Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Introduction- Universal Heart Meditation

Introduction-Universal Heart Meditation-
(Graphic above attributed to Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. )

The Soul’s Journey   
     Every soul has a journey in this life. Too often we measure our life by the conventional standards of external success or failure in work, money, possessions, or relationships. But our real journey is the journey of the soul to rediscover in the depths of our own Heart or spiritual center, the secret garden of the spirit, and to learn to rest, abide, and live our human life from the Divine Eternal Life that emanates from the secret garden of the spirit.

Two Dimensions of Human Spiritual Personhood
     We are loved into existence with two enduring aspects to our personhood. One aspect is that of the soul, or spiritual consciousness, whose task is to undertake the journey of life and bring into the created world the Light within, and live It fully, with awakened awareness and with the purpose of consecrated love in this created world of human and other beings. The other aspect of our being is the secret garden of spirit, the deep spiritual Heart,  the essential being of our true self that remains inviolable and unchanging. The garden of spirit is known in its fullness only to the Divine Friend and Beloved whose Life and Presence abides in the center of the garden. Potentially the Divine Indwelling is uncovered by the awakened and unified soul of every human being who longs to come home to rest and find healing therein. Our soul finds healing therein from the wound of separateness and isolation into conscious union with the Divine Beloved. It is the destiny of every soul to discover the secret garden of the true spirit and to bring its fruits into the world. Sadly the soul’s destiny is too often ignored and unfulfilled because of spiritual ignorance or unconsciousness in a lifetime of diversion, distraction, and misdirection. The result of that unfulfilled destiny is the human condition and all the ills that flow from it.
Abiding in the Secret Garden
     My journey of soul came into awakening as an adult at age 21. In the midst of a spiritual and psychological crisis, afflicted by despairing obsessive thoughts with growing suicidal content, in anguish and desperation I cried out for help. The help came immediately. It came in the form of a memory. The memory was soft and gentle and settled over me like a soothing cloud. I was four years old and I was hiding in the tall grass behind the chicken house at my grandmother’s home. In a seated position with crossed legs, my eyes were closed and my attention was focused entirely inward to a secret place deep within. I had come to this place many times before. It was home to me. In this place was safety and the peace and fullness that comes from being fully known and loved by a Presence that surrounded me in its loving intent. And I simply rested in the Presence, and It in me. Nothing else was needed. In a short time I would open my eyes and go about my play and exploration. Not thinking anything more about it, except that I knew this place and this experience was secret and I should not speak of it to any adult, as they would not understand. I did not give this place any religious interpretation as I knew very little about religion at that time in my life other than the nightly prayers my mother would say.

     In my recovery of this memory at age 21 I remembered again the inner gateway to this secret place. And, as if no time had passed at all, I went there again and rested again in the Presence Who indwelled in me. And the depression lifted and the obsessive and toxic thoughts lifted and I was healed.

Finding a Spiritual Practice
     Not long after this healing occurred I met a young man who spoke about meditation as a spiritual practice, specifically Soto Zen meditation. His description resonated with my experience and I resolved to find a meditation teacher, knowing I needed to have a disciplined daily practice to stay rooted in the grace of this interior place of sanctuary and communion I had rediscovered now in my adult life, as already my mind was inclined to revert to its old patterns. And thus began the journey of my soul as an adult. My training in meditation took me to a gifted woman who was a teacher of Zen meditation, and later to teachers of meditation in the Christian mystical tradition. The Zen tradition helped me cultivate an emphasis on awareness or pure presence in my practice, and the Christian teachers helped me cultivate the quality of the intentionality of self-giving love in my practice. And I learned that both are vital to bring the soul’s abiding in the secret garden in the deep heart rooted in both presence and love and thereby express the fullness of our true spirit and the Eternal Beloved who lives within.

The Universal Perennial Wisdom
     In my life I have lived the interspiritual dialogue of East and West, and while the words and the map of spiritual reality are different, the reality of Spirit, a reality beyond words and concepts, is the same. That reality did not change for me when I practiced in the Buddhist paradigm, nor when I practiced in the Christian paradigm. The secret garden of the true spirit, and the Presence who Indwells within my own center and the center of all things is the same. All words and descriptions are, as the saying affirms, “the finger pointing at the moon.”

   One of the pioneers of the interspiritual East-West dialogue is a monk named Bede Griffiths who died in 1993 at age 86. Bede Griffiths was a western Benedictine Catholic monk who, in his own words, went to India to “find the other half of my soul.” Bede Griffiths remained a Catholic monk but integrated many of the great mystical teachings of the East in his formulation and founding of Christian/Hindu ashrams rooted in meditation practice. Bede Griffiths made the statement on one occasion that his perception was that comparing the great faith traditions of the world was like looking at a hand. Each faith was a finger in a whole hand, in which in its dogma, theology and laws were distinct from others. Where they joined at the palm, the great Wisdom traditions were rooted in the essential Divine Oneness that is beyond concepts, traditions, dogmas, descriptions and laws, but is Eternal Life itself. He noted that those practitioners who partake of experiential knowledge of the mystic/contemplative dimension at the palm, even though they come from different traditions, can communicate in harmony and understanding with one another. Those adherents who are rooted only in law, theology, or dogma usually have great conflict and a lack of understanding in their communication. And as we know in our world today, this has been the occasion of much hatred and ill will across the religious divide, across time and geography.

The Emerging Global Spiritual Consciousness
   An emerging global consciousness is gathering in our world, thanks to growing global communications. Younger people are discarding the old conflicts and loyalties and asking why the former divisions between peoples should continue. They are also asking why religious institutions should make exclusive truth claims to be the mediator between the human soul and the Eternal Source. No human created institution has a claim of ownership of the Eternal, nor a stature of serving as exclusive conduit of the Divine to the human soul. Bricks and mortar are not the temple of God by whatever name we may give the Divine Ultimate.  Rather the temple and true tabernacle of the Divine Presence is to be found at the center of the Heart, the secret garden of the spirit, within each one of us. Only the Divine Beloved can lay claim to that sacred place, and only the human soul, drawn and unified by love can draw near to find nourishment and healing in the secret garden.

     This knowledge is not new. It has been known throughout the ages by mystics who partake of the Sophia Perennis, or the Perennial Wisdom, passed down by practitioners from all the Wisdom traditions. What is new is that humankind is growing to a new receptivity to this secret knowledge, and a growing desire and trust to actualize it in a way that is beyond the control of ideologies and institutions. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, if one percent of human beings were to meditate, the world would be transformed. The time has arrived, and younger generations are ready to bring forth and fulfill the birthright of every human being who is willing. This short book is directed to this step that humankind is being invited to take. Whether you are religious or not, all are called to discover, enter, abide therein, and live their precious human life centered in the Secret Garden of the Spirit.

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