The Buddhist term bodhicitta means completely open heart and mind. “Citta” is translated as heart or mind; “bodhi” means awake.
The cultivation of the noble heart and mind of bodhicitta is a personal journey. The very life we have is our working basis; the very life we have is our journey to enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something we’re going to achieve after we follow the instructions, and then get it right. In fact when it comes to awakening the heart and mind, you can’t “get it right.”
On this journey we’re moving toward that which is not so certain, that which cannot be tied down, that which is not habitual and fixed. We’re moving toward a whole new way of thinking and feeling, a flexible and open way of perceiving reality that is not based on certainty and security. This new way of perceiving is based on connecting with the living energetic quality of ourselves and everything else. Bodhicitta is our means of tapping into this awakened energy and we can start by tapping into our emotions. We can start by connecting very directly with what we already have.
Bodhicitta is particularly available to us when we feel good heart; when we feel gratitude, appreciation or love in any form whatsoever. In any moment of tenderness or happiness, bodhicitta is always here. If we begin to acknowledge these moments and cherish them, if we begin to realize how precious they are, then no matter how fleeting and tiny this good heart may seem, it will gradually, at its own speed, expand. Our capacity to love is an unstoppable essence that when nurtured can expand without limit.
Bodhicitta is also available in other emotions—even the hardest of feelings like rage, jealousy, envy and deep-rooted resentment. In even the most painful and crippling feelings, bodhicitta is available to us when we acknowledge them with an open mind and heart and realize how they are shared by all of us—when we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat feeling the same pain. In the midst of the most profound misery, we can think of others just like ourselves and wish that we could all be free of suffering and the root of suffering. When we tune into any of our feelings, become aware any of our feelings, they have the capacity to soften us and to dissolve the barriers we put up between ourselves and others.
On Cape Breton Island, where I live in Nova Scotia, the lakes get so hard in the winter that people can drive trucks and cars on them. Alexander Graham Bell flew one of the early airplanes off that ice. It’s that solid. Our habits and patterns can feel just as frozen as that ice. But when spring comes, the ice melts. The quality of water has never really disappeared, even in the deepest depths of winter. It just changed form. The ice melts, and the essential fluid, living quality of water is there.
The essential good heart and open mind of bodhicitta is like that. It is here even if we’re experiencing it as so solid we could land an airplane on it.
When I’m emotionally in midwinter and nothing I do seems to melt my frozen heart and mind, it helps me to remember that no matter how hard the ice, the water of bodhicitta hasn’t really gone anywhere. It’s always right here. At those moments, I’m just experiencing bodhicitta in its most solid, immovable form.
At that point I often realize that I prefer the inherent fluidity of situations to the frozenness I habitually impose on them. So I work on melting that hardness by generating more warmth, more open heart. A good way for any of us to do this is to think of a person toward whom we feel appreciation or love or gratitude. In other words, we connect with the warmth that we already have. If we can’t think of a person, we can think of a pet, or even a plant. Sometimes we have to search a bit. But as Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, “Everybody loves something. Even if it’s just tortillas.” The point is to touch in to the good heart that we already have and nurture it.
At other times we can think of a person or situation that automatically evokes compassion. Compassion is our capacity to care about others and our wish to alleviate their pain. It is based not on pity or professional warmth, but on the acknowledgment that we are all in this together.
Compassion is a relationship between equals. So in any moment of hardness, we can connect with the compassion we already have—for laboratory animals, abused children, our friends, our relatives, for anyone anywhere—and let it open our heart and mind in what otherwise might feel like an impossibly frozen situation.
Love and compassion are like the weak spots in the walls of ego. They are like a naturally occuring opening. And they are the opening we take. If we connect with even one moment of good heart or compassion and cherish it, our ability to open will gradually expand. Beginning to tune into even the minutest feelings of compassion or appreciation or gratitude softens us. It allows us to touch in with the noble heart of bodhicitta on the spot.
When I was a child there was a comic-strip character named Popeye. At times he was really, really weak and at those vulnerable moments, the big bully Bluto was always standing there ready to reduce poor Popeye to dust. But old Popeye would get out his can of spinach, open it up, and gulp it down. He’d just pour the spinach into his mouth and then—wham! Full of confidence and strength, he could relate with all the demons. That’s what happens when we use our emotions to touch in with our noble heart. Bodhicitta, it’s like spiritual spinach. But please don’t quote me on this!