Opening the Heart: We are not separate

The practice of mindfulness—bringing a conscious, non-judging awareness to our own present experience—is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings of liberation. In this talk (given at a daylong IMCW retreat, co-taught with Ruth King), Insight Meditation teacher Hugh Byrne invites us to expand our practice of loving-kindness and radical acceptance beyond the personal. Byrne’s focus on racism breaks through what is often a taboo subject in majority white settings, and insists that we include social suffering as something firmly within the realm of our spiritual practice. The invitation is to look, with an open, unflinching heart, at our capacity to create, endure, overcome, and transform suffering. This article is an adaptation of the original talk; audio link follows the text.


Part One: Opening to Everything
Part Two: Causes and Conditions, the Weight of History, and the Path of the Bodhisattva
Bio, and link to full audio of talk


Part One: Opening to Everything

Earlier this morning, I read a poem from Rumi that I want to pick up again here. These are the last lines of the poem:

“The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from Beyond.”

The great Thai teacher Ajahn Chah put it like this: “Let go a little, and you will experience a little freedom. Let go a lot, and you’ll experience a lot of freedom. Let go completely and you’ll experience complete freedom and peace in your life. Your struggle with the world will be at and end.” I like that last line: “Your struggle with the world will be at an end.” It all points to the complete letting go that the Buddha talked about, which is enlightenment, which is awakening, which is freedom from suffering. There is no longer any basis for being hooked anymore. The work has been done. And that was the Buddha’s experience and the place from which he taught.

So the invitation really is to open to everything, to leave no stone unturned. And when we do this, when we do let go, what naturally happens is the separation between ourselves and others breaks down. It kind of falls away. Because the illusion, when we are clinging, is that there is separation. There is me and you, and there is a fundamental difference. If you get what you want, I won’t get what I want. When we are in that unwholesome, unskillful relationship, the illusion of separation limits us. But when that falls away what naturally arises is connection, non-separation. In a broad sense, you might call it love, this friendliness, this connection with others and all beings.

I believe that this training, what we are doing here, really is a training of the heart and the mind. It is a practice of paying attention, as Ruth talked about earlier today, to the habitual tendencies of the mind that get us into trouble, and to see that we can let go. We can abandon what is unskillful and cultivate the good. We are cultivating wholesome states of mind that support connection, love, and awakening.

I think that this training has enormous potential to help heal the world. The world around us really is on fire. There is so much suffering. How many wars are going on around the world? How many people are living in abject poverty while a a handful of people have more wealth than whole nations? What is going on? What we are doing to our planet, to our home, through the way we are using resources and the lack of awareness, the lack of mindfulness, in terms of how we are living on the earth?

It is so natural for us when something is painful to want to shut it off and not go there. And yet if we are going to heal our own hearts and help in the healing of the world, we really have to open to the suffering. We have to find our way into our own suffering and the suffering around us. We have to find a kind and loving way of being with the suffering, and transforming it. I’m not talking about being “saviors”. I’m just talking about bringing the wisdom and compassion of these teachings into contact with the suffering of the world.

So I’m going to talk about one specific area of suffering. It is one that I and other members of our community have looked at a lot more closely in this last year or so, and I think it is a crucial form of suffering for us to pay attention to. I do not intend to imply that other forms of suffering are in any way less important, but I want to bring into the room, in an explicit way, the suffering of race in our country today.

I want to acknowledge that just bringing this up brings up difficult feelings. It can bring up all sorts of ways in which “I don’t want to go there” arises. And yet it offers potential for healing our own hearts and also for healing the suffering in our society and in our culture more broadly.

Ruth, this morning, spoke about some of the killings that have taken place in the past few years in our country. I want to begin to focus on race by mentioning some of these names and situations, and invite you to pay attention, with great kindness, to whatever arises for you while I share.

I want to go back a couple of years and recall the death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager in Florida, who was killed by a neighborhood watch guy, a white man, who felt fearful and responded in this way. Recall the suffering that came out of this shooting for the family, for the community, for the whole society. Then about a year ago, another African American teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer. His body was left out, bleeding on the street, for four hours while the community looked on. There are different interpretations about Brown’s killing, but one thing that came out very clearly in the department of justice’s report is that the whole judicial system in that area was organized like a mafia, like a racket. You arrest people, you fine them $100. When they can’t pay, you double the fine. An African American woman there had a fine of $100 that went up to $5000; she spent time in prison. If you had heard that this was happening in Alabama in 1954, it might have been more believable, but this was Missouri, in 2015.

That same year in Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner, an African American man, was selling loose cigarettes, and killed by police, choked to death while a crowd looked on. We all remember his last words: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And also in 2014, 12 year old Tamir Rice, African American, was in the park playing with a toy gun when he was fatally shot by Cincinnati police who fired, without warning, seconds after arriving on the scene. Right here in Baltimore, Freddie Grey was seemingly given a rough ride in what we call the Paddy Wagon, the wagons where you are taken off to the jail. He died soon afterwards. Walter Scott, an African American man in North Carolina, was shot 8 times in the back as he fled the police.

The question arises, kind of implicit, is this just happening now? Has this been going on unnoticed? We can watch where our minds go with that.

More recently Sandra Bland was arrested, thrown to the ground, for basically a traffic stop. She died by hanging while she was in custody, three days after her arrest. A black woman, in this case, a white officer. And finally, just in the last few days, Sam Dubose, in Cincinnati, shot by a white University of Cincinnati police officer when he was stopped for a minor traffic violation. The officer is now being charged with murder.

I put all of this out to say that something is happening. I am not trying to say: “You should think this” or “You should think that.” I put this out in the spirit of inquiry and awareness and kindness. When faced with situations around us, we are called on to respond.

There were a number of studies published in the Washington Post and other places this year about the mortgage crisis in Prince George’s County. Some of the information coming out about this is really disturbing. A woman of color is 2 ½ times more likely to get a sub-prime mortgage than a white male. This is a mortgage with high interest rates, and terms that require much greater payments and much greater risk of foreclosure.

Something is terribly wrong. Let’s just put it that way, without pointing any fingers. Something is terribly wrong and one of the things that white people have the freedom to do, that people of color don’t have, is to put it out of our sight. We are not faced with the consequences of this on a day-to-day level. We can say, “That is really bad”, and then we can look away.

There was a woman at Wellesley College, back 25 years ago – Peggy McIntosh – who spoke about white people having an invisible knapsack of privileges. She named 50 ways in which she was privileged in comparison with African American colleagues or friends. She could go into a store and not be followed around. If she was stopped by the police, she could presume that she wasn’t being stopped because of her race. She could look at TV programs, and read newspapers, and be sure that people she’d see would represent her race. McIntosh gave 50 of these examples.

The question that comes to me is. how do we bring mindfulness to areas of our life where we have the freedom not even to let them into our awareness? That is why this is such a challenging area, particularly for white people. I myself wasn’t born in this country – I came here from the UK in my mid-twenties and I had the ability to take advantage of many, many freedoms that were available in this society, even though I had just moved here. By virtue of being white, there were things I could take for granted. I never even questioned this until quite recently. And yet there are people whose forbearers have been for generations who don’t have the same freedom.

So speaking to white people, white practitioners, how do we bring awareness to areas of our life where there is an inherent lack of awareness? Because when we are born into privilege, born into white skin in a white dominated society, this privilege is invisible. How do we actually see the privileges that we have? How do we bring them into awareness? I believe that we really need to make an effort. We really need to make a commitment to do that because people of color don’t have those freedoms. And we need to make the effort, because this is part of our own freedom, as well. This is part of the practice.

Part Two: Causes and Conditions, the Weight of History, and the Path of the Bodhisattva

One of the things we’ve been doing in our community over the last year, as white board members, teachers, and staff of IMCW, is to bring awareness to the privileges we have and the things we are not aware of because of our position in society. The question for us is how we can be a force for healing in our community and in the wider society.

One of the things that I’ve learned, and I think had the freedom and maybe the privilege not to know until I really paid attention, was how much the weight of history affects the current moment. It is very, very easy not to be aware of the weight of history. One of the things I was unaware of, until recently, was the importance of slavery to the accumulation of white wealth. In the years preceding the Civil War, cotton accounted for 59% of US exports. In seven cotton states, 1/3 of white income came from slavery. There was a culture of all white southerners owning slaves, and slaves were the single largest financial asset of property in the entire American economy. In 1860, just before the Civil War, slaves were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.

This history of 250 years of slavery was followed, in the South, by Jim Crow laws, where African American’s were disenfranchised, excluded and marginalized. One of the ways in which Black people were kept in their place was through lynchings. There were almost 4000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. This is being called “racial terror lynchings.”

Something else I was unaware of, was the way in which the New Deal – the legislation under Roosevelt in the 30’s – was unevenly applied by race. I always thought of this legislation as very progressive, and very recently I had no idea that African Americans were largely excluded from the benefits of the New Deal. Under the New Deal, old age insurance and unemployment insurance excluded farm workers and domestic workers. So in 1935 when FDR signed the Social Security Act, 65% of African Americans nationally, and 70-80% in the South, were ineligible for these benefits. We think of that, I think of that, as very progressive legislation, and yet into it was what I think of as Affirmative Action for white people. Affirmative Action for white people has been going on for centuries.

Between 1930 and 1960 home-ownership in the US rose from 30 to 60%. The G.I. Bill, one of the last of the New Deal reforms, excluded African Americans from the benefits of home-ownership, and this exclusion was reinforced for years by FHA redlining policies. As one writer put it, “locked out of the greatest, mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in US history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home-ownership found themselves consigned to central city communities where their investments were affected by the self-fulfilling prophecies of the FHA appraisers”. The FHA is the Federal Housing Administration.

In Buddhism we talk about causes and conditions. Everything comes out of causes and conditions. If we look at history, we look at slavery, we look at the Jim Crow era, we even look at the New Deal, and the decades of redlining that followed, there is a built in exclusion that carries over from generation to generation, from decade to decade. Everything we are experiencing now is a product of that history – and what I have touched on today is a small slice of these causes and conditions.

There is a whole weight of history that we are living in and with. And I say again as white people, it is very, very easy to close our eyes and have the privilege of looking away. What these teachings and these practices invite us to do, I’m saying here now for white people, is to open to the pain.

So ask yourself, “What is it that I’m feeling right now?” And for different ones of us, it is different. African Americans and other people of color may feel pessimism, that “things are never going to change.” Maybe there is anger, maybe there is rage. For white people there may be a sense of turning away, shutting down or shutting off, and the freedom to do that. How do we hold these difficulties, these painful realities in our hearts? How do we become a source of healing, a force for healing rather than for perpetuating suffering? Because the cycle has to end. As Buddhist practitioners and teachers, this is our practice, this is our belief: the cycle can always end right here, right now, with me.

In his book The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield describes three qualities of the Bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior. The first step is acknowledging and accepting the truth of the situation – taking refuge in reality and the truth. Right now we might have different language for what I shared with you, and I’m not trying to put forward a particular point of view, but there is a truth here that we have the possibility of opening to, of recognizing, saying, “Yes, this is true. This is really painful, and it is true. Can I open my heart to this?”

That is the first quality of the Bodhisattva, to acknowledge and accept the truth of the situation. The second is to work to find peace within ourselves by engaging in a training of practices to let go of painful and afflictive states and develop positive ones. This is what we have talked about today, of abandoning the unskillful and cultivating the good.These are the practices that we are engaged in to find peace within our selves, to stay open to what is painful and difficult an,d to let that transform our hearts, to let that be a place of awakening for us.

The third quality of the Bodhisattva is to envision actions and a path of freedom for themselves, for their community, and for the world. As Jack says, envisioning has enormous power. With our vision and imagination we can help create the future. Envisioning sets our direction, marshals our resources, makes the unmanifest possible. If we look at the situation of racial justice, and the painful situation for our country right now, we might ask: “What does this call on me, and us, to do? What is it that I, and we, are able to do? How is it that our hearts call us to respond?”

It’s important that this response not come from a place of “should,” but from a sense of connecting with the suffering and asking ourselves, “What can I do? What can I do to be a force for healing and for ending suffering?”

So the invitation is like sending Metta to a difficult person: to train our hearts to be open, to take in what is hard to take in, and to see where we are shutting down. This is not to say that we don’t ever take a step back to breathe and rebuild our resilience. When we are able to take a break, this can be a very wise response, but we only pull away in order to replenish ourselves so that we can step back in and say, “There is suffering, there is suffering all around us. How do I respond? How do we respond?” and then we make that response. I think there is nothing that has a greater potential for healing than the practices that we are doing today. That is, the practice of training ourselves in awareness, of learning that we can be in the fire, we can take the heat, we can cultivate a heart that can hold the most painful experiences.

As the Buddha said, “You can do this. If you couldn’t do this I wouldn’t ask you to do this.” I love the way he says that, or the way it has come down to us. I don’t think he was speaking English (laughter).

We can do this – we can transform our hearts, we can work to heal our world. How do we do this? We do it together. It is not something we do on our own. We wake up together. We work together. We support each other in our waking up, in our healing, and in the healing of our world.


Hugh Byrne, Ph. D. is a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, where he has been on the Board of Directors and a member of the Teachers Council since 2003. Abandoning habits that cause suffering and cultivating those that bring greater ease and happiness are a current teaching focus and the subject of his recently completed book, The Here-and-Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits Once and For All (New Harbinger Publications, March 2016).

If you would like to listen to the full audio recording of Hugh’s “Opening the Heart” talk, you can do so here.

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