Peter Fernando recounts his experiences living in a Buddhist Monastery in his early twenties, and gradually having all his lofty ideals of being “spiritual” blown apart by the reality of pain and his tendencies of self-disparagement and alienation.
As is the case with most things in life and practice, my first real taste of the open heart came in a very unexpected way.
When I had initially caught the spiritual bug, in my late teens, I had visions of open-heartedness as some kind of far off, lofty plane of existence, where I’d walk around being sublimely compassionate and detached from all the mortals around me. It was a two-dimensional image I’d picked up somewhere of what it means to be “spiritual”… Oh dear! Luckily for me it didn’t take long to see through that fantasy, as when I came to committing to a sitting practice my experience was far from lofty.
My formal practice began in the contained setting of a Buddhist monastery, where there are set times to sit, eat and work, and there’s very little opportunity to escape from oneself. After a few weeks of getting high on the intensified energy of this container, some cracks began to show. Well, initially I saw them as cracks, but in hindsight it was the artificial self image I was fixated upon that was cracking, and in fact reality was beginning to shine through. It wasn’t the grandiose idea of reality I conceived of from my naive adolescent mind; rather, it was the reality of being fully human.
For years I had successfully (so I thought) avoided feeling what was waiting for me in the depths of my being — sadness from childhood, residues of the pain of rejection, and subterranean feelings of worthlessness and not being liked. It was these locked away areas of the heart that were beginning to peek through.
In the container of a regular sitting practice, and the safe space of a supportive community, I began to notice an underlying sense of tightness in my chest. It wasn’t the tightness of say, a medical emergency, but a subtler feeling that became clearer when I stopped and sat in silence. After holding the physical sensations for a week or so, this feeling began to break open, and for the first time in my life I found was feeling my emotions, my “heart” as a full-bodied experience. What was experienced wasn’t pleasant — it began with a sadness that I kind of knew was there, but had never allowed into consciousness — but curiously enough the very experience of holding it gently and feeling it fully in a space free from deflection and judgment, was… blissful. It wasn’t the bliss of floating above the clouds on a giant lotus, rather it was the bliss of allowing myself to be just as I was. This, as I see it, was the real beginning of the path of awakening.
Interestingly, at this time, I also noticed that with the willingness to be totally vulnerable to my own heart-pain, free of judgment, a sense of compassion began to emerge. It was a quiet, empathetic trembling with the fact of being human. This sense began to suffuse my inner experience, and opened a center of presence in my being that could stay with it, feel it, and deepen into the feeling. One evening as the community sat having tea together, a few visitors who were being greeted by the Abbott began to share their own experiences of suffering and distress. Quite spontaneously this feeling of compassion began to resonate with their experience as if it was my own and a space of — “love” you could call it — emerged in this attention. It wasn’t an experience of overwhelm, nor was it my previous, “normal” mode of feeling like I didn’t want to hear about suffering and “Why couldn’t they just get over it?” No it was a cool, but tender place where I felt, for the first time in a long long time, a sense of real connection with another as if they were myself. I was both stunned and delighted by this shift.
The compassion that I thought would come through being in some elevated realm had actually arrived in a more humble form, out of the new way I was beginning to relate to myself. It was a wonderful discovery. Much later I realized that this is what the Buddha meant when he emphasized that genuine love for others can only blossom when it comes “as to myself.”
After this initial opening, I gradually discovered another kind of closedness in the heart and mind. In keeping with the initial revelation of full feeling in the body, the discovery of this other kind of contraction also came in an unexpected way. Having regained some of my life force, a sense of connection to others, and a new sense of being fully human, the old habits of closing the heart found new terrain in which to perform their devious work. After a few years had gone by, I began to notice a similar kind of pain manifesting in the center of my chest, and a sense of getting more and more tight, to the point where it became quite physical. Initially this was confusing, and I thought, “Hey, I’ve been here before, haven’t I?” But alas, no I hadn’t.
What I began to see, murkily at first, was that my entire practice had unconsciously been taken over by a sense of self-judgment. Although I was now more familiar with the kind of non-judgmental awareness that could hold a feeling as a feeling, and connect to it in the body, this other kind of judgment was operating in the realm of self-identity, and configuring the overall view of who I took myself to be, particularly in relation to others. I noticed that underlying most of my interactions with the others in the community was a sense of comparison, measuring, and “being-seen-as,” which had a flavor of wrongness, not good-enough-ness, or being downright bad. When I began to unhook from the trance of this particular story, something I hadn’t seen became clear: this is not the open heart!
Like many others on a spiritual path, I had subtly co-opted my wish to be better, to manifest beautiful qualities, to deepen into being, with it’s very opposite energy — with the energy of harmfulness. But it wasn’t an overt harmfulness; rather it was an insidious quiet harmfulness towards my very self-sense that came disguised as the wish to do better, to be better, because… YOU’RE NO GOOD!
In a way it was relief to begin to see it as it actually was. Self-harm, pure and simple. But the seeing of it was only the beginning, as this flavor of closed-heartedness has deep roots, and many tricky ways of weaseling itself into existence. However, the way into its transformation has been, as with the initial feelings of sadness in the heart, to see it directly and feel it in the body as it actually is. As pain. As violence towards oneself. And to resonate with that phenomenon in a tender, compassionate way.
As I began to commit to this new way of holding my inner selves, and the particular energies that drive them, the sense of intimate connection with others also increased. There began to be less of a sense that others have to change, to work on themselves (to be who I want them to be), or to fit into some spiritual ideal. My teachers and my friends began to seem perfect, just as they were. And a new sense of gratitude for what was already here began to emerge. It was kind of a sense of, “‘If I no longer have to measure up to some ideal of perfection, then hey, they don’t either!” And the releasing from that sense was felt as love. It wasn’t a “whoo-hoo” kind of love, but rather the love that is the result of a freedom from measuring, from projection, and from the endless comparisons and ideals the mind can come up with. The release from those is a sense of spaciousness and openness. It is the natural loving of the open heart itself.
This didn’t mean that there was no more exploration and cultivation to be done – far from it! But it was a shift in terms of where that very cultivation was coming from in the heart. If my practices and efforts are coming from a place of subtly beating myself up, or being divided from myself in pursuit of a “perfect me,” I have found that the results are never peaceful. There is always a sense of “more to do,” “can’t rest now,” “get to work,” etc… Interestingly the Buddha said that there are four qualities or attributes of the open heart that need to compliment each other to ensure our spiritual health – kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. The last quality refers to the ability to not react, to rest, and to let go. It is that which prevents the longing for love from being taken over by the energy of compulsion and ideals of ‘who I should be’. It is also that in the heart which can be still enough to recognize the subtle kind of closing and harming that can be going on behind the scenes. And that stillness can allow them to bubble up, say what they want to say, and then gently be released.
Peter Fernando trained as a Buddhist monk for seven years, and lived in a monastic practice environment for most of his twenties. Upon returning to lay life he was invited to teach in Wellington by New Zealand meditation teacher Stephen Archer, and was one of the founders of Original Nature Meditation Centre in 2009, and created an ongoing online course, A Month of Mindfulness, in 2011. He finds a lot of joy in exploring ways of translating the Buddha’s early teachings in an urban, lay context, and supporting others in the practice of awakening. As well as his influences in the Buddhist tradition, his current interests include the teachings of A.H Almaas and also the Somatic Experiencing work of Peter Levine. He plays blues guitar and for reasons beyond his comprehension, loves 70s classic rock.