Living a Spiritual Life: Refining the Qualities of the Heart

by Brahmani Liebman and Jashoda Edmunds

Over our years of practice and studies, we’ve received this message from the contemplative traditions: “There is a place that is already awake and whole. You only need to turn to it to recognize that which you already are.” We have found it comforting and affirming to realize that we don’t need to try so hard.

But sometimes it’s difficult to remember this, so there are practices and teachings that help us experience this place of wholeness. We think of these practices and teachings as maps to awakening.

There have been many maps over the years for us. From the yogic tradition, the yamas and niyamas, the chakras, and the eight Limbs; and, from the Buddhist tradition, the 10 Paramitas or Perfections, which offer guidelines for day-to-day living. 

Just as with the yamas and niyamas, it is said that if you pick up one, the rest follow, this is also true for the Paramitas. These perfections of the heart already exist in our own hearts, even though we may not be living from them. Luckily for us, there are practices that help support living from these qualities. Often when we hear teachings, we resonate with them because there is a place of truth within us that recognizes them. Our dear friend and teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, “I love knowing that all of these qualities are the natural, built-in inclinations of the human heart.” It is said that the Buddha needed to perfect each of these qualities before becoming the enlightened one.

Take a moment right now and, as you read these words that name the innate qualities of the heart, pause for a moment and feel your experience.

Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy, Patience, Truthfulness, Determination, Loving-kindness, and Equanimity. 

You might feel more in touch with some qualities than with others. You might wonder how to cultivate more compassion, question what renunciation means, or recognize a need for more patience.

There are practices that can support us as we stumble through this life—specific meditations and asanas, for example, as well as teachings that speak to the heart. They spoke to ours when we first heard them. When the inner voice says yes, we know that this is something important to investigate.

Let’s take a look at one of these qualities of the heart and how we can integrate it into our practice, our teaching, and our lives. The Buddha said that starting with generosity is a good idea, because we all have something we can give away. Giving is not limited to the material world. The practice of generosity develops the habit of sharing, helping us feel less needy and more content.

Let’s look at how we can practice generosity on the mat or cushion.

Simply recognizing that we all have something to give away becomes the practice. For example, on the mat or cushion, when teaching, and in your life, you can give away the idea of having to be perfect or any discursive thought that you bring into awareness. It starts with setting a clear intention to practice generosity by paying attention to the moment with acceptance, and remembering to let go of unskillful dialogue that plays in the mind.

When this arises, we can whisper to our own heart, Sweetheart, you’re suffering, take a breath and relax. Or, let go, let go. Or, there you are again. We humans are very good at giving ourselves a hard time. We don’t need to improve upon that. This practice allows us to see the critic and let go a thousand times.

Here’s another example of practicing generosity: When we find ourselves caught in a disagreement with a loved one, we can see it, stop, take a breath, and give away our need to defend ourselves as we choose to respond rather than react.

As teachers, we teach what inspires our life. In order to teach anything, it is important to practice both on and off the mat. We love to sit with teachers, listen to dharma, read, and then apply what resonates with us into our personal lives and make our best effort. We stumble and fall, just like everyone. This is why we are grateful to the path that includes the practices and teachings that provide the potential to live from an awakened heart.

Here are a few of the approaches we offer in classes and programs, developed and implemented over our many years of practice and teaching.

  • Create a theme for the class, series of classes, workshop, or retreat.
  • Guide meditations and asanas that support the theme.
  • Offer dharma talks while students are in Yin Yoga poses.
  • To integrate, give students time to reflect at the end of class on what was meaningful for them to take into their lives. You might also use journaling, dyads, and small- or large-group discussions to deepen the inquiry.

Every moment offers an opportunity to live and teach from what inspires you as you walk the path of a spiritual life. 

Find out about upcoming programs at Kripalu with Brahmani Liebman and Jashoda Edmunds.

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