Meditation Opens The Heart
There is a famous story in the Book of Chuang Tzu of Confucius’ advice to his disciple Yen Hui. Yen Hui planned to go to the Prince of Wei to try to reform this ruler’s wild and wicked ways by using Confucius’ teaching. After Confucius shoots down all of Yen Hui’s proposals, and tells him that the Prince will probably kill him for his intervention, he offers him some advice,
“You must fast. I’ll tell you why. Is it easy to work from pre-conceived ideas? Heaven frowns on those who think it is easy.”
Yen replies that his family is poor and he hasn’t eaten meat in ages, but Confucius explains that the fasting he is talking about is not fasting of the body but fasting of the mind. Yen asks him to explain what fasting of the mind is,
“Your will must be one. Do not listen with your ears but with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but with your chi. Ears can only hear, mind can only think, but chi is energy, receptive to all things. Tao abides in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”
He goes on to say,
“It is in emptiness that light is born. There is happiness in stillness. Lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering. If you are open to everything you see and hear, and allow this to act through you, even gods and spirits will come to you, not to speak of men. This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings. “
Yen Hui was going to Wei to apply the ‘pre-conceived ideas’ that he had learned from Confucius. But Confucius wanted to teach him how he could find new and spontaneous ideas, applicable in the moment, to use with the Prince. We see in this dichotomy between pre-conceived ideas and spontaneous ones, the difference between reaction and response. In reacting to events we use our conditioned mind, the pre-conceived ideas that experience and learning have taught us. But this isn’t fresh enough. We need to respond not only from experience, but also to be alive to emptiness, to the spirit of the event unfolding in front of us. This is why Confucius tells Yen that he must use his chi to listen to what is happening, and not just his eyes and ears.
This story is similar to the well known story of the Professor who comes to visit a Master to discuss Zen. The monk offers tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor asks him what he is doing, and the monk replies that the cup is just like the Professor’s mind, overflowing with pre-conceived ideas and knowledge. The fasting of the mind is to empty it of old and stale ideas so that it can respond with fresh insights to what is happening in the moment.
We assume that the Confucius story is about sitting meditation, since Confucius says that ‘lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering.’ When we enter into a deep meditative state we enter stillness, but if our mind fails to settle then although we are formally sitting in meditation our mind is actually wandering all over the place and it’s not really meditation, it’s agitation.
The Fasting of the Mind is a Taoist meditation practise called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? Shi Jing, in an article from Issue Number 1 of the 2006 Dragon’s Mouth, says about Zuowang,
A meditation retreat is not about acquiring and filling, but is a process of releasing and emptying. What we forget is the thing we hold most dearly: self, with all its opinions, beliefs and ideals. We can be so caught up in the concept of self that we only see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire.
To forget the self means to forget the mind and body, since our ideas of self come from our awareness of having a body and of being conscious. So when we sit in meditation we forget our self, our body and our mind – we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty? And what is this emptiness for?
In the West, the influence of Descartes has led us for 300 years to separate the body from the mind. The body was seen as low, crude and inert and the mind as the higher repository of thoughts and emotions. This dualistic view was never part of Eastern thought, so the Chinese view has always been to see the human organism as a unity, with body and mind working together. This is reflected in the old Chinese medical texts where the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, emotions and sensations, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’, an inseparable compound of the body and the mind. The heart is the link between the body and the mind, and is the only organ with two meridians relating to it- the heart meridian and the heart protector.
In their books, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee write about this view of the heart/mind. They say that Chinese classical literature sees the heart as the mind, the intelligence and the spirit. There are two aspects to the heart. It has a double meridian and a double presentation. It is both a void or place of quietness which allows the spirits to dwell within, as well as the activity which allows the spirits to circulate everywhere throughout the body via the blood and chi. It is the latter aspect which reflects the heart as the governor or master of the body. So the spirits reside in the heart and it is the heart’s function to send the spirits flowing and spreading out to the other organs of the body.
I recently attended a few Transformational Breathing (TM) workshops. Transformational Breathing uses a technique of sustained circular breathing through the mouth to attempt to open up your respiratory tract to the largest possible extent. In doing this it has to break through any blockages or obstructions that are stopping you from having a full open breath. These blockages are both physical and emotional. When I was going through this process, the facilitator asked me to try to open my heart.
After the session, I thought about the process of opening the heart, and how to go about it. Obviously it’s possible through breathing control to direct chi into the heart area, as well as to force breath into it to try to expand the heart and loosen or free it. But that’s purely on a physical level. What is it on a mental or emotional level?
I decided to ask the I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. Throwing the stalks I got the answer hexagram 35: Advance, but with no moving lines. The commentary of the 5th and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching reads,
Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open. If one knows how to empty and open the heart, one can thus seek from others, and so be able to fill the belly. Once one has filled the belly, fortune, misfortune and stopping at sufficiency are all in the palm of one’s hand. One can thereby be free from worry about loss or gain, and go straight ahead without doubt, going ahead in advancing the fire and working, with good results beneficial in every way. This is the illumination of becoming empty to bring fulfillment.
The sixth yang line says,
The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind. If one does not empty the heart/mind but relies on adament strength alone, strength must overcome strength – there is bound to be danger before getting good results and becoming blameless.
The Taoist I Ching is quoting the Tao Te Ching (Ch 3),
Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the belly
So to empty the heart/mind is to lose regret, make oneself open to others, cease having anxiety about loss and gain, as well as losing rational discrimination and intellectual knowledge. Instead we fill the belly with breath, lose self doubt, gain will power and strength, which enables us to live out our destiny.
I thought about the line,
Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open
Where does regret come from? To me regret is made up of frustrated desires, the things you wanted to accomplish but could not, or the things or people that you desired but could not hold on to. It is in a sense the past tense of desire. We know that desire is always a problem. Eastern religions ask us to reduce our desires in order to find contentment and tranquillity. But desire is always present, firstly because we have a primary desire to live, and this means that the desire for food and drink are basic desires necessary for survival. But even if we reduce or sublimate our desires we remain in the grip of desire. Any spiritual desire – to be one with the Tao, or to be enlightened, is still a desire.
We always think of desires as in the present tense, of the desires that we either have or are trying to control and reduce. When we think of desires it is usually the obvious ones, which the Taoists call the Three Poisons: greed, anger, and stupidity; And you can add to that list a couple of others: hatred and lust. But to see the reduction of desire as something negative, as a renunciation of the self, misses the mark. The Tao te Ching says (Ch 1),
Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.
Lao Tzu says that if we can reduce desire we are able to perceive the subtle, whereas if we stay obsessed with desires we can only see the surface of things. We remain in the world of form and cannot break through to the world of emptiness and of essence. A life made up of endless desires is too shallow and can never get deep.
If my heart is not open enough, then it must be full of desires both old and new, and to open my heart means that I have to empty it. When you desire something or someone, you either feel fulfilled or unfulfilled. Either you accomplish that desire or fail to achieve it. The failure to achieve a desire leads to feelings of loss, lack, bitterness and regret. Even if we manage to accomplish our desires and have a feeling of joy these feelings do not last, do not remain for all time. Life is transient and impermanent. We lose even the things we have gained, so that loss is also part of success. All desires, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, lead to feelings of attachment and dependency, to a sense that we can only feel whole when we can bring outside or external things into our being, our heart.
So the heart is full of the corpses of desire. We harbour past feelings of hurt and betrayal, as well as the seeds of new desires that we want to pursue. In such a state our heart overflows like the cup the Zen monk poured. If we can empty the heart of these old feelings and reduce our present desires, then we make room in the heart. Through this fasting of the heart we create an emptiness that will allow other and better feelings, like compassion and love, to take up residence.
We need to transform our hsin, our heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, sitting and forgetting. What we need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that the heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless we houseclean our heart, we are being dragged down by our past, and are not able to move forward in a unified way. We are victims of self-doubt and self-esteem, and can’t utilise our energy in a powerful way. This is what Confucius means when he says,
“Your will must be one.”
Mencius said (2a2),
When will is unified, it moves the breath.
When the breath is unified, it moves the will.
And Chuang Tzu tells us,
There is no weapon deadlier than the will.
So my aim in emptying my heart is to unify my will and breath, so that breath and mind act as one, and my spirit can become liberated. This is the job of overcoming myself by overcoming the heart/mind.
In The Heart Claude Larre and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallée talk about the role of the spirits,
We exist in a way that develops. We have a future. As long as we are living, we are living for something, we are living for tomorrow, and for the years to come. However long, life is not without prospect. Is there any power to take care of this ‘becoming’ (our future, our development). Yes, there are leaders within us, and we call them spirits.
The role or function of the spirits is not to give us some spiritual high or a wonderful transcendant experience but to utterly infuse our waking and sleeping being, so they are able to give us specific guidance for every moment and activity in daily life. This is what Confucius was advising Yen Hui, not to rely on his learning and knowledge but to rely on his spirits. And the reason we sit in meditation, the reason we sit and forget, is that we want to empty the heart of all the old and outworn ideas and emotions that we have stored there, in what WB Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Once we have emptied it out we have created a home for the spirits to take up residence. This is the same idea as in ancient Greek religion. They created a beautiful temple, made an altar, devised rituals and sacrifices in the hope that the God would come down and make it his worldly home, to protect and guide their life. For the Chinese the hsin, the heart-mind, is a kind of fleshy temple. Keep it empty of desires, void of regrets and the spirits will have a suitable resting place.
So the advice Confucius gave to Yen Hui was: sit in meditation until you find stillness, and remain in stillness until you find happiness or joy; continue sitting until you find emptiness, and at some point light will emerge from emptiness, the light of awareness. At this point you will have transformed yourself, and you will be a sage, able to advise the Prince of Wei without having your head chopped off. This is ‘the secret of the wise kings’.
Copyright 2010 Mark Forstater