Heart-Shaped Becoming

Being-Becomming-Cover-662x1024I’ve already summarized David Benner’s main points in Spirituality and the Awakening Self (2012), my first Benner read. I’m reading a couple of other books by Benner and enjoy his style and insights into spiritual formation/transformation and human development. I thought I’d share here a few of his thoughts from Human Being and Becoming (2016), ch. 6 (“Heart-Based Becoming”). Enjoy:

The reason I speak of heart-shaped becoming is that the heart has a particularly important role to play in our becoming more than we are. It offers us an alternative to the default human operating system that I described as the egoic self in chapter 5. Like any upgraded operating system, it has to be downloaded to be accessed…

In the wisdom tradition the heart, not the brain, connects us to what exists beyond us. The heart has the bigger perspective. It can see further [sic] than the mind because it draws its data from all levels of reality, including but never limited to the mind. The heart is our spiritual center because it is the seat of imagination and intuition. It is the heart that dreams and, though our deepest desires, leads us forward on our journey of unfolding. It is the heart that senses wholes, “gets” poetry and art, and gives us our expansiveness—stretching out beyond our individuality to connect us to the very heart of the universe. Unlike ego, the heart doesn’t perceive by differentiation but by means of its inherent resonance with wholeness, alignment, oneness, harmony, proportion, and beauty. Is it any surprise that this heart has long been recognized in spiritual teaching as the core of our being? This is the heart that holds both the mysteries and potentialities of human personhood…

The heart is the threshold of the transcendent…

While the heart is the doorway to the self-transcendent, it is a doorway through which we cannot pass without bringing the mind along. The heart is, as I have said, the fullness of the mind. It simply cannot do its job without the mind…

Nothing arising from within the egoic self or the binary brain can be of any help in moving the mind down into the heart. As Einstein said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Typically, however, when we become frustrated by the smallness of our egoic self and tired of its petty games, the easiest thing to do is to use the tools at hand. If, for example, we determine that we would like to be less judgmental, we try to be less judgmental. Or if we feel exhausted by the effort demanded to keep up with the games of the false self, we try to fix the false self. But the will is at the core of these efforts to try to fix things that we think need fixing, and the will is a faculty of the ego. Our effort only strengthens the egoic self. This is the great problem with the self-improvement projects undertaken under the direction of the ego. They only reinforce the root of the problem.

Anything that feels like a default strategy in life always arises from the default egoic operating system. The ease with which we slip into these automatic ways of responding should be a warning signal to us that we are using the tools of the ego to attempt to transcend the limitations of the ego. The only tools that can help the mind find its way to its home in the heart are those that come from the heart. From the perspective of the mind, they seem utterly useless and totally trivial. What the heart offers is an invitation to let go and let be. It bids us to step back from the striving that has characterized our lives and risk, allowing our lives to emerge unshaped by our willful egoic manipulations…

While there may be other ways to replace the egoic self with the heart-shaped self, the one that has been most prized by the wisdom tradition—and the one I can recommend with the most confidence—is the practice of meditation, or, as it is commonly described I the Christian tradition, contemplation. This practice is the access key that allows us to download the upgraded operating system for the egoic self. It couldn’t be designed better as a way to help the mind find its way back into the next of the heart.

The unique leverage mediation offers in this transformational process comes from the fact that it engages the mind through the heart, not the ego. Rather than activating normal mental processes, it sidelines them. Rather than either using or trying to manage thoughts, it simply disregards them. And by doing so, it moves us to a place much deeper than thoughts. It shifts us into the region of the heart.

All forms of meditation pull the plug on the constant self-reflexive activity of the egoic mind by teaching us to detach ourselves from thoughts. But this practice in detachment pays dividends that extend far beyond thoughts.

The human heart has infinite spaciousness. However, each time we cling to something, the heart’s spaciousness is reduced. The more we cling, the more the heart is constricted. And the more things we cling to, the more chronic and life-strangling the constrictions become. Meditation addresses this by teaching us gentle release of the things we are clinging to. This starts with thoughts, but over time we get into the flow of release and begin to notice other attachments that are strangling the heart and limiting freedom. One by one, we release them. Whatever we cling to we can learn to hold lightly by practicing the simple action of release. Doing so unblocks the clogged arteries of the spiritual heart and lets life start to flow freely again through us.

Detachment involves learning to hold things lightly. Non-attachment isn’t indifference or drifting through life without engagement but rather freedom from grasping and clinging—two hallmarks of the ego. Grasping and clinging shut down the heart. Detachment opens it up, and non-attachment keeps it open. The detached heart is free to feel most fully, love most passionately, and guide most dependably as we seek to translate concern into constructive action…

You will begin to see differently as your shift from a preoccupation with uniqueness to a sense of amazement at connections and similarities. As you bypass categorization you will be struck by the larger whole that contains and supersedes all categories. You will also notice yourself moving beyond either/or to both/and, from grasping and clinging to the freedom to release all things. Increasingly, you will intuitively sense the harmony of the larger whole. In the depths of your being, you will begin to know the divine coherence of life and the way in which you and everything else belong within this wholeness. These changes are the firstfruits of what has classically been described as “unitive” or “non-dual” consciousness. But it is important to remember that these things are not achievements. They are gifts. You didn’t engineer them. Your part was simply to access your heart; the rest unfolds as you continue to release the stranglehold that ego previously had on it…

Make it [contemplation/meditation] a life practice, in all senses of the term. Recognize that you are doing it for the rest of your life, and allow it to become a lifestyle, not a fad spiritual diet. Treat it as a way to practice life. Meditation isn’t preparation for life—it is life itself. Notice how you become aware of that fact that rather than meditation giving you a pace to go to, it becomes the place you go from….


Given that I share Benner’s main interest—the why and how of spiritual formation within the context of human development—and my own experience has led to the same conclusions (and fits with Loder’s main insights), I hope to work through several other of his books. The next to read, Presence and Encounter (2014), is sitting beside me as I write. It looks excellent.

Benner is a psychologist, author and speaker. He has held faculty positions and been visiting lecturer at several universities, has held clinical appointments at several institutions, and was the founder and chair of professional organizations and institutes devoted to the study spirituality and psychology. He began his life within an Evangelical Christian context, widened his associations through study and subsequent experiences, and today worships as an Anglican (in Canada).

He does ground his spirituality in Christian beliefs, but his books aren’t overtly “Christian.” The book I just finished (quoted above) never mentions Jesus (though Benner promotes and practices the Jesus Prayer he learned from Orthodoxy) or specifically associates his claims about spiritual health and transformation with specific Christian beliefs. This seems to be a conscious choice to make his insights available to people who aren’t Christians. I can appreciate a certain anonymity or emphasis upon generic insights (for example, Benner grounds his points in perennial wisdom and the transcendentals as variously expressed in all the main theistic traditions). But at times I struggled with the absence of any explicit identification of or with Christ. I couldn’t keep Christ out of my articulation of things the way Benner does.

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