Thursday, May 10, 2012

Centering in the Heart

    Centering in the Heart

    The great wisdom traditions teach us a too often hidden intuition we already possess, that our authentic identity abides in true spirit, or true nature. Our true spirit is not an isolated being or entity but is an intimate cell or emanation of the Universal being or Spirit from which all life and consciousness arises. When the mystics speak of the “heart” they are referring to our spiritual center, the sanctuary space of our true spirit and the Light and Presence of the Universal Spirit that animates and holds it into being. All spirituality has to do with experiencing communion with the Divine Spirit Life in the heart or spiritual center. Hence spiritual praxis (practice) is the process of conscious connection with Spirit in the heart, or Centering in the heart.

    I will always remember watching a video of an interspiritual conference in the 1990s at which the Dalai Lama was interviewed. The comment that remained with me to this day was made with his hand caressing his heart area of the chest and smiling as he spoke, “essence of spirituality and true religion is ‘heart’.” Notably he did not say  ‘the right beliefs or laws.’ Rightfully then, when we speak of the life of the spirit arising from the heart or spiritual center, then we must also speak of how we center our consciousness in the heart.

    It is good to have a conceptual map of the spiritual life, but it is not enough if you do not then take the journey. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk and interspiritual contemplative guide and teacher wrote: “We must move from a belief-based religion to a practice-based religion, or little will change.” (Richard Rohr, The Naked Now) And when we move from belief and dogma and into the dimension of practice and experience, we are moving from religion into spirituality. Religion without authentic spiritual practice is why we have a failure of religious systems today. And remember that the word practice does not mean ‘repetition.’ It refers to the Greek word praxis, which means, actualization, to make real. To make real our life of the spirit it is vital and necessary to have conscious connection, conscious communion, and conscious oneness with our true spirit and the Universal Life that animates it and the entire cosmos and beings who dwell here with us. The doorway into this conscious connection is our own heart, or spiritual center.  The pathways of connection into the deep heart are many. Most mystics teach spiritual meditation as the most direct and most powerful pathway of connection.

Meditation as Pathway to Centering in the Heart
" Meditation… is returning to your own center and finding that it is the gateway to the Center of all."  John Main OSB- The Heart of Creation

    I have specified the term ‘spiritual meditation’ here as a direct but not the only pathway to connection with the heart. Again the ‘heart’ here is the center of our being, the secret garden of the true spirit. I am not using the term to refer to more conventional usages of ‘heart’ to refer to the emotional center or to our anatomical organ.  There are forms of meditation that are taught simply as health practice or mental concentration practice to enhance the powers of the brain. Here we are referring to the practice described by John Main as the liberation of the spiritual faculty of awareness from entrapment in the thinking mind and its content, and anchoring our awareness and our will (intention) in the spiritual center or heart, the font of self-offering love (agape) or loving kindness (metta) and the sanctuary of the Light and Fire of Divine Presence or Ultimate Being in our inner being.

    A valid equivalent term Interbeing, is used by the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, to understand that all beings participate and share in the Life of Ultimate Being. Hence the more intimate we are with Ultimate Being within, the more empathic and compassionate we are with all beings, because we experience our oneness with all beings through the deep heart within. Therefore true spiritual meditation does not take us into a self-absorption, but into a belonging that transcends a personal self and encompasses our own true spirit in communion with all spirits. At a personal level therefore meditation takes us into the Greater Concern for all beings and subjectively we experience both growing joy and pain in that belonging. This is Interbeing for Buddhists, and for theistic people this is the place where love and union with God takes us into a love and union with our neighbor or all beings, the Great Commandment. All true morality stems from this Unitive Love. It matters not which concept you prefer, it is the same Reality, the same Great Love that holds us all into being and shares Its Life with us. This Great Love. alive and burning brightly in the heart, is what the Tibetan Buddhists are invoking in the spiritual mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,”  ‘Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus of the Heart.’

Meditation Method

    The method of centering in the heart through spiritual meditation simply calls us to take refuge in the Inner Flame of Love at the center of our Secret Garden of the Spirit.  In this intimate encounter, similar to when we seek intimacy in our human relationships, we give our full presence, letting no thing intrude, whether our own thoughts, external noise or distraction.  In this interior sanctuary we give ourselves to the interior rest and aliveness of the deep heart.  To cultivate our abiding in this sacred silent space, which the ancients of the desert tradition called “hesychia”, there are external and internal disciplines we must cultivate.  

The Guidelines of Heart Meditation

1.  Setting:  Set aside a sacred space, a quiet place in your home that is consecrated to your desire for centering in the cave of the heart.

2.  Time:  Choose a time most conducive to silent interior heart meditation, when you are alert and not likely to be interrupted.  For most that is early morning and early evening.

3. Body Posture:  Sit upright, where minimal effort is required to maintain a straight back and be alert.  For some a chair is best, for others, a meditation bench or cushion.  Let the hands be reverently folded in your lap or resting on your thighs facing upward or downward.

4.  Breath:   Breathing should be relaxed, not forced.  Allow the breath to be deep and abdominal, relaxing the tensions in the shoulders, chest and abdomen.  Let the out-breath be released slowly, synchronized with the invocation of a sacred breath or mantric invocation, if you are using one.

5.  Preparation:   Choose or create a short phrase of consecration to prepare for your entry into silence and to awaken your longing.   Examples might be, ’In the depths of my heart I take refuge’, or ‘O Beloved Spirit Life, I take refuge in you.’

6.  Length of Meditation Session:  Twenty-five to thirty minutes of Heart Meditation session is best, with a brief walking meditation in between for more than one session.  Two sessions a day, one session in both the morning and evening, or two sessions in the morning, are often recommended.  (For most people it is best to begin with one.) Allow for a gentle transition from the meditation session, perhaps ending with a spoken vow of practice, devotional prayers or chant, or a short spiritual reading you may find inspirational.

The Method

Meditation mantra:  Choose a word, which touches you and best expresses your desire to be one with the Spirit Life within you.  Or you may choose a word that evokes for you deep peace and interior grounding in the heart. Repeat the word or words silently and continuously, synchronized with your breath. Let the word and breath sink deeply into the heart in the chest and solar plexus. With more than one syllable or word, align the recitation of the word or phrase with the in-breath and out-breath in an easy rhythm of breath and word.  Let this mantric word or phrase be the anchor of returning your awareness to interior abiding in the Heart.  Some practitioners may find repeating any word is unnecessary or even a distraction.  For these individuals, the in-breath and out-breath alone is the purest and simplest form of meditation practice, and breath alone is fully sufficient and complete.

Observing the Mind/Abiding in the Heart: Observe the mind traffic content, release and return your attention/presence to abiding in the heart (This may be experienced energetically in our body awareness deep in the lower chest and solar plexus area).  Continually observe and release from involvement with mental thoughts in the head by returning to your breath and sacred word.  The continual process of “release and return” coincides with the natural rhythm of the breath.  We increasingly and continuously abide in the deep heart and sanctuary of the Spirit Life within.  In growing depth our awareness settles and anchors in the warmth and spaciousness of our spiritual center, the cave of the heart and secret garden of the spirit within.

Summary of Guidelines and Method

     Gradually, over time, we cultivate a capacity, not to stop thought and emotion, but to release from them.  Increasingly, we abide in the ‘cave of the heart’, which is beneath and beyond all mind activity.  We experience that we have thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.  We can rest in this heart space, in our silent meditation practice, or in the midst of daily activities.  Our true home, our monk's cell, is the kingdom of the Spirit Life within, and our practice is one of ceaseless return and abiding in the inner sanctuary of the Heart Flame of Love.

     Thomas Kelly, the twentieth century Quaker mystic, spoke eloquently of the "perpetual return of the soul to the Inner Sanctuary."  He writes, " Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continually return.  Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself…"

"Who abides in love, abides in God." -Epistle of St. John

"The Heart is the only Reality. The mind is only a transient 
phase. To remain as one's Self is to enter the Heart."
- Sri Ramana Maharshi

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