If the flint of the heart can be struck skilfully, it may produce a flash of inspiration

When steel is struck skilfully against a flint, a spark can be produced. If you have ever tried this, or seen it being done, you will know that you do not get a spark every time you strike the flint. But if you keep trying, you get some. If you want fire, you have to go on striking until you get some sparks.

In this article, the heart is compared to a flint. In English we have a phrase: ’a heart like flint’, and it means someone who is never moved by appeals for help, or for more time to pay, and so on. Most of us behave like this sometimes. A variation of the phrase is: ’a heart of stone’, and there is a saying; ’One cannot get blood out of a stone.’

One cannot get blood out of a flint, either. But one can get a spark by using the steel in the right way. Then the flint, which is so unresponsive to everything else, may give a flash of fire, without which we can hardly live.

Similarly, if the flint of the heart can be struck skilfully, it may produce a flash of inspiration, without which life is hardly worth living. Our heart-flints can be struck in various ways; one of them is to use short incidents and stories in the hope that one of them will ’click’. This slang word means to have a flash of recognition or understanding.

The process is like trying to get someone to see some feature in a distant landscape. Suppose it is an unremarkable grey building. You begin: ’Can you see the clump of trees with red leaves – No? Then can you see the patch of white chalk – No? Well, the river – the sun is just reflected on it – Ah, so you see that. Now follow a fairly level line to the left of that, and you come to the white chalk. Got it? Now keep on the same line and you see some yellow gorse bushes,..Yes? Now just above them on the slope, you can make out a grey building. Ah, that clicks. You’ve got it.’

One thing to notice in this method is, that you do not persist with any one clue. You do not say: ’You do not see the red trees? Well, look and look till you do see them. You must see them.’ You simply try another indication, the river, or the white chalk, or whatever it may be. Sooner or later, he will recognize one of the indications. When one has been recognized, it is easy to give instructions: go to the left from there, and so on.

In the inner training, this corresponds to giving one little story, then another, until there is a reaction like a spark. Our hearts have to be struck. These days, the condition of the heart flint is generally regarded as the responsibility of society. Suppose a man commits a violent robbery. Some sentimental people say: ’In a way, we are all guilty, aren’t we? Because we, in the form of society, have set him a problem which he could not solve. We failed to integrate this violent man into society. If we brought him into society, he would not be violent.’ When I hear this sort of thing, I think: They are saying that the shepherd has failed to integrate the wolf into the flock of sheep!’

When we look at our own experience, we can see that the argument is quite false. For most of us, society is not responsible for our misdeeds. When I look at some of the spiteful or cruel things which I have done in my long life, I cannot honestly say that society was responsible for any of them. I did them! I had no need to do them, but I did them. One of the first things to recognize is that one’s heart is sometimes just like a flint. It needs to be struck, so that a spark of light can come out. Some of us are so dull that it may take great suffering to get a spark from our hearts.

But if we are beginning to wake up, quite a small incident can create a little flash. In a way, it is like telling jokes. If one sees the joke and laughs, that is enough. But if he does not see it, or if the joke is inappropriate, then we do not persist. It is no use saying: ’You must see it; I will explain it.’ A joke explained is a dead joke.

The next point comes when a spark has been actually struck. It applies both to the physical flint and steel, and to the inner ones. In the physical operation, you hold the flint in the left hand, with your thumb on top. You have some tinder, which is like dried grass, held on the flint under your thumb. It has to be near the edge of the flint, where the steel in your right hand is going to strike. When the spark comes, it must set the tinder alight. If it does not, the spark is lost. But if it does catch the tinder, you must at once blow very carefully – not too much, not too little. The tinder will glow, and then you can light your cigarette from it, or use it to light a strip of paper which lights a fire which can grow and burn down a city.

It is a very slow way to light a cigarette: flint, steel, tinder, then trying till you get a spark, then blowing carefully on the tinder. It can take quite a time. But I recommend it. I knew a Japanese artist who wanted to reduce his smoking. He made a vow that he would always light his cigarette in this way. He used to carry round a pouch with the flint, steel, and tinder in it. It could take him five minutes to light his cigarette, and it reduced the number of cigarettes he smoked. He could never light one casually, because he had to get out all the implements first. He told me that it was often too much trouble to do it, so he smoked less. While he was making up his mind, the momentary impulse to smoke would often disappear. I pass on this method to heavy smokers who want to reduce.

These same physical procedures have an application to the training of the mind. When we read or hear one of the training stories which strikes a spark from our heart-flint, we should not let the flash die. We should give it the tinder of our attention, so to speak; one way of doing this is to memorize the key sentence, and keep repeating it to ourselves during the day. If we do not do this, we may feel a momentary invigoration of spirit, but almost immediately, it has gone. We must apply the spark to the tinder of our life, to some recurring situation, to some memory, some habit, some problem or obsession.

Here are a couple of examples, one from England and the other from Japan. First the English one. A very successful man in many fields (incidentally he had become a millionaire) told me about his attitude to life. Before meeting him, I had expected what they call a live-wire. But I found a very calm man. He said: ’There are many people who have great ability, but they are not satisfied with success. They want triumph. They spend as much energy on getting that last little bit of triumph as they have spent on getting the success. And if they don’t get triumph, they waste still more energy being angry about that. For myself, when I am successful, I never stay there to be praised or admired for it: I go away and begin something else. And when I fail, I don’t spend time feeling humiliated or angry: I go away and begin something else. So I seem to end up with much more energy available than those others; they have energy, but much of it is locked up in trying to get triumph.’ I heard this from him, and was much impressed. I found myself repeating the phrase: Try for Success, not Triumph; and then Do Something Else.

I began to look at my life, and was surprised to find how often I had tried to get some acknowledgement, some words of appreciation, when I had had a success. I used to hope that people would see it, or hear of it; if they did not, I would try to bring it to their notice. After meeting him, I slowly came to realize how much energy I wasted in this way.

I also repeated the second half: Begin something else, Do something else. I found that it gave me a good deal of extra energy, and also a sort of confidence in trying new things – I could begin something else, do something else.

The Japanese one is, for me, more difficult. It is the case where some spiteful action is done, for no real reason at all. In Japanese it would be ’to pull the leg’. (In English to pull the leg means only friendly teasing; the phrase for vicious harm is, to put a spoke in the wheel.) To pull the leg of a fellow-climber so that he falls to the bottom is pure envy. It brings nothing to the puller. Well, the Japanese example was, that a man had worked for years, as a volunteer, to make a beautiful little public garden. But one night, some vandal poured acid over the plants and moss. Everything was ruined, and the volunteer was heart-broken.

When this happens to someone else, we can feel very kind and say: ’What a shame! I’m so sorry. But you know, the real sufferer is the one who did this. He must be terribly unhappy.’ But when it happens to US…! We dream about revenge for weeks and months and years.

This man went to a Zen teacher and told him what had happened. He said he could not get over it. ’What are you trying to do?’ asked the teacher. The man said: ’I am struggling to think: “Poor fellow, he’s making very bad karma for himself. I’m trying to feel sorry for him.”

’No good at all!’ cried the teacher.

’Wha – a – t?’

’That’s no good at all. You’ve got to drink him down to the last drop of poison.

The man thought: ’Ugh – h – h!’

He was given a poem to meditate on night and morning:

Let the bird fly in the vast sky of your serenity;
Set the fish free in the bottomless ocean of your tolerance.


That man said that after six weeks his bitterness and grief had disappeared, and he had a feeling of freedom.

© Trevor Leggett


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