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The Significance of the Heart in the Field of Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken during Sunday night satsang on January 24, 1982)

One of the seekers has made a request that I speak on the significance of the heart in the field of spiritual living. ‘Heart' is a word which has been used with many meanings and is often referred to in religious scriptures and spiritual instructions.

We are many a time told that the heart is the centre of the person, and this is a magnificent theme delineated in some of the Upanishads such as the Chhandogya and the Taittiriya, wherein they speak of what is known as the hridaya guha, or the cave of the heart, in which resides the Supreme Reality. “Go into the cave and you find the treasures of heaven,” says the Chhandogya Upanishad, in its eighth chapter. There is a gorgeous description with thrilling details where it tells us about the glories that are enshrined in our own hearts, and that the human being is not as he appears on the surface. To repeat the words as they occur in the Chhandogya Upanishad: “The sun and the moon and the stars, the very space and the clouds and the lightning and the rains—all this miracle of creation is within the heart of man. When it rains outside, it rains inside also, and the stellar regions shine resplendently within the heart of man.”

Here is the key to the door of the secrets of life, and the secret is man himself. ‘Heart' is a very enigmatic word. It escapes definition because of its variegated connotations. There is a heart which doctors operate upon and which physicians transplant, there is a heart which is deeply hurt when a person is insulted, there is a heart which is elated when a person is praised, and there is a heart wherein resides the centrality of the universe.

By the word ‘heart', we mean the centre of anything. The core, the substance, the vitality, the very being of anything whatsoever is the heart of that thing. Now, this heart, this centre, this core, this vitality, this substantiality, or the being of anything, is incapable of description. When the heart speaks, everything is hushed. The voice of the heart is often regarded as the final word. All arguments cease to function when the heart speaks, which means to say, Reality operates when the heart begins to function and express itself in any manner. We are also told that meditation on the heart is one of the principal methods prescribed. People gaze inwardly into their own feelings and conceive of a lotus, a resplendent rising sun of golden hue, and so on, in their meditations.

It is also told to us in the Upanishads that the heart is the centre of the mind; it is the abode of all psychological operations. The mind goes to sleep in the heart. In meditation, in swoon, in death, in sleep, the mind is in the heart. In dream, the mind is said to be operating somewhere near the throat. In the waking state, it is in the brain. The mind is active in the brain cells, and so we are predominantly intellectual in our outlook during our waking hours. We are translucently conscious when we are dreaming, and totally unconscious in the state of deep sleep. The mind subsides and enters its own nest, like a bird going back to its house at the close of the day, winding up all its activities.

But there is another significance in what we mean by ‘the heart' as far as spiritual seekers are concerned. The heart of the matter is the root thereof, which is incapable of objectivity or externalisation; the heart cannot become other than what it is. The heart is the person. It is identified with the very soul of the individual. When we speak of the spiritual significance behind the word ‘heart', we have to go a little deeper than the mere physiological concept of it.

The pranamaya kosha, or the vital sheath which is inside the physical sheath, is the cave as far as the physical body is concerned. Similarly, the mind is the cave as far as the vital sheath is concerned because the mind is internal to, and more pervasive than, the vital sheath. The intellect is the cave even to the mind, because it is interior to the mind. And the soul is the deepest because it is interior to the intellect. The soul is the deepest essence of everything. It is the cave even of the intellect. It is prior to the operation of the intellect, and therefore man cannot think the heart, and cannot conceive the soul. Meditation on the heart, therefore, becomes an unintelligible difficulty inasmuch as it cannot become an object of intellectual activity. If meditation is a thinking process or even an intellectual operation, such a meditation cannot touch the soul, because the soul is not an object of the intellect. It is not something that the mind can think because it is prior to the mind's thinking and the intellectual understanding of man.

What we call the heart is that which is prior to everything that we can imagine in our minds or understand through our intellects. The very presupposition of our very existence is our heart, and there is a heart in everything. There is a core within even an atom. There is a substance of this heart even in the minutest of creatures, such as an ant. There is a status maintained by each person, each individual, each entity in the world, a status which is capable of getting identified with what we call the heart. Even an ant has a status of its own. It is not an object to itself; it is a subject.

Now we come to the other point: The heart is what we call the subject, incapable of description, again. That which we call the true subject is that which is indefinable by the characteristics of any external object. The heart cannot be defined because it is the subject. Every definition is a description of something in terms of other things, but the heart has no other thing. The subject cannot be compared to any other thing and, therefore, it cannot be described by comparing it with any other thing. There is no other thing for the heart, the centre, or the subject. The true subject is that which defies every kind of definition, just as you cannot define your true status. The word ‘status' is a definition by itself. What you are is a definition of what you are, and nothing else can be said about it. If I say ‘I am', there ends the matter.

This pure subjectivity, which is the heart of things, is present in every entity in the cosmos, and if the heart is the centre of anything and everything, this heart has to be present everywhere. Everything has a heart, a core. Even a molecule has a heart, a core, a neutron, a proton, a substance, an indescribable rebellious status which it maintains. It is rebellious because it is intolerant of any kind of interference from external definitions or characterisations. You do not wish to be compared with anybody else. You are what you are. To describe you in terms of somebody else would not be a credit given to you. Is there not something in you which is there without its being something in terms of somebody else? Are you going to describe yourself merely as a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a boss, an officer, a president? Is this the way you want to describe yourself? Or are you something independent of these descriptions? When you are not a father, not a mother, not a brother, not a sister, not this, not that, are you not something nevertheless? This something that remains at the base, even when it is divested of every association, characterisation and relationship, is what you are. That is the heart, which is supposed to be the object of meditation, especially when we are told about it in such scriptures as the Chhandogya and Taittiriya Upanishads.

If this status of true subjectivity is the character of everything everywhere, the whole world is filled with heart. There is nothing else in this world. It is only feeling, throbbing, pulsating, and demanding recognition in the way in which it has to be recognised, and not by way of a description in terms of something other than what it is.

Meditation on such a heart is, therefore, difficult, because every meditation is a character-isation; it is a definition; it is a description; it is a conception that we are foisting upon a notional ideal we call the object of our meditation. But the heart defies such characterisation. We cannot think our own selves because we are prior to the very act of thinking ourselves.

If such is the heart that we are, and the subject that everyone is, and if everyone is only this subject, everyone is the heart. Everyone is a centre. Naturally, the centre is everywhere. This centre, this heart, this subject is, and has to be, everywhere, because no one would feel happy by being compared to somebody else. To be compared, to be described in terms of something else would be to reduce that something to a satellite of that with which it is compared, and in relation to which it is described. And we are not satellites of anybody. We are not slaves, servants. Nobody wishes to be a servant. To belong to somebody else is ignominy, and no heart, no centre, no subject would tolerate that.

There is a struggle on the part of every centre to maintain itself, and every organisation struggles in this manner. It may be an astronomical, stellar organisation like a solar system. Or it may be an invisible organisation, like an atom. It may be a human organisation. It may be an anatomical or physiological organisation of the body. It may be a notional, ideological organisation. Whatever it is, it stands by itself on its own legs. It does not belong to somebody else. Nothing can belong to anything else and yet maintain its status. To belong to someone else and be described in terms of something else or someone else is to lose one's status. One would not like to enter into, or reduce oneself to, this circumstance. Such is the nature of man, of all things, of nature in its entirety, of all creation.

This centre, which is the heart of everything, is, therefore, incapable of externalisation by way of description and definition. Therefore, it is the God of the universe. God is the centre of all things. When we say God resides in the heart of things, we have to understand what actually we mean. How are we to conceive the meaning of this statement that God resides in the heart of all beings? We often think, like children, that God resides in the heart, which we imagine as located within our physical sheath: God is inside me. This ‘Me', with a capital M is, again, incapable of comparison with any other ‘I's or ‘me's. It is a single ‘I', and therefore, because of the fact that it is a true subject which cannot brook any description, it stands as the central theme of all spiritual gravitational activity in the form of meditation or spiritual pursuit.

All life is a movement towards this centre. Every step or stage in the process of the evolution of things is a tendency of converging towards this centre which is, and which has to be, everywhere. Such a centre is the object of our meditation; that is the heart. It is in us, no doubt, and when we speak about meditation on the heart as the centre of all things, we are not concentrating our mind within this physical body merely, because God, the omnipresent kingdom of heaven, cannot be contained within a six-foot physical frame. This is something well known to everybody.

Thus, there is a larger meaning in this great Upanishadic declaration that whatever is outside is also inside. What is in the Brahmanda is in the Pindanda, what is in the macrocosm is in the microcosm, and vice versa.

We are often landed in an enigma, a dilemma, a quandary, a difficulty when we collect our thoughts in meditation, because objects impinge on our senses. They resist our attempt to concentrate on our true subjectivity, which is the heart, which is the true cave. It is called the cave because it is hiddenly present behind all phenomenal appearance. It is that which gives meaning to phenomena. It is the reality behind the appearance. It is inside the appearance; therefore, it is the cave. To refer to the analogy I gave earlier, it is the innermost of the five sheaths, or the koshas, as they are called: annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya, corresponding to which there are the planes of existence, which are also said to be seven in number. The different lokas, or planes of existence, are called Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Tapoloka and Satyaloka.

All sacred things are counted in sevens. There are seven stages of knowledge, seven stages in everything. The eighth thing behind the seven stages, or bordering upon the edge of the seventh, is the core, the centre, the true subject. We have lost that subjectivity in us by entangling ourselves in objectivity. We are objects, and no more subjects. There is no use merely parading our subjectivity and announcing with pride that we are independent persons. No more are we independent when we have converted ourselves into objects which are visible to the senses. This body is an object of sense perception, and if the body is the ‘I' or the ‘me', it is no more a subject. So every person, every thing, has become an object, which means to say everyone has entered into phenomena and lost the true Reality that is behind the phenomena.

Meditation is the reversal of the phenomenal process into the true subjectivity that is the cave behind phenomena—the heart of things. So, when the heart is spoken of, it is not my heart or your heart that we are referring to, as there is no such thing as that. There is no such thing as my subjectivity and your subjectivity, or my heart and your heart, my consciousness and your consciousness, my Atman and your Atman. It is a basic expanse which comprehends the imagined subjectivities in a transcendent subjectivity which philosophers sometimes refer to as the transcendental unity of apperception. It is not perception but apperception, which is cognition of cognition itself, not cognition of an object. This is sometimes called anuvyavasaya in the language of the Nyaya philosophy. It is knowledge not of an object, but knowledge of knowledge itself.

Such is a requirement in the deeper reaches of meditation. We are involved individuals, no more spiritual sparks, when we are unable to conceive this true subjectivity in us and take our objectivity for our true reality. It is not enough if we merely struggle to get over this shackle of entanglement in the physical body. We have also to free ourselves from the bondage of involvement in mental operations, which is a greater difficulty. That is the real bondage, not the body merely. The body is shed, and it has to be shed one day or the other, yet bondage does not cease. Our bondage does not end with the shedding of the body because bondage is not the physical encasement, but the way in which we think. And what is the way in which we are thinking? You know very well; everyone knows what everyone is thinking.

We think that we are one among many things, which is not the truth of the matter. We are not one among the many. There is something in us, as I mentioned a few minutes before, which defies comparison, and therefore, we cannot compare ourselves with somebody else and say that we are one in a large crowd of individuals. A subject that we are is not one in a large crowd of noises made by the senses. It is an independence, incapable of conception and description—kaivalya, true independence, aloneness, which is not a physical, geographical aloneness in our own rooms, but the psychological, or rather, the spiritual aloneness where we stand above even the limitations imposed upon us by the dimension of space and the movement of time.

The meditation on the heart referred to in the Taittiriya and the Chhandogya Upanishads is, therefore, the concentration of consciousness on itself, because it is the deepest cave. Pure chaitanya, or consciousness, is the true subject behind every person and every thing, and even the so-called material objectivity gets reduced into this pure consciousness when it is investigated to its core. When matter is analysed threadbare into its ultimate composition, it vanishes into mere space-time. And what is space-time if it is not merely a consciousness of being? Hence, matter vanishes into a pure consciousness of being when it is dematerialised by an analysis of its internal components. Thus goes man with his body, and thus goes the whole universe with its contents. Something remains, which is the heart, the true ‘I', the creator, the sustainer and the transformer of all things, the God of religions.

This is the Absolute. It is the Absolute because it is not relative. The word ‘absolute' is used to indicate something which cannot be compared to something else. Anything that is capable of comparison with something else is not absolute, it is relative. It is relative because it is related to something else. Every description is a relation of one thing to another thing; therefore, anything that is capable of being described or characterised is not absolute. This is the reason why sometimes people say God is nirguna; the Absolute is without characteristics, without qualities. People imagine and tell us that the Supreme Being has no qualities, no attributes, because qualities and attributes are nothing but descriptions in terms of something else. This will not obtain in the Absolute. Therefore, it is said that the Absolute has no qualities although everything that we can consider as a quality is involved in it, just as every statue can be found inside a block of stone. Though we cannot see any statue inside the block of stone, yet we can carve out any statue from it.

So is the Absolute. Every little formation can be found in it, yet nothing is there. All things are there, and yet nothing is there. It is this centre because it is prior to the notion of there being such a thing as a world outside. The thinker of the world is prior to the world. Ideas come first, actions and deeds come later on. In order for the world to be there, there must be a consciousness that the world is there. This consciousness is prior to the very fact of there being such a thing called the world and, therefore, the world is not the important thing. The consciousness of the world is important.

In this world, everything is conditioned by consciousness. If you are rich, it only means that you are conscious that you are rich. A richness minus consciousness of being rich is no richness. If you are rich and not conscious that you are rich, you cannot be called rich. If you are anything and you are not conscious that you are that thing, you are not that thing. If you have a lot of money with you but you are not conscious that you have money, you have no money. Everything is consciousness. If you subtract consciousness from anything, you will find it is a nihil, a zero. Thus, the very existence of things is consciousness. This is so because minus that, nothing can be even imagined in the mind. Not even the whole creation can exist minus the consciousness of creation.

Hence, God is first, and creation is afterwards. And what does man think? He says he is first, and everything else is afterwards. This is the topsy-turvy outlook of man where the last thing in creation, which he is, regards itself as the first thing. The last effect imagines that it is the first cause. Man thinks that he is the ruler of all things, that he is the maker of everybody. He is the king, the emperor, the ruler, the dictator, and so on. “Such fantastic tricks he plays, as make the angels weep,” says the poet. Angels are weeping at man. Oh, what a creation has been made by God! Like an ape he walks, and plays such fantastic tricks. Yet, he carries within his heart something which is very valuable.

What does he carry? He carries nothing substantial, nothing of this world. No man, no thing, carries anything other than himself or itself. I carry myself, you carry yourself, everything carries itself, and nobody can carry anything other than one's own self. So I am my property, you are your property, and every thing is its own property. Nobody can have anything else other than what one is, because the largest, the greatest, and the most valuable property is Pure Being itself. This is why there is a struggle for existence, finally, and every struggle is a struggle for existence. Every effort, every adventure, every project, every activity, everything that anyone does in any manner is a struggle to exist somehow, finally. Existence is the supreme value, and minus consciousness, existence is not. Therefore, consciousness, existence, is the supreme value. That is the heart of things. Here is the freedom of the individual, the freedom of all beings; and freedom is bliss.

Thus, existence and consciousness and freedom go together, and if freedom is bliss, Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss is the heart of things. On this may we meditate.