Awakening the Heart through Selfless Service

“If you want to be miserable, think about yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others. This is how we bring enlightened mind down to earth.”

These are the words of Sakyong Mipham, son of the prodigous Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa, who founded the Shambala Mountain Center and Naropa University, hubs of contemplative arts. I recently completed Mipham’s simple yet profound book, “Turning the Mind Into an Ally,” a text that relays great Buddhist teachings to the understanding of an American mindset.

I told myself that once I set foot at Ananda, I would immerse myself in nothing else but material related to this path – Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Kriyananda, Kriya & Raja yoga, discipleship, et al. However, after the moving Shambhala retreat last month, I have to – and want to – complete the books I purchased out of the bursting inspiration that took place upon completion of the mountain seclusion. And although some of what I’m processing contradicts my environment and practice, namely devotion, much of the shamatha ideals ring parallel to what I’m learning in karma yoga.

“To develop bodhichitta [awakened heart] involves a fundamental change of attitude. The point is to gradually change the object of our meditation from ourselves to others,” expresses Mipham. “Our mind has been so used to facing inward that it will take a transformation for it to face outward. In fact, our whole existence has been turned inward, so it is going to take some massaging to turn it around. This shift is sparked by seeing that the habit of always thinking of ourselves only keeps us unhappy. To extend ourselves to others is the route to true happiness.” In this way, just like the Buddha, our love and compassion grows bigger, by extending our open hearts toward everyone we meet. This is a practice to develop regularly. Like a muscle, our heart needs exercise too.

Seems theoretical, ideal, and common sense at first, but it’s harder to put into play than to preach. Sure we want to give love and sympathy unconditionally, but most of the time we withhold due to suffering of the past and future – worrying – the habitual nature of the mind. “…Sometimes in this world of plenty, we hide our box of chocolates when our friends come over. We’re at the market looking at a beautiful display of fruit, and we want the person in front of us to get out of the way so we can have first pick. Sometimes we’re even stingy with ourselves. We buy an article of clothing and we can’t let ourselves enjoy wearing it. We keep saving it for a special occasion. This level of greed only causes pain.” And holding on to anything is a way of holding on to ourselves. What results is the inability to see things for what they are and, instead, skew our reality through the lens of a jagged kaleidoscope.

The seva program, also known as karma yoga, has taught me these invaluable lessons. Serving with the community has brought out the goodness of my heart, which is by the very definition what a windhorse is – the basic goodness in each of us. There is no pay except the rewards that money can’t buy. It’s been two weeks now that I’ve been here and I’m getting the handle of things. I’ve had a few days working on my own, my comfort level is beyond home and more akin to what I described the other day as “heaven”, and I find myself feeling more contracted and scattered when I’m not here (when I go to town or the village down the road). Yogananda’s quote constantly comes to mind when I think about how uncomplicated my surroundings have become: “Simple living and high thinking lead to the greatest happiness.”

Last week I had a 12+ hour day and I hadn’t even flinched or thought about what I would get out of it. Obviously financial compensation is not a question, but even acknowledgment or or accolades. (I remember back home I would sometimes think about the financial and vacation gains of work when I didn’t feel like teaching.) I’m completely in the moment, receiving joy in being a part this holy meditation retreat. As Hesam, a fellow karma yogi at Expanding Light, put it: “Forget YTT [yoga teacher training] and MTT [meditation teacher training], karma yoga is the real deal.”

(Side note: this is what happens when you take two people out of the city and place them in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains – glow!)

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There was a silent retreat group over the weekend and I’ve lead sadhanas again in the Temple. Concentrating more on being a channel for the teachings, I’m feeling softer and softer. There was a beautiful kirtan, too, and I’m starting to explore the trails around the land.

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There’s plenty to enjoy in the book and video library as well. And, I continuously learn from the devotees who have been on this path for quite some time. One insightfully shared after meditation, for instance, “Think of what you say and do that will help others, rather than stimulate them.” This is, again, the essence of bodhichitta.

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This is not to say that Mipham negates our sometimes alienating mind. He says, “This is not to say that once we start meditating, everything will work out and we’ll have no problems. We’ll still have disagreements with friends and family, we’ll still get parking tickets, we’ll still miss flights, we’ll still burn the toast on occasion. Meditation doesn’t take us to the end of the rainbow [although the Ananda path would sit on the contrary] – it opens the possibility of completely embodying our enlightened qualities by making our mind an ally.”

“When we meditate,” he adds, “we’re training ourselves to see our weak points and strengthen our positive ones. We’re altering our basic perception. We’re beginning to change how we relate to the world – but not forcefully.”

Hesam and I agreed to focus on one of the yamas & niyamas a week when relating to our new world. The yamas and niyamas are yoga’s ten ethical guidelines that are the foundation of the yogic path. We decided we would observe in our environment as well as practice – and see where we struggle to practice – each moral code. The first yama we decided to focus on was Non-Greed (aparigraha). Basically this means letting go of all attachments, another ringing bell in the party of Buddha. This includes things that are ours by right. With this, we can see how saints and sages stand for peace over rights and principle. Gossiping is also considered an offense to aparigraha as it exercises insecurity in oneself and need to defame another, in fear that oneself is not enough. This is a more subtle example. A more obvious one is the attachment we have to our own body and identity and, so, I thought for a few days about “me” as a daughter, sister, teacher, yogi, vegan, and all the little subconscious and conscious expectations I create for myself. I even caught myself saying, in the few days of practice, “you’re practicing karma yoga now and should give yourself like x, y, and z.” To my surprise, greed can come in many forms, and it can take place in spiritual materialism and spiritual pride. I also found myself thinking about not having enough time, not enough time to finish projects, worrying about not having enough time in the week to commute to a part-time job, and underscoring time when grading essays roll around for my UNLV online composition classes. These are all forms of greed.

I drew a connection when Mipham warns about combining worldly aims with spiritual practice. He says, “Many practitioners in our culture are motivated by worldly concerns and use spirituality to successfully accomplish their wishes.” We see this happening with the yoga industry in the west today – using spirituality as a means to profit. “It’s fine to use spiritual practice to get what we want. People have always made offerings to the gods in order to ensure a plentiful harvest. It should be clear, however, that at the heart of this motivation lies the desire to please ourselves. The danger of this motivation is that we can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re becoming less worldly when what we’re really doing is distorting practice to fortify our comfort zone. This is a common pitfall, not a crime.” This made me contemplate, what is my motivation in this service? To sincerely awaken love in my heart and all hearts or to feed the spiritual hunger of the ego? Assuredly it can’t, and I don’t want, the latter!

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Ironically, having Non-Greed in mind, I came across Mipham’s practical advice: “We must use common sense, however. It’s important to attend to ourselves first. It’s like putting on our own oxygen mask when the airplane loses altitude; then we can help others put on theirs. Also, we shouldn’t take on projects that are too big, that we’re unable to finish. For example, the people who travel with me when I go to India each year to study are often overwhelmed by the poverty and suffering they see. It makes them feel frantic – how will we help all these people? Too big an approach will only dishearten us, undermine our activity. Perhaps we start with just one person, one family. It’s important to pick acts of compassion or kindness that we can complete. Then we can make the next one slightly bigger. It may not always be a smooth ride, but we never give up. We now see clearly that every action is an opportunity to ripen the mind of enlightenment, and we really want to go forward. The armor of exertion is also the armor of joy.”

“Joy” is one of the prominent ideals here at Ananda. There is emphasis on service, cooperation, collaboration, intention, and Spirit. Through these focuses, joy comes naturally. Swami Kriyananda, founder of Ananda, says in The Art and Science of Raja Yoga that “All progress in yoga comes through a relaxation effort.” So, service and work should strike a balance between exertion and peacefulness. What a real paradox! Thinking about self-less service and bodhichitta in the last few days, there’s truth in joy and the heart-opening facets of resigning ego likes and dislikes.

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Furthermore, Mipham defines samsara and karma, the former being everything we experience, all the ups and downs of life and a wheel that is endlessly spinning; the latter being the action of cause and effect and what keeps us here in this human experience. According to Buddhist philosophy, samsara will always have the last word. There is always one more thing to make us happy. One thing leads to the next, perpetuated by an endless desire to have final satisfaction. The next experience wears off, and we move on to the next thing. “We need to eat, then we need to listen to music, then we need to watch a movie, then we need to relax in a bath. The desire to feel satisfied is a continual process that drives our lives, and the end result is suffering.” Samsara is not a sin, but it ends up happening when we’re driven by negative emotions. The Buddha believed we keep ourselves on this wheel lifetime after lifetime. (I highly recommend reviewing Mipham’s section on the three forms of suffering: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering.)

Mipham elaborates samsara not to feel overwhelmed or depressed, but to wake up to what samsara is and stop being fooled by it. This appears to mirror the illusions of our greed. Once we can identify these things, we can give up the attitude that one of our schemes and clever ideas will result in permanent pleasure. We can recognize, rise above, and emerge from such delusions.

“Why are we so happy? Because we’re free of ‘me.’ Working to make ‘me’ happy only causes pain. Working for the happiness of others brings joy. We’re not practicing bodhichitta because it’s good for us; we’re practicing it because we know the living empty brilliant truth of basic goodness. When we know this truth, extending love and compassion is all there is to do,” pronounces Mipham.

“True prajna, true knowledge, is direct experience. It’s knowing without the filter of self. Direct experience is wisdom itself – unborn, unceasing, neither still nor moving.” Maybe Hesam was onto something when he said that karma yoga – such a personal and direct experience – is the real deal, and a great teacher.

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By this merit, may all attain omniscience
May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing
For the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death
From the ocean of samsara, may I free all beings.

By the confidence of the Golden Sun of the Great East
May the lotus garden of the Rigdens’ wisdom bloom
May the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled
May all beings enjoy profound, brilliant glory.

 

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