by Erik Knud-Hansen
Good-hearted people of all faiths and beliefs feel the urge to follow their hearts, especially when confronting difficult choices and seeking wholesome guidance. Since it can be difficult to understand what this means within ourselves, people often look outside for answers. Some turn to the teachings or precepts of established religions and ideologies. Some try to emulate other people they respect, both alive and dead. Some seek their answers from other types of beings, whether certain animals or formless deities. Some people ask for guidance from material objects they hope are divinely influenced to give them correct instructions about how to proceed or resolve an issue.[ad name=”AdSense Responsive”]
When we are uncertain of ourselves, we become especially vulnerable to seek elsewhere for solace and not trust our innate capacity to know for ourselves what is true and heartfelt. When we do not understand the heart of consciousness, we will surrender our most profound personal power to some form of spiritual materialism.
Some people rely on their inner feelings and whatever helps them feel good inside, but are pleasant feelings reliable for following our heart? We know there’s a lot of heart in the love we share with family and friends, but we also recognize there are other kinds of relational love that are more superficial and somehow different—like loving a cookie or a good book. How are these feelings not quite the same, and how about those that can be aroused through sex, drugs, music, ecstatic rites and devotional rituals? Following our heart as moral guidance goes deeper than that, but how is this?
Some people have had moments of deep bliss and light—whether arising quite suddenly out of the blue or after long mental training—but still don’t understand how to use this kind of experience as practical guidance in following their heart in daily life. And when such moments arise during so-called near-death experiences, what useful knowledge or intuitive wisdom is there for advising future actions in a wholesome way?
We may want to follow our hearts, but how do we listen? Intuitively we know we can’t just follow the guidance of our liking and disliking—our attractions and repulsions—they aren’t even consistent from moment to moment. We might experience what feels like divine joy while eating the first delicious cookie in the jar, but lose the ecstasy after a few, and even gag on the tenth. These feelings have nothing to do with the cookies, only to how we relate to our perceptions and construct our personal preferences. Everything we hold to be true and based in impermanent feelings can be doubted and dismissed whenever conditions change. What value can we give to feelings that are so fickle as to be useless as moral guidance from the heart?
We distinguish between matters of the head and matters of the heart rather casually sometimes without understanding exactly how they differ. When we feel true unconditional love, compassion, empathy and listen to the voice of our conscience, we sense these qualities throughout our bodies. These are not mental concepts but rather unmistakable connections to something beyond our ordinary self—by any name we wish to give it.
Matters of the heart are direct reflections of divine, or absolute, consciousness and not the same as our habitual likes and dislikes. While the kind of feeling sensations we condition in our brains to direct our subjective desires can be useful in navigating the relative world that we must survive once having been born here, they are not reliable as true moral guidance. To understand more precisely what it means to listen to and follow our heart, it helps if we can be clear about those particular feelings that represent it.
The keys to understanding the difference between head and heart lies in understanding how our mental lives (who we think we are and behave as such) exist as unique formations within the boundless space of universal consciousness. We may think that our personal consciousness derives from our own brains and is purely subjective, but this is not so. Relative beings like us arise and change within nondual absolute consciousness like cloud formations in the vast open sky. Our individual mental beings continuously project themselves like movies onto the unfathomably bright screen of universal divine light—the heart of consciousness. Movies may need a screen to be seen, but they are not the same as the screen itself.
By understanding that these two aspects of who we are—our mentality and consciousness—function together but are not the same, we can learn to listen more clearly to our hearts without the interference of our habitual mental reactions, including grasping for things we like and pushing away things we don’t. We can also discern mental states like doubt, anger, ill will and others that obscure the clarity of our mind and thus obstruct deeper listening.
Whereas we have sense bases ruled by our brain with which we experience the relational world in which we live, we also have the innate capacity to imperience consciousness directly in our hearts. Imperience is the factor common to all ways of awakening the mysterious light reported by mystics and others for millennia. Imperience is not a function of our brains, even though we use our brains to interpret our intuitive insights. We must be alert to our tendency to use whatever preconceived ideas we have beforehand. Our brains are capable of extraordinary things, but they are also capable of being confused about everything — including our own true nature.
While our heads are busy directing our doings in the world, our hearts govern our inner being by virtue of constant oneness with divine consciousness. To follow our hearts, therefore, we must consciously listen from the inside out. Instead of searching upward and outward from the head for moral guidance from outside ourselves, we awaken presence and sensitivity to the quality of our inner being and what that’s communicating.
While we may believe that matters of the heart are actual physical functions of our heart (the pump organ), they are not. Consciousness has no objective reality but exists everywhere—independent from our personal brains that project imagery onto the screen of conscious awareness. We don’t have a separate, private source of personal consciousness, or an actual sense base with which to experience it. But we do sense its presence in our blood. Since our blood permeates our whole body, we imperience these exalted qualities of heart throughout our being. Because our blood is always most concentrated in our chest, this is where we sense love, empathy, joy, and moral conscience most prominently, and consider them to be matters of the heart.
Our hearts sense life in only one way—as the brilliance of unconditional love and light to whatever degree of brightness our cloudy minds allow. Within our relational lives, we sense qualitative changes in two ways depending on the degree of moral conscientiousness. When whatever we are relating to or contemplating is wholesomely concerned with the good of all (including oneself), the quality is lighter, brighter and more expansive. When we are relating more selfishly and to the detriment of others, the quality is more dense and contractive. This is the way the heart communicates its moral conscience in terms of wholesomeness—for the benefit of the whole, for the good of self and others or unwholesomeness—selfishly concerned with one’s personal desires and agendas.
We already know we want to follow our true heart’s desire. Nurturing our ability to sense our source in divine consciousness (by any name or no name) is our spiritual urge and urgency. Stabilizing and brightening our mind with mindful awareness in order to observe and discern its message more clearly is our practice. Understanding the heart of consciousness strengthens our ability to follow our moral compass with faith, wisdom and compassion, and heed its guidance. Awakening awareness so we are able to imperience the voice of conscience in our own blood and being serves the deepest need of all sentient beings.
About the author
Erik Knud-Hansen is the author of Imperience: Understanding the Heart of Consciousness. He became devoted to spiritual practice in 1972, beginning years of intensive meditation, monastic training and helping to establish several retreat centers in the U.S. He has met and studied with many eminent masters representing each of the major schools of Buddhism and other traditions of spiritual wisdom. Erik’s primary interest lies in sharing ways of awakening reflecting the primary traditions in which he trained—namely Buddhism, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta. He is currently writing a memoir relating to the more personal side of spiritual practice, ”The Dharma, the Tao, the Here and Now.” For more information, visit http://www.erikknudhansen.com.