Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Heart of the Matter

I have been thinking a lot about the heart this week--prompted, in good part, by the review I have been writing of the new book by Ken McLeod, "An Arrow to the Heart: A Commentary on The Heart Sutra." (The review will be published here on The Buddha Diaries and probably elsewhere within the next few days.) For the better part of my life I was simply embarrassed by the heart. Specifically, my own. Brought up distrustful of every emotion, let alone its public display, I reached maturity--in years at least--obsessed with the brain (oh, and that other organ, down south.) The heart, when I noticed it, was only the source of trouble, discomfort, fear and pain--all things I would rather not have to contemplate. As for "love," that was too risky for me, involved too much giving of myself to others. Sex was a whole lot easier to deal with.

As I have said elsewhere--and perhaps, too, in these pages, though I don't remember--I didn't discover that I had a heart until I was more than half way to heaven. It happened at a men's training weekend, where I had gone at a period of great trouble in my life to find out what I might be able to do to make it better. For the first time in my life, I encountered men who were willing to admit that they had an emotional and spiritual life as well as an intellectual and physical one, and who almost coerced me, in a loving way but much against my will, to get in touch with the heart I didn't know I had.One of the requirements of the weekend was to come up with a mission, a sense of one's life purpose, of what one was given to do with one's time here on earth. The mission I chose has been modified several times in the years that have since elapsed, but I am happy with where it stands today: to mediate harmony in the world by getting to the heart of the matter.

That weekend started me, too, on the path that has led me to this day. One of the signal heart events along the way was a retreat with that same Ken McLeod who wrote the book under review. I forget the name he gave to the retreat, but it concerned the inner warrior, that fierce part we need as our ally to do battle with the inner demons as well as the outer ones. The exercise I remember in particular was a visualization in which we participants were invited to grasp the hilt of a sword with full intention and, for the first stroke, to turn it inward, cutting from throat to sternum to reveal the open, beating, vulnerable heart. Sometimes in meditation, as this morning, I rehearse that powerful movement, opening the chest in my mind's eye to expose my heart to the world.

These days, when I attend to the heart, I am aware of other feelings. I have put in substantial mileage on this miraculous little machine, without--so far--any maintenance at all; and while I have been pretty good about keeping it turned over and exercised, the gas and oil I have fed it with have not always been of the highest quality. Each time I'm in touch with it, I have to wonder how much more service it can be expected to provide, and when the poor old thing might simply decide that enough's enough and leave me stranded in the middle of the freeway. I contemplate that fear, even as I strive to keep the heart open and generous.

I'm grateful to Ken for his book, and for the reminder that the heart is something that I always need to pay attention to. As a final note, if any man feels the need to know about that men's weekend--or any woman who loves him--he is most welcome to be in touch with me and I will supply more detail.


thailandchani said...

I think the heart is something very few of us trust, including me. It's not strictly men anymore. It would be interesting to explore why that is. His book will be an interesting beginning.

robin andrea said...

I've been listening to Joni Mitchell's newest CD Shine -- she has a song on it called If I Had a Heart. The refrain is, "if I had a heart, I'd cry." A beautiful irony of course. With our hearts we should all be crying. We live our days denying our hearts in the way we deny the the mess we've made of the planet. It's so good to wake up to the heart.

Mark said...

My philosopher side is very intrigued by your meditation technique. I think it's really interesting that you can expose your heart, or your head, or different parts of your body, but none of them feel like an essential "you." They are all just aspects of you. Perhaps that is further evidence to back up the Buddhist claim of anatman. I just think it's fun to think about. What am "I"?

Eli said...

Like Mark, my philosophical side is piqued as well, but mine is a little more vox populi.

I recently finished reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and in the book he addresses the problem of why we as a society seem to be so interested in our rational selves and--as a result--have really lost touch with our emotional selves. His explanation takes up most of the book in a slow, inexorable way, but to say the least it's the opinion of Pirsig that the problem goes all the way back to Plato. It was a really interesting read that I recommend for anyone who hasn't read it, and it's curious that the subject is still applicable after the book has been in print for over 40 years.

Robin said...

"Only one book is worth reading: the heart."

~ Ajahn Chah