Introduction to The Courage to Feel
Buddhist practices for opening to others
The story is told that when Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, was looking at the lives of human beings upon this planet, he saw how much pain and suffering we inflict upon each other, and for a moment his compassion faltered. He almost abandoned his vow to liberate us from suffering. At that instant, his body exploded into a thousand pieces, represented in the image of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. If this can happen to the figure who, in Buddhism, most exemplifies compassion, then perhaps we can be forgiven for not always finding it easy to sustain a compassionate heart in the face of so much suffering in the world.
We may live in times when material, economic, and scientific progress is moving at a rate never before seen, yet our capacity to live peacefully alongside each other seems to remain elusive. When confronted with the constant evidence of so much brutality and corruption present in the world, whether this is seen on the news or experienced closer to home, it is common to feel a sense of anger and outrage, and to feel powerless to do anything to change the ignorance, greed, and hatred that motivate most of the atrocities our fellow humans inflict upon each other. Are we, individually or collectively, able to go beyond the dominance of our instinctual selfishness that reaps so much harm?
What has been all too apparent in my own relationship to the suffering I see in the world is that compassion and loving-kindness are not easy qualities to develop successfully. When faced with the magnitude of suffering and the depth of our human capacity to harm each other and the planet, it is no surprise that on occasions I can feel despair.
Fortunately, there are people who do have the courage to face the world with compassion, rather than perpetuate ill will and hostility. One of the most inspiring examples of this is H.H. the Dalai Lama, who, having endured much personal hardship, and also having witnessed intimately the harm inflicted upon his Tibetan people, responds not with brutal aggression but with humility and care, even towards those who have perpetrated such destruction. This does not render him powerless or impotent to respond. Rather, he continues to actively promote a sense of compassion and care in the world.
Some people seem to have a natural, spontaneous gift of compassion and loving-kindness, and appear genuinely to be able to consider the welfare of others before themselves. This generosity of heart usually comes from a healthy sense of self and a natural capacity to go beyond self-interest. Then there are others who, like myself, have to work at opening the heart to be more caring and sensitive to our fellow travelers on this path, because it does not come so naturally.
If we are to cope with a turbulent and troubled world, and with challenges in our daily lives that can push us to the limit, the solution has to be an inner one. When I reflect on my own life, I can see that two potential choices are there whenever I am really challenged. I could contract into an increasingly fearful, defensive, self-preoccupied place where I become obsessed by security and a sense of my own self-preservation—the idea that I need to look after number one at any cost. Alternately, I could begin to open and see that I am not alone in this plight and that others are suffering too. I could open my heart to the struggle in others’ lives and hold an understanding that we are all equal in wishing to be happy and free of suffering.
If we do not find it easy to have compassion, we may wish to ask ourselves: why not? If we find ourselves constantly pulled back into self-preoccupation, what is it that keeps us in this state? What are the emotional and psychological issues that prevent us from opening our hearts to others? What is it that will also help us to take the step of going beyond ego-centricity?
Whatever spiritual tradition we may be part of, if we wish to live our lives with greater openness to others, and with the courage and heart to cope with adverse conditions, we have much to learn from the path of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva, sometimes translated as “the awakening warrior,” dedicates his or her life to the welfare of others and is willing to face the challenges of life to do so. The bodhisattva’s way of life does not lead to a spiritual escape from the reality of the world. Rather, the bodhisattva cultivates the capacity to live within the raw reality of suffering on the ground and transform life’s adverse circumstances into a path of awakening. A bodhisattva makes a clear decision to remain embodied and in relationship to life even while reaching states of awareness that go far beyond our normal reality. Such a person is said to renounce the peace of nirvana and overcome the fear of samsara. What gives this attitude to life a particular significance is that it recognizes that only through fully awakening our innate wholeness can we achieve the greatest benefit to others.
Central to this approach to life is a quality of intention called bodhichitta, often translated as “the awakening mind.” The awakening mind is most often described as the clear, compassionate intention to attain the state of buddhahood for the welfare of all sentient beings. While “the awakening mind” may seem like a relatively simple phrase, its actual psychological, emotional, and social implications are huge. It is a re-orientation of the whole of an individual’s direction and meaning in life, rooted in a deep sense of compassion and responsibility towards the welfare of the world.
Our capacity to benefit others will come from a deepening experience of self-realization within the psychological process of what Jung called “individuation.” If we consider individuation to be the maturation and embodiment of our innate potential, then the bodhisattva exemplifies this journey in the context of Buddhist life. Jung described how individuation takes us beyond the ego’s place of dominance towards an awakening of a deeper center of wholeness. In this process he saw that individuation awakens a more profound relationship to purpose and meaning in our lives. Jung also recognized that as the process progresses, it brings a natural desire to serve the common good, going beyond ego-centeredness.
In Buddhist terms, this altruistic intention to awaken and individuate is bodhichitta, the essence of awakening. How this quality then manifests in the world will depend upon the personality and abilities of the individual. There is no set prescription for how a bodhisattva should live in the world, but the cultivation and refinement of the desire to benefit others is at the heart of all he or she does. What we can learn from the bodhisattva’s example is a way of life that responds to the fears and threats of our time not with aggression and self-preoccupation, but with a genuine sense of concern and service.
While compassion and loving-kindness may be innate potentials within each of us, they are often buried beneath layers of emotional wounding. This wounding may not be obvious and may be hard to resolve. Even so, this wounding needs to be faced. The Buddha saw that the causes of suffering lay in the twin roots of selfishness and ignorance and that with the right guidance, we might all find a state of inner peace and happiness. To paraphrase Shantideva, we all seek happiness but endlessly create the causes of suffering. The Buddha recognized that while there is a clear cause of suffering, there can also be a real cessation of suffering, if only we know how to go about it.
Drawing on a number of traditional Buddhist sources, including Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life and Lama Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, I wish to explore the cultivation of the compassionate heart of awakening from a psychological viewpoint. I will try to describe the steps to cultivating this quality, including traditional Buddhist meditations, while looking at their psychological and emotional implications. While these meditation practices are found within the Buddhist tradition, this does not imply they are useful only for Buddhists. The understanding gained from this approach can be instrumental for anyone wishing to genuinely expand their experience of compassion, easing their own suffering in the process.
Much of what I have written here has come from the numerous occasions I received instruction on the cultivation of bodhichitta from lamas such as H.H. the Dalai Lama, Lama Thubten Yeshe, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It has also arisen from my own exploration of the meditation practices associated with cultivating bodhichitta. I have drawn on the invaluable resource of the experience of those I have worked with in psychotherapy and taught in retreat, to look at the psychological effect of such practices. What has emerged over time is a growing sense of the kind of psychological issues these meditation practices provoke and how those issues may be addressed. This is not to say that psychological or emotional issues are in any way detrimental to the practice; indeed, they are part of the natural process unfolding in generating compassion. One might even consider that if these issues are not brought out, perhaps the practices are not touching us as deeply as they might. Recognizing these emotional and psychological issues, however, enables us to pass through them and become free to experience the growth of loving-kindness and compassion in a deep and genuine way.
I am aware, in common with the views of writers such as Ken Wilber, that meditation is not the solution to all of our emotional problems. There are many aspects of our psychological wounding that are only able to be addressed when they are brought out in relationship. The depth experienced in meditation does not necessarily invoke this material, which is partly why some experienced meditators can still have unresolved psychological issues. The particular meditations I wish to describe in this book can, however, begin to address some of these issues. They are not the “cure all” some of us may wish for in meditation practice, but they offer some extremely valuable ways of looking at personal psychological material.
This book includes, therefore, a sequence of meditations that come from traditional Tibetan sources but which I have modified in small ways to make them more psychologically relevant to us in the West. There is no fixed or definitive way to do these practices, but if we are creative and we can find ways of meditating that truly affect us, we may resolve some of the psychological and emotional issues that often block our experience. As an aspect of “skillful means,” what we are trying to do is enable the gradual awakening of the qualities of love, compassion, and bodhichitta that can be seen as a natural expression of who we are. Once these qualities begin to grow, they will become part of the undercurrent of our lives. We can begin to be able to genuinely transform adversity into a path of awakening just as the bodhisattvas of the past have done.
Individuation: “to denote a process of becoming a psychological ‘individual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or whole.” Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p.275.“Individuation means becoming a single homogeneous being, and, insofar as ‘in-dividuality’ embraces our innermost, last and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as ‘coming to selfhood’ or ‘self-realization.’” Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p.171.
Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Chapter 1, verse 26.