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.