In The Crucible we worked with waking the fire of the physical heart. In The Tuning Fork we took that foundation and moved into the practice of listening to our hearts. Once our hearts are awake and singing to us, and once we have a practice of regularly tuning in to the many voices of the heart, then we can start to begin the actual practices of transforming the spiritual heart.
The first of these transformative practices is a simple daily ritual that is found in spiritual traditions from ancient Christianity to Zoroastrianism to modern Hinduism, the ancient rite of spiritual cleansing with the fundamental and transformative substances of water and fire.
For the purposes of this series, I am calling this practice Morning Water, Evening Fire.
As is the reality of all things in this world, the spiritual heart mirrors the physical heart in function, composition, and process. Just as the function of the physical heart is to receive and pass on blood, the function of the spiritual heart is to receive and pass on love. Just as the physical heart does not function well in a state of obstruction or constriction, so the spiritual heart seeks openness. Just as the physical heart does not seek to hold, so should we work with the spiritual heart to make sure we are not holding things in our hearts that obstruct our ability to receive and give love.
The heart, like the rest of us, is comprised mostly of water, and the nature of water is that it is sensitive and easily sent into a state of ripples and waves. The heart is also, like water, reflective when calm, stagnant when obstructed, receptive and therefore easily polluted, and optimal when free-flowing and clear.
When we tap into the reality of our physical and spiritual hearts, this sensitive, clear, reflective lake of light that we carry with us as we walk through this world, this wellspring of vibration that radiates out from us and seeks to harmonize with other hearts and with the one heart —we begin to know that the energetic nature of the heart is that it carries things, it literally holds them. Just as water holds and passes on vibration, so does the heart. Just as water carries suspended within it whatever it comes in contact with, so the heart is prone to carry our experiences, emotions, and memories suspended in its loving waters.
The practice of transforming that profound place we call the heart center, anahata, whose nature is supreme silence at the heart of a crackling field of vibration and harmony and light — is the practice of meticulously working with our hearts so that they become clear vessels, so that nothing disturbs the fine tuned balance and so our hearts do not hold anything that interferes with their ability to receive and give love.
Just as the heart – like all the delicate structures of the physical being, is mostly water, so is it driven by fire. The cardiac cells are lit with metabolic flame that strikes a perfect balance of consumption and expulsion. The kinetic beat of the heart creates electricity and heat, and just as the clean fires of the alchemist’s forge burn hot, so the natural rhythms of the heart’s movement keep the heart clear and unobstructed.
It is the simplest of all possible alchemies to know that if we want to clear our hearts, we can directly use water and fire.
The early Vedic people recognized that we lived in a world of dynamic movement whose nature is one of change. When they observed the physical universe around them, they rightly observed that the two physical forces that most embody and actualize this transformation are water and fire. Theirs was not a spirituality based on concepts or philosophies, it was a spirituality based on the realities of floods and storms, of forest fires and cooking fires, and directly linked to the sublime lifeline of sacred rivers.
Every single day, at sunrise and sunset, half a billion people in India spiritually cleanse themselves by immersing themselves in the holy waters of the Ganges River. When they emerge from the river’s waters, they cleanse themselves again with the heat of a sacred flame.
In the West, it is difficult for us not to see this, and all, ritual as merely representational — they bathe in the water because the water represents purity. The process of alchemical understanding requires a shift from the representational to the actual. When we spiritually cleanse ourselves with water, we are not doing so because the water represents purity. We are doing so because water is a spiritual force that makes up a huge part of who we are and to reconnect with water has a direct cleansing effect on us physically and spiritually. If we understand the alchemy of the heart, we understand that this ritual is not symbolic. It is directly transformational.
When we wake up in the morning, we take a few minutes to deeply connect with and listen to our hearts. We do this with the breath, keeping the breath even and steady and breathing directly into our heart space. We don’t try to modify anything at first, we just tune in.
When I practice this in the mornings I try to go deeply into the heart and expand the heart space outwards until it becomes a vast, reflective pool of water. I work with feeling that water, its expanse, its stillness and its ripples.
When I feel directly connected to the heart I ask myself a simple question:
What am I carrying, today, in the waters of my heart?
The waters of our hearts are deeply sensitive, and there are certain energies and emotions that are very sticky and easily held in the heart. The first and foremost among these is resentment.
The feeling of being wronged is a feeling of being energetically invaded that upsets the waters of our hearts. When we feel wronged that feeling stays in our hearts and contracts them and diminishes our ability to connect to love.
The resentment that comes from feeling wronged is a feeling that we continue to hold in our hearts long after the situation is over. We hold on to a person, to their actions, to our negative feelings towards them. We see them reflected in the waters of our hearts at their worst, in their ugliest of manifestations. Perhaps we sling energetic weapons at them, negative thoughts and verbal barbs and outpourings of feeling, and we literally allow a battle to go on in our hearts long after we have any actual contact with them. Perhaps we are still, after all these years, arguing with them in our hearts and trying to win.
We are not going to win any battles nor dispense any justice by holding on to resentment towards another person in our hearts. All we are doing, all we are doing, is hurting ourselves.
I dwelt for some years of my life in a state of resentment towards those who had wronged me. It is crystal clear to me now exactly who I was hurting and how. It does not do anything positive for us to hold resentment in our hearts, even if we were truly wronged. Who the person is who wronged us, what they did, the story of the wrong they did to us, all have their validity in the story of our lives, but we give them and their story way too much power if we continue to let them live in the waters of our heart. We can learn the lessons we need to learn, we can keep the parts of the story we need to keep, without literally holding them in our hearts in a way that inhibits our hearts from connecting to love.
This can be a long practice. But it can also be a lot simpler than we make it out to be. The simple rhythm of daily clearing of our hearts over time makes it much easier to let go of resentments. This is why we practice every day, so that the resentments we have to clear are small ones and are easily washed downstream.
Another feeling that sticks in our hearts is grief.
The first thing to say about grief is that it is absolutely natural. Of course we grieve when loved ones pass, when relationships we treasure end, when people who we held a special place for in our hearts move on. The grieving process is an integral part of what it means to be a human being, incarnate, alive in this delicate and transient world of form.
However, there is a difference between allowing grief its place in our lives and holding so much grief in our hearts that it affects our ability to give and receive love. Grief is often spoken of in relation to water, the feeling of “drowning” in grief, the grief that “wells up” within us, and, of course, the physical manifestation of grief, in which we literally shed our own water in the act of crying. As much as a good cry can help clear our hearts, we do not want the waters of our hearts to be choked or inundated with grief. When we wallow in grief, we dampen the fires of our hearts, and as that primal flame diminishes we become depressed and we become sick.
Modern western psychotherapy places a lot of emphasis on the importance of the cathartic release of grief, and while it is true that it is vital to be able to access the grief we might have over a situation, it is just as important to actively work to clear it so we’re not holding it unnecessarily.
Accessing grief is not the same as clearing grief.
There is a very pronounced difference between trying to clear something with words, for example, in talking about it to a therapist, and having a regular transformational practice to clear it. Talking about it is important, but words also tend to lead us in circles. We often find ourselves replaying the story of what grieves us over and over again and getting caught in the energetic whirlpool this creates. We find ourselves tumbled about in the waves of grief that take hold of us. And we get drawn into the feeling of grief itself, that strong current that holds its own undeniable appeal. Grieving can easily become its own addiction when we focus entirely on repeatedly dredging up and not on transforming.
Personally, like all human beings, I have known times of great distress in my life. I have had close loved ones die, and relationships end badly. I have also been in situations in which many people died all around me in which I was surrounded with outpourings of grief.
The cultures that seem to me to be most successful in dealing with grief have very distinct practices around grieving. They have a set time period in which the rituals around grieving take place and a community of support around grieving. This type of ritualized grieving simultaneously allows for the opportunity to grieve and diminishes the overwhelming power of grief. Grief too has a season, and like all seasons, will pass and renewal will come.
In the West, we have several traditions around grief and loss that unfortunately serve to redouble the addictive and negative qualities of grief and further embed grief in our hearts.
Either we try to shove grief under the rug and not express it at all, which clearly never works, or we focus entirely on the expression of grief and assume that in that expression we are clearing it. And one of the primary ways that we solidify and attempt to conduct our expressions of grief is by drinking alcohol.
The extreme example of this is the Irish wake, but the relationship between alcohol and grieving is very direct in our culture. We drink when the relationship ends. We drink at the funeral. We grieve about the situation over drinks with friends, and we find that we continue to bring it up when alcohol loosens our tongues.
Simply put, the physical alchemy of binding our grief to an addictive substance does the exact opposite of clearing. It further embeds the grief in our hearts. There is no way we can clear something energetically when the medium through which we are attempting to process it is physically addictive. When we attempt to do so, we are confusing the feeling of catharsis we get from grieving with clearing the grief and we are establishing a neural and spiritual cycle in which the re-living of that feeling addictively feeds us.
If we truly want to clear the grief and resentment that lives in our hearts, we have to practice, regularly, from a place of clarity. We have to practice not just when we feel the grief itself, but even when we aren’t feeling it but know its still there. We have to go beyond talking about it, and actually work with it energetically.
So in the practice of Morning Water, Evening Fire, we identify the resentment and the grief and the fear and the anxiety that we are holding in the waters of our hearts and we label it very specifically. We can even list it out on paper for the first few months that we practice, if that helps.
When we list what we are holding that we want to clear, we don’t focus on the drama of the story or on the person who wronged us, for example: “I really want to clear my jerk of an ex-girlfriend.” We focus on the feelings that through holding in our hearts we have made ours and identified with.
I find that it’s best, when beginning this practice, to start with clearing small things, the residual anxiety we feel from an interaction we had at work; an unpleasant stare we received from a stranger on the street; the aggravation we felt in traffic.
We may even find that as we start to clear the little things daily, the larger resentments and pains begin to clear on their own. Sometimes we need to go deeper, and we will examine more of this in The Rose Garden.
After I list out what I want to clear from my heart every morning, I begin the actual clearing process. I find it helpful to practice some asana first, to get the body and breath primed and more able to clear. Then I go to a water source, which, unless I happen to be on the shores of a sacred river, is usually my bathroom shower.
I take a cupped handful of water and hold it above my head.
I say aloud: “With this water, I wash away _________ and return it to the source. It is not mine”
And then I take a deep inhale, pour the water over my head or my heart, and exhale as I let it spill over me and wash whatever I am holding away.
In the evening, I repeat the same process, with fire, a burning candle. I use my hand to take in some of the warmth and heat of flame into my heart and then I say a similar prayer.
“I offer this to the transformative fire __________ this is not mine.”
Or, in Sanskrit, a line that comes to us from the earliest Vedic fire sacrifices:
“Agnaye svahaha _________ idam namama.”
Then I burn the paper with the list of things I want to clear.
As we close the practice in the morning and the evening, it’s important that we finish with positive wishes for ourselves, our families, and loved ones. The energetic state of the heart after clearing out emotions is open and vulnerable, and we want to seal the practice with feelings of love and goodwill. So we shed the waters that are obstructing us, and refill our cups with goodness.
After we practice this every day for a few months or a few years, we might start to feel some transformation in our hearts.
If we find we cannot clear a particular resentment or grief, if it is turning into an obsession, then we need to engage the physical being on a whole different level.
The first and foremost thing we can do if we cannot let something go is to cut, even temporarily, all addictive substances from our lives, regardless of whether or not we are addicted to them. Addictive substance energetically binds to existing cycles of thought and feeling and behavior, and when we partake of the substance, we reinforce the behavior. Even a short time abstaining from substance can allow us a precious opportunity to break emotional cycles and clear old feelings.
If we are trapped in a specific cycle of thinking and feeling, often times we literally just need to stop feeding it. Fasting, for even just a day, is a profound way to do this. In the ancient Christian and Jewish tradition, all transformational spiritual work was accompanied by fasting. As we turn our attention to our source during a fast, we cut beyond our habitual cycles of obsession, craving, and satiation. Many of the resentments and pains we hold in our hearts live, physically dwell, within this same cycle, so when we break the chain we allow them the space they need to clear. When we take this simple step, sometimes they clear out surprisingly fast.
The precious work of clearing the heart is part of our deep acknowledgement that the heart is our most precious gift, spiritually and physically. The heart seeks to be an open channel, to receive and pass on love. On the sublime path of openheartedness, we need to practice and we need to take care, every day, to bring this wellspring, this beautiful instrument, in tune to the great music, the great heart that is our source and our shelter.
Editor: Tanya L. Markul