A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life - by Jack Kornfield


We can actually converse with our heart as if it were a good friend. 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?

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.

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.


It is best to begin by repeating it over and over for fifteen or twenty minutes once or twice daily in a quiet place for several months. At first this meditation may feel mechanical or awkward or even bring up its opposite, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. In its own time, even in the face of inner difficulties, loving-kindness will develop. Recite inwardly the following phrases directed to yourself. You begin with yourself because without loving yourself it is almost impossible to love others. May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.

When you feel ready, in the same meditation period you can gradually expand the focus of your loving-kindness to include others. After yourself, choose a benefactor, someone in your life who has truly cared for you. Picture them and carefully recite the same phrases, May he/she be filled with loving-kindness, and so forth. When loving-kindness for your benefactor has developed, begin to include other people you love in the meditation, picturing them and reciting the same phrases, evoking a sense of loving-kindness for them. After this you can gradually begin to include others: friends, community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, the whole earth, and all beings. Then you can even experiment with including the most difficult people in your life, wishing that they, too, be filled with loving-kindness and peace. With some practice a steady sense of loving-kindness can develop and in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes you will be able to include many beings in your meditation, moving from yourself, to a benefactor and loved ones, to all beings everywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses and airplanes, in doctors' waiting rooms, and in a thousand other circumstances. As you silently practice this loving-kindness meditation among people, you will immediately feel a wonderful connection with them--the power of loving-kindness.

Stopping The War

The unawakened mind tends to make war against the way things are. We use denial to turn away from the pains and difficulties of life. We use addictions to support our denial.

The purpose of a spiritual discipline is to give us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organically, through understanding and gradual training. Ongoing spiritual practice can help us cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our battles. When we let go of our battles and open our heart to things as they are, then we come to rest in the present moment. This is the beginning and the end of spiritual practice. Only in this moment can we discover that which is timeless. Only here can we find the love that we seek. Love in the past is simply memory, and love in the future is fantasy. Only in the reality of the present can we love, can we awaken, can we find peace and understanding and connection with ourselves and the world.

As we stop the war, each of us will find something from which we have been running--our loneliness, our unworthiness, our boredom, our shame, our unfulfilled desires. We must face these parts of ourselves as well. To live in the present demands an ongoing and unwavering commitment. As we follow a spiritual path, we are required to stop the war not once but many times. Over and over we feel the familiar tug of thoughts and reactions that take us away from the present moment.

Take The One Seat

The image of taking the one seat describes two related aspects of spiritual work. Outwardly, it means selecting one practice and teacher among all of the possibilities, and inwardly, it means having the determination to stick with that practice through whatever difficulties and doubts arise until you have come to true clarity and understanding.

If we do a little of one kind of practice and a little of another, the work we have done in one often doesn't continue to build as we change to the next. It is as if we were to dig many shallow wells instead of one deep one. In continually moving from one approach to another, we are never forced to face our own boredom, impatience, and fears. We are never brought face to face with ourselves. So we need to choose a way of practice that is deep and ancient and connected with our hearts, and then make a commitment to follow it as long as it takes to transform ourselves.

When we take the one seat on our meditation cushion we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things; sorrows, loneliness, shame, desire, regret, frustration, happiness.


Let your body be seated comfortably in your chair or on your cushion. Take a posture that is stable, erect, and connected with the earth. Sit as the Buddha did on his night of enlightenment, with great dignity and centeredness, sensing your capacity to face anything that arises. Let your eyes close and let your attention turn to your breathing. Let your breath move freely through your body. Let each breath bring a calmness and an ease. As you breathe, sense your capacity to open in body, heart, and mind. Open your senses, your feelings, your thoughts. Become aware of what feels closed in your body, closed in your heart, closed in your mind. Breathe and make space. Let the space open so that anything may arise. Let the windows of your senses open. Be aware of whatever feelings, images, sounds, and stories show themselves. Notice with interest and ease all that presents itself to you. Continue to feel your steadiness and connectedness to the earth, as if you had taken the one seat in the center of life and opened yourself to an awareness of its dance. As you sit, reflect on the benefit of balance and peace in your life. Sense your capacity to rest unshakably as the seasons of life change. All that arises will pass away. Reflect on how joys and sorrows, pleasant events and unpleasant events, individuals, nations, even civilizations, arise and pass away. Take the one seat of a Buddha and rest with a heart of equanimity and compassion in the center of it all. Sit this way, dignified and present, for as long as you wish. After some time, still feeling centered and steady, open your eyes. Then let yourself stand up and take some steps, walking with the same centeredness and dignity. Practice sitting and walking in this fashion, sensing your ability to be open, alive, and present with all that arises on this earth.

Necessary Healing

Almost everyone who undertakes a true spiritual path will discover that a profound personal healing is a necessary part of his or her spiritual process. When this need is acknowledged, spiritual practice can be directed to bring such healing to body, heart, and mind. As Achaan Chah put it, "If you haven't cried deeply a number of times, your meditation hasn't really begun."

Healing takes place when we begin to bring the power of awareness and loving attention to each area of our life with the systematic practice of mindfulness. The Buddha spoke of cultivating awareness in four fundamental aspects of life that he called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These areas of mindfulness are: awareness of the body and senses, awareness of the heart and feelings, awareness of the mind and thoughts, and awareness of the principles that govern life. (In Sanskrit these principles are called the dharma, or the universal laws.) The development of awareness in these four areas is the basis for all of the Buddhist practices of insight and awakening.

Bringing systematic attention to our body can change our whole relationship to our physical life. We can notice more clearly the rhythms and needs of our bodies. Let your attention drop beneath the superficial level that just notices "pleasure," "tension," or "pain." Examine the pain and unpleasant sensations you usually block out. With careful mindfulness, you will allow "pain" to show itself to have many layers.

As we notice our thoughts in meditation, we discover that they are not in our control--we swim in an uninvited constant stream of memories, plans, expectations, judgments, regrets. Healing the mind takes place in two ways: In the first, we bring attention to the content of our thoughts and learn to redirect them more skillfully through practices of wise reflection. Through mindfulness, we can come to know and reduce the patterns of unhelpful worry and obsession, we can clarify our confusion and release destructive views and opinions. We can use conscious thought to reflect more deeply on what we value. However, even though we work to reeducate the mind, we can never be completely successful. The mind seems to have a will of its own no matter how much we wish to direct it. So, for a deeper healing of the conflicts of the mind, we need to let go of our identification with them. To heal, we must learn to step back from all the stories of the mind, for the conflicts and opinions of our thoughts never end.

The last aspect of mindful healing is awareness of the universal laws that govern life. Central to it is an understanding of emptiness. In Buddhist teaching, "emptiness" refers to a basic openness and nonseparation that we experience when all small and fixed notions of our self are seen through or dissolved. We experience it when we see that our existence is transitory, that our body, heart, and mind arise out of the changing web of life, where nothing is disconnected or separate. The deepest experiences in meditation lead us to an intimate awareness of life's essential openness and emptiness, of its everchanging and unpossessable nature, of its nature as an unstoppable process. As our meditation practice deepens, we are able to see the movement of our experience. We note feelings and find that they last for only a few seconds. We pay attention to thoughts and find that they are ephemeral, that they come and go, uninvited, like clouds. We bring our awareness to the body and find that its boundaries are porous. In this practice, our sense of the solidity of a separate body or a separate mind starts to dissolve, and suddenly, unexpectedly, we find out how much at ease we are. As our meditation deepens still further, we experience expansiveness, delight, and the freedom of our interconnectedness with all things, with the great mystery of our life. Healing comes in touching this realm of nonseparation. We discover that our fears and desires, our attempts to enhance and defend ourselves, are based on delusion, on a sense of separateness that is fundamentally untrue.

Training The Puppy: Mindfulness of Breathing

Concentration is never a matter of force or coercion. You simply pick up the puppy again and return to reconnect with the here and now. Concentration combines full interest with delicacy of attention. This attention should not be confused with being removed or detached. Awareness does not mean separating ourselves from experience; it means allowing it and sensing it fully. Awareness can vary like a zoom lens. Sometimes we are in the middle of our experience. Sometimes it is as if we sit on our own shoulder and notice what is present, and sometimes we can be aware with a great spacious distance. All of these are useful aspects of awareness. They each can help us sense and touch and see our life more clearly from moment to moment. As we learn to steady the quality of our attention, it is accompanied by a deeper and deeper sense of stillness--poised, exquisite, and subtle.

It takes a gentleness and a kindhearted understanding to deepen the art of concentration. We can't be present for a long period without actually softening, dropping into our bodies, coming to rest. Any other kind of concentration, achieved by force and tension, will only be short-lived. Our task is to train the puppy to become our lifelong friend. The attitude or spirit with which we do our meditation helps us perhaps more than any other aspect. What is called for is a sense of perseverance and dedication combined with a basic friendliness. We need a willingness to directly relate again and again to what is actually here, with a lightness of heart and sense of humor. We do not want the training of our puppy to become too serious a matter.


After some practice with walking meditation, you will learn to use it to calm and collect yourself and to live more wakefully in your body. You can then extend your walking practice in an informal way when you go shopping, whenever you walk down the street or walk to or from your car. You can learn to enjoy walking for its own sake instead of the usual planning and thinking and, in this simple way, begin to be truly present, to bring your body, heart, and mind together as you move through your life.


Turning Straw Into Gold

The basic principle of spiritual life is that our problems become the very place to discover wisdom and love. In difficulties, we can learn the true strength of our practice.

As we follow a genuine path of practice, our sufferings may seem to increase because we no longer hide from them or from ourselves. When we do not follow the old habits of fantasy and escape, we are left facing the actual problems and contradictions of our life.

Often from our seeming weaknesses we can learn a new way. The things we do well, where we have developed our greatest self-confidence, can become habitual, bringing a sense of false security. They are not where our spiritual life will best open. If it is our strength to think through things carefully, then thoughts will not be our best spiritual teacher. If it is already our way to follow our strong feelings, then feelings are not where we will learn best. The place where we can most directly open to the mystery of life is in what we don't do well, in the places of our struggles and vulnerability. These places always require surrender and letting go: When we let ourselves become vulnerable, new things can be born in us.


Sit quietly, feeling the rhythm of your breathing, allowing yourself to become calm and receptive. Then think of a difficulty that you face in your spiritual practice or anywhere in your life. As you sense this difficulty, notice how it affects your body, heart, and mind. Feeling it carefully, begin to ask yourself a few questions, listening inwardly for their answers. How have I treated this difficulty so far? How have I suffered by my own response and reaction to it? What does this problem ask me to let go of? What suffering is unavoidable, is my measure to accept? What great lesson might it be able to teach me? What is the gold, the value, hidden in this situation? In using this reflection to consider your difficulties, the understanding and openings may come slowly. Take your time. As with all meditations, it can be helpful to repeat this reflection a number of times, listening each time for deeper answers from your body, heart, and spirit.


A traditional skillful (and at times humorous) reflection can be used to change our relationship to difficulties. The image of this meditation can be easily developed and brought to our daily life. Picture or imagine that this earth is filled with Buddhas, that every single being you encounter is enlightened, except one--yourself! Imagine that they are all here to teach you. Whoever you encounter is acting as they do solely for your benefit, to provide just the teachings and difficulties you need in order to awaken. Sense what lessons they offer to you. Inwardly thank them for this. Throughout a day or a week continue to develop the image of enlightened teachers all around you. Notice how it changes your whole perspective on life.

Naming The Demons

Whether difficulties or pleasures, the naming of our experience is the first step in bringing them to a wakeful conscious attention.

In developing the naming practice, stay focused on your breathing unless a stronger experience arises to interrupt your attention. Then include this stronger experience in the meditation, feeling it fully and naming it softly for as long as it persists--"hearing, hearing, hearing" or "sad, sad, sad." When it passes, return to naming the breath until another strong experience arises. Keep the meditation simple, focusing on one thing at a time. Continue to name whatever is most prominent in each moment, being aware of the everchanging stream of your life.

Anger, fear, desire--the process of all of these forces can be studied. They arise according to certain conditions, and when they're here, they affect the body and mind in a certain way. If we are not caught up in them, we can observe them as if they were a storm and see that after they are here for a time, like a storm, they pass away. We become angry either when we are hurt and in pain or when we are afraid. Pay attention to your own life and see if this is true. The next time anger and irritation spring up, see if just before they arose you felt fear or hurt. If you pay attention to the fear or pain first, does the anger even appear?

Sometimes when the demons are most difficult, we can use a variety of temporary practices that function to dispel them and act as antidotes. For desire, one traditional antidote is to reflect on the brevity of life, on the fleeting nature of outer satisfaction, and on death. For anger, an antidote is the cultivation of thoughts of loving-kindness and an initial degree of forgiveness. For sleepiness, an antidote is to arouse energy through steady posture, visualization, inspiration, breath. For restlessness, an antidote is to bring concentration through inner techniques of calming and relaxation. And for doubt, an antidote is faith and inspiration gained through reading or discussion with someone wise. However, the most important practice is our naming and acknowledging these demons, expanding our capacity to be free in their midst. Applying antidotes is like using Band-Aids, while awareness opens and heals the wound itself.


Choose one of the most frequent and difficult demons that arises in your practice, such as irritation, fear, boredom, lust, doubt, or restlessness. For one week in your daily meditation, be particularly aware each time this state arises. Carefully name it. Notice how it begins and what precedes it. Notice if there is a particular thought or image that triggers this state. Notice how long it lasts and when it ends. Notice what state usually follows it. Observe whether it ever arises very slightly or softly. Can you see it as just a whisper in the mind? See how loud and strong it gets. Notice what patterns of energy or tension reflect this state in the body. Soften and receive even the resistance. Finally, sit and be aware of your breath, watching and waiting for this demon, allowing it to come and go, greeting it like an old friend.


The inner forces of your life, the forces of reaction and wisdom, move through you as a source of all your action. Before every voluntary action and movement of our body there is a thought, an impulse or direction that comes from our mind. Often this impulse is subconscious, below the level of awareness. You can learn about how you respond to these forces and impulses by observing their action within you. As you observe this process, the interrelationship of your body and mind will become clear. In this you will discover a whole new capacity to be free and at ease in the face of difficulties. A simple way to learn about how impulses operate is to focus on the ones that pull you to get up from meditation. In your daily meditation practice, make a resolve that for one week you will not get up until a strong impulse to do so arises three times. Sit as you usually would, being mindful of your breath, body, and mind. But do not set a fixed time for the end of your meditation. Instead, sit until a strong impulse tells you to get up. Notice its quality. It may arise from restlessness, from hunger, from knee pain, from thinking about how much you have to do, or the need to go to the bathroom. Softly name the energy that has arisen and with it sense the impulse to move. Feel it carefully in your body, naming, "wanting to get up, wanting to get up," staying with it for as long as it lasts. (This is rarely more than a minute.) Then after this impulse has passed, notice what it feels like now and if your meditation has deepened from sitting through the whole impulse process. Continue to sit until a second impulse to arise pulls you strongly. Notice the whole process in the same way as before. Finally, after a third time of carefully being with the whole impulse process, allow yourself to get up. The depth of your attention and centeredness will gradually grow through this practice. If you wish, you can extend your observation to other strong impulses, noting the whole process of wanting to scratch an itch, to move while sitting, to eat, or to do other things. Being aware in this way will gradually teach you to stay centered, to have a capacity to take a few breaths and feel the changing responses to situations in your life rather than reacting to them automatically. You will begin to discover a center of balance and understanding in the face of the forces of your life.

Difficult Problems and Insistent Visitors

When any experience of body, heart, or mind keeps repeating in consciousness, it is a signal that this visitor is asking for a deeper and fuller attention. While the general rule in meditation is to stay open to the flow of whatever arises, when we encounter an insistent visitor, we must recognize that this is its way of asking us to give it more attention, to understand it more clearly. This process involves investigation, acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness.

A repeated difficulty will be predominantly felt in one of the four basic areas of mindfulness. It will come either in the realm of the body, in the realm of feelings, in the realm of mind (thoughts and images), or in the realm of our basic attitudes (grasping, fear, aversion, etc.). Expanding the field of attention requires that we become aware of another dimension of the insistent visitor and not just notice its predominant face. This is because invariably we are stuck on a different level from the obvious one we have been noticing and naming. Release will only take place when we can shift from that which is obvious to one of the other levels of awareness.

The task in meditation is to drop below the level of the repeated recorded message, to sense and feel the energy that brings it up. When we can do this, and truly come to terms with the feeling, the thought will no longer need to arise, and the pattern will naturally fade away.

It is the feeling level that controls most of our inner life, yet often we are truly unconscious of our feelings. In Buddhist psychology bringing consciousness to feelings is critical for awakening. It can be a very interesting meditation exercise to focus specifically on our feelings for several days. We can name each one and see which ones we are afraid of, which we are entangled by, which generate stories, and how we become free. "Free" is not free from feelings, but free to feel each one and let it move on, unafraid of the movement of life. We can apply this to the difficult patterns that arise for us. We can sense what feeling is at the center of each experience and open to it fully. This is a movement toward freedom.

As skill in meditation develops, it becomes possible to simply let go of certain difficult states as soon as they arise. This letting go has no aversion in it--it is a directed choice to abandon one mind state and calmly focus our concentration in a more skillful way in the next moment. This ability arises through practice. It comes as our composure grows. It can be cultivated but never forced.

Let's face it, we act out most of our desires anyway. In the fifth way, we take whatever difficulty has repeated itself, and fulfill it while being fully aware of what is happening throughout the whole process. There are two restrictions for taking this as a practice. First, it must not be genuinely harmful to yourself or any other being. Second, it must be done mindfully. Thus, if it is a desire, we act on it, paying meticulous attention the whole time. If it is something that needs to be expressed, we express it, observing our attention, the state of mind, the feeling in the body, the constriction or openness of heart as we do it. We observe the entire process and let the experience, the feelings in our body, and the consequences become our teacher. This is a somewhat advanced form of practice. It does not mean repeatedly binging or acting out our compulsion over and over. It means doing it once while being truly present and honestly awake for all that happens, learning from the first action to the last consequence.


No Boundaries to The Sacred

To fulfill spiritual life we must cease dividing our life into compartments. We have only now, only this single eternal moment opening and unfolding before us day and night. To see this truth is to realize that the sacred and secular cannot be divided. Even the most transcendent visions of spirituality must shine through the here and now and be brought to life in how we walk, eat, and love one another.

Often we will unconsciously draw our spirituality back to the polarity of good and bad, sacred and profane. Unknowingly we re-create patterns of our early life that helped us survive the pain, trauma, and dysfunction many of us experienced as children. If our childhood defense for pain was to get lost in fantasy, we may seek a spiritual life of visions to get lost in. If we compensated for loneliness and feelings of inadequacy by being compulsive or driven, our spirituality may reflect that.

The near enemy of equanimity is indifference. True equanimity is balance in the midst of experience, whereas indifference is a withdrawal and not caring, based on fear. It is a running away from life. Thus, with equanimity, the heart is open to touch all things, both the seasons of joy and sorrow. The voice of indifference withdraws, saying, "Who cares. I'm not going to let it affect me."

We must see that spirituality is a continual movement away from compartmentalization and separation and toward embracing all of life. We must especially learn the art of directing mindfulness into the closed areas of our life. When we do, we will face the patterns from personal history, the conditioning that shields us from the pains of the past. We must find in ourselves a willingness to go into the dark, to feel the holes and deficiencies, the weakness, rage, or insecurity that we have walled off in ourselves. We must bring a deep attention to the stories we tell about these shadows, to see what is the underlying truth.

No Self or True Self?

There are two parallel tasks in spiritual life. One is to discover selflessness, the other is to develop a healthy sense of self. Both sides of that apparent paradox must be fulfilled for us to awaken.

Our world and sense of self is a play of patterns. Any identity we can grasp is transient, tentative.

Confusion happens when "emptiness" is misunderstood as "meaninglessness." This misperception can reinforce our underlying depression and fear of the world, justifying our inability to find beauty or our lack of motivation to participate in life. An understanding of the mystical emptiness of things is not at all passive; the mark of true emptiness is joy; it enlivens the appreciation of the mystery of life as it appears to us each moment out of the void.

Whatever we practice we will become. We can choose to strengthen our courage, loving-kindness, and compassion, evoking them in ourselves through reflection, meditation, attention, and repeated training. We can also choose to abandon pride, resentment, fear, and contraction when they arise, leaving flexibility and openness as the ground for healthy development.


In many spiritual traditions, repeatedly asking yourself the question "Who am I?" or a variation such as "Who is carrying this body?" is the central practice offered for awakening. Without being aware of it, you take many things as your identity: your body, your race, your beliefs, your thoughts. Yet very quickly with sincere questioning, you will find yourself sensing a deeper level of truth. As this question is repeated, all sorts of answers may arise. You may first find yourself saying, "I am a man" or "I am a woman" or "I am a father," "I am a nurse," "I am a teacher," "I am a meditator." Then your answers may become more interesting: "I am a mirror," "I am love," "I am a fool," "I am alive," or whatever. The answers themselves do not matter, they are part of a deepening process. Just keep gently listening for an answer each time you are asked. If no answer arises, stay with that empty space until one comes. If confusion, fear, laughter, or tears arise, stay with them too. Keep answering anyway. Keep letting go into the process. Let yourself enjoy this meditation.

Finding and Working With a Teacher

Those who attempt to practice alone are almost inevitably more confused or lacking in spiritual depth than those who have practiced under a skillful teacher.

There are two qualities that are most important to bring to our work with a spiritual teacher. They are our common sense and our sincere commitment. In working with a teacher to learn a spiritual practice, we are simultaneously developing a relationship with the teacher. The relationship, too, asks for our commitment. In it we learn to trust the teacher, the practice, and ourselves in deeper and deeper ways. We are asked, over and over, to persist in its development, to stay with it, to give ourselves to it, to bring our full heart and energy to the practice and the teacher.

Psychotherapy and Meditation

In every tradition, even the most successful Western seekers will, after periods of powerful meditation and deep insights, reencounter painful patterns, fear, and unconsciousness in whole other parts of their lives. We may experience understanding and peace in meditation, but when we return to the problems of daily life or visit our families or even fall in love, suddenly old patterns of suffering, neurosis, attachment, and delusion can be as strong as ever. We have to find ways to include them on our path.

When we have not completed the basic developmental tasks of our emotional lives or are still quite unconscious in relation to our parents and families, we will find that we are unable to deepen in our spiritual practice. Without dealing with these issues, we will not be able to concentrate during meditation, or we will find ourselves unable to bring what we have learned in meditation into our interaction with others.

Karma: The Heart is Our Garden

The law of karma describes the way that cause and effect govern the patterns that repeat themselves throughout all life. Karma means that nothing arises by itself. Every experience is conditioned by that which precedes it. Thus our life is a series of interrelated patterns.

We live in a sea of conditioning patterns that we repeat over and over, yet we rarely notice this process. We can understand the workings of karma in our lives most clearly by looking at this process of cause and effect in our ordinary activities and by observing how the repetitive patterns of our own mind affect our behavior. These patterns and tendencies are often much stronger than our conscious intentions. Whatever our circumstances, it is old habits that will create the way we live. Our task is to learn about this very body and mind and awaken in the midst of it. Understanding the play of karma is one aspect of awakening. If we are not aware, our life will simply follow the pattern of our past habits over and over. But if we can awaken, we can make conscious choices in how we respond to the circumstances of our life. We may or may not be able to change our outer circumstances, but with awareness we can always change our inner attitude, and this is enough to transform our life.

The intention or attitude that we bring to each situation of life determines the kind of karma that we create. When we pay attention, it becomes possible to become more aware of our intentions and the state of our heart as they arise in conjunction with the actions and speech that are our responses. Usually we are unconscious of them. The development of awareness in meditation allows us to become mindful enough or conscious enough to recognize our heart and intentions as we go through the day. We can be aware of the different states of fear, wanting, confusion, jealousy, and anger. We can know when forgiveness or love or generosity is connected with our actions. When we know what state is in our heart, we can begin to have a choice about the patterns or conditions we will follow, the kind of karma that we create.

Try working with this kind of awareness in your life. Practice it with your speech. Pay very careful attention and notice the state of your heart, the intention, as you speak about even the smallest matter. Is your intention to be protected, to grasp, to defend yourself? Is your intention to open out of concern, compassion, or love? As you cultivate kind and skillful intention, you can then practice it at the gas station or the supermarket, in the workplace, or in traffic. The intention that we bring creates the pattern that results.

Daily Life as Meditation

When the heart is undivided, whatever we encounter is our practice. There is no difference between sitting in meditation in dedicated silence or acting in every realm.

Spiritual practice should not become an excuse to withdraw from life when difficulties arise. Meditation practice of any sort would not get very far if we stopped meditating every time we encountered a difficulty.

Suppose you considered your neighborhood to be your temple--how would you treat your temple, and what would be your spiritual task there?


Imagine yourself five years from now as you would most like to be, having done all the things you want to have done, having contributed all the things you want to contribute in the most heartfelt way. What is your greatest source of happiness? What is the thing you've done by which you feel the world is most blessed? What is the contribution you could make to the world that would give you the most satisfaction? To make this contribution to the world, what unworthiness would you have to relinquish? To make this contribution to the world, what strengths and capacities would you have to recognize in yourself and others? What would you have to do in your life today to begin this service, this contribution? Why not begin?


Pick and refine one of the five precepts as a way to cultivate and strengthen virtue and mindfulness. Work with that precept meticulously for one week. Then examine the results and choose another precept for a subsequent week. Here are some possible ways to work with each precept.

  1. Refraining from killing: reverence for life. Undertake for one week to purposely bring no harm in thought, word, or deed to any living creature. Particularly become aware of any living beings in your world whom you ignore (people, animals, even plants), and cultivate a sense of care and reverence for them too.

  2. Refraining from stealing: care with material things. Undertake for one week to minimize consumption--driving less, spending less, letting each physical act be one of caring stewardship and respect. Then undertake for one week to act on every single thought of generosity that arises spontaneously in your heart.

  3. Refraining from false speech: speech from the heart. Undertake for one week not to gossip (positively or negatively) or speak about anyone you know who is not present with you (any third party).

  4. Refraining from sexual misconduct: conscious sexuality. Undertake for one week to observe meticulously how often sexual feelings and thoughts arise in your consciousness. Each time, note what particular mind states you find associated with them, such as love, tension, compulsion, caring, loneliness, desire for communication, greed, pleasure, aggression, and so forth.

  5. Refraining from intoxicants. Undertake for one week or one month to refrain from all intoxicants and addictive substances (such as wine, liquor, marijuana, cigarettes, and caffeine). Observe the impulses to use these, and become aware of what is going on in the heart and mind at the time of those impulses.


The qualities of spiritual maturity:

  1. Nonidealism.

  2. Kindness.

  3. Patience.

  4. Immediacy. Spiritual awakening is found in our own life here and now.

  5. A sense of the sacred that is integrated and personal. "Integrated" in that it does not create separate compartments of our life, dividing that which is sacred from that which is not; "personal" in honoring spirituality through our own words and actions.

  6. Questioning.

  7. Flexibility. All of the spiritual vehicles are rafts to cross the stream to freedom.

  8. Embracing opposites. A capacity to hold the contradictions of life in our heart.

  9. Relationship.

  10. Ordinariness. In some traditions this is called post-enlightenment practice.

The circumstances of our life bring us certain motifs, tasks to fulfill, difficulties we must face, and lessons to learn. We turn these into our story, our song. As we listen deeply we can hear what part we have chosen, how we have created our identity in the face of the mystery. Yet we must ask: Is this who we are? Spiritual practice is revolutionary. It allows us to step outside the limited view of personal identity, of culture, and of religion and experience more directly the great mystery of life, the great music of life. The aim of meditation is to open us to this here and now.

The difference between one who is awakened and one who is not is simply a question of whether or not the person grasps at a limited story. So the Buddha said, "Those who are unawakened grasp their thoughts and feelings, their body, their perceptions and consciousness, and take them as solid, separate from the rest. Those who are awakened have the same thoughts and feelings, perceptions, body, and consciousness, but they are not grasped, not held, not taken as oneself."


To cultivate equanimity, sit in a comfortable posture with your eyes closed. Bring a soft attention to your breath until your body and mind are calm. Then begin by reflecting on the benefit of a mind that has balance and equanimity. Sense what a gift it can be to bring a peaceful heart to the world around you. Let yourself feel an inner sense of balance and ease. Then begin repeating such phrases as, May I be balanced and at peace. Acknowledge that all created things arise and pass away: joys, sorrows, pleasant events, people, buildings, animals, nations, even whole civilizations. Let yourself rest in the midst of them. May I learn to see the arising and passing of all nature with equanimity and balance. May I be open and balanced and peaceful. Acknowledge that all beings are heirs to their own karma, that their lives arise and pass away according to conditions and deeds created by them. May I bring compassion and equanimity to the events of the world. May I find balance and equanimity and peace.

Enlightenment is intimacy with all things. There is only one place where love can be found, where intimacy and awakening can be found, and that is in the present. When we live in our thoughts of the past and future, everything seems distant, hurried, or unfulfilled.

To learn intimacy is not an easy thing. Like following the breath or walking in meditation step by step, it is learned again and again as we relinquish the fears and conditions that keep us from one another. These barriers and fears, the memories of our past sufferings arise when we come close to one another, when we come close to the mystery of the moment. Many times we will feel our hesitation and tentativeness, a holding back. Yet this, too, can be touched with our intimate attention. And then in a moment we can let go of ourselves, be open and be here, awake and wholly present. Over and over when the world offers itself to us for our awakening, all we have to do is meet it.

Rumi reminds us not to sit with sorrow alone.

When you go to a garden, do you look at thorns or flowers?
Spend more time with roses and jasmine.