A Glimmer of Hope in the Year of the Heart-Mind

On New Year’s Day 2019, a steady and committed group of us from the VIMS community once again sat together in the barn at 14 Green Street to silently welcome and begin our life in this new year. Staying with our annual tradition, we preceded our meditation with a reading of several different translations of the first verses of a chapter from The Dhammapada. This year it was chapter three, “The Heart-Mind” (Citta). One version of the first verse (Dhammapada v. 33) is:

The restless, agitated mind,
Hard to protect, hard to control,
The sage makes straight,
As a fletcher the shaft of an arrow.

–– trans. Gil Fronsdal

After the sit, we reflected on this verse and what it would mean to take citta, the heart-mind, along with the task of fletching it, as our collective task of the year. In doing so, might our progress evolve organically and perhaps in unexpected ways, as happened with last year’s word from the Dhammapada, which was “care” (appamada)?

Our first task will be to understand and to see the mind––clearly and honestly––and to experience it directly. To do this, we first have to understand what is meant by the heart-mind––which is related to, but not the same as, the thinking, intellectual mind. We then must consider the meaning of the suggestion to straighten or tame it through fletching. This seems to be a metaphor about carefully directing the course of our own lives. Perhaps you would like to join us in our exploration.

The mind is very difficult to perceive; very delicate
and subtle; it moves and lands wherever it pleases.
The wise one should guard the mind,
for a guarded mind brings happiness.

(Dhammapada v. 36, trans. K. Sri)

“Mind” as understood in early Buddhist teachings is not an entity or a thing; it is an ever-changing resonance. It is relational and conditioned and, in this way, always vulnerable to what’s happening in the inner and outer world. The untrained citta is scared and often acting from fear. Its direction is based on its perception of what is pleasant and what is painful in any given moment. Its impetus is to move towards the former and away from the latter; and it tends to loose focus when encountering feelings that have less of a charge, ones that are more neutral in their affective tone.

Ajahn Sucitto explains that it is this citta aspect of our mental stream that gets entangled in the “ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows” of our lives. It experiences and is confused by the unsatisfactory, unpredictable nature of life and develops a tendency to identify subjective experience as “me” or “mine” as a way of trying to understand and hence control its perceived-to-be-unsatisfactory (dukkha) environment. It is this unawakened, reactive citta that suffers and then “tends to make things worse” (1).

Whatever an enemy might do to an enemy
or a foe to a foe, the ill-directed mind
can do to you even worse.

(Dhammapada v. 42, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Fortunately, the fluid, alert nature of citta also holds the possibility of freedom from the entanglement. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha discovered a way to gradually transform this aware, sensitive, and responsive aspect of the human condition by freeing it from the very basic and limiting “wrong-view” of taking things personally. As we let this go and develop an interested and curious approach to the world, we can start to see clearly how the body-mind system as a whole operates. We can learn to think, speak, and act more wisely. In Buddhist understanding, it is citta that gets liberated.

Bhikkhu Analayo describes citta as “the underlying current beneath thoughts.” He names it as “bare knowing” and points out that knowing, in and of itself, is a constantly changing process. If this were not so, mind could only ever know one thing; but, in fact, it can know many things. Contemporary neurobiologist Dan Siegel defines the mind as an embodied flow of energy and information. It is emergent and self-regulating, though each such emergence is highly affected by what has been experienced before (hence, our strong tendencies toward habitual behavior). The fact is that this knowing mind arises anew in each moment and has a level of self-awareness that allows for a mindful monitoring to develop. This can give rise to intentions, which can begin to influence the mind-heart’s direction. A statement by Ajahn Sucitto helps to explain this: “Citta wants to feel safe and to be happy.”

“We are hard-wired to wake up. All we need is clear information,” says Dharma teacher Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia. Monitoring the repercussions of our actions in each emergent moment provides the “clear information” needed, and, with that as nourishment, a directional urge towards liberation wakes up and takes hold in the heart-mind.

FYI – U Tejaniya builds the way he teaches meditation around this idea of regular checking in with the quality of the awareness of heart-mind: What is the quality of the mind right now? This will be the flavor of the teaching being offered by Alexis Santos at the Valley Insight retreat on March 10th. Check the information on the retreat in this newsletter and on the VIMS website if you are interested.

Dharma teachings agree with the modern neuro-scientific way of understanding mind in that they are phenomenological and see life more in terms of verbs than nouns. In addition, like Siegel, both Ajahns Sucitto and Analayo also emphasize the heart-mind’s embodied nature. Though Buddhist philosophy understands mind and body as different aspects of our subjective reality, they are seen as intimately and intricately connected. “Mind is most easily and immediately experienced in the fibers of the body,” says Ajahn Sucitto. We all know this so clearly: we experience “the heat of anger,” “the throb of heart break,” “the grip of fear,” and so on.

Wise Mindfulness is the taking off point for our liberation: this is mindfulness practice done within the context of the understandings, intentions, efforts, and mental training of the Eightfold Path, which is an ethical philosophy geared towards eliminating the constant sense of lack or unsatisfactoriness that often seems to be inherent in human life. Along with adding to our conceptual sense of citta, this form of mindfulness enables us to have a direct experience of citta, with its conditioned, conditioning, and constantly changing nature. I find it good news that Ajahn Sucitto says, “Citta ‘likes to be seen.’” This fact helps us with our first task of the year––to see the heart-mind with interest and compassion for its situation––to know the heart-mind conceptually and directly.

Our second task this year is to fletch the arrow in a skillful way, one that will guide us towards an easier and more compassionate life. Since our New Year’s Day discussion, we have learned two things about arrows and fletching that may help us further deconstruct and understand the Dhammapada verse’s metaphor. First, fletchers do not actually make the shaft of the arrow; they put the feathers on. The feathers influence the flight of the arrow. Second, an archer friend suggested that a better description for the feathers’ role would be “flies true” (rather than “flies straight”). The wise efforts that we make in regard to Dharma practice and understanding should help the heart-mind “fly true” all along the Eightfold Path as it makes its way to freedom. The path of the arrow, not the arrow itself, is the process of the heart-mind that we are calling citta. This movement becomes the goal and the fruition of the Path. The fletcher in the metaphor is perhaps the awakening citta itself––with a mustard seed-sized faith in the teachings and the possibility of freedom serving perhaps as a “glimmer of hope” (see below). The well-placed feathers tame the heart-mind’s potentially unskillful, erratic actions, steering its course right to the target.

The mind is hard to restrain, light,
Flying where it will.
The wise one should guard it.
Mind guarded brings happiness.

(Dhammapada v. 35, trans. Valerie Roebuck)

In considering how this metaphor might play out in our lives, I thought of the life-altering accident I experienced this past fall. In late September, as my bicycle and I were in mid-air, about to crash onto the wet gravel of the Lebanon bike path, I had the thought, “meditation is mind control.” I knew it would take some gentle, sustained effort to keep myself from the “grief, lamentation, despair” and panicky fear that was understandably near at hand. There definitely was some fletching to do. The situation was potentially grim, given the fact that it was rainy, and I was wet. Cell phone coverage was sporadic, and it was getting dark. Once on the ground, I immediately joined and soothed myself in the felt-sense of distress, with my hand on my heart and my soft voice acknowledging the great challenge we were facing: “This is a very scary moment.” In retrospect, I think this may have been my “seeing citta” as it began to falter and potentially recoil in shock. I gave it my full presence.

I continued from this simple, mindful recognition towards self-compassion. In the same voice, I began to calm and steady myself: “I am not always scared. Other people would feel this way in this situation too.” Always, I worked to stay with the experience of the moment––not turning away. With careful mindfulness, I thoroughly assessed my body’s state. No concussion––hooray! As I rolled to a balanced, safe position, I remembered seeing Bhikkhu Analayo’s recumbent body at a recent retreat. He was visibly, totally relaxed as he gave us this instruction: “Allow the mind to rest on the body just as the body is relaxing on the ground.” The ground in this case manifested as damp, chilly dirt and stone. But even so, I knew how to rest the body and the mind right here.

I feel so grateful for this and for the many other instructions I have received in skillful methods of fletching the arrow of my heart-mind. In those early minutes, and so often as I moved on into this accident part of my life journey, the Dharma teachings helped me know it all––even the multitude of pains and fears––as changing and as potentially helpful guides of the path. The unfolding events could be debilitating or they could serve towards progress in a deepening of understanding, compassion, and friendliness.

To paraphrase Bhikkhu Analayo, mindfulness is the ingenious way of turning [what seems to be] an obstacle to our lives into a knowable, bearable experience that can serve us well as a vehicle for wisdom and freedom. A similar perspective is presented in our friend and Dharma teacher Cheryl Wilfong’s important new book, Mindfulness Meets Breast Cancer. In telling her personal story, Cheryl describes her experiences in light of specific, helpful teachings she has given and received during a lifetime of practice in fletching the arrow path of the heart-mind. She wrote:

After all these years of mindfulness mind-training, my mind stays often in the present moment––a place of no stress. A place of peace. No desire to be any place else, any time else. Here, today, this moment, the only moment there ever is.

Neither mother, nor father
Nor any member of a family
Can give you the blessings generated
By your own well-directed heart.

(Dhammapada v. 35, trans. Ajahn Munido)

The well trained mind brings ease.
(Dhammapada v. 35, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

A few days after our New Year’s sit in Lebanon, some of us from VIMS were practicing with our prison sangha in Berlin, New Hampshire. Each January, for the past sixteen years, we have brought prayer flags. We bring markers too and invite the men to write their New Year’s wishes for the world onto the colorful cloth squares, which are already painted with prayers for compassion and good will. At the end of the afternoon, we then take these flags, along with the men’s good will, out of the prison into the fresh air and the light of day. Back home, we string them high in the air. It is always a joy to watch these bright objects and their intentions of kindness blowing in the cold wind.

Before writing our words this year, we had a full discussion about intentions, goals, and wishes. We all recognized how demoralizing and limiting such things can be. Indeed, isn’t our practice about seeing clearly what is, and not wishing for something else? Yes, this is true, and yet the question remained: What gift would you give to this all-encompassing world? What good intentions might you want to spill out into the collective? What well-shafted arrow will you send? What songs will you exhale? We spoke, listened, and wrote. One middle-aged man, in prison for life without parole for a murder that he committed only months after turning eighteen, wished us all “a glimmer of hope.”

Just as a fletcher shapes [the course of] an arrow
so the wise develop the mind
so excitable, uncertain
and difficult to control.
(Dhammapada v. 33, trans. Ajahn Munido)


See Doreen’s essay for October 2018, which quotes Tony Bernard’s interpretation of the Four Noble Truths:

“Bad things happen.
We tend to make them worse.
Don’t make them worse.
Here is how to not make them worse . . .”

—Tony Barnard’s version of the Four Noble truths