Written by Chris Luard
In Pali and Sanskrit, the languages which brought us the practice of mindfulness meditation, the word for “mind” and the word for “heart” is the same word. Thus, it should be noted that the cultures from which the mindfulness practices originated do not differentiate between the heart and the mind. So when a teacher instructs us to “put our mind or attention on the breath,” the instruction could just as easily be “put our heart on the breath.” That has a much different quality to it. A quality which seems to me to be largely missing in the west.
When one sits down to meditate, take the time to open the heart to the experience of meditation. This can be done much in the same way we open our heart to a loved one. However, it may help to use a brief visualization to do this. I personally like to visualize picking up a tiny kitten and looking into the kitten’s eyes. You might like to visualize meeting a friend or a family member you haven’t seen in many years or perhaps picking up a puppy or a baby. Then allow the meditation practice to unfold in the warmth of the open heart. Allowing the mind and body to rest, experiencing the breath and body without judgment, open your heart to whatever arises.
Open your heart in that same way to the entire field of experience. Welcome in whatever sensations, sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings, and emotions may be arising right now, all at the same time, without judgment. When we open our heart to this field of experience in such a fashion, we may notice a softening in our awareness, or a more accepting, compassionate warmth towards whatever we are experiencing. We may notice there is a very little struggle at this point in the practice because even the struggle itself is welcomed in with an open heart. This releases the struggle into a higher form of awareness. Perhaps we are fighting against an experience, or struggling with anger, jealousy, rage, passion, or desires during the meditation practice. At this point during the meditation, all of those strong emotions are welcomed in with an open heart, and we may begin to see that it was the very struggling against our experience which has been keeping these emotions alive. Open your heart to the entire field of experience, without judgment.
When we open our hearts to the field of experience in meditation practice, we may notice a shift in energy. We may notice a softening in our body, in our heart, or a release of emotion. The softening in our body or heart might lead to a release of the bodily sensations we may have been trying to avoid (itching, aching, tingling, bliss, etc) which are now welcomed into experience with an open heart, as well as the emotions caused by such avoidance. Or perhaps there were distracting sounds arising in the aural field during the meditation. When we experience the aural field with an open heart, even the sounds we once believed to be distracting are accepted, along with the thoughts of “I wish they would stop hammering.” or “I wish they wold turn the music off!” It might be that we received an exciting phone call just before starting our meditation practice about employment which may take us to faraway lands. During this stage of meditation, the excitement begins to calm as we open our heart to that
excitement, and we understand that our excitement is just another facet of the human experience. In fact, anything and everything we can experience is just another facet of the human experience. In this practice we open our heart to the entire field of experience. We train in holding the entire field of experience with loving compassion, the way a mother holds a newborn baby in her arms, the way a lover holds her beloved, the way the sun warms the earth, the way the sky cradles the clouds.
With continued practice in opening the heart during meditation, we begin to accept and love facets of our own self which we forgot or have been repressed. The repression of old pains softens and lifts because we no longer fear the pain. However, if fear does arise, we open our hearts to that fear. We open our hearts to the old scars and the pains. As Rumi once wrote, “The wound is where the light enters you.” Allow your awareness to be the light that enters you through the wound. This is why during such a meditation we may feel the release of emotions, ranging from light stress to severe sadness, from mild amusement to ecstatic bliss.
What we are learning at this stage of the meditation practice is really compassion. It begins with compassion for ourselves. We open our heart to whatever arises in our body. The aches, the pains, the cramps, the numbness, the hunger, the desire, the bliss, the energy, warmth, heat, or cold. We open to all of it. We then open our heart to whatever emotions and feelings arise. The fiery heat of anger, the warmth of lovingkindness, the heavy sadness of grief, or the pinch of jealousy. We open our hearts to the entire experience of the human realm. We open our heart to the aural field entirely and the visual field, all at the same time.
We also open our heart to the struggle for our experience to be different than what it is. The tension arises from the feelings of aversion to what the present moment brings. The constant push and pull to our experience. There is nothing wrong here. This is how we learn the location and birthplace of suffering. Suffering arises from striving away from discomfort and striving towards comfort. When we can rest and experience the present moment in such a way, we begin to see how others are also trapped in the pursuit of comfort. This is where our compassion for others begins to cultivate. We recognize that they too are caught in the constant running to comfort and fleeing from pain or discomfort. Rest in the experience of this present moment, regardless of what forms arise. When we can open our heart to ourself in such a way, we learn to open our heart to others more deeply. We may then become more compassionate, as we can see that other human beings around us have a similar struggle to our own. We all want happiness and to avoid suffering.
So we rest, experiencing the sensations of the breath, the body, the aural field, the visual field, the internal field, and we experience all of that with an open heart. We may notice that within this field of experience there is a sense of discomfort. If we are truly present, we may catch it there and remember to open to that discomfort. This
may transform the discomfort to a higher level of awareness. However, perhaps we slip into the judging mind, and judge the discomfort: “Ouch! I wish this ache in my back and legs would go away…how much longer can I bear to sit like this?” Your mind might say. When you catch your mind complaining about the sensations arising in experience, open your heart there. Open your heart to the complaining mind, recognizing that you are only human, and this is a part of the human condition. This may transform the complaining mind into awareness. We can rest there and feel the ache in our back and legs, but also feel the rest of the entire field of experience, including the sounds and silence arising within our awareness, the play of color, light, shadow and space within our visual field, all the other bodily sensations, the sensations of the breath, and all of our thoughts, feeling, and emotions. When attention collapses down on thoughts about a particular aspect of the field of experience, such as an ache in the back, notice how small your world feels. Allow your awareness to expand back out, open, clear, and vast like the sky, encompassing the entire field of experience. Notice then how much larger your world seems.
It might be that we are sitting, experiencing the present moment as it unfolds with an open heart, an ache arises in our leg, our mind slips into judging, and we must move our posture or shift before the pain gets too intense. Before you make the adjustments needed to alleviate the discomfort, ask yourself “can I rest with this?” Than question will bring us out of the knee-jerk reaction of pushing away discomfort and grasping at comfort. Sometimes the answer will be “yes” and you rest back in the practice. Sometimes the answer will be “no”. That is alright too. Rest there. Open your heart to that experience. Open your heart to the sensations of the body moving, to the thoughts of the judging mind, to the thoughts of “ohhhhh…what a relief!!” Open your heart to the entire experience. Open your heart to the human condition. Notice right here is the birthplace of all addiction: the need to change what is arising in the present moment. The need to move away from, rather than the ability to rest in, the present moment. With this discovery, we learn that this is a primordial condition of the human spirit, and compassion for that condition grows.
So, there are many chances to enter into presence with an open heart. This is just one example. The point is that it is never too late to return to the present moment with an open heart. This is a delicate, challenging practice. It requires much patience and a very light touch. We may often find our awareness collapsing down on a particular aspect of our experience. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions can cast a hypnotic spell which seems to sweep us away into another universe. Notice how we always have the natural capacity to return to awareness. In fact, every time we do get distracted and return, we build more capacity for awareness. More capacity for attention. In that very process of recognizing we have been taken away from the present moment by a thought, feeling, emotion, sound, or sensation, we strengthen the muscle of attention. That is good news. Many people come to meditation and say “ohhhh.. I cant do this right, i am constantly lost in thought” or “I am no good at this, my mind is too active.” They fail to recognize that it is a good thing to notice the distractions and then return over and over again. There is great benefit in returning itself. Just open your heart to that.
Christopher Luard, Author, and Director of the Such Sweet Thunder meditation program, has received formal training in Zen; Mahamudra and Dzogchen from the Tibetan traditions, Vipassana and Vedanta from the Indian traditions, and Mindfulness and Shambhala from the relatively modern American traditions. He has attended numerous training retreats, taking on the life of a monk in monasteries in Nepal and New York. Christopher has been teaching worldwide since 2009.