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Heart Practice – I

“The emissional energy of Sambhu thus abides everywhere. Out of it [arises] the ensemble of motions of the liquid bliss of joy. So indeed, when a sweet [song] is sung, when [there is] touching, or when [there is the smelling of] sandalwood and so on, when the state of standing in the middle [the state of indifference] ceases, [there arises] the state of vibrating in the heart, which is called precisely “the energy of bliss,” because of which a human being is with-heart.”
Abhinavagupta, Tantraloka

“A heartfelt practice requires attentiveness to the stillness and movement of experience – to the multiple tightenings, contractions, fluidities and expansions of immediate somatic experience. Attentiveness is the doorway to a new curriculum of breath, silence, and listening – listening in the body, listening to feeling, listening to the ordinary experiences of life – hearing [and seeing] with the heart. It is in the ordinary, disregarded or forgotten phenomena of the everyday that we discover insight and freedom. From the ordinary we distill the essence of human/heart experience.”
Diana Denton, The Heart’s Geography: Compassion as Practice

A friend recently asked me if there was a “basic” tantra exercise which she could use as an “entry point” into practice. It’s a question I’ve often been asked, over the years, and this time, rather than going into my usual rambling monologue about the problems of thinking of practices as “basic” (a point which I may come back to in due course) I simply said, “Heart Practice”.

How to approach the Heart? In modern western praxis, we tend to make a distinction between reason/thought (head) and feelings/intuition (heart). But this distinction is not really present in South Asian thought. The Heart, particularly in tantric traditions, has a wide range of meanings. The Heart is both the seat of self and the place wherein deities dwell. It is mystery, method, and goal:

“The Heart is the Ultimate (anuttara) which is both utterly transcendent to (visvottirna) and yet totally immanent in (visvamaya) all created things. It is the ultimate essence (sara). Thus, the Heart embodies the paradoxical nature of Siva and is therefore a place of astonishment (camatkara), sheer wonder (vismaya) and ineffable mystery. The Heart is the fullness and unboundedness of Siva (purnatva), the plenum of being that overflows continually into manifestation. At the same time, it is also an inconceivable emptiness (sunyatisunya). The Heart is the unbounded and universal Self (purnahanta).

…the non-dual Kashmir Shaiva tradition considers it to be in a state of perpetual movement, a state of vibration (spanda) in which it is continually contracting and expanding (samkoca-vikasa), opening and closing (unmesa-nimesa), trembling (ullasita), quivering (sphurita), throbbing waving, and sparkling (ucchalata). The intensity and speed of this movement is such that paradoxically it is simultaneously a perfect dynamic stillness.”
Paul Muller-Ortega, The Triadic Heart of Siva pp82-83

There are several points of departure here. We may approach the heart’s perpetual movement as the contraction and expansion of consciousness, or less abstractly, the feelings we experience when our sense of self contracts (retreats from) or expands (opens towards) the world. Clench your hand into a fist, then open your hand and spread the fingers wide. Clenching, grasping, pulling-back – opening, spreading, expanding, loosening.

I am struck, in Muller-Ortega’s quote, how physical the movements of the heart are – the vibrations, tremblings, quiverings, throbbings, sparklings, are bodily states, sensations to be felt, rather than abstractions to be analysed.

We may think of the Heart as a place to retreat, to find stillness away from the world, to dive into the innerworld of the mind, yet the Heart also expands us into the world, in our engagements with others, in experiencing love, care, compassion – and of course, both feed each other. Movements inwards and movements outward entail each other, are temporary to each other. When I retreat from the world, close myself off, contract and shrink into myself, it is frequently the simple care of another which invites me outwards again; a touch, a gift, a smile, a caress.

At its simplest, Heart Practice can be thought of as a receptivity to experience; a willingness to be “open to joy, wonder and suprise from any direction” (see Pondering Daily Practice and “That which gives Joy to the Heart” for some earlier reflections). But whilst this is “simple” it can be, at the same time, extremely difficult and challenging.

For me, this practice – a cultivation of a particular orientation towards the world – is “basic” in the sense that it’s something that I can do at any time, anywhere. It’s not so much an “exercise” that’s bounded to a particular time or setting. Rather that its an “everyday” practice, a habituated routine, a recollection or continual turning-back-to.

There is more of course. Heart Practice for me necessitates a particular set of ethical commitments, ways of understanding and relating to deities, and particular engagements with the world through sensory modalities, to give but a few examples. Some of these themes I will (hopefully) get round to exploring in future posts.

Restraints and Observations


  1. Danny Lowe
    Posted August 26th 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Your comments about expanding and contracting are pretty interestng to me, Phil. In my last chat with Andrew, we were talking a lot about this idea – it´s a basic duality that one finds in Reich´s work. He talks about the sympathetic nervous system being connected with flight and fight responses, while the parasympathetic is connected wtih relaxation, expansion and pleasure. Reichian therapy is basically realsing localised, chronic states of contraction. There´s some interesting charts about this in Function of the Orgasm. Andrew was drawing comparisons between this and the basic tantric symbolism of Sun and Moon.

  2. steve davies
    Posted August 27th 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for that Phil (and Danny!)-nice comment about Reich and contraction. Interesting that a lot of neo-tantric sex therapy techniques seem to be working on helping this sense of “opening”-whilst generally critical of much of the fuck-o-centrism of these approaches, I think the encouraging of conscious breathing and attempts to soften the body are helpful in seeking to challenge scripts around sexual “performance”. I wonder if many of these scripts put people in a place of enarmoured contraction, inhibiting the opening of heart.

    Whilst I think they are generally more derived from Reich and Karezza than SE Asian Tantric traditions, the approach generally feels helpful-from a more Queer/open perspective Barbara Carrellas (Kate Bornstein’s partner) has written a Neo-tantra book called “Urban Tantra” for those of us wanting to escape heteronormativity!!

  3. Danny
    Posted August 27th 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Hey Steve – I think that softening the body is important, but not just around sexual performance – I see it as a useful tool for “everyday life” as well. I’m not so sure about conscious breathing, mind – I’m more interesting in leaving breath alone, and seeing what arises spontaneously – the way my breath changes as I let things go, spontaneously “get things off my chest”. Cheers for the book tip, I like Kate Bornstein’s work a lot.

    • steve davies
      Posted August 28th 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Thanks Danny, the topic of how to work with the breath is interesting-Gurdjieff for one thought that interfering with its natural pattern was unhelpful-in contrast to the much more alchemical approaches of pranayama and some schools and Qi Gong.

      Personally, like yourself, I tend to work with the breath “as it is”, how its arising in the given moment-this being borne out of mindfulness practice etc I think holotropic breath work and other approaches are interesting technologies, just not my primary bread and butter practice.