Boundless mind

One of the most common ways that we limit our concern for others is with “comparing mind”. Whether we consider others better than, worse than, or the same as ourselves, the mental act of comparing “me vs. her” or “us vs. them” creates a sharp boundary and distances us from others. In the Buddha’s language, any comparing of self to others is in the category of “conceit” in the sense of conceiving of self or others as this or that. The activity of conceiving interferes with our ability to respond to others.

So here’s the question: who is more important, who gets first servings of kindness – me or you? Well, if your mind is crabby and depressed, you’re not in the best condition for ladling out the love. But on the other hand if you keep it for yourself, and you fuss over every twinge in your own mind, then that feels like narcissism.

It’s a trick question, because the practice is holistic: to others as to oneself. The way it works is that you see where development can occur and widen it from there. You keep expanding and deepening the sphere of kindness in all directions. — from the book Pāramī by Ajahn Sucitto

Mettā is one of the four boundless or sublime states. The others are karunā, muditā and upekkhā, or compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  When the Buddha calls these states of mind boundless, he’s not talking in relative terms, he literally means with no discernible boundary. There’s no slightly better or slightly worse, no my needs trumping yours, even a little bit. To fully experience one of these states requires the absence of ill-will and of self-view. This seems impossible if we think it must be permanent, but the sublime states, like all mental states, come and go. We try to steer ourselves in their direction, but inevitably we sometimes can’t.

What we can do is recognize when one of these boundless mental states is present and simply rest in it, explore it, let it be as it is. We can establish practices that remind us that we want to be kind to everyone, ourselves included, as much of the time as possible. This could take the form of bringing one of the traditional mettā phrases to mind throughout the day, for example, “May I be well, happy and peaceful. As I wish to be well, happy, and peaceful, may all beings be well, happy and peaceful.” If other words work better for you, then they are the best ones to use. We can create the conditions for orienting ourselves towards our potential for freedom.

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Filed under Perfections, Sublime states

Holistic Kindness

Holistic Kindness is the title of the chapter in Ven. Sucitto’s book, Pāramī, that deals with mettā, the feeling of unbounded kindness and goodwill towards ourselves and others. The feeling arises spontaneously from time to time. Can we learn to establish, sustain, and nourish this freeing mind state?

From Ven. Sucitto: Let’s get to the crunch point. A heart brimming with love is indeed an attractive ideal, but what’s more important is breadth of application rather than intensity of affection.

Some mothers feel unbounded love towards their children, some people towards their pets, others towards parents, mentors, or even lovers (though this can get complicated). Usually, though, this limitless love is associated with particular beings we know; it doesn’t include strangers, i.e, the majority of humanity.

Recent natural disasters have confirmed that when people near or far are suddenly in dire straits, we respond with a desire to help and care for them. When people we know suffer a loss or receive a terminal diagnosis, we naturally reach out to them without reservation. This movement of the heart is mettā, and it is a temporary break from our normal activity of maintaining the boundaries between self and other. We see others’ needs as if they were our own, we want to be close to them, to comfort them, to surround them with love. This is mettā, stimulated by a specific event. What if we were able to sustain this state? To  surround everyone with love all the time?

Mettā is not a desire to remedy everything or enforce justice; it is a free movement of the heart in a positive direction, without a fixed destination. Mettā challenges our normal way of relating to others. We give up fault-finding, we give up the notion that people should be as we are, share our views, etc. Mettā releases others from being the objects of our projections; it recognizes otherness and says “OK.” We don’t need other people to be “on our side” or to fulfil our expectations.

Similarly, if we hold mettā for ourselves, we don’t have to measure up to an ideal. We can just be as we are, making efforts to live in a wholesome way, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always being OK. We can forgive ourselves for past mistakes and proceed with a light heart.

The beginning of mettā is  to set aside our judgments of ourselves and others, and simply recognize that even if we are all different, we are all equally desirous of acceptance. We all respond to being enveloped by a kindness that doesn’t ask anything of us.

The full book, Pāramī, by Ven. Sucitto, is available for download here:

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Filed under Causes and results, Perfections, Sublime states, Uncategorized

Getting (relatively) calm

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. –Blaise Pascal  

All the practices we’ve been talking about require some degree of reflection, which in turn is well-supported by a daily activity that helps us down-shift from our normal workaday pace. We can’t be mindful and frantic at the same time.

Many times I’ve heard people say, “I tried meditating, but I just can’t do it.” There are several possible reasons for this statement. Some people mistake deep concentrative states for  meditation and have difficulty achieving what they think “meditation” is. Some people don’t give it a fair go: “I tried it for twenty minutes!” Others don’t believe it’s important.

Let me go on record saying that it is important to have a daily practice that supports our mindful reflection throughout the day. There is now scientific evidence that a regular mindfulness practice reduces stress and increases well-being for everyone, including schoolchildren and the incarcerated.

So, I want to encourage each of us to commit to finding and pursuing a daily calming activity that works for us. The two essential elements are a relaxed body and space for the mind to settle (relatively) outside the “me-centered” framework. This leaves a wide array of choices

1. Traditional meditation practices

  • Mindfulness of breathing
  • Mantra meditation (e.g., “Budh-ho”, repeated internally with the in-breath and out-breath)
  • Walking meditation (walking for a period of time in a straight line & back again, mindful of the body)
  • Mettā (kindness) or karuṇā (compassion) meditations
  • Sweeping the attention methodically through the body from top to bottom and then back again – repeat.
  • Chanting (from memory) words and phrases that are meaningful to the practitioner. Personal prayer and participating in Catholic mass could fit this category.

2.  Non-traditional methods can be anything that raises awareness of body and mind and provides relief from thinking about “me”:

  • Tai-chi or other martial art forms
  • Yoga
  • Swimming without external distractions (timers or radio)
  • Inquiry: try to identify/locate one’s self, physically or otherwise

There are many other practices that may cultivate calm, the above are only examples. The two essentials are dailiness and commitment while practicing.

Gardening, making art, and other outward-focused activities may calm the mind temporarily and can be useful, but they don’t provide the opportunity for the “small self” to be examined and transcended. As soon as our absorption is over, we snap right back to the me-centered universe. An inward focus makes mindfulness different.

There are myriad resources to help establish a daily practice. Eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses are available in many, if not most, cities and can be very useful in getting started.

I don’t often talk about meditation because there are other, better sources on the internet and (especially) in person to fulfil this need. I don’t want to leave the impression, though, that it’s an optional extra. We have to train our minds just as we train our bodies if we want to develop and not decline. Only we can make the difference by prioritizing our own growth daily.

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Filed under Causes and results, Mindfulness, The 8-fold path

Resolve on what?

At the end of each chapter of his book Pāramī , Ajahn Sucitto has a section called “Quotes and Suggestions”, where he recommends practical things to do to develop each perfection. At the end of the chapter on resolve (adhiṭṭhāna pāramī) he writes the following:

Reflection: To link wise reflection to resolve we might enquire: ‘With a mind that seeks my welfare, how do I shape and sustain a direction in life? How do I let myself down; where are my weak spots? On the other hand, what is a good quality or skill to develop? Which of these obstacles or skills would I point out to someone I wish well who has a similar disposition, or is in a similar situation?

This gets to the heart of the matter: What resolutions are pertinent and useful to each of us, in our particular circumstances, with our individual strengths and weaknesses?  It seems especially helpful to work on both sides of the equation together. What’s our biggest obstacle and what is our greatest strength? So, for me, with aversion (dosa) as my biggest obstacle, I resolve on patience (khanti) again and again, and when kindness (mettā) is present, I try to nourish and sustain it.

It is helpful to ask someone who knows us well to assist in discovering the most promising resolutions. We can ask a trusted person, “What do you consider my best and worst qualities?” If we have no such person in our lives, we can try to reflect honestly on ourselves as if we were someone else, someone we cared about. What do we like best and least about that person (ourselves)? What do we most admire and what blocks the heart?

One of the quotes offered by Ajahn Sucitto: A person has four grounds for resolve…the resolve on wisdom, on truth, on relinquishment and on calm.  -MN 140.11

If we are feeling stuck or aimless in discovering appropriate resolutions, we can investigate these four possible themes: Acting on wisdom? Meticulous truthfulness? Letting go? Developing calm? All of these are deeply admirable qualities to develop in ourselves. Does one of them seem to be calling?


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Filed under Causes and results, General, Perfections, Uncategorized


We’ve been meandering through the pāramīs or perfections, especially patience. Skipping over truthfulness for the moment, we come to resolve or determination (adhiṭṭhāna pāramī). This has been a problematic perfection for me. It’s easy to set ourselves up for failure by thinking, “I should be able to do X, and I commit to doing it.”, but then if we find the challenge too daunting we may experience guilt, anxiety and/or hopelessness. The whole idea of setting challenges for ourselves can feel awkward.

Another way to understand resolve is as a “home base” that we go back to when doubt arises. We can touch in with our deepest intentions and use those as our guides. If we commit to generosity and ethical behavior, deeply and over the long term, then when we stray from those intentions, resolve brings us back to center. It’s an answer to the question, “where can I turn?”

From the book, Pāramī [Perfections] by Ajahn Sucitto:

The Buddhist emphasis on knowing through one’s direct experience has always felt very sane to me. The Buddha’s Dhamma is shown not through, ‘This is Truth, this is Ultimate Reality and the Secret Law of the Cosmos’, but as, ‘This is what you do to get through the mess.’ And it offers an opportunity, a way to explore the mind and step back from the samsāra of its turmoil through the simple expedient of picking up a reasonable intention – like focusing on breathing – and witnessing how the mind skids and wobbles around that intention with its transient likes and dislikes.

We may be accustomed to thinking of determination or resolve as a test that we either pass or fail. But we can start with the understanding that we WILL fail sometimes, AND we can always start again. In fact, we have to start again unless we’re just going to give up and take the attitude that nothing matters. Perfection is not possible (for humans), but steady forward motion is possible and is satisfying. As Ajahn Sucitto points out, we’re not aiming at a superhuman state, we are looking for the best way to move through the messy and sometimes painful business of life.

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Filed under Dukkha, Perfections

Patience with the practice

Forty years ago, when I was setting out on the path of practice, there was a lot of confusion, but my goal was clear: enlightenment or bust! I was vague about what enlightenment was, but I understood it as the possibility of knowing everything and never suffering again. I believed that by putting all my effort into this project, I could finish it quickly, much as a five-year-old believes if she runs flat out, she’ll be faster than any other living person. Partly this naivety was caused by the blindness of youth, and partly it was a matter of not getting good information in the early days.

Ambition was a primary obstacle in my practice for a decade, and it played into my impatience with everything, especially with myself. I was on the fast track to “god”, although what I mainly encountered were my own flaws.

I confess this now in hopes of saving someone the time it took for me to realize my mistake. I was trying to acquire enlightenment so that I (I/me/my self) could live without discomfort. After years, the truth started to come into focus: there is no escape for ME, for the ego-identified self that was propelled by ambition. By tracing back the eagerness to the ego behind it, it dawned on me that here was the problem. Such a paradox! The thing I wanted more than anything was unavailable to my ego-identified self.

Even after the situation became apparent, a total shift in world-view was required to move in the desired direction. The emptiness I felt was not a hole that could be filled, it needed to be accepted and understood, and it was possible to dissolve the surrounding framework that made the emptiness feel like a problem.

Each of us is unique, but there are some important truths that we share with all living beings. (1) Everyone who is born must die, and we don’t choose the timing or the manner of our death. (2) All of our actions, for good or ill, have an impact on other living beings. (3) Of all the things we acquire over a lifetime, nothing material will last or can be taken with us. Our actions are our only significant legacy.

Those of us brought up with competition as a primary mode may have difficulty altering how we view the world and our place in it. In my experience it’s a terrific relief to be nobody special, at least for periods of time. It makes me feel secure to remember that each action matters, and that now is the only time we have. The Buddha’s teachings point the way to living with an understanding of impermanence, dukkha, and ownerlessness (or not-self). It’s not an understanding that can be reached conceptually, we have to re-train our minds, our words and the actions of our bodies. The good news is that we don’t have to do this alone.


Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Patience, Perfections

Patience with oneself

Another aspect of patience that bears considering is being patient with oneself. It is likely that if we are impatient with ourselves we are impatient with others. Perhaps the key to having patience with others is to start with ourselves.

After decades of meditation practice, I find that my own imperfections, though somewhat reduced, are more visible than ever. I see with more clarity each time I lose patience with other people, going from zero to one hundred (figuratively) in a heartbeat.

Impatience is a member of the dosa family of impulses or patterns of behavior, along with hatred, resentment, anger, fear, and resistance. This is one of the three unwholesome roots that cause trouble for everyone except the fully awakened. For some, perhaps most of us, this is the biggest obstacle to freedom. For others, anger and hatred are muted, but greed is dominant. And for yet others, delusion – the mistaken idea that we know what’s happening – leads the way. All of us carry some portion of all three unwholesome roots, but it may be most productive for each of us to work on the one that creates the most problems for us. Patience will be useful in understanding and uprooting all three unwholesome roots in our hearts.

There are two main areas where we can develop patience with ourselves: our bodies and our minds. In both cases, we can bring the same compassion to ourselves that we would show to any friend who is struggling.

As we age, if we are sick, or if we carry the burden of chronic illness or disability, we have an opportunity to practice patient endurance. When we’re young and healthy, we may feel immortal; we’re strong and beautiful (enough) and what could possibly go wrong? The first wrinkles and grey hair or hair loss, remind us that everything that is born decays. Eventually we are forced to acknowledge our mortality, and facing this reality can elicit denial or panic. As with any dukkha, meeting it head-on is the only way to know its nature, and this may take compassionate persistence.

Our minds can be even harder to have patience with. We have some thoughts and feelings that we wish we didn’t have. Sometimes we try to push them aside or ignore them, but until we face our unwanted thoughts, they will keep on coming back like a whack-a-mole game.

When anger or resentment or irritation arises in the mind, rather than directing our frustration at others, we can make the attitudinal U-turn to examine the phenomenon precisely as it is. We can observe the fact: “irritation is arising”. It may seem very difficult to make the switch, but feelings and thoughts change so quickly that if we fully engage with what is happening, we will be able to watch it metamorphose into something else. Investigating in this way will eventually expose our dark sides to enough light to cause them to wither. In this way, we replace unwholesome habits with wisdom.


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Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Patience, Perfections