By Dr. Reggie Ray, Spiritual Director at Dharma Ocean Foundation, and author of Somatic Descent: How to Unlock the Deepest Wisdom of the Body, available at Shambhala Publications.
In Buddhism, the Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” is an essential stage of spiritual development that focuses on opening the heart to develop true compassion. The Mahayana stage develops out of a deep desire to care for, to be of help to suffering beings. Through the Mahayana practices, our heart becomes infinitely more subtle and refined, ever more sensitive to the world around us and especially to other people. But how do we develop this ever more refined feeling of the heart? One of the most powerful ways is also one of the most simple: it is by breathing into our heart, more specifically, our heart center in the middle of our chest at heart level. By doing so, our heart begins to wake up dramatically and show us what it knows.
By developing the feeling of the unconditioned openness of our heart, we are providing psychological room for ourselves to experience our pain and the pain of others in an unconditioned way, without feeling that we are taking any of it into ourselves. The heart can never be tainted, injured, or compromised; because it is grounded in the unfathomable expanse of our basic nature, there is never any place for anything to land or stick. We learn here not only that we can afford to love in a completely open way, but that is the only way to truly love.
As we carry on with the compassion practices of the Mayanana, a much deeper level of our own emotional pain may start to surface. Uncomfortable as this may be, it is an extraordinarily important step in opening the heart. We begin to run into the deep unconscious predispositions, blockages, and emotional distortions that get between us and seeing and loving others. In our culture, we call them deep traumas. They’re not conscious, and therefore you can’t get at them directly; but through breathing into and opening the heart, they come to the surface, and you begin to see that you have these fundamental — but twisted and distorted — attitudes and beliefs about life. The more you see, the more you begin to wonder about them and distrust the stamp of reality they seem to have. For instance, you may always feel that you’re a victim, that that’s your role in life, and it runs through everything that you do. You find that you are attracting people who want to victimize others. You think the world is simply like that—a place that victimizes—and you are just one of the victims. But it is not how things actually are; it is the appearance of your own traumatic responses.
When these issues start coming up, they’re amazingly painful and very disturbing because they’ve been so deeply buried in our unconscious. This is where basic meditation practice is absolutely essential. Now, when you begin to run into very difficult experiences, you know what to do: you come back to your meditation, and you try to be here, try to be here, try to be here. This enables us to work with every triggered and spun-out state of mind that we could ever come up with because it brings us back into the openness and infinite peace of our body, our soma, our basic being, our heart—and we disentangle from the traumatized state.
By breathing into the heart when we are triggered, and our traumatized, compromised person comes up, we keep breathing. Eventually, we arrive at a place where we see on the other side of the second veil. In other words, we see that this tormented version of the world is not the real world; we are simultaneously in touch with the second veil and seeing the real world — beautiful, pure, and beyond distortion — on the other side. This experience of feeling our distorted, tormented self and, at exactly the same time, seeing what actually is on the other side of this traumatized version of ourselves dissolves the trauma over time. The trauma can only survive in ignorance and unconsciousness of what is real and true. In this way, we can resolve core traumas at their very root. (For some recent fascinating experimental verification of this approach, look into Coherence Therapy and its research arm, Memory Reconsolidation).
Through this practice, we begin to find that we are able to work with ourselves, and with others, in a very direct and precise way and, through that, transform our deepest obstacles. We are able to genuinely open, handle the inevitable triggering that happens when we do, and come through it to a place where we have the capacity to care about others in a more and more true and authentic way.
To learn more about Dharma Ocean and Somatic Meditation, visit www.dharmaocean.org.
About Dharma Ocean
Dharma Ocean is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.