Guide to developing presence
This page takes you on a journey through everything you need to start cultivating heartfulness in life and practice; connecting with the heart from each part of your being. On this page you will find:
Introduction to Heartfulness
Heartfulness is bringing a sense of sincere presence to experience – you are willing and able to meet things as they are in this moment.
It arises from being open to experience and it gives you access to a state of clear-seeing and presence, where you feel aligned with your intentions and the world around you.
It is very much about connection – removing the barriers between you and your inner world, other people and life.
Some of the things it can manifest as are a direct knowing, ease, a sense of experience all flowing together through one sense-door, non-duality, spaciousness, a general sense of not being separate to the world around you, a feeling of alignment and a deep sense of faith and trust in life.
The heart states – compassion, joy, inclusion, friendliness and gratitude – are the gateways to heartfulness. These are different to emotions in that they are a state of being, rather than a feeling. They are a way in which you open to receiving the world.
Each of them is a slightly different form of the subtle, loving and connected quality that heartfulness infuses experience with.
It is important to recognise that all of these states are not reliant on specific behaviours or for the content of experience to be a certain way. You don’t have to be being an angel to be being kind or friendly, for example, in fact it is just as important to meet darkness and challenge with these attitudes, as it is light. This is where a lot of the depth of practice will come from.
If you are willing to meet the most difficult aspects of experience with an open heart this cultivates a depth of heartfulness that doesn’t rely on you being at a retreat centre in order for you to be present.
It can be easy to feel a sense of joy when you are relaxing in beautiful nature, not so much when you are faced with the challenges of every day life. This capacity can be cultivated, but it requires you to let go of the mind’s fixed ideas about what the heart states are.
Spirituality can’t only be about connecting to the light, or even about transmuting the darkness to light – it is about seeing that all aspects of life come as a whole. There is no light without darkness, no satisfaction without challenge, no happiness without sadness, it is all part of the deal.
It’s All a Process
Heartfulness can’t be perfected. There is no final state you can arrive at where nothing is painful or challenging anymore. You have to take it step-by-step, meeting the ways in which you resist experience and opening to them with a whole-hearted attitude and willingness to show up.
There’s no solution to life, if there was life would have solved itself and we wouldn’t exist any more. There is just a process to be experienced. Increasing your capacity for heartfulness allows you to be more present, aware and connected for more of the time.
Heartfulness practice is a bit like gathering up different bits of experience that you normally resist and bringing them home – integrating them back into your being.
This can be incredibly mystical – there are large parts of experience that people resist because they are strange and go beyond a normal human way of experiencing the world – and it can be incredibly simple – opening to the ways you interact with the very mundane and normal parts of life.
The more you have opened your heart to experience and the more you have integrated into your being, the less you need to be managing or controlling the situation anymore. You are free to just be here with everything as it is; whether it is hard and you are unhappy or it feels easy and you are full of joy.
Well-held shared practice is inordinately helpful for deepening people’s capacity for heartfulness. Receiving compassion from someone, having emotions that normally makes you feel ashamed met with a joyful openness, being seen through the eyes of a kind friend and generally being appreciated for exactly who you are in that moment is a gateway to fast and pain-free heart-opening.
It can allow you to relax into a part of yourself that you normally resist. This will open this up to you in a way that you can then take this sense of freedom away from the interaction with you.
The more you develop heartfulness in your own practices, the more you will be able to hold space for others. This is part of the fruit of the labour.
The following practices introduce more heartfulness into your meditation and life.
Creating an Environment Conducive to Heartfulness
Your environment is so important for shaping how you feel and who you are.
It’s not possible to be open to your life if it is filled with stuff that isn’t aligned with what feels most true and meaningful to you.
Putting some conscious effort into thinking about what feels most aligned with your deepest desires and getting rid of the things that aren’t is vitally important to developing heartfulness.
For most people the primary thing that is stopping them tapping into open-hearted presence is a lack of space and time.
People are so overwhelmed and bombarded with stuff that they are constantly on the back-foot. Rather than being open to allowing stuff to impact them, they have to be controlling and managing themselves and the situation the whole time. People are in a perpetual state of holding their shit together just enough to deal with the next thing, then the next thing.
This is because we live in a culture that is utterly obsessed with stuff and productivity. Our culture has been carried away with capitalism and growth and it has normalised drowning in an utterly absurd amount of belongings and commitments that suck all of the life force out of everyone.
People are so numb to the absurdity of it that is has not only become a badge of honour in our culture to be insanely busy all the time, it has become a source of shame to NOT be busy all the time.
I cannot stress this enough. We are going to be the period in history that people will look back on and say,
‘WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY DOING WITH ALL THAT STUFF?!’
Your environment is so important in shaping how you feel and it is possible to create one that supports you being open, connected and joyful.
The simple rule for this is asking, ‘does this spark joy?’ and if not, ‘is this absolutely necessary for my survival?’ for literally everything in your life and cutting away anything that the answer is not a resounding yes for.
I would definitely recommend reading Mari Kondo’s book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’ in order to develop your skills in decluttering and to help you understand some of the common resistances that people have to doing it.
Some people find it quite hard to face this, but the reality is that if we want to live in a world that is sustainable people need to get better at consuming and owning less stuff.
Throwing stuff out (or ideally donating it) can feel counter-intuitive, as if stuff is going to waste, but when you get used to being surrounded only by the stuff you love you exist in a much more sustainable way.
We will only be able to create a more equal, loving and alive world that everyone can be present in if we get better at decluttering all the physical stuff and commitments that aren’t important.
Your desires, intentions and a general orientation towards thriving in life are some of the most sacred and whole-hearted parts of experience.
To embody these desires for growth in a heartful way, you want to let go of fixed ideas of how you need things to pan out so that rather than being a mini-dictator, you are able to dance and flow with what life brings.
You want to spend time with being present with what desires, needs and intentions are here for you in this moment. It’s important to bring them into the present moment, rather than seeing them as a fixed place that you are going to arrive at in the future.
This helps you see life as a process that can be enjoyed, rather than a goal that can be reached. You never arrive anywhere final and even when you get somewhere significant it often feels different to how you imagined it.
Everyone holds lots of scripts about what they should be doing, which come from people’s minds, and ideas of things that they need, which come from their bodies. You can incorporate these things into your relationship with your intentions, but you also want to make space for your heart’s deepest desires.
Here are some ways you can explore your intentions. It may be useful to set a 2 minute timer for each of these, in order to stop yourself over-thinking and allow yourself to just let it flow out:
- Make a list of all the things you think you ‘should’ be doing with your life. Getting your shoulds off the top of your head and out on the page will allow some space for your deepest desires to emerge into. Review whether you could let go of some of your shoulds and think about how this would feel.
- Make a list of all the things you think you need in life. Again, these are really useful to include and validate so that you can be clear where you’re moving from and know that you have your needs covered. Are there any needs that you could let go of?
- List all of the things you would love to have in your life, try not to filter this too much with realism, let your imagination run wild just for this exercise.
- Once you have done these three steps, look at this list of values. Notice which ones you feel drawn to and which ones you feel encapsulate some of the things on your lists. Choose 3 that feel most important to you. These can represent what feels most important and alive for you right now.
- Create a vision for your life that incorporates all these things. There can be specific details or it can be very loose and vague – but see if you can hold it lightly and not get fixated on it needing to happen in the way you are imagining it. It’s more like a compass that can point you in the right direction to be moving towards rather than a plan of where you are going to get to.
One of the important things to recognise with intentions is that you never ‘arrive’ at your destination.
If you would like to dive further into this, I have written a guide to intention setting for spiritual practice, here.
The heart space is where we are most connected and least separate from each other. This makes it the most beautiful relational space to be in when you are aligned and the most difficult relational space to be in when there is conflict.
Learning to hold yourself with a heartful presence even when you are facing challenges or are in conflict to others and being able to communicate from a heartful place is one of the most powerful skills you can learn in life.
When you are in your heart-space, it can be really hard to separate ‘your stuff’ from ‘other people’s stuff’ because everything is so interconnected. Your emotional responses and intentions are so tied up in everyone else’s that it takes practice and skill to be able to include all this and still be clear with yourself and others.
The thing that keeps people out of whole-hearted communication is misalignment between what they truly feel and think and what is possible or desirable to express within any given setting. The tension between the felt truth of an individual and the accepted norms within a culture.
In order to increase alignment, space needs to be made for this conflict to be included.
People resist including conflict in their experience because humans are tribal animals. We have evolved to rely heavily on keeping the peace at almost any cost because being rejected from the tribe or causing disruption or rifts was deeply dangerous throughout most of our history.
Now people are physically safer, it’s really worthwhile to create a more spacious and mature approach to conflict. It’s possible to learn that in having some wholesome conflict the consequences are mostly not as bad as your brain would fear and if done well, more freedom, truth and love can emerge.
In order to achieve this the group or the pair need:
- To make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to say what feels important to them in their experience, and that they feel they are able to speak honestly even if it makes others uncomfortable.
- To know how to own their own projections.
- Everyone who wants to input to the conversation needs to have the courage to speak clearly and openly about their emotions and what they want. This requires a certain level of vulnerability.
- To know how to listen to people and receive the meaning of what is important.
- To know how to problem solve together – i.e. how can you achieve a solution together that comes from a place of acknowledging everyone’s truth and ideally meets everyones needs and desires?
Often a resolution will arise that can meet everyone’s needs, but not always. If not, the resolution needs to include recognising the conflict. This can be a really hard conversation to have, but an example of how a resolution could look is:
‘I understand that you don’t want me to do this because it will upset you AND I am going to do it anyway because it is important to me’
The ‘and’ is really important. If you use a ‘but’ in the middle of the sentence, then you are undermining the other person’s emotions and/or intentions in order to make your decision seem easier or more right. If you are using an ‘and’, you are including the conflict within your state and explicitly using this to inform your intention.
The essence of what you are trying to achieve here is that heartfulness includes our desires and needs as individuals and our desires and needs as a group. If you go too far towards one or another you end up with selfishness or co-dependency.
If this is something that you would like to learn about in more detail, I would recommend the book, ‘Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most’ by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. It’s a game-changer.
Shame is the biggest barrier to being present with experience as it is. It is the sense that your feelings and desires aren’t valid and you can end up adopting it from being around people who don’t accept you as you are.
Know that your feelings are valid and that you are worthy of your desires. Find people who accept you, validate you and love you for who you are.
It is always worth learning more about shame and freeing yourself from it. I would recommend Brené Brown’s TED talk and books if you want to explore this further.
Trauma leads people to close their hearts in order to protect themselves, which then leads to judgement and prejudice.
People who are traumatised are unable to receive certain information into their hearts and this causes them to form judgements and prejudices against certain information.
Rather than recognise this within themselves, people project this back out onto the world. This practice is about recognising these judgements and consciously dismantling them so that you can receive information more openly and respond with more clarity.
In order to do this, you need to recognise the things that cause you to close your heart. Notice things that annoy you or frustrate you or make you cynical or aggressive.
Spend some time digging into what is happening underneath. How does it make you feel or how does it put you at risk? What is the thing you are trying to protect yourself from?
The purpose isn’t to invalidate or bypass those feelings, but to be able to be with them more directly, while you are in a situation where you know you are safe.
Rather than feeding the idea that the situation or person is bad, you can learn to sit with the emotion and/or desire that is arising in you underneath the judgement.
You won’t necessarily find these prejudices sat on a cushion. You need to go out in the real world in order to allow the world to impact you. It can be difficult to spot your own prejudices, so it takes an intention of opening to the world and noticing when your defence systems are up.
It takes a level of honesty and vulnerability to look at yourself clearly and see the dynamic for what it is.
People also apply judgements to themselves. If you free-write about your emotions and what you most want in the world you will find parts of yourselves that you are not allowing. Practice sitting with the emotions and sensations that this brings up and see if you can push through the resistance to express what feels most true.
Judgements are one of the things that keep people safe. Letting them go can make people feel exposed and vulnerable. If you can do the work to reintegrate these painful parts of you, you develop a degree of resilience and stability in experience.
You expand your comfort zone so that you can be present with a wider range of emotions and other people’s experiences.
Learning the process of removing judgement from your experience allows you to receive the world more freely; to respond with less hate and be in connection with more love towards yourself and others.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t still have strong opinions, feel angry or want to change things, it just means that all of these things are coming from a cleaner and more open-hearted place.
Reflecting on Heartfulness
Heartfulness is increasing your capacity to show up and allow all of what is happening both inside and outside to impact you.
When you have developed it, it can create a sense of ease, openness, connection, clear-seeing, resilience, compassion and understanding in your experience; but sometimes the way to developing it can feel like the opposite of this. You have to face your difficulties in order to overcome or integrate them.
If everyone focused on cultivating heartfulness, then we would live in a much more joyful and equal world where people would be able to be present with their experience more often.
The qualities of the heart, like joy and friendliness, are not something that you can hoard to yourself in the same way that money can be hoarded. They are a shared experience. And often the heart’s deepest desire and satisfaction comes from directly helping people or contributing to society.
Here are some questions for helping you reflect on your practice and how you could develop it. Choosing one or two to focus on is a good way to start:
- Describe the ways in which your environment is a positive reflection of who you are and who you want to become. Which aspects of your life or environment are most challenging for you?
- Describe the ways in which you feel most connected to the world and people around you. Describe some ways that you feel disconnected.
- When are some times that you feel emotionally open and aligned with your intentions in life? What situations make you feel closed and separate?
- Name some aspects of yourself, good and bad, that you accept whole-heartedly. Name some aspects of yourself that you reject.
- Describe some traits in others that you really appreciate and enjoy connecting with. Describe some traits that make you very judgemental.
- Name some situations that you think you see more clearly than others. Name some situations where you think you are often a bit deluded.
- Describe how it feels to be separate from the rest of the Universe. Describe a way in which this is painful and a way in which this is positive.
- Describe some moments when you have felt most aligned, at one, or non-dual with the world or others. Describe some moments that you are able to recognise the interconnectedness of life.
Heartfulness Meditation Practice
Having an open heart is the key to pretty much all good meditation and spiritual practice. You are developing the capacity to open to a wider range of experience and this capacity for connecting with experience is centred in the heart-space.
If you can connect with your heart in a meaningful and alive way, this will make practice richer, faster, more productive and easier.
Arriving in Your Heart
There is a way of understanding heartfulness and the heart states metaphorically, but there is also a way of experiencing them very viscerally.
Having a felt-sense of being present in your heart space is a great way to access this way of being and to embody a sense of heartfulness.
Here is a short 5 minute meditation for connecting with your heart space.
Radical Open-Hearted Acceptance
The heart-states offer us a unique way of creating a container of acceptance towards yourself and your life, even when things are hard.
Heartfulness is a commitment to being with what feels most true in this moment.
You are validating your emotions and experiences and being willing to be honest and sincere about them, even if it is just with yourself. You are taking off your armour and being present with what is here.
To open this up you want to create a full and inclusive sense of your experience. The best way to do this is by connecting with the different aspects of the heart and allowing space for this to include your darkness and challenge.
Here are some questions to meditate on:
Gratitude: What is something you feel grateful for in life? No matter how small.
Friendliness: How would you describe yourself through the eyes of a good friend?
Compassion: What is your biggest challenge in life? How does this make you feel?
Joy: What is something that gives you joy in life? What is something dark that you find joyful?
Inclusion: What else feels important to recognise about you in this moment?
Here is a 40 minute guided meditation on radical open-hearted acceptance.
Concentrating on Suffering Practice
Counter-intuitively it is often through concentrating on suffering that you are able to increase your capacity for heartfulness.
It is the things in life that are most painful or difficult that people close their hearts to so if you can to learn to open to these things, that is what is going to create a resilience and depth in your ability to meet life open-heartedly.
Being present with your suffering can also create a sense of connection with yourself and others. Rather than focusing on holding yourself together, and being the person you think you need to be, you are able to be with yourself in your emotional realness. Everyone can connect more deeply when they are able to be vulnerable and emotionally open with each other.
Concentrating on suffering is about finding the aspect of experience you are resisting, peeling back the layers and really giving it space to express itself.
Resistance, shame, judgement, fear, ignorance, control and addiction are all ways that the mind keeps us safe from emotions that we have learned aren’t welcome in experience, for various reasons.
If you can create an environment where it is safe to access these emotions it creates an opportunity to reframe your relationship with that aspect of experience – for example, if you feel sadness, rather than jumping straight into judgement you may be able to be present with the direct emotion.
This is a much cleaner, clearer, more honest and ultimately heartful expression of your being.
Once you have made space for an emotion to express itself in your experience, you will have integrated it back into your being. This tends to shift your relationship with it.
Sometimes it transmutes and goes away completely, other times it is still present but you don’t feel so contracted around it – it is more welcome to be present in experience as one aspect of life.
Any interpersonal practices that allow room for sharing difficult emotions and vulnerabilities are also good for this. If people have space to share their struggles, it creates an opportunity to notice how they can actually be a point for connection, rather than a source of shame and pain.
The first step in concentrating on suffering is being honest with yourself, allowing yourself to feel what you feel and embracing where you are with something. Even this step can be a profound release for suffering.
Concentrating on suffering is essentially a type of taking and sending, but rather than thinking about taking in negative energy and thinking about sending out positive energy, you are feeling the difficult things that are inside of us and opening to them so that they transmute into a part of experience that you can meet with love and understanding rather than fear, rejection or judgement.
If you get lost at any point during the meditation, you can go back to the first step.
Step 1: Body
- Set a timer for a short amount of time and commit to being present for that length of time
- Do 5 deep breaths into the heart space, getting as absorbed as possible into this part of experience
- Identify something in experience that feels painful or challenging in some way
- Dig a bit deeper underneath the surface or follow the thought back – what is the feeling underneath that you are trying to avoid feeling?
- Does it have a location in the body or experience?
- Remember to be compassionate towards yourself – the pain that you feel is valid
Step 2: Heart
- Describe the emotion or sensation that you are feeling
- What shape/ colour/ energy is it?
Step 3: Mind
- Ask yourself if there is some fear or shame or judgement that is getting in the way of you being present with what is really there – if so see if you can release some self-judgement around this.
- Remember that there is no such thing as a bad expression when you are meditating in a safe space
Step 4: Soul
- What does this emotion you are connected with want to do?
- Does it want to release in some way – for example, through crying?
- Does it want to be seen and understood?
- Does it want to say anything? Or express anything through imagery?
Having the courage to show up for the challenging parts of life is how you grow up.
In order to be resilient in the world we live, you need to have a capacity to bear your pain and difficulties with a strong and open heart, to be able to open your heart and mind to the suffering that is in you and the world and be real about it.
Heartfulness isn’t about sugar-coating experience or needing it to be something different to what it is. It’s about showing up for experience with courage and openness, whatever that experience is.
Explore more about the heart in the whole being awakening framework