Ryan J. Bush, Ph.D.
Let's Take a Chance on Love
[I originally posted this at our previous blog site in January 2018, but am reposting on our new blog, as it's always a good time to focus on love.]
The dawning of a new year is always a great chance to reflect on what we’d like to do differently, whether we make formal New Year’s resolutions or not. During the rest of the year, we can all get too busy with our everyday lives to step back and gain a larger perspective. At Los Gatos Reiki, when we were thinking about what we would like to focus on in the new year, the natural choice seemed seemed to be love.
Given how crazy the world is these days, full of crises, chaos, opposition, and animosity, love might not be the obvious choice for what to focus on. Everywhere we look, people are frustrated, angry, and stressed out, people demonize those who are different, or stubbornly cling to their own views instead of trying to understand others’ own deeply-held beliefs. People act out their frustrations all over the place, whether on the road, at the office, at home, or online.
In some ways, it might be easier to close down, just focus on our own personal life, and try to avoid the chaos, or to think we have to settle for the level of frustration, anxiety, and anger that seems to be the ‘new normal’. However, think of how much energy still gets expended on anger and frustration. When we think about someone we don’t like, or something unfortunate that happened, it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of negative thoughts, and before we know it our thoughts are spinning on and on. Or, as a 5th BC Buddhist commentator put it, anger is like picking up a burning ember in our hands — before we could hurt anyone else, we first burn ourselves.
Furthermore, once we pay attention to the flow of energy in our body, it’s clear that ‘negative’ emotions like anger, fear, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, and sadness have a way of making us close up, or contract. Even a tiny bit of tension in our muscles decreases the flow of energy through our nerves and through the fascia (the inner and outer channels along which energy flows), which makes it tougher to let Reiki energy flow. Also, stress bathes us in a toxic soup of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, our systems get stuck in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, and blood gets shunted away from our brains so it’s more difficult for us to think strategically and long-term, along with many other negative health consequences.
However, we don’t have to settle for always being stuck in a constrictive tangle of negative energy, what most people settle for as their ‘normal’ level of anxiety, anger, sadness, or discontent. Look to the world today to see how well animosity, apathy, and selfishness have worked out. The world doesn’t have to be a cold, heartless place ruled by the law of the jungle where the powerful take what they want, everyone puts themselves first and disregards everyone else. A key piece is missing, both on a personal and a global level, and that is love. Our hearts are the very center of our physical bodies, and our humanity, and when our hearts are closed, we are closed off from our full potential.
In the course of this article, we’ll talk about some practical steps that can be used to open our hearts and minds, and how to broaden our ‘sphere of love’, if anyone is so moved. We’ll also talk about how we can practice loving even for selfish reasons, under the concept of ‘selfish altruism’. We don’t have to be bleeding-heart idealists to take a chance on loving more, because there are many practical benefits of love, such as opening up our energetic system, enabling experiences of awakening, and lowering stress levels.
So, let’s take a chance on love. We don’t necessarily have to believe in it wholeheartedly at first, we can just try it out and see how it goes. Since this is the new year, it’s a good time to think about fresh starts. Try opening your heart fully, you might like it! Like any practice, though, we aren’t likely to have a sudden opening after a single session. At a minimum, we recommend trying the practice for a month to see how it goes.
Mental Steps to Opening Our Hearts
There are physical and energetic elements to opening our hearts, which we’ll talk about at the end of this section, but the main barrier to love is usually the mind.
After all, we tend to think that love is a non-renewable resource, so precious it has to be hoarded, and doled out only occasionally to a few close relatives and friends, maybe occasionally to oneself. However, some would say that love is quite literally the most common element in the universe, that the whole universe is itself made of love — pure love that’s slowed down into solid matter, formed into myriad disparate shapes, and disguised so well that we forget we are all the same Creator playing hide-and-go-seek across the eons, or different leaves of the same great tree.
Regardless of one’s beliefs about the cosmos, one would think we could agree that family is important. However, how much of our family do we hold dear? Do we only treasure ourselves? Our immediate household? Our extended family? Our entire tribe, class, or group? Our country, the entire world, or the entire universe? After all, if we look back far enough, we are related to every single other being on the planet. No one is not part of our vast family, so why can’t we treat everyone as our sisters, brothers, parents, grandparents, and children? Can we extend love even to those we disagree strongly with, or those who wish harm to others? Can we accept that everyone is at their own stage of evolution, learning and growing at their own pace, and we can’t force anyone to learn faster than they’re capable of?
Our ‘sphere of love’ is however wide we feel comfortable extending our love. There’s no wrong answer, and people fall at every point of the spectrum in deciding how much love we feel we have to give. It can be a powerful practice, however, to expand our sphere of love farther than we have ever done before, and practice unconditional love.
In other words, we can choose to expand who we feel love for, and how deeply we feel that love. If we feel deep love for our family, and friends, but find it difficult to love ourselves fully, or to extend love to people of a certain group (such as members of a certain religion, political party, or social class, or people we deeply disagree with), we can practice loving them. For example, we could think of the person we most love in the world, then imagine feeling the same towards the difficult-to-love people. After all, when we love someone unconditionally, we love them no matter what, such as if a family member holds views you disagree with, or did something awful — you love them anyway.
As it’s sometimes said, “it’s easier to love a thousand people at a distance, rather than one person close up.” In other words, it’s all well and good to have an abstract feeling of love towards everyone, but it’s another thing to carry that out in practice with actual people in person. For example, despite having the utmost compassion, part of us might still recoil when seeing a homeless person, or the mentally ill, or a policitian they disagree with. Or, when we’re in difficult circumstances we might act towards our supposed loved ones with less than total love. Every single one of us can always do better at embodying love.
Contrary to popular opinion, love is a sign not of weakness, but of strength. After all, it takes strength to not let our humanity be dimmed by our opponents’ anger. It takes strength to be confident enough to love even our enemies, and it takes strength to be grown-up enough to love even the most childish members of our vast family.
Once we have embraced love as a guiding principle in our lives (which is completely compatible with every race, culture, and tradition), love can actually give us an enormous amount of strength. For one thing, we can save all the time and energy we might usually spend ‘sizing up’ others to figure out if we like them or not — the answer is always love.
In fact, love can be a compass guiding how we act towards ourselves and others, so we can always tell if we are doing the right thing. It’s obvious that when we speak in anger or threaten others (such as threatening to annihilate another country with nuclear weapons), that is not an act of love. Less obviously, even subtle self-deprecating comments (like if we call ourselves a dummy) are also indications of less-than-total self-love. Whether we are the bully or the victim, love can give us strength to finally let go of old grudges.
Some people choose to make a conscious decision about whether they are focused on their own self-interest, or on helping others. For example, the bodhisattva vow in Mahayana Buddhism is a vow dedicating oneself to constantly working for the benefit of all beings. Others may choose to just try feeling what it would be like to love everyone, or to love existing loved ones more deeply.
At first, the mental parts of this practice might feel artificial, like we’re just imagining loving other people, or like we’re supposed to love others but we know we really don’t. For some, this attitude may shift, and unconditional love starts to naturally arise, such as if there is an opening of the actual heart center, or an awakening experience (as we’ll talk about in future articles). But regardless of what we feel deep down, an essential shift takes place when we approach everythig with love. Whether we believe it or not, when we look at the world through love-colored glasses, the frequency of our energy shifts, allowing us to stay in the ‘Reiki space’ all the time.
Besides, if we really love others 100% of the time, it would transform ourselves, and the entire world. We wouldn’t find any enjoyment in their suffering, and would naturally want each other to succeed. It’s fine to make a reasonable profit, and we’re certainly not proposing an end to capitalism, but if we truly love (or even have a basic level of human decency and respect towards) others, we would lose all temptation to gouge, lie, or cheat. The more we focus on love, the more our priorities shift, as we realize that the usual definition of our own personal happiness is a really small and narrow arena, compared to the much larger and more lasting joy that comes from trying to serve the greater good.
For some people, cultural factors may affect how they relate to love. For example, one reason why love is not prominently featured in discussions of Reiki is that traditionally, Japanese people didn’t speak a lot about love. For example, they wouldn’t say “I love you” directly, except in occasional circumstances. Regardless, love can be expressed in many other ways, such as through signs of affection. The key factor is not how love is expressed, but just the fact that we love at all.
With all the benefits that come from opening ourselves up to love, we don’t have to be motivated by concern for others to do this practice. If we don’t feel any real connection to others or sense of compassion, it’s perfectly fine to be ‘selfishly altruistic’. Even if our heart is open a little bit, that can be enough to allow energy to flow up the central channel, enabling experiences of awakening, and connecting with our whole self (both lower and higher), as we will talk about in the next section.
Overall, we’ve seen many different ways that we can open our minds to love. But, as anyone who has truly been in love knows, love isn’t only in the mind. The heart plays a crucial role as well, and we will discuss the physical and energetic parts parts of the practice in the next section.
Physical and Energetic Steps to Opening Our Hearts
No matter what attitude we hold in our minds, there is a physical aspect involved as well. While the physical heart is located behind the sternum and slightly to the left of the center of the chest, the heart center in the body’s energy system may be in a slightly different location.
The heart center is usually in the very center of the chest, though some people have stronger energy to the right or left of the physical heart. Overall, the heart’s energetic field is the strongest in the entire body, so may be easier to sense than many other energetic fields of the body.
We may be able to feel our heart center by placing our non-dominant hand several inches over our chest. Where do we feel the most energy? If we don’t feel anything, we can try closer to the body, or in a slightly different location. The more relaxed we are, including our arm, wrist, and palm, the easier it will be to sense the energy.
Another factor at play is how much energy is getting to the heart center, from elsewhere in the energetic system, and many people find that that the heart is the last energetic center to open. The tradition of Reiki uses three bowls to illustrate the three main energy centers (as in the kanji for rei, meaning ‘spirit’, as in reiki or ‘spiritual energy’): the hara (aka the dantian or ‘field of elixir’, centered three finger-widths below the navel), the heart center, and the head center (aka the upper dantian, corresponding to the pineal gland and pituitary gland).
According to Reiki tradition, first we have to build the fire in the hara, then that produces the heat that melts the ice in our head center, which then falls as rain and opens our heart, where energy is refined into spirit. So, if we’re not feeling a lot of energy from our hearts, that could be because our hara or head centers might be dampened or at less than full vitality.
Assuming an otherwise-healthy system (as with any practice, if you have any concerns please consult a qualified medical professional), there are a number of physical and energetic ways to opening the heart center. In the tradition of Reiki, the focus is on the third mantra and symbol that we cover in Level II (Okuden) training courses. While we won’t cover the mantra and symbol here, it’s worth mentioning that the mantra can be translated as “the original self is the true self”, meaning that once we remember our what our true self is, then we are truly whole, and our hearts naturally open.
Regardless of one’s level of experience with Reiki, giving Reiki to one’s own heart can be a deeply beautiful and satisfying experience. The very nature of Reiki is love, so concentrating Reiki in the heart center is powerful indeed. For those who haven’t been trained in Level II, there is value to chanting any mantra at all. It’s ideal to use something that’s personally meaningful (om is a popular choice, not just for Hindus), though you could even just say ‘aaaa’, or anything that comes to mind. Any kind of chanting serves to open the vocal tract, bringing energy to the throat center, which is next to the heart. Once a ‘fire’ has been lit somewhere in our energetic system, it can be spread to the heart — that’s usually easier than starting an opening from scratch directly in a new energetic center.
In addition to the methods taught in Reiki, there are other physical methods as well. The orthopedist Brian Peternell suggests lying backwards on a yoga ball and opening your arms outwards (as long as your back is up to it). In the Tibetan traditions of Bön and Dzogchen, there are a series of movement and breathing exercises called trul-khor that can lead to opening the heart center (for example, as taught by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Chogyal Namkhai Norbu).
The underlying principle behind these various methods is to limber up the arms and shoulders so there is full freedom of motion of the middle to upper rib cage, often with a slight backwards motion of the shoulder blades (like wearing a cape), while generating energy in the body through deep breathing and body movements.
Another factor to keep in mind is that some people seem to have a wall around their hearts, that may need to be gradually released before their hearts can full open. According to Dr. Bradley Nelson (author of The Emotion Code), this wall may be related to the pericardium building up an over-protective layer around the heart, as a natural defense mechanism in times of trauma or severe stress. Even many years later, this over-protection of the heart can make it difficult for us to fully open our hearts, or to fully connect with others. Dr. Nelson believes that this ‘heart-wall’ can be released with magnets, while Reiki may have a similar effect over multiple sessions whether done by oneself or by others.
How to Tell if Our Heart is Open
All the heart-opening exercises in the world won’t do any good if we can’t tell what the results are. So, how can we tell if our heart is open? Some people are more sensitive to energy than others, but as mentioned in the previous section, we can use our non-dominant hand to ‘scan’ above our chest to feel the flow of energy off the heart. If we get a sense of what our energy is usually like, we’ll be able to recognize an opening if it happens.
Some people might experience sudden openings, perhaps like a new window has been opened in the front or back of the heart, like their heart is on fire, suddenly alive, or filled with the buzzing of bees. Teresa of Avila felt that an angel was piercing her with a spear. Others might experience a more gradual opening, such as a physical sensation of openness in the chest, or the feeling of shedding off years’ worth of shut-off feelings. Some might feel suddenly able to relate to others clearly for the first time ever, like a veil has been lifted and we realize that we all are fundamentally the same, and all are worthy of love.
An opening of the heart can also leave one feeling suddenly as raw and vulnerable as a newborn. This points to the need for people to have a basic sense of ‘energetic intelligence’, i.e. consciousness about what our energy is like, and knowledge of how to ground ourselves if we feel too open and ‘spacey’. If in any doubt, take it slow.
Even if a physical opening doesn’t happen, we can all practice feeling more love and gratitude for what already exists. Everything will come in its own time, and other energy centers may need to be opened before the heart is ready to bloom, but it’s always up to us whether we want to see the world through the lens of love or not. All we have to do is fully bring to mind the feeling of unconditional love for one being, whether that’s ourselves, a significant other, a family member, a friend, or a pet. From there, we can expand outwards, to however wide a sphere as we’re willing to extend our love – to our family, our group, our nation, the whole world, the universe, or all of existence.
What Happens Next
We recommend trying this practice for at least a month. Even if there is only incremental progress, that’s something. No one would be unhappy with even a little more love in their lives, and the wonderful thing is that love is a completely renewable resource. We can make more of it anytime we want, in any moment, and we will never ever run out.
Once our hearts are open, they can fully serve as the very center of our being, the lighted jewel that balances the lower half of our self (associated with our hara, as well as our animal self, the physical body, and the unconscious) and the upper half of our self (associated with our head center or upper dantian, as well as the higher self, Buddha self, Christ consciousness, wisdom mind, spacious mind, luminous self, or Self).
Furthermore, our hearts must be open at least a little before awakening experiences are possible. Along with a strong energy source (which is generally the dantian, or ‘sea of elixir’ in the center of the hara), each energy center along the spine needs to be open at least a little. We have talked about awakening experiences in other posts, but the main point here is that the heart is a crucial linchpin along the central channel. Without a heart that’s at least a little open, it would not be possible to gain the benefits of awakening experiences, such as an explosive improvement across all types of intelligence, a marked increase in creativity, visionary insight, connection with the divine, and a natural flowering of compassion.
Even without any opening experiences, there is a lot of value in practicing love. The more often we practice looking at the world through a lens of love (whether we believe it fully, or are ‘faking it until we make it’), the more love we are actually giving to ourselves. If we choose to walk around constantly angry and upset at the world, that doesn’t hurt our enemies, it only hurts ourselves and our loved ones. On the other hand, love lowers our stress hormones and our blood pressure, so is a gift of health and sanity to ourselves and everyone around us. If we choose to take a chance on love, it can transform us and the entire world. Isn’t that worth giving a try?
Let us know what you think. Happy New Year from Los Gatos Reiki!
Peace and Love.