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Heart Practice II: the goddess dwelling in the heart

The Heart is the subtle vibration of the triangle which consists of the incessant expansion and contraction of the three powers, and it is the place of repose, the place of supreme bliss. This very Heart is the Self of Bhairava, of that which is the essence of Bhairava, and of the blessed supreme Goddess who is inseperable and nondifferent from him.
Abhinavagupta, commentary on Paratrisika-laghuvritti, transl. Paul Muller-Ortega

So, Mind, call out “Kali! Kali”;
meditate on the Mother’s form.
In this way, that cloud-coloured Syama
will dance, always
dance, in your heart.
Kalyankumar Mukhopadhyay (transl. Rachel Fell McDermott)

Placing one’s chosen deity in the heart is a core element of tantra practice (see, for example Reading the Saundarya Lahari – III-2 for some related discussion and an example from the Todala Tantra.) I have been doing this now (as the beginning phase of formal puja, as formal meditation, and, increasingly, as a day-to-day, moment-by-moment rememberance) for nigh on twenty-five years, so it’s probably high time for me to make some reflections on this particular aspect of sadhana.

I was first introduced to this practice as an element of Ganesha Puja and for a long time, I didn’t reflect on it as anything other than an interesting element of my practice. It was only after a few years that it struck me that placing one’s chosen deity (for example, the particular deity one is doing puja to) in the heart was quite different to the approaches to ritual I had experienced in, say, Wicca or ritual magic – where the fusion of one’s sense of identity with that of a deity is very often the “high point” of the ritual – but not usually the starting point – the basis from which the ritual proceeds. Generally, the core idea of this kind of ritual is that there is a distinction between the ritual performer and the deity being invoked – i.e. there is a seperation which is temporarily collapsed via invocatory practices and then re-instated at the rituals’ closure. Tantra puja however, begins with the deity residing in one’s heart-space, and as I meditate on the form of the deity taking shape within me. I am, at the same time, meditating on myself as that deity. As I’ve noted on several posts on enfolding, one of the core aims of Tantra sadhana is to collapse the sense of distinction (or difference) between self and the divine – not just temporarily, as might happen during a ritual invocation, but as an ongoing practice – and that as such, it is cumulative, and over time, and becomes a habit.

Now habits are practices which tend to get routinely denigrated in many contemporary approaches to magical development, often because they are seen as things that need to be removed or conquered, or are seen as being imposed externally – as in the idea of “social conditioning” which individuals must ideally seek to disentangle themselves from. I’d suggest that it may be more productive to move past such negative perspectives on habits, and rather, to come at them as embodied practices.

“Habits seep into the furthest recesses of the body. They have a structural basis in the nervous system, shape the selections our senses make, condition our preferences, predate and provide a basis for our deliberate orientations to the environment, direct our muscular responses, and structure our identities. … The reason a habit can exert this influence is not because it is some external imposition, but because ‘it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold on us because we are the habit’.”
Chris Shilling, Changing Bodies: Habit, Crisis and Creativity (pp13-14)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes that “habits” are one means for inscribing embodied knowledge – that they are behaviours that do not require conscious attention because the body has “acquired” the requisite knowledge to place the habitual behaviour in the background. In his Phenomenology of Perception gives the example of using a stick to navigate space. After initial conscious efforts to use the stick, the person eventually becomes proficient, and using the stick requires less conscious attention: “Once the stick has become a familiar instrument, the world of feelable things recedes and now begins, not at the outer skin of the hand, but at the end of the stick.” Using the stick becomes a bodily habit. Michael Taussig, in his 1993 book Mimesis and Alterity offers a view of habits as an example of “tactile knowing”, observing that: “only at the depth of habit is radical change effected, where unconsious strata of culture are built into social routines as bodily disposition”. Taussig’s “tactile knowing” is similar to Michael Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge” – recall his famous dictum that “We know more than we can tell” and “By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art.”

Hubert Dreyfus (1992) distinguishes between two kinds of intentional action: deliberate, planned action, and spontaneous, transparent coping. He suggests that whilst we might begin a practice (such as learning to drive a car or playing chess) by consciously and deliberately following rules; in the slow transition from beginner to genuine expertise, the process requires gradually relinquishing one’s reliance on explicit rules, and that skilled drivers or chess players (for example) do not rely on verbally articulable propositions behind their decisions and actions, nor do they need or have, conscious access to, the processes by which they act – “an expert’s skill has become so much a part of him that he need be no more aware of it than he is of his own body”.

But habits of course, are not only motor skills, but also habits of thought/feeling.

I’ve mentioned the idea of tantra as embodied practice one or two times before (see for example, this post). What I want to focus on for the moment is that the practice of placing a deity “within the heart” and visualising her taking on a form (or several forms) there is not just a conceptual exercise or merely a union of imagination and the ability to visualise (i.e. it is not merely a cognitive and visual exercise) but produces and organises feelings. Gradually (over time and repetition) this practice gives rise to a re-orientation not only of one’s sense of bodily experience and internalised body-space, but towards the world in general – just as the goddess resides in the heart, so she resides (potentially) in all things and all moments. Practice both neccesitates and produces a shift in the way we relate to the world. This is what Gavin Flood (2004) calls “entextualisation” – the internalisation of a particular tradition (it’s values, goals, soteriology) to the point where it becomes a “somatic memory”.

I can best illustrate this with a recent experience. Last year, I posted some reflections on transcendence which were sparked off by attending Thorn Coyle’s lecture/worskshop in September 2011 at Treadwells Bookshop. I’m returning to that event now, because one part of Thorn’s presentation was an exercise which comprised of drawing “down” from above, the god soul in the form of a sacred dove into the body. In Kissing the Limitless, Thorn makes connections with this notion of the “god soul” (which I understand is drawn from Victor and Cora Anderson’s Feri Tradition) and other concepts familiar from western magic:

“The achievement of full possession of one’s God Soul – or gaining Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel, the descent of the Genius, or connection with the Authentic Self – is both a full linkage of all of our parts and opens the door to true communication with the supernal: with God Herself, the Limitless, and also with other Beings unseen.”
Understanding Self- Possession

Thorn invited us all to participate in an exercise where we “reconnected” with the divine by drawing the God Soul downwards into our bodies. What I find interesting, on reflection, is that she assumed almost unreflexively that everyone in the lecture theatre generally shared a sense of disconnection from the divine. I remember thinking “hang on, I don’t feel disconnected” (in the way that Thorn was talking about) and instead of following the exercise, merely directed more conscious attention to the more-or-less ever-present feeling of the goddess dwelling within and around me. I was discussing this sometime later with Amy Hale, and she asked me, reasonably enough, what kind of exercise a tantric approach would recommend for overcoming this feeling of being “disconnected.” I replied that it wasn’t simply a matter of doing a particular practice, but rather internalising (i.e. making habitual) a particular worldview that does not begin, at the outset, with the premise that individuals are radically disconnected from the divine (be it due to society or modernity – and therefore – in need of “fixing” in various ways) but merely that we have, at best, “forgotten” our condition of immanence and that the same (divine) processes which generate this sense are those by which we can find our way back – that it is not so much a kind of “work” to be undertaken, but a kind of remembering (see Practice Notes: Wot, no circle? for some related discussion).

So for me, part of “getting the habit” of feeling the goddess present in my heart has also required my “internalising” the associated theology of the goddess (which I have drawn from both Sri Vidya texts and Abhinavagupta’s Pratyabhijna – more of which, in future posts) as a neccesary component of the practice, moving it gradually from a propositional “theory” towards a way of experiencing the world – fuelled by periodic insights and epiphanies and bouts of reflection, contemplation, and wondering, occasionally, just what it all means. In this way, practice deepens my understanding of the theology, which in turn feeds my practice, whether its in a formalised ritual puja or going about my daily life. I do not mean this to indicate that I have in any way “achieved” this as a permananent state – there will, I think, always be moments of forgetfulness, as much as there will be moments of intensity. That seems like a good point to end on.

Hubert Dreyfus What Computers Still Can’t Do (MIT Press, 1992)
Gavin Flood The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Rachel Fell McDermott Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Paul Muller-Ortega The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-Dual Shaivism of Kashmir (SUNY, 1989)
Chris Shilling Changing Bodies: Habit, Crisis and Creativity (Sage Publications, 2008)
Michael Taussig Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (Routledge, 1993)


  1. Gyrus
    Posted October 30th 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Wonderful, thanks!

  2. steve davies
    Posted October 30th 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Really helpful thanks Phil, the concept of reconnecting through awareness of what’s already there rather than getting caught up in the spatial metaphor of God/Goddess being “up there”.

  3. madmikemagee
    Posted October 30th 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    The really eerie thing to me is that when I was in the Typhonian thingie, my “chosen” bhakti thingie was Hathor. Yet when I began the nine month “exercise”, by the third month everything was different and she was in my heart. This is to the grace of Kenneth Grant, actually, who made that the third degree exercise. Heck, by the fourth, I was knackered

  4. JennyPeacock
    Posted October 30th 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Lovely post Phil – I find that I fade in and fade out of the “vibration” of feeling universe-connected – sometimes it’s too hard to be connected, because the intense aliveness of it is too much for a human body to contain 🙂

  5. Digambaranath
    Posted October 30th 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    “nigh on thirty-five years” – that long, huh? We’re getting old, brother 😉

    • Phil Hine
      Posted October 30th 2012 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      Err no, no that long … 25 years. My brain must be addled.