In our first yoga of the heart, The Crucible, we worked with waking our dormant hearts to their inner fire and continuing to stoke that fire through the fundamentals of regular movement, balanced consumption of food, connection to nature, breath, and the tapasic principle of rhythmic, sustained effort.
Once the fire of the heart has been stoked and is being managed evenly and lovingly we can start the delicate and beautiful practice of listening to the heart.
I call this practice The Tuning Fork.
When we speak of following the heart and living our lives in line with what our hearts tell us, there are several underlying assumptions. One is that our hearts can tell us things. Two is that we can hear and understand our hearts. Three is that what our hearts have to tell us is worth listening to.
All of these assumptions hold truth, but only if we truly work with the heart over time and develop a practice around our hearts. Personally, I lived according to all three of these assumptions for a very long time without ever building a practice of the heart — and if we don’t truly learn how to listen to our hearts, if we follow every instruction our hearts give us without examination, if we pollute our hearts on all levels and then expect them to speak clearly to us, we can enter into some very confused waters.
So before we even consider acting on what our heart is telling us, we learn to practice deeply listening.
The beautiful truth of the heart is that it does indeed have a voice. The physical heart has a beat that forms the foundational rhythm of our lives, and that rhythm exists in electromagnetic and musical harmony with the vibratory field of the earth and with all of creation. The very cells of the heart beat, and, even when removed from the body, they continue this divine pulsation on their own. When two cardiac cells touch — even if they come from two separate hearts — they will begin to pulse together. When the horse and rider charge across the open fields and the rider’s heart begins to beat faster with the rush of anticipation and fear, the horse’s heart rate rises to match it. Hearts communicate directly with one another, beautifully, in the language of vibration and pulsation and rhythm and song.
The Shiva traditions of Kashmir speak of spanda, the primal vibration, the tremor at the heart of all manifestation.
A full thousand years before modern astronomers confirmed the electromagnetic vibration at the heart of all things and began wowing us with tales of black holes bellowing out sound waves 57 octaves below middle C, those who knew their hearts and tuned their hearts to the divine order knew that this is a universe of great music and that the movement towards pulsation and harmony is the very nature of the heart.
The heart lives in a sea of humming vibration, projecting a deep and rich electromagnetic field outwards from the body in all directions. The EM field of the heart is far greater than that of the brain and extends out from the body several feet or more.
This shows that even on a very fundamental physical level the heart is seeking to harmonize, to interact with and affect other hearts and to receive vibration and information and love from the world around it. The heart broadcasts the sum total of the present state of the spiritual organism it inhabits outwards and receives the fields of others into its own field. When we see the clear eyes of a baby take us in, and size us up, in those days before they are capable of thoughts made of words, they are sizing us up with their hearts. There is a direct and unclouded stream of twinkling prana coursing between their hearts and their eyes. We can tune in to this beautiful space ourselves, we just have to remember how.
This space of the true heart is where we want to play. In the hearts of those who are fully open, the mandala of the heart is tangible, a crackling halo of peacock feathers and exploding flame, an engulfing tide of nectar. I do not write these descriptions to be flowery or dramatic. I write because I have been fortunate enough to meet a few masters in my life whose hearts are truly open, and this is the glory of what their hearts are.
As we begin to tune into and access the field of the heart, the first and foremost recognition we must have if we want to go anywhere in our practice is how deeply sensitive the heart actually is. Recognition of this sensitivity is absolutely key in understanding and developing the foundations of yoga. I was one of those who thought he could pay lip service to the sensitivity of the heart and still go out and live my life in ways that were damaging to myself and to others, and I suffered for it.
When we recognize the sensitivity of this beautiful thrumming field of the heart – sensitive as the clear and fleeting reflection of a meadow of flowers in a still forest pool – we see that there are very distinct energies and vibrations that effect and disrupt this beautiful harmony, and there are very distinct actions and practices that support and nourish it. From this place, we no longer see the foundation of yoga – the yamas and niyamas — as arbitrary ethical rules handed down to us by archaic authorities – we see them as a crystal clear window into what disturbs the sensitive field of our hearts and what brings this field peace.
Harm and intentions of harm disturb the field of the heart. Anything that narrows the energetic field – small thoughts, ill will, focused negativity – disturbs this field as well. Keeping too much for ourselves – energetically or materially – upsets the balance of the field of the heart. Foods that are closest to sunlight that do not contain the very real samskaric impressions created by violence and death nourish the heart, while any substance that is depressant, such as alcohol, dims and depletes the heart. Our hearts are similarly sensitive to the hearts of others and in even a short time that we spend with another person, our hearts begin to take in the vibration of their hearts and emulate it. Failure to respect our sexual partners or to view sex as something to be done casually — before actually getting to know the other person’s heart and to feel that our heart can open safely with them — has a deep, direct impact on our hearts. We carry the heart residue of sexual interactions for years and years.
The heart sits pulsing and soaking in a world of frequencies, and it is very susceptible to those frequencies. These days, the heart is bombarded with a myriad of electromagnetic waves, x-rays, radio waves, cellular waves, and satellite transmissions and all of these interfere with our ability to tune into and listen to hearts – this is one of the reasons why access to nature is one of the most vital components of the path of our spiritual and physical hearts.
The heart is also extremely sensitive to pace. If we move through life at the pace of impulse, then our hearts will also beat at the pace of impulse and the voices that emanate from the heart will be voices of impulse. Remember, the cells of the beating heart tune their rhythm to that which is around them. So if we live life in a constant rush and then we attempt to listen to our hearts, our hearts will not be in a state where they can broadcast to us clearly. When we make sudden lifestyle changes, uprooting ourselves from one place to another or from one relationship to another, when we make impulsive decisions around spending and consuming, all in the guise of “following the heart” generally we are not slowing down enough to develop a practice of listening to what our true hearts want.
Instead we seek to live in pulsation, not by impulse. This means we slow down at every opportunity, to reset our basic pace.
This principle of slowing down and tuning in compliments the practice of fire and movement we spoke of in The Crucible. We work towards a place where the movement we practice is healthy movement, and the stillness we practice is healthy stillness. These days, we tend to have extremely sedentary bodies that exist in a panicked state of always being “on.” If it is possible to be lethargic and continually rushing at the same time, this is the state we live in, and this is an exact recipe for stress, anxiety, impulsive tendency, neurosis, and all the other afflictions that plague us.
If we want to start to be able to really access our true hearts, we have to take the time to do it. This means time in nature, time to meditate, and, perhaps most of all in this day and age, time to unplug. There is an energetic disruption that happens to our hearts in the state of always being available to distraction through outside communication. The rhythm of digital communication, constant texting, and regular interaction with multiple voices puts the heart into a state of constant anticipation. It is very important that we balance our on time with off time.
As we start slowing down the pace of our lives, we start to work with tuning in to our hearts on a regular basis.
We can do this through some of the many beautiful practices outlined in the Sri Vijnanabhairava Tantra in which we connect to the fundamental spaciousness of heart. When we expand the heart space outwards and steep in that space, we can become much more aware of what’s actually sitting in there, what may be causing ripples in the heart’s waters, what small specks are interfering with the hearts vibrational field.
In this practice of The Tuning Fork, we are not practicing trying to work with or remove these obstructions just yet, we are just practicing how to listen. Make the heart space a little larger. Take a clear lens to its vast and beautiful waters. Feel the first impulses arise and let them go… then the second… then the third. Start to feel the deeper vibration of the heart. Slow down a little more. Perhaps practice the regular slow and soft repetition of the sound of Om, tuning our hearts to the fundamental spanda at the heart of creation so they can communicate to us more clearly.
When we practice asana, we can make a distinct effort to shift the busy prana of our heads right into our hearts, to literally draw it down through the breath so we can move and breathe right from the heart. We work to forget the language of words for just a moment and exist right from our hearts. The more we do this, the more the field of our hearts will begin to flower and broadcast to us from a more even place.
When we are asked questions, we can practice taking a breath right into the heart before we answer. Practicing like this, we start feel how we carry our hearts in the workplace and at home. We start to feel through our breath how our hearts respond to certain environments, certain foods, and substances, certain people, certain situations.
The Bhakti Sutras teach us that on the path of building a life of uninterrupted sacredness, one of the keys is to avoid negative company completely.
The choices we make in life around whom we surround ourselves with and what situations we put ourselves in effect our hearts dramatically. This is something that I did not want to admit for many years, and I cannot emphasize it enough. Like many modern people, I thought I was impervious. I thought was made of Teflon, that I could slide easily in and out of any situation in this world and nothing would stick. My understanding of the heart and work with the heart now shows me that we are not impervious at all. We navigate a world of very large forces and we are very, very small. In this world of forces, we carry a very precious and very sensitive treasure with us in the form of our hearts, and we need to be extremely careful with it.
So one of the fundamental practices in order to develop a heart that speaks clearly to us is to put ourselves in environments in which we are surrounded with qualities that we wish to emulate in our hearts. As surely as the cells of our hearts change their rhythm to beat in harmony with other cells, so do we become elevated in situations where we feel and experience genuine love and togetherness and so do we get dragged down by situations that are confused, negative, boundary-less, or overly indulgent.
Our hearts want to resonate with that which is clear and good in this world, and as certainly as there are combinations of notes that strike beautiful chords in our hearts and there are others that create cacophony and discord, so goodness and confusion are realities that we can choose to surround ourselves with depending on the choices we make.
So as we practice listening to the heart, we do so in places where we are steeped in goodness, and stillness, and we do so with people that we feel elevate our hearts. In this way, we start to build a long-term practice of listening to the heart.
Perhaps we pick a favorite tree on a favorite hike and we go there several times a week and sit at its base, touching it lightly so that our heart can begin to vibrationally connect with a deeper stillness. We work to tune in to our hearts in this place. And from that place of connection with our hearts, we notice – we just observe — what the heart is telling us.
The next time we come back, we see if the heart is telling us the same thing.
It is a good practice to start to keep a journal of the heart, to explore the voices and nuances of all that the heart tells us, to see the waves of the heart over time, how it gets swayed by certain influences and situations and drawn this way and that like a boat on shifting waters.
If our hearts tell us to do certain things, its good to wait, to keep checking in for at least a full lunar cycle to see if they still tell us the same thing. The heart exists in a sea of tides, and the cycle of the moon is the full expression of that cycle. So rather than rush to start acting on the first impulse of the heart, let’s listen a little deeper, and give it a little more space.
If the heart is telling us to do something rash, then we wait. If it continues to tell us to do something rash, we wait longer. If it is telling us to do something other than harmonize and connect — to act negatively, to isolate, to withdraw, to run away – we wait longer and listen deeper. We wait until the waters of the heart develop consistency and stillness. We wait as long as it takes.
And then, over time, we see that through practice, the heart will naturally start to even out, the chords of music it offers us will come more deeply into tune as it makes its long, beautiful journey towards peace.