We live in tumultuous times. Every day we’re bombarded with bad news from around the world. On the home front we are facing epidemic levels of anxiety depression, economic instability, and alienation. It can all leave us feeling helpless and powerless. But we are neither.
Buddhist techniques and principles can help us build an internal reservoir of strength, courage, and wisdom that we can draw from even in the toughest times. With regular practice we can develop a fierce heart, and we can even use our suffering to do it. A fierce heart is one that can be with difficult emotions and circumstances without reacting to them in unhealthy ways. Cultivating a fierce heart is about learning to embrace it all, even the most painful aspects of our lives—every experience and all of ourselves. By opening up to our suffering we transform it.
The following techniques can help you hone a fierce heart for fierce times.
Unlock the Prison of the Mind
When we finally muster the courage to look inside, we discover that we are living in a prison constructed by our own mind. Until we start to pay attention we’re all just doing time. To free ourselves we have to unlock the door from inside. We can begin to do this by observing our thoughts, without reacting to them.
The ultimate goal is to uncover the ways we imprison ourselves, to realize that this elaborate system of thinking and behaving is constructed by our own mind. We cling to beliefs—family belief systems, national and cultural ideologies, ideas we’ve formed or that others have told us—about who we are. Recognizing both that our minds construct prisons and that we hold the key to freedom lays the groundwork for a fierce heart.
Be Present Now
Meditation teaches us how to be present, right now, right here. Using the body and the breath as objects, we cultivate awareness. Meditation practice is not an escape; it’s the opposite. True practice is learning to turn towards whatever is rising in the moment. It’s learning to be with the truth of things. This allows us to open up to our emotions, instead of being hijacked by them. The present moment is medicine for the mind. The more we can learn to be in it and experience it without judgment, the less likely we are to react in unhealthy ways to difficult emotions or situations. A fierce heart is a product of a mind that can live in the present moment. This mediation is designed to help you do that.
A Meditation for Coming into the Present Moment
To begin, just sit comfortably on a chair or a cushion. It helps if your back is aligned; this allows the energy in the body to move freely. Close your eyes lightly, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out, and with your mind’s eye, feel the breathing and the sensations in your body. Relax your neck and shoulders; maybe move your neck a bit and gently rotate your shoulders. Relax your face and your jaw, your arms and your hands, letting the blood flow as you inhale and exhale. Settling this way calms your nervous system. Now relax your belly and bring your awareness there. We often tense these muscles, holding energy in our midsection. Releasing any part of the body that’s holding back energy can have a profound effect on our state of mind and our health.Let yourself arrive here from the busyness of the day. Bring your awareness inside you. Notice the rhythm of your breathing. Don’t force it; this is not a breath exercise. Let your breathing be natural, relaxed. Just use the sounds you hear and the sensations you feel to help you be present. Observe the rising and falling of your abdomen with each breath. There’s nowhere to go; just “be here now.” Each time you notice your mind wandering, bring the focus gently back to a sensation, a feeling, or to your breathing. In mindfulness meditation, we return again and again to the breath, sensations, and sounds. As you breathe in, open to life as it is. It can be helpful to meditate for a set period of time, like twenty minutes or half an hour. Be gentle, have lightness of heart, and be kind toward your hard working body and mind. Be patient with yourself. Cultivating the mind is like tending a garden. At first, the soil is compacted and strewn with litter. The first stage is to sit and watch, to observe the garden of your mind. In doing so, you see that the mind has a mind of its own. You might think, “My mind is restless and crazy.” That’s okay. Open to that. It’s organic and perfect. The next stage is to till the soil. Open to whatever is happening, whatever is present for you. Maybe you have a heavy heart, sadness, fear, or stress. You can learn to work with all these states; you don’t need to repress them or try to escape. The way to freedom is always through, staying open to things as they are. We use our body as the ground to cultivate awareness. Our mind might be off somewhere else, but our body is always in the present moment. Notice the rhythm of your breathing. You’re not controlling the breath. You’re just becoming aware of it. Notice where you feel the breath. It might be in your nose or mouth, your chest or midsection. Sense the breath rising and falling. There’s no need to force or control anything; each process has its own rhythm. As you sit, sounds, sensations, thoughts, stories, and worries will arise. Let them be in the background. When you find that you’re caught in a story or a sensation, return to your breathing. Whatever happens—birds singing, even the sounds of traffic or people talking—open to the present moment. Meditation is not a task. We’re not trying to gain anything; we’re just learning how to be present.
Loving ourselves is a challenge in a world that often undermines our self-worth and sets narrow standards for personal success. When times turn difficult we can become especially likely to blame ourselves and turn our anger and fear inward in a way that amplifies our suffering. This is why the practice of developing self-love is a key tool for cultivating the fierce heart that can carry us through tough times.
In Buddhism, this practice is called Metta, and it is powerful and systematic way to build genuine self-love. Metta is self-respect, being able to look in the mirror and say, “Thank you, beloved. I honor and respect you.” It’s not pride or ego. It’s valuing our own spirit, the part of us that is noble and wise. The Pali word Metta derives from the word that means “friendliness.” It’s often translated “loving kindness.” Metta is wise love. By practicing Metta we can come to realize that we can give ourselves the love that we all desperately need.
The Metta practice is a form of radical purification that works to purify three distinct areas. The first is anger and hatred. Any time you declare to the universe that you are going to love yourself, look out! Everything that is not love will rise to the surface. Sometimes we sit and practice saying silently and a surge of hatred arises. You might think, “This isn’t working.” How is it possible that you’re sending yourself love, and hatred comes back at you? The blocks to opening the heart are revealing themselves. Now you have something to work with. Anger and hatred, especially self-hatred, are to be expected when doing any heart practice. The confused mind is at war with itself. This is exactly what you’re healing; don’t give up!
The second thing Metta purifies and heals is sorrow. When you’re getting closer to something precious, your heart breaks open. The tears are part of the healing process, like a cleanse. We’re removing walls and expanding the places that are the tightest. When we’re willing to be open, our heart gets touched. When we see how precious we are and how harsh we’ve been, something inside us just breaks.
The third thing you’ll encounter when you begin practicing Metta is numbness. You feel nothing. There’s a block; you might feel an energetic block—tightness in your chest or a feeling of being stuck. Some meditators think, “I don’t feel it. It’s not working.” Be patient. It happens one drop at a time. We’ve all been let down, betrayed, hurt, and abandoned. Healing a wound that has been sealed for decades won’t happen in a thirty-minute meditation. The work is to soften those blocks, to open what has been closed for a long time.
The practice of Metta can be truly healing because love is a refuge. A loving heart can make us feel safe. We can even learn to love our aches and pains, our tormenting thoughts, our rage, and our sorrow. We can hold these states with kindness. It might seem impossible at first. When I began practicing Metta, I would cry about the sadness I had experienced. But I kept practicing, and it was purification.
A Metta Meditation
To begin, sit down in a quiet place, put your hand on your heart, and focus on self care, compassion, and kindness. Visualize yourself sitting in front of you. Imagine that you are inhaling peace and exhaling kindness. Feel the love that surrounds you. Then recite, silently or aloud, phrases like, “May I be happy and peaceful. May I be safe and protected wherever I go. May I be healthy and strong in my body. May I live with ease and well-being.” Offer yourself an inner bow, a visualized flower, or some kindness, honoring your practice, bowing to the highest part of yourself, the awakened being that lives in you.