Article: What is the Heart Wish?

Lama Shenpen Hookham

“To access our ever-present inner resources we need to connect to what I call the Heart Wish, a place somewhere within us that is the source of all our wishes. By this I don’t mean something we wish for; it’s not our ideas about what we think we would like, but a deep place in our being that those ideas emanate from.

When we ask ourselves what we want, it is as if there were a place within us where we go to look for the answer. As answers come up we return to that place to double-check that this is indeed what would satisfy our wish. What is that place that you direct the questions to?    If you spend a few moments asking yourself things like that, what do you find happening?

Strangely you can then ask yourself if you really want this or that, right in the depths of your heart. Even more strangely the answer is often ‘no’. In my experience the question invariably means something and that people’s attention drops down into the chest area and from somewhere at the heart of one’s being, answers seem to bubble up. In fact, it is as if the answer was already there and one was trying to articulate something that one sensed as a living presence or experience.

For example, you may say you want a new car, but when you ask why and whether this was what you really wanted in your heart of hearts, you tend to focus on the heart and feel something there. As you articulate that, it might come out with the words ‘because it would be such fun’ as if somehow the whole thing was emanating from that wish.  It may take a few more tries such as, ‘because I want to impress my friends’, then if you ask why, it is  because you want to feel confident, and if you ask why again it is because you want to feel happy.

That is where it ends. You want to feel happy because you want to feel happy. Wanting to be happy is always there in our heart. It is our heart-wish, the source of all our wishes. When you think about it, there is something very interesting about that.  It is as if the wish for happiness were there before you articulated it and it remains there to tell you that the articulation is right or not.  But what is that source of both the question and the answer? I am calling it the Heart Wish.

So the Heart Wish is not an articulated wish; it exists even without it ever being articulated. It is just there.  When we really home in on what it is, it somehow seems to go deeper and deeper and perhaps even vaster and vaster.

At first, we may find we just want a little physical comfort. But if we look deeper, we may find we actually just want to feel free of a general sense of a lack of ease and if we look deeper we might find that what we really want is to feel a sense of meaning and if we look at that more deeply we may find what it is really about is wanting a sense of rightness and perhaps happiness, though actually it is something that goes beyond what we ordinarily call happiness. Or we may end up feeling a great longing to love and be loved or a great longing for some revelation that will somehow make everything right.

However one formulates the wish, that place we go to look for it is right there. We know how to go there and how to ask it about what we are wishing for. It is inherent in our nature.  That is  the Heart Wish.

Sometimes I talk about our deepest Heart Wish because what happens eventually is that we come up with some kind of formulation that expresses a wish for our own happiness and the happiness of all other beings.  If we explore long enough, we seem to come to this at the rock bottom.  Sometimes it is deeply buried. Sometimes we think we don’t really care about others or at least not all others.  But when we keep going with this exploration, we end up realising that we hate to suffer and we only want others to suffer as long as we are suffering ourselves.

Once we are no longer suffering, it is horrible to have others suffering around us.  We would naturally rather not have anyone suffering. So deep down, under all the various layers of stuff, we are not going to be fully satisfied until all beings are happy.

You may doubt this, thinking that you have no genuine wish for the happiness of all beings, yet you may still find, when pushed, that you wish you did have such a wish. If you do, then even that humble wish to be able to wish to have a loving heart that wished for the happiness of all, comes from no other source than the deep Heart Wish itself. What makes us think we do not wish for the happiness of everyone? It is invariably the idea that it is a pointless wish.  People do not want to articulate such a wish because it seems silly, irrational and impossible to realise.

Nonetheless, underneath everything, it is there and is always there in everyone.  From the Buddhist perspective, the explanation for why it is always there is that it is fundamental to what it is to be a sentient being. It is essential to our nature and is something that is never not there, never was not there and never will be not there; in other words it is never born and never dies. It just is.

If we could simply link into this wish in our hearts in complete simplicity, this would be to rest in the Awakened Heart. But it’s hard to be that simple. Doing this to the best of our ability is natural meditation. We don’t need any technique more than this really. You could say it is the essence of meditation, free from ego-centric concern, resting in the heart’s deepest wish without busily trying to do lots of things.

So again it is our attitude to our heart wish that is the crucial factor. Are we recognising it, aligning with it, honouring it, celebrating it?  How much is it simply a sentimental idea and how much is it really being allowed to be active from its own side, shaping all that we are thinking, doing and saying?

What is interesting is that when we acknowledge this, some kind of inspiration or strength seems to come to us. It is as if we have opened to some power beyond ourselves.

Getting in touch with the Heart Wish, this place deep inside us that is the source of all our wishes, is at the heart of the path to Awakening and is our surest protection at death. It is the essence of what  is called ‘renunciation’ and of what is called ‘devotion’, which in Buddhism mean the longing to escape from samsara (the endless cycle of birth and death) and the longing for Awakening. When we stray from the simplicity of that place, this longing becomes distorted into all the ordinary desires that drive the cycle of rebirth in samsara.

But the more we can keep linking back into that deep wordless place where all wishing comes from, the more it spontaneously comes to life in us in an effortless and unconfused way. We find ourselves naturally making good choices, slipping into good attitudes and ways of being, and avoiding bad ones. By relaxing into and trusting the Heart Wish when we face death, we create a strong momentum that will cause us to keep making the right choices, connecting us to Awakening, in the intermediate state after death and in future lives.

Connecting to the heart

What we mean by ‘heart’ is multi-faceted and rich and there is much about it that is relevant to how we approach death and thereafter. For example, as well as being the seat of our deepest longing, the heart is often strongly associated with warmth and genuineness of feeling, which at death mean more than anything else in the world. When one’s whole world and all that it meant to you is slipping away, it is only your own and other people’s hearts that can offer any sense of meaning at all.

From the Buddhist perspective, there is much more to what the heart is than simply the seat of warmth and genuineness because there is a sense in which the heart is the gateway into our innermost being. This it our essence or true nature that is not destroyed by death. Since it never changes, since it never came into existence, since it is not conditioned by anything, one can say it is not of the nature of birth and death. It is therefore something we can rely on and trust both in life and in death. There is nothing else we can trust actually. Everything else will be gone.

I use the word ‘gateway’ here because there is a way of connecting to the heart that is akin to entering and letting go into a timeless expanse that is nowhere. It is nowhere and yet somehow of immense value. It is more precious than all that pertains to time and space. People sing about it in love songs. They sing about love that they would give their all for and that goes on forever. What does that mean? They do not really mean they are going to give everything and they know that they are not going to live forever, so what do they mean?  I think, when people say this kind of thing, that they are linking into a  deep intuition of a reality beyond space and time.  This is why this way of talking is so relevant at the time of death. It is reflected in the kinds of things couples say to each other when faced with death or people say at funerals. I don’t think it is sentimental rubbish although sometimes it trips off the tongue as such.

There seems to be meaning in talking about our heart of hearts, deep in our heart, holding someone in our heart, as if there were some kind of inner sanctum or place of innermost sensitivity and yet we know that place is nowhere; it is because of that that it is everywhere. Poets talk like this and in doing so give us a way of expressing something mysterious that we recognise in our own experience.  Such ways of talking bring to those about to die or who are faced with the death of another, the kind of comfort they are looking for. Nothing can change the brutal fact of death, but at least this way of talking re-affirms the meaning and dignity of what it is to be a human being.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is an extract from Lama Shenpen’s book ‘There’s More to Dying Than Death’ available HERE.

The Heart Wish is also section in Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training. The section helps to put us in touch with our heart and our Heart Wish. Living the Awakened Heart Training is a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, that’s open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at