Breaking Open the Loving Heart

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Sharon Salzberg

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.
                                   —The Buddha

It is only due to our concepts that we feel separate from the world. We are isolated by ideas of inadequacy, ideas of danger, ideas of loneliness, and ideas of rejection. While we may indeed face external difficulties, our thoughts can amplify them—or even create them, leading us deeper into delusion. If we do not want to be enslaved by our thoughts, we can choose to transform our minds. In any given moment, do I choose to strengthen the delusion of separation or the truth of connection?

One fall I was teaching at the Insight Meditation Society, which is located in a rural area. Each morning I would go for a walk very early, just as it was getting light. This walk took me past the mobile home where Max lived. Max was a huge dog—he looked like a cross between a Doberman pinscher and a mountain lion. I started hearing reports that Max had grown agitated and aggressive, snarling at people and threatening to attack them. I had been experiencing a series of unfortunate events that fall, and I thought I might end this cycle of difficulty by being torn limb from limb by this dog.

Every day at dawn I would set out with a certain “Max consciousness,” my fear growing with each step as I approached his territory. For many days Max had not been in the yard as I passed, but I was becoming increasingly tense about the prospect of an encounter. As the days went on, I found that my very first thought when I awoke in the morning centered on Max and my fear of him. I had read that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s very first thought upon waking is a prayer of love and compassion, dedicating all of the coming actions of the day to the benefit of all living beings. Starting the day as I was, in fear of Max, was beginning to seem pretty ignoble.

Finally, one morning Max was there. From far away I saw him sitting in the twilight. Fear rose sharply. I proceeded slowly, with each step seeing him as increasingly separate from myself and as a tremendous threat: “He’s out there, he’s very big, and he’s getting closer.” Finally I arrived. Max stood up. I stopped. We looked at each other. And then I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Max, Maxine is my middle name. People used to call me Max, too, you know!” We looked at each other for a few moments more, then Max sat down again, and I walked on.

From that point on I saw that love was a choice for me in many different situations. I developed a relationship to Max, a feeling of connection. He seemed like someone I knew, someone who might be in a bad state, who might even lose control and actually try to hurt me, but someone who was nevertheless a friend. I did not at all stop being careful. But Max ceased to be a terrible, alien creature, a great, hulking beast out there waiting to get me. He stopped being the “other.”


Fear Is The Primary mechanism sustaining the concept of the “other,” and reinforcing the subsequent loneliness and distance in our lives. Ranging from numbness to terror, fear constricts our hearts and binds us to false and misleading ways of viewing life. The fallacy of separate existence cloaks itself in the beguiling forms of our identifications: “This is who I am,” or “This is all I can ever be.” We identify with a fragment of reality rather than with the whole.

A modern astronomical view says that everything in the universe is moving uniformly away from everything else in all directions into space, so that there is no center point in the cosmos at all. We live with no fixed reference point. From one perspective, this understanding produces the desolate feeling that there is no home. But from another perspective, this realization shows us directly that every point is home. We are free; we do not need to fix on a single center for refuge, for safety. This is love, this is happiness, where our refuge is unbounded, and we are always at home. As the Buddha said, “They abide in peace who do not abide anywhere.”

When we identify with the body as a separate self, as our only home, we think we must control it in order to preserve our sense of who we are. But we cannot control sickness or old age or death. If we try, we bear the inevitable burdens of hopelessness and powerlessness. When we conceive ourselves as finite and separate, how fearful death becomes! What would we fear if we experienced ourselves to be part of the whole of nature, moving and changing, being born and dying?

We would then see that our bodies are joined with the planet in a continual, rhythmic exchange as matter and energy flow back and forth between ourselves and the environment. This is breathing. With each breath we exchange carbon dioxide from within us for oxygen outside us. Normally we take this process for granted, but this exchange, this connection that is going on every moment, is actually the experience of being alive. We do not live as isolated fragments, completely separate, but as parts of a great, dynamic, mutable whole.

Another prevalent concept we suffer under is identification with the mind as a separate, permanent entity, as our true abiding. With this conceptual framework, we can easily say to someone or to ourselves, “Well, you are this way and you’ll always be this way.” Once I was teaching with Joseph Goldstein when someone came to see him in great distress. The man said, “I just had a terrible experience!” Joseph quite naturally said, “Well, tell me what happened.” The man said, “I was meditating, and I felt this tension in my jaw, and realized what an uptight person I am, how I have never been able to get close to anyone, and how I will be alone for the rest of my life.” Trying to help him break free of his conceptual overlay and return to an awareness of his actual experience, Joseph pointed out, “You mean you felt some tension in your jaw.” The man was plagued by his projections. “Yes, I see what an incredibly uptight person I am, how I always have been and I always will be, how it will never ever change and I will never get close to anyone for the entire rest of my life.” As you might imagine, Joseph kept repeating, “You mean you felt some tension in your jaw.” To my bemusement they continued on for some time in this vein, until finally Joseph said, “You are having a painful experience. Why are you adding an immutable, horrible self-image to it?”

Concepts can rule us in many different ways. When we are caught in the concepts of separation, we suffer distance and alienation. We need to defend ourselves at all times because the world seems very threatening. When we experience a strong idea of separate, immutable self and other, it seems as though there is constantly a great big “other” out there. To bear this danger, we need to hold ourselves in tense readiness, waiting for every impact. Once, a woman attending a nonresidential metta weekend in New York City was on her way back to the retreat site on Saturday morning when a man approached her on the railway platform and asked a question about the train schedule. Even though she was holding a schedule in her hand, her thought was, “He looks really weird! I’d better get rid of him.” Her initial claim to have no knowledge of the trains was belied by her clearly visible schedule. She tried a few ploys to have him go away, to no avail. Finally, she randomly pointed to someone else on the platform and said, “You should go ask him.” The stranger looked at her uneasily and said, “Oh no! I couldn’t ask him—he looks really weird!”


Of Course There Are times when we face actual danger, and enmity, and desperation. To have metta in these circumstances does not mean we are passive, or mindless to our needs in the situation. Just as I did with Max, we have to know how to take care of ourselves and act appropriately when facing different conditions. And, just as I learned to do with Max, we can learn to do that without the constant fear or aching loneliness that the sense of immutable “other” leaves us with.

The legacy of separation impoverishes the spirit. Seeking only to protect ourselves, we cannot genuinely connect with others, we cannot see what needs our love, and we struggle with terrible aloneness. In trying to reach others from the stance of our isolation, we are like weary travelers preparing for a dangerous border crossing, cautiously hoping to reach a new land and make contact, secretly believing it will not be possible. Veering between fitful hope and underlying insecurity, we have no peace. Imagine the relief of discovering that there is no such border to be crossed! It is only through seeing our fundamental connection with the world that a life of true peace becomes possible.

The ways in which we direct our minds to cultivate this seeing are all-important. This transformation of mind, releasing the burden of concepts, is not just theoretical. There is a path to actualize it. Again and again in his teachings, the Buddha explores love and connectedness. Through meditation and the brahma-viharas he offers us the possibility to radically change our relationship to life.

When we learn to move beyond mistaken concepts and see clearly, we no longer solidify reality. We see waves coming and going, arising and passing. We see that life, composed of this mind and body, is in a state of continual, constant transformation and flux. There is always the possibility of radical change. Every moment—not just poetically or figuratively, but literally—every moment we are dying and being reborn, we and all of life.

Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent and illuminated, as though lit from within. With this understanding, the interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear. We see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself. Out of this sense of connection, love and compassion arise.

This is a beautiful expression of our unity, by Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature:

We say that you cannot divert the river from the riverbed. We say that everything is moving, and we are part of this motion, that the soil is moving, that the water is moving. We say that the earth draws water to her from the clouds. We say the rainfall parts on each side of the mountain like the parting of our hair, and that the shape of the mountain tells where the water has passed. We say this water washes the soil from the hillsides, that the rivers carry sediment; that rain, when it splashes, carries small particles. That the soil itself flows with water and streams underground. We say that water is taken up into the roots of plants, into stems. That it washes down hills into rivers, that these rivers flow to the sea, that from the sea and the sunlight, this water rises to the sky. This water is carried into clouds and comes back as rain, comes back as fog, comes back as dew, as wetness in the air. We say everything comes back. You cannot divert the river from the riverbed. We say every act has its consequences. That this place has been shaped by the river, and the shape of this place tells the river where to go. We say look how the water flows from this place and returns as rainfall. Everything returns, we say, and one thing follows another. There are limits, we say, on what can be done, and everything moves. We are all a part of this motion, we say, and the way of the river is sacred, and this grove of trees is sacred, and we ourselves, we tell you, are sacred.

Love and concern for all are not things some of us are born with and others are not. Rather, they are results of what we do with our minds: We can choose to transform our minds so that they embody love, or we can allow them to develop habits and false concepts of separation.

Breaking Open The Loving Heart - Photo by Wayne S Grazio

The Buddha said, “So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.” We are not urged to make thought spring from love born out of concern for all beings. Rather, we are advised to let it spring from the love that is our true nature.

If we cannot heal the rupture between ourselves and the rest of life, created by mistaken concepts, we remain lost, uncertain about what our lives mean and where we belong.

Chased by concepts of separate self and distant other, as though pursued by furious enemies, we run until we are lost, hiding in whatever places seem to offer us safety. Our safest haven, however, may be found neither in running nor in hiding, but in staying still. The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu told this story:

There was a man so displeased by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them. So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with them without the slightest difficulty. He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead. He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

When we make the courageous choice to be still, rather than running away, we have the chance to establish a relationship with what is. When I actually stopped and looked at Max, I found something of myself.

Being still in meditation reveals the truth of our lives. The fact is, we never have been separate; we have never been alone or apart, neither Max and I, nor any other being and myself. Even my worst enemy and myself are not wholly separate.

Relieved of this mistaken duality, we witness the falling away of the feelings that flow from ignorance. Feelings of isolation and fear, feelings of fragmentation and alienation drop away, because there is nothing any longer to sustain them, to nourish them.

If we cannot heal the rupture between ourselves and the rest of life, created by mistaken concepts, we remain lost, uncertain about what our lives mean and where we belong.

My colleague Sylvia Boorstein was once on a plane that developed a problem with the hydraulic system. The passengers were told that the plane was turning back to the airport, which would take about forty minutes. They were instructed in the position to take in an emergency landing and were told that their shoes would be collected by the flight attendants, and that they should remove pens from their pockets and their eyeglasses as well. This was obviously serious! Every once in a while the announcement would be issued: “We will be landing in thirty minutes … in twenty minutes …” Soon after the very first announcement of trouble, Sylvia began doing metta meditation. She began with the thirteen people in her immediate family—her husband, her children and their spouses, and her grandchildren. “May Collin be happy, may Nathan be happy, may Grace be happy …” She continued on with this group of beloved ones as the plane got closer and closer to the airport. “We will be landing in fifteen minutes … in ten minutes …” At one point Sylvia thought, “Well, in a few minutes either I will be alive or I will be dead.” In seeking to reach beyond her immediate circle, in circumstances that had to include the possibility of imminent death, Sylvia found that the next logical group she was inspired to send metta to was all beings everywhere, without distinction, without exclusion, without exception. It made no sense to separate, to close off to anyone in what might prove to be the end of her life.


As We Open, We Uncover the mind’s inherent ability to heal, to grow, to change. Being still, we see the power of the mind, which is the strength of our own capacity to love and connect. Actual love is the true seeing of our oneness, our nonseparateness. As we discover this capacity to love, we develop intimacy with ourselves and others. We develop the strength and compassion to live with integrity and, one day, to die with peace.

Our freedom to love arises from discovering that we can live without the concept of self and other. The joy of this discovery is incomparably greater than what many of us have previously known, or even imagined—so much so that our entire view of life changes.

Being free from concepts is like going backstage in a theater and suddenly realizing how much of our engagement with the drama has come from mere appearances: the costumes, the makeup, the staging, the lighting, and actors projecting artificial personae. It is liberating to realize that we are, in effect, “making it all up.” We are playing on the stage set, lost in the costumes and the lighting. We are creating boundaries and divisions according to our histories, our fears, our needs, and our habits. But what is the substance of these boundaries? Where can they be found, in truth?

I have been to Russia several times, beginning in 1988, to teach meditation there. Being there is especially poignant for me, since that is where my family originally came from. Many of the people I spend time with there look very familiar, as if they could be my cousins. The last time I went, economic conditions were terribly difficult.

One Russian friend said to me, “I don’t know what I’ll do when my shoes wear out, since I can’t afford to buy new ones.” As he described his situation, I felt the shame, the fear, and the pain he was expressing as if it were my own, as though it were happening inside my own family.

Only later did I think of how many other people in the world cannot afford new shoes, people I do not feel at all connected to because I do not meet them in the ordinary course of events. How many children in the world have never even had a pair of shoes, let alone a new pair? Does someone have to resemble my cousins to be included in my sense of family?

We mark off the territory of our identifications, both personal and group, as though they had intrinsic meaning, whereas it is only like drawing lines in space. On an earlier trip to the Soviet Union, just as constraints on freedom of speech were being lifted, I was shocked to stand on street corners and hear representatives of the far right state authoritatively that only Jews and blacks could contract AIDS, and that it was a conspiracy of the West to delude the Russian people to think otherwise. Now, in the Soviet Union of that time, dentists were often not sterilizing drills because it wore out the parts and they could not get replacements. Orthopedic surgeons were encouraging patients to try to get their own razor blades on the black market for the surgical incision, since the scalpels were so worn out and were no longer being sterilized. I stood on some of those street corners and wondered how much suffering and death might come about because of the ignorance and identification being purveyed there.

The concept of self and other also manifests as persecution, war, and oppression. At one point during the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, made a comment that revealed his belief that Asians are not like us; this allowed him to wage war on them. They do not mind dying, the general said, explaining that Asians do not have the same respect for life that we do. We often feel alienated from people of other races and cultures who do not look like us, and even from people who do look like us. Like pioneers who circled the wagons around their encampments to protect themselves, we divide the world into “us” and “them.” But as life goes on and such boundaries become relics of the past, we do not know, finally, whether we belong inside or outside the arbitrary circle.

We can even experience “otherness” from ourselves. We can experience our internal disconnection as a great, hulking, terrible beast inside us, like Max, crouched and ready to attack. As Ajahn Sumedho, an American Buddhist monk and meditation teacher, has said, “It’s as though we fear there is some kind of monster hiding inside us, waiting to come up and drive us permanently insane.”

Indeed, there is a Max within. In fact, there is more than one; there are a lot of Maxes in our own minds. There is anger, lust, jealousy, and greed—the list can go on and on. Can we recognize these forces and see them as friends who might be in a terrible state and thus need our compassion and care? Can we truly love ourselves, all aspects of ourselves? Can we give this force of love not only to ourselves, but also to others?

Perhaps the most vital transformation we undergo when we practice meditation and the brahma-viharas is the transformation in our perception of what is possible. Now we are no longer bound by previous ideas of limitation: “I’d better not love anymore, because I have reached my limit.” I have sat in wonder at times in my meditation practice, thinking, “Can I actually be feeling this much love?”

The meditation practices of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity help us to find union within ourselves and with the world outside. Eventually we see that literally there is no inside and outside. The one is just one.


Sharon Salzberg is an author and meditation teacher, as well as co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts.

From Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Copyright 1995 by Sharon Salzberg. Reprinted by arrangement with The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Shambhala Publications, Inc.,

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