'God', according to the mystics, is that Consciousness (Mind or Spirit) which transcends all forms and yet is immanent in all forms as their true nature or identity. Our problem is that, while we have no trouble perceiving the world of forms, we are ignorant of this Formless Consciousness which constitutes their essence. In other words, we do not Realize that all forms are actually forms of God—including, and most importantly, ourselves.
Within all the Great Traditions there are two primary ways of dispelling this ignorance: the path of inquiry and the path of devotion. The path of inquiry uses various analytical and meditative techniques to negate the inherent reality of forms until the seeker attains a Realization of Identity with that Consciousness which transcends them. On the path of devotion a seeker's love and longing are focused so intensely on some form of the Divine that all other forms, including the seeker's, are eventually obliterated. Then, when there is nothing left to distinguish the lover from the Beloved, the seeker Realizes Identity with that Consciousness which transcends both. Thus, the path of inquiry and the path of devotion have the same end.
Nevertheless, most seekers find the path of devotion easier to follow because, as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita,
Greater is the toil of those who set their minds on the Formless, for the path of the Formless is hard for mortals to traverse. But those who regard me, Krishna, as the End Supreme, who surrender all their works to me and who concentrate on My Form with pure love and devotion—these I quickly deliver from the ocean of death, because they have set their hearts on me alone.1
There is, however, a catch. Before you can fully enter the path of devotion, you must have some personal experience of the Divine, simply because you cannot love something that you have never experienced. Still, this does not mean you are completely powerless. If you have even a little faith that there is some Reality or God greater than yourself, you can begin to search for it. But then the question is, where should you look? Where does this God dwell? Well, here is the answer given by the Hindu mystic Lalleshwari:
He lives in your heart. Recognize Him. Don't look for Him here and there, wondering, "Where is God?"2
What is more, you will find exactly the same answer given by mystics of all the Great Traditions. Listen, for example, to the Christian St. Ephraim of Syria:
Here within you are the riches of heaven, if you desire them....Enter within yourself and remain in your heart, for there is God.3
And here is what God tells Muhammad in a famous Islamic saying:
Neither My earth nor My heaven can encompass me, yet the heart of My adorer contains Me.4
Before going any further, however, it is important to understand what the mystics mean when they use the word heart. In fact, heart can have at least four different meanings, depending on the context. It can refer to the physical heart, the emotional heart, the spiritual heart, or the Radiant Heart. The first three hearts correspond to increasingly deeper and subtler levels of the seeker's presumed identity as a separate individual self, while the fourth, the Radiant Heart, refers to the seeker's True Identity as Consciousness Itself. The idea, then, is that by penetrating the first three hearts you can reach the Radiant Heart which lies at the core of your being.
So the next question is, how exactly can this interior journey be made? Perhaps the oldest and most universal method is to practice what Christians call prayer in the heart. Theophan the Recluse, an Eastern Orthodox mystic, explains how it works:
In order to keep the mind on one thing by the use of a short prayer, it is necessary to preserve attention and so lead it into the heart: for so long as the mind remains in the head, where thoughts jostle one another, it has no time to concentrate on one thing. But when attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there.5
Repeating a sacred phrase or name to free attention from distracting thoughts and bring it into the heart is known among the Sufis as dhikr. Here is how the Sufi scholar Mir Valiuddin describes it:
In dhikr the thought is directed towards the heart, and the heart towards God.6
Hindu mystics accomplish the same thing by performing japa—the constant repetition of a sacred mantra or syllable, such as OM. In the ancient Upanishads, for example, we read the following instructions:
With upright body, head, and neck lead the mind and its power into the heart; and the OM of Brahman will then be thy boat with which to cross the rivers of fear.7
So, let's take a closer look at what this practice of prayer in the heart actually entails.
As anyone who tries it soon discovers, just keeping attention focused on a sacred word or prayer for more than a few minutes is extremely difficult. So, if you really want to practice prayer in the heart, the first thing you need to do is to train your attention to be stable. This usually requires practicing formally every day for a certain period of time when you can be alone and free of interruptions. Ten to fifteen minutes makes a good beginning. Later, you can try to increase your sessions to twenty or thirty minutes, or more. If you can practice twice every day, all the better.
Next, choose a short prayer or sacred word that evokes in you some feeling for the Divine. This could be a Name of God, or a favorite line from a spiritual poem or scripture. At first, you might want to experiment with different words or prayers, but once you have found one that suits you, stick with that, come what may.
When you sit down to practice, first make a commitment to repeat your word or prayer for the entire session, concentrating all your attention on it. Then silently repeat your word slowly with as much love and longing for the Divine as you can genuinely muster. When other thoughts arise, don't get into a battle with them or try to suppress them. Instead, practice detachment by allowing all extraneous thoughts to arise and pass in the periphery of your awareness without getting caught up in them. When you do become distracted, don't be discouraged. Simply notice that your attention has wandered, and return it to your word or prayer. Be careful, however, not to fall into a pattern of mindless, mechanical repetitions. If that starts to happen, say your word or prayer more deliberately and focus your attention more sharply on it.
After you have attained some stability in your concentration, you can take the next step, which is to bring your attention into your heart. Start by focusing on your physical heart and try to hear your word or prayer as if it were being repeated there. Then, allow your attention to sink down after it, as though you were trying to listen to it more closely.
Bringing attention into your physical heart does two things: First, as Theophan said, it gets you out of your head, which is filled with endless trains of distracting thought. Second, it gives you access to your emotional heart. This happens because the physical heart acts as a kind of barometer for our emotional states. You might notice, for example, that whenever you are feeling some negative emotion—such as anger, envy, or fear—there is a subtle muscular contraction in the heart area. Conversely, whenever you feel some positive emotion—like, love, compassion, or contentment—the muscles in your heart area relax. Thus, by attending to your physical heart, you can become more aware of whatever emotion you happen to be experiencing.
Becoming aware of your emotions is important because every emotion that arises—whether positive or negative—can be transmuted into love and longing for the Divine. This is possible because all emotions have love and longing as their root. For example, if you get angry at someone, it is because they threaten something you love; and when you are afraid of something, it is because you fear losing something you love. Moreover, the reason you love or long for anything in the first place is because you believe it will make you happy.
Thus, emotions, themselves, are never an obstacle to the path of devotion. The real problem is that we direct the love and longing which animates them toward worldly things. But, since all worldly things are transitory and impermanent, they can never bring us true, abiding happiness. Only God can do that. So, the way to transmute whatever emotion arises into love and longing for God is simply to identify the love and longing at its root and redirect it towards the Divine Beloved. In fact, the more intensely you feel a particular emotion, the more potential it has to fuel your practice. This is why, when a student asked the Hindu saint Ramakrishna how to become free of lust, he replied: "Why do you want to be free of lust? Rather increase your lust!"8
If you continue performing this alchemy of love (as the Sufis call it), eventually you will be able to collect all your scattered loves and longings for impermanent things into a single flame of love that burns solely for your Beloved. In this way, your emotional heart will be purified of all those desires and attachments that keep attention bound to the world of form. And the more your attention is freed from the world of form, the more it will be able to descend from your emotional heart into your spiritual heart.
Entering your spiritual heart allows you to get actual glimpses of the Divine. These may include flashes of inner guidance, experiences of rapture and ecstasy, or states of incredible bliss in which you feel you are basking in the very Presence of your Beloved. Still, you must not become distracted by these experiences and states or start practicing in order to attain them. Why? Because they represent only whiffs of the Divine's perfume and not the Divine Itself. This is why the great Sufi Ibn 'Arabi warned:
If everything in the universe should be spread before you, receive it graciously—but do not stop there. Persist in your quest, for He is testing you. If you stay with what is offered, He will escape you. But if you attain Him, nothing will escape you.9
It is also at this stage of your practice that something quite extraordinary can happen. Your sacred word or prayer may start to repeat itself spontaneously, without any apparent effort on your part. Christian mystics refer to this as unceasing prayer. Theophan the Recluse describes it this way:
At first this saving prayer is a matter of strenuous effort and hard work. But if one concentrates on it with zeal, it will begin to flow of its own accord, like a brook that murmurs in the heart. This is a great blessing, and it is worth working hard to obtain it.10
And Javad Nurbakhsh, a Sufi Shaykh, writes:
When the light of zekr [dhikr] clears the heart of the darkness of agitation, the heart becomes aroused and gradually steals the zekr from the tongue, making it its preoccupation.11
The advent of spontaneous or unceasing prayer marks a major turning point on the path of devotion, because, as the Hindu mystic Anandamayi Ma says:
There is all the difference between doing japa and japa occurring of itself. The mind must reach a condition where it cannot remain without the remembrance of God.12
In other words, when your sacred word or prayer repeats itself unceasingly in the background of your awareness, you can maintain a constant remembrance of your Beloved, even in the midst of worldly activities. This does not mean, however, that you can completely dispense with your formal practice.
In order to reach the deepest recesses of your spiritual heart, you must continue training your attention to ignore even the slightest movements of thought and desire. When attention becomes completely still, it sinks into that space of pure awareness at the bottom of the spiritual heart which opens out into the Radiant Heart or Infinite Ocean of Consciousness Itself. This is a space of profound Stillness and Silence. Here, all thoughts and images vanish of themselves—including the words of your prayer.
Now, if you are like most seekers, when you first enter this space of pure awareness you are apt to find it quite disconcerting. Instead of falling into the arms of the Beloved, it may seem as though you have plunged into an abyss of total Nothingness. What you do not yet realize, however, is that this very Nothingness is your Beloved, naked and unveiled, for as St. Bonaventure writes:
Our mind, accustomed to...the images of the things of sense, when it glimpses the light of the supreme Being, seems to itself to see nothing. It does not recognize that this very darkness is the supreme illumination of our mind.13
The trouble is, you are still longing for a 'God' whom you imagine exists in some form—however subtle—and this is what keeps your attention distracted from the Formless God in Whom you are now immersed. This is why the Sufi Ansari of Herat says of longing:
In the way of the privileged, it is a flaw, because longing is for the absent, while the One for Whom longing occurs is Present.14
But if, having surrendered your love and longing for all other things, you can now surrender this last bit of longing for God as well, there will be nothing left to hold your attention. Once attention has been freed from all distractions—including the forms of your Beloved—it can return to its Source in Consciousness Itself. It is in this moment that the Realization may suddenly dawn: This is what I truly am! This is what everything is! Then you will know for yourself what the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart meant when he wrote:
I receive such riches that God, as he is "God", and as he performs all his divine works, cannot suffice me; for in this breaking-through I receive that God and I are one.15
May all beings receive the riches of this Realization!
1. Bhagavad Gita, 12:5-7, my rendering.
2. Lalleshwari, Lalleshwari: Spiritual Poems by a Great Siddha Yogini, rendered by Swami Muktananda (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1981), 12.
3. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, ed. Timothy Ware (1985; reprint, London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 182.
4. Javad Nurbakhsh, In the Paradise of the Sufis, 2d ed. (New York: Khaniqahi-Nimatullahi Publications, 1979), 42.
5. Chariton of Valamo, Art of Prayer, 94.
6. Mir Valiuddin, Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism, ed. Gulshan Khakee (London: East-West Publications, 1980), 65.
7. The Upanishads, trans. Juan Mascaro (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 88.
8. Narada, Narada's Way of Divine Love: Narada Bhakti Sutras, trans. Swami Prabhavananda, 2d ed. (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1986), 137.
9. Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual on Retreat, trans. Rabia Terri Harris (New York: Inner Traditions International, 1981), 32.
10. Chariton of Valamo, Art of Prayer, 113.
11. Nurbakhsh, Paradise of the Sufis, 99.
12. Sri Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol 2, 2d ed., trans. Atmananda (Calcutta: Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society, 1982), 190.
13. Saint Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul's Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 96-97.
14. A.G. Farhadi, Abdullah Ansari of Herat (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996), 95.
15. Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 203.