The Mind and the Heart

The “Jewel in the Lotus” is the translation of the universal compassion mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” While it has many meanings, one explanation of its symbolism is that compassion arises when the jewel of the mind rests in the lotus of the heart. The awakened mind has a diamond-like clarity. When this clear insight rests in the heart’s tender compassion, both dimensions of liberation are fulfilled.

In Buddhist psychology, mind and heart are often described by one word- “citta.” This heart-mind has many dimensions. It contains and includes all our thoughts, our feelings and emotions, responses, intuition, temperament, and consciousness itself. When we speak of mind in the West, we usually refer only to the rational thought process. Observing this aspect of mind, we see an endless stream of thoughts, ideas, and stories. While this discriminating mind has a practical value, it can also separate us from the world; our ideas easily create “us” and “them,” good and bad, past and future. Our thoughts also like to create imaginary problems. As Mark Twain put it, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes… most of which never happened.” Or, in the words of one of my teachers, Sri Nisargadatta, “The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.”

Along with thoughts and impulses, Buddhist psychology also describes feelings as a natural aspect of heart-mind. Initially we notice that pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant feelings arise with each experience. If we notice them mindfully, without clinging to the pleasant or condemning the unpleasant, we can discover how these basic feelings give rise to a full range of emotions. Some people believe that emotions are dangerous. But the emotions themselves are rarely the problem; it is our lack of awareness of them or the stories we believe about them that create our suffering. Without awareness, painful feelings can fester into addiction or hatred or degenerate into numbness; eventually we can lose touch not only with what is felt but also with our heart’s essential wisdom. As the twentieth-century Christian mystic Simone Weil noted, “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”

The first woman I became involved with after I disrobed from being a monk was a college friend who was newly teaching at Harvard. Inside I still felt like a monk who had no preferences for or against anything, taking whatever was put in the begging bowl. When she would ask what I wanted for dinner or what movie I would like to see, I answered, “Whatever you like, dear; for me it doesn’t matter.” When she would ask how I felt about going out in the country or staying home, I said it was all okay with me. It drove her crazy. This wasn’t just a wise spiritual detachment—she observed that I was afraid of engagement and out of touch with my feelings, and reminded me that I had been that way before the monastery too. It was true. I didn’t know what I felt. So she got me a small notebook with the suggestion that I write down ten things each day that I liked or disliked, until I could start to know my own feelings. Recovering my feelings was a long and life-changing process.

This excerpt is taken from the book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

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