The Heart of a Revolution
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to study with Noah Levine, the original maverick Dharma Punk, founder of the Buddhist community Against the Stream, and iconoclastic promoter of compassion, authenticity, and joy. Noah began the daylong intensive at Kripalu by discussing his background and practice. As I listened, I marveled at the mesmerizing ink on his skin, his slightly menacing punk rock visage, and the soft-spoken eloquence with which he held the space.
Noah talked about his early Buddhist teachings which were unable to prevent suicidal ideation, followed by teenage angst, drugs, and violence, leading to a bottom characterized by a hardened heart and self-loathing. This low period brought him back to a lifelong relationship to the Buddha, catalyzed by the teachings of his father, Stephen Levine, a prominent Buddhist scholar. “Forgiveness was not part of my vocabulary,” Noah said, when he started to delve into mindfulness meditation and the notions of loving-kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. Slowly, as he became conscious and started to observe himself, a mindfulness practice began to take hold in his everyday life, and he felt himself becoming present and accepting not only who he was, but also who he could be.
After the introduction, Noah prepped us for eight hours of social silence and contemplation. “Getting quiet is not for the faint of heart,” he told us.
“The path to uncovering our heart’s positive qualities is a radical one. It is fraught with roadblocks of the heart and mind that in Buddhism we call mara. Mara is the aspect of the heart and mind that generates excuses, procrastinates, and urges us to avoid unpleasant states of mind that accompany the healing of awakening. Mara is the inner experience of delusion, marked by greed, hatred, and fear.”
He told us that this period of quiet would open the door to awareness and reflection, but that it wouldn’t be without potential discomfort, emotions, and pain. “Be compassionate with yourself,” we were reminded.
Being in the Moment
Our morning meditation included seated time, as well as walking, focusing our breath and awareness on each step. We took lunch silently, at tables reserved for our group. Each bite seemed to last much longer than normal as I carefully positioned each morsel, chewed slowly, and placed my fork down between bites. The practice illuminated how “unmindfully” we typically go about our days. I might wolf down a meal in nine minutes; write an e-mail in two; or sit down to draw with the kids while looking at my watch and anticipating the next move. In mindfulness, I am reminded that it’s not about what I am doing, but how I am doing it. Through skillful attentiveness, we are offered a different experience of life. I wondered what this could look like for me.
The afternoon was devoted to forgiveness meditation. “The path to liberation is turning toward what’s happening,” Noah said. “Buddha starts the noble truths with the bad news first: Life is suffering. Part of why I think Buddha starts here is that, if we approach this practice skillfully, all that will remain is the good stuff—the joy, the loving-kindness, the compassion. When you clear away the extra suffering of trying to avoid the reality of the difficulties of life, you can truly be present with an open heart.”
The Radical Path
Our survival instinct—fight, flight, or freeze—doesn’t naturally create space for mercy and compassion in day-to-day living. The ego, encapsulated in the Buddhist notion Noah describes above as mara, gets agitated by the open heart that is necessary for forgiveness. It’s easy to stay stuck—resentful, angry, full of loathing and overemphasis on the self. As Noah reminds us, “The stream that this path leads against is the stream of ego identification in resentment, complacency, and otherness.”
We took our seat for the forgiveness meditation. As Noah’s words walked us along the path, he reminded us to include ourselves in the visualizations. The instruction or mantra, was simple: “I forgive you, please forgive me, I forgive myself.” As I started to inhale and exhale with this practice, my mind sifted through my neurological file cabinet, pulling relevant files. Most of my forgiveness scenarios were fairly simple, but then my mind came to my father.
In many ways my father, who died in 2004, is and was “my heart.” He was a very open, kind person. I knew that he loved me and that he was aware of how much I loved him. But what surfaced in the meditation was my anger toward myself that I wasn’t with him when he passed. My reasonable mind reminded me that there was no way I could have known that, on that particular day—when we actually debated going to see him but decided to go another day—he would die. But the guilt has stuck with me.
This heaviness caught me completely off guard. A part of me wanted to just recite the words “I forgive you” to myself and move on, and I did, but I had excavated something, as Noah had said might happen. I witnessed the self-resentment and offered myself compassion, but, for the rest of the day, I felt a bit surprised by what this silence had unearthed, and a little bit raw from it. I hold it in my heart that my father forgives me for my absence. Yet Noah says we must forgive ourselves to be free of suffering.
“Forgiveness, loving-kindness, and compassion—in the beginning—is for yourself,” Noah says. “Ease of loving-kindness comes from true forgiveness. This is not spiritual make-believe—it is real openheartedness.”
I thought about his words throughout the rest of the retreat, and they have stuck with me since. The feeling of forgiveness may not be permanent, but it comes through diligence. As a practice, forgiveness takes repeated visitation. “In this moment, you may feel it, but don’t forget that you might relive the suffering and have to forgive again,” Noah said. “The Dalai Lama says to perform loving-kindness every day for 10 years and then check in on your progress.” This is not a quick fix or the easy path, but rather a lifelong journey that moves us toward a true sense of freedom with what is.