What Is Hridaya, the Spiritual Heart?
Hridaya, the Spiritual Heart, is our essential and ultimate nature. It is the ineffable dimension of our being. It is another name for atman (the Supreme Self). The Spiritual Heart is the Supreme Consciousness, the ultimate Subject, the pure “I.” It is the Witness Consciousness, that intimate observer of all our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and the entire Universe in both its inner and outer dimensions.
The Spiritual Heart is not just a spark of God—the Spiritual Heart is God.
Perceiving the Heart
The Heart can be felt when attention is directed to the chest area. The very fine and discreet vibration that is awakened there, in the absence of any thought, in the quietness of the mind, is the beginning of the Sacred Tremor, spanda. This is the most direct experience of the Spiritual Heart. When we relax, take our time, and close our eyes we allow this vibration to arise….
This subtle calling of Infinity that radiates from the chest area is the most expressive and intimate representation of the Heart. Contained within it is the communicative warmth of Truth. Without it, all teachings would only be mere “food for the mind” or lifeless information. The real essence of the Spiritual Heart lies exactly in this tremor, this very intimate vibration.
In the simplicity of this vibration lies the freshness of revelation—a revelation that comes from “inside” even when the information seems to come from “outside.” This vibration, this Sacred Tremor of the Heart, is the “spirit” of this kind of information.
Revealing the Spiritual Heart
From a practical point of view, an increasingly subtle understanding of the real significance of the Spiritual Heart will be revealed through meditation.
This process usually follows a few stages:
- At the beginning of spiritual practice, the Heart is an object of meditation (the Heart Center), a place in the chest area where the attention is focused.
- Then, it is revealed as being not just an inert point of attention, but a living reality, a sui generis inner organ of knowledge about our soul. Thus, when meditation goes deeper, we start feeling longing or love or pain or nostalgia or joy. In different spiritual traditions, this sensitivity of the Heart is known by different symbolic names, including “the Eye of the Heart,” “the mirror of the Heart,” and “the Fire of the Heart.”
- Eventually, the ultimate reality of the Heart is revealed as the very source of our awareness and of the meditation itself. It is revealed as our most intimate “I.”
Therefore, during this inner journey, the Heart successively becomes the object of knowledge, the instrument of knowledge, and, ultimately, the source of attention (the knower). This kind of meditation is a process that starts in the Heart and returns to the Heart. In a paradoxical way, the solitude and intimacy of the Heart reveal the essential Unity and Oneness of all existence. The Heart exudes a sense of Truth, a sense of Pure Existence. By using the heart as a symbol of sacredness, many religions have indeed expressed this very idea.
Usually, the heart is considered the seat of feelings and psychological activity. But this is just a relative and individual dimension of the Heart. Through detachment, we go beyond the world of individual emotions (the human soul) to attain the revelation of the true universal significance of the Heart. Unlike those relative expressions, Atman has no physical or mental dimensions as such and expresses itself essentially as a subtle tremor endowed with a power of transfiguration.
The Relationship between the Mind and the Heart
The relationship between the mind and the Heart is beautifully expressed by Theodore Darrel: “If we can speak of an essential move, then it is that which helped to transform man into a vertical spiritual being, with a voluntary stability. A being whose zeal for ideals, whose prayers, whose uplifting and pure feelings rise up to the sky like frankincense. From this being, the Supreme Being, made a temple within a Temple, a microcosm within the Macrocosm. And for this, He endowed men with a heart, in other words with a powerful point of support. He endowed men with a center of movement that can keep man close to his origins, resembling so with his first Cause, God. In the same time, it is true, man was endowed with a brain; but this brain is an element common to the whole animal kingdom and belongs to the category of secondary movement. The brain is an instrument of closed worldly thinking and a transformer for the use of the world and for man.
“It is only the heart, through its secret exhalation and inhalation, that while remaining united with God, allows man to be alive thinking. And so, thanks to this regal pulsation, man is able to maintain his divinity and act under the dominion of the Divine Creator, obeying His Laws, happy in a bliss that only he can rob himself of, when straying from the mysterious path that leads from his heart to the Universal Heart, the Divine Heart…
“Fallen to the animal level, even if he thinks himself right to call it superior, man can now only use his brain and its annexes. Thus, he feeds from cerebral thinking, directed towards the world, but he is unable to use that thinking which is alive, divine…
“He only needs to want, and his attention focused on the heart can reestablish in him, balance and help him find happiness once more… At the end of his power, he instinctively folds in over himself; having recognized his own futility, he takes refuge yet again in the heart, and timidly tries to climb down into her silent crypt. It is there that all the vain noise of the world is quieted… The world and man are one. And the Heart of man and the Heart of the World are a single heart.”
Hridaya: The Spiritual Heart Is Not Anahata Chakra
According to Tantric tradition, anahata chakra, the heart chakra, is just a level or dimension of our being and of the entire manifestation. The Spiritual Heart is more than this.
The relationship between atman and Brahman is one of unity. Jnana yogis used to express this paradoxical view by saying that Atman (the Spiritual Heart) and Brahman (the Absolute) are one. “This Atman is Brahman,” otherwise known as “Ayamatma Brahma” is one of the four Mahavakyas or great affirmations (suggestions or powerful ideas) of the Vedic and Upanishadic traditions.
The key to understanding the nature of the essential Oneness of the Universe is to see our Heart—our eternal, undying Self—as identical with Brahman. Another mahavakya appears in Chandogya Upanishad: “Tat tvam asi,” which translates that the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, is what you are. So the Spiritual Heart is not just a reflection of everything. It is the Supreme Consciousness, the essence of everything, the background of existence.
The Whole, Unity, is completely us. In Hridaya Meditation, we are all revealing the same Heart, the same Divine Self, the same Ultimate Reality. The Heart of man and the Heart of the world are a single Heart.
Where Should We Place Our Focus?
According to Ramana Maharshi, the great Advaita master, “The godly atom of the Self is to be found in the right chamber of the heart, about one finger-width from the body’s midline. “Here lies the Heart, the dynamic Spiritual Heart. It is called hridaya, is located on the right side of the chest, and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the Spiritual Path. Through meditation, you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart.”
The word hridaya is a composite of hrid and ayam, meaning “center, heart, and this.”
The Spiritual Practice Recommended by Ramana Maharshi
If we accept the existence of this area of our body as having a privileged place in revealing who we really are, then, as Ramana Maharshi noted, it follows logically that this is the main point on which our mind should focus while in concentration or during meditations.
Ramana summed up his vision in this way:
“What is essential in any sadhana (spiritual practice) is to try to bring back the running mind and fix it on one thing only. Why then should it not be brought back and fixed in Self-attention (to this feeling of ‘I’)? That alone is Self-Inquiry (atma vichara). That is all that is to be done!”
Where Is the Natural Home of the Witness Consciousness?
When we recognize the necessity of being aware of ourselves—of maintaining a witness consciousness—as a fundamental spiritual attitude, it is best to center ourselves in the region of the middle of the chest. This is an important action, and it will help us to understand clearly that the essential awareness of our own being is not a function of reason. It is not the mind or a product of the mind, nor is it ordinary thoughts, but it is a radiance emanating from the region of the chest.
Placing the seat of witness consciousness in the brain is a sterile attitude. The ultimate Witness is not the mind or a particular thought. We can imagine in our mind a witness of our thoughts and then we can easily imagine another witness of that first witness of the thoughts, and then a witness of the witness of the witness, and so on….
The mind can play the game of witnessing ad infinitum. Only if we place the witness consciousness in the Spiritual Heart, in that place of deep intimacy from which arises the intuition of who we are, can we then realize the presence of the ultimate Witness. This issue is not to be argued theoretically by the mind. This is revealed in meditation.
The Limitlessness of the Spiritual Heart Is Absolute
The Heart is limitless and, because it has no form, it can contain totality.
It is important to note that the rapport of something infinite, atman, the Divine Self, to something finite, such as the physical body or a point on or within the physical body, can only be a relative undertaking. Sages like Ramana Maharshi affirm that the awareness of the Supreme Infinite cannot be localized at a certain place in the body and that in the state of divine expansion, of diving into the divine ocean of Consciousness, we can no longer speak of a head, arms, body, and other areas.
However, Ramana says that in the moment of returning to the consciousness of the physical body, when we regain awareness of our physical body, a memory endures of that state and it appears to be connected to the area of the physical heart, in the middle of the chest, slightly to the right. That Divine Infinity can easily be found again by centering in the region of the heart. Christian mystics also speak of lowering the mind to the Heart.
The Heart Is the Object, Means, and Subject of Meditation
In Hridaya Yoga, the object of meditation is not the breath or bodily sensations, feelings, or mind, but the Spiritual Heart, atman, the Divine Self.
However, as the meditation goes deeper, the Spiritual Heart will cease to be simply an object of meditation. We will become aware that it is also the Subject, the Witness Consciousness, the very profound and intimate Self, the very source of our meditation process. So we will understand that the Spiritual Heart is much more than a concentration or meditation object.
This will help us directly know another approach to meditation and spirituality.
The Heart will become at the same time the source of attention (the knower), the instrument of knowledge, and the object of knowledge. This kind of meditation is a process that starts from the Heart and returns to the Heart.
The Rapport between the Mind and the Heart: Conquer or Surrender?
“Great ideas come from the Heart.” –Blaise Pascal
The Divine Reality of Existence, the present, the “I am,” resides in the Heart. The cerebral person is a limited person.
Generally, the activity of the mind is governed by intentionality and implicitly is a movement governed by the ego. It wants to grab information and to “conquer,” to keep control over the objects of activity and the process of self-knowing. When we withdraw the senses (pratyahara) and center ourselves in the chest area, looking for the deepest aspects of our being, we start to search the “interior” to the exclusion of the “exterior.”
In this way, we pass from the usual “conquering” attitude of the mind to a receptive, contemplative disposition. It is a kind of surrender, which implies lucidity, discernment, vigilance.
There we can still speak about an action, but it is of a completely different nature. It is more like a radiance of pure Presence, not an act of the ego.
The last duality that exists in meditation: the void in the mind and the plenitude of the wholeness in the Heart!
How Can We Build a Subtle Organ of Perception?
In this phase, the attention does not only derive from the mind. The attention becomes the expression of a superior cognitive organ, an organ of non-mediate knowledge (jnana) which brings the intimate intuition of what we really are. This new organ of knowledge is formed through the functional identity between the attributes of the mind and those of the Heart.
The attention of the Heart-mind implies more an attitude of waiting, an orientation toward a state beyond the rational mind. A domain of peace, of sacredness.
Consequently, the premise of the state of surrender is created by an active, superior attention in which the Spiritual Heart is, as we already mentioned, at the same time the source of knowledge (the Knower), the means of attention (this subtle organ of Spiritual Knowledge), and the target of our attention (the object of the attention).
So we can speak about an attention that emanates from the Heart and ends up in the Heart. But in this journey from our individual Heart to God’s Heart, in this Knowledge, we realize that everything is encompassed: the whole Creation, Brahman, the Absolute itself.
It follows that the real Knowledge resides in the Heart, in the very core of our being. The revelation of the Spiritual Heart leads this wisdom to completely penetrate our being and thus it illuminates us with its brightness.
“The ignorant one thinks that the Self can be known by the intellect, but the enlightened one knows that he is beyond the duality of the knower and the known.” –Kena Upanishad
The Unity between Bhakti, Love and Jnana, Non-Mediate Knowledge
The best way of keeping the awareness of the Spiritual Heart is to love. That’s why jnana, direct knowledge, is so related to bhakti, which means love, devotion, zeal, fervor, heartiness, ardor, adoration, ecstasy.
“God is born in the Heart and the Heart is born in God,” as the great Christian mystic Meister Ekhart affirmed. Having reached insight into the journey of the soul and the Supreme Truth through Christian prayer and contemplation, he was one of the most influential fourteenth-century Neoplatonists who introduced many novel concepts to Christian metaphysics. His manner of expression was simple yet abstract, and bold enough to get him tried for heresy during the Inquisition, although he died before a verdict was issued. This vision leads us to understand that there is nothing to be searched in the interior or exterior. God is already there.
The Bliss of Pure Existence, sat, is expanding the soul and the understanding. The Divine Reality is unveiling a mystery of love-awareness.
“The Intellect of the Heart” in Christian Spiritual Practice
In Christian spirituality, and for the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Heart is not simply a physical organ but the spiritual center of a human being, our deepest and truest self, or the inner shrine. It is entered only through the sacrifice of individuality, in which the mystery of the union between human and Divine is consummated.
In the vision of the Desert Fathers, there is an organ of contemplation known as “the eye of the Heart” or “the intellect of the Heart,” nous. This nous dwells “in the depths of the soul,” representing the innermost aspect of the Heart.
For them, nous is a human being’s highest faculty, through which we know God or our inner essence by means of spiritual perception or direct apprehension. (St. Isaac the Syrian used the term “simple cognition.”)
“The intellect of the Heart” does not function by formulating abstract concepts and does not reach conclusion through deductive reason. It understands Divine Truth by means of immediate experience or intuition.
The Importance of “Guarding of the Heart”
For the Fathers of the Desert, nipsis, or the “guarding of the Heart,” watchfulness, represents spiritual sobriety, alertness, and vigilance. It signifies an attitude of attentiveness in which we are almost continuously aware of the Heart.
The main manual of their tradition is The Philokalia (a collection of texts on the disciplines of Christian prayer and a life dedicated to God), which means “Love of the Beautiful.” The Beautiful is understood as the transcendent source of life and the revelation of Truth.
The Greek title for The Philokalia is The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers, i.e., of the Fathers who practiced the virtue of watchfulness. This shows how central they held the awareness of the Spiritual Heart.
The same attitude is promoted in Hridaya Yoga.
The Eye of the Heart
The expression “the eye of the Heart” appears also in the Sufi tradition. Here it represents the opening toward the Divine, the eye through which the depth of the Heart can be seen, and through which the Heart can know the Supreme Divine Reality. According to this description, we can imagine this eye of the Heart having two faces:
- One is oriented toward the “interior,” through which the meditator can “see” the infinite depths of the Heart;
- The other is oriented toward the “exterior.” This is the eye through which the Supreme Subject, the Inner Knower, God, or the witness consciousness is witnessing the world.
For these traditions, this place, deep in the Heart, is the symbol of the point of contact with God.
Cultivating the Heart Is a Fundamental Spiritual Need
The great Sufi mystic and poet Rumi wrote:
“There is a candle in your heart,
ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul,
ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?
You feel the separation
from the Beloved.
Invite Him to fill you up,
embrace the fire.
Remind those who tell you otherwise,
comes to you of its own accord,
and the yearning for it
cannot be learned in any school.”
In the same manner in which the mind is trained in school through the process of education, our Heart (seen here as the organ of spiritual perception) needs to be cultivated. In the domain of the Heart, most of us are somewhat or entirely illiterate.
Of course, the process is different because its attributes are different. Art and contemplation are ways to cultivate the Spiritual Heart, but the best method is through meditation and Love.
Any authentic spiritual school should induce or even “teach” the sacred principles of the kingdom of the Heart: pure Love, yearning, fervor, the Sacred Tremor, the aspiration for God.
A Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreat can be compared in some aspects with an initiation ritual. The role of the most important rituals in ancient traditions was to eliminate the discursive and reflective tendency of the mind and to dissolve the force of identification, which keeps alive the citadel of individuality.
In such moments, a complete silence of the mind was necessary before entering the sanctuary (which corresponds with the secret chamber of the Heart). It was thus that the initiates were able to rise above their egos, their personal existence, toward that which they called the Being of Being, toward the Supreme Essence.
The Difference between Intuition and Reflection
The Heart is a subtle organ of wisdom, of that so-called “transcendental intellect.” It has been said that: “The rational mind cannot understand the reasoning of the Heart.” Because it cannot be understood by the rational mind, the role of the Spiritual Heart is ignored and even denied. In refuting spiritual intuition, which comes from the Heart, to focus only on reason, the illuminating role of the Heart is abolished. Rational thinking is called reflection because it is, in fact, a reflection of the energy of the Heart. Because of this, ancient traditions held reason, rationality, to be just a capacity for mediated, reflected knowledge.
The mind knows through a process of acquiring information. The Heart knows through surrender, trust, and joy.
The knowledge of the mind is sequential; the knowledge of the Heart is instantaneous and undivided. It is revelation. It is holistic. It reveals advaita, non-duality.
The “Luminaries” of Consciousness
Analogies have been made between the Sun and the Moon, on the one hand, and the Heart and the mind on the other. In Hinduism, the mind is named chandra mandala, “the circle of the moon,” and the Heart is named surya mandala, “the circle of the Sun.”
Even the corresponding traits of these two organs are symbolic in and of themselves: radiant presence in the Heart and reflection, discursive intelligence in the mind. The mind is, in fact, just a tool for adapting ourselves in the world.
Intuition, which comes from the Heart, is divine, because it represents a direct participation in the universal spiritual wisdom.
The Heart, being the Spiritual Sun, is an image of the Center. It is considered the place of revelation, the vital center of being, and the source of the deepest intuition. The Heart is a “theophanic” organ (theophany is a visible manifestation of God). It is a sacred symbol par excellence.
The mind is thus an imperfect instrument with an inherent inability to understand and realize atman.
“The truth of Self cannot come from him who has not realized that he is the Self. The intellect cannot reveal the Self beyond its duality of subject and object.” –Ramana Maharshi
The Energy Source of Individuality
According to Ramana Maharshi (based on the Advaita Vedanta tradition), this primordial subtle energy ascends from the Heart to the mind, through an energy channel (known as atma nadi). Here it feeds the process of thinking and implicitly the individual consciousness with all its attachments and hopes, illusions and suffering. That’s why the mind is seen as a Moon which simply reflects the light of the heart’s Sun.
Coming back to the Heart, all the vain noise of the world is quieted….
The Heart is a sanctuary of silence.
There, in the most sacred intimacy and solitude of the “cave of the Heart”, the moods of individuality fade away and the consciousness of unity is revealed. There, the world and man are one. So, in a paradoxical way, the solitude and intimacy of the Heart reveals the essential Unity of all existence.
Hridaya Yoga and the Spiritual Heart
Hridaya Yoga and the Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreat start from the premise that traditional ideas about the Spiritual Heart can and should be applied in very concrete and practical ways. The Heart, seen as an organ of direct knowledge, can be constantly trained in order to increase its purity and capacity to love, witness, and surrender… In this way, the borders of individuality fade away and, through the recognition of its fundamental attribute as a gateway to Infinity, the Supreme Self is revealed.