In undertaking a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected with our heart…
It is possible to speak with our heart directly. Most ancient cultures know this. We can actually converse with our heart as if it were a good friend. In modern life we have become so busy with our daily affairs and thoughts that we have forgotten this essential art of taking time to converse with our heart. When we ask it about our current path, we must look at the values we have chosen to live by. Where do we put our time, our strength, our creativity, our love? We must look at our life without sentimentality, exaggeration, or idealism. Does what we are choosing reflect what we most deeply value?
Buddhist tradition teaches its followers to regard all life as precious. The astronauts who leave the earth have also rediscovered this truth. One set of Russian cosmonauts described it in this way: ‘We brought up small fish to the space station for certain investigations. We were to be there three months. After about three weeks the fish began to die. How sorry we felt for them! What we didn’t do to try to save them! On earth we take great pleasure in fishing, but when you are alone and far away from anything terrestrial, any appearance of life is especially welcome. You see just how precious life is.” In this same spirit, one astronaut, when his capsule landed, opened the hatch to smell the moist air of earth. “I actually got down and put it to my cheek. I got down and kissed the earth.”
To see the preciousness of all things, we must bring our full attention to life. Spiritual practice can bring us to this awareness without the aid of a trip into a space. As the qualities of presence and simplicity begin to permeate more and more of our life, our inner love for the earth and all beings begins to express itself and brings our path alive.
Appreciating Moments of Goodness
To understand more deeply what evokes this sense of preciousness and how it gives meaning to a path with heart, let us work with the following meditation. In Buddhist practice, one is urged to consider how to live well by reflecting on one’s death. The traditional meditation for this purpose is to sit quietly and sense the tentativeness of life. After reading this paragraph, close your eyes and feel the mortality of this human body that you have been given. Death is certain for us – only the time of death is yet to be discovered. Imagine yourself to be at the end of your life – next week or next year or next decade, some time in the future. Now cast your memory back across your whole life and bring to mind two good deeds that you have done, two things that you did that were good. They need not be grandiose; let whatever wants to arise show itself. In picturing and remembering these good deeds, also become aware of how these memories affect your consciousness, how they transform the feelings and state of the heart and mind as you see them.
When you have completed this reflection, look very carefully at the quality of these situations, at what is comprised in a moment of goodness picked out of a lifetime of words and actions. Almost everyone who is able to remember such deeds in this meditation discovers them to be remarkably simple. They are rarely the deeds one would put on a resume. For some people a moment of goodness was simple the one who they told their father before he died that they loved him, or when they flew across the country in the midst of their busy life to care for their sister’s children as she was healing from a car accident. One elementary school teacher had the simple vision of those mornings when she held the children who were crying and having a hard day. In response to this meditation someone once raised her hand, smiled and said, “On crowded streets when we get to a parking space at the same time, I always give the parking space to the other person.” That was the good deed in her life.
Another woman, a nurse in her sixties who had raised children and grandchildren and had lived a very full life, came up with this memory: She was six years old when a car broke down in front of her house, steam sprouting from under the hood. Two elderly people got out and looked at it, and one went off to the corner pay phone to call a garage. They returned to sit in the car and wait for much of the morning for a tow. As a curious six-year-old, she went out to speak to them, and after seeing them wait for a long time in a hot car, she went inside. Without even asking them, she prepared a tray of iced tea and sandwiches and carried the tray out to them on the curb.
The things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way. This simple and profound intimacy is the love that we all long for. These moments of touching and being touched can become a foundation for a path with heart, and they take place in the most immediate and direct way. Mother Teresa put it like this: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
Some people find this exercise very difficult. No good deeds will come to their mind, or a few may arise only to be rejected immediately because they are judged superficial or small or impure or imperfect. Does this mean that there are not even two good moments in a lifetime of one hundred thousand deeds? Hardly! We have all had many. It has another more profound meaning. It is a reflection of how hard we are on ourselves. We judge ourselves so harshly, only an Idi Amin or a Stalin would hire us to preside over their courts. Many of us discover we have little mercy for ourselves. We can hardly acknowledge that genuine love and goodness can shine freely from our hearts. Yet it does.
To live a path with heart means to live in the way shown us in this meditation, to allow the flavor of goodness to permeate our life. When we bring full attention to our acts, when we express our love and see the preciousness of life, the quality of goodness in us grows. A simple caring presence can begin to permeate more moments of our life. And so we should continually ask our own heart, What would it mean to live like this? Is the path, the way we have chosen to live our life, leading to this?
In the stress and complexity of our lives, we may forget our deepest intentions. But when people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually. “How much is my bank account?” or “How many books did I write?” or “What did I build?” or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is aware at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple: “Did I love well?” “Did I live fully?” “Did I learn to let go?”
These simple questions go to the very centre of spiritual life. When we consider loving well and living fully, we can see the way our attachments and fears have limited us, and we can see the many opportunities for our hearts to open. Have we let ourselves love the people around us, our family, our community, the earth upon which we live? And, did we also learn to let go? Did we learn to live through the changes of life with grace, wisdom and compassion? Have we learned to forgive and live from the spirit of the heart instead of the spirit of judgment?
Letting go is a central theme in spiritual practice, as we see the preciousness and brevity of life. When letting go is called for, if we have not learned to do so, we suffer greatly, and when we get to the end of our life, we may have what is called a crash course. Sooner or later we have to learn to let go and allow the changing mystery of life to move through us without our fearing it, without holding and grasping.
I knew a young woman who sat with her mother during an extended bout of cancer. Part of this time and her mother was in the hospital hooked up to dozens of tubes and machines. Mother and daughter agreed that the mother did not want to die this way, and when the illness progressed, she was finally removed from all of the medical paraphernalia and allowed to go home. Her cancer progressed further. Still the mother had a hard time accepting her illness. She tried to run the household from her bed, to pay bills and oversee all the usual affairs of her life. She struggled with her physical pain, but she struggled more with her inability to let go. One day in the midst of this struggle, much sicker now and a bit confused, she called her daughter to her and said, “Daughter, dear, please now pull the plug,” and her daughter gently pointed out, “Mother you are not plugged in.” Some of us have a lot to learn about letting go.
Letting go and moving through life from one change to another brings the maturing of our spiritual being. In the end we discover that to love and let go can be the same thing. Both ways do not seek to possess. Both allow us to touch each moment of this changing life and allow us to be there fully for whatever arises next.
There is an old story about a famous rabbi living in Europe who was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi’s dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city, and was directed to the rabbi’s room, which was in the attic. He entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair and a few books. The man had expected much more. After greetings, he asked “Rabbi, where are your things?” The rabbi asked in return, “Well, where are yours?” His visitor replied, “But Rabbi, I’m only passing through,” and the master answered, “So am I, so am I.”
The Gift of Life
To love fully and live well requires us to recognize finally that we do not possess or own anything – our homes, our cars, our loved ones, not even our own body. Spiritual joy and wisdom do not come through possession but rather through our capacity to open, to love more fully, and to more and be free in life.
This is not a lesson to be put off. One great teacher explained it this way: “The trouble with you is that you think you have time.” We don’t know how much time we have. What would it be like to live with the knowledge that this may be our last year, our last week, our last day? In the light of this question we can choose a path with heart.
Sometimes, it takes a shock to awaken us, to connect us with our path. Several years ago I was called to visit a man in a San Francisco hospital by his sister. He was in his late thirties and already rich. He had a construction company, a sailboat, a ranch, a townhouse, the works. One day when driving along in his BMW, he blacked out. Tests showed that he had a brain tumour, a melanoma, a rapid-growing kind of cancer. The doctor said, “We want to operate on you, but I must warn you that the tumour is in the speech and comprehension centre. If we remove the tumour, you may lose all your ability to read, to write, to speak, to understand any language. If we don’t operate, you probably have six more weeks to live. Please consider this. We want to operate in the morning. Let us know by then.”
I visited this man that evening. He had become very quiet and reflective. As you an imagine, he was in an extraordinary state of consciousness. Such an awakening will sometimes come from our spiritual practice, but for him it came through these exceptional circumstances. When we spoke, this man did not talk about his ranch or sailboat or his money. Where he was headed, they don’t take the currency of bank books and BMWs. All that is of value in times of great change is the currency of our heart – the ability and understanding of the heart that has grown in us.
Twenty years earlier, in the late 1960’s, this man had done a little Zen meditation, had read a bit of Alan Watts, and when he faced this moment, that is what he drew on and what he wanted to talk about: his spiritual life and understanding of birth and death. After a most heartfelt conversation, he stopped to be silent for a time and reflect. Then he turned to me and said, “I’ve had enough of talking. May be I’ve said too many words. This evening it seems so precious just to have a drink of tap water or to watch the pigeons on the windowsill of the medical centre fly off in the air. It’s magic to see a bird go through the air, I’m not finished with this life. May be I’ll just live it more silently.” So he asked to have the operation. After fourteen hours of surgery by a very fine surgeon, his sister visited him in the recovery room. He looked up at her and said, “Good morning.” They had been able to remove the tumour without losing his speech.
When he left the hospital and recovered from his cancer, his entire life changed. He still responsibly completed his business obligations, but he was no longer a workaholic. He spent more time with his family, and he became a counselor for others diagnosed with cancer and grave illnesses. He spent much of his time touching the people around him with love.
Had I met him before that evening, I might have considered him a spiritual failure because he had done a little spiritual practice and then quit completely to become a businessman. He seemed to have forgotten all of those spiritual values. But when it came down to it, when he stopped to reflect in these moments between his life and death, even the little spiritual practice he had touched became very important to him. We never know what others are learning, and we cannot judge someone’s spiritual practice quickly or easily. All we can do is look into our own hearts and ask what matters in the way that we are living, what might lead us to greater openness, honesty and a deeper capacity to love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Kornfield was a trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, and India and has taught meditation worldwide since 1974. He is one of the key teachers to introduce Theravada Buddhist practice to the West. For many years his work has focused on integrating and bringing alive the great Eastern spiritual teachings in an accessible way for Western students and Western society. He holds a Ph.D., in clinical psychology and is the founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society.
Source: Excerpt from the Book on “A Path Heart” by Jack Kornfield.