A cardiac surgeon in a group I was once introducing to meditation asked me to stop using the word ‘heart’ in my talks. He said it was distracting him with thoughts of his work and also, he added, in all his operations he had never seen anything in the heart that looked remotely spiritual.
At least it made him think. Many people when they hear the word heart used non-anatomically associate it with feelings and emotions. This is closer to the meaning of the word than the doctor’s materialist response. Emotions are indeed ‘felt’ in the chest area: we say we feel heart-broken or that our ‘heart drops’ for reasons that might be connected to a link between the emotion centre of our brain and this region of our body. That may explain something of interest but not much. Love, interestingly, is said to be ‘felt’ throughout our body.
We can’t reduce feelings or emotions to the central nervous system. The heart is a spiritual symbol of the personal centre of conscious awareness and core identity. All the physical, mental and most subtle dimensions of human being converge and resolve in this centre of simple, abiding wholeness. We are our heart.
When we meditate we need to be prepared for different waves and kinds of feelings at different times. At first we may feel basic restlessness and itchy feet. It just seems impossible to sit still and do nothing in this unfamiliar posture for twenty or thirty minutes. Many struggle with even twenty seconds. Later, after our capacity has increased, we may feel a wave of anger directed at others or ourselves, or shame, or lust or greed, or a profound sadness and sense of loss. Feelings of nothingness and being dragged down into meaninglessness may be the worst we have to endure.
Meditation does not repress, deny or ignore these feelings. It is good they arise and are consciously felt. They come from somewhere and it is better they are outed. If we can sit through them we are calmer, freer and gentler with ourselves. In this sense meditation purifies our emotions by allowing these under-assimilated memories and associations to resolve and release their energy for better use. It is not the heart that produces these feelings, however. Rather, it offers us the still centre, the stable core of conscious awareness and attention that allows us to ride the waves, however stormy, and approach closer to the depth of being where pure consciousness, calm and clarity reveal a feeling beyond feeling and an emotion beyond emotion that we call the love of God.
Compassion and love are more than feelings: they may be associated with any feeling depending on circumstances and personal character. They flow effortlessly out of our true nature if they are not blocked by negative forces within ourselves. We cannot control or manufacture them because we are them.
The mantra – and our small daily practices of personal discipline and generosity to others – is our surfboard to this harbor of peace.