Practices for Developing a Caring Heart

Quieting Down

We started the training just briefly with the exercise for quieting the mind. When we say “quiet the mind,” that doesn’t mean to turn off everything like the radio is off, but rather it means to quiet down the unnecessary things that are going on in our mind so that we can be more open and positive. But, as was pointed out, if we only do that, or if it’s done incorrectly, then we tend to isolate ourselves form others, and have no feelings at all. If we go to that extent of shutting off everything, we’ve gone too far.

When we say quiet down the extraneous, problematic things in our minds, we also want to quiet down our nervousness, worries and fears. For some people that’s not so easy to do, obviously. But if we’re in a group in which everybody agrees that we’re going to be non-judgmental with each other, that can be quite helpful.

The Caring Heart

Now, let’s go on with the caring heart, the caring attitude; and again we look at our people on the poster here and what we’re going to do is start with first quieting down – that’s the first step – and then regard these people one at a time. Just go through the sequence with one person in the photos and once you’re able to generate this caring attitude by going through the line of reasoning, then shift your focus to another.

First we quiet down our discursive thought. “Discursive thought” means, “Blah, blah, blah,” talking in our head. If we want to quiet that down, we focus on the breath. That’s a specific use of breathing meditation. In the Theravada tradition from which the vipassana movement derives, the breath is a focal object for many different types of meditation. But when we look in the Mahayana traditions, the breath is singled out as an object of focus specifically for those people who have a lot of discursive thinking. Their minds are too active; they’re always talking in their heads. Focusing on the breath quiets them down.

If you try that, you’ll find that although of course you can focus on the breath, yet part of the mind is still talking. Nevertheless, it is still quite helpful, especially if you have a problem, which I often have, which is of having some music or a song go endlessly through my mind. You hear something and somehow your mind latches onto it and then you sing it all day long, which is utterly stupid. It’s very hard to stop that. There are several methods that we can use.

Methods to Quiet the Mind

One method that’s used in tantra would be to recite a mantra, so that you use that verbal energy to do something else, so reciting a mantra. Another method is to start to analyze something, so try to figure something out. Some people say if you do a sudoku, one of these puzzles or something like that, you involve your mind in doing something that requires your intellect in an analytical way. That’ll stop the song going on in your head, and it does. Or just mathematics. Add some numbers in your head.

The third method which is what we find in so many texts is to focus on the breathing. So we need to use some sort of method to help us to quiet down – my point being that there are many, many methods, so if one doesn’t work, try something else.

That is a helpful preliminary. Even before we purposely try to quiet the mind, just focus on the breath a bit and then let go if there’s more mental wandering and discursive thoughts going on. Do that.

I should also mention from general meditation methods that if we’re feeling dull and we have to deal with somebody, what is helpful to do is to imagine a bright light. Obviously, if there is a bright light around to look at, it will stimulate the mind, but if you can imagine a bright light as well – not low down, but high up, because that lifts the energy – that also will help to get the mind a little bit clearer, not so dull.

The Actual Practice for Generating a Caring Heart

Now we look at one of the pictures and let go if there are any further thoughts, verbal thoughts, judgments that come up. Then we think:

  • You’re a human being and have feelings.
  • You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do.
  • The mood you’re in will affect our interaction just as my mood will affect it.
  • I’m not going to make up any stories about you, or tell any stories in my head about you.
  • You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do.
  • The mood you’re in will affect our interaction, just as my mood will affect it.
  • Therefore how I treat you and what I say will further affect your feelings.
  • Therefore just as I hope that you care about me and about my feelings in our interaction, I care about you. I care about your feelings.
  • I’m not going to make up or tell any judgmental stories about you.
  • You’re a human being and have feelings.
  • I care about you, I care about your feelings.

Then we look away and look down and let the emotion of that experience quiet down.

Maintaining Mindfulness

If your mind is always wandering or flying away, the question is why? That’s the interesting thing to investigate in yourself. It could be because what it is flying away to is so attractive to you, you’re quite attached to it; for instance, thinking of some loved one or something like that.

It could be that you’re worried about something, but it also could be because of fear or discomfort at an actual encounter with somebody and so then the mind runs away from that. If we have a lot of mental wandering and particularly if it is flightiness, which means the mind is flying to some object of desire that you’re attached to, then we really need to start to investigate why. What is really causing this? It’s important because it is a big interference, not only in our interpersonal relations, but also of course in our work, in our daily life. The general approach in Buddhism is always to identify what the problem is, then try to find the causes and then work to eliminate those causes.

It’s a very logical process and, as we mentioned, the way to maintain mindfulness, which is the glue that stays on the object, is to remind yourself when you forget about it and your mind wanders off, “Go back, go back, go back.” Listen to what the other person is saying; they’re a human being. They don’t want to be ignored, just as I don’t want to be ignored.

Increasing Our Interest in Others

When you’re talking to somebody and explaining something that you consider important and, after you say a few sentences, the other person says, “Huh? What? What did you say? I wasn’t listening,” you feel horrible. Well, they have feelings too and feel horrible when we don’t listen to what they’re saying because we don’t find it interesting. What helps us to bring our attention back and stay focused is to remind ourselves, “You have feelings just as I do.” That’s the whole point of this sensitivity training.

What we have to increase, in this case, is our interest. I’m interested in the other person and what they are saying, even if objectively what they’re saying is boring and stupid. But nevertheless, when people speak to us, their intention is not, “I’m going to say something really boring to you and bore you.” That’s not how they consider what they’re saying, is it?

The Problem of Projection

Another problem that comes up in trying to quiet our minds is that we often project things onto other people. One of the most disturbing ones is projecting onto someone expectations that they will act like somebody else. This can be most noticed in personal relationships in which you have a relationship with somebody, a girlfriend or boyfriend, and you break up and now you start going out with somebody else. You project onto that person that they are going to either treat you the same way, so they’re going to dump you or abandon you or something like that. Or you imagine that they will have the same characteristics and the same likes as the previous one, so you’re not relating to this person, but you’re relating to the projection of somebody else on them.

This is very, very common, especially with people who have been abused or just treated badly by others and then they project that expectation onto people, to whom it is completely unfair.

This is a subcategory of quieting down, “I’m not going to tell stories about you from your own past and bring up old history that is irrelevant to the present moment. But also I’m not going to project onto you the stories of other people. I’m going to relate to you the way you are now.” And not say, “Thirty years ago you said this and that to me,” as if you were still in the same place; you’re not. Or, “thirty years ago somebody else abandoned me and now you’re going to abandon me.” This is not staying in the present moment.

How to Look at Someone

For the next phase of quieting down, we need to sit in a circle and try to look at each other with a quiet mind. That’s much more challenging than looking at the photographs.

The things we need to watch out for are, first of all, staring at each other as if we are at the zoo and looking at these other animals. You’re not at the zoo! Also, nervousness. Nervousness will manifest itself in laughing. You feel uncomfortable and a way to compensate for that is nervous laughter, a standard psychological mechanism, and it definitely occurs in some groups, especially when trying this at first. So we try not to be like a pack of dogs, in which one dog starts barking and all the rest of the dogs start to bark as well. Try not to join in in the laughter, it can be contagious. Just let go.

There will be some people that will feel uncomfortable and will look down or keep their eyes closed and not look at others. If it really makes you uncomfortable to look at others, don’t do it. Also, don’t stay staring at one person; that will also make the person feel uncomfortable. As your gaze goes across the people, then just maintain a quiet mind.

One more point: when doing this in a group, it’s not recommended that you really look deeply in each person’s eyes, especially when two people in the group know each other. When you’re scanning around and your eyes meet someone else’s, don’t get caught in that interchange of staring at this person, look on. That can also be very, pardon the word, seductive; you get lost in looking at that other person and they’re looking at you. Remember, this is not an exercise in single-pointed concentration of focusing on someone, this is an exercise in just being able to be with a group of people and see them without making comments about everybody. The aim is just to have your mind be open to everybody.

When we do this exercise one to one, like when we’re talking to somebody, how do you look at each other? That becomes a very interesting question. When you’re right next to somebody and you’re speaking to them, if you just really stare into their eyes and they stare into your eyes, somehow you get lost. You sort of space out in a sense and the conversation ends. But on the other hand, if you’re speaking to somebody and you’re looking over there when the person is over here and you never look at the person, that’s very uncomfortable. “Hey! I’m over here, I’m not over there.” To get that balance in which you’re looking at the person but you’re not staring and don’t get stuck is not so easy, actually. It depends on the relationship that you have with the other person, if you start to analyze. If you have a lot of desire for that person, then you tend to get lost in an “oh, I’m in love” type of phenomenon.

There can also be anger there, “grrrr,” and you stare at the other person with a terrible look on your face, “I’m really angry at you.” But when you have the caring attitude toward the person and are relaxed and open, you can look at them and not stare. You can look at them in their eyes while speaking to them and because you’re relaxed and care about the person, you’re not worried. You’re not oversensitive, worried that they’re going to reject you, they’re not going to like you. You’re not just thinking about “me, me, me,” and “what are they going to think about me?” Because you’re relaxed, you don’t get stuck in the other person’s eyes.

What’s difficult is when the two people are not at the same level in their development. So one person – let’s say you – are relaxed, but the other person is not looking at you, but looking over at the wall while they speak to you. I had a professor like that in my graduate studies, he was my advisor. Whenever I would go speak to him, he never looked at me. He was Japanese and so it was perhaps cultural, but still it made me uncomfortable.

The other extreme is you’re speaking to someone and they’re so intense, they’re much too close to you, so there’s this animal instinct that they’re going to stick their finger in your eye or something like that. They’re too intense and that also makes us uncomfortable. The thing is when we’re in that position and the other person is out of balance like that, somehow to try to still stay relaxed and not get out of balance yourself in response. That’s much more difficult. Then you have to realize, “Well, you’re a human being and you have your own problems,” and stuff like that. That comes in one of the other exercises, “combining warmth with understanding.”

Gradually Letting Go

Initially when you look at people around the circle, thoughts, judgments and stories will come up more easily, but as you continue with the practice, you start to remember to let go. Gradually, you’re able to drop the stories and mental verbal thoughts about the people you’re looking at. Once we gain some familiarity with this practice, we’ll see this happening also in our daily lives. You see someone and initially that thought is going to come up, “Oh, how pretty,” or “What a terrible dress this person is wearing,” or whatever will come up. It will be some sort of comment that is usually judgmental, but then the point is to drop it. It will be interesting to note what type of people trigger more judgmental thoughts than others, it’s very interesting.

I have recently been on a very strict diet and have lost about 14 kilos. What I notice is in my own comments when I see people on the street who are fat, that triggers the most comments. “How fat this person is...” Why? Because this is what I was struggling with in myself, to get rid of my being overweight. And then you project that, of course, onto the other person and what annoys you about yourself the most will annoy you mirrored in other people.

Analysis of Others and Generating Conclusions

Some people, when they see others, try to identify from their internal database what the person is like. It’s not quite judgmental and their motivation for doing this could be quite good, but still this tendency makes people seem more like objects, rather than like human beings with feelings.

We might use our data-base type of analysis of people in order to have a good idea of the strategy to use in approaching them. However, in order to be able to analyze correctly, which is one of the functions we train in later on in the exercises, we have the five types of deep awareness. With these, you take in the information, you see the patterns, etc. That’s necessary in our interactions with others. A prerequisite for them is that we don’t project before we get sufficient data to be able to make a correct analysis. And we don’t jump to conclusions prematurely.

For instance, “I see this person; they’re fat. They don’t take care of themselves.” Then I jump to all sorts of conclusions about the person without really getting to know them. The analogy that I’m thinking of is either computer dating or Facebook level interaction, which is that you base your analysis of the person simply on the profile that you read in Facebook, not on the actual person. Again, it is jumping to a conclusion based either on a superficial impression or on some characterization that is just a characterization; that’s not the person. It’s just what they wrote down according to the form they filled in.

The main purpose in quieting the mind is to be open to the actuality of the other person. If the person is completely uncommunicative, like if you’re a therapist dealing with somebody who is just completely closed, then I’ve known of therapists who will rely on numerology or astrology or something like that to have some sort of idea of where to start to communicate with the person. But if we’re not in that kind of situation, then to just go on their profile on Facebook is pretty superficial. Often it’s based on the type of image that the person would like to project, but which is not really authentic.

The Quiet Mind with the Caring Attitude

Now let us add to this “quiet mind” exercise of looking at the people in the group the “caring attitude.” With this, we do focus on each person one at a time, but don’t do it with somebody who is focusing back on you, because then that also will become a little bit awkward. That’ll be the next phase, when you’re doing it one-to-one.

The way that we do this is to look around the circle at each person first with a quiet mind. Then, with each step with which we generate the caring attitude, like “You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do,” we look first with that recognition at one person and then at the next, as we go around the circle. “You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do. And you’re a human being too and you’re also a human being and you’re a human being and you’re a human being.” Like that, we go around the circle for each of the major points here, ending up with a caring attitude toward each of the people.

First we just quiet down by looking down and focusing on the breath. This is like the entranceway into each exercise and also the exit as we let the emotional experience of the exercise settle. It’s a much more gentle way of practicing these exercises.

Then we look up and look around the circle with a quiet mind,

  • I’m not going to tell stories about you in my mind; I’m not going to comment; I won’t be judgmental.
  • You’re a human being and have feelings just as I do.
  • You’re a real human being and have feelings, real feelings, just as I do.
  • No stories or comments.
  • The mood you are in will affect our interaction, just as my mood will affect it.
  • How I treat you and what I say will further affect your feelings.
  • Therefore just as I hope that you care about me and about my feelings in our interaction, I care about you. I care about your feelings.
  • I’m not going to make up or tell any stories about you.
  • Human being and have feelings.
  • I care about you, I care about your feelings.

These are keywords that we can repeat ourselves in our mind, not just hear me say it. “I’m not going to make up or tell any stories about you. Human being and have feelings. I care about you. I care.”

Okay, let the experience settle.

The Advantages of Working with a Variety of People

For some, it’s difficult to focus on a lot of people like this, so it might be easier to train in a smaller group. But where it’s helpful to have this caring attitude with a large group is when you have to speak in public to an audience. Some people are very nervous and self-conscious in doing that. If you realize, however, that everyone in the audience is just a human being like I am, then there’s nothing to feel frightened about.

I find it useful with a large group of people on a bus or in a subway car to realize that everybody in this vehicle is a human being and has feelings. But for practice in a group, sometimes it is easier with a smaller group. But a mixed group has the advantage that maybe there are some people that you know and some who are strangers, and that’s helpful. When we do the exercise with the photos, we practice with a series of them, not just with photos of strangers taken from a magazine. First we use photos of people that we don’t know, but then you have your own personal photographs of somebody that you do know, that you have a good relationship with, somebody that is just an acquaintance – you know them but not very well – and then somebody that you don’t like. Then you can also put all three photographs in front of you and try to have an equally quiet mind and an equally caring attitude toward all three. That’s much more challenging, but very worthwhile to work on.

Practicing the Caring Attitude toward Ourselves with a Mirror

For practicing to develop a quiet mind and caring attitude toward ourselves, we can look at ourselves in a mirror. It needs to be a mirror that is large enough to see our entire face, not just our nose! But here we have a large wall mirror that covers the entire wall and so we can all sit in front of it and direct these attitudes toward us as part of a group. First, we quiet down by just focusing on the breath. Then we look at ourselves and then the whole group in the mirror with the quiet mind and then the caring attitude.

  • I’m not going to make any judgmental comments about myself, or make up any stories, just quiet.
  • I’m a human being and have feelings just as everybody else does.
  • How I regard and treat myself affects my feelings.
  • How I regard and treat myself affects my feelings, just as how others regard and treat me affects how I feel.
  • Therefore just as I hope that others care about me and about my feelings in our interactions, I care about myself.
  • I care about my feelings.
  • I care about my feelings toward myself.
  • I care about how I treat myself.
  • I’m not going to make up or tell any stories about myself.
  • I care about myself.
  • I’m a human being like everybody else in the mirror.
  • I’m no different, just another human being, like just another penguin in the flock in Antarctica.
  • I’m just another person.
  • Just as I care about you, I care about me.
  • Just as you have feelings, I have feelings.
  • I care about you, I care about me.
  • Balance between self and others.

Then we look down and let the experience settle.

The Next Step: Positive Interactions with Others

When we just do this exercise of generating a quiet mind and a caring heart, that’s of course not enough. These are just the legs on which the whole training will stand. On that basis, we develop ourselves further in terms of how we actually relate with others. The next step is to interact with them in a balanced, sensitive way. The goal is not simply to be able to look at the people nonjudgmentally and care. That’s just the start.

Our interaction with others can be on many levels. Consider, for example, the case of being on a crowded bus or a crowded subway car. There are a lot of people. How do we feel? We could just be thinking of “me, me, me; there are all these horrible, sweaty, smelly people around me,” and feel very uncomfortable. With such an attitude, it becomes a very unpleasant ride. Or we think, “I’ll just pretend that they don’t exist and get lost in my iPod music. If I can move my hand at all, I’ll play a game on my phone.”

In a sense, we’re putting up the walls around us to try to stay safe inside, which is a very insecure feeling, actually. We’re guarding against insecurity. Or we could develop the caring attitude that everybody in this bus or subway car is a human being, everybody has feelings, everybody else is also feeling crowded. We feel interconnected, then, because of this shared experience and, although it’s not so pleasant being so crowded like this, still our sense of connectedness gives us a warm feeling in our hearts. We’re at ease and comfortable, feeling that we’re all in this together, rather than just “me, me, me, poor me.” It changes completely our way of experiencing that crowded bus ride.

If we’re relaxed and feeling comfortable, maybe there’s a smile on our face. Not an idiotic smile that people think we’re a crazy person, but a relaxed, comfortable smile that makes other people around us who are also feeling very crowded a little bit more at ease. “It’s not so bad.”


Training to gain balanced sensitivity toward both others and ourselves will help us enormously in daily life. We will avoid many difficulties when we realize that everyone is a human being and has feelings, just as I do. When we are neither oversensitive nor under-sensitive to their feelings, we will treat others and speak with them in a considerate way. The same is true with regard to being neither over- nor under-sensitive to our own feelings and how our behavior affects them. Developing a nonjudgmental quiet mind and a caring attitude equally toward others and ourselves will lay the foundation for gaining the emotional balance that will enable us to lead more fulfilling, meaningful lives, and to be of best help to everyone.