give happiness and joy, you must practice deep looking directed toward the person you love. Because if you do not understand this person, you cannot love properly. Understanding is the essence of love. If you cannot understand, you cannot love. If a person, for example, does not understand their partner’s deepest troubles, their deepest aspirations, if the person does not understand their partner’s suffering, that person will not be able to love their partner in the right way. Without understanding, love is impossible.
What must we do to understand a person? We must have time; we must practice looking deeply into this person. We must be there, attentive; we must observe, we must look deeply. And the fruit of this looking deeply is called understanding. Love is a true thing if it is made up of a substance called understanding.
The second element of true love is compassion, karuna. This is not only the desire to ease the pain of another person, but the ability to do so. You must practice deep looking in order to be able to help them. Knowledge and understanding are always at the root of the practice. The practice of understanding is the practice of meditation.
To meditate is to look deeply into the heart of things.
The third element of true love is joy, mudita. If there is no joy in love, it is not true love. If you are suffering all the time, and if you make the person you love suffer, this is not really love - it is even the opposite. If there is no joy in your love, you can be sure that it is not true love.
The fourth element is upeksha, equanimity or freedom. In true love, you attain freedom. When you love, you bring freedom to the person you love. If the opposite is true, it is not true love. You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”
TO LOVE, IN THE CONTEXT OF BUDDHISM, IS above all to be there. But being there is not an easy thing. Some training is necessary, some practice. If you are not there, how can you love? Being there is very much an art, the art of meditation, because meditating is bringing your true presence to the here and now. The question that arises is: Do you have time to love?
I know a child of twelve whose parent asked them one day: “Child, what would you like for your birthday gift?” The child did not know how to answer the parent, who was a very rich person, able to buy anything for the child. But the child did not want anything except their parent’s presence. Because the role the parent played kept them very busy, the parent did not have time to devote to their partner and children. Being rich is an obstacle to loving. When you are rich, you want to continue to be rich, and so you end up devoting all your time, all your energy in your daily life, to staying rich. If this parent were to understand what true love is, this parent would do whatever is necessary to find time for their child and their partner.
The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. What must we do to really be there? Those who have practiced Buddhist meditation know that meditating is above all being present: to yourself, to those you love, to life.
So I would propose a very simple practice to you, the practice of mindful breathing: “Breathing In, I know that I am breathing in; breathing Out, I know that I am breathing out.” If you do that with a little concentration, then you will be able to really be there, because in our daily life our mind and our body are rarely together. Our body might be there, but our mind is somewhere else. Maybe you are lost in regrets about the past, maybe in worries about the future, or else you are preoccupied with your plans, with anger or with jealousy. And so your mind is not really there with your body.
Between the mind and the body, there is something that can serve as a bridge. The moment you begin to practice mindful breathing, your body and your mind begin to come together with one another. It takes only ten to twenty seconds to accomplish this miracle called oneness of body and mind. With mindful breathing, you can bring body and mind together in the present moment, and every one of us can do it, even a child.
The Buddha left us an absolutely essential text, the Anapanasati Sutta, or Discourse on the Practice of Mindful Breathing. If you really want to practice Buddhist meditation, you must study this text.
If the parent I was talking about had known that, this parent would have begun to breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and then one or two minutes later, they would have approached their child, would have looked at their child with a smile, and would have said this: “My dear child, I am here for you.” This is the greatest gift you can give to someone you love.
In Buddhism we talk about mantras. A mantra is a magic formula that, once it is uttered, can entirely change a situation, our mind, our body, or a person. But this magic formula must be spoken in a state of concentration, that is to say, a state in which body and mind are absolutely in a state of unity. What you say then, in this state of being, becomes a mantra.
So I am going to present to you a very effective mantra, not in Sanskrit or Tibetan, but in English: “Dear one, I am here for you.” Perhaps this evening you will try for a few minutes to practice mindful breathing in order to bring your body and mind together. You will approach the person you love and with this mindfulness, with this concentration, you will look into their eyes, and you will begin to utter this formula: “Dear one, I am really here for you.” You must say that with your body and with your mind at the same time, and then you will see the transformation.
Do you have enough time to love? Can you make sure that in your everyday life you have a little time to love? We do not have much time together; we are too busy. In the morning while eating breakfast, we do not look at the person we love, we do not have enough time for it. We eat very quickly while thinking about other things, and sometimes we even hold a newspaper that hides the face of the person we love. In the evening when we come home, we are too tired to be able to look at the person we love.
We must bring about a revolution in our way of living our everyday lives, because our happiness, our lives, are within ourselves.
I WOULD NOW LIKE TO PRESENT A SECOND mantra to you. When you are really there, you have the ability to recognize the presence of the other. To be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other is the second step. To love is to recognize; to be loved is to be recognized by the other. If you love someone and you continue to ignore their presence, this is not true love. Perhaps your intention is not to ignore this person, but the way you act, look, and speak does not manifest the desire to recognize the presence of the other. When we are loved, we wish the other to recognize our presence, and this is a very important practice. You must do whatever is necessary to be able to do this: recognize the presence of the person you love several times each day.
To attain this goal, it is also necessary to practice oneness of body and mind. Practice an inbreath and an outbreath three times, five times, seven times; then you approach this person, you look at them mindfully, with a smile, and you begin to say the second mantra: “Dear one, I know that you are here, and it makes me very happy.” If you practice in this way, with a lot of concentration and mindfulness, you will see that this person will open immediately, like a flower blossoming. To be loved is to be recognized, and you can do that several times a day. It is not difficult at all, and it is a true meditation.
Whatever you do mindfully is meditation. When you touch a flower, you can touch it with your fingers, but better yet, you can touch it mindfully, with your full awareness. “Breathing in—I know that the flower is there; breathing out—I smile at the flower.” While you are practicing in this way, you are really there and at the same time, the flower is really there. If you are not really there, nothing is there. The sunset is something marvelous and so is the full moon, but since you are not really there, the sunset is not for you. From time to time, I let myself look at the full moon; I take a deep breath in and a deep breath out, and I practice: “I know you are there, and I am very glad about it.” I practice that with the full moon, with the cherry blossoms . . . We are surrounded by miracles, but we have to recognize them; otherwise there is no life.
The Buddha told us this: “The past is no longer there, the future is not here yet; there is only one moment in which life is available and that is the present moment.” To meditate is to bring body and mind back to the present moment so that you do not miss your appointment with life.
Albert Camus wrote a novel, The Stranger, in which his character, Meursault, is condemned to death. Three days before his execution, he is able for the first time in his life to touch the blue sky. He is in his cell, he is looking at the ceiling. He discovers a square of blue sky appearing through the skylight. Strangely enough, a person forty years of age is able to see the blue sky for the first time. Of course, he had looked at the stars and the blue sky more than once before, but this time it was for real. We might not know how to touch the blue sky in such a profound way. The moment of awareness Camus describes is mindfulness: Suddenly you are able to touch life.
In Buddhism, the energy that helps us to touch life deeply is called smrti, the energy of mindfulness. Everyone possesses a seed (bija) of this energy. If we practice mindful breathing, we can generate this energy.
When you breathe in, you recognize at that moment that this is an inbreath; when you breathe out, you are aware of the fact that this is an outbreath. Recognizing what is there in the present moment is attention. That is the energy of mindfulness. So then, with this mantra, you are going to practice recognizing the presence of the person you love: “Dear one, I know that you are there and it makes me very happy.”
This is real meditation. In this particular meditation, all at once there is love, compassion, joy, and freedom —the four constituents of the true love of which the Buddha speaks.
THE THIRD MANTRA IS USED IN CIRCUMSTANCES in which the person you love is suffering. When you are living mindfully, you know what is happening in your situation in the present moment. Therefore it is easy for you to notice when the person you love is suffering. At such a time you go to them, with your body and mind unified, with concentration, and you utter the third mantra: “Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you.” Because when we are suffering, we have a strong need for the presence of the person we love. If we are suffering and the person we love ignores us, then we suffer more. So what we can do—right away—is to manifest our true presence to the beloved person and say the mantra with all our mindfulness: “Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you.” Even before you actually do something to help, the person you love is relieved. Your presence is a miracle, your understanding of their pain is a miracle, and you are able to offer this aspect of your love immediately.
Really try to be there, for yourself, for life, for the people that you love. Recognize the presence of those who live in the same place as you and try to be there when one of them is suffering, because your presence is so precious for this person. In this way you will be practicing love twenty-four hours a day.
THE FOURTH MANTRA IS MORE DIFFICULT to practice. It has to do with a situation in which you are suffering yourself and you think that your suffering has been created by the person you love most in the world. If it had been someone else who had said that to you or done that to you, without a doubt you would be suffering less. But in this case, it is the person I love most in the world who said that to me, who did that to me, and I am suffering more. I am deeply hurt by the fact that my suffering was caused by the person I love the most. I feel like going to my room, closing the door, staying by myself, and crying. I refuse to go to them to ask for help. So now it is pride that is the obstacle.
According to the teaching of the Buddha, in true love there is no place for pride. If you are suffering, every time you are suffering you must go to the person in question and ask for their help. That is true love. Do not let pride keep you apart. If you think your love for this person is true love, you must overcome your pride; you must always go to them. That is why I have invented this mantra for you. Practice so as to bring about oneness of your body and mind before going to the person to say the fourth mantra: “Dear one, I am suffering, please help.” This is very simple, but very hard to do.
I would like to tell you a story from my country. A young man went off to war, leaving his pregnant partner behind. Two years later, he was able to return home, and his partner went to him bringing with her their young child to meet him for the first time. They cried together out of joy. In Vietnam, in our tradition, when an event of this kind takes place, it has to be announced to the ancestors along with placing an offering on their altar. Such an altar is found in every house. Each morning we burn a stick of incense to our ancestors on this altar, and in this way we make a connection with them. Burning this incense, adorning the altar with photographs of our ancestors, and dusting the shrine off are very important gestures. These are moments in which we come in contact with our ancestors. There are people living in the world who are completely uprooted because they do not practice such a turning toward their ancestors.
So the young woman went out to the market to buy the things needed for the offering to be placed on the altar to the ancestors. While she was gone, her partner was at home trying to convince their child to call him Daddy. The little child refused: “You’re not Daddy. Daddy is somebody else. He visits us every night and Mommy talks to him every night, and very often she cries with him. And every time Mommy sits down, he sits down too. Every time she lies down, he lies down too.” After the young man heard these words, his happiness entirely evaporated. His heart turned into a block of ice. He felt hurt, deeply humiliated, and that is why, when his partner came home, he would no longer look at her or speak a word to her. He ignored her. Then she began to suffer; she felt humiliated, hurt. When the offering was placed on the altar, the young man burned the incense, recited the prayers to the ancestors, and did the four traditional prostrations. Then he picked the mat up instead of leaving it there for his partner so she could do the four prostrations in her turn. In his mind he thought that she was not qualified to present herself before the ancestors, and she was humiliated by this.
After the ceremony, the young man didn’t stay at the house to eat but went to the village and spent the day in a bar. He tried to forget his suffering by drinking alcohol, and he did not come back to the house until very late at night. The following day, it was the same thing, and this went on for several days in a row. The young woman could not take it anymore. Her suffering was so great that in the end she threw herself in the river and drowned.
When the young man heard this news, he returned to the house, and that night he was the one who went to get the lamp and lit it. Suddenly the child cried out: “Look! It’s Daddy, he’s come back!” And he pointed to the shadow of his parent on the wall. “You know, Daddy comes every night. Mommy talks to him and sometimes she cries; and every time she sits down Daddy sits down too.” In reality, the young woman had been alone in the house too much and every night she had talked to her shadow: “My dear one, you are so far away from me. How can I raise our child all by myself? . . . You must come back home soon.” She would cry, and of course every time she sat down, the shadow would also sit down. Now the young man’s false perception was no longer there, but it was too late—his partner was already dead. A misperception is something that can destroy an entire family. The Buddha told us a number of times that we are subject to misperceptions in our everyday life. Therefore we have to pay close attention to our perceptions. There are people who hang on to their misperceptions for ten or twenty years, and during this time they continue to suffer and make other people suffer.
Why did the young man not want to talk this thing over with his partner? Because pride got in between them. If he had asked his partner: “Who is this person who came every night? Our child told me about him. I am suffering so much, my darling, you have to help me. Explain to me who this person is.” If he had done that, his partner would have had a chance to explain, and the drama could have been avoided. However, it was not only his fault, but that of the young woman as well. She could have come to him and asked him the reason for his change in attitude: “darling why don’t you look at me anymore, why don’t you talk to me? Have I done something awful that I deserve such treatment? I am suffering so much, my love, you have to help me.”
She did not do this, and I do not want you to make the same mistake in your everyday life. We are subject to misperceptions every day, so we have to pay attention. Every time you think it is somebody else who is causing the suffering, you must remember this story. You must always check things out by going to the person in question and asking for their help: “Dear one, I am suffering so much, help me please.”
YOU HAVE RECEIVED THE TRANSMISSION of the four mantras for the practice of true love. You know that it is not difficult to practice these mantras. You should learn them by heart, and you must have the courage, the wisdom, and the joy to practice them.
But if the situation has already become extremely difficult, what can you do? What can you do if love has already caused too much suffering between the two of you? For appearances, you behave so that others will think that you two are still living together and that you still find joy in living together, but in reality there is no more joy, there is no more happiness, there isn’t even communication anymore. You have lost the capacity to listen and to speak. Communication has become difficult, in fact impossible. What can you do in a situation like this? The two of you have been living together and making each other suffer.
According to Buddhism, we are dealing with samyojana, the lump of suffering within us that is translated as an “internal formation.” When you say something that makes another person suffer, that person develops an “internal formation.” If that person is trained in Buddhism, they will know how to untie that knot. If not, they will let it remain there in the depths of their consciousness. If you are a person who practices mindfulness, you will be aware that a knot has been formed in the person you love and you will know how to untie it.
Every day we say or do things that might leave behind “internal formations” in the person we love. Following that, then the suffering and pain can grow, and the person we love turns into something like a bomb that might explode at any moment. A few words are all it takes to trigger anger in this person, who you are afraid to approach and who you are afraid to talk to because they have become a bomb loaded with too much suffering. When you try to get away from them, this person thinks that you do so out of contempt and their suffering increases. You also have become a bomb, because you have lost the ability to speak the language of peace, of understanding. You have lost the ability to listen, and so all communication has become impossible.
In Buddhism we talk about a bodhisattva called Avalokiteshvara, the one who has the ability to listen and to understand the suffering of others. If we evoke her name, it is in order to learn to listen.
In everyday life, deep listening, attentive listening, is a meditation. If you know the practice of mindful breathing, if you wish to maintain calm and living compassion within you, then deep listening will be possible.
Through the practice of walking meditation, through sitting meditation, through mindful breathing, we can cultivate calm, we can cultivate awareness, and we can cultivate compassion—and that way we will be able to sit there and listen to the other. The other suffers as long as they are in need of someone to listen to them; and you—you are the person who can do it. If someone has to have recourse to a psychotherapist, it is because no one in their house can listen. A psychotherapist should be able to sit there and really listen, but I know therapists who have suffered too much and do not truly have the ability to listen to their clients.
So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person. An hour spent in this way can already relieve a great deal of another person’s pain. In Plum Village, our practice place, deep listening is a very important practice. Every week we get together once or twice to practice listening deeply to each other. As we listen, we do not say anything; we breathe deeply and we open our hearts in order to really listen to one another. One hour of this kind of listening is very effective, and it is something very precious that can be offered to the person you love.
ASSOCIATED WITH THE PRACTICE of deep listening is the practice of loving speech. We must learn to speak with love again. This is a thing that can be done in a practice community where siblings practice loving speech every day.
There are pacifists who can write protest letters of great condemnation but who are incapable of writing a love letter. You have to write in such a way that the other person is receptive toward reading; you have to speak in such a way that the other person is receptive toward listening. If you do not, it is not worth the trouble to write or to speak. To write in such a way is to practice meditation.
I remember a young American who came to us to practice. One day he was asked to write a letter to his mother, which was easy for him. On the other hand, it was impossible for him to write a letter to his father. His father had died, but he still suffered every time he thought of him. Just the idea of picking up a pen to write to his father already caused him a great deal of suffering.
I proposed the following practice to him. For one week he practiced mindful breathing, saying to himself, “Breathing in—I see myself as a child of five.” When one is a little child of five, one is very fragile and vulnerable. As he was breathing in, he saw himself as the object of his own compassion. During the second week, he meditated on his father: “Breathing in—I see my dad as a little child of five; breathing out—I smile at the little boy who was my dad.”
For a whole week, the young American practiced very faithfully and very enthusiastically. He put a photo of his father on the table and every time he walked into the room and looked at it, he practiced mindful breathing. He had never imagined that his father could have been a child of five. Suddenly the young man acknowledged the presence of his father as a little boy. It was the first time that he realized that his father had suffered as a little boy, and suddenly he felt compassion. Finally one evening he found it possible to write a first letter to his father. That transformed him completely, and now he has peace in his heart.
Meditation is the practice of looking deeply into the nature of your suffering and your joy. Through the energy of mindfulness, through concentration, looking deeply into the nature of our suffering makes it possible for us to see the deep causes of that suffering. If you can keep mindfulness and concentration alive, then looking deeply will reveal to you the true nature of your pain. And freedom will arise as a result of your sustaining a deep vision into the nature of your pain. Solidity, freedom, calm, and joy are the fruits of meditation.
DURING THE DAY , if you practice walking meditation, each step brings you back to the present moment; each step enables you to touch what is beautiful, what is true. And in this way, after a few weeks of practice, joy will become something possible, you will be able to undo many knots within yourself, and you will be able to transform negative energies into joy and peace. The Buddha said this: “The object of your practice should first of all be yourself. Your love for the other, your ability to love another person, depends on your ability to love yourself.” If you are not able to take care of yourself, if you are not able to accept yourself, how could you accept another person and how could you love them? So it is necessary to come back to yourself in order to be able to achieve the transformation.
Each of us is a monarch who reigns over a very vast territory that has five rivers. The first river is our body, which we do not know well enough. The second is the river of sensations. Each sensation is a drop of water in this river. There are pleasant sensations, others that are unpleasant, and neutral sensations. To meditate is to sit down on the bank of the river of sensations and identify each sensation as it arises. The third is the river of perceptions, which it is necessary to observe. You must look deeply into their nature in order to understand. The fourth is the river of mental formations, of which there are fifty-one. And finally, the fifth is the river of consciousness.
Our territory is really very vast, but we are not responsible monarchs. We always try to dodge away and we do not keep up a real surveillance of our territory. We have the feeling that there are immense conflicts there, too much suffering, too much pain—that is the reason we are very hesitant to get back to our territory. Our daily practice consists in running away. If we have a moment free, we will make use of it to watch television or read a magazine article so we will not have to go back to our territory. We are afraid of the suffering that is inside us, afraid of war and conflicts.
The practice of mindfulness, the practice of meditation, consists of coming back to ourselves in order to restore peace and harmony. The energy with which we can do this is the energy of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of energy that carries with it concentration, understanding, and love. If we come back to ourselves to restore peace and harmony, then helping another person will be a much easier thing.
Caring for yourself, reestablishing peace in yourself, is the basic condition for helping someone else. So that the other can stop being a bomb, a source of pain for ourselves and others, you really have to help them to defuse the bomb. To be able to provide help, we have to have a little calm, a little joy, a little compassion in ourselves. This is what we get from mindfulness in everyday life, because mindfulness is not something that is only done in a meditation hall; it is also done in the kitchen, in the garden, when we are on the telephone, when we are driving a car, when we are doing the dishes.
If you can do it this way, three weeks are enough to transform the pain inside you, to bring back your joy in living, to cultivate the energy of compassion with which you can help the person you love. The practice of being there with what is beautiful and with what is healing is something we should do every day, and it is possible to do this in everyday life.
UNDERSTANDING IS THE FRUIT OF MEDITATION. When we practice deep looking directed toward the heart of reality, we receive help, we receive understanding, we receive the wisdom that makes us free. If there is a deep pain within you, meditate.
Meditating is not trying to run away, trying to ignore the presence of the pain, but on the contrary, it is looking at it face-to-face. You have to practice deep looking directed toward the nature of this pain, because for Buddhists, we are joy, but we are also pain; we are understanding, but we are also ignorance. Meditating is not transforming oneself into a battlefield where one side is fighting another, where good fights against evil. This is not Buddhist meditation. Buddhist meditation is based on the principle of nonduality. This means that if we are mindfulness, if we are love, we are also ignorance, we are also suffering, and there is no reason to suppress anything at all.
When the seed of anger manifests on the level of our conscious mind, our immediate awareness, it is because the seed of anger is in the depths of our consciousness, and then we begin to suffer. Our immediate awareness is something like our living room. The task of the meditator is not to chase away or to suppress the energy of anger that is there but rather to invite another energy that will be able to care for the anger.
You can use the method of mindful breathing to make the seed of this other energy grow inside you. It will then manifest in the form of energy, and this energy will embrace your energy of anger like a parent taking their baby in their arms. Then there is only tenderness, there is no fighting with, or discriminating against, the pain. The purpose of the practice of mindful breathing is to help to give birth to this precious energy called mindfulness and to keep it alive.
We have already spoken of this energy that illuminates us. Mindfulness is like a light, enabling concentration to really be there, and that also makes it possible for us to look deeply into the heart of things. From this looking deeply is born deep vision, understanding. Mindfulness brings concentration, understanding, love, and freedom.
If you are a Christian, you could say that this energy we are talking about is known as the Holy Spirit, the energy that is sent to us by God. Wherever this energy exists, there is attention, understanding, love, compassion. And this energy has the power to heal. Since Jesus embodies this energy, he has the ability to heal whoever he touches. When Jesus touches people, he touches them with the energy of the Holy Spirit. It is not touching his clothing that has the power to heal. We could say that when the energy of compassion and love touches us, healing establishes itself.
In Buddhism we say that mindfulness is the energy of Buddha. The seed of mindfulness is the baby Buddha that is in us. This precious seed can be buried very deeply under several layers of suffering and ignorance. We begin by looking for, by touching, this seed of mindfulness, and everybody knows that all of us have this precious seed in us.
When you drink water, if you are aware of the fact that you are drinking water, mindfulness is there. Mindfulness is the energy that makes it possible for us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment.
When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, mindfulness is there. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. When you are angry and you know that you are angry, mindfulness is there. Anger is one energy, mindfulness is another, and this second kind of energy arises in order to care for the first like a parent caring for their baby.
SO EVERY TIME YOU HAVE AN ENERGY that needs to be transformed, like jealousy or fear, do something to care for this energy, for this negative energy, if you do not want this energy to destroy you. Touch the seed of mindfulness, and then all of its energy will be able to establish itself in your “living room,” like a parent tenderly embracing your pain. With that energy of mindfulness, you are doing the true practice of meditation with regard to your pain, your emotions. If you are able to maintain mindfulness for five or ten minutes, you will experience some relief right away.
When the parent hears their baby crying, they put down whatever they have in their hands, they go into its room, and take the baby in their arms. The moment the baby is lifted into the parent’s arms, the energy of wisdom already begins to penetrate into the baby’s body. The parent does not know yet what is the matter with the baby, but the fact that they have it in their arms already gives their child some relief. The baby stops crying. Then the parent continues to hold the baby in their arms, they continue to offer it the energy of tenderness, and during this time the parent practices deep looking. A parent is a very talented person. They only need two or three minutes to figure out what is the matter with their baby. Maybe its diapers are a little bit too tight; maybe the baby has a touch of fever; maybe it needs a bottle? Then when the understanding comes, the parent can transform the situation immediately.
It is the same thing with meditation. When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. “I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. Breathe— I am taking care of you now.”
You can practice this in a sitting position; you can also practice it doing walking meditation or else lying down, but it is necessary for mindfulness to be there to play the role of parent, of elder sibling. If you are able to keep this up, the result could be there, maybe, in three or four minutes. The next time you are angry, practice doing walking meditation in a natural setting, for example. You breathe and you concentrate solely on breathing: “Breathing in—I know that I am breathing in; breathing out—I know that I am breathing out.” After a minute or two, you practice this way: “Breathing in—I know that I am angry; breathing out—I know that the anger is still in me.” Ten minutes later, you will feel better. It is a sure thing, on condition that the energy of mindfulness is really there; and if you keep it up, concentration—and not only concentration but also deep looking—will also be there. You will be able to look deeply at the true nature of your anger. This discovery, this understanding, this wisdom, will liberate you from your pain.
Buddhist monastics are in the habit of practicing this, not only in connection with anger but also with despair, with fear. Regarding fear, during mindfulness meditation, we can meditate like this: “Breathing in—I know that it is my nature to grow old; breathing out—I know that no one can escape from old age.” We are afraid of old age, and we are also afraid of death. “It is my nature to die; I know that no one can escape death.”
Buddha taught us this, knowing that we carry all the seeds of fear buried deep within us. But we do not want this fear to manifest, because it hurts, and so we repress it. We try to repress our suffering and we invite other energies into our “living room” to fill it up so that the negative energies will not be able to make their appearance there.
A lot of the time we turn on the television, we read novels, we make phone calls—just to keep pain from making its appearance in our “living room.” We practice the politics of subversion, we carry out a kind of boycott toward the negative seeds within us, and after a certain amount of time of doing this we create a situation of bad circulation. You know that when the blood is not circulating well in our body, we experience pains—headaches, for example. So then we try getting massages or taking medicines, because good circulation is essential for our health. The same thing is true with regard to our consciousness. If we practice the politics of repression and suppression, then we create a situation of bad circulation for our mental formations, such as fear, anger, despair, suffering. And because things are not circulating properly in our conscious mind, then the symptoms of mental illness appear: depression and stress.
We should not adopt this boycott policy. On the contrary we should open our door so that our suffering can come out. We are afraid of doing that, but Buddhism teaches us that we should not be afraid, because we have available to us an energy that should help us to care for our pain—the energy of mindfulness.
If we practice cultivating this energy of mindfulness every day, we will have enough of it to take care of our pains. Every time pain manifests, we will welcome it. We will really be there to take care of it, and the energy needed to take care of it is without a doubt the energy of mindfulness: “I am here for you, dear one, I am here for you.” That is one of the four mantras we learned. This means that the parent is there for the baby, the energy of mindfulness is there to embrace the energy of pain.
So we have to train every day in cultivating this energy of mindfulness. But we need friends, siblings in the Dharma, to be able to do this easily. That is why in Buddhism we talk about the practice of taking refuge in the sangha: “I take refuge in the sangha.” The sangha is a practice community in which siblings in the Dharma practice the cultivation of mindfulness daily: when they eat, when they drink, when they wash the dishes, when they work in the garden, when they drive a car—and not just during times of sitting meditation. So it is necessary to have a bit of training and a sangha, that is, a community of practice.
In the tradition it is said that a practitioner who leaves the sangha is like a tiger who has left the mountains and gone down to the plains. If the animal does that, it will be killed by humans; and if the practitioner of meditation does not take refuge in a community, in a sangha, they will abandon his practice after a few months. Thus a sangha is absolutely necessary for continuing one’s practice.
WHEN OUR PAIN COMES UP, IT REMAINS for a period of time at the level of the conscious mind, in our “living room.” After a short stay there, it goes back to its usual habitat, the alaya or store consciousness, where it takes the form of a seed; and now it will be a little bit weaker. It will always be a little bit weaker after having been embraced by the energy of mindfulness. The next time it manifests, we will receive it the same way; we will care for it the same way with the energy of mindfulness, and then it will return to the depths, weaker still. It loses energy every time it is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, which is really a parent.
The door is already open; mental formations can now flow freely. And if you practice that for a few weeks, the symptoms of mental illness will disappear. This is because you are now in a situation where you have good circulation in your psyche. That is why the Buddha taught us to invite fear into our mindful consciousness and care for it every day.
There is no battle between good and evil, positive and negative; there is only the care given by one sibling to the other. In Buddhist meditation, we observe, we act in a nondualistic fashion, and thus the waste materials of the conscious mind can always be transformed into flowers of compassion, love, and peace. Our consciousness is a living thing, something organic in nature. There are always waste materials and flowers in us. The gardener who is familiar with organic gardening is constantly on the alert to save the waste materials because they know how to transform them into compost and then transform that compost into flowers and vegetables. So be grateful for your pains, be grateful for suffering—you will need them.
We have to learn the art of transforming compost into flowers. Look at a flower: it is beautiful, it is fragrant, it is pure; but if you look deeply you can already see the compost in the flower. With meditation, you can see that already. If you do not meditate, you will have to wait ten days to be able to see that. If you look deeply at the garbage heap with the eye of a meditator, you can see lettuce, tomatoes, and flowers. That is exactly what the gardener sees when they look at the garbage heap, and that is why they do not throw away their waste materials. A little bit of practice is all you need to be able to transform the garbage heap into compost and the compost into flowers.
The same is true of our mental formations, which include flowers like faith, hope, understanding, and love; but there is also waste material like fear and pain. The flower is on its way to becoming refuse, but the refuse is also on its way to becoming a flower. This is the nonduality principle of Buddhism: there is nothing to throw away. If a person has never suffered, they will never be able to know happiness. If a person does not know what hunger is, they will never know the joy of eating every day. Thus pain and suffering are a necessary condition of our understanding, of our happiness. So do not say that you do not want to know anything about pain or about suffering, that you only want to know about happiness—that would be an impossible thing. We know well that suffering helps us to understand, that it nurtures our compassion, and that for this reason it is vitally necessary for us. So we must know how to learn from suffering, we must know how to make use of it to gather the energy of compassion, of love, of understanding.