Eastern Orthodox Icon of the Heart Center: Hear the beautiful chant at the end of this post!
I. Three Jewels
There are three precious jewels which you were given in your mother's womb. I am only going to remind you of their value, for you have let them get tarnished. Once you understand the value of what you already have, you will experience the deepest meditation and the highest form of prayer just by breathing. Before you set out on this life, your Inward Teacher gave you these three talismans to take on your journey: Breath, Heart, and The Present Moment.
The human body itself is a holy sacrament. When you are fully embodied, no further sacrament is needed. If we would but attend to this body with as much devotion as we attend to church buildings, we would enter the temple right where we are.
As the center of the temple is the Holy of Holies, the center of the body is the Heart. The Heart is not merely a physical organ, but the matrix of our consciousness. Aristotle wrote: "The heart is the perfection of the whole organism. The soul's ability to nourish itself lies in the heart." (Aristotle) The ancient Shiva Sutras of North India declare: "The true yogi establishes the mind in the heart." Likewise, the early manual of prayer from Orthodox Christianity begins its instruction: "Let the mind descend into the heart." We often take the heart as a symbol, but these instructions point to the heart itself, that beating organ at the center of the body which is so much more than just a muscle or a pump. In fact, recent medical research has classified the heart as an endocrine gland, and even as a "heart brain," with a radiant electromagnetic field far more powerful than that produced by the brain.
The heart is like a radio, constructed out of physical matter, but in such a way as to receive invisible energies, turning them into information. We can attune our hearts to God just as surely as we can set our radio to our favorite channel. In this form of meditation, the Prayer of the Heart, we quite literally rest our awareness in the heart. Prayer is a sacrament: spiritual presence apprehended through a physical sign. When your attention rests in the Heart, you pass through a tiny golden portal to the Kingdom of God. Eternity dwells as a tiny spark at the center of your Heart. Entering that infinitesimal door, you discover yourself in the vast expanse of divine consciousness. This what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the door." The I Am at the center of your Heart is the portal to God-Consciousness.
Down through the door of the Heart flows the Breath, the carrier of all that nourishes and heals. Breath is the unacknowledged physician in every human body. It cleanses each cell, enlivens each atom. If we would employ the power of our breath, we would worry much less about the growing costs of health care. As our Heart is the physical sign of the soul, so our Breath is the physical sign of the Spirit. The Biblical authors knew this. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures they used the same word to express both spirit and breath. The double meaning of the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma corresponds to the double reality of our own breath. Breath is both the vehicle for oxygen and the host for spiritual energy. Each great religious tradition acknowledges this subtle energy in the breath: it is called chi in China, prana in India, spiritus in the West.
When we do it with awareness, simply to breathe is the purest form of prayer. What turns ordinary respiration into worship is our mindfulness of it. I discover that each breath is a gift. I am not breathing: I am breathed by the Almighty. Inhalation is grace. Then, when I exhale, I have an opportunity to surrender. I need to alter, no sanctuary for this sacrament. Breathing in, breathing out: grace and surrender. Merely to observe this graceful process transforms mechanism into sacrament.
Our third birthright is the jewel of Presence. We can also call it the jewel of Silence, for when we are fully in the present moment, observing what is, just as it is, the mind is silent. Silence is always here, now, beneath the static chatter of our thoughts. To enter this healing, peace-giving Silence is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven on earth: the Kingdom of the Present Moment. Silence is the space where God dwells as eternal presence. God is never in the future, never in the past. Only when we enter the spacious silence of the present moment can we encounter the divine Being.
"Take no thought for tomorrow," Jesus declared. He always brought his listeners into the Kingdom of Now. They asked when the kingdom would come and he replied, "The kingdom of heaven is right here, in the midst of you!" He declared, "Before Abraham was, I Am." The whole spiritual journey is from here to now. Those who aren't ready for this journey study old maps.
Then how do we dwell in silent presence without being swept into the past and future by a flood of thoughts?
First, we acknowledge the fact that thinking creates time. The past and future only exist as thoughts. We carry past and future in our heads, but our hearts always beat now. Our hearts are always in the Kingdom.
Failure to acknowledge presence is the seed of suffering. Regrets of the past and anxieties of the future are actually physiological stresses carried in the neurons of our brain. Time is a neurological phenomena, a chemical-electric activity in the cortex. Time is anxiety, and anxiety is time.
The solution to the problem of time is simply to become aware of time as a sensation in the brain. Watch time forming inside you as a knot of thoughts, fears, desires. See how you label this knot past and future. Instead of being mesmerized and absorbed by mental images, inner movies about what happened or what might happen, become aware of these thoughts as minute physical impulses. The moment I become aware, "Ah, this passing thought is just a chemical activity in my brain," the thought loses its binding power. I can observe the sensation that underlies the thought, without converting it into a mental picture. Then, penetrating that sensation without resistance, I can rest in the silence that is always here, behind every thought. This silence is the pure awareness that observes thoughts, but is never a thought itself. Pure awareness is the still space where thoughts arise and dissolve. This still space is the real me. I am the watcher. Thus Jesus taught, "Watch and pray." The watcher, not the thinker, finds God.
The silence that watches thoughts come and go is always in the present. Silence is the end of time.
Let each breath be an anchor that moors you to the silence of the heart. Follow your exhalation from the mind into the heart. At the very end of the exhalation, you will discover a moment of complete emptiness, just before inhalation begins. In that emptiness, there is no thought, no mind, no time: just silent emptiness. This is Christ's kinosis, or self-emptiness. "He emptied himself" (Philippians 2). Rest in that measureless empty stillness at the end of the exhalation, where this little stream of soul returns to the ocean of Spirit.
From that depth will rise the inhalation, your next breath, a gift. Yes, you will discover that this breath is not really yours. It is the gift of the infinite.
These meditation instructions should be practiced, not analyzed. With eyes closed, practice each step for awhile until it becomes natural and easy. Then move to the next step. Don't try to force your way through the whole sequence at one time. Use the instructions that work. Own them. In the end, they flow together as one simple process carried out, not by your effort, but by Grace: the Grace of your Inner Teacher. There is no major religious tradition in the world that does not contain this practice.
• Close your eyes and observe the breath. Observe with gentle attention, not forced concentration. Let the breath flow naturally from the nostrils down to the abdomen. Be aware of it all the way.
• As you breathe out, let go of tension. Let go of any subtle holding in the muscles of the shoulders, chest, or belly. As you release tension through the exhalation, let go of grasping thoughts in the mind. What unconscious holding are you doing in the region of the solar plexus? Breathe out this tension. Along with it, drop the mind! Breathing out tension of your body, you can breathe out the tension of time past.
• Allow awareness to sink from the head to the heart, quite literally. Gaze down into your heart and feel it beating. Give it room to beat. Feel its warmth. With awareness in the heart, observe whatever sensations come, without analyzing or labeling the sensation "good" or "bad," "pain" or "pleasure." You may have denied your heart for a long time. Attention here can release strange feelings: heat, cold, fluttering, anger, fear, sadness. These words are just labels. Feel the sensations as energy without words. After regular practice, eventually you will experience a causeless glow of happiness in the heart.
Don't let this quiet joy confuse you, asking, "What right have I to be joyful?" The innate joy of the heart has no cause. In Sanskrit it is called anahatta, meaning unstruck causeless sound. The heart is called the anahatta chakra. The gracious gift of undeserved happiness is your birthright. You don't have to accomplish anything in order to deserve a song in your heart! As Jnaneshwar sang:
"The moment the energy of Spirit (kundalini shakti) enters the heart region, the self-begotten divine unstruck music begins to play."• Now you are simply breathing in the heart. At the end of your exhalation, notice the stillness, the silent emptiness, the still point. This is the door. Here, surrender. This is the boundless space from which creation arises, the formless void mentioned in the first verse of the Bible. It is here already, even before God says, Let there be light.
• After spending some time observing the exhalation and resting in silence, become aware of the inhalation. Observe each in-breath as a stream of living energy, flowing into your heart.
• Receive the inhalation with gratitude. Note its effortlessness. The breath is given. It is not something you work for. With this awareness, you will feel a soft thrill, a warmth deep in the heart. This is the outward and physical sign of Grace. Life is a gift.
• Continue for as long as you wish, just resting and breathing through the heart. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be more profound. With every inhalation, receive. With every exhalation, offer. Breathing is the whole story of salvation: the gift of God and the soul's response. Your breath is Holy Communion on the heart's alter.
The Holy Breath is the Holy Spirit, consecrating and trans-substantiating your body into the Host of God. Adam was created out of dust (adamah) by the breath of God (ruach Elohim) to become a living soul (nephesh). Nephesh also means breath in Hebrew, an individual breath descended from the divine breath of the Spirit. So in the prayer of the heart, you become the new Adam: humanity reborn with every breath.
Of course, this is just the description in Western and Biblical terms. Exactly the same experience is described in the sacred literature of the Sufi mystics, the Buddhist masters, and the devotional saints of India. The Upanishads teach:
"The breath goes out with aham (I am) and comes in with Sah (God). Within everyone this natural meditation of ham-sah is happening."
III. Divine Name: The Jesus Prayer
When I find myself gazing into the radiance of my Heart, which is the radiance of every Heart, I have become a silent Mary brooding over the manger. I give birth to the Christ Light in the very center of my heart. The 17th Century Lutheran mystic Angelus Silesius wrote: "I must be Mary to give birth to God." 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart often pointed out in his very popular sermons that the birth of God in Bethlehem is not of much use to us if it doesn't take place at the center of our souls! In this prayer, a strange and wonderful sensation is born in our heart's core, a sensation both physical and spiritual. It is truly the innocent child of God in us, and it is the one we have been seeking. All other desires are but shadows of this yearning for the birth of Christ-Consciousness within. As Augustine wrote, "Our hearts are ever restless till they find their rest in Thee."
Christ is born in the womb of the Heart as an Inward Light. The Spirit who begets this offspring of God is the Breath. The Heart is the manger, for there is no room in the busy inn of the mind.
It sometimes happens that, even when we plunge into the ocean of silence, the Heart is so filled with gratitude that it needs to cry out, to express the beauty it bears. This requires no more than a single word of prayer, what the Orthodox masters called eucharistos monologistos: "one-word prayer." Please remember that this word is the effect, not the cause, of prayer. The word is not a technique but an effulgence. Your prayer word is the gift of silence.
A prayer-word is felt, not spoken. As a bird, soaring in a current of wind, only beats its wings with an occasional pulse to sustain its air-born flight, so we invoke our prayer word softly, gently, effortlessly. (This image is from the autobiography of St. Theresa of Avila.)
* At the point of complete surrender, on breathing out all the way, or at the point of fullness, on breathing in all the way, gently and without effort hear the Name, the Mantra. For the Christian, this is the name of Jesus. Let Jesus arise on the breath of silence as foam arises on the crest of a wave. Jesus's name be a tiny jewel sparkling on the silent shore the outgoing wave of exhalation leaves a silent space before the next breath arises. In this boundless point of silence, touch the Name with your awareness as gently as a feather touching a bubble.
As the Divine Name dissolves into the breath, its subtle but powerful vibration infuses every cell of the body, thrilling each electron. This is how the word of prayer becomes the Word of creation, which God speaks in the genesis of heaven and earth. "In the beginning was the Word.... all things were created through Him." (John 1) So the Indian Mandukya Upanishad declares, "The syllable Om is the eternal Godhead, and is the universe. Whatever was, whatever is, whatever shall be, is Om." When the Divine Name vibrates in the Heart, we are attuning our individuality to the universal Logos, the conscious power of creation.
The ancient masters of Christian prayer experienced this epiphany through the name of Jesus. By means of the breath, Orthodox masters carried Jesus into their hearts. The believed that the creative power of God was alive in that very name. St. Hesychius of Jerusalem (4th Century) spoke of "breathing Jesus Christ." In the 6th Century, St. John Climacus wrote, "Let the Name of Jesus be joined to your breath: then you shall know the use of silence." A later saint, Nichodimus of the Holy Mountain, wrote, "Let Jesus be your breath."
The early Christian practitioners also used such mantras as Kyrios (Lord), Christos (Christ or Anointed One). You may follow the tradition of India and use a word of prayer such as Ram, which was Gandhi's prayer word. Perhaps an authentic Guru has initiated you and given you a mantra. I invite you to listen to God's Breath in your heart. The Spirit will reveal the prayer-word appropriate for you.
Prayer is not your work. It is God's work in you. When your breath centers to a single fiery seed of love in your heart, the silence vibrates with the thunder of God's Name. The Word incarnates in your body. Though you are not aware of its true amplitude, the Word sends forth a wave of healing that ripples through every photon of light, every atom of creation, regenerating not your flesh alone, but all humanity. Every particle of your body is inter-woven in one quantum field with each child in Darfur, every mother in Haiti. This principle is known as Bell's Theorum in physics, and has been verified experimentally. In the words of founding quantum physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, "When the electron vibrates, the whole universe shakes." You are truly part of the "universal body of Christ." Every breath you breathe through the Heart is a healing for the world.
III. The Culture of Prayer
We need to confess that there is a spiritual void in our hearts. Most of today's social and economic problems arise from our denial of that void. We deny the void by stuffing it: filling it with alcohol, stimulants, fast food, nerve-pounding music, instant sex, even violence. The busy-ness of work is also a way to stuff our inner void. So is shopping! Strolling through the mall, we buy not out of necessity, but despair. Our national economy of consumerism thrives on spiritual emptiness.
Ironically, the solution is right where the problem is: the empty space in the heart. Nowhere but here will we find the antidote to our angst and the dryness of our workdays. If we would only take a little time each morning and evening to enter the Heart through prayer, it might be "the little leaven that raises the whole loaf." Renew your world by renewing your Heart!
This prayer is not a flight from darkness: it embraces darkness. Not a flight from emptiness: it embraces emptiness. Prayer of the Heart accepts our inner emptiness as sacred ground. When we embrace emptiness, we become the vast space of compassion. When we embrace darkness, we hear the silence say, "Let there be light!"