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Why is meditation on the breath and the heart so beneficial?

There are many benefits to doing both practices. Meditating on the breath tends to be very relaxing – it’s an antidote to stress, tension and anxiety. And it takes you out of your head, which is a relief for most of us because modern life encourages us to just keep thinking and thinking, and before we know it we’ve lost touch with the fact that we’ve also got a body. Of course, thinking is very useful under certain circumstances, but thinking is always about something, so it’s never quite direct experience. When you focus on the breath you come to a direct experience of life and that brings you to life – it increases your aliveness.

Likewise, I think that meditation on the heart can revolutionize your emotional life. Because our happiness finally depends on our responses to life, the more we respond to life in a positive way, the more fulfilling our life can become. Focusing on the heart also, over time, helps soften that sense of separation that causes us so much suffering – the sense that ‘I’m a completely separate person here and there’s the world out there’. If you go deep enough into meditation, you can recognize that finally you’re not separate from everything else at all.

But to say that meditation can revolutionize our lives is not to say that we suddenly become completely different people after meditating. Meditation helps you develop your potential. It can bring out qualities in you that you didn’t even know you had. However, it also makes you more at ease with who you are. This naturally results in developing a more positive and happy version of your personality.

In The Breath, you describe meditation as enabling you to ‘leave your mind better than you found it.’ Can meditation practice enable us to leave the world better than we found it as well? Can meditation really change the world?

We’re all very interrelated – in Buddhist terms we condition one another – so meditating on the breath and the heart can have a really transforming effect on the world around us, as well as on ourselves. Our actions are just the playing out of our ideas and feelings. So if we change those ideas and feelings, then that changes how we act and how we impact on things. If you let the positive qualities and feelings that you find in meditation flow into your life, then meditation is really one of the best things you could possibly do for the world.

In The Heart, you say that ‘The feeling we are looking for in meditation is beyond likes and dislikes.’ This could sound like an undesirable, even depressing state of existence to some. How can you convince those who are sceptical that meditation will not turn them into bland, dispassionate people?

I think that more and more in Western society we define ourselves as individuals by our likes and dislikes, and we’re constantly having those preferences fed and reinforced by the media. We often feel that being presented with endless consumer choice, and exercising our likes and dislikes through that choice, is a form of freedom. But actually we end up being pushed and pulled by our likes and dislikes, so much so that we lose our freedom.

For example, I like to drink a particular type of tea, and I’ve been in the habit of drinking it for so long that any other type of tea just doesn’t do it for me anymore. So out of all the possible drinks that I could have, I’m just left with this one that I really like. And I think a similar thing happens with people. There are certain people who we feel we get on well with – people who are like us, who have the same interests as us, who fit our personality type. And we get into the habit of focusing on them and in effect shutting ourselves off from everyone else. Eventually, if we’re not careful, out of the billions of people that we could potentially connect with, we’re just left with the few who we hang out with.

So our likes and dislikes limit our freedom: we’re no longer free to drink anything that happens to be there, and we’re not free to happily engage with whoever happens to be there. We’re constantly moving towards some situations and people and avoiding others. More than that, our feelings of attraction and aversion can define our identity to such an extent that we become quite desensitized to life – we need strong, dramatic experiences to produce strong emotions so we can feel ‘ourselves’, and feel OK in ourselves. We end up losing all the subtlety of our experience, and miss out on a peaceful serenity, a quiet aliveness that comes from just letting our likes and dislikes go.

However, most of us don’t run the risk of discovering this, because we feel as if we wouldn’t exist without our likes and dislikes, or we might get bored, or turn into someone bland. But from my own experience, people who practise meditation for a long time aren’t bland at all – they feel really alive and creative, and act in truly meaningful ways.

You describe love as ‘a choice, an action.’ Do you think there is a difference between Buddhist loving-kindness and love as we conventionally understand it? Can an experienced meditator fall head over heels in love?

There is a difference between Buddhist loving kindness and love as we conventionally understand it, because love as we conventionally understand it is a mixture of caring about somebody else or other people and also being attached to them. With this kind of love, you’re always looking for something in return – love is a kind of contract, a bargain. However, the ideal of loving kindness in Buddhism is to care about other people and the world for their own sake – it’s more appreciative and less needy.

And although we talk about ‘falling’ in love as though it is something that just happens and then that’s it, I know that certainly when I used to ‘fall in love’ like that I worked quite hard at it – I invested a lot of energy in thinking about that person and how fantastic they were, and also a lot of energy in wishing things would stay that way – that they would stand just there, looking just like that, on that pedestal forever! But of course people need to change and develop, and after meditating for a while you see – you know – that everything changes and develops, so you are able to love more freely and also more realistically. Because you’re more in touch with your own inner riches, you don’t expect one person to completely fix your life and make everything wonderful.

Perhaps there are two sides to falling in love: there’s that powerful but evanescent feeling that comes and goes, and there’s a genuine, deep caring about people that tends not to change with time. I think that after meditating for a while, you can still feel the evanescent type of falling in love, but you understand it for what it is and let it go; the genuine feelings of love and care will just get deeper the more that you meditate.

You suggest that we all have our own ‘sphere of concern’ and that the Buddhist project is about expanding that sphere to include all living beings. Is it really (and practically) possible to love all living beings with the same commitment and energy that we show towards our partners, family and friends?

Yes. Because if you go deep in meditation that sense of complete separation that I talked about earlier disappears, and when you really feel part of life, you inevitably care about it all. Also, the further you go with your meditation, the more you start to see that there is only the present moment. Very often we think our way into the past and the future and feel as if we can live there. But actually, living in the past or the future is always unsatisfying, and through doing that we dismiss the present. For example the person we’re with this minute may not be the person we want to be spending time with. But once we understand that the present moment is the only reality, it really makes sense to care for the person we’re with, because we might as well care for what is real.

And although loving all beings might sound like a big ask, I’ve definitely met a few people who really did seem to do that – whatever they were doing, whoever they were with, their attitude was always open and caring. So I think the idea that we have a limited amount of love or resources is just a story that we tell ourselves, because in reality love is always there, and it’s limitless. People talk about compassion fatigue but I don’t think the compassion ever runs out – it’s rather that we’re too fatigued to connect with it. And we become less fatigued the more that we practise compassion.

Compassion isn’t like a reservoir which becomes empty once you’ve taken so many buckets out of it. It’s the reverse – the more compassion you draw out of the reservoir, the more there is there. The issue is just about getting to the reservoir. If you don’t go there very often, weeds and brambles grow up and it becomes a real struggle to reach it. So when you do go there and back with your bucket you feel exhausted. The more you go to the reservoir, the more the path gets well-trodden and the easier it becomes. So although loving all beings might sound impossible, in principle it’s actually quite simple – it’s just about staying in the present moment with an open heart.

You wrote The Breath and The Heart almost ten years ago now. Since then you have been on a three-year meditation retreat. Have your ideas about meditation developed since you wrote the books?

Although my experience of meditation deepened during my retreat, I don’t think my view of the basic principles of meditation has altered at all. Those principles haven’t changed since the time of the Buddha, so ten years wasn’t likely to make much difference. I still stand by what I said; it feels like good advice and I’m pleased I included it.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that because The Breath and The Heart start from scratch, some people have thought that they are just books for beginners. However, friends of mine who have been meditating for several years have picked them up and found them useful. So they’re not just to get you started with meditation. There is advice in them that can be helpful for people who have been practising for years.

Lastly, if you could give one piece of advice to those who are taking up meditation for the first time, what would it be?

Try to keep an open mind and a sense of adventure. Meditation is a chance to explore your experience and discover more about yourself and life. Don’t have too strong an idea about what meditation is going to be like, even if it’s a positive idea, because reality is always going to be different from what you expect. Try as much as possible just to be with your experience and enjoy the process of meditation unfolding.

Find out more about ‘The Breath’ and ‘The Heart’

Vessantara is a senior member of the Triratna Order. Born in London in 1950, he became interested in Buddhism in his teens. After gaining an MA in English at Cambridge University, he was ordained in 1974 and given the name Vessantara, which means ‘universe within’. Since then he has devoted himself to the development of Buddhism in the West. He has written several other books, including A Guide to the Buddhas, A Guide to the Bodhisattvas, A Guide to the Deities of the Tantra, The Vajra and Bell and Female Deities in Buddhism, and is a popular teacher in the Triratna community, focusing particularly on meditation. In November 2011 he returned from a 3-year meditation retreat in France, and since then has been leading workshops and retreats. To find out more, visit his website www.vessantara.net