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Bright but hidden, the Self dwells in the heart. Everything that moves, breaths, opens and closes lives in the Self - the source of love. Realize the Self hidden in the heart and cut asunder the knot of ignorance here and now.

- The Upanishads

Last weekend in class I joked about having unconditionditional love for all beings - except people who annoy me, those who I believe are being harmful (often to me or people who I care about), certain political figures, and big spiders. Hardly unconditional.

That's the way it is when we are raised in conditions largely beyond our control. Our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are influenced by our society, parents, teachers, friends, geography, weather patterns, and the time in which we are born. We don't choose any of these things, and yet they shape so much of what we believe to be "ME". These layers and layers create what the Upanishads refer to as the knots of the heart. Our job is to loosen, unravel and unwind those knots. When we are suffering, we are believing something that is not true. To live inside the belief that we or others are bad and wrong is suffering. Rather than directly feeling our hearts and responding to the life around us, we are viewing our lives through one of the many interpretive lenses that separate us.

Tibetan teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche coined the phrase "Real but Not True". What this means is that, while thoughts are really happening and there is a real biochemistry that accompanies them, they are only representations in our mind. They are not the experience of this living moment. Just like a map is not the territory that it represents, our thoughts are not reality. This is a fundamental understanding that is helpful as we begin to look at our illusions of reality.

Our beliefs fuel our sense of separateness. Uninvestigated, they are a veil between us and reality; they actually prevent us from seeing truth. But when we deepen our attention and start seeing past the beliefs, the light of who we really are starts shining through.

There are two ways of paying attention that begin to clear away the illusion of our beliefs and loosen their grip. The first is inquiry - bringing an interested and attentive quality of the mind to penetrate through the layers of the belief. The second is mindfulness - meeting what arises with a quality of full, embodied presence. When we see our own tendencies, thoughts, beliefs, and conditioning with greater objectivity AND are able to greet these things with compassion, acceptance, and understanding, we are able to loosen the knots of the heart that keep us separate and closed to including all beings in our love.

Maybe the spiders are alright.

A Meditation to Connect to the Heart's Radiance

Find a comfortable seat - on a cushion, in a chair, or lying down. Your position does not matter as long as you can comfortably sustain it for a ten to twenty minutes. Allow yourself to be comfortable and still, and close your eyes. Interlace your hands, releasing only the middle fingers and pressing the pads together as you raise arms overhead - this is Matanghi Mudra. Let yourself feel grounded, relaxed, and whole.

Take a few deep breaths, feeling your lungs fill completely and letting your exhalation release fully. You may initially feel/see/experience a flurry of thoughts racing through your mind. This is normal, and they are just thoughts. Let yourself notice that you're thinking and also let yourself notice that you're breathing. Release and relax your arms, letting hands settle wherever they are comfortable.

As you settle into a more natural cadence of breath, notice the experience of breath. Maybe this includes the bodily sensations (belly, ribs, chest, throat, nostrils), visualizations (colors, images, shapes), feelings (anxiety, restlessness, boredom, sadness, happiness, joy), or anything else that is obvious. You don't need to look for it, name it, focus on it, or understand it, you are just noticing whatever is present.

Allow your awareness to now settle on the area around the heart. Feel from the inside out the chest and upper back. Feel the heart beat. Notice the breath and the heart beat in rhythm with each other.

Relax. Let your mind nestle into the cozy and warm space of the heart center.

Imagine the heart as a welcoming cave. As you let yourself travel into this cave, visualize a faint glow. As you move further and further into the cave, you see the warm glow of a small flame far in the back of the heart.

Let yourself rest here, seeing this flame gently brighten with each in breath, and feeling yourself relax with each out breath.

Notice how the mind begins to think, plan, narrate, judge, crave, grasp, or otherwise flit. This is what the mind does, and it's very natural. You are watching the flame of the heart respond to this. Notice how the flame flickers and dims when the mind stirs. Can you invite yourself to watch the flame? Can you feel your breath gently stoking the fire?

When the mind steadies on the breath and heart center, visualize the flame gently growing brighter. See the glow from the fire filling the cave. See the glow emanating from the cave. Zoom out, and visualize the glow of the heart fire moving out into the rest of the body - first from the center, to the torso, to the limbs and extrematies. Take your time. Let the flame build naturally.

See the whole body radiate with this glow from heart's fire. Relax. Let the heart's radiance expand in its own way, in its own time. There is no rush. Allow this radiance to move beyond your physical borders, filling the room, moving beyond the room, filling the building, moving beyond the building, radiating far and wide, touching all that it encounters with its warmth. Stay for as long as you want.

Conclude by gently drawing your awareness back to your breath, joining your palms to heart center. Bow your chin with gratitude for your effort, your practice, your willingness, or whatever feels natural to you.

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