Meditation Opens The Heart

November 14, 2009 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

There is a famous story in the Taoist 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 intended strategies, 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 the 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 Zen story of the Professor who comes to visit a monk to discuss Zen. The monk offers him tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor is shocked and 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 can 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 also called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? In the old Chinese medical texts the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’. When we sit in meditation we forget our body and mind, we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty?

I have recently attended some Transformational Breathing 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 opening my heart. I wasn’t sure that my heart wasn’t open, although I don’t consider myself the most compassionate person. I certainly don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, so I suppose that this kind of emotional reserve does mean that my heart is not really open. So what would be the process of opening the heart, and how do I 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 Chinese oracle the I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. I got the answer Hexagram 35: Advance, which I consider a positive answer, but there were no moving lines. Here is the commentary on the 5th and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching,

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 6th yang line says,

The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind.

The Tao te Ching says something similar (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? Obviously it 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 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.

This means  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.

But it is not just desires in the present moment that cause problems for me. It is also the shell or husk of old desires, those regrets that are clogging up my heart from years of mismanaged desire.

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. 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.

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 tea cup that the Zen master 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. This is what Confucius meant when he said,

This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings.

So I need to transform my hsin, my heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, meditation, sitting and forgetting. What I need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that my heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless I houseclean my heart, what Yeats called that ‘foul rag and bone shop’ I face the danger of being dragged down by my past, and this means that I will not able to move forward. I may remain a victim of self-doubt and not be able to utilise my chi in a positive. What I need to achieve is what Confucius tells Yen Hui,

Your will must be one.

The Chinese philosopher 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.

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Entry filed under: Thoughts.

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