John J. Prendergast: The Deep Heart
TS: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more, or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is John Prendergast. John is a spiritual teacher, author, psychotherapist, and retired adjunct professor of psychology. He’s written a new book with Sounds True called The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence, and a previous book, In Touch: How to Tune In to the Inner Guidance of Your Body and Trust Yourself.
John has a gift for pointing out subtle experiences. I find when he points them out, I’m suddenly able to discover and name things that were in my experience, but I wasn’t fully conscious of them previously. Here, we’re addressing one of the most important topics of all, our very own multidimensional heart. See what John points out. Here is my conversation with John Prendergast:
John, I feel so happy and lucky to have this chance to talk with you about your new book, The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence. The deep heart is something that I care so much about and has really been a discovery process for me, and I think probably for many, many Sounds True listeners. So to begin with, what do you mean by the deep heart?
JP: The heart is, I have discovered in my own experience in my work with people both as a therapist and as a spiritual teacher, has just this remarkable sensitivity and depth of both knowing and feeling, so it’s multidimensional. I’ll briefly describe what those levels are and we can maybe look into them more carefully.
Because my original training was as a therapist, I would work a lot with childhood conditioning. A lot of the wounds of our childhood are stored in the body, in the body-mind, in our thinking, in our feeling, and in our sensing. And one of the main areas that are impacted is the center of the chest, the heart area. When people feel a lack, that they’re unlovable, or they’re unworthy, or many variations of lack and flaw, very often their attention would drop deep into that area of the heart.
Of course, some people are very numb and kind of armored in this way. But, when people are really interested in exploring and letting their attention turn inwards, very often it centers in the heart area because this is an area of where we feel ourself and we point to ourself unknowingly with our hand. We put our hand on our heart when we’re talking about something that—when referring to our deep self, or our deep feeling.
So, my initial forays into the heart were more in the psychological conditioning and working with the inner child and sense of deficiency, of lack, of flaw. And also, there is a lot of healing in integrative work to do there on the level of learning to sense what’s there and learning to feel what the feelings are and learning to see what the beliefs are that are a part of this complex that is deeply held in the heart. Very often what would happen as this would begin to open, as people would begin to get in touch with these younger parts and younger dimensions of their self, they would get to an area that was very innocent and very tender, that the literature would speak of as the magical child, and this was a very interesting area. It’s like, prior to the conditioning, there is this quality of innocence and openness and awe.
So really in the beginning of my work as a therapist almost 40 years ago, I began to tap into and work to this area, work with it. And the work has only deepened, not only with my clients, but in myself. A sensitivity has emerged over many decades of inner exploration where I can track my clients and my students in terms of the depth of their investigation of their feeling, of their sensing into the heart area.
What we’ve discovered and what I’ve discovered is that in this very tender and innocent place, we get to an area that I call the soul, poetically. This is kind of the individual essence or personal essence, a kind of a particular flavor that we show up with that’s unique in the world. It’s an area of the archetypes also, whether we’re a healer, or a protector, or a teacher, or many variations of these.
When we tap into that soulful level, there is such an intimate connection that we feel with life, with ourselves, and with others. It’s really deeply gratifying to meet one another, to touch this level. It’s felt at a very, very profound level, a very, very, deep, deep level of the heart. I’m describing this almost like it’s a tunnel or a portal. That’s how I visualize it. And as it gets clearer, people deepen in their self-intimacy and their capacity and for intimacy with life and for others.
And then what began to open, I noticed, is there is like a back door to the heart. It’s a portal to actually infinite spacious awareness. And people, in the process of falling back—learning to fall back, learning to trust in something greater that holds all of us and is a source and substance of everything—would feel this kind of opening in the back of the heart, or sometimes back of the head, or elsewhere in the body, but it would be a sense of falling back into and as something that’s totally non-localized and completely open. So this is—in my work with people and I think in the last 10 years in particular, this last aspect, the opening of the back of the heart, has been more evident both in my own experience and my work with my clients.
So, when I speak of the deep heart, coming back to your original question, there is a psychological depth in terms of our early childhood conditioning, getting in touch with parts of ourself that we’ve compartmentalized, that we’ve suppressed and oppressed and split off. And that can be a very revelatory and healing process in itself, so that’s one level of psychological depth. Then deeper still is this soulful level of unique expression and intimacy that we feel within ourselves and between ourselves and others, still subtly with the self and other, subtly dualistic. And finally, this final opening that is essentially nondual, where we feel our wholeness despite whatever human conditioning we have, our flaws and limitations, an essential sense of wholeness and our non-separateness with the whole of life.
This is something that really opened up for me on one of my last retreats with [Adyashanti] from 12 years ago, 12, 13 years ago, and has just continued to kind of open and deepen. It’s something that I’ve been able to help facilitate awareness in others. So deep heart has all these psychological and soulful and nondual dimensions.
TS: Let’s talk about this back door to the heart, where we can fall back into non-local, undivided space. For someone who has not had that experience, can you point that out to them right now and maybe invite that discovery?
JP: Well I could, possibly. So, for instance, we can do this as a little experiential exercise. The invitation for the listeners would be to bring your attention to the heart area in the center of your chest and you can put your hand in the center of your chest as a kind of anchor. Imagine that you’re breathing directly into and out from the heart, so you take a few slow, deep breaths. This is a way of bringing attention down—which is usually localized in the forehead—down into the heart area.
We begin to sense into this area in a very innocent way. It’s not that we’re looking for something in particular; we’re more willing simply to sense and feel and explore. Each breath allows our attention to go more deeply, so there is a sense of deepening. And a little bit more deeply. We may begin to feel like attention is dropping back, falling back. Each breath allows us to fall back a little bit more. We’re shifting from a place of knowing to not knowing, a place of trying to control to an attitude of trust.
And if we’ve ever floated on our back in warm water, sort of that feeling, a sense of relaxing, letting our body-mind be held, and attention continuing to drop and open. We may be able to feel a sense of space behind our backs, behind the back of the heart area. And if you do, I invite you to fall back further. In a way, let yourself be held by this sense of spacious awareness. And notice if there is any boundary to this space. And notice too, there is a quality of wakefulness, openness, and also a quality of affection or love.
Let yourself be held in this field with a sense of your inherent wholeness prior to good or bad, right or wrong, prior to any conditioning, a sense of your natural inherent wholeness. And knowing yourself, not only held in this awareness, held in love, but know yourself as this love. This love that has no conditions, no boundaries, and embraces you and everything else exactly as it is. And knowing this spacious loving awareness is actually not separate from anything else, yourself included, as a source and substance of everyone and everything. And just resting in and as this open, loving, awareness that you are.
TS: Well, that’s a very good experiential introduction to The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence. I’m grateful for that, John, because we can talk about it a lot, but really the important thing is to give people a sense. You know, interestingly, you mentioned that it was 12 years ago when you were on a retreat with Adyashanti that a deeper level of this was revealed, discovered, for you and your experience.
TS: The question I have is, how come it seems like it often—not always, but often takes us being in the presence of someone who is in touch with this deep heart for our deep heart to kind of get the hang of it, using my language?
JP: Yes. Well, this is the phenomenon of resonance. I think it really is the most important part of the role of the teacher, actually, much more than the verbal instructions because a teacher is—an outer teacher is really someone whose discovered this for themselves and has a gift for pointing it out to others and inviting them into it, so that they know their own deep autonomy. And so, this speaks to the role of the teacher, I think.
But sometimes this will arise spontaneously. In rare cases, there are people really awakened deeply to this awareness without a teacher. But in many, many cases, a teacher plays a pivotal catalytic role. I think it is because of this phenomenon of resonance. That is to say, we can feel the truth when we are in the presence of it.
It’s interesting. As I say this, I think of my two main teachers, Jean Klein and Adya, and I find myself close to tears. There is something so profoundly touching to be able to meet someone who has recognized, at least in a deep way if not fully, the truth of their own awakened heart, this heartfelt understanding. This same awareness is in us implicitly. When we are in this presence, we feel it. We sense it on some level.
This was my experience when I first meet Jean Klein in 1983. I walked into the room—he was in Sausalito, he spent several months a year in California, and he was in the Bay area and I walked into the room; I couldn’t see him, but I felt his presence and something shifted within me. I knew I had met my teacher. It was just intuitively obvious that this was the right guy for me. That’s a mysterious process as well.
But I would just sit in Jean’s presence, and after he passed away, I had the same experience with Adya, really the same quality of presence and I would just fall into it with them. This became a kind of template for my own body-mind to orient to. I had the felt understanding of what this deeper truth is and gradually it came more into the foreground of awareness. Which was kind of interesting because it was shortly after this retreat with Adya when I’d gone to—I must have gone to every retreat he offered. This was between 2001 and 2006. I would get a notice from the email that he’d be offering a retreat and I would just without thinking sign up.
And then shortly after this opening happened for me, I got a notice, an email notice of his next retreat and I wasn’t moved to go. I thought, well, what’s going on? But what I realized is that he had actually done his job. He had managed to share in some way this understanding, and that’s why I was spending time with him. And now that I, that understanding was clearer, it was up to me to really sit with it and live with it and further refine it, so that it was a living truth and the need to be with a teacher fell away.
So yes, this phenomenon of resonance is, for me, very important. We’ve had a few conversations in the past, Tami and you know I have this kind of kinesthetic orientation. I feel things deeply kind of in a subtle level of the body. This has been such an important guide for me and my work with people and has, for my work from very early on, has helped me attune with where people are and help them kind of feel what’s emergent in terms of a deeper sense of authenticity and truth. This is kind of the main theme of my earlier book, In Touch, which is the body has a sense of what’s authentic and what’s true.
So the heart area, is one of those portals, one of those areas that has unusual sensitivity in terms of feeling and understanding and what we refer to as “heart wisdom.” We access the same awareness through different doors. Through the mind, it brings a sense of clarity, spaciousness, freedom. Through the heart, a sense of deep love and gratitude and appreciation. And through the hara, the lower belly, we have a sense of this profound stability that helps provide a foundation for the openheartedness and clear mindedness as well. I’m rambling.
TS: I like it, John. I like it when you ramble. You’re an unrambly person.
JP: Oh, I know.
TS: So when you ramble, it’s music to my ears.
TS: Now, as we started the attuning to the deep heart little practice that you guided us through, you talked about how our attention usually is localized in the forehead.
TS: What I noticed, and I noticed this throughout the book The Deep Heart as well, every time you offered a practice and we began by breathing into our heart, I was suddenly like, “Oh, let’s go to a different region than the region I normally am in.” So my question is, how is it, why is it that attention is usually localized in the forehead for most of us?
JP: Yes. Well, I think it’s for a couple of reasons. One is, it’s developmental. It’s just the way human beings are wired, that we rely increasingly on the strategic mind that develops. Our cognitive capacity develops when we’re children and really comes into the foreground in early adolescence. In a complicated society that requires many decisions and processing of information, it’s a particularly valuable tool, so that’s the education system and the culture. My guess is, is that in cultures that are not so structured in this way, maybe more hunter/gatherer societies, they’re not—attention does not localize so much in the forehead. But, we have a lot of data to process and decisions to make, and the mind is oriented exactly to that, to decode patterns and to envision possibilities.
It’s fascinating actually to watch the mind and to see this beautiful tool at work, what it does, and the extraordinary benefits that come from that. Of course, our whole scientifically based culture is, relies on the mind and its ability to try to know and try to control, and this is another piece, to try and survive. So, our reliance on the mind and on knowing is very hooked up with survival, of course. And so, we’re afraid also to let go of this wonderful tool and open to a different way of operating in life.
And so, I sometimes, in more kind of cognitive language, think that we’re shifting between operating systems from a mentally oriented to a heart-oriented or heart- and hara-oriented, whole body–oriented way of living. This was a developmental step too, because we’re letting go of who we think we are. It’s a natural developmental step to create an image of ourself and to differentiate and individuate to feel ourself as a unique human being. It’s a very healthy developmental step.
But, there is another step to go, which is not to deny that level, but to recognize that there is actually a deeper truth as to who we are and to begin to question our stories and our images and our ordinary egoic identity. And as that happens, attention is less fixated in the prefrontal cortex. There is a natural shifting of attention and dropping of attention down into the depth and interior of the body.
So, this is something that’s very interesting. This is why unlearning is so important. We’re not so much trying to cultivate something new, but we’re actually needing to review our lessons and see their limitations, see the limitation of the mind, and see that what we have given primary authority too is actually not the deepest truth, and not the deepest intelligence, and certainly not the wisest aspect of our self. I’m not original in this, but I often say that the mind is a good servant, but a poor master. So, it’s not about negating the mind, but it’s actually about seeing its limits, seeing that there are places that it can’t go. And particularly when it comes to our true nature, which is non-objective, the mind really needs to understand that it can’t understand. It needs to know that it can’t know.
So, this is a very important part of the teaching, and it was true in Jean Klein’s teaching and in Adya’s as well, is that we get comfortable with not knowing. I still work with getting comfortable with not knowing, particularly when I have something I think I have to produce or perform in some way. The old network operating system comes and says, “You need to do a good job.” What I realize is that listening to that actually gets in the way of a much more fluid and heartfelt intelligence. So it’s a huge and radical and really ongoing shift, I think, for attention to de-localize from the forehead and the brain and to find its home in the heart and in the hara as well.
TS: Throughout the book The Deep Heart, you take people through what I would call are heart-centered inquiry practices, where we’re inquiring and moving directly into our own hearts to do the inquiry. One of your instructions is when you ask an inquiry question, “Don’t go back up to your mind to find the answer to that question.” So how do we do that because I think a lot of times when we ask questions, we get answers in our mind, right? How do we stay at the heart, so that we connect with the heart’s knowing?
JP: Well, exactly. You’re alluding to a kind of primary practice that I share in the book, which is heartfelt meditative inquiry. And in it, when we sit with a question, we may pose a question. It can be more existential. For instance, such as, “Who or what am I really? What is my true nature?” Or it could be an inquiry into a core limiting belief that we may have that I’m lacking, or flawed, or unlovable, or separate. But, the invitation is for attention to drop into the heart area to pose the question, to let it go, and to not go to the mind for an answer. And as you just suggested, Tami, when we pose a question, we usually go to our mind for an answer, so how do we not do that?
Well, we notice a shift of attention. So, we’re beginning with our attention in our heart and then when we pose the question, we notice where our attention goes. And if people just are given that instruction, “Don’t go to your mind for an answer,” very often they’ll notice an initial impulse of attention going up to the mind to try to think about it. And then recognizing that, attention drops back into the heart area, so that just kind of knowing that there is—a sensing of the shift of attention between these two areas can help anchor attention more in the heart area.
Another way is just you begin to get the feel for it, because the response from the head is very different from the response of heart wisdom in the following. From the heart—from the head rather, we tend to get kind of linear, analytic answers and they tend to be unsatisfying, and they tend not to be accompanied with a felt shift. That is to say, there is no opening. There is no aliveness that comes with it. There is no sense of surprise. And often, there is a quality of assertion or judgment. So, these are all qualities of the mind.
The quality of the heart is different. It speaks in a different language, and not just the heart, of course, but the whole body is a conduit for a deeper wisdom. So, there is a bit of education in terms of felt sensing, that there—the body has its own kind of language and process and wisdom, if we’re willing to be open and to listen to it, And it will come, sometimes it comes spontaneously. It comes surprisingly. It may come in images. It may come as sensation, subtle sensation. It may come as feeling.
For instance, when I sit with a question and just let it drop in and kind of live with the question and quiet for a little while, something lights up inside first. It’s vibratory. It’s kinesthetic. I may notice some sense of aliveness, some sense of luminosity. I know there is a response. This is like my body’s response to the question, so I’ll track that. I’ll just pay attention to that and often an image will come and then later some words will come and it will all have a congruent sense to it.
Some people are not as kinesthetically oriented, so they may be more visually oriented, so an image may arise. Some people are auditorily oriented, so it may come as a song, or a phrase, or even a sound, or some combination of those. Sometimes the knowing just comes as a direct quite recognition of say, the irrelevance of a particular belief that we’re carrying—that we’re a worthless human being. It’s not replaced by the belief, “No, I am worthwhile”; it’s just like the whole question falls away in the simplicity of being who we are. This recognition of a different way of knowing, it’s quiet. It doesn’t assert. It doesn’t insist. It doesn’t judge. It’s infinitely patient, [laughs] unlike the judging mind. We begin to get the feel for it.
Now, one of the things I’ve noticed when I work with people when I invite them to do this form of heartfelt meditative inquiry is that they are quick to dismiss what comes. It’s maybe too simple. It’s too direct. They may, say, inquire into some core limiting belief that they have and they just feel a sense a simple luminous sense of being, just a sense of radiance within themselves. And then they’ll dismiss it because, well, that’s not an answer. Just sitting with them, I’ll ask them to say, well, what comes? And because I have a sense of the authentic when I sit with people I can say, no, this is coming from a different knowing. Stay with this a little more. Let it unfold.
It’s very interesting. In a way, it’s like learning a foreign language, but it’s not truly foreign. It’s like learning an original language that speaks more in metaphor and poetry in this multi-modal way. So, not only listen to it, but—and this is a point that I’ve really emphasized in my last ten years of working with people—is to really let it in. This is so important. It’s like we’re tapping into something that is so precious and so profound. It’s really important to let ourself receive it. And that means, let the body-mind kind of breathe it in. Let the cells, and the energy-body receive this. This is where the real transformation happens. This is where our body-mind begins to shift and orient to a deeper truth, and we begin to make either a sudden, or gradual and slow transformation, or often both. Occasionally, it will be sudden, and often gradual, transformation and orientation to our true nature.
The metaphor that I use when I sit with people and kind of guide and support this process, it’s like the body-mind is being bathed in the light of awareness. There are all these areas of confusion and fixation and attachment. When this old operating system—that is, we could say egocentric primary and based on a separate self—is exposed to this light of awareness, light of loving awareness that we touched in earlier with our little guided meditation, it’s like it’s bathed in this luminosity, in this radiance, and in its true nature, and it begins to melt. And all the places that have been icy and contracted and confused begin to soften and begin to melt and begin to actually recognize their true nature as well. Like, the true nature of the mind and the true nature of the body as expressions of this field of pure consciousness of loving awareness.
TS: OK, John, I want to ask you a question that is maybe, I don’t know, too physical. But, what I’m curious about is when you described the multidimensional nature of our deep hearts, you didn’t say anything about our actual physical heart on the left side of our chest. What’s the relationship between these different dimensions of the heart to our physical heart?
JP: The honest answer is, I don’t know. It’s true. I mean for me, the center of the heart is really distinct from the physical organ. That’s kind of an interesting point because I know there are certain traditions that see them as the same; in some, I guess, early Christian teachings and The Philokalia point to that, but that’s not my experience.
So, I wouldn’t be surprised if distress, like emotional heartbreak, may affect the physical heart in terms of stressing it and possibly creating some complications. It may also be true that having kind of more regular heart rate variability may support more emotional calmness and capacity to deepen, so there may be some ways of working with biofeedback, for instance, as an ancillary process. But in truth, I don’t know.
TS: OK. Well, I’m going to ask you about an aspect of the heart that I think you do know something about that you write about in The Deep Heart, which is you talk about the right side of our chest as being the place of a subtle energetic dimension that you refer to as a “sea cave,” and here’s where you write about it. You say, “For years, often in the middle of the night, it felt like this area on the right side,” of your chest, “was being drilled through with a diamond lathe or operated upon by an unseen surgeon with a laser.”
JP: Yes. This is something I actually in the past haven’t talked about very much because it’s fairly esoteric and I gave it only a few paragraphs in the book. But, I felt in writing about the deep heart that it would be remiss on my part at least not to mention it. So, this is something I had read about originally when I had, many years ago, maybe 40 years ago, been exploring the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. He spoke about a heart on the right side of the chest, kind of two finger widths or breadths to the right of the heart, and spoke of it as kind of the seat of the self.
When I first read about it, I had no experience of it and no understanding of what he was referring to. But about ten years later, and this is maybe after the five or six years of being with Jean Klein, I began to have a feel for it. It just began to open as an area of sensitivity, and as I wrote, very often there was a period, probably a decade, I think, where there would be this process. Usually, I would be aware of it after two hours of deep sleep, but I would awaken and it felt like the area was being drilled on. There was a sense. It’s like this area was trying to be opened up. I really don’t know how to talk about it other than what you just read, wrote. What I wrote and what you read, the sense of just this kind of drilling through from front to back on the right side of the heart.
And then at some point, it’s like the drilling was done. The opening was completed. And with it just comes this sense of profound, it’s like, I don’t know, connection with the Divine, if you will, to use religious language. This connection with profound gratitude for life itself. And for whatever reason, because I really put no conscious attention on developing this, this is kind of a resting place for awareness now. One of the main ones when I’m not involved in some kind of project, just attention naturally dropped down into the heart and then just kind of rests to the right side.
TS: And explain this reference of a sea cave.
JP: Well, this is more poetic license on my part, if you’ll allow me. It’s just in the depths of the sea and it’s like a cave. Ramana spoke of it as a heart cave, and I liked that description. And so, I combined the deep sea, because I use the metaphor of the egoic awareness of being like a wave tip, and the wave base being more soul level and the ocean being our non-local awareness. That this is a very subtle level of energetic sensitivity and thus would be more on a soul level, a subtle energetic level. Thus, in kind of a sea cave.
TS: OK. So, spontaneously after a couple hours of sleep, this right side of the heart energetic area started being drilled open in your case. Now, if someone is listening and they’re like, “I’m curious about this. I’ve never had an experience of the right side of my chest having anything to do particularly with my heart. I don’t know this energetic center.” How could they begin to discover it?
JP: OK, so I think the first thing is to, for someone who may be interested in this, is to actually look at what your own motive may be. And if the motive is just kind of out of to accumulate experiences, or out of just curiosity, I don’t think that’s sufficient. However, if there is a sense of resonance—and this is a principle we get back to again, if there is something that really lights up in you and as you hear about this, then I think you can begin to bring attention there, just in terms of listening.
I’ve never been one to try to make things happen. I’ve more really been interested in being intimate with experience, staying close to experience and allowing what’s natural to unfold. And so, in accord with that principle, I would suggest just bring your attention, if your motive is really to explore some sense of intuitive resonance as I talk about the heart on the right side, then just bring your attention down to the heart area to the center and then slightly to the right side and just let it rest there a little bit and see if there is something that invites attention. And if there is, if there is really something important there to attend to, it will begin to show itself. And if nothing does, then it’s not needed.
So, it’s interesting. I know my main teachers, Jean and Adya, neither one of them talk about this publicly and yet, both of them are familiar when I’ve asked them, in the past, about that. They both have a sense of it. There is an interesting story that I actually originally wrote in the book and that we edited out where the librarian from Ramana Ashram—his name is David Godman, he’s written a number of books—went to visit the Nisargadatta Maharaj who some of your listeners will recognize as a famous sage in Bombay—went to see him in the late ’70s. He asked him about his relationship with Ramana, and what Nisargadatta said was his one regret in life was that he never met Ramana, and he was in complete accord with all of Ramana’s teachings except his teachings about the heart on the right and he had no idea what he was talking about. So, if Nisargadatta was not experiencing it and it wasn’t important, then I don’t think it’s central.
This is true for Ramana as well. If you look into Talks with [Sri] Ramana Marharshi, it’s a good source book about his description of the heart. He spoke of the heart really as the very center of our being, the very center of consciousness, but that that consciousness is non-local. He said this is what’s really most important. Don’t worry about energy centers. Don’t worry about the heart on the right. What’s most important is to discover who you are, essentially, and to live from that. So, I would say that to your listeners as well: this is kind of a interesting esoteric aside that may or may not arise, but I don’t think it’s central to really discovering who you really are.
TS: It may not be central, but it’s interesting to me that it was so spontaneous and has been so important to you.
JP: It’s true. Well, that’s been true of many things. That’s, I think, how this unfolds for each of us. There is a unique kind of expression, and who knows why. As I said earlier, when I was initially reading Ramana I didn’t really have a good feel for his teaching, but just looking into his eyes, just this incredible luminosity and love that I could sense, I knew that this was a very extraordinary being. Yes, there are causes and conditions that are unknown as to why understanding unfolds in particular ways and that’s certainly true with the heart on the right.
TS: So, it’s interesting. We’ve been talking about the multidimensionality of the deep heart and the deep heart as a portal. And we talked about the back of the heart and now the right side of the heart. But I think what most people experience, I think—and I’ll certainly speak from my experience—is connecting with the woundedness of their heart. The ways that our hearts have been covered over. The way that we can feel like a hard acorn someplace in the center of our heart.
JP: A hard shell, yes.
TS: Yes, a hard shell. And you actually write in The Deep Heart that our wounded hearts can also be a portal, so talk about that, John.
JP: Yes. As I mentioned in the book, this is really one of the most surprising. There have been many surprises in my many years of working with people. But, to discover that these apparent wounds are often incredible portals to our essence has been really, really interesting. So for instance, with the heart, if we have experienced neglect or abuse, as many of us have either discreetly or as part of developmental trauma, it really impacts deeply this area of sensitivity. If we kind of look inside with our inner vision, very often it can look like a bombed-out area, like a crater. This is what Almaas talks about as “deficient emptiness.” It’s a place we don’t want to go because there is so much pain that’s stored there. There is a sense of lack. There is a sense of hurt and unworthiness. It’s not something that we want to show to anyone else, and so we lock it away and we guard it. It’s kind of a no-go zone.
But what’s interesting is that when we have the courage and the vulnerability and the love of truth, we’re willing to begin to enter these places because we know that they’re important. We’ve left something important behind. And this is a very fascinating principle, that these areas of sensitivity that have felt so hurt actually have their essential nature beneath the wound remaining intact. So, if we can begin to feel and sense our way into the wound, we can see, we can feel and sense what’s beneath them.
So for instance, if we feel like our heart is a bombed-out crater, a place of emptiness, profound emptiness—a bottomless pit of grief, for instance, that’s a very common image. If we’re willing to actually explore, to let our attention drop in, and often it’s helpful to have a guide with us to know, to be reassured that this kind of journey—talk about caving, this is a deep dive into a kind of forbidden cave—it opens up. What it opens up to will look and feel differently for different people. But at the very least, we’ll discover what we left behind in terms of buried treasure, in terms of essential qualities of being. And it may open up even further in terms of spacious loving awareness. So, this is really a Tantric principle, that any experience is a portal into our true nature. And that everything that we’ve turned away from, really, and spent a lot of energy avoiding can be a portal par excellence as well.
And so for instance—and I can remember as I talk about this, we talked a little bit about this when we were talking about In Touch—if you lean into your fear, or your terror, or your shame, or your rage, or your guilt, but you lean in with your awareness and you breathe and you inquire without trying to change it, but just with a willingness to be intimate with it, we’re providing an optimal environment for it to begin to shift and open, of its own. Not because we’re trying to make something happen, but because we’re meeting it with exactly what was absent in the past.
So in other words, what we learn to do is we learn to abandon ourselves when it’s too painful. We have to. It’s part of self-preservation and adaptation. So, if we’ve been in an environment that’s harsh, that’s judgmental, that’s unloving, that’s neglectful, or abusive verbally or physically, we learn to shut down. We protect that native sensitivity and we get on with our life. And so at some point—often it’s somewhere in our 30s, or 40s, or later—there is a turning back and there is a seeing, a sensing and a seeing of what’s been left behind in terms of unfinished business and a return to these child parts and child experiences in a process of embracing them with love and understanding, and we go to those places that we abandoned. And in so doing, we reverse the process of self-abandonment.
This is a very profound process, to first recognize how we have abandoned ourself and then to, by bringing loving and compassionate and clear awareness and attention—affectionate attention, in a word—back to these areas that have been abandoned by others and that we’ve abandoned. We reverse the process and we come back to embracing ourself, and this brings a sense of homecoming. There is something I haven’t mentioned in our conversation yet but when attention really drops deeply into the heart and we feel increasingly peaceful and open, there is a sense of coming home to who we really are. That we are at ease as we are.
And so in this way, these wounds serve as profound portals. These orphaned parts of ourself, these children dressed in tattered rags, they carry jewels in their pockets unknowingly. They bear essential radiance with them and it’s deeply gratifying, deeply gratifying to reconnect with these parts that have been frozen and pushed away and judged and to welcome them back in. And very often, the center of this welcoming is in the heart area.
So, this is an important part of, I think, all of our work and a lot of people have done a lot of spiritual work, but they’ve neglected this deep psychological conditioning and postponed it for many years, hoping that their meditation or their self-inquiry will resolve it. And it doesn’t because it requires . . . it’s relational very often and it’s very deeply emotional, and it requires a special quality of attention and relationship.
However, that said, the quality of presence that we can contact through meditation and being with a teacher and various spontaneous openings, that’s our greatest resource. If we can tap into that sense of spacious loving awareness, and from that approach our wounds, and so-called wounds and frozen areas, then we really help facilitate the process of integration. And simultaneously, if we can approach those areas and as they heal and as they mature, that frees up energy and space for us to more intimately recognize our true nature. So, there is a very subtle interactive process of psychological healing and spiritual awakening that support each other.
TS: No, you mentioned this leaning into these wounded areas as a Tantric approach. And it felt to me that throughout the book The Deep Heart, you were including and showing the value both of a Tantric approach and a transcendent approach and saying both are useful. They’re both good. This is not an either/or situation.
TS: Is that what you’re saying?
JP: I am, yes. I mean, my training initially, spiritually was more towards the transcendent. I mean, I even trained to be a transcendental meditation teacher, so there is the transcendent to tap into this formless, pure awareness. And then my psychological training helped me really ground in the importance of working with our conditioning. And then gradually, I began to recognize the complementary nature of these and how we both need, I think, a transcendent and immanent approach. The value of a transcendent approach is we can step back from our experience. That the presence is always here no matter what we’re experiencing. Everything is happening in awareness. Every thought, every feeling, every sensation cannot happen unless there is awareness. And so, by actually recognizing this background awareness, we can gain perspective and clarity and a sense of space and freedom from whatever our foreground experience is. So, that’s the beauty is that we’re accessing our primary resource with a transcendent approach, assuming it’s truly that and not something dissociative.
On the other side, as we become more intimate with our feelings and our sensations and as our thoughts, we begin to discover that they are all expressions of that transcendent awareness. So, we’re into that, kind of the deep metaphysics of emptiness and fullness and their non-separateness. This, I think, is really—to discover this and have a sense of the complementary nature of both transcendent and immanent approaches allows us to live this in our very ordinary lives rather than in a specialized life that has—is isolated, a monastic tradition, or a monastic environment.
You know, we’re engaged. We have relationships. We have lovers and children and friends and families to take care of. We have jobs to do and decisions to make and we’re active. And yet, we feel—and here I’m speaking from my own experience—an underlying quality of something sacred in the most ordinary experiences and events. So, it’s like there is a luminosity, a kind of quiet radiance to life and to our ordinary life.
So I think that’s why these are complementary. Each has their value, and I think that each can be a kind of—you can get trapped in one or the other. We can get trapped into the transcendent because it just feels there is so much freedom there. And we feel ourselves maybe above or apart from our ordinary human experience. It can be a huge sense of relief. But we can hide out there and really avoid relationship and then be hijacked by our emotional vulnerability and our inability to be in a mature relationship and what commonly known as spiritual bypassing. And we can be so immersed in our experience, our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, that we don’t have a sense of their actual source. And so, we can have a rich personal life, but not that sense of freedom and a sense of that inner, kind of radiance and a sense of being undivided as well.
TS: OK. One final area I want to talk to you about, John has to do with how the deep heart can be as sensitive as it is and connect and respond to what seems like unbearable pain, whether it’s the pain of other people, or pain in the world, pain we read about in the news.
TS: And how this can be an obstacle for some people to open their hearts in the face of that kind of pain. It’s like, “No, I can’t take it. I don’t know. My deep heart is not deep enough.” What do you have to say about that?
JP: Yes, that’s a beautiful and important subject because the truth is as our hearts open more, we do feel the suffering of not only our own, which I think does resolve in time, but of the collective; and not only of humans, but of the biosphere as well, and not only of our current humanity, but of our history and pre-history of trauma as well. So, there is an extraordinary amount of suffering that we are immersed in and experience, and it can feel overwhelming.
There’s actually two points here. One is, the human heart really doesn’t have the capacity to bear that suffering. This is why the discovery of the great heart or the universal heart is so important, because we do have within us, in the depths of our very being, a capacity that’s not personal, that’s really universal, to embrace life as it is, including the worst and most intense forms of suffering. This has been a kind of revelation in my own unfolding, to discover this. So that’s one point, which is the heart is actually infinite in its capacity to love and hold life as it is including suffering, and not to mention tremendous joy and gratitude.
The other point is, and we haven’t talked about this so far or I’ve only alluded to it briefly, which is the foundational nature of the hara. It provides the kind of stability, a sense of safety no matter what. Like, when our deepest sense of ground opens, the groundless ground, we have a sense that we are safe no matter what is happening. It seems paradoxical to the mind, but it’s very much a felt experience. For many people that I work with, this has been the missing part in terms of working with the heart because they have difficulty sustaining an openness of the heart because of this underlying sense of unsafety, of overwhelm, which may be triggering childhood experience. But it may be more collective as well.
So, as important as it is for the heart to awaken, it’s equally important that the hara come online as a kind of foundational support for that. So, the more that that happens or the more we sustain a sense of balance in our compassion and an ability then to respond in a creative way, in a way that’s appropriate for each of us depending on how we’re wired and what our interests are.
TS: So, is it fair to say that what you’re saying is, if someone has the experience, “My heart isn’t infinite. I can’t handle it. I’m overwhelmed,” that they could move down into their—you’re referring to the hara, the belly center?
TS: And that by discovering what you’re calling “the groundless ground,” that spaciousness, infinite spaciousness in the belly, that will help support their heart in some way?
JP: Yes. Yes, it can. Yes, if the heart is feeling overwhelmed that way, I mean, there is a lot. It depends on the person and they may be overwhelmed because they’re caught in a story and that would be important to recognize and see through and release. But also, let the attention shift down even more deeply in the body and feel the sense of stability in the lower belly and the pelvis and the legs and the feet, and feel your connection with the ground and breathe in and out from there. On a relative level, that’s a familiar move of attention in terms of stabilizing awareness and connecting with the earth and our sensory experience, so we’re not emotionally overwhelmed.
But there is this deeper dimension of the ground that begins to open and we recognize that we’re not just this body, or the body is not what we think it is. And we feel ourselves rooted in—well, rooted really in the truth of who we are. This is stabilizing for the heart area.
TS: And on that note, John, can we end our conversation, can you just guide us into that felt experience of both being connected to the groundless ground, a type of infinitude in the lower center, and our heart resting in an open place?
JP: Sure. Yes, I’d be happy to. So to the listeners, to all of you, take a few deep breaths and feel your attention dropping down, not only from the heart area, into the heart area, but also down into your lower belly, an area a little below the navel. And imagine that you can breathe here.
Feel what it’s like to have your center low, and to be seated more deeply in your inner authority, your inner knowing, to trust your deepest knowing as your ground. And as you breathe and feel the pelvic bowl and your legs and your feet, sense into the ground beneath your body, as if you’re breathing directly from and into this underground space. So, you’re inhaling from this space and you’re exhaling into it. And each time you exhale, there is a sense of deepening space and deepening intimacy with this underground space.
Feel yourself held, not only by gravity, but something much greater than the gravity of the earth. Held by the ground of being. So, there is a sense of both opening and grounding. It feels very spacious, but also deeply settling and grounding. Like a great tree putting its roots deep down. But in this case, opening to infinitude.
And as you feel increasingly grounded, and stable, and spacious and open in this underground space, feel your heart. Feel your heart supported by this ground and recognize that it’s safe for you to shine. That it’s safe for the essential nature of the heart to radiate out. And that the true nature of your heart could never be hurt and does not need to be protected. So, sensing that profound sense of safety and ground and the natural radiance, heart radiance that shines. Take as long as you like to enjoy this.
TS: Thank you, John Prendergast. You’re a beautiful, beautiful teacher. I really love the way you point things out. It’s very helpful and warm and loving. Thank you so much.
JP: It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you, Tami.
TS: John Prendergast is the author of two books with Sounds True, a new book called The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence, and a previous book called In Touch: How to Tune In to the Inner Guidance of Your Body and Trust Yourself. Tune into the inner guidance of your body and trust yourself.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at soundstrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback and being in connection with you and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.