Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cultivating the Heart State

Today I asked myself an important question, one I have been asking almost daily for the past year:  Why is there so much suffering in the world?  Suffering is an epidemic today and society doesn't show any signs of recovery.  My practice of Buddhism explains how the ignorance of reality leads to suffering, and to awaken and find contentment and peace, one needs to meditate, practice mindfulness and understand the reality of cause and effect.  But I wanted to see it in simpler terms, one that even a layperson, without any knowledge of Buddhist Psychology, could understand.  So I started by asking myself, since it is the "heart" that suffers,  what is the heart?

In reality, the heart is just another organ in the body, a mass of tissue flowing with blood, much like the pancreas or the liver.  It keeps us alive through an intricate cycle of electricity and pumping valves.  But when we make statements like, "my heart is breaking" and "open your heart" and "home is where the heart is" and "he has a heart of gold," we are strictly using a symbolic term.  We know this, and yet it feels so real, so physical when we experience euphoria or intense grief, often with an accompanying physical sensation. That sensation is throbbing or heavy or empty or painful and often resonates in the region of the chest.  It stands to reason that we might believe that this is where the physical and the symbolic "heart" live.

But the symbolic "heart" is really not a place or a thing.  It is a state of being.  And I believe that we are all born with an equal capacity to live in that beautiful and natural state on a never-ending daily basis.  I do not believe that mental illness or traumatic experiences or anything can keep us from this state of being once we know it is already here for us in this very moment, simply because we are alive.  We achieve the "state of heart" after we let go of what was or what will be and embrace this moment with gratitude.  We achieve the heart state when we take a deep breath and then drop our facades and fear of someone actually seeing our true selves.  We achieve the heart state when we trust that we are enough, right now, just as we are, perfectly imperfect. There is no better way to be than right at this moment, however we are.

Cultivating the heart state means opening fully, becoming truly vulnerable.  A wonderful, natural side effect of the heart state is compassion and lovingkindness and the ability to continuously stay in that openness even in the face of another person's suffering.  Learning to stay in the face of someone's suffering and be there with them throughout, is a wise and courageous decision because it unravels years and perhaps lifetimes of bad karma (if you believe in that).  That leads to more joy in this life and the next.

Cultivating the heart state means seeing that nobody is alone or separate but one with everything and everybody else.  We are no more different or independent than an apple is independent of the farmer or the soil or the rain or the sunlight that conditioned its existence.  In fact, what elements make us also make the apple.  There is nothing on this earth or in the universe, which is composed of unique ingredients!  We are an interdependent web of life. When we look into the eyes of the another human being, we know this is true. We feel it and yet so many of us pretend that is not true, that somehow our lives are different, special, superior or inferior.  We constantly compare ourselves to each other, longing to create a persona that is uniquely our own.  Why?  What are we afraid of?  What is it that we are trying so desperately to cling to by setting ourselves a part?  Thinking we are or could be separate from others, in terms of ultimate reality, is as deluded as comparing your own face to the reflection in your mirror.  Once we see this is true, gratitude and love naturally arise in us.

Cultivating the heart state doesn't mean always being happy or never feeling sad or angry or worried.  It means not holding onto or running from or pushing away any of it.  It means accepting all of it as part of life, the inevitable pendulum swinging back and forth, from good to bad, from happy to sad, from pleasure to displeasure.  We are human beings and will always, as long as we are alive, feel pleasant or unpleasant feelings.  It is what it means to be sentient. Our bodies/minds perceive, then generate thoughts, sometimes associated with memory, and then accompanying feelings.  But we can decide whether to "react negatively" or "respond positively," whether to resist or accept... and if we accept, we can learn to let go of whatever comes naturally.  Everything changes, and everything comes and goes, whether it is something we want or do not want.

Cultivating the heart state means no longer suppressing what makes life truly wonderful:  Our desire to love and be loved unconditionally.