“Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” /
“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince.
Here we just celebrated Valentine's Day. Romantic love was in the air--for some--and hearts abounded. I've been thinking less of Cupids and romance but the core of our very being: our spiritual Heart.
Let's go back a few months to another celebration: Christmas. Like for many children, Christmas is a focal point of the year for my 11-year old daughter. The momentum builds once school starts. Visions of gift giving, time with family, playing games, two weeks off school. It's not always idyllic but it's pretty darn good.
This year, after the presents, the food, and the games my daughter and I enjoyed a quiet evening. As we chatted and snuggled prior to her bedtime she hesitated before saying haltingly:
"I feel above it all, mom."
"What do you mean?" I responded.
"Like... in this very moment, I'm just above it all."
This time it was I who hesitated before saying, "I don't understand."
She elaborated, "It's like I'm in my heart, mom, but my heart, is above my head." Her voice choked a little, "But my heart is filled with cracks. It's broken. Everywhere."
My own heart sank sadly.
"Yet", she added, "It's as if there is something holding it all together... It's Love, mom." Silence. "Am I normal, mom?" she quietly asked.
I assured her that she is completely normal. Broken. Fragmented. Don't we all feel like this at some point in our lives?
We all live heartbreak. Maybe it's on the personal level of the deep disappointment with an unfulfilled romance or the breakup of the family. Maybe it's the permament loss of someone dear. Maybe it's coping with lonliness, failing health, facing injustice. Or even worse, living through personal violence, cultural genocide, war. Maybe it's on the collective level of feeling helpless and/or hopeless in the face of the steady stream of information related to our global environmental crisis. The extinction of species, of ecosystems. How could one's heart not break?
And yet, sometimes there are those moments of visceral awareness when we know that something bigger is holding it all together.
Our hearts are mysterious, aren't they? And I think therein lies the key: our physical heart points towards a great mystery. The Yogic traditions and paths are many but most see various levels to the human heart which are interrelated. We can call these:
1. The physical heart
2. The emotional heart
3. The energetic heart or anahata chakra
4. The spiritual heart or hridaya.
So let's take a deep dive down, down, down through the layers to our very core: our spiritual Heart.
We know and love our heart as the master pump of our circulatory system. It is approximately fist sized and slightly enlarged on the left side, hence our impression that our heart is on the left side of the chest. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide with tangible risk factors including smoking, being overweight, and a sedentary lifestyle. But lonliness too is associated with heart problems so very quickly we bump up against the emotional world embodied within our hearts.
Most people feel intuitively that our heart is our emotional center: how could hundreds of years of love poetry be wrong!? Maybe you wear your "heart on your sleeve". Maybe you're a "bleeding heart". And "heart break" has recently gotten the stamp of scientific approval with "Broken Heart Syndrome". In fact, a few years ago, I met a man at a retreat who had received this diagnosis. He had ended up in emergency shortly after his wife dropped the bomb that she had been having an affair. In such situations, the flood of stress hormones either reduces the heart’s pumping action or causes it to contract too wildly. The left ventricle of his heart was significantly swollen due to the emotional shock.
Awareness placed on the heart, visualizations that move stuck energy through the heart, Yoga postures, and Qigong have all helped me. Support, laughter, and rest help. Mantras are powerful but more on this later!
It is difficult to draw a line between the emotional and energetic aspects of the heart. But let us not get too hung up on labels and categories which are arbitrary at best! The energetic dimension of our heart is known as the Anahata Chakra. It is a critical juncture within our subtle anatomy and a seat of mystical sound. The heart chakra is the meeting point of all the energetic meridians of the body. It also connects the the force of matter moving from the lower chakras upward towards the crown and the force of spirit moving downwards into manifestation.
A bevy of hatha yoga practices aim to balance the chakras through the purification and release of obstructions (traumas, blocked emotions, past karmas, etc). Yogic practices aim to (ideally) gently release painful emotional contents from our body/mind to restore the natural energetic flow. When our heart chakra is shut down, we tend to be withdrawn, feel vulnerable, and blocked in our capacity to give and receive love. (Sound familiar?) We can work at opening up the heart chakra through heart opening yoga poses, meditation, mantra, and mindfulness to how we react in real time.
When the heart chakra is too open, we may be overly giving to others and out of touch with our own needs. This can leave us disappointed and depleted. We may also be overly demanding of others, expecting the same amount of self-sacrifice. This points towards imbalances in the other chakras; an overreliance on the heart perhaps due to a foundational lack of stability or perhaps lack of boundaries typically seen as belonging to the second chakra. This dynamic also requires awareness and attention to deeper underlying emotional issues.
When our heart chakra is balanced we are able to give and receive love, be empathetic, tolerant, and are discriminating. As one of my teachers once said to me, "When your heart is balanced, you no longer need to protect it. Your heart protects you!" To note, the heart chakra is not the seat of romantic love for this is the abode of the passion-fuelled second chakra. The love of the heart chakra is an expansive state of being independent of any other person.
The word "anahata" means “unstruck” or “unbeaten” in Sanskrit and "anahata shabda" are the mystical unstruck sounds emitting from this center. This dimension of the heart functions through the element of air.
I encountered this aspect of the heart shortly after being introduced to yoga. Many years ago now, after an introductory weekened yoga workshop which included simple chanting, I sat myself down on my living room floor and proceeded to chant for hours. I then put earplugs into my ears to block out the sounds of the city and fell into meditation. I listened with steadfast focus to the sound of my beating heart. After about an hour something shifted. I felt as if I was dropping down into the depths of my body. The dropping seemed to last minutes. Then I felt myself expanding along the horizontal plane. Just when I thought the energy had settled, a high frequency sound began emitting from my heart region. It slowly yet steadily increased in volume until I felt I was swimming in sound. The experience was almost overwhelming when my heart exploded outwards into a brilliant light which embodied a powerful presence. The expansion sped up and the experience seemed close to its apex... when my then-partner walked in and hollered, "Hey babe, what'd you make for supper?"
Alas, I did not get up off my cushion enlightened for spaghetti awaited. (If you're interested in such meditative phenomena and issues around awakening Kundalini, read an older blog here.) As a total newbie to yoga I had no context or understanding for what was happening. But it was a glimpse of the spiritual Heart and it forever changed my life.
THE SPIRITUAL HEART OR HRIDAYA
"In the middle of your body, in the immaculate lotus of the heart. is the dwelling place of the Supreme Being in the form of radiant light. Go there if you want to experience everlasting happiness and peace."
The Narayana Upanishad
The hridaya or hrit chakra is a subtle dimension to the heart seen as being distinct from the Anahata chakra. According to Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage, “The godly atom of the Self is to be found in the right chamber of the heart, about one finger-width’s distance from the body’s midline. Here lies the Heart, the dynamic Spiritual Heart. It is called hridaya, is located on the right side of the chest, and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the Spiritual Path. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart.”
Hridaya is the source of revelation for it is the seat of Purusha or the Cosmic Self. In Sanskrit, Hṛt signifies both "heart" and "mind". It also also means "core" or "center". Hridayam, comprised of "hṛt" and "ayam", means "I am the Heart". I take it to also mean, "I am the Center".
Hridaya is referred to as the "cave of the heart" but once inside this cave, the felt experience expands to encompass the entire universe. The Chandogya Upanishad states: “The sun and the moon and the stars, the very space and the clouds and the lightning and the rains—all this miracle of creation is within the heart of man. When it rains outside, it rains inside also, and the stellar regions shine resplendently within the heart of man.” Metaphors abound to express the unexpressable. It is called a cave but also a heart lotus ("hrit padma"), a flame, and our spiritual "sun" which illuminates our entire being.
According to Pandit David Frawley, everything flows from the Hridaya. All the chakras are encompassed by the Spiritual Heart, including the crown. When the crown opens and the crown merges into the spirital Heart, duality collapses.
Bhaktas, who pratice a Yoga of devotion, focus less on awakening Kundalini and its ascent through the chakras but more on simply centering their awareness in their Heart. In doing so, they seek to harmonize all their energies therein. Hanuman is the Vaishnivite symbol of the embodied heart. Hanuman, who tears his heart open to show Ram and Sita, shining from the core of his being. Ram and Sita together symbolize unity within duality. The heart is the place where all polarities (masculine/feminine, solar/lunar energies, etc.) cease to exist.
NOW IS THE TIME TO TAKE HEART
The external curcumtances of life, at some point, will break us. We crack. Hopefully we don't shatter. "C'est la vie," as they say here in Montreal. And so it is. But as Montreal's own poet-patron saint Leonard Cohen croons:
"O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above.”
Heart break: it's part of the cosmic package and it's part of the process. The trick lies in gently embracing the fragmentation. Recognizing and allowing pain while slowly integrating Otherness and lessons learned. It means being patient as we expand our experience of life and our narrow, constricted egos. Don't rush.
But our individual brokenness is the path back to Wholeness, to the "broken heart above". As above, so below for life itself is an experience of separation. All most of us can do is progress on that so-called spiral path where each new "level" incorporates our brokenness into a more expansive experience towards Wholeness. Acceptance and surrender become critical if we are to progress, individually and collectively, at all.
What we need now is to collectively awaken to a more expansive experience of Beingness; one where we nurture the "feminine" qualities of resonance, intuition, and empathy embodied in our hearts just as we rever the "masculine" qualities of rationality and logic embodied in our heads. We must provide such opportunities for our children so that they can unfold naturally, on all levels of their being. To nurture this we must educate "the minds of our youth" but "not forget to educate their hearts", in the words of the Dalai Lama. As we expand this connection within ourselves we simultaneously expand a felt sense of connection to our external conditions, to the people in our lives, to our environment, and to the unseen realm of energies. In doing so we contribute to the restoration of Wholeness which embraces brokenness and a world where the Center is everywhere.
So, back to Christmas and my daughter. I'm a big fan of the season for all the reasons she is and more. But this year I think I received the best gift ever: the knowledge that my child, no matter what she may go through in this lifetime, has had a glimpse already, albeit brief, that something will hold this all together for her. And this is Love. What else could any mother ever wish for?
"There is nothing so whole as a broken heart."
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
There are a variety of mantras that help to open the spiritual heart. There are the specific bija sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet which vibrate the petals of the heart chakra, but it is best to learn the entire alphabet to promote overall balance within the nadis and all chakras. If you are interested in learning this through a sequence of lessons, contact me.
The bija mantra of the great Heart within the Tantric tradition is the mantra of Bhuvaneshwari: Hrim. Hrim (pronounced "hreem") is the spaciousness of the Universe and the spaciousness we hold in our own being which is accessed through the heart. If you would like to learn a bit more about this, please access the free resource section of this website from the Home page. (Simply create a username and password.)
Here are my "musings" on mantra and sound as a transformative path.