A lot of people come to meditation with the notion that it’s a brain activity, something that we do with our thinking, logical minds. We sit down to be still, and instead we encounter the thinking mind’s untamed wildness. We spend a lot of our time in meditation dealing with that part of our being that exists from the neck up. And that alone seems like it could be a full-time job!
But humans are not just disembodied heads, despite how much it might feel that way sometimes. Below the neck is a whole other realm of embodied experience unfolding in every moment, a vast world of sensations and pulses and somatic messages coursing through our veins and our nervous systems. Our gut often knows things instinctively, and instantly, in ways the brain can’t quite comprehend. The enteric nervous system, which rules the gut, has 100 million neurons, more than can be found in the 45 miles of nerve fibers running through the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system. The body has its own forms of knowledge and even wisdom, whose workings often remain hidden from the conscious mind. The body’s mysterious wisdom is experienced as sensation, feeling, intuition, and emotion.
Getting to the Heart of Meditation
In the center of our chest is another central processing center, the heart, which has been beating since we were less than a month old in the womb. And since the dawn of mankind, the heart center has been regarded as the seat of something more than just the physical heart and its circulatory system. Ask a Tibetan to point to his “mind” and he will point to his heart center, not to his skull. The heart is the seat of our emotional being, the place from which not only blood flows but also all our feelings of love, compassion, tenderness, joy, sorrow, happiness, and pain.
At a weekly “Heart” meditation class I teach at Innergy Meditation in Miami Beach, I often begin by asking participants to tell me the first quality they think of when they hear the word “heart.” Love is the most common answer, and the one I’m fishing for, but sometimes the students’ responses cut to the heart of the matter in different ways. “Vulnerability,” said one student recently. “Loyalty,” said another.
Such telling words. The heart is all of those things and more. It is the wellspring of our feelings of love and our feelings of pain, our joy and our sadness. It is where we feel our vulnerability and our willingness to be open towards others, or not.
See if you can feel it, right now. Take a moment to drop down out of your thinking mind, out of your brain, and feel your way into the heart center. Don’t think about your heart center, but feel it, like a sore spot in the middle of your chest. Notice the natural tenderness that’s there, the slightly shaky feeling of vulnerability that could potentially go either way, towards tremendous sadness or towards laughter and delight. See if you can drop down through your emotional armor and make contact with your own tender, raw heart. It might be quietly and calming pulsing, it might be bursting with joy, it might be aching with heartbreak, or it might be some hard-to-comprehend mix of feelings. Honor it, whatever it is, and don’t ask it to be something else. It’s your heart, and it’s where “all the feels” live, as the kids say these days.
See also Moving Through Sadness
The meditation master Chögyam Trungpa spoke of a deep quality within ourselves that we make contact with as we travel the path of meditation and grow in our humanity. He called it “the genuine heart of sadness,” and he thought of this quality as the key to becoming a spiritual warrior. By getting in touch with our own vulnerability and tenderness, our willingness to love others as well as to feel their pain, we don’t lose strength; we discover it.
That’s a powerful truth that goes against some of our deepest conditioning. Often we think that our heart is a small and weak thing, and our capacity for love is restricted. We think we have a limited quantity of love to spread around, so we have to be miserly with it, sharing it only with those who deserve it. But the tradition in which I was trained says quite the opposite: our heart’s capacity for love, compassion, joy, and equanimity is actually limitless. Through practice, we can not only get in touch with these qualities within ourselves, but we can bathe the whole world and all the beings in it with our loving-kindness. In the process, we break down walls of resistance inside ourselves. Our hearts begin to open towards those to whom we thought we could never open, and we discover what Brené Brown famously called “the power of vulnerability.”
There is power, indeed, in getting in touch with our hearts through meditation; but we can never think our way into this connection. We have to humble and quiet the arrogant brain and speak the heart’s language. The heart doesn’t accept the currency with which the brain tries to pay; it only trades through barter agreement. “Give yourself to me fully,” the heart says, “and in turn I will reveal to you what an infinitely radiant, compassionate, joyful, sad, tender, and loving being you truly are.” It’s a magnificent invitation, and the bargain of a lifetime.
How to Surrender to Your Heart Center
In my meditation classes I often teach two techniques that are designed to get us out of “disembodied head” mode and the thinking mind and down into the body and its hidden reaches of sensations, feelings, and emotions. Both of these techniques are based on ancient practices taught nearly 2,600 years ago by the Buddha, but they are simple, non-religious practices that can be done by anyone. For each of these practices, allow 20 to 30 minutes.
Mindfulness of Body Practice
The Buddha taught this as the first of his “four foundations of mindfulness.” Delving down into the body with our attention and bringing awareness to the body’s sensations and messages, we become more fully cognizant of our human embodiment. Slowly, patiently, we open to a deeper awareness of the messages we are receiving, in every moment, from every part of the body.
TRY IT Lying down or sitting in a comfortable position, slowly scan your attention through your entire body, becoming aware of all the sensations you feel in each part. Be patient and attentive, and name the sensations you notice whenever possible: is there numbness, warmth, coolness, tingling, aching, itching, buzzing, tightness or tension, or nothing at all? If your attention wanders during the practice, simply bring it back once you become aware again, and return to the part of the body where you were when your attention wandered. Begin with the soles of your feet, then scan up the back side of your legs, glutes, and the back of your torso. Scan down your arms to your fingertips and back again. Move your attention through your shoulders and up the back side of your neck to the sides and the top of your head. Now scan slowly down the front side of your body, starting with your forehead, eyebrows and eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth, jaw, and throat.Continue scanning your attention slowly down through the chest, solar plexus, abdomen, groin, and hips, then down the front side of the thighs, knees, shins, and the tops of the feet. Coming back around through the toes to the soles of the feet, you've completed one full circuit of the body scan. For the next few moments, hold the entire body in your awareness, with all its sensations, from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head. Or, if there is an area of the body that calls your attention with a particularly strong sensation, let your attention rest fully in that area and be very curious about what the body may be communicating to you through that sensation.
Simple Metta Practice
The second practice is called metta in the ancient Pali language of the Buddha, which simply means “loving-kindness.” Loving-kindness meditation practice puts us in touch with the heart center and cultivates our natural capacity for feelings of love, generosity, happiness, and goodwill towards ourselves and others.
TRY IT Drop your attention into your heart center and connect with that part of yourself that feels both love and pain, joy and sadness. Now as Step One, call to mind someone (a person, or a beloved animal) who evokes a pure and spontaneous feeling of loving-kindness when you think of them. Picture them standing in front of you inside a circle. From your heart center, send out to them the following four aspirations or wishes:
- May you be happy.
- May you be healthy.
- May you be safe.
- May you be at ease.
Stay with each one of these aspirations for a moment, perhaps expressing them in your own words. Imagine your beloved one in front of you, happy, healthy, safe, and at ease, and notice how that makes you feel in your heart center. Allow that feeling to expand without limit. In Step Two, see yourself walking over and joining your beloved one inside the circle. Now express the same four aspirations or wishes, but include yourself and your beloved equally as the recipients. Now, "you" becomes "we":
- May we be happy.
- May we be healthy.
- May we be safe.
- May we be at ease.
Work with this step until you feel ready to expand the circle further. In Step Three, see the circle expanding, and invite in someone neutral, someone who doesn't evoke strong positive or negative feelings in you. This could be the stranger sitting next to you on the train, or someone you see at work or at school or in the grocery store. Send out the same four aspirations of loving-kindness equally to yourself, your beloved, and the neutral person.
When you're ready, move on to Step Four: see the circle expanding further, and invite in someone more difficult. This could be someone with whom you have conflicts or disagreements, or who irritates you and pushes your buttons for whatever reason. Now send out the same four wishes of loving-kindness equally to yourself, your loved one, the neutral person, and the difficult person. Stay with this part of the practice for a few moments.
Finally, in Step Five, imagine the circle beginning to expand in all directions, including more and more beings: first those in your vicinity and then those far away. Remind yourself that no matter who they are or where they come from, no matter what differences or conflicts we may have between us, deep within their hearts all beings want the same thing: to be happy, healthy, safe, and at ease. Send out your aspirations of loving-kindness endlessly, to all beings without exception. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be safe. May all beings be at ease. To end the practice, dissolve the visualization and return your attention to your heart center, feeling the warmth and tenderness of loving-kindness like a glowing ember within your chest.
About Our Expert
Dennis Hunter has been teaching meditation, Buddhism, and yoga philosophy since 2002, and lived for two years as a Buddhist monk at Pema Chödrön’s monastery in Nova Scotia. His latest book, The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret, is being published in September 2017. Dennis lives in Miami Beach with his husband, yoga teacher Adrian Molina; they co-founded the Warrior Flow school of yoga and together they lead classes, workshops, and international yoga and meditation retreats.