In previous writings, we focused on becoming more aware of your heart by concentrating on the pulse and following the breath. Here we will learn to contemplate the heart. This takes us from thinking about the heart to becoming one with it, or attuning to it. This attunement is achieved through a state of presence. Presence is your most natural, relaxed state of being.
Most of the time, our attention is taken up by our environment and what is external to ourselves. With an external focus, we lose the opportunity to discover and access our true Self. The true Self is not the ego, the personality, defense mechanisms, or how we have been conditioned. It is the most real, true, and substantial core of being. A.H. Almaas, in his book Essence, writes,
“The personality and ego identity develop to fill the void resulting from the loss of essence in childhood. So it is really an impostor trying to pretend it is the real thing.”
Accessing the true Self requires presence. Presence is experiencing completely what is here right now, moment to moment. This experience involves going beyond how we think and feel about things normally and, instead, uses the body’s sensations – or what is called “felt sense.” This helps us to experience ourselves beyond our normal way of understanding and into the mystery of all there is. Presence is when we perceive so directly that there is no difference between who perceives and what is being perceived. It is direct perception of our true nature, our being. We can feel it, although it is not just a feeling. Each person has his or her own presence; it is palpable to others.
There are a number of qualities that we need to develop to have presence. We start with curiosity, because the ways we have known ourselves typically are not the whole truth. Being curious allows us to have new information or a new experience of what is.
Next, are the qualities of openness and allowing. We work with whatever arises with no preference or judgment. Sometimes blissful states will come and other times direct contact with our internal barriers to Self. These are not random occurrences, but guidance at work. We allow and remain open to this guidance rather than using our personal will to define the experience. The goal is to neither deny nor identify with difficult feelings, but rather fully sensing and observing them as phenomena that are not essentially our true Self.
As one of the Sufi poets says, “Let everything happen to you. Let the experiences lead the way.” The next quality is “not knowing.” The willingness to not know is essential to discovering something new. It is the transitional state in the process of transformation, much like the caterpillar within the cocoon turning to “mush” before emerging as a butterfly. The willingness to not know is the ability to empty out the ego and personality so that we become an empty vessel to hold our true Self. This is the state of “in-between-ness,” where there is nothing to stand on.
Another quality is compassion. Compassion for Self is the ability to be totally present with our own suffering and pain, without trying to make it go away. This is important because by being with it we can learn to use the wounds to open our hearts to our own pain and ultimately to all beings.
The last quality of presence is dedication to the truth. To see the truth requires that we move through the veil of unconsciousness. During childhood, the developing ego is used as protection. It keeps us from coming in full contact with reality. The ego acts like a shell, protecting the chick. What initially is protective soon becomes a constraint. Our love of truth is like the chick breaking out of the eggshell.
The Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks to this in his poem, The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house,
every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably,
as he may be clearing you out?
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The following is a practice for gazing into the heart. By using presence to deeply connect with the heart, the heart reveals itself to us through sensation, emotion, and felt sense. With no agenda, just a beginner’s mind, discover what is present at this moment, in your own heart.
Put your head down with your eyes turned towards the heart as if you could see into the body. Chin is tucked, head is turned slightly to the left. Your eyes send energy that will penetrate into the depth of your heart. Begin to notice your breath, emphasize the exhalation, making it more forceful and shorter than the inhalation. Imagine that as you exhale, the energy goes through your eyes and touches the heart. Probe your heart with your eyes, finding the most tender spot. You will feel it when you touch it, as there may be a quiver or a tendency to pull away. Stay with that spot, gently, completely present in the moment-to-moment sensation.
This is how we begin to use the body to help us explore the mystery of our being. Notice as you feel emotion, or anything else that comes up, to take you away from the experience. Just notice, and then gently place your attention back into the heart. Continue this for 10 minutes, allowing your heart to reveal emotions and sensations that are present only within its depths. You might be aware of energy releasing a movement. Just allow it to happen and go deeper into the heart. You might reach a place of clarity and peacefulness, with a sense of loving kindness and gentleness. This is your essence – pure presence.
Further readings: A.H. Almaas, Essence. Puran Bair, Living from the Heart. Also www.AppliedMeditation.org.