Refiner’s Fire

Hearts can change.  Given enough time and the right conditions, even the most battle-hardened heart can learn to take off the armor, stop contracting into a fist, dare to be soft and exposed.  This process of opening can take a long, long time–a big piece of lifetime or even many lifetimes according to the Buddhists.   Knowing this can bring an easing in itself, a sense that it is alright to take time, to take off the armor and let the wounds heal.

But it’s important not to stop in our healing, to realize the human heart comes to us with innate capacities for opening and connecting with the world, for expressing it’s strength in profound and beautiful ways.  The early Buddhist tradition composed a list of ten “paramitas” or “perfections of the heart.”  Please note:  this does not mean perfection in the sense of an ideal but in the sense of “that which has been accomplished”–that which has been lived through, understood through long and often challenging and sometimes bitter experience.   Here is the list of capacities:  generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, equanimity.

For a long time, I thought heart qualities were wonderful but also maybe a little secondary to this crystalline vision of awakening.  Or maybe they were kid stuff compared to the grown-up stuff of enlightenment.  But recently something struck me, dots were connected, a key turned in a lock.  According to legend, the Buddha meditated and searched for many years, observing the habits of mind that cause suffering, finally awakening and coming to a penetrating understanding of the way things go, the Dharma.   But/and legends abound about the many, many, many previous lifetimes of the Buddha, including animal lifetimes, in which he practiced generosity or patience or truthfulness–lifetimes cultivating the qualities of heart that would support his awakening.

Lately I’ve been wondering why our moments in the light tend to be so brief, and now I think I know why.  We must learn to become vessels, to open, to receive.  The other day, I say a kind of slogan I typically would dismiss–to go forward to have to fall back (or some such).  Now I think it’s based on truth.  To aspire to the higher, to awaken, we must first tend to the qualities of the heart.  This year, instead of fighting fire with fire, I want to try letting my unruly and often aggravating life be a refiner’s fire, making my heart a new kind of vessel.


18 thoughts on “Refiner’s Fire

  1. Happy New Year Tracy and thanks for this beautiful post. I like how you describes the heart qualities as practices, not something we achieve and then we are done with the “heavy lifting.” Every day, every moment we can practice these and sometimes we move forward to meet the challenge and often we fall back. I like your vessel metaphor as the heart being a vessel can mean practicing emptiness and openness – to what is, whatever comes into us. Mystery to be sure, but such beauty!

    1. Happy New Year, Barb. Yes, thank heavens, these qualities are practices. It struck me after I wrote this that the heart also contains vessels that receive and circulate. And yes, it’s glorious, those moments when we really receive the mystery of life instead of screening it, blocking the flow.

  2. Thank you for your post, Tracy.
    It shows vulnerability…”unruly and often aggravating life’…those things which we, for the most part, cannot control.
    Reminds me of two great prayers that I try to aspire to in my life…The St. Francis prayer…He says make me an instrument of your peace, but we could say vessel.
    The other is the Serenity prayer, in full.
    When I say the St. Francis Prayer, I feel like I am touching a great , sacred piece of scripture. No way will I ever achieve the ideals of this masterpiece in my lifetime!
    However, like almost minute drops of water, they are seeking into my being,I think, hope and pray they are as….I- like the vessel or heart, remain open.
    Many times this takes courage…cour=heart!
    Happy New Year!

  3. Tracy, thank you for this post. I felt encouraged to have experienced these capacities in this lifetime, and hopeful to continue cultivating this heart set. I struggle with connecting, falling away, and reconnecting to Principles daily, and had felt these “paramitas” were truly perfections that had to be somehow mastered and permanent. I forget that it takes many, many lifetimes. Thank you for the reminder that progress and awareness lead to enlightenment, and that continued practice is improvement.

    1. I am reminded of the kintsukori pottery, as well. The beauty of the vessel is the fact that it has been repaired. Is it not so with our own vessel? A thought.

  4. Tracy,

    The qualities of the heart ARE awakening, in my experience. They go hand in hand; to the extent that we open to a higher energy, all these properties become manifest.

    Love to you,


    1. These qualities of heart flower in moments of awakening, of being in alignment with the higher–I’ve experienced this, Lee. But/also these qualities precede and support and sustain awakening. We are meant to receive (although we tend to lead with a certain “sharpness of mind”) and the vessel must be prepared. With love to you, Tracy

      1. Eggs have chickens in them; chickens have eggs in them. It is difficult to see where the separation lies. We tend to think dualistically-it’s normal for us. What I’m getting at is the difference between our conception of heart quality, and the living experience, which surpasses conception.

        What I ordinarily conceive of as the perfections and what the perfections manifest as are of different orders. So what we conceieve of is practice; yet practice is preparation.

        Eventually maybe we’re prepared; but in receiving, a fundamental change occurs. So I don’t think I agree that the qualities, in their objective manifestations, can precede awakening. Subjectively, perhaps; but most of our human difficulties arise from confusing our subjective properties with objective ones or, if you will, mixing the higher with the lower. Here, all are guilty; few confess.

        Hope this clarifies my view of the matter, which it appears we may disagree on.

      2. Well said, Lee. And I agree completely, chickens and eggs cannot be separated. Yet I think it can be really helpful to look at our subjective experience, and especially the experience in the shadows.

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