I once knew a woman who lived directly from the heart. I'm not just speaking here of a good-hearted kind individual, but of one whose immediate instinct in any situation was concern for the other. There wasn't the slightest movement of mind. The seeing and response were directly and immediately from heart.
I often illustrate this sort of heart first by referring to a mother's instinctive act to jump in the water to rescue her drowning child. There is no intervening thought process and no hesitation. There is the experience, a knowing in the heart, and a selfless action. And, there is not a moment of separation between the three.
Now I never saw this individual jump in the water to save her child. But I did see enough to know that this is how she lived in the world. Whether it was the simple act of standing back and holding a door for another, offering a smile and kind word, anticipating and meeting the needs of others before even known to the individuals involved, or innumerable and hardly noticeable small acts of kindness, decency, and civility.
It was rather an amazing experience for me, as I have studied the loving heart for years, yet could hardly match this instinctual handing out of mother's care to everyone - impartially, naturally, seamlessly, and without notice. I must admit that even in the best of my moments, and I have worked hard at it, there is an element of thought involved - a gap between experience and response that allows the mind to ponder for a moment.
And when the mind ponders it begins to measure the response against ones own needs, however subtle they might be. And that is living from mind first rather than heart first. And that makes a great difference in a world that suffers from the mental contamination of all of our actions, leaving little room for the peace, softness, and healing of a pure heart.
It's not easy for me to acknowledge to myself the distance I have yet to go. Perhaps heart first isn't even a learned experience. Perhaps it's a natural disposition that comes at birth. Yet I can't help thinking that we must believe it is nurture rather than nature, or there would be no room to grow.
Since the ideal of unconditional universal love is the basis of all great philosophies and religious teachings, we can assume it can be learned. Or perhaps it is not as much learned as self-revealed as a possibility innately present in every one of us. That is, once we can move our inner dialogue out of the way, disentangling the heart from its man-made constrictions.
I can't say this friend of mine has always had an easy time of it. The mental world that we live in can hardly recognize, less value, the genius and tenderness of the heart, except when it is coming in our direction. Because such individuals don't live in a world of self-protection, it's easy to fall victim to the modern and pervasive tendencies to control and manipulate for personal gain and satisfaction. These special ones are very open and vulnerable. That's both beautiful and can as well be quite painful, when not properly held.
There are many approaches to opening the heart. The most personal and direct are the practice of meditation, which aims at silencing the mind and its tendency to wall off the heart. Equally powerful is selfless service to others, which erodes the primacy of self-concern. There are other methods as well whose aim is to enhance loving-kindness and diminish self-cherishing.
With patience, time, and determination we may come accustomed to the openness of heart and observe how it slowly becomes our center of feeling and action. And, we must hold those who live heart first with sacredness for they just might save our world by serving as a model for all of us seeking a more other-centered life.