Yesterday on BART I was reading a little more from When Things Fall Apart. I realize that reading about Buddhism is a bit like reading difficult philosophy: the concepts aren’t ever immediately clear, and sometimes I have to stop at a chapter and go back and read the previous one, and even then I sometimes don’t get it and have to wait for life experience, further study, or meditation to illuminate the concept for me. But yesterday I was reading about Bodhichitta, “awakened heart,” and for probably the first time since beginning this journey I felt I understood something immediately.
Pema explains Bodhichitta as understanding “the pain of all beings.” Instead of running from suffering, Bodhichitta means that we cultivate the capacity to experience all suffering. With an awakened heart, we feel the pain of those suffering in Ethiopia, those dying of AIDS, those struggling with loss. We don’t turn our backs on suffering or try to shield ourselves from it; instead, we take it in with an awakened heart. As Pema says:
We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears and to caring only for the people nearest to us (87-88).
I’ve been trying, for the last day or so, to reconcile Bodhichitta with sensitivity. As a child I was often told to stop being so sensitive. Everything affected me. (It still does.) It wasn’t until my twenties when someone told me that being highly sensitive was a gift, that I was intuitive. What a beautiful reframing! And so when I read about Bodhichitta, I thought to myself, yes. I have an awakened heart.
But having an awakened heart can be an incredible burden, and that’s when my understanding starts to break down. Pema reminds us not to turn from suffering, but what if we…wallow in suffering? I can remember so many times over the years when, hearing about a tragedy that happened to someone I didn’t know at all, I started to cry. For example, I remember my brother telling me about a kid he knew who had been beaten to death with a baseball bat at a party and I completely lost it. My family was bewildered by my violent sobs. Nowadays, I feel an almost irrational drive to save endangered species. When I learn of a poached elephant, I start to cry. And when I heard about those three women who had been kidnapped ten years ago and kept locked up in a basement, I could barely see straight.
I have what might be called an active imagination; I can imagine suffering only too well. And so there has been a part of me that for many years has regretted this awakened heart of mine.
It’s popular, these days, to talk about “not taking something on.” As in, “That’s sad, but I just can’t take that on right now.” It’s self-protective. I usually admire someone who knows her boundaries enough to say something like that, and I have wanted to have that strength. But someone like me has a kind of permeable layer around her. I take on tragedy, I feel it, I take stuff on that’s not mine all the time. And it is painful, and difficult, and sometimes it means you don’t take care of yourself because you’re so busy worrying about other people.
That can’t be what the awakened heart is all about, can it?
Pema explains the concept of tonglen, in and out, and a practice where you breathe in the pain of others and breathe out peace and happiness to them. We’re talking about a practice that works on a tiny, micro-energetic level, here, but it strikes me as a beautiful and powerful concept. And I wonder if through tonglen I might turn what is a sometimes-unhealthy sensitivity into a more productive and more powerful practice of Bodhichitta.
I’m going to give it a try.