The Way of Awakened Presence
Exploring the Foundations of Spiritual Practice
Love and Feeling, Part I
We have already explored how we can cultivate love through actively creating thoughts (with images and words) of goodwill, and also how we can integrate love into the foundation of our path through the cultivation of bodhicitta. Now we will consider the practice of expanding our hearts through the transformation of our feeling nature, bringing the fire of our presence to our emotions and desires to liberate the love that is latent within them.
The Tantric Approach
We have mentioned that there are three main approaches to spiritual development – what we might call the ‘traditional approach’ (because it is the most common), the tantric or transformational approach, and the nondual approach. The traditional approach is based on the principle of cultivating positive spiritual qualities while distancing ourselves from limiting characteristics (arrogance, ambition, attachment, desire, aversion, egotism, judgment, delusion, etc.). The tantric approach is based on the same goal of cultivating spiritual character that is also the foundation of the traditional approach. But the tantric view is also based on an understanding that the challenging elements of human nature that are traditionally considered obstructions to spirituality are transformable. They need not be rejected or simply neutralized, but can be included in our awakening by transforming them. This is because, in the tantric view, within any personality limitation are expressed spiritual qualities that can be released through certain types of practice so that they contribute to the enrichment of our spiritual presence rather than hinder its expression. Within anger are hidden clarity, discrimination and assertiveness. Within arrogance is self-confidence; within inferiority we can find humility. And from desire and attachment we can harvest love and connectedness. Each of these personality limitations must be transformed in order to release its higher potential. This transformation spiritualizes these energies, transmuting the egotism and ignorance that limit and distort them, releasing their inner nature.
One of the ways we can understand this transformation is as a process of ‘spiritualization’. This is based on the idea that any given characteristic of human nature can manifest at different levels of refinement depending on our level of realization. For instance, the quality of desire that is an aspect of human nature will manifest as self-interested motivations if conditioned by the belief in a separate self. The misunderstanding of ourselves as separate distorts and limits desire into a small, limited version of its true nature. But if we ‘spiritualize desire’, that is, if we expand our understanding of our nature and grow into a deeper sense of our interdependence with all life, then our personal desires will be transformed into universal or spiritual desire, which is love.
Two of the most essential aspects of our nature are mind and feeling. Here I am defining mind in a fairly general way to mean that aspect of our nature that concerns more abstract forms of knowing or cognition, including thoughts, ideas, reasoning, analysis, and even more abstract, formless versions of these. The common element of these characteristics of mind being abstract thought and consciousness. Feeling, on the other hand, is at the other end of a continuum from mind. The most concrete forms of feeling in human experience are sensations, or the experience of contact with the physical world through our senses. Feeling is therefore rooted more in a body and form nature, while mind is ultimately more abstract and is rooted in a formless level of our nature that deals more with categories, ideas and abstractions. There is a spectrum of intermediate forms of experience that are more of a mixture of these two realities, such as emotions and desires which, though still leaning more towards the feeling end of the spectrum, have more ‘mind’ content to them. So the way we are using the word feeling here is includes all the aspects of human nature that are more on the feeling end of the continuum, especially including sensations, vitality, emotions and desires.
When ordinary mind, normal human intelligence, is spiritualized or transformed through being illuminated by wisdom and love, it is transformed into its spiritual essence, becoming wisdom and understanding. Likewise when feeling is transformed, it becomes love, bliss and joy. So one of the most important methods for awakening love we have available to us it to work with the experience of feeling as it currently manifests within us, and to spiritualize or transform these elements of feeling – including sensation, emotion and desire – into spiritual love and caring.
There are a number of methods available to us that can contribute to the transformation of feeling and awakening the heart. We have already explored some examples of more active practices such as metta or lovingkindness. Practices like these help build a strong, loving energy within us that contributes to the transformation of personal desires into love. Another important approach is directly cultivating our state of presence – our presence of awareness, equanimity, contentment, concentration and so on – and bringing the energy and awareness of our presence to our feeling nature to transform our desires, emotions and other karmic energies at that level.
Dimensions of Experience and Chakras
An important aspect of the awakening of love is effectively cultivated through focusing our awareness in the realm of feeling and emotion. Ultimately we can focus our practice of love in any level of our being, and the effects will gradually spread to all aspects. But if we wish to cultivate certain qualities of presence more than others, it is generally more effective to focus our practice in the realm of experience more related to those qualities. For instance, wisdom is most effectively cultivated through engaging the mind, power and vitality through working with our energy body, detachment and love in our activity through practicing during action, and contentment, devotion and compassion through working with our feeling nature.
The basic dimensions of human experience that we can work with in our practice are accessible through the various chakras or centers of energy and consciousness in our subtle bodies. There are several ways we can understand the relationship between different aspects of human nature and our chakras, but we will use one that is the most meaningful and accessible to most people. The following is a general idea of the way the human personality reflects in the chakras of the average person:
Crown Intuition Soul Presence Formless Consciousness
Brow (Ajna) Higher Mental Intellect, Reason, Discrimination, Intention
Throat Lower Mental Sensory and Expressive Mind, Language,
Heart Higher Emotional Transpersonal Desires/Emotions (Empathy, Joy, Love, Contentment, Compassion, Peace)
Solar Plexus Lower Emotional Personal Desires/Emotions
Sacral Higher Physical Procreation, Sensuality
Root Lower Physical Survival, Possessiveness, Security
There is more than one way to experience and understand the nature of the chakras. There is a more energetic/physical level, a more psychophysical level, and various spiritual levels to the meanings of the chakras. The psychophysical level is the one that most people experience as the primary reality of the chakras, so that is the one we are focusing on here. This view is represented in the list above.
This way of looking at the chakras reveals four fundamental aspects of our nature – body, emotion, mind and intuition. Notice that the six lower chakras have been paired – each pair reflecting the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ aspect of each dimension of experience. Of course, the various characteristics connected to each chakra are not exclusively felt in these chakras. They can be spread throughout the body, or also arise in other chakras or centers. But the underlying principle of each dimension of experience is, in my view, more essentially connected to the corresponding chakra than to any other.
As the chakras are located in various regions of the body, we can learn to access and work with the aspects of our nature related to a particular chakra(s) by concentrating our awareness in that region. Of course, we do not have to connect to these areas of the body in order to connect to their corresponding realms of experience. But since the chakras represent primary focal points for these aspects in our body, it is often easier to access them in these regions. For instance, most people will not find that they experience the seat to their thinking processes in their legs, and focusing awareness there is often not as conducive to reflective thought. Likewise it is often not the best course to focus attention in the head to enhance access to emotions.
All four of the lower chakras are related more to feeling and can therefore be used to integrate more fully with that dimension of experience. The lower two chakras, though, are related to the heavier dimensions of our experience, and corresponding realms of our subconscious, and so can be dangerous for most people to concentrate on for any extended period because of the kind of material that is likely to be stirred up by doing so. Meditation on physical sensations or feelings – touch, breath, hearing, smell, sound, etc. – is also not generally the most direct route to accessing and transforming our emotional aspect. But since physical sensations can be reflections in the body of emotional states, they can be used as a foundation. Ultimately, though, it is then necessary to sense more deeply into the sensation (such as heaviness or tension) in order to connect to its emotional content. This is often most easily done in the realm of the solar plexus (and middle abdomen) and the heart since emotions are generally more concentrated in these areas.
Meditation on the heart center can be very effective for accessing and strengthening higher emotional qualities such as peace, contentment, love, joy, bliss, beauty and compassion. But the heart center is also a very sensitive chakra, and is also related to the physical heart and the lungs. Whenever we concentrate on a chakra, we stimulate the process of transformation of energies (elementals – thoughts, emotions, desires, memories) there and this can bring some stress not only to the chakra but also to the physical organs associated with it. Meditation on the heart will inevitably lead to stimulating emotional transformation there, which can become stressful to the heart organ, and also cause other side effects in our bodies (and minds). So it is often best to limit the amount of meditation done in the heart center, and to be mindful of potential side effects and be ready to suspend our focus there in practice if these symptoms arise. These can include over-stimulation, especially emotionally (hyper-sensitivity, etc.), heart troubles, anxiety and difficulty breathing. Of course, a certain amount of challenging symptoms will be unavoidable in our process of awakening. But there are often skillful ways to help minimize these, and avoiding over-stimulating our etheric centers or chakras is one of these.
Also the heart center represents the more spiritual side of our emotional/feeling nature, although it usually needs further awakening and purification. Though the leaning of the heart is towards the ‘lighter’ emotional feelings like love and contentment, it is also strongly associated with emotions in general, and can certainly be a focus of difficult emotions like grief or anxiety. Generally, though, much of our heavier emotions are centered more around the solar plexus. So, since it is also important to confront the shadow side of our emotional and desire life – not just strengthen the positive, the best doorway to this dimension of experience is usually the solar plexus.
And from a tantric point of view, we can work positively with our more challenging traits or shadow elements – transforming them into their higher nature. For this, especially with regards to our feeling nature, the solar plexus chakra is ideal. It brings us into touch with our feeling nature, our desires, emotions, and unresolved issues and is a core focal point of ego-centered experience, that is, experience, especially emotional experience, that arises from a strong sense of separate identity and lack. Yet it is not too deeply involved in our lower subconscious as to risk becoming overwhelmed by that side of our nature through its over-stimulation. This can happen from working with any chakra, so there is always a need for caution. But it is even more likely when working with the chakras below the solar plexus.
The Solar Plexus
In comparison to most of the other chakras, the solar plexus center is a relatively safe place to meditate. It is ‘relatively’ safe because any chakra can become over-stimulated and cause various negative side effects. It is simply less likely with the solar plexus, provided that our practice there is not overly rigorous or intense. For many people, just paying attention to the general area of the solar plexus, the area of the upper abdomen just below the ribcage and extending down to the navel, will bring up emotional feelings. If not, it is valuable to learn how to attune to the emotional dimension of experience that is accessible there, rather than confining awareness to the physical aspect of the sensations in that region. Although there is a connection between some of the physical sensations that arise here (and in other places throughout the body) and emotional states, it is valuable to learn to sense beyond the pure physical sensations to the emotional content behind them. For some people, this will happen naturally. Others will need to learn how to do this. One method is to simply feel whatever is going on there (the solar plexus) as physical sensations, and then try to sense if there are any emotional feelings ‘within’ those sensations. Is the heaviness some form of sadness? Is the agitation some form of fear or anxiety? This is a form of meditation that uses the solar plexus region of the body as a point of entry into an exploration or investigation of our emotional condition. What is here? What is below the surface? What is this all about? This process requires a gentle but concentrated exploration that patiently seeks to feel more sensitively into what is going on in our solar plexus.
The solar plexus chakra, in some ways more so than the other centers, is a point of access to our subconscious mind. By meditation on the solar plexus, it is possible to explore the emotional aspect of our personality, especially emotions and desires that are more challenging and are limiting our experience of love, peace and joy. This is a substantial dimension of human experience that is not easily understood or illuminated. The skills that we must develop to have a wholesome, integrated and wise relationship to our emotional aspect take time and practice to develop. And the amount of challenging material that most people will encounter within themselves that is in need of healing, purification and transformation is considerable. So we must be patient in approaching this work, and practice consistently over time to expand our capacity to feel and transform our emotional nature.
Although getting to know the emotional content and patterns of our feeling nature can be a valuable aspect of self-knowledge, it is not necessary to have a lot of specific information about all the details of these feelings, nor especially where they came from in our past. What is important to understand is that the various kinds of desires, aversions and related emotions that are active or more latent in our psyches, and that are obstructions to our spiritual awakening and expression, arise from essentially simple basic causes. These causes, which are interrelated, can be summarized as the belief in a separate self, the sense of lack or of incompleteness that comes with the sense of separation, and the basic desires and aversions that arise in response to that sense of lack as an attempt to remedy it. From our belief in a separate self and the corresponding sense of lack, we began (long ago) to consider the question of what is to blame for this pain. We begin to generate different ideas and stories of what has caused this pain, who or what is to blame, and if and how it may be remedied. All our beliefs about ourselves and our desires and aversions, and all the emotional reactions that are born of these, unfold in response to this essential misunderstanding. And all of these responses, save our spiritual aspiration and practice, are further misunderstandings of what the problem is and how to solve it. Our deepest need is to remember our original nature, which has always remained, unblemished, beneath the surface of the many layers of our confusion, distraction and misdirected seeking. We may name the process of remembering our original nature many things – Awakening, Self-Realization, Union with God and so on. Whatever it is called, this path is the only way to bring the confusion and suffering to an end, because it is the only way to undo the original misunderstanding.
The bridge to awakening – to remedying this misunderstanding of ourselves as being separate – is through developing the qualities of spiritual presence – awareness, love, peace, equanimity, contentment, joy, and wisdom. These qualities are both the method of awakening and its by-products. In the process of awakening, we must not only manifest these qualities, but we must also release and transform all of our past ‘creativity’ – our past elementals or energies of desire, aversion, thinking and searching – that were born out of our confusion and misunderstanding rather than from our wisdom and love. This ancient history of searching that we have all passed through has generated many energy patterns of greed, attachment, pride, confusion, anger, violence, inferiority and superiority, doubt, ambition, shame, sorrow, sensuality, guilt, escapism, fear and so on. These are all born out of the belief in a separate self and misunderstandings about how to heal that apparent ‘split’ in our being. As we cultivate greater peace and equanimity, greater contentment in simply being, greater awareness and love, these elementals or energy patterns within us will arise to be released. This process of purification and transformation will take, for the vast majority of us, a significant period of time. How long varies depending on our particular karmic situations and the strength of our practice. But some amount of time is certainly required.
Although our solar plexus represents an important point of access to the ancient patterns and stories of confusion and misdirected seeking, we do not have to understand all the details of this story. We simply need to bring the light of awakening and love to this region so that it can be transformed. In the practice described in this chapter we do this by developing the state of presence, the simple qualities of awareness, concentration, contentment and so on, and bringing these qualities to our personality to facilitate healing and transformation. We ‘integrate’ the state of presence with our feeling nature by developing the state of presence and then attuning to our feeling nature to facilitate its healing and transformation.
So we are faced with a particular challenge. It is natural for many of us, upon coming to the spiritual path, to become eager and enthusiastic and seek to forcefully charge ahead into deeper levels of wisdom, peace and love. We may be impatient, or spiritually ambition, or simply be in pain and hope for rapid healing. This can sometimes lead to overzealous practice. Even when our motivation is wholesome and sound, we still need to be aware of be patient and seek a balanced and skillful path of healing and awakening. Part of what is necessary for us to be aware of, and that many of us often do not take into account, is that we have a sizable collection of past patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that must be transformed. A more awake and inspired part of us may be ready for life-style changes or methods and intensities of practice that aren’t necessarily comfortable for the aspects of our nature that are more weighed down by greater karmic challenges. So one of the most important lessons our ‘spiritual-practitioner-self’ has to learn is to be patient and to find a style and intensity of practice that is balanced and appropriate to our overall condition. We might call this a spirit of ‘personal bodhisattvahood’. That is, just as the bodhisattva pursues a path of seeking to include others in their path of awakening instead of simply charging ahead into personal liberation and nirvanic bliss, so too each of us must learn to work with our own personalities and extend ourselves to include and integrate with the aspects of ourselves that are ‘less evolved’ than our more conscious part – the part of us that pursues a spiritual practice.
This is an important way to understand one of the significant meanings or values of meditation both on feeling and the solar plexus. Both are keys to learning to integrate more with our personalities, with our challenging issues and patterns, our personal shadow. The path of love begins, or at least must include, the art and science of including our own personality and shadow elements in our practice, bringing awareness, discipline, acceptance and healing to these areas of our being. The practice of love towards ourselves in this way not only strengthens our capacity to love through spiritual practice, but also creates a process that transforms also our suffering into compassion and wisdom.
Presence and Integration
There are two important dimensions to the process of transformation – awakening and stabilizing the state of presence, and integration the state of presence with our human personality – including our mind, emotions, desires and body. A foundation in establishing the state of presence is characterized by a basic level of awareness, concentration, equanimity, contentment and similar qualities. Not all of these qualities need be equally developed. Sometimes we may feel our presence is more devotional and at other times more nurturing. Sometimes it is characterized more by clarity or inquiry, and at other times by simple beingness and contentment. Yet what characterizes a certain foundation of presence, one that will make various kinds of practices more accessible, is a certain measure of wakefulness, concentration, peacefulness and equanimity.
Sometime the state of presence is easier to access by turning one’s attention away from one’s personality – that is, away from our emotional reactions, judgments, thinking, anxieties and regrets, and so on. Sometimes the presence of these personality patterns in us can make it difficult to sustain a state of spiritual presence, making it harder for us to remain undistracted and present, and so it is can be useful to simply seek to ignore them. For instance, in sitting meditation we may chose to work with a focus of concentration such as a mantra, visualization or just following our breath, and practice concentrating on our point of focus. Successfully practicing in this way will tend to cause the activity on the personality level – the thinking, memories, worries, etc. – to quiet down and move into the background. This can give a great sense of relief and peacefulness. In this space of greater concentration and wakefulness, we will tend to feel more balance, contentment, clarity and tranquility. Such practices help to strengthen and consolidate our state of presence by, in part, distancing us from our personality – our body, emotions, and mind.
One of the potential problems with this approach, as we pointed out earlier, is that it is not very integrated with our personality. It is based on trying to ignore our personality. This can be a very effective strategy for establishing ourselves in a deeper state of presence, but too much movement in that direction can also have certain negative side effects. It can cause the part of us that is gaining deeper and deeper access to spiritual levels of consciousness and energy to become too separated or alienated from our personality – from our current karmic condition. Sometimes this results from a desire to escape from the issues left unresolved on the personality level (what has been termed ‘spiritual bypassing’), while at other times it results from simply being unaware that other parts of us are not as quickly assimilating deeper energies and understanding.
This growing split can cause various problems such as over-stimulation of less developed aspects; resulting stress; resentment, fear or a feeling of abandonment from personality elements; and an unrealistic self-image, especially concerning what issues remain unresolved. In the later instance, unintegrated and challenging aspects of our personality can not only remain unexamined and split off, but we can remain blind as to how these aspects are working out in our lives, and may even experience the higher energies causing them to become further stimulated or exaggerated. So it is very important to balance the process of expanding our consciousness into deeper levels of spiritual presence with the process of integrating this expansion with our personalities. Integration means including our human nature in our spiritual path, which is not only necessary in a practical sense, but is also an important component in a more complete, human spirituality, a spirituality that fulfills our highest potential for wisdom, wholeness and love.
This balance is one of the meanings of what the Buddha termed ‘The Middle Path’. It is a path of balancing our spiritual idealism and aspiration with a realistic understanding of our stage of development. It is also an approach to practice that neither over-indulges nor denies, ignores or represses our human personality. One of the basic skills in this area with regard to our meditation practice is to learn to focus our attention in ways that reflect this need to work to balance and integrate our state of presence. Some of the practices we have discussed so far which tend towards strengthening presence and overcoming distraction include the practices of visualization of light around our bodies and chakras, the metta or lovingkindness practice, and even following the breath (especially when the emphasis is on developing concentration). Also, forms of mindfulness or awareness practice that emphasize awareness, equanimity and/or investigation (for instance) can tend to help develop a state of presence that is integrated in some ways with our personality, but is often not that well integrated with our emotional nature in particular. For the later, working more directly with our feelings and parts of our body more connected to feeling, such as the solar plexus, can be a particularly useful way to develop a more integrated, balanced, and ultimately, a more wise and efficient practice.
Practice – Transforming the Solar Plexus
One of the simplest ways to apply some of the ideas we have been exploring in this chapter is simply to meditate directly on the solar plexus. There are stages to this practice. The first stage is establishing concentration on the solar plexus. We may approach this in two ways. We can first establish concentration on another point of focus such as following the breath, and then turn our attention to the solar plexus. Or we may start with directly attending to the solar plexus as the focus for developing concentration. This may be more difficult for some people as there may not be much obvious or strong sensation there (at least at that moment), and so it may be easier to use another focus like the breath, a mantra or affirmation to first establish a deeper state, and then shift attention to the solar plexus.
‘Concentration on the solar plexus’ does not mean, in this context, trying to locate the chakra in that region of the body. It simply means to feel the physical body in that region. The energy of each chakra spreads out into the region of the body surrounding it. Once we have some degree of concentration in the region of the solar plexus, we can expand our state of presence by exploring different qualities of awareness. In this practice it is particularly valuable to bring forth qualities that resonate more with our emotional nature. If we bring forth a quality of cool detachment and investigation, this will not usually be the most effective way to evoke emotional feelings, because the qualities of our awareness tend to evoke those qualities in what we are concentration on. Feels of calm detachment and investigation could be an effective method if our emotions were over-stimulated and we felt swamped in feelings. But if we are seeking to evoke more awareness of, and connection to, feeling, bringing forth a sense of caring, warmth and gentleness – as if you were nurturing a child – is usually more helpful. Of course, these feelings of caring and sensitivity need to be balanced with equanimity. We do not want to get caught up in the energies and perspectives arising there. We want to find a balance between maintaining a strong presence of clarity, equanimity and spaciousness, and at the same time softening these with warmth, caring and feeling. This will help integrate the deeper levels of our presence with our solar plexus, bringing light and transformation to whatever is arising there.
One simple way we can understand the essence of this practice is that it is a form of practicing the balance and integration of awareness and feeling. Through practicing in the way we have described, awareness will gradually blossom into wisdom, and feeling will gradually transform into love. And we will realize their interdependence and unity.
For the type of practice described in this chapter to be accessible and effective, it is important that we have already established a certain foundation in ‘the state of presence’. This means that we have not only a certain level of concentration, so that we can hold a focus for an adequate period of time, but that we also have explored bringing other qualities forward in our experience such as peace, equanimity, contentment and love. If these are not yet stabilized to some extent in our meditation practice, it may be hard to proceed to the form of integration practice described in this chapter. If you find that reading or attempting to work with this practice is difficult, it may be that there is simply a need to work with a simpler practice like the awareness practice described before, or others we have or will explore, before a practice like this one becomes more accessible.
Once a certain measure of presence in meditation is established, we can engage in a practice like the one discussed in this chapter that involves the transformation of feeling. In general, spiritual practice will bring about the complete transformation of our nature, including our feelings. But the practice we are exploring in this chapter is more specifically about using our state of presence to transform feeling states (emotions and desires) in a more direct or focused fashion. A safe way to do this is to first establish a state of presence (becoming relatively concentrated, aware, accepting, peaceful, etc.), and then to bring within our awareness the area of our body where feelings most commonly arise – the area of the solar plexus, but also just the general area of the trunk or torso. Less focus will be on the legs, for instance, or the head. I recommend, as we begin to cultivate this practice, that the focus remain more open. That is, though we want to bring our feeling nature and our torso into our awareness, we can do this in a more open, spacious way where we are feeling the area of our body from around the heart down to the belly in a soft, open and inclusive fashion. This way any feelings present there, whether we are conscious of them or not, will be bathed in the awareness and energy that we are holding. Since chakras are gateways into our subconscious, among other things, there are always feelings in this area of our body, at least in our subconscious.
Our state of presence itself is a source of healing, enlightening, transforming power. And so by maintaining a basic level of presence, and then including our feelings in this field of presence, will help to bring this transformative power to the feeling aspect of our nature. As this practice deepens, we will become increasingly aware of the transformation that is happening. But conscious awareness of healing and transformation during practice is not necessary. At first we can simply rest in the faith that transformation is gradually unfolding.