How do we practice filling our hearts?

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the Second Mindfulness Training, True Happiness. The training reminds us to be aware of exploitation, oppression, and injustice, and respond with loving-kindness. Like all the trainings, it presents mysteries and challenges.

One mystery is how loving-kindness can be an effective response to the nastiness and cruelties of the world. Layers of conditions conspire to generate injustice, persecution, exploitation, and hardship. These are made up of political and economic structures as well as personal choices about how we treat each other. How is it possible that my little act of caring, of extending my heart, can peel away at these deep-seated arrangements and actually help?

Thay often talks about three gifts we can give another: material resources, knowledge and capability, and non-fear. It is mind-boggling that, when we reach out with any one of these, another’s pain eases; oppressive conditions soften; hardship lessens—that is, we actually help. To be sure, we certainly don’t solve someone else’s problems or remove all hardship. This is often not possible. But a little love goes a long way. How does this happen? How does the miracle of helping actually work? The second training invites us to look deeply at this mystery.

A challenge of the training involves how far we go in helping others, righting wrongs, and removing oppression. How much do we help? After all, ridding the world of unjust hardship is a never-ending task. How much is enough?

I deeply feel this challenge. I have trouble with boundaries. In the abstract, I want to help everyone and free the world of injustice and exploitation. And I often try. At some point, however, I often find myself further down a road than I was anticipating and feeling unable to practice the skillfulness required and unable to keep my heart open. I become overwhelmed by my commitment to help or simply lose the capability that I initially thought I possessed. At those times, I pull away or shut down. I’m afraid of getting engulfed in another’s grief, misery, or needs.

How do we wisely act with generosity? Where are our edges? How do we work with them? Mitchell often remarks, in the context of Dana, that we should give until our hearts are full. How do we practice filling our hearts?

You are invited to be with us. Three related quotes on generosity and loving-kindness are below.

Warm wishes,

Paul Wapner

Three Kinds of Gifts

by Thich Nhat Hanh, from For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life

In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is to help people rely on themselves, to offer them the technology and know-how to stand on their own feet. Helping people with the Dharma so they can transform their fear, anger, and depression belongs to the second kind of gift. The third is the gift of non-fear. We are afraid of many things. We feel insecure, afraid of being alone, afraid of sickness and dying. To help people not be destroyed by their fears, we practice the third kind of gift-giving.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is someone who practices this extremely well. In the Heart Sutra, he teaches us the way to transform and transcend fear and ride on the waves of birth and death, smiling. He says that there is no production, no destruction, no being, no nonbeing, no increasing, and no decreasing. Hearing this helps us look deeply into the nature of reality to see that birth and death, being and nonbeing, coming and going, increasing and decreasing are all just ideas that we ascribe to reality, while reality transcends all concepts. When we realize the interbeing nature of all things — that even birth and death are just concepts — we transcend fear.

The Most Basic and Powerful Way to Connect to Another Person is to Listen

by Rachel Naomi Remen, from Kitchen Table Wisdom

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it. Most of us don’t value ourselves or our love enough to know this. It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, "I’m so sorry," when someone is in pain. And meaning it.

One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted her to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancertalk about the relief of having someone just listen.

I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening. In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief. Now I just listen. When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.

Altruistic Love

by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, in On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters

Compassion and generosity must be accompanied by detachment. Expecting something in return for them is like doing business. If the owner of a restaurant is all smiles with his customers, it is not because he loves them but because he wants to increase his turnover. When we love and help others, it should not be because we find a particular individual likable but because we see that all beings, whether we think of them as friends or enemies, want to be happy and have the right to happiness.