Why Opening the Heart Is Fundamental in Kuṇḍalinī Practices

By Acharya Shambhu

The very first thing we emphasize with new students in our practice is the power of opening the heart. Opening our heart is the fundamental capacity we develop. It has wide reaching reverberations: 1) we begin to function in our daily life from a deeper place; 2) the heart transforms our own understanding of ourselves and the purpose of our life. This is why advanced meditation practices build on the foundation of the heart. This blog includes a few simple exercises to help us explore the heart.

Opening the heart is crucial in our spiritual development. Developing the capacity to first find our own heart and then nourish it, provides us with a foundation from which we can begin to function in our lives, both in our relationship with ourselves and with the world. A lot of authentic spiritual practices focus on the heart - Sufism, Christian mystics etc. It is important to understand why it is the case that the heart is a recurring theme and emphasized so much in so many practices.

One of Swami Rudrananda's (Rudi) most insightful and powerful statements was, "The reason the world is screwed up is that nobody opens their heart." We could examine this statement from another perspective: if people tend not to function from their hearts, what is it that we mostly function from, i.e. "the" reason the world is screwed up? We could re-interpret Rudi's statement: "The reason the world is screwed up is that everybody functions from their mind."

If we assume that these two statements are equivalent, we could collapse them into: "No heart = mind". The inverse of that is "Heart = no mind." The natural question these two shorter statements pose is: "Are the heart and mind mutually exclusive?"

But hold on a second! The second thing we tell people when they begin to explore this practice is that it is a non-dual practice. So, how do we reconcile that with the possibility that the heart and mind might be mutually exclusive, i.e. we are in an either/or situation, which is inherently dualistic! What a pickle! But, let’s slow down a bit and first explore what we mean by mind.

What is the mind?
In the cosmology of nondual philosophy, the mind is the instrument of the ego. In Sanskrit, the ego translates as "I maker," i.e. the creation of identity. This is "me," this is the "world," even "God" if I believe such a thing, is separate from me. In other words, the nature of the ego is dualistic understanding of life. This is the purpose of the ego, to conceal a higher level of understanding. How does the ego accomplish that? It uses a toolkit, called the mind.

The mind can be understood as the instrument of the ego - i.e. thought constructs, beliefs such as: "I can never get anything right, I am a loser," "Life is not fair, I am always the victim," "I can only be happy if I have a lot of money, relationships, etc.," and the script of the mind goes on and on. These thought constructs are very different from thoughts such as, "I need to make a right turn here to arrive at the store." Thoughts help us function in the world and that is a good thing, that is their primary purpose. The issue is the binding power of thought constructs that create limited stories which become the primary script from which we understand ourselves and life.

To make matters worse, emotions wrapped around thought constructs create a spaghetti bowl around thought constructs, further binding us to limiting beliefs. To be clear, emotions are a good thing, they, in part, make us human beings: we can feel, we have compassion for people, etc. Emotions only become an issue when we allow them to re-inforce our limiting thought constructs. For example, depression/sadness wrap around thought constructs of being a victim, making it harder for us to rise above the mind.

The problem with the ego is that it is the cause of our suffering. The ego has us wrapped around its little finger, and we don't even know it! The ego is very powerful, it has the capacity to completely conceal any possible higher perspective and experience of life. The ego is a tunnel with no lights. That is why the world is screwed up.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? What could that light be? Luckily for us, that light is called grace. It is that grace that brought us to inquire inside: "Is that what life is about? Is there more to life?" This is a pivotal shift in our life, were we begin to turn inside to find an answer, after unsuccessfully trying to find one in the manifest world. 


What is the heart?
In this practice, the way we find an answer inside is by learning to tune into our own heart. How do we do that? We use our breath and awareness.

Here is the first of three simple exercises that help us access our heart.

Exercise 1:

1. Close your eyes. Take a few regular breaths.
2. Listen to the breath, explore where it begins and where it ends. Notice the beginning and end of the inhalation. Notice the beginning and end of the exhalation. Keep your awareness on the cycle of the breath, simply listen. Do that for a few minutes.
3. Now, move your awareness to the middle of the chest, where the heart energy center (chakra) is. Keep your awareness there.
4. Allow the inhalation to open that center, feel the lightness.
5. As you exhale, relax deeply. Notice how we tend to have superficial exhalations, we tend to hold onto tension in our bodies. As you exhale, each time exhale deeper.
6. Notice that as you exhale and you let go deeper, the openness in the heart becomes bigger. Both the inhalation and exhalation create and expand the openness.
7. As you keep your awareness in the heart, whatever arises: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, sounds, smells etc, gently let them go into the heart. Do that for a few minutes.
8. As you open your eyes, keep your center in your heart, stay centered there.
9. Do this exercise during your sitting meditations and also in your daily life with your eyes open.

As we do this simple yet powerful exercise, over time we might have some valuable insights. By focusing on the heart, the mind seems to slow down, we become more quiet and still. Put differently, the more heart, the less mind. As we lose our awareness of our heart, we will likely experience the reverse, less heart means more mind. That is OK. The good news is that we are beginning to feel a new place in ourselves, an alternative to the mind. It does seem like an either/or equation, right?

The answer is yes, however with a "but." Yes, the heart and the mind seem to have a mutually exclusive relationship, but this is more so in the beginning of our practice. In the beginning, we learn over and over again to first find our heart. As we find it over and over again, using our awareness and breath, we nourish that opening. The time that we spend in the heart over time increases. The heart becomes more and more familiar. While that is happening, as we stay centered in the heart, it feels like thoughts, feelings, sensations come from somewhere else. There seems to be a feeling of, "This is my heart" and then, "There is my mind, there is everything else." That experience is an important first step in our spiritual development.

Heart versus Mind

In my own experience, being in the heart helps me understand the nature of the mind better. From the quiet of the heart I can have a clearer perspective on the mind. My life experience before learning to access the heart, as my teacher Swami Khecaranatha (Nathaji) would say, had a floor and a ceiling. The openness of the heart expands that band of experience, I can "see" more, understand better the contrast between the mind and the heart. For me, there seems to be this contrast.

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It's an incredible contrast, isn't it? In my experience, as my band of experience expands with the heart, when I catch myself in my mind, I experience a sort of shock, the realization of the vast difference of experience between the heart and the mind. That shock helps me go back to the heart, it just feels so much better being in the heart! That realization happens in the intellect, which in nondual cosmology, sits above the ego and mind. The intellect does not refer to the sense of being intellectually smart, but a place in ourselves that has enough lift, enough perspective and enough discriminating awareness to make a choice from a place of clarity to open, even when the mind pulls us to close.

As my practice has deepened over the years, when the mind becomes active or takes over in a very forceful way, when a deep thought construct wrapped with powerful emotions takes over, I would follow Rudi's advice: "Take your mind and stick it in your heart." This exercise helps digest and melt deep patterns, in the heart. Another technique we use is creating a flow in our inner mechanism - on that teaching, I will do a separate blog post.

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Evolution of the heart - intermediate perspective
Over time, as we function more and more from the heart, we begin to move away from dualistic experience of the seeming friction between the heart and mind. We begin to be mostly open while the mind continues to function in the background. Nathaji describes that as a radio station. We tune into the station of the Heart FM 108, while the mind is doing its thing on FM 88, but it does not affect us as much. Both the heart and mind function simultaneously but the mind does not bother us as much. We are so busy being in the heart, operating from a higher resonance, that the mind is just a minor annoyance. This is both a dualistic and non-dualistic understanding.

Exercise 2
During the day, stay centered in the heart. Engage people and situations by extending from the heart. Do it over and over again. You will begin to relate to people and situations from the openness of the heart. Listen to what people say from the heart, feel the real resonance of what they are saying versus what they are "actually" saying with their words. You begin to experience life from openness vs the superficiality and the drama of the mind. We begin to relate to people in a simple way, from openness. This exercise helps us break-down the sense of duality of "me" versus "them."

Evolution of the heart - advanced perspective
We started with the experience that the mind is the slayer of the soul, which is very true at the level of dualistic understanding. Next we saw that the heart and mind exist in our experience simultaneously as palpably different resonances and that we can choose to function from the higher resonance of the heart.

Exercise 3
Do Exercise 1 until you experience a sense of deep stillness. As we tune into the heart and as we let go of whatever arises in the heart, our deeper discriminating awareness begins to see thoughts as they begin to arise. Notice that there is a revving of energy, an impulse, before the thought takes form. As we stay in that level of awareness, we begin to have the insight that the initial impulse is simply the pulsation of the heart. It is only our ego that takes that impulse and molds it into form, i.e. thoughts and thought constructs, to reinforce our separation from our own heart.

According to nondual scripture, ultimately, wait for it, wait for it…….the mind is simply a vibration of the heart. In other words, the heart is the source of the mind. We can verify that statement for ourselves by doing Exercise 3. We have finally arrived at nondual understanding!

This is a shocking teaching when you consider it. However, it totally makes sense in the context of the highest understanding of nondual practices that consciousness is the source of everything. It is consciousness itself, that out of its own freedom, created the mind to conceal itself from itself as part of the cosmic play. Nondual practices have a more sophisticated description of what are called the Veils of Duality (of which the mind is an important part) that we will explore later.

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Conclusion - the heart is the pathway to liberation from the suffering caused by ego
Notice how we moved from form, i.e. thoughts as the mind, into feeling the openness of the heart, then the pulsation of the heart, and finally into awareness. It is that awareness or consciousness that we seek to find in our own heart, the consciousness which is our own real essence. This is why focusing on opening the heart is pivotal in our practice.

 Sky Shambhu quote