This post discusses the question of what it means to be heart-centered from the perspective of an organization which is focused on personal and spiritual development. See Part 1: What Does It Mean to Be Heart-centered? for my discussion of what it means for a person to be heart-centered.
Our school, IAM Heart, is all about the heart. But these days, that’s what nearly everyone says — this is the age of heart. And that is indeed a truly wonderful development. But ‘heart’ means different things to different people, and so does ‘heart-centered.’
So I’d like to explore what I think it means for a spiritual school to be heart-centered, recognizing that some aspects of being heart-centered are very idealistic, raising the question of whether any organization that actually exists could approach them; while at the same time, some aspects are common, and even widely-expected of organizations.
Organizations, especially schools, create a kind of mini-culture embedded in a larger national and global culture. The culture of the organization is affected by the individuals who are involved, but particularly by the leadership and the key stakeholders, again, especially in a school where members come there to learn and to be open to a new way of being and relating to others. So there is a complex relationship between the individual and the organization, each influencing the other. An organization can be heart-centered even if not all its members are.
Ok, so here are my thoughts about what is a heart-centered organization:
1. The atmosphere is warm, tolerant, loving, and accepting, and the aspiration of the school is to manifest love in every thought, word, and deed.
The way that a gathering feels is its atmosphere; regardless of what is said or taught, the atmosphere communicates its own message. When a school is heart-centered, you feel it in the air, there is a sense of being embraced, of wonder, of love, of openness, of tolerance, and of acceptance.
It ought to go without saying that such an atmosphere is not created through policies that exclude women, people of color, gays and lesbians, etc., but sadly, the history of religious and spiritual organizations is often rife with exclusion.
Let me also say that love and judgment don’t share the same home. Yet a school of personal or spiritual development often has a very judgmental air. It is natural for people to compete, after all, forming levels and hierarchies of judgment. This tendency must be checked by love and connection, by deeply appreciating all the richness and greatness within each and every person, regardless of their past or their level of development. Truly appreciating others can only be done by opening your heart.
A great way to experience the atmosphere of IAM Heart is to attend one of retreats, such as the Invincible Heart Retreat.
2. The number of rules and beliefs is minimal.
Rules are what we look to instead of looking at our hearts and following our heart’s inner voice. Yet rules come out of a shared understanding of the world, and can make us feel more safe and comfortable. The more considerate, wise, and loving a group is, the fewer rules will be needed. No doubt there will always be the need for some rules.
What I notice is how often we go crazy with rules, thinking that rules will save us from every mistake people may make. I’m not going to say what rules are right and which ones are wrong, because that depends on the needs of the group and the context. I just want to point out that there is a tension within each of our hearts between the need for freedom on the one side, and the need for stability, security, and safety, on the other side. Endlessly adding more rules without regard to the negative effect of having lots of rules goes too far toward the latter.
I also note that punishment goes hand-in-hand with rules, and as the number of rules increases, it is often the case that the severity of the punishment also increases.
While rules are about your actions, a belief structure or doctrine gives the rules about what you’re allowed to think and feel. Like rules, we can’t really live together without some beliefs. Beliefs are a kind of shorthand. We believe, and therefore we don’t have to think everything out each time.
There’s a story of a math professor who is teaching a class, and he says, “the conclusion should be obvious.” A student raises her hand and says, “is it obvious? I don’t see it.”
The professor leaves the class, then returns half an hour later, and says, “I have thought it through again from every angle, and I’ve concluded that it is indeed obvious!”
Each belief that we are given is a restriction on our freedom to think and feel, yet they help us shape the world, giving us categories in which to place things that seem larger than us. Most of the things we believe are unexamined, unconscious beliefs.
What I notice happens a lot in spiritual organizations, is that the number of beliefs just keeps increasing, and then people start arguing about what beliefs are right, what if you don’t believe what I believe, etc.
A heart-centered school should first and foremost be about experience. In our school, we focus a great deal on the experience of unity, where your personal heart becomes the Heart of All. Your experience is real. Beliefs create categories to help you hold the experience, to make sense of the experience. But if beliefs contain our experience, it’s a bit like building a cage to house a being that endlessly changes, one minute a butterfly, the next, a waterfall. The cage must change as well if it is to still function; the experience gives life to belief, turning it to conviction, that which you know in your bones. Without conviction, belief becomes a dead thing.
A school forms around a set of teachings, which are a set of beliefs. Yet the belief is to the experience like the coat is to the person. (A great way to absorb the difference between philosophy and real experience is to take a retreat.)
3. The focus is on experience rather than philosophy.
You can’t just talk about things endlessly, have ideas, and read books. In order to see real effects in your life, you have to actually walk your talk in some meaningful way.
(Now this criterion could be applied more broadly to any of these items, by asking, “does the school function in the way that it says it does?”)
To walk your talk requires some kind of practice that works to open your heart and center yourself in it, getting away from the all-too-common thoughts of selfish gain at the expense of others, suspicion, fear, mistrust, and competition, toward the feeling of love, connection, and ultimately, unity.
4. The school takes desire seriously.
If you claim to be about the heart, then you better create a real place for human desire.
This may seem obvious, but let’s recall that most spiritual schools have a deeply conflicted relationship with desire. Most schools carry a legacy of the old spirituality, that says that desires lead to suffering, and the way to spiritual fulfillment is to transcend desire, to cease desiring.
(Puran and Susanna Bair describe the change to the new spirituality, which respects the role of desire, as the Great Turn — see Chapter 1 of Follow Your Heart: The Map to Illumination.)
Not many modern spiritual schools teach this doctrine any more, but nearly all are affected by it in one way or another. We see it in the way that desire is treated, like, certain desires are ok, but only in a certain way, only if you don’t really try, only if you don’t get ‘attached to the outcome.’
The thing is, desire is attachment, and the outcome does matter.
To take desire seriously means that the teachings of the school support desire, affirming its importance. It is, after all, the desire of the Universe coming through our own hearts that manifests in all personal desires.
But affirming the importance of desire is just the beginning. We’re not going to find fulfillment in simply knowing what we want — we have to attain it. (We teach a course on this called 106: Accomplishment with Heart.)
The school should teach students a way of determining what desires are truly important, and how to achieve the things they most want. A heart-centered approach to desire also considers that other people have desires, and that we should pursue our desires in such a way to ensure that other people are not harmed, nor is their ability to achieve their desires curtailed. (Our mentoring program is designed to help you achieve your desires.)
5. The school helps you with your relationships.
Our relationships with our intimate partner, our parents, our family, our friends, and our co-workers have a huge impact on our happiness and on the state of our hearts. A heart-centered school must recognize this and teach practical ways of improving your relationships and learning from them.
I think this seems obvious today, but keep in mind that many spiritual and religious organizations in the not-too-distant past (and the present) demanded celibacy from those who sought to learn the methods of spiritual attainment.
It is not enough to simply not make the demand that people who are part of the school take vows of celibacy. The school needs to actually focus on relationships, and actually be helpful. (Working with a mentor is an excellent way to get support with this.)
6. The school teaches methods to improve your health.
The heart seeks wholeness, balance, and rhythm, which are the keys to health. A heart-centered organization must refrain from creating a culture based on activities which damage the health of its members.
But this is just the minimum. A heart-centered school should go further, recognizing that since much of our mainstream culture supports activities that are damaging to our health — eating unhealthy food, abusing alcohol and drugs, smoking, living a sedentary life, and being disconnected from natural rhythms of activity and rest, to name a few examples — that we need ways of restoring wholeness, balance, and rhythm. Heart Rhythm Meditation is an excellent way to do this.
7. The school has a philosophy that makes sense of pain and human suffering, and discusses the purpose of life.
Pain is a part of life. Yet pain and suffering cause us to ask, “why?”
If a school is to be focused on the development of the heart, it must recognize this fundamental human question, and provide some answer for it. Yet the answer should not be rigid or doctrinaire. The process of grappling with the question has a lot of spiritual value.
Yet there ought to be a philosophy that at least helps provide some answers. There ought to be an attempt to explain why bad things sometimes happen to good people, how being open actually can make you better equipped to deal with the hard realities of life, and why a universe of infinite love seems to produce so much pain.
Closely related to the question of why pain exists in our lives is the question of what is the purpose of life in general, and my own life in particular.
No one but you can tell you what the purpose of your life is, but a school ought to have a general teaching which helps you explore it. Even better would be a specific, experiential practice which helps you gain your own sense of purpose through your own inner experience. (Our course 107: The Metaphysics of the Heart offers this sort of philosophical exploration.)
8. The operation of the school is open and transparent.
Every institution or organization needs revenue to pay its bills, and must make decisions about its operation. A heart-centered organization should do this in a way that is as open and transparent as possible.
9. The school is sensitive to its own shortcomings and mis-steps, and seeks to improve.
Each one of us can improve. Indeed, much of our personal unhappiness comes from our inner sense of how much greater we could be. The same is true of organizations, which like living beings, must grow or face stagnation.
My feeling is that in the future, there will be more and more concern for this question of how we can make all the important institutions and organizations in our lives more and more heart-centered.
I hope these thoughts help a little bit in this grand effort toward heart unity.
I’d love to hear your thoughts — please share a comment below.
yours in the One Heart,