Prayer of the Heart

I. Three Jewels

There are three precious jewels that you received in your mother's womb, talismans for your journey. You already know what they are. I only wish to remind you of their value, for you have let them get tarnished. When you understand the value of what you already have, you can enjoy the deepest meditation and the highest form of prayer, just by breathing.

Before you set out on this life's pilgrimage, the Inward Teacher gave you these three talismans: Breath, Heart, Silence. Is not your human body itself the great sacrament? Fully embodied, no further sacrament is needed. If you attended to this body with as much devotion as you attend to ashrams and churches, you would dwell in the temple of God this very moment.

As the center of the temple is the Holy of Holies, so the center of the body is the Heart. The Heart is not merely a physical organ, but the matrix of awakened consciousness. The Heart is like a radio: constructed out of physical matter but in such a way as to receive invisible energies, turning them into music. You can attune your hearts to God as surely as you turn the radio to your favorite channel. In this prayer, just put your awareness in the heart, quite literally, in this blood-soaked beating organ at the center of your flesh. Prayer is a sacrament: spiritual presence apprehended through a physical sign. When your attention rests in the Heart, you pass through a tiny golden portal to the Kingdom.

Eternity dwells in a tiny spark in the space of your Heart. Entering that finite door, you discover yourself in the boundless expanse of God. This is how the infinitesimal becomes the infinite. And this is what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the door." The spark of I Am at the core of your Heart is the portal to God-Consciousness.

Down through the door of the Heart flows the Breath, the carrier of all that nourishes and heals. Breath is the unacknowledged physician in every human body. It cleanses each cell, quickens each atom. If we employed the power of our breath, we would worry much less about the growing costs of health care. Just as the Heart is the physical nexus of the soul, so this Breath is the physical sign of the Spirit.

The Biblical authors knew this. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures they used the same word to express both spirit and breath. The double meaning of the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma corresponds to the double reality of our own breath. Breath is both the vehicle for oxygen and the host for spiritual energy. Each great religious tradition acknowledges this subtle energy in the breath: it is called chi in China, prana in India, spiritus in the West.

Simply to breathe is the purest form of worship. What turns ordinary respiration into prayer? Awareness. Fully conscious of this inhalation, you discover that each breath is a gift. You are not breathing, you are breathed. To inhale is grace, to exhale is surrender. Merely observing this gift with grateful awareness transforms biological activity into transcendental sacrament.

And what is your third talisman? The jewel of Silence. To become aware that Silence is alive, Silence is omnipresent, Silence ever listens beneath the chatter of your thoughts, is to enter the kingdom of the present moment. Does the heart not thrill to hear these words, the kingdom of the present moment?

If you cannot find the kingdom of God in this moment, you will never find it in the future, either in heaven or earth. Silence is the space where God dwells as eternal presence. Only when you enter the spacious silence of now can you meet God. God is never in the past or future. 

"Take no thought for tomorrow," Jesus declared. He always brought his listeners into the kingdom of now. What did he answer when they asked him when the kingdom would come? "The kingdom of heaven is already here in the midst of you," he said. "Before Abraham was, I Am."

The whole spiritual journey is from here to now. Those who aren't ready for this journey study old maps.

Then how do you dwell in silent presence, without a flood of thoughts, regrets, and anxieties sweeping your mind into the past or the future? First, acknowledge the fact that thinking creates time. The past and future only exist as thoughts. You carry past and future in your head, but your heart always beats right now. Your heart is always in the Kingdom.

Failure to acknowledge the divine authority of Presence is the seed of suffering. Regrets about the past and anxieties about the future are in fact only physiological stresses carried in your neurons. Time is a neurological phenomena, an electro-chemical activity in the nervous system. Time is anxiety, and anxiety is time.

The solution to the problem of time is simply to become aware of time as a sensation in the brain. Watch time forming inside you as a knot of thoughts, fears, desires. See how you label this knot past and future. Instead of being mesmerized and absorbed by mental images, inner movies about what happened or what might happen, become aware of these thoughts as minute physical impulses. The moment you become aware, "Ah, this passing thought is just a neuro-peptide flashing through a synapse in my brain," the thought loses its binding power. You can observe the sensation that underlies the thought, without converting it into a mental picture. Then, merging with the sensation without resistance, you can rest in the silence that underlies it. For silence is the very field where the electro-magnetic energy arises as subn-uclear particles. Silence is the space that lies behind every thought. Silence is the pure awareness that observes your thoughts, yet is never a thought itself. In the silent space of pure awareness,  thoughts arise and dissolve. And this silent space is the real You.

You are the witness, the watcher. So Jesus taught, "Watch and pray." It is the watcher, not the thinker, who finds God. And this silence that watches thoughts come and go is always in the present. Silence is the end of time.

Let each breath be an anchor that moors you to the silence of the heart. Follow your exhalation from the mind into the solar plexus. At the very end of the exhalation, you will discover a moment of complete emptiness, just before inhalation begins. In this emptiness, there is no thought, no mind, no time: just stillness. This is Christ's kinosis, his self-emptying. "He emptied himself." (Philippians 2) Rest in the measureless empty stillness at the end of the exhalation, where the little stream of your soul returns to the vast ocean of Spirit.

From that depth will rise the inhalation, your next breath. You will discover that this breath is not really yours. It is the gift of the infinite.

II. The Practice

These meditation instructions should be practiced, not analyzed. With eyes closed, practice each step for awhile until it becomes natural and easy. Then move to the next step. Don't try to force your way through the whole sequence at one time. Use the instructions that work. Own them. In the end, they flow together as one simple process carried out, not by your effort, but by Grace: the Grace of your Inner Teacher. There is no major religious tradition in the world that does not contain this practice.

• Close your eyes and observe the breath. Observe with gentle attention, not forced concentration. Let the breath flow naturally from the nostrils down to the abdomen. Be aware of it all the way.

• As you breathe out, let go of tension. Let go of any subtle holding in the muscles of the shoulders, chest, or belly. As you release tension through the exhalation, let go of thoughts in the mind. Don't push them out: just don't grasp them... What unconscious holding are you still doing in the region of the solar plexus? Observe this tension breathing out. Along with it, drop the mind too! Breathing out tension from your body, you breathe out the tension of time past.

• Allow awareness to sink from the head to the heart, quite literally. Gaze down into your heart and feel it pulsing. Give it room to beat. Feel its warmth. With awareness in the heart, observe whatever sensations come, without analyzing or labeling any sensation "good" or "bad," "pain" or "pleasure." You may have denied your heart for a long time. Attention here can release strange feelings: heat, cold, fluttering, anger, fear, sadness. These words are just labels. Feel the sensations as energy in the body, without words. After regular practice,  you will experience a causeless glow of happiness in the heart.

Don't let this quiet joy confuse you. Don't ask, "What right have I to be happy? What did I do to deserve this joy?" The innate joy of the heart has no cause. In Sanskrit it is called anahatta, meaning unstruck sound. The heart is called the anahatta chakra. The gracious gift of undeserved happiness is your birthright. You don't have to accomplish anything in order to deserve a song in your heart! As Jnaneshwar sang:
"The moment the energy of Spirit (kundalini shakti) enters the heart region, the self-begotten divine unstruck music begins to play."
• Now you are simply breathing in the heart. At the end of your exhalation, once again, notice the silence, the still point. This is the door. In Sanskrit this still-point is called the bindhu. In Hebrew it is called, the ayin soph: literally, "the point of no-thing" from which all creation is born. Here, surrender. This is the boundless space where worlds arise, the formless void mentioned in the first verse of the Bible. And it is here right now, even before God says, "Let there be light." This is the first moment of creation.

• After spending some time observing the exhalation and resting in silence, become aware of the inhalation. Observe each in-breath as a stream of living energy, flowing through your heart. Gently place your awareness in the soft space about two inches in front of the physical heart.

• Receive the inhalation. Note how effortless it is, for breath is given, not taken. Breath is not something you work for. With this awareness, you will feel a gentle thrill of gratitude, a warmth deep in the heart. This is the outward and physical sign of Grace.

• Continue for as long as you wish, just resting and breathing through the heart. Nothing could be simpler, yet nothing could be more profound. With every inhalation, receive. With every exhalation, offer. Breathing is the whole story of salvation: the gift of God and the oblation of worship. Your breath is Holy Communion on the heart's alter.

Breath is the Holy Spirit, consecrating and trans-substantiating your body into the bread of God. Adam was created out of dust (adamah) by the breath of God (ruach Elohim) to become a living soul (nephesh). Nephesh also means breath in Hebrew, an individual breath descending from the divine breath of the Spirit. So in this prayer of the heart, you become the new Adam: humanity reborn with each breath. You do this for all humankind, as well as your ancestors.

III. The Divine Name

Prayer is not your work, but God's work in you. When divine breath centers to a single fiery seed of love in your chest, the silence will vibrate with the gentle thunder of God's Name. The Word will incarnate in your body. Though you are not aware of its true amplitude, this Word sends forth waves of healing that ripple through every photon of light, every atom of creation, regenerating not your flesh alone, but all humanity. Each particle of you inter-weaves through one quantum field with a child in Darfur, a mother in Haiti, a father in Gaza. In physics, this principle of quantum entanglement is known as Bell's Theorum. In the words of founding quantum physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, "When the electron vibrates, the whole universe shakes." You are truly a member of the "universal body of Christ." Every breath your Heart aches is a breath for the world.

When I find myself gazing into the radiance of my Heart, which is the radiance of every Heart, I have become a silent Mary brooding over the manger. A strange and wonderful sensation is born in my core, a sensation both physical and spiritual. It is what we all seek. Other desires are but shadows of this yearning for the birth of Christ-Consciousness within. As Augustine wrote, "Our hearts are ever restless till they find their rest in Thee."

Empty of thought, silently watching, untainted by time, my own pure awareness is the Virgin's Womb. So the early Christian Gnostic, Valentinus, said that the true Virgin Mother is "mystical eternal silence." So blessed Meister Eckhart wrote, "We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born."

Christ is born in the dark silent womb of my awareness as the Inward Light. The Spirit who begets this offspring of God is my Breath. The Heart is the manger, for there is no room in the busy inn of my mind.

It sometimes happens that, even when I plunge into the ocean of silence, my Heart is so filled with gratitude that I need to cry out, expressing the beauty to whom I give birth. This requires no more than a single word, what the Orthodox masters called eucharistos monologistos: one-word prayer. Please remember that this word is the effect, not the cause, of prayer. The word is not a technique or a tool, but an effulgence. Word is the "Oh," the ejaculation of silence.

In the East, the prayer-word is called a mantra, which means vehicle for the mind. We get both the English word mind and the Greek suffix -tron (as in electron) from the Sanskrit. Thus man-tra is a carrier or vehicle for the mind. In Biblical tradition, the mantra that carries the mind into the heart is the Divine Name. There is extensive teaching in Jewish Kabbalah about the practice of the divine name. Likewise, in the Orthodox classic, Philocalia, is a profound science  concerning the practice of the name in Christian meditation.

A true experience of mantra is neither repetition nor concentration. These are misconceptions that commonly ruin the innocence of prayer before it even begins! There is no instruction to mechanically repeat the mantra, or to force the mind into focusing. A true prayer-word is felt, not spoken: it is a vibration of silence. As a bird, soaring in a current of wind, only beats its wings with an occasional pulse to sustain the effortless air-born flight, so we invoke the mantra ever so softly.

Breathing out or breathing in, gently and without effort hear the Name. Let the Name arise on the breath of silence as foam arises on the crest of a wave. Touch the Name with your awareness as gently as a feather touching a bubble.

Praying the divine Name with the inhalation and exhalation folds the mind into the heart like the wings of a swan settling on a still lake. Yet there is no need to make a rhythm of the mantra, or synchronize it with breathing. Just let the name of God dissolve into your breath, and its subtle but powerful vibration will infuse every cell of your body. This is how the word of prayer becomes the Word of creation, which God spoke at the genesis of heaven and earth. The Gospel of John affirms, "In the beginning was the Word.... all things were created through Him." So the Indian Mandukya Upanishad declares, "The syllable Om is the eternal Godhead, and it is the universe. Whatever was, whatever is, whatever shall be, is the sound of Om." When the mantra vibrates in the Heart, you attune your individuality to the universal source of creation.

The ancient masters of Christian prayer experienced this epiphany through the name of Jesus. By means of the breath, Orthodox masters carried Jesus into their hearts. St. Hesychius of Jerusalem (4th Century) spoke of "breathing Jesus Christ." In the 6th Century, St. John Climacus wrote, "When the Name of Jesus is joined to your breath, then you shall know the use of silence." A later saint, Nichodimus of the Holy Mountain, simply wrote, "Let Jesus be your breath."

The original Aramaic meaning of "messiah" is not just God's anointed, but God's out-breathing. You too are anointed with Christ-Consciousness in the river of silence, by the grace of this breath. Listen to God breathe through your heart. The Spirit will reveal your prayer-word. Yet never underestimate the all-nourishing power of the name of Jesus.

IV. The Culture of Prayer

We need to confess that there is a spiritual void in our hearts. Most of today's social and economic problems arise from our denial of that void. We deny the void by trying to stuff it, filling it with alcohol and other stimulants, fast food, nerve-numbing music, instant sex, even violence. The busy-ness of work is also a way to stuff our inner void. So is shopping. Strolling through the mall, we buy not out of necessity, but despair. The national economy of consumerism thrives on spiritual emptiness.

Ironically, the solution lies right where the problem is: the empty space in the Heart. Nowhere but here will we find the antidote to our angst. If we would only take a little time each morning and evening to enter the Heart through a breath of prayer, it might be "the little leaven that raises the whole loaf."You can renew your world by renewing your Heart.

This prayer is not a flight from darkness: it embraces darkness. Not a flight from emptiness: it embraces emptiness. Prayer of the Heart accepts our inner emptiness as sacred ground. When we embrace emptiness, we become the vast space of compassion. When we embrace darkness, we hear the silence say, "Let there be light!"

Jai Guru Dev


Colleen Loehr said...

Thank you Fred for a truly moving post. I am printing it out and carrying it in my notebook so I can refer to the meditation instructions frequently. I also very much enjoyed listening to your excellent podcast on World Religions.

AKL said...

Thanks for listening, dear friend.

mark andrew said...

Thank you this is absolutely wonderful