Meditation: Heart Practices

Feb 24, 2021 | Healthy Living, Book Reviews

In a recent talk on meditation, Jack Kornfield said, “We can direct and train our attention, and we can fill it with positive qualities.” Meditation can be practiced in many different ways, but the purpose of it all is essentially this: to shift out of reactivity and the sense of a constricted, separate self and into a feeling of presence, groundedness, connectedness, and freedom. The foundational practice Jack teaches is mindfulness meditation, which cultivates, he says, “a nonjudgmental, caring attention, here and now.” Mindfulness brings us home to ourselves, home to our heart.

Along with the practice of coming home to our true selves, we can also cultivate certain qualities of the heart. In The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Kornfield offers wisdom on these heart qualities, along with meditation practices for each. He writes, “You hold in your hand an invitation: To remember the transforming power of forgiveness and lovingkindness. To remember that no matter where you are and what you face, within your heart peace is possible.”

His musings reflect a lifetime of study and teaching, and the simple form of this beautiful little book is accessible to all. If you meditate regularly, this book can help deepen and expand your practice. If you don’t meditate, you can still benefit from Kornfield’s teachings—as simple wisdom, and an invitation to begin where you are.

Forgiveness

At times we hold onto injuries and hurt. Sometimes we haven’t healed from trauma. Sometimes we don’t believe another person deserves forgiveness. Sometimes we don’t feel we can forgive ourselves for our own mistakes. The practice of forgiveness does not mean that we fail to protect ourselves, or that we open ourselves to further harm. It doesn’t mean we have to stay connected with someone who’s harmed us. And it doesn’t mean we give ourselves permission to act in harmful ways. What it means is we have the courage to release ourselves from the cycle of hurt inside us. Forgiveness is an act of tremendous strength. It allows us to release the suffering in our own heart. It is a profound way of caring for ourselves.

Kornfield writes:

“Forgiveness is a letting go of past suffering and betrayal, a release of the burden of pain and hate that we carry.
Forgiveness honors the heart’s greatest dignity. Whenever we are lost, it brings us back to the ground of love.
With forgiveness we become unwilling to attack or wish harm to another.
Whenever we forgive, in small ways at home, or in great ways between nations, we free ourselves from the past.”

In other words, the cycle of pain does not cease by retaliation. Freedom is only possible when we change course, find a path of greater peace. As the Buddha said, “Hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone is healed.” We can set an intention to forgive, so that the past no longer holds us prisoner. Often it doesn’t happen quickly, but with intentional practice, we can cultivate it.

“True forgiveness does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way,” Kornfield writes. “It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried. It is a deep process repeated over and over in our heart which honors the grief and betrayal, and in its own time ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.”

Sometimes we may need to attend to our own healing before we’re ready to forgive. In cases of trauma, we may need therapy or particular healing work to overcome what has happened in our brain and nervous system. And at times we may need to take action to protect ourselves from harm. This action will be most effective when it comes from a place of strength, rather than fear.

In forgiveness practice, we cultivate the strength and resilience of our heart. The practice often begins with ourselves, with the intention to release the ways we might be holding against ourselves—out of fear, or regret, or a deeply internalized pattern of self-criticism. For some people, it’s easier to begin by forgiving someone else, perhaps for something small. We start where can; and as we cultivate forgiveness in any area, our capacity for forgiveness grows.

Lovingkindness

This term, lovingkindness, encompasses simple love and care for other beings and ourselves. Kornfield writes, “In the end, when we look at our life, the questions will be simple. Did I live fully? Did I love well?” Lovingkindness meditation connects us with the deepest desires of our heart. To feel love and care, to be held in love and care—this brings meaning and peace. The felt sense of lovingkindness moves us out of fear.

The Buddha said,

“Like a caring mother holding and guarding the life of her only child, so with a boundless heart of lovingkindness, hold yourself and all beings as your beloved children.”

Many people find it difficult at first to offer lovingkindness to themselves. It may feel awkward, unfamiliar, or mechanical. But we can cultivate this capacity, and we need to do so in order to move through the world with kindness toward others. Kornfield writes, “One of the greatest blocks to lovingkindness is our own sense of unworthiness. If we leave ourselves out of the circle of love and compassion, we have misunderstood.”

The meditation practice includes offering wishes of health, safety, peace, and happiness to ourselves, to those we love, to strangers, and to difficult others. As with forgiveness, it may not be possible at first to offer well wishes to someone who has hurt us. And as with forgiveness, we don’t need to offer any outward gestures to a harmful or unsafe person. (Though these practices can help us to reconcile with someone when we want to.) What we are cultivating is an inward softening of the heart. We are cultivating an inward environment of healing and wellbeing.

“This understanding can help,” Kornfield writes. “Hate is the first and most obvious enemy of love. Hate hardens the heart. It holds tight to our pain and anger so that the other is cast as inhuman. Hate disfigures our spirit.” In lovingkindness practice, we move beyond judgment and blame. Carrying these burdens does not help us. We can understand and honor what has happened, and still sense into a feeling of shared humanity.

Lovingkindness practice helps us find peace and happiness in the life that’s right here. We can cultivate a feeling inside ourselves without depending on external events being a certain way. Kornfield writes, “Lovingkindness offers care and well-wishing to another without expectation or demand… Our love for others is an expression of our trust in love itself. No matter what happens, we can still love.”

This process is not always easy, but it is worthwhile. Whatever we cultivate grows.

Peace

“The human mind can create conflict,” Kornfield writes. “It can also create peace. To find peace in the world we must find peace in ourselves.”

Peace means a sense of calm and groundedness, an inner equanimity, contentment and balance. This does not mean ceasing to care; rather, it means befriending the changeable nature of life. Inner peace moves us out of reactivity and into calm, conscious responsiveness. Kornfield says, “With a peaceful heart, whatever happens can be met with wisdom.” This way of being improves our lives.

Kornfield explains,

“Indifference pretends to create peace, but it is based on not caring, a silent resignation. It is a movement away, a separation fed by a subtle fear of the heart… Indifference is a misguided way of defending ourselves. The peace of the heart is not emotional resignation, but an openness that meets the ever-changing world with compassion.”

There is so much in life that we can’t control. We often struggle against that fact and try to control what is truly out of reach. There will be times of suffering and pain and times of joy and happiness. As one saying goes, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” What we can choose are the patterns we nurture in our own hearts. We can hold whatever arises with kindness. We can find balance amidst the waves.

The meditations on peace offer ourselves and others this wish of equanimity and balance. The practices of “Mind like the Ocean,” “Mind like a Mirror,” and “Mind like the Sky” provide images that can help cultivate a sense of calm. Ultimately we are connecting to a larger perspective, an awareness in which we can hold, with loving attention, the vast array of human experiences. There is a great reservoir of peace that is always there inside us, if we can learn to come home to it.

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