At some point during their journey, most spiritual seekers encounter the topic of the „heart“. It is about opening the heart, being more in the heart, remaining rooted in the heart, seeing with the eyes of the heart, following the heart, discovering the wisdom of the heart and/or speaking from the heart. The heart is a very special treasure and most of us love it. They also love to dive into the heart and associate certain feelings and states with it.
The heart is considered as the place of feelings, but also as a place of wisdom. Love lives here and for many so does stillness. While few know what exactly the heart is, most agree that it does have little to do with the physical heart – although neither does it seem to be completely disconnected from it.
Esoterically what we call (spiritual) heart corresponds with the heart chakra, a subtle energy center located in the middle of the chest. The heart chakra is multi-layered as are all chakras. In its very center it is still and clear. All around there are the murky layers where we find emotions, identifications, lacks of clarity etc. This means that the apparent contradiction between those who speak of the heart as a place of feelings and emotions and others, who consider it a place of stillness, can already be resolved at an esoteric level: it simply concerns different aspects of the heart.
The heart and the buddhi
What is the heart in terms of Advaita Vedanta? Does it have a place – and if so, is it considered valuable at all on the path of knowledge? After all, it seems as if neither feelings nor stillness are of much interest on this path.
First of all we ought to clarify what ‘feelings’ and ‘stillness’ are. A feeling in terms of Vedanta is a sort of thought that is formed as a reaction to objects. Love for a person, for example, is a feeling. Happiness too can be a reaction to a certain situation and is then considered a feeling. Yet there is also love without object or happiness without object. One would not call those feelings. They completely transcend the mind and with it also the buddhi.
The word ‘heart’ occurs in the Vedanta-scriptures and refers exclusively to the innermost crystal-clear space of stillness of the heart. In Vedanta, the heart is to be equated with the buddhi, the higher mind. In this sense, the Buddhi is the voice of the heart 1. Even so, this voice of the heart has nothing to do with intuition, as some may think. Intuition is not reliable, as one never knows whether it is based on imagination. The buddhi is of quite a different caliber. It is crystal-clear and incorruptible, it is never fooled, unambiguously distinguishes between what is true and what is not. Its most important instrument is logic, and even if sometimes it prefers different instruments, this too is based on the logical conclusion that this is the right thing to do in this specific situation.
At first glance it may seem odd to consider a function of the mind as ‘heart’, even if it is supposed to refer to the higher mind. We do not usually connect the mind with stillness, which is mostly because in the West no distinction is made between the four different functions of the mind. There are definitely functions that are anything but quiet. Only with the buddhi holding the reins, instead of the other functions of the mind, stillness has a chance. What exactly is stillness? In the Vedanta, stillness is the natural state of the buddhi. Nevertheless, this stillness is only accessible to us under certain circumstances, namely if no identification gets in the way.
Looking into the eyes of an infant, you can usually still see all the way down to the very ground of the pure crystal-clear stillness of the buddhi, because in the mind of a baby there are no identifications yet. In terms of the above esoteric image of the heart chakra, this means that – with every occurring identification – one’s identity shifts from the innermost space of the buddhi toward the external murky layer surrounding it. This, by the way, is an inevitable event in the course of our socialization. It has to be so, because stillness or buddhi are not synonymous with enlightenment. But for several reasons the buddhi is the instrument facilitating enlightenment.
Seeking true understanding
As it is such an incredibly important function, I have already mentioned the buddhi in several essays. However, it never seemed as if it were to be equated with the stillness of the heart. It was rather described as the ability to understand, discern, learn and reflect. The buddhi inquires, questions and analyses and it operates according to the laws of logic. Usually, one wouldn’t associate any of the above directly with the heart.
But all this is conditional for resolving lacks of clarity, inconsistencies and identifications. And only without those, the pure heart space or the natural state of the buddhi is revealed. For that reason the incompatibility of heart and thought, proclaimed by many Western seekers, is not an issue at all in Advaita Vedanta. Quite to the contrary: the mental abilities inherent to the buddhi open the way into the heart.
Now, some may argue that they find this way even without buddhi, merely through silent meditation, heart meditation or other rituals. This certainly is the case. For Advaita Vedanta, however, this still heart space is not the ultimate goal, because Vedanta is not about achieving transient states. Even though the abilities of the buddhi are deployed, owing to which the space of stillness opens up from time to time, both serve what transcends buddhi, heart and stillness and what all seeking is ultimately about: realizing the true Self, which is identical with the Self of all. This realization is not a state that comes and goes, but the knowing oneness with what is already anyway and which is hence imperishable.
Even though for Advaita Vedanta stillness is not an ultimate goal, it nevertheless has a value in the sense of the purified mind. If the mind is free of identifications, misunderstandings and lacks of clarity, it is still automatically. Hence Advaita Vedanta aims at a purified mind; it does not aim at stillness. This purified mind is actively worked for; in fact on the path of knowledge the seeker is primarily busy clearing away all identifications, misunderstandings and lacks of clarity about the true nature of man, god and world.
If, on the other hand, the focus is on achieving stillness, one will be satisfied with mere states of stillness, which are pleasant, but have to pass over and over again and then need to be produced once more. Moreover, those who want to feel satisfied with mere states of stillness are likely to experience an unpleasant surprise sooner or later: while for some time stillness may go on deepening and pleasant states may increase, at a certain point the whole process turns around. All of a sudden, or bit by bit, the initial stillness turns into a virtually depressive dejection, which overlays the beauty experienced thus far.
This is not always the case, but if it happens, it is because with the fixation on stillness, the buddhi loses its job, which consists of removing lacks of clarity. If there are no lacks of clarity or all lacks of clarity are removed, the buddhi is quiet anyway. However, as long as lacks of clarity exist, it will urge to clear them. If, instead, it is expected to keep still, it will lead to increasing discontent.
Let’s imagine a group of seekers who have meditated diligently for all their lives, or a group of seekers who, in meditations, exercises and rituals have focused directly on the heart. Both groups probably experience states of stillness and peace, which, although passing, are beautiful and deeply fulfilling whenever they occur.
While part of both groups is simultaneously devoted to gaining a deeper understanding, the other part spurns this as cerebral, continues its spiritual practice and hopes that peace will go on deepening through practice and in the end will persist miraculously. The latter runs the risk of encountering a dead end at some point. As the buddhi takes note of the lacks of clarity, misunderstandings and identifications that keep on existing, it will not give the person any peace, because it wants to clear them away.
Why does it want to do this? Because this is how it is meant to be, it is its unique potential. And we can count our blessings that the buddhi is the way it is, because exclusively owing to her incorruptibility, we have the capacity to emerge from our original ignorance regarding the nature of god, man and the world and gain an understanding of the whole truth.
Considering this extraordinary qualification of the buddhi, the prejudices of some seekers with regard to the mind are actually regrettable. Unfortunately there are many who, in their heart-centered work, equate the heart with feelings and almost put a ban on asking themselves the sober questions and skeptical objections of the buddhi. But this means that they may lose themselves completely in the murky emotional layer of the mind at some point, failing to progress any further.
The buddhi is the culmination of human abilities and should be appreciated accordingly. The person is able to discover the truth – but not through action, not even by meditating. If the truth could be found anywhere else in space and time, we could act in order to find it. But the truth is what we already are; none of our actions will bring us closer to truth because it is there already. What is missing is merely the knowledge that it is already there. In this case there is only one option: sharpen the ability to understand and know, so that we recognize the truth that is there.
And how does one sharpen this ability?
1 – a good practice is reading these essays with the intense determination to really understand. Every sentence, every statement should be clear (and if not, you are welcome to ask).
2 – One year ago I wrote about the spiritual teacher, mentioning that seeking understanding without teacher makes little sense. The buddhi is able to learn, but it needs somebody to learn from. In fact, there is nothing it would rather do but this. Only through cooperating with a teacher, who knows and appreciates its value and the value of working on spiritual understanding, the buddhi’s potential is utterly exploited.
Those struggling with the idea of a teacher may encounter the same difficulty as those who categorically reject the application of logic in the spiritual domain: neither exhausts their possibilities, and, in case they have the feeling of being stuck during their spiritual journey, it is a pity. Much more is possible, much, much more.
If all the knots constricting the heart
are destroyed while man is still alive,
a mortal becomes immortal.
Katha Upanishad, 2.3.15