Open Heart, Clear Mind study guide

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Based on notes from an introductory course on Buddhism taught by Venerable Thubten Chodron, all referenced readings in this guide are from Open Heart, Clear Mind by Venerable Chodron. The book and study guide offer a foundational understanding of Buddhism that is both profound and accessible.


II. Working effectively with emotions

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: II, 1-3

Where is happiness? Mind is the source of happiness and pain

  1. Remember a disturbing situation in your life. Recall what you were thinking and feeling. Examine how your attitudes created your perception and experience.
  2. Examine how your attitude affected what you said and did in the situation.
  3. Was your attitude realistic? Was it seeing all sides of the situation or was it viewing things through the eyes of “me, I, my, and mine?”
  4. Think of how else you could have viewed the situation and how that would have changed your experience of it.

Conclusion: Determine to be aware of how you’re interpreting things that happen in your life and to cultivate beneficial and realistic ways of looking at things.

All disturbing attitudes are based upon the innate assumption that happiness and pain come from outside of us. However, the disturbing attitudes aren’t an intrinsic part of us. As our wisdom and compassion increase, the disturbing attitudes diminish. The main disturbing attitudes are:

  1. Attachment: an attitude which exaggerates or projects positive qualities on an object or person and then grasping or clinging on to it.
  2. Anger: an attitude which exaggerates or projects negative qualities on an object or person and, being unable to bear it, wishes to run away or strike back at what disturbs us.
  3. Pride: an attitude holding onto an inflated image of oneself.
  4. Ignorance: a deluded state on unknowing which is unclear about the nature of things such as the four noble truths, actions and their results, emptiness, etc.
  5. Deluded doubt: an indecisive attitude inclined towards incorrect conclusions regarding important points.
  6. Distorted views: either a deluded intelligence which grasps at an inherently existent self or one which grasps at other mistaken conceptions.

Taking the ache out of attachment

By reflecting on your own life, examine:

  1. What things, people, ideas, etc. am I attached to?
  2. How does that person or thing appear to me? Does he/she/it really have all the qualities I’m perceiving and attributing?
  3. Do I develop unreal expectations of the person or thing, thinking that he/she/it will always be there, will continuously make me happy, etc.?
  4. How does my attachment make me act? For example, do I disregard my ethical standards to get what I’m attached to? Do I get into dysfunctional relationships?
  5. Look at the person or thing in a more balanced way. Recognize that he/she it and your relationship is transient. With clarity and kindness, recognize its faults and weaknesses. Recognize his/her/its natural limits to bring you happiness. Meditating like this doesn’t leave you feeling sad or disappointed, but balanced, realistic, free to enjoy without getting stuck.

Points for contemplation and discussion: Attachment to approval

  1. Why do we seek approval from others? Why is others’ approval so important to us? How do we feel when we get it? What do we do in order to get others’ approval?
  2. How do we feel and act when we don’t get others’ approval? What is the relationship between attachment to approval and anger?
  3. How does attachment to approval relate to self-esteem?
  4. What is the difference between seeking feed-back and seeking approval?

Anger and other disturbing attitudes

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: II, 4-8

Working with anger

Anger (or aversion) can arise towards people, objects or our own suffering (e.g. when we’re sick). It arises due to exaggerating the negative qualities of a person, object or situation, or by superimposing negative qualities that aren’t there. Anger then wants to harm the source of the unhappiness. Anger (aversion) is a generic term which includes being irritated, annoyed, critical, judgmental, self-righteous, belligerent and hostile.

Patience is the ability to remain undisturbed in confront of harm or suffering. Being patient does not mean being passive. Rather, it gives the clarity of mind necessary to act or not act.

Points for contemplation and discussion: Is anger destructive or useful?

  1. Am I happy when I’m angry?
  2. Do I communicate with others effectively when I’m angry?
  3. How do I act when I’m angry? What is the effect of my actions on others?
  4. Later when I’m calm, do I feel good about what I said and did when I was angry? Or, is there a sense of shame or remorse?
  5. How do I appear in others’ eyes when I’m angry? Does anger promote mutual respect, harmony, and friendship?

Transforming anger

  1. Usually we look at a situation from the viewpoint of our own needs and interests and believe how the situation appears to us is how it objectively exists. Now put yourself in the other’s shoes and ask, “What are my (i.e. the other’s) needs and interests?” See how the situation appears in the other’s eyes.
  2. Look at how your “old” self appears in the eyes of the other. We can sometimes understand why others react to us the way they do and how we unwittingly increase the conflict.
  3. Remember that the other person is unhappy. Their wish to be happy is what motives them to do whatever it is that disturbs us. We know what it’s like to be unhappy: try to develop compassion for this person who is unhappy, but who is exactly like us in wanting happiness and avoiding pain.

Points for contemplation and discussion: Forgiving and apologizing

  1. What does it mean to forgive someone? Must we condone someone’s action to forgive them? Must someone apologize to us for us to forgive them?
  2. Who benefits when we forgive? Who is harmed when we hold grudges?
  3. What does it mean to apologize to someone? Do we sometimes fear losing power or respect by apologizing? Is that necessarily the case?
  4. Must someone accept our apology for us to feel better? What can we think or do when someone doesn’t?

Self-centeredness

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: II, 8-9

Reflecting on the kindness of others

  1. Thinking of people you know and people you don’t, of people you like and people you don’t, reflect that all of them want to be happy and to avoid pain with the same intensity that you do.
  2. Remember the benefits you’ve received from:
    • Friends: their support and gifts,
    • Strangers: the jobs that they’ve done and the benefits you’ve received from their efforts simply because we live in an interdependent society,
    • People you don’t get along with: they show us our buttons and what we need to work on; they give us the opportunity to develop patience in the confront of harm.

Disadvantages of self-centeredness and advantages of cherishing others

  1. How do we feel and act when we’re self-centered? Do we act hypocritically or ignore our ethical principles?
  2. Does acting out our self-centeredness bring the happiness we’re seeking? Does it contribute to creating a harmonious family or society in which we wish to live?
  3. How do we feel when others care for us? How would they feel when we care for them?
  4. How do we feel about ourselves when our heart is open to others?
  5. When we act with a heart that genuinely cares for others, how does it enhance our own and others’ happiness, now and in the future?

Points for contemplation and discussion

  1. Do you ever feel guilty for not caring for others or obliged to care for them? What attitudes underlie that? Is it really caring for others if you help out of obligation, fear or attachment? How else can you look at the situation so that those attitudes don’t arise?
  2. What does it really mean to help someone? Does it mean doing everything they want? What if they want something harmful?

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