"Our habitual way of trying to achieve happiness and fulfillment is to focus our love and care on ourselves — and perhaps a few others to whom we feel connected. This is what we do most of the time. Yet all of us have also had experiences when our hearts feel much more open. We've had moments of deep warmth and tenderness toward complete strangers or even people we normally dislike.
"Having had both types of experiences — a narrowly self-centered heart and an open, unbiased heart — we can compare our mental and emotional well-being in the two cases. When our tenderness was focused mainly on ourselves, how much deep joy and satisfaction did we feel — even when things went our way? How did that feeling compare to our more selfless, all-embracing moments, when our kindness and compassion stretched beyond their usual boundaries? Which of these two feelings would we like to prevail in our hearts?
"This is an investigation we need to do for ourselves, based on our own experiences and not just taking someone else's word for it. I've found that when my tsewa (in Tibetan, the innate quality of a warm, open heart) is limited to one or a few people, I suffer in a box of self-absorption. My world feels small, and my mind feels anxious. Instead of flowing freely and exuberantly, as is its inherent tendency, my tsewa becomes imprisoned by my own self-cherishing and self-protection. On the other hand, when my heart is open, I naturally feel joy, which I gladly spread to others. In summary, my personal research has led me to conclude that the main factor determining my joy and well-being is the openness of my own heart.
"There is no limit to how much our hearts can open. Our tsewa can become so far-reaching and impartial that it covers all people, all animals, all living beings everywhere. We can care so much for these beings that their happiness becomes our happiness, and their pain becomes our pain. When we are filled with such deep love for others, we wish only the best for them, as a mother wishes only the best for her children. This gives our lives profound meaning, fulfillment, and joy. In this state, we deeply enjoy our freedom from the obsessive self-concern that usually plagues us.
"In my own experience and from what my teachers have taught me, no positive state of mind can surpass this free-flowing tsewa. No material success, pleasure, comfort, recognition, knowledge, or 'intelligence' can come close. It's not that I'm dismissing these things as unimportant. If we have tsewa, they may enhance our lives. But if the heart is closed, such things can do very little to bring about true happiness.
"As we reflect on tsewa and examine it through our own experience, we may come to see it as our most precious possession. When we value something so highly, we go to a lot of trouble to take care of it. For example, most of us spend a great deal of our time doing things related to wealth. We are continually trying to gather, protect, and increase our money. This can involve working long hours, seeking promotions, watching the stock market rise and fall, searching for bargains, buying insurance policies, and so on. Each of these pursuits involves struggle, hope and fear, and suffering.
"With tsewa, we also need to put effort into gathering, protecting, and increasing. We gather tsewa simply by remembering to let the heart be open, which is its natural and most joyful condition. We protect tsewa by averting and removing obstacles and threats that can rob us of this joyful state. And we increase it by training to expand our love to more and more beings. . . .
"The obstacles and threats to tsewa come in many forms, but all arise from a heart that is in some way feeling disturbed. Something is happening that we don't like, and inside we feel some level of irritation. This could be a very subtle aggression that we may not even notice, or it could be a blatant, almost intolerable emotion that culminates in an ugly outburst of anger. However it appears, it always comes with some kind of inner rejection. We reject whatever is occurring in our lives. This means we are separating ourselves from the world and from others. When we feel aggression, the heart starts to close. Our precious, nourishing tsewa ceases its flow.
"This is why the eighth-century sage Shantideva refers to aggression as 'our sorrow-bearing enemy,' and why I felt inspired to write a book about its antidote: patience. The word 'patience' is a translation of the Tibetan wood zopa. Other common translations are 'tolerance' and 'forbearance.' For the sake of simplicity, I will use 'patience,' but the essence of zopa is more like 'not getting disturbed.'
"When we are not disturbed, our hearts are at peace and tsewa flows abundantly. None of us would rather feel disturbed than be in this ideal state. But most of the time we have no sense of how not to get disturbed. We have no idea how to practice zopa, patience. On one hand, we may think that the key to not getting disturbed is to avoid any situation that might disturb us. It's common sense not to place yourself purposely in stressful or irritating situations, but it's impossible to avoid most of the countless hardships and misfortunes that come to all of us. Even people who have safe, comfortable lives usually find plenty of things that disturb them or things to complain about. This is why every Buddhist method focuses on changing our mind, not our outer world.
"On the other hand, we may steel ourselves to remain undisturbed in difficult situations by mastering the approach of 'grin and bear it.' But that is also not what's meant by zopa. Grinning and bearing it is no different from suppressing or bottling up our emotions. It is a guaranteed method of turning the mind into a pressure cooker, which will at some point explode."