POSTCARD#422: Bangkok: Continuing with Ajahn Sucitto as he takes us through the pathways towards cultivating a boundless mind.
Softening Comparative Judgments
All beings seek their own welfare. Suffering and the pressure to get free of it are the concern of us all, so surely we could get together to support each other. And yet we often focus on the ways that set us apart. This focus brings even more suffering, in terms of comparative judgments that bring competition and conflict. On the other hand, when there is empathy — even at the times when we experience bereavement, pain and fear — the suffering diminishes. There is nothing so conducive to trust, strength and uplift as a struggle shared. Consider the stories of explorers who, against extremity, struggle through to safety together; shared conflict brings about fellow-feeling with its tremendous mutual strengthening. When the boundary of concern widens to include others — even those with whom we’re in conflict — in an important respect, the suffering ceases. This, the Buddha pointed out, is the suffering we can bring to cessation. In doing that, we’re not just released from pain, we are broadened and deepened out of alienation, into wisdom and compassion. So there is great practical wisdom in understanding how the mind creates boundaries of concern and interest, and how we can work with these. Of course there are boundaries; there are other beings on earth. But what counts is how those boundaries are maintained, opened and closed. When we consider otherness — the way beings are different from us — we can feel either insecurity, ‘How does she compare with me?’ or contempt, ‘You’re not as good as me’; or fear and intimidation, ‘You’re better or stronger than me.’ Or, we can feel adoration/attraction — ‘I want to be bonded to you.’ These immediate assumptions are called ‘conceit’: that is, we conceive of people as worse, better or the same as us. The effect is that the mind’s responsiveness gets stuck. It doesn’t see the rich or successful with compassion for their suffering. It doesn’t value the beauty, humour or resilience of those ‘worse than me.’ And it doesn’t respect the differences of those who are ‘the same as me.’ Caught in the conceit of self-view, the heart doesn’t extend its boundaries of appreciation and concern; we take each other for granted as ‘my wife,’ ‘my boss,’ ‘my teacher’; and that fixing of them freezes our sensitivity. In that state, the heart easily tips over into complaining about the other not being the way they ‘should be’ (or rather the way I want them to be), and so the heart becomes a breeding ground for ill-will.
Reflect on this: if you take someone to be the same as you, you feel confused and frustrated when their opinion is different from yours. And sooner or later it is, isn’t it? So there’s conflict not only when you think others are different from yourself, but also when you think they are the same. Trying to make people be clones of yourself makes you intolerant. Or, you pressurize people into having the same view. But a ‘we’ that hasn’t arisen through recognizing and accommodating differences is a conformist tyranny, not a harmonious abiding. The only way out is mettā — the widening of a boundary of fellow-feeling to include all. Even, of course, those with whom one is ill at ease.
Cultivating a Boundless Mind
So here’s the question: who is more important, who gets first servings of kindness — me or you? Well, if your mind is crabby and depressed, you’re not in the best condition for ladling out the love. But on the other hand if you keep it for yourself, and you fuss over every twinge in your own mind, then that feels like narcissism. It’s a trick question, because the practice is holistic: to others as to oneself. The way it works is that you see where development can occur and widen it from there. You keep expanding and deepening the sphere of kindness in all directions. This is because there are near misses. For example, there’s an altruism that seems like kindness, and may carry some of its features, but is mixed with the need to feel that one is being loving and useful to others. We impose a requirement on others that they benefit from our love. This is missionary kindness. It doesn’t always allow people to be the way they are; we want to convert the nasty into the loving and make the sick get well. Now mettā may indeed have such effects, but as a Dhamma practice it’s focused on intent rather than arrival at a specific state. So we don’t practise kindness in order to make others into our idea of what a nice person is. Instead, the practice is to cultivate a conscious field of kindness in which — as aspects of ourselves and others arise in our awareness — they will not be met with fear or negativity. Then we trust the removal of ill-will and self-view to have its effect. Of course we can’t just bring kindness to others without having felt it in ourselves, which means that our limitations, fears, doubts and pains are an essential part of our fieldwork. So it’s useful to check whether we have mettā for ourselves, and when we lose it. Do we beat ourselves up and feel guilty when we make a mistake, are late, or don’t live up to others’ expectations? Do we feel shadow impressions hovering around us over things we have or haven’t done? Does our conceiving mind create an image of how great somebody else is and therefore how inferior we are? The learning point is that as long as we pick up on, and attach to, particular features as self or other, good or bad, we never arrive at holistic goodwill. With self-view, sooner or later someone’s going to be inferior and someone superior.
Instead, we have to connect goodwill to the experience of self and other as it happens; that is, how I feel about you in the moment. Then we bring the intention of goodwill to the uncertainty, or fear or irritation as we experience it. And we’re also prepared to be affected: we stay open to what’s happening for self and other, without having an answer as to who’s right and who’s wrong.
So in working with others as with oneself, we have to go deeply into the mind. In the direct contemplation of what is arising — at the dividing line between what we’re comfortable with and what we’re not — simply note the flavour of consciousness. Is it contracted, defensive, anxious, demanding? Listen to the tones and the energies behind the topics that the mind brings up; tune in to the waves of irritation, fear, guilt, and so on; and extend empathy and non-aversion. It’s about not fighting, blocking or running. Holding our centre, we thus can soften the edginess of the mind. We can open to include the experience of ourselves and others in our awareness. This is the cultivation of the boundless mind; over time, it widens to include it all.