Near Enemy #3: Listen to your heart

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.

Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.  

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this week’s Near Enemy. And Happy Indian Independence Day!


One of the most fascinating critiques of popular Western notions of self that Indian philosophy can offer is this: “mind” and “heart” are two different names for one and the same thing. They merely emphasize different aspects of that single entity. That is to say, the Indian tradition holds that the locus of emotion and the locus of thought are one and the same, and therefore subconscious thoughts frequently manifest as emotions, and subconscious emotions as thoughts. Both thoughts and feelings are vibrations of citta, or the “heart-mind-stuff.” They are actually two ends of a single spectrum. (If this were not true, we could never talk about our feelings or feel strongly about our ideas!) The difference between thoughts and feelings is simply that thoughts are vibrations (vṛttis) with a greater linguistic or rational component, while feelings are vibrations with a greater affective charge. The difference is not absolute but one of degree.

It takes a few minutes (or months) to fully assimilate the implications of this. For one thing, it thoroughly undermines the American tendency to privilege feeling over thought or vice versa. A couple generations ago, people were taught to trust their reason over and against their wayward, irrational emotions. Emotion was seen as an unreliable guide to action. Nowadays, by contrast, we are told, “Listen to your heart,” which unfortunately often ends up meaning, “Get in touch with your deeper programming.” We are told, “Follow your heart,” which unfortunately often is taken to mean, “Do what you want, putting aside reason, regardless of the consequences.” If you watch television interviews as a sample, it seems that no one asks for reasoned opinions anymore: we hear questions like “What’s your feeling on that?” and answers like “I really feel that. . . ” which is usually just a way of giving a not-well-thought-out-or-supported-by-the-facts opinion that the person won’t be obliged to defend because, after all, it is his feeling. And feelings are indisputable, right? (Not.) I am critiquing this side of things more sharply because it is the current trend, but of course the other side is just as dangerous. We all know someone who is extremely rational and intelligent, and whose failure to be in touch with his or her human feelings enables him to perform actions and endorse views that seem inhumanly insensitive.

By contrast, a yogī (or even just a sane person) seeking to make a wise decision will carefully and soberly consult all aspects of his being—thought, feeling, memory, spiritual intuition, and embodied instinct—and balance them all with the input of his teacher(s) and most trusted friends. He privileges no one source over the others. To do so on a consistent basis, he knows, is to move ever further into disintegration.

Let us investigate a bit further the implications of the fact that the Sanskrit language does not have two separate words for “mind” and “heart.” Both are used to translate the word citta and its synonyms. Nor does Sanskrit have distinct terms for “thought” and “emotion.” Both are citta-vṛttis, “vibrations of the heart-mind-stuff” or “movements in the heart-mind” or “modifications of the heart-mind”. A little investigation will show that the ancient sages were absolutely right. One of our foremost scientists, Robert Sapolsky, endorses exactly this view in this recent interview (start listening at 16min). So it is only through lack of reflection that we picture ourselves as having two separate centers, one of which can be privileged over the other. The implications of this are crucial on the yogic path and are explored further below.

Now, you may say, “But I actually feel thoughts happening in my head and emotions in my heart!” Believe it or not, there’s a whole bunch of evidence that demonstrates that that is just deep cultural conditioning. In ancient India, people felt both thoughts and feelings in the heart region, and in premodern Indonesia, people felt both thoughts and feelings in their liver! *  The heart/mind division in our culture has been traced all the way back to the Hellenistic period, which absorbed vying cardiocentric and cerebrocentric influences. In the 1930s, Carl Jung argued, I think rightly, that Westerners would not be able to practice yoga successfully because they believed in the heart/mind separation, meaning they believed that the locus of emotion and that of thought were distinct. Until and unless this separation is resolved (which Jung thought nigh-impossible),** a Westerner cannot succeed at yoga (in the broadest sense of that term, obviously).

            Now let’s explore the implications of the view that heart & mind are one and the same. First, it means that emotional states are often linked to a subconscious thought or thought-pattern. When we are pulled from our natural state into a contracted state, we are almost always engaged in thinking about reality in a way that gives rise to that particular mood, though that thinking can be subconscious. Disliking any given mood, or disliking yourself for having the mood—even if it is black depression, horrendous jealousy, or what have you—is missing the mark, for the mood expresses our natural embodied intelligence by signalling that self-reflection is needed. Nature never acts without reason, and therefore every form of dis-ease invites reflection. (This should not of course be taken to mean that whatever terrible state you find yourself in is “deserved.” That kind of thinking is nothing more than a subtle form of self-hatred. Nor does it mean, “The universe is trying to show me something.” That usage of the term ‘universe’ is often just the dualistic god of judgment under another name.)

When we investigate, being ruthlessly honest and radically sincere with ourselves, we usually find that our “bad day” (or week, or month, or year) was sparked by a disempowering and/or cynical thought-pattern, perhaps barely noticed at the time, which we believed and spun into a story, a picture of how reality is, that undermines our ability to access our natural joy and freedom. Nothing can drain us of our life-force energy (prāṇa-śakti) faster and more effectively than a well-spun story (vikalpa) that is not in alignment with reality. The problem is, we are often not aware of our stories as stories. Specifically, the more the current story fits in with our generalized picture of reality (our fears about how reality “really is”), the less it stands out in our awareness. It must be ferreted out with self-reflection. Most of the time, the stories that rob us of our natural state are variations on the fundamental story that keeps us from Presence ("I am a separate being named so-and-so").

We should also note the flip side of this paradigm: that thoughts are often linked to hidden emotions. I was trained as an academic, and in the world of academia, we are taught to be “objective.” So academics and other intellectuals tend to express their intellectual interests as though those interests exist in a vacuum, divorced from their feelings, their humanity, and their life history. But nothing exists in a vacuum, and once you get to know an academic (especially in my field, that of religious and cultural studies), you discover that their specific intellectual projects are in fact closely linked to their life history, psychology, and emotional landscape. By not acknowledging these forces that affect what point of view we argue for, we are actually making ourselves less objective by virtue of our lack of transparency. This hypocrisy or pretense in the academic world is damaging to our intellectual projects and unhealthy for our psychological lives, I believe.

If you are a so-called “heady” person, more rational than emotional, you have a tool in your hands now that you understand the link between thoughts and emotions that we have discussed: note which opinions and views you hold strongly, if seemingly dispassionately, and trace them to a place in your being where they exist as pure emotion. For example, you may have strong opinions about what constitutes “justice” or “fairness.” I’ll wager that if you trace these abstract views to your emotions, you might discover suppressed anger about the time(s) when you were wronged. Seek it out and unlock its power. And when you do this, you are not so much moving from one center to another (such as from intellectual “mind” to emotional “heart”) as much as uncovering the hidden threads of subtle structures that are larger than you realized.

Likewise, if you’re a very emotional person, you owe it everyone in your life to make an effort to compensate for the way in which your feelings and samskāras compel you to hold opinions that might not be at all true. Just because they feel true doesn’t mean they are. Push yourself to admit you don’t know for sure, and consult the facts and evidence.

To summarize, thoughts and feelings exist as a continuum, where the “thought” end is defined by its wordiness, its rationalization, and partial suppression of the full charge of the bhāva (“feeling, felt-sense, vibe, mental-emotional state”) in question, and the “feeling” end is defined by its lack of wordiness and appearance of the full charge of energy in the given bhāva. When we discover the feeling component of a thought, or the thought hidden behind a feeling, we are bringing into full awareness the totality of the condensed subtle structure in our energy body, which helps reveal its real nature and its effect on our reality.

            Now for the last wrinkle in this particular fabric. In Sanskritic thought we also have the notion of a metaphysical/spiritual Heart, a hṛdaya distinct from the citta. But Sanskrit has no capital letters, so how do we tell the difference between the heart-mind and the Heart?  Precision of meaning is often obtained in Sanskrit by providing synonymous terms. hṛdaya means Heart when it is glossed with sāra (‘essence, core’), madhya (‘center’), svabhāva (‘true nature’), ātman (‘self’), and so on.

So the Truth to which “listen to your heart” is a near enemy is . . . “listen to your Heart”! —Where 'Heart' means the deepest core of your being, beyond both thought and emotion.

The intuitive wisdom that arises from the Heart, the Core, the Center, is called pratibhā in Tantrik thought. It’s a kind of deep inner knowing, a sensing of which way the wind is blowing (or wants to blow), of which way the current of Life wants to take you. It’s very difficult to put it into words, though I try to describe it below, as well as in Tantra Illuminated. This inner wisdom inclines in one direction or another for the benefit of all beings, which is one key way it is different from the desires of the heart-mind, which usually only wants what is personally beneficial. So the inner wisdom won’t necessarily lead you towards what you most like on a superficial level. (However, through spiritual practice, the heart-mind can become fully aligned with the inner wisdom; citta merges with pratibhā. Then you want what Life wants!) Another way to distinguish them is that pratibhā is steady, slow, and inexorable (e.g. inexorably pulling you towards or away from a particular person in your life, or towards or away from a particular career, etc.) while the desires of heart-mind are mercurial and protean. Heart-mind express as endless thoughts like “Maybe I should do X; or maybe I should do Y!” while pratibhā is a wordless undercurrent, what Barks’ Rumi calls “the strange silent pull of what you truly love”—where you means the real You, not the culturally-conditioned you that you only think you are.

            Above I said that a yogī (or a sane person) seeking to make a wise decision will consult all aspects of his being and not consistently privilege one over all the others. But after sufficient spiritual practice, when you have clear access to pratibhā, it’s natural and right to make Her the CEO and the final arbiter, which creates a life-experience of harmony because all internal disagreements are automatically resolved by the deep inner knowing, the sense of rightness that is neither a thought nor a feeling nor an impulse.

The fundamental issue, then, is this: that when people say, or hear, "listen to your heart", they fail to make a strong and necessary distinction between the emotional side of the conditioned self and the quiet, wordless intuition of their deepest being (which is something beyond both emotions and thoughts). The failure to make this key distinction, is, of course, understandable, because without a contemplative and/or meditative life, one can't really access the latter—the pratibhā. If you can't get quiet inside, you can't hear/feel the innate intuitive faculty (unimpeded by conditioning) enough to distinguish it from the rapidly shifting tides of emotion.

By popular demand—more on pratibhā 

Pratibhā, celebrated as the highest faculty of consciousness in verse 1.2 of the Tantrāloka, simultaneously means intuitive insight, embodied instinct, and creative inspiration. It is this faculty that takes the place of vikalpas (conditioning) in guiding the actions of an awakened being. In other words, one who has broken free from social and cultural conditioning would be cast adrift with no sound basis for decision-making if not for the fact that such freedom is concomitant with greatly increased access to the deep, nonverbal intuitive faculty that all of us have but few of us get quiet enough to sense. (For you must be able to get quiet and still to hear Her; only on rare occasions is She audible above the din of the compulsively thinking mind.) The ‘voice’ of pratibhā, unlike that of the mind, doesn’t defend or explain or justify itself, but simply offers itself as a gift. It feels distinctly different from a whim or preference. Sometimes it’s just a little, quiet ‘yes’ or ‘uh-uh’ deep inside that you can only acknowledge in retrospect. Other times it feels like a deep current, as powerful as a slow but mighty river, a persistent quiet pull toward anything that aligns with your essence-nature and the greater Pattern of life. Following that pull immediately yields a feeling of ‘rightness’, though not following it doesn’t necessarily feel wrong . . . just less right. (Though, if the stakes are high enough, and the person in question is sufficiently intuitive, acting against pratibhā will feel very, very wrong, even to the point of feeling very ill.) Following the pratibhā consistently makes your whole life feel permeated by ‘flow’ (even though there may be challenges), because you are in harmony with the greater Pattern.

Since pratibhā is a kind of compass to sense the natural flow of the deeper Pattern, it provides a far sounder basis for action than our narrow, provincial, ephemeral, arbitrary, and idiosyncratic cultural conditioning. Since the Pattern of the Whole—which pratibhā is intimately connected to, and a manifestation of—always naturally moves toward harmony, following your deepest inner intuition is always the most beneficial course for all beings.

~ ~ ~

Image by Cho-oka of DeviantArt

* See the fascinating article “Culture and language: looking for the ‘mind’ inside the body” by Sharifian et. al., 2008.
** “Study yoga: you will learn an infinite amount from it, but do not try to apply it, for we Europeans are not so constituted that we apply these methods correctly, just like that.” ~ C.G. Jung