1. Remember Who You Are
Deep within all beings is a kind of spark that lights and warms our lives. It's been called by many names in many different traditions. In the Buddhist tradition it's known as "Buddha nature"-- which is often described in terms of three qualities: boundless wisdom, infinite capability, and immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion.
One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that we all possess this nature. You may think that you're an accountant, an executive, a teacher, a student, a parent, a child -- and indeed, on a mundane, every-day level, you are. But underneath a particular identity and all the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may attach to it, what you are is the ever-evolving potential of a being who is capable not only of transcending suffering but of leading all other creatures out of darkness and pain, as well.
So all you really have to do in order to open your heart and your mind is to remember your Buddha nature!
2. Mind Your Body
Unfortunately that's not always easy. Throughout our lives we're urged to define ourselves and our experiences in particular ways. Over time, these definitions become so familiar that we end up identifying with them completely as the absolute truth of who we are.
We can, however, begin to break down our mundane, everyday identities into smaller pieces -- a process through which we begin to discover that who we think we are isn't quite as solid as we believe. One of the easiest ways to begin is to spend a little time with our bodies.
It's surprising how many of us forget our bodies. It's so easy to get caught up in thoughts and feelings and overlook this extraordinary system of muscles, bones, organs and so on that serves as a physical support for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
So one thing we can do -- preferably while sitting in a comfortable position with the spine straight and muscles relaxed -- is to start simply and gently appreciating that we have a body, a basic ground of experience. We can begin by simply noticing: "There is a leg. There is a toe." We can simply notice, too, that there is a heart that is beating; there are lungs that are expanding and contracting; there is blood coursing through veins. We can also notice physical sensations such as being cold or being warm, feeling pain in the knees, back or shoulders, and so on. The point of the practice is to simply allow ourselves to become alert to the physical aspect of our being in a very easygoing and gentle way, without judging it or identifying with it.
3. You Are Not Your Feelings, You Are Not Your Thoughts
We've become so used to the potency, frequency and variety of the thoughts and feelings that course through our awareness throughout the day that it's very easy to identify with and as them. This tendency is built into our very language. "I'm angry." "I'm afraid." "I'm happy. "I'm sad."
We can bring the same kind of attention we brought to our bodies to our thoughts and feelings -- gently noticing them as they arise, abide for a moment and, somewhat to our surprise perhaps, disappear. In so doing, we gently begin to recognize that our thoughts and feelings are only aspects of experience and not the totality. Our identities may be may be influenced by mental and emotional patterns in the subtle body, but we are not those patterns.
Try practicing this sort of gentle noticing the next time you feel a strong emotion. Allow the emotion to arise, but look at it as an event occurring within a broader frame of awareness. Tell yourself that what ever you're experiencing is not the total "you," that what you're feeling is only one piece of your experience.
We can also bring this same sort of attention to our thoughts which are often intimately linked to our identities. The speed with which thoughts appear and disappear across the screens of our minds are like out-of-control "breaking news update crawlers" that appear across television screens. We can hardly read one before another takes its place -- and another and another. Our awareness is overwhelmed by fleeting impressions, half-grasped notions, bits of sentences, ideas that have only begun to form before they disappear.
As we gradually turn attention to our thoughts, rather than being irritated, disturbed or carried away by them, we slowly find ourselves amazed by their coming and going. We begin to appreciate the entire process of thinking in and of itself.
4. Rest In Space
In time, we also begin to notice gaps between thoughts and feelings -- barely perceptible moments in which there is simply no thought, no feeling, just pure, open awareness. As these gaps grow longer -- and a little less startling -- we can begin to rest within them. For a brief second or so, we can have a direct experience of what in the Buddhist tradition is known as the essence of mind, or the nature of mind: a luminous, limitless awareness that is not chopped up into subject and object, self and other, perceiver and perceived. All distinctions between "the looker" and what was being "looked at" fall away, and for an instant we experience complete lack of separation between everything we feel, see, smell, and so on, and the awareness that sees, smells and feels. Our hearts and minds are completely open, and the spark that is our Buddha nature leaps up into a brilliant flame.
5. Share the Bliss
Unfortunately, it's easy to get caught up in the sense of well-being that arises when our hearts and minds open and to forget the most essential lesson that the Buddha tried to instill in us as the deepest of all teachings: that until all of us are free, none of us are free. Rather than rest in our own comfort zones, our contentment dimming our awareness of the pain and hardship that others around us may be feeling, we must remember that the ultimate goal of opening our hearts and minds is to free all living creatures from their patterns so that they can experience the openness, wisdom, and warmth that is the essence of our being.
Buddha nature is infinite; beings in need of awakening are infinite; and our journey, once begun, is never done.