A somewhat belated 5th anniversary Dhamma musing, offered out of gratitude for my teachers and the Tuesday evening sangha:
It was a Saturday morning in February, and Sharon Salzberg had arrived at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center to offer a benefit workshop on the theme of her latest book, Real Happiness. I sat among the overflow audience in the basement, listening with my eyes closed while her jovial voice was broadcast from the main hall upstairs.
As Sharon spoke, my mind became enthralled by the words “real” and “happiness.” My attention digressed from the sound. A thought arose: “So, what is real happiness anyway?” A moment later, another thought: “Ah, unconditioned happiness; of course!” Next: “What does that mean?”
Buddhists refer to this sort of mental proliferation as papanca. Like a runaway train papanca can be a potent force, and this particular train of thought had considerable momentum. Although I soon returned from my sojourn, my curiosity was piqued.
Now revisiting the questions that came to mind that midwinter day, what does it mean to say that something is unconditioned or unconditional? We commonly speak of “unconditional love,” of course, but perhaps with only a vague notion of what we’re talking about. And if we may speak of unconditional love and unconditional happiness, what about unconditional freedom, the ultimate promise of the Buddha’s path?
Without getting too weighed-down by semantics, we can say that the unconditioned exists regardless of a particular state of affairs. Thus unconditional love is an openheartedness that transcends the specific circumstances of a relationship; unconditional happiness is, as Sharon’s friend Matthieu Ricard puts it, “a deep sense of flourishing” unperturbed by mundane pleasures and pains; unconditional freedom is nothing less than emancipation from the primal forces of attraction and aversion. Not surprisingly unconditional love, happiness, and freedom are closely connected.
The concept of unconditional love is probably most familiar to us. However, conceptual understanding is one thing while experience is something else entirely. Can we truly know love that is boundless and unlimited, or is it only a conjecture?
In fact, love is innately human but must be nurtured in order to thrive. And Sharon, as it turns out, has become something of a popular authority on this subject, having made her life’s work teaching the practice of metta, or lovingkindness.
Metta is very simply the natural quality of a light and open heart; it is an aspiration for happiness and well-being for others and for oneself. It would be just as easy to say that metta is what remains when we disengage from our propensities for greed and ill-will. The process of relaxing – rather than reinforcing – those reflexes is what requires persistent yet patient effort.
Diminishing our compulsive reactions allows connections to grow where we might otherwise build barriers. This is where the practice comes into play. By consciously and consistently cultivating a sense of boundless goodwill, we put down the burden of expecting that the beneficiaries of our benevolence – not least ourselves – must meet certain criteria. Once we set aside our self-imposed stipulations, our capacity for kindness knows no other limits.
Practicing metta does not make us sentimental or docile. Rather we gain strength of confidence when we see our relationships without the distortion of our habitual preferences. While we fully acknowledge our inclinations, we can invite the reactive energy of those underlying tendencies to dissipate, and we can respond instead with intention and empathy. As we permit lovingkindness to permeate our attitude towards all, we are receptive to new possibilities so that even difficult relationships become workable.
Metta makes room for unconditional happiness by opening our hearts and minds to the entirety of our experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant: or as mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn says, by welcoming the “full catastrophe.” Indeed metta works together with mindfulness – sati – to embrace the breadth and depth of our lives.
While metta encourages broad receptivity, mindfulness supports focused curiosity. If we invite our mind to calm its usual busy-ness by resting our attention on an object such as the breath – or phrases of lovingkindness or the sensations of walking – then concentration attunes us to ever finer measures of present-moment awareness.
As we refine our awareness, we increasingly recognize the most fleeting instances of resistance, craving, and confusion. We discover habitual patterns of liking and disliking, and we see how these predispositions influence – but do not strictly determine – our thoughts and actions. Unhindered from our predilections, we realize well-being that does not rely on circumstances being just as we might wish them to be and happiness irrespective of life’s vagaries and vicissitudes.
The cultivation of insight also evolves from the simple act of paying attention to the state of our mind and body in the here-and-now. Vipassana, intuitive insight into the nature of our experience, is the eradication of delusion; it is a visceral understanding of how things are. With diligent observation we become aware of the myriad systems that comprise our experience: the momentary sensations and dynamic processes upon which we build our sense of self.
Identifying the impersonal impulses of attraction and aversion, we no longer identify ourselves with those urges. Non-identification means that there is no striving to continually re-invent ourselves, no creating countless personae in an attempt to establish a secure sense of “I/me/mine.” The accumulated momentum of “selfing” that keeps us unsettled and off-balance is eventually exhausted. Buddhists call this nibbana; the unbound; the other shore; the deathless; the unconstructed; the unconditioned: true peace of mind.
The end of our struggle marks a qualitative transformation: a buoyancy or lightness of being that is uncontrived, blissful, and beyond compare. This radical change in perspective is what it means to be buddha: one who is awake.
As Sharon might say, each of us has the potential to be buddha. However, buddhahood requires us to recalibrate our fundamental frame of reference: the Buddha’s path shifts the emphasis from who we are to how we relate. But by using the tools of metta and mindfulness, perhaps we can indeed realize the promise of love, happiness, and freedom without condition.