Openheartedness—a state described by warmth, generosity, and care—is at the core of spiritual practice. The quality of having a receptive attitude toward people and experiences, without preferences, allows for meeting others with sincerity, compassion, and a genuine openness to connect on a deeper level. In turn, this way of being promotes a more harmonious world.
In Buddhist philosophy, heart and mind are seen as one. The heart-mind, or citta in Sanskrit, is the center that connects us to the field of awareness. Most of us face difficult challenges personally, psychologically, and externally, out in the world. Wisdom, joined with compassion, gives us the strength to find creative, intelligent, and loving ways to move forward and develop new vistas. A mindful heart gives us the foundation on which to build our awareness practices and then helps us find our way home. From a nondual perspective, our heart is the nexus that connects the personal with the universal. It is the hub that connects our personal “child-consciousness” with the universal “mother-consciousness.” When the “infant” joins with the “mother” consciousness, we are free and ready to serve from an open and loving vantage point.
Western thinking often considers the anatomical brain the only center of perception and information-processing, and the heart a physical organ that pumps blood through the body. While recent studies have shown that the heart is more than a mechanical organ and can affect one’s state of being, the conventional Western approach still focuses on and encourages us to be rational, practical, and calculating. My personal experience and decades of clinical experience as a psychologist, however, have made me realize that we need clear thinking, emotional warmth and caring, as well as spiritual openness to be whole. I believe that we function more fully when we allow the heart and mind to work together to form our perceptions, to consider their meanings, and to shape our responses. Openheartedness and the heart-mind connection is crucial.
If we live entirely from the perspective of a conventional sense of reality, we assume that at the core of our being is a separate self, apart from others, and often we feel alienated and alone. From this perspective, it is easy to suffer when our old painful patterns rear their heads. We can become gripped by difficult thoughts and feelings, worries, and desires. In our wish to heal these old wounds, we can get caught in what psychologist and meditation teacher Loch Kelly calls a psychological underpass. Our hurt parts or old painful patterns—and the attempt to overcome those wounds—can become our personal identification. We might identify with an orphan-self, seeing ourselves primarily as a victim of trauma, or as a survivor of hardship, a rehabilitated addict, or a wounded helper.
Reducing our primary identity in this way does not respect our true essence or being—what Carl Jung called the Self, with a capital “S.” When we go beyond the separate self and all our identifications, we cross into awake awareness, wisdom, love, where the wholeness of “Big Mind,” or Self with a capital “S,” can flow. From this vast field of wisdom, benevolence, and freedom, our deepest wounds can now be met with a heartfelt love that is already there. The tension that entangles those wounds can gradually uncoil, making space for us to realize that we are and always have been a wave within the vast ocean of life. As we gradually gain access to this field of awake awareness in a stable way, we may eventually learn to hold the perspective in our daily lives.
So how do we practice from the place of our heart, where we might grasp awake awareness? First we must disentangle from thinking-managing-forehead mind, the place we focus from. Usually, the thinking mind and awareness are intermingled. But we can begin to experience how that awareness goes beyond conceptual thinking. We can allow awareness to unhook from the “manager mind” and to fill our whole body and heart. Then we can feel our heart as resonating from its own perspective.
Brief intentions, dedications, and heart-opening meditations are a good place to start; they help us to set up formal meditations and simply embrace the day. Beginning our practice by being gentle and kind quietens the wandering or agitated conceptual mind. Like a scared child relaxes and calms down when it is held by a loving parent, our agitated thoughts and emotions become quiet when feeling the security of a caring heart. And so, heart-opening practices allow our nervous systems to feel more resilient and more interdependent with others in our lives.
Then, through focus and emptiness-of-self practices, as well as more specific pointing-out-style practices and shorter glimpse practices, we reach into the field of awareness that is already there. Having crossed from a separate, isolated sense of self into awake awareness as our new operating system, we can embody and participate in life with full engagement and great compassion.
Connected to the sacred and coming from that sense of fullness and richness, we can love our beautiful, troubled world and stay present with the challenges we are all facing. “Self-care” turns into “all of us–care,” as our compassion finds no limits or preferences. Or, as Loch Kelly puts it, “Compassionate action becomes our natural expression.”
With our deepest center, the cave of the heart, or the heart-mind, completely open, the aperture of our awareness is also open. And as we deeply understand and feel the inter-webbed-ness of all life, everybody and everything is family and kin.
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