“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder
This quote was shared in the poetry class I attend and it has stayed with me. At first I thought it was because it speaks to the treasure of being alive to feel gratitude for each moment just as it is. We always like well-worded expressions of things we agree with. So in meditation class two days later, I shared it with my students.
But upon rereading the quote, what really intrigued me is the the idea of a conscious heart. We think of consciousness as the sole province of the brain, but why can’t the heart be conscious? And what do we mean by heart in this context? Surely not the pump that keeps the blood flowing, that can be replaced by a mechanical version without any alteration, I assume, to our ability to feel deeply a sense of love, interconnection — or change the way when we suffer loss, our chest area tightens up in grief.
When we begin to meditate, our first task is to let the thinking-thinking mind take a break. In class we pictured taking our heads off and setting them respectfully to the side for our time together. (Perhaps the Queen of Hearts saying ‘Off with their heads!’ was not a cruel madwoman but a crazy wisdom sage? Hmmm.)
Dropping the center of awareness to our heart center shifts everything, doesn’t it? One of my Buddhist teachers long ago explained that bowing is not about submission or worship but allowing the heart to rise higher than the head.
That explanation made bowing possible for me. I had had some resistance, as people not raised to bow often do, especially if they spent their childhood genuflecting before an altar where objects of worship demanded singular devotion.
Years before Spirit Rock existed, I sought my meditative sense of peace and balance at gatherings of Sufi-based Dances of Universal Peace. I love to dance and sing so it was a natural for me.
It wasn’t quite a perfect fit for various reasons. The first was an altar with lovingly framed photos of Sufi masters. I was uncomfortable with any living human being put up on an altar. But friends told me it was not about worship, just gratitude and respect. Since there weren’t altars in all the different places we met over the years, it wasn’t a deal breaker in any case.
But then when I started attending Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a big altar with a Buddha statue (and later a matching Kwan Yin to balance out the gender energies, I think) and it replicated in a more pronounced way the set up of church altars of my childhood. I noticed that some people when they entered the room put their hands together and bowed to the altar. I didn’t. I was just getting to know this Buddha fellow, but I knew he said he was most definitely not a god.
Then I heard that lovely explanation of bowing, of dropping the head lower than the heart, and I found a way in to a practice that had more meaning to me. I am still not a big bower. Which means I’m in the right tradition, because some Buddhist schools go deeper, and I mean deeper, into bowing. Recently I learned there’s a whole reasoning behind the bow that has the five points — head, hands and knees — touching the ground, representing the Five Aggregates, the evidence of our earthly existence (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness.) In this way the person surrenders attachment to these ideas of self, none of which are real or permanent. I like this explanation as an even deeper release of the over-thinking that keeps us in a sense of isolation. But still I won’t be trying this out any time soon.
There are other practices that may be off-putting to Westerners in the various Buddhist traditions. One student in class said that she felt uncomfortable when she attended a meditation group where they began with chanting. Because I am a guest teacher at that group, I was able to share what was being chanted and why. It is a chant for taking refuge that is done at the beginning of retreats, and apparently some classes. We take refuge in the Buddha, both the inspiration of the historical Buddha, and our own buddha nature, our own inner wisdom that we are cultivating as we meditate. We take refuge in the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha as well as the insights, the truths, we find in nature and other wisdom teachings. We take refuge in the sangha, the group of people we are sitting with and the wider community of Buddhist practitioners and others who support us in our meditation practice and in living in ethical life-affirming ways.
Here is the chant in both Pali and English:
Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
The Three Refuges
I go to the Buddha as my refuge.
I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.
By taking refuge we are lovingly setting intention for the retreat or meeting. That explanation helped my student feel better about the chant. But she still felt uncomfortable about it being in a foreign language. Though I have chanted along on retreats and meetings, I have never committed to memory the Pali three refuge chant partly for that sense of discomfort around appropriation.
Native Americans often complain of their traditions being appropriated, so perhaps that is part of why I resist diving deep and claiming as my own words that are so deeply a part of another culture. (I seem to have no problem studying the Buddha’s teachings as they confirm my own insights, and he was just so good at organizing (all those lists!) and drawing correlations between insights. For me his teachings form an invitation to go beyond traditions and geographic or cultural boundaries.
When I was doing Sufi dancing, I sometimes felt that sense of appropriation, singing words from all the world’s spiritual traditions, some in their original languages. It was a deep unifying celebration of universal wisdom that was deeply moving and satisfying. But sometimes I was just too aware of being a girl born in Ohio and raised in California singing words of traditions not my own.
Another student said she had no problem with chanting foreign words because it took her back to her own childhood when Catholic masses were performed in Latin. She felt uplifted by setting aside the need to understand in her head and to just open her heart to a great rejoicing.
So ‘discomfort around traditions’ became a companion theme of our class this week. Students talked about their early discomfort in putting hands together, with or without a bow, when finishing meditation or with other people. Being raised to think of that as a gesture reserved for prayer made it challenging or at least unnatural to use it any other way. For most, what didn’t come naturally at first has become much easier, especially since people seem to do it much more, so it feels more natural. There’s even a hands together emoji.
One reason it is more common is because so many people take yoga, and it is explained by teachers that it means something like ‘the light in me honors the light in you’.(I had learned it meant ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ but I like the idea of light.)
One student has found that putting one hand on her heart is more deeply satisfying and truer to her own nature. The rest of us were quite taken with this. It was easy to see that if you ended a time with another person in this way it would be a lovely way to say that the interaction was meaningful, that it touched our hearts.
Another student said that she and her little grandson have their own tradition of putting their hands on their hearts and then blowing a kiss from that hand. Aw! So sweet!
When class ended, as always, I did the traditional Buddhist dedication of merit with my preferred wording of metta, lovingkindness: ‘We dedicate the merits of our practice here today for the benefit of all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be happy.’ Then we all put our hands together and bowed to each other as we do each week. And then we spontaneously put our hands on our hearts.
I bow to all of you, dear readers. Thank you for staying with me on this journey, for making it your own and for sharing it with others.