The Practice of Openness of Heart

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Each of us is carrying around a priceless treasure — our openheartedness. Although it is often covered by our thoughts and agitation, the openness of our heart is always there, waiting underneath; it can’t be diminished or destroyed. There is nothing more important in life than sun through clouds LRuncovering our heart quality, our openheartedness. It’s what allows the world to touch us, and what allows us to touch the world. If we feel life has betrayed us, if we feel life is not really worth living, or that we ourselves are not worthy, it is because our natural openheartedness has been covered over.

We can’t grasp this heart quality with our intellect; we can’t understand it, but we can free it. Freeing it takes practice, because our judgments and disappointments about our lives can be so stubborn. How can we take on this practice?

Heart opening usually happens without our intention — it just happens. We all know this in the “love moments” of our lives, when we spontaneously feel the preciousness of another being or of a situation. A baby looks up at us as it crawls on the carpet — the baby, the look, the sounds from the kitchen — all of it suddenly precious and fleeting and sacred. Our openheartedness in that moment is freed. But moments like this are all too rare, and we must learn to invite them into our lives by gently practicing openness of heart.

One simple way to do this is to follow three “movements” that can be described as calming, opening, and blessing. In order to practice openness of heart, it helps to be calm. Calming the body, sitting still, stopping for a moment the flow of our activity, breathing quietly, letting our thoughts pass by without obsessing about them — these are the familiar methods of meditation that help support our calmness. When we are calm, our whole being comes together in its natural presence.

Then, calmly, we can turn our attention to our chest area. This is where we can first sense our heart quality. It’s not the physical beating heart, but something intangible, something very subtle and tender and alight. At first we may not experience anything identifiable, just a slight spacious feeling. If we relax right there — and this is where calmness helps — the second movement of our practice begins: opening. We allow that small, spacious feeling in the center of our chest to have the full share of our attention. We open to it. As we open to it, we notice that it, too, is opening. It doesn’t stay in our chest but expands like an invisible light into the clarity of our mind, our sight, our hearing, and into the totality of our perception.

This sense of openness is subtle, and we can easily look past it for something juicier and more tangible. But once we realize that it isn’t tangible, that it is openness itself, we become comfortable with its subtle nature, and we can allow it to saturate our whole being in its gentle quality. It feels good, but what we’re feeling is not like other feelings. It is goodness without an object. It’s a kind of warmth, but not a warmth of temperature. It’s like a radiance without any source, a radiance that fills our inner life and our outer life simultaneously. That is the heart quality, pure openness of heart. We could also call it warm-heartedness, or kindheartedness. Although it is subtle in itself, it is the very power that will save the world, and continually does. In the storms of selfishness and violence that have devastated human history, this delicate heart quality is the very thing that has guided our ancestors and allowed us to survive. It reveals to us what truly matters, and what is worthy of our care.

The final movement of our heart practice — blessing — comes by itself, though we can learn to direct it in specific ways. When our heart has opened this profoundly, we can imagine that we are able to gather, for a moment, this intangible light, this warmth, this kindness, into a singular current that streams out of our chest toward a particular person, or a group, or a situation in the world. For a moment — and it doesn’t have to be long, perhaps as long as a kiss — we imagine this current of blessing flooding into and around that person or situation. It blesses.

Notice that when practicing openness of heart in this way, the practice relies upon our feelings and images of embodiment: our calm body, calm breathing, calm mind; our chest and the small spacious feeling there; openness flooding through us; a current of light streaming out in blessing. These images give form to what is formless. After a while, when we are well practiced, these images can soften, and even fall away. Then our practice of openness of heart becomes like a song without words.