the preliminaries step 4: cultivate bodhicitta

Step 0: Ditch that old stuck self

Step 1: Sit down and be still, for God's sake

Step 2: Call on the guidance of a teacher

Step 3: Take refuge in something true

Step 4: Cultivate bodhicitta


One of my Buddhism teachers calls practicing meditation without bodhicitta a "dry" meditation. Yuck. In this post we will explore what bodhicitta is, why we want to cultivate it and how that can be done.

Bodhicitta is often translated as “the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings.” It is a driving motivation that comes from a deep sense of fellowship and compassion. If one is trying to meditate without there being some kind of love to move things along, things can feel forced and inauthentic. It is actually a naturally occurring state but, due to conditioning of all sorts, most of us have let that part of the self go to sleep. Unless we learn to wake it up, spiritual practice gets overly dull or agitated, it can feel boring or irritating, it can stall out or become a chore. 

In this step of the Preliminaries, you can do a simple practice that is sure to reawaken your own sense of bodhicitta. Bring to mind a person whom you deeply love and consider that person in pain. Stay still and attentive and engage with whatever authentic emotional response happens to arise. 

The masters who came up with the Preliminaries knew that if a meditator can light a fire of connection and care, stoke it and sustain it, then it will provide a powerful energy source to propel her practice. We start by feeling connected with those who are near and dear but inevitably the circle of concern will begin to expand outward, connecting you to more and more beings. When we can sense that invisible thread of connection and care linking us to every being whom we encounter, then we have accessed the enlightened state.

When I first started meditating, it was my little brothers who could take me there fastest. I have always felt close to them and protective over them. If one of them is suffering I instinctively feel pain. If one of them is experiencing joy, then I automatically feel joy as well. If there is something that I can do to make one of their lives better, I do not hesitate. So thinking on one of them in pain is enough to generate that emotional connection while I sit on my mediation cushion. One might think that this could be distracting, but in fact it has the opposite effect. 

At least until we have more practice connecting with it, the mediation object tends to be not such a compelling place to hold our awareness. The mind is in the habit of spending its time stuck in old grooves or seeking out the mental junk food of new stimulation. The meditator battles the perpetual distraction of thoughts spontaneously arising in the mind and struggles to stay engaged with the meditation object--whether it be the feeling of the breath, a mantra, or a visualization practice. But as we cultivate bodhicitta it adds a non-intellectual component, a passion component, something that begins to feel important in a way that we can register in our emotional and physical body. And this brings fresh life to our practice again and again, this helps us keep returning to the object we have chosen even when it is difficult.

Bodhicitta saves our meditation from being "dry," because it brings some fuel, nourishment and fluidity into the practice. It can motivate us to make time to get onto the cushion, into the classroom or out on retreat, even when we are feeling too lazy or busy. If I think, "This will help my brother suffer less," then it is harder to ignore the call to go meditate. And once I'm there, it helps me stay connected to the object in a more organic way because I'm not doing this out of duty, or some other put-on imperative, but of a love which motivates from within.

 Me and my youngest brother, Adrian, back in 1994. My love for him creates a great intrinsic motivator for me to become stronger, wiser, kinder. And funnier. (I don't know why we're cut out and pasted onto something. Us 90's kids just did that kind of shit.)

Me and my youngest brother, Adrian, back in 1994. My love for him creates a great intrinsic motivator for me to become stronger, wiser, kinder. And funnier. (I don't know why we're cut out and pasted onto something. Us 90's kids just did that kind of shit.)

The word bodhicitta is made up of two other really important words in Yoga and Buddhist philosophy. Bodhi (pronounced BO-dee) means awakened. It is the root of Buddha, which means the awakened one. And citta (pronounced CHI-ta) means conscsiouness, which can also be translated as "mind-stuff" or "thoughts." We find this word in the famous 2nd Sutra of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: yogas citta vritti narodaha. "Yoga is the cessation of the spinning mind-stuff."

So when we break down the word bodhicitta it literally means an awakened state of consciousness. This implies that the mind does not wake itself up by way of thinking on its own, but rather the heart must come and help it shift. The the caring self, the emotionally invested self FEELS its way toward higher awareness. If the mind can come to rest its agitated state, if it can stop making so much noise and learn to hear the wisdom of the heart, it will learn how to honor a two-fold truth. (1) All beings seem to suffer. (2) We are all interconnected. Once the heart and the mind can both agree on this, then one will have a much more grown-up, woken-up, reality-based engagement with the world. And it will lead to a spontaneous experience of bodhicitta, of the great wish to help all those around me. 

So now the question arises, why would my meditating be so helpful for my brothers? Why wouldn't it be more helpful to spend that time in other ways? Why wouldn't I instead focus on the actual things that they need? For instance when they're broke why shouldn't I focus on making money so that I could give it to them? Or when they're lonely, focus on entertaining them or introducing them to cool friends and pretty girls? Or when they're sad, thinking of fun things to do with them to cheer them up? Because, though these obvious and material "solutions" to their problems might help in the short term, they are actually all distractions that prevent us from addressing the true source of suffering.

The Buddha identified that the true source of suffering is avidya, or lack of wisdom. This ignorance of the true nature of things creates delusion and living in delusion is actually what is responsible for all of the many negative experiences that humans have. If unhappy experiences are the leaves of the misery tree, perhaps a lack of material resources or other negative circumstances might be the branches, but avidya, is the roots. So if I want to effectively address the problem of suffering, I can lop off leaves and branches all day long, but more strife will surely grow unless I attend to those roots. 

The path of "waking up" is beginning to develop more and more wisdom--vidya or prajna. Now I could give my brothers a lot of things, but if those resources don't come with wisdom, then they may not actually be that helpful. We have all seen examples of a person who was simply handed bountiful resources without having an appreciation about where resources come from--they usually end up causing suffering for others and, inevitably, eventually, suffering themselves.  We see a lot of people whose lives seem like they should be totally flush, yet they are unhappy. 

On the other hand, we see people who, judging solely by their outer resources, seem to have little but are perfectly content. The former don’t understand what their resources are for--they seem to have collected everything but wisdom. The latter know how to use what they do have. They have wisdom, they have that trump resource, and though they encounter pain like everyone else, they have managed to uproot ignorance, so that pain does not turn into suffering.

Wisdom is the maha-resource because it is the only one that can give us insight into the real nature of the other resources or into how we should be using them. How do we know which resources are most important? How do we know when we should invest one resource to gain another? How do we live with them without getting attached and suffering when that resource moves on? Only he who has developed wisdom can begin to confidently answer these questions. If I want to help my brothers, my boyfriend, my parents, my students, my friends, well then I better be able to share wisdom. That is the resource that I am working hardest to cultivate. Because the wiser I am, the more of that I will have to share

"Bodhicitta is the essential, universal truth. This most pure thought is the wish and the will to bring all sentient beings to the realization of their highest potential, enlightenment...Bodhicitta is the alchemy that transforms every action into benefit for others. Bodhicitta is the cloud that carries the rain of positive energy to nourish growing things. Bodhicitta is not doctrine. It is a state of mind. " --Lama Thubten Yeshe

We all have our own reasons for wanting to meditate, wanting to engage in a spiritual practice. But some motivators will take us only so far and then leave us stranded, high and "dry," as it were. If we can find the LOVE lying deep down in our motives, it will take us to all the way to wisdom. And the more our wisdom grows, the more it will continue to grow our love.

When you forget why you're doing this, think of someone whom you love. And when the love isn't easy to access, remember the two-fold truth that we are all interconnected and we all suffer. Bring the mind and the heart into a harmonious resting in the truth of what is, and this whole meditation thing begins to flow.