Settling in the Heart

The Beauty We Love, is one of my favorite places to visit on the web. There you will find a remarkable collection of passages and poetry of astonishing depth and insight. Earlier today I came across the following quotation from by Saint Theophan the Recluse, (1815–1894) a monk and ordained saint of the Russian Orthodox Church:

You must descend from
your head into your heart.
At present your thoughts of God
are in your head. And God Himself is,
as it were, outside you, and
so your prayer and other spiritual
exercises
remain exterior. Whilst you are still
in your head,
thoughts will not easily be subdued but
will always be whirling about, like snow
in winter or
clouds of mosquitoes in summer.

Not only is this a clear picture of our conscious intellect in operation, it also indicates a possibility of perceiving the world in an entirely new way. Usually my center of gravity is in my head, and often I am not even aware that I have a body below it. How does one move from a fragmented and self-centered point of view to a more encompassing and organic intelligence that is responsive to the subtle movements of feeling? In other words, how do you get your center of gravity down lower in the body?

I think there are two different minds in each of us–the conscious intellect on one hand, and the nervous system as a whole on the other. Both are required and necessary, but I have a tendency to trust the former over the latter. That is, I think I know everything already. But how could this slow, linear travelling and deliberating intellect be more intelligent than a brain that can regulate thousands of bodily processes in a flash of a firefly. I say “flash” because it operates with a totally different conception of time, which is an idea you find in Gurdjieff’s writing about the three centers (mind, body and feeling) and their different speeds and the energies by which they function.

It isn’t that one mind is better than the other. There just seems to be a mind and capital “M” mind. If I see that I am living just in my head (with a little “m”), which is to say, I am fragmented, it becomes a question of how to include both minds in a movement towards unity–of how to be in-between them so to speak. To borrow from Zen, I certainly can’t seek the ox when I’m sitting on top of it.

This kind of training or discipline is left entirely untaught in our schools and in popular culture as my friend Walt pointed out in his comment to this post. The observation of the existence of two minds is not new, it is to be found in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. The Zen Traditions is rife with them. For example, you find the intriguing word munen, in Japanese Zen which means intelligent action without thinking.  And another example that comes to mind are the words of a Chinese Zen Master: “If you want to see into it, see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed.”

Turning to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in the question put forth: What is Mind, Tilopa (988–1069), tantric practitioner and accomplished teacher offered these six precepts: “No thought, no reflection, no analysis, / No cultivation, no intention, / Let it settle of itself.” That doesn’t allow much room to just “think” about it, does it?

Synchronously, I went to the library earlier this evening to pick up Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by Anonymous, also known as Unknown Friend. I was encouraged to place a hold on it a few weeks ago from reading successive posts of insightful commentary about the book at One Cosmos, another favorite place of mine to visit on the web.  On page 8 of Meditations on the Tarot, I came across a key passage from Patanjali’s classic work on Yoga that describes a different practice of what is usually thought of as concentration:

Yoga citta vritti nirodha (Yoga is the suppression of the oscillations of the mental substance, Yoga Sutras 1.2)

The author, Unknown Friend then describes the importance of concentration as a practice. But he distinguishes clearly between the automatic movements of thought processes and imagination from the art of a non-identified or unattached concentration. (He uses the word disinterested). One of the main differences, he describes, is that this form of concentration is “without effort” and it appears in conditions of calm and silence and only after renouncingthe incessant hamster wheel of the intellect and the imagination. When I read that, I recognized that he was saying essentially the same thing as our other friend, Saint Theophan the Recluse. Mainly, how do we get out of the head? And specifically, how do we concentrate without effort? Unknown Friends offers this analogy:

“Look at a tightrope walker. He is evidently completely concentrated, because if he were not, he would fall to the ground. His life is at stake, and it is only perfect concentration which can save him. Yet do you believe that his thought and his imagination are occupied in what he is doing? Do you think that he reflects and that he imagines, that he calculates and that he makes plans with regard to each step he makes on the rope?”

Of course the answer is no, otherwise he would come tumbling down immediately. Therefore, the tightrope walker must somehow suppress the slow intellect and imagination and allow the intelligence of the rhythmic or nervous system to get safely across to the other side.

After many years devoted to spiritual search and practice, William Segal, the author, painter, and student of Gurdjieff and D.T. Suzuki wrote the following description about what is required in the practice of dropping the head. He explains:

There is the ability to be engaged very actively in life, but at the same time to be non-attached. One does what one does with full enthusiasm: I love to drink coffee, to paint, to dig a garden or chop wood. But can I be wholly in the act but not attached to it? And at the same time, be in relation to this “other,” this stillness, which is in me, in you, in everything. This requires discipline, which one reaches through various methods. It’s not only meditation, and it certainly isn’t through scholastic studies or through prayer of the ordinary kind, although prayer can be a cessation of thought, a giving up, a letting go and being here totally. Now, perhaps, to be that way does require a great preliminary doing; I’m not sure about that. As an old man who has been through a lot of that sort of practice, I don’t think it’s really necessary. I don’t see the sense of it now. I think if I were in the hands of a master today, he would simply tell me, “Look, mister, just be still. Watch your breathing. Get your center of gravity down here.” And then this appears. This is in you, it’s always here. All one has to do is open to it. So I don’t see the sense of all these schools and all these disciplines. I do see the sense, because one is unable, one is not capable as one is, in ordinary life.

Lastly, and somewhat related, I think, a few days ago my friend Lee posted a well written introduction and commentary on The Gurdjieff Movements, which I have been lucky enough to participate in. Encouraged by his words I went looking for a recording of Jeanne de Salzmann directing a Movements class that I had come across on the web a few years ago. I think the film explores some of the ideas I have expressed here far better than I could possibly convey in words. In my view, The Movements are a form of sacred dance, not that I know much about that subject, but I feel that they are like a kind of observatory where there is a possibility to have a more objective view of oneself. They are also a very direct way of approaching spiritual ideas and moving from mere knowledge into hopefully, an under-standing.

Well after spending this evening writing a few pages of words, I try to remember to come back to this body sitting here. I realize that ironically, I have been living in the castles of ideas again, just a small part of a much larger view, but I remember and renew an effort to try not to run from one thought to the next, as Theophane the Recluse advises, but to give each one time to settle in the heart.

PHOTOGRAPH: Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine. Credit: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times, 1982

17 responses

  1. It’s a powerful thing to remember that our instincts and the way our brains work is a very different intelligence to the lumbering thought processes we think of as intelligence. Thank you.
    Can I ask where the tightrope picture was taken?

  2. Hello Viv,

    Yes, I agree with you whole heartedly. Apologies, I forgot to add the photo credit. The photograph is by Fred R. Conrad, New York Times: Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine, New York, 1982.

  3. Thank you. I couldn’t place the city at all; no wonder as I’ve never been to New York.
    I have an interest in tightrope walking, (hence the name and header for my blog), and the analogy is a very good one that sums up walking our path.

  4. Bravo, Luke. Certainly we don’t understand this question well. And you always manage to find the best quotes… how do you do that?

    Just last night in movements, during a particularly chaotic moment, I found it helpful to just relax and not react emotionally… but accept the body, the conditions, and the gravity. There was an observing, a seeing, and sensation. But I was doing a crappy job at the very complicated movement.

    Instead of being upset, the stillness allowed the moment to be rather enjoyable and instructive.

    Of course, having a moment like that on a tightrope could be more of a problem.

    :-)

    Lee

  5. Thanks, Luke, for this piece which offers a fresh perspective on your topic to where I am largely coming from so I found your thoughts, quotes and links enriching. One area of overlap, is that I recently read “The Way of a Pilgrim” which is by an anonymous author who describes his search across Russia for a way to pray ceaselessly and finds it in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, which is also known as the Prayer of [from] the Heart. I can’t help wondering if Theophan the Recluse wrote this marvellous book or was one of the people the pilgrim met on his travels. By the way, did you know that the fascinating “Franny and Zooey” by J D Salinger has the Jesus Prayer and similar practices as it’s main theme?

    Terry

  6. Thank you Lee,

    How do I find the best quotes you ask? Well I probably read too much, and as the prophet Mohammed pointed out, a person who reads about metaphysics and so on, but doesn’t assimilate it into their lives is just as “ass bearing a load of books.” In most cases, that probably describes “me” wonderfully ;)

    The example you give here is familiar. Something Gurdjieff wrote somewhere (maybe you know the source) has been cooking in “me.” he said that “a real man (or woman) without quotation marks doesn’t react.” How far away I am from that. I react to all and everything and yet there can be moments where something appears that doesn’t take sides: for or against, which is probably related to this relaxation you describe so well.

    Many blessings,

    Luke

  7. Hello Terry,

    Thank you. The Way of the Pilgrim has been on my reading list for a long time. I know very little about The inner work of the Desert Fathers. They certainly grappled with the questions and practices I mentioned here in a very practical way. I read all of Salinger’s books many years ago but I didn’t make that connection then. It’s funny you mention him, because I just picked up a beautiful hardcover set of all his works. There’s synchronicity mysteriously at work again.

    Warm regards,

    Luke

  8. Thank you, Beth. Always a pleasure to have you here. By the way, for anyone reading this comment please visit Beth’s extraordinary blog louie, louie, that is dedicated to the work of Thomas Merton as well as his friend, Robert Lax.

    Warm regards,

    Luke

  9. I love this post. When I went to my first Buddhist retreat, I was struggling with how to “stop thinking.” Things got a lot easier when I turned that negative phrase into the positive intention to “drop into my heart.” I guess you could say I stopped thinking about how to stop thinking?

  10. Hello Nicole,

    Thank you for the comment. I came across a wonderful description of what you are speaking about recently in Alan Watts’ excellent autobiography In My Way. He writes:

    What is THE EXPERIENCE which the Oriental masters are talking about? The different ideas of it which I had in mind seemed to be approaching me like little dogs wanting to be petted, and suddenly I shouted at all of them to go away. I annihilated and bawled out every theory and concept of what should be my properly spiritual state of mind, or of what should be meant by ME. And instantly my weight vanished. I owned nothing. All hang-ups disappeared. I walked on air. Thereupon I composed a haiku: “All forgotten ans set aside–/Wind scattering leaves / Over the fields.”

    Isn’t that beautiful? For me at least, it took a long long time to sit or meditate without the goal of achieving something, like a higher state or just to escape some manifestation I dislike about myself. They say that heaven cannot be taken by force. Now I try (or not try) to sit just for the simple enjoyment of being still. I know that in the mornings when I sit or meditate, that it will most likely be the only time during the day when I am not taken by the incessant forces of my reactions to inner and outer things, even though I try.

    Warm regards,

    Luke

  11. Wow, Luke, this posting has elicited some most interesting and helpful responses. You mention synchronicity in your reply to my comment and strangely last night after having meditated earlier with a few friends and just before going to bed a thought came to me and I scribbled a note to myself:

    “Give up all concepts of what:

    – meditation
    – devotion
    – God
    – anatta
    – even life

    should be and instead be open to what is.”

    Also at the back of my mind is a statement along the lines from a meditation teacher which was along the lines that “when you sit, forget you are meditating” which may be from Sayadaw U Tejaniya – Katherine would know.

    Easier said than done though but the way to go I feel by opening the heart to what is or to settle in the heart as you say,

    Terry

  12. Hi Luke,
    You wrote above about,
    “…the incessant forces of my reactions to inner and outer things…”

    If that is something that interests you, you might check out The Undivided Self, by Theodore Dimon — oh, and ignore the subtitle, and ignore the product descriptions, in my opinion. The book is a close dissection of what occurs, physically and mentally, as we proceed with various common, everyday type of actions, and how we — our “self” — are utterly ensnared in “reaction,” and fragmented thereby. The book is descriptive, and only proscriptive in the final few pages, and very subtly; i.e., you have to be paying attention to catch it.

    Dimon is an Alexander teacher, but he barely mentions it in the book. Still, such work is all about coming to terms with reaction. He lives in New York; interesting fellow, too.

  13. Thank you, Walt. Your book recommendations are always welcome. Unfortunately, the libraries in the greater Toronto area don’t have this title. I will try to find it elsewhere.

    Warm regards,

    Luke

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