By Dr. Reggie Ray, Spiritual Director, Dharma Ocean, and author of The Awakening Body, available from Shambhala Publications.

In Sanskrit, the word “Mahayana” translates to “the Great Vehicle” and is a stage of interpersonal sensitivity and commitment that develops very naturally as practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism follow the path of meditation. In Buddhism, the Mahayana stage is a body of compassion practices that are about developing the sensitivity of our feeling, sensing, and intuiting capacities of the heart in relation to our connectedness to other people and the entire universe. We are deepening what our heart already knows, and we need to remove the veils from that sensitivity to open it up. When we do that, we start to see people completely as individuals, and we begin to see that we have a natural love for them. We don’t have to force it or manufacture it—we have a self-existing, relentless love for other people and a desire to connect with them. And we realize that this selfless lovely at the foundation of our own fundamental state of being.

Along these lines, the Mahayana takes our embodiment as human beings and deepens and universalizes our felt sense of being human among others. The experience of practice in the Mahayana typically unfolds in several stages, and each stage represents a further development of the sensitivity and tenderness of the heart. Here is a guided meditation that will show you what I mean: simply put your attention on your heart, more specifically your “heart center,” at heart level right in the center of your chest. Just be there and feel whatever you feel. As you continue, visualize that you are breathing into your heart center with each in-breath trying to feel it coming into your body directly, right at that place. Continue with this practice.

First, we might feel quite numb. I can’t feel anything. I can’t feel my heart. At a certain point, through breathing into the heart, you might begin to feel something. You may feel like your heart is in a vice, it’s constructed, it’s dead. That’s fine. You keep breathing. You want to run, you want to scream, you want to tear your skin off. You want to do something to open up your shut-down, armored heart. Although it is very painful, there is so much good inspiration in that; it is your heart beginning to wake up, to know what it is feeling.

In the next step, many reports feeling actual physical pain in their heart — it’s sore, aching. Someone might practice with this discomfort for a time, but eventually, emotional pain will likely begin to come up. This first level of emotional pain is related to our habitual neurotic upheavals, our basic emotional freak-outs that get between us and relating openly to others and the world around us. We call that level of pain the first veil.

As we work with the material of the first veil, we begin to come into a deeper level of heart awareness. Through this Mahayana practice, we begin to sense the open, empty space that lies right at the center of the heart. At this stage, spend some time exploring this unconditioned space of the heart and opening it further. In the training, we now see that this space is nothing other than the basic space of awareness, emptiness that we may have glimpsed in our previous meditation practice. Now we see that this basic awareness is also the underlying reality of our heart.

By developing the feeling of the unconditioned openness of our heart, we are providing psychological room for ourselves to experience our pain and the pain of others in an unconditioned way, without feeling that we are polluting ourselves or taking any of it into ourselves in a solid way. The heart can never be tainted, injured, or compromised; because it is grounded in the unfathomable expanse of our basic nature, there is never any place for anything to land or stick. We learn here not only that we can afford to love in a completely open way but that that is the only way to truly love.

To learn more about Dharma Ocean and Somatic Meditation, visit www.dharmaocean.org.

About Dharma Ocean

Dharma Ocean is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.