An Open Heart and a Sturdy Backbone

An Open Heart and a Sturdy Backbone

Discussion date: Thu, Nov 18, 2010 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will explore our capacity to embody at the same time an open heart and a sturdy backbone.

Mindfulness communities often talk about having an open heart. It is associated with the virtues of loving kindness and compassion. In Practicing Peace in Times of War Pema Chodron writes:

War begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily—in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice—whenever we feel uncomfortable. It’s so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we’re feeling.

Someone once gave me a poem with a line in it that offers a good definition of peace: “Softening what is rigid in our hearts.” We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.

. . . the basic message I’m trying to convey is that to the degree that each of us is dedicated to wanting there to be peace in the world, then we have to take responsibility when our own hearts and minds harden and close. We have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid, to find the soft spot and stay with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility. That’s true spiritual warriorship. That’s the true practice of peace.

Pema Chodron clear statements have made me more aware of the shifting energies in my heart. I’m noticing how when I’m frustrated by someone, I often analyze and label their behavior. I may rationalize it, saying I’m just trying to understand, but a very subtle distancing and hardening of the heart is occurring.

When we notice our hearts becoming rigid, the mindfulness tradition encourages us to lean into the underlying emotions and fears, to not be afraid of our fears. Rather than protecting ourselves from painful feelings, we open to them and learn to soften our hearts.

By sturdy backbone I mean the the capacity for each of us to define for ourselves what is important and to act on it. It is the grit to take a position or enforce boundaries, even when others may not like it. Compared to an open heart, a sturdy backbone is much less talked about in mindfulness communities, but nonetheless, must also be developed by mindfulness practitioners.

The Buddha emphasized the attitudes of clarity and steadfastness that I’m calling a sturdy backbone in a discussion he had with a famous horse trainer name Kesi.The Buddha asked Kesi how he tamed horses, and Kesi replied, "Sometimes with gentleness, sometimes with harshness, and sometimes with both. If these three methods do not work, I kill the horse."

Kesi then asked the Buddha, “How do you train your students?” The Buddha answered, "My methods are the same as yours. If they are not trainable with gentleness, with harshness, or with both, then I no longer talk with them or admonish them."

These two energies, of an open heart and a sturdy backbone, sometimes work against each other. If our hearts are very open, It is easy to be overwhelmed and lose perspective. Becoming more sensitive to the feelings of others may mean that we are not able to take necessary actions because of our fears that someone will be displeased. Or, to gather the energy we believe we need to move forward, often we close down our heart.

But an open heart and a sturdy backbone can come together. Khanh Nguyen wrote in Tricycle:

I remember the Dalai Lama’s reply to Professor Jan Willis of Wesleyan University when she asked about an appropriate response to racism in the sixties: “If you feel anger and deep hatred for the policeman, do nothing, let him shoot you. But if you are able to feel sincere compassion for his ignorance and agitated state of mind, then out of your concern for fairness and the welfare of everyone involved, use any effective means to respond."

You are invited to be with us this Thursday to join our meditation and our discussion.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


The best times to join our Thursday evening gatherings are just before the beginning of our 7 p.m. meditation, just before we begin walking meditation (around 7:35), and just after our walking meditation (around 7:50).


Kesi Sutta – The Horse Trainer
Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Then Kesi the horse trainer went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him: “You, Kesi, are a trained man, a trainer of tamable horses. And how do you train a tamable horse?”

“Lord, I train a tamable horse [sometimes] with gentleness, [sometimes] with harshness, [sometimes] with both gentleness and harshness.”

“And if a tamable horse does not submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild and harsh training, Kesi, what do you do?”

“If a tamable horse does not submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild and harsh training, lord, then I kill it. Why is that? [I think:] ‘Don’t let this be a disgrace to my lineage of teachers.’ But the Blessed One, lord, is the unexcelled trainer of tamable people. How do you train a tamable person?”

“Kesi, I train a tamable person [sometimes] with gentleness, [sometimes] with harshness, [sometimes] with both gentleness and harshness.

“In using gentleness, [I teach:] ‘Such is good bodily conduct. Such is the result of good bodily conduct. Such is good verbal conduct. Such is the result of good verbal conduct. Such is good mental conduct. Such is the result of good mental conduct. Such are the devas. Such are human beings.’

“In using harshness, [I teach:] ‘Such is bodily misconduct. Such is the result of bodily misconduct. Such is verbal misconduct. Such is the result of verbal misconduct. Such is mental misconduct. Such is the result of mental misconduct. Such is hell. Such is the animal womb. Such the realm of the hungry shades.’

“In using gentleness and harshness, [I teach:] ‘Such is good bodily conduct. Such is the result of good bodily conduct. Such is bodily misconduct. Such is the result of bodily misconduct. Such is good verbal conduct. Such is the result of good verbal conduct. Such is verbal misconduct. Such is the result of verbal misconduct. Such is good mental conduct. Such is the result of good mental conduct. Such is mental misconduct. Such is the result of mental misconduct. Such are the devas. Such are human beings. Such is hell. Such is the animal womb. Such the realm of the hungry shades.’”

“And if a tamable person does not submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild and harsh training, what do you do?”

“If a tamable person does not submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild and harsh training, then I kill him, Kesi.”

“But it’s not proper for our Blessed One to take life! And yet the Blessed One just said, ‘I kill him, Kesi.’”

“It is true, Kesi, that it’s not proper for a Tathagata to take life. But if a tamable person does not submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild and harsh training, then the Tathagata does not regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing. His knowledgeable fellows in the holy life do not regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing. This is what it means to be totally destroyed in the Doctrine and Discipline, when the Tathagata does not regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing, and one’s knowledgeable fellows in the holy life do not regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing.”

“Yes, lord, wouldn’t one be totally destroyed if the Tathagata does not regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing, and one’s knowledgeable fellows in the holy life do not regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing.

“Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the community of monks. May the Blessed One remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”

 

Discussion Date: Thu, Nov 18, 2010


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