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Lions Roar : March 2007
4 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2007 56 Opening your heart: maitri practice OUR HEARTS ARE always fundamentally open. They’re just covered up sometimes by doubt, hesitation, fear, anxiety, and all kinds of self-protective habitual patterns. The practice of opening the heart is based on exploring and reversing some of these patterns. We cultivate openness while noting and dissolving the habits that obscure our natu- ral sympathy and compassion for others. At the physical and energetic level, we have an actual heart and surrounding area that can feel shut down and blocked up. So we can work on opening that area, bringing more prana and blood flow and breaking through the constriction and tightness that may have become normal for us. DAVID: Even though we might feel quite alone in our life and our practice, in the bigger picture we live in an interconnected web with others. The measure of success in our meditation practice is not how much we can transcend the pain and con- fusion of our own existence but how much we can truly con- nect with our lives, and with the others who share it. After creating a proper ground by training our mind, it is a natural evolution of our practice to develop care and consid- eration for others. In fact, there are many meditation practices that are intended to develop kindness and compassion toward others as well as ourselves. One such practice is called maitri. Maitri means loving- kindness or unconditional friendliness. It can be a natural outgrowth of mindfulness and awareness, but it is also a fur- ther step into overcoming and transforming our habitual pat- terns of selfishness and aggression. Maitri is a contemplative practice that encourages us to use our thoughts and imagina- tion creatively. We actually use the thinking mind to help us develop sympathy toward others. In some sense, we have already trained ourselves to be self- centered, uptight, jealous, and short-tempered. We can also train ourselves to be expansive, open, generous, and patient, because our thoughts are not as solid as we have made them out to be. They actually come and go in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with a tendency to repeat certain patterns that have quadricep strength; strong, loose shoulders and lower back; long, stretchy Achilles tendon; and cardiovascular stamina. But you don’t need all that to work your way into it. You just need an open mind. The first time in Utkatasana is fine—for a moment. But when I make the yogis stay longer than they expect, the resis- tance sparks start flying. Some students try an out-of-body experience—anything to ignore the intensity of this challeng- ing pose. I bring them back with “What are you thinking? Where is your breath?” Finally, I move them into a flowing sequence where Utka- tasana becomes a happily forgotten memory, until I take them right back there again. This time I invite them to find their own way to make this pose workable. “What would it take for you to find ease? Perhaps you could widen your arms, bend your legs less, use less effort, observe your feelings changing.” Of course, the third time they come back to the pose they are ready and somehow it’s not so bad. I tell them that utkata means “powerful” and ask them to figure out for themselves how they can feel power without being effort-full. This goes on, and with each Utkatasana I can feel their atti- tude shift. The dreaded feeling of physical struggle transforms from an eyes-rolling-here-we-go-again feeling, to a sense of possibility, to I-can’t-believe-she’s-doing-this-again, into laughing out loud. What would have happened if we’d only done one miserable Utkatasana?