How the Heart Opens

Starting with being dumped out of the birth canal, we immediately begin dealing with an ongoing and completely unreliable system of getting our needs met, despite our mothers’ – and later, fathers’ best intentions. Consequently, we learn before long that to live here, we need to protect ourselves from all the things in the outer (and eventually inner) world that threaten us, make us anxious, invalidate who we are and hurt us, physically or emotionally. At the beginning we can’t even express ourselves verbally and often when we can later, we are either not listened to or not understood. We learn that the most adaptive thing we can do is close the heart, forgetting the miracle all around us, and make our lives ego-centered, based on our consolidating all the thoughts, fears, feeling and instincts we have manifesting in us, moment by moment.

Unfortunately, there comes a point of diminishing returns, however. Sooner or later we’ve forgotten joy, we’ve become narrowed, distracted, anxious, impatient, defensive, needing to be right and caught by the (very real) craziness of what’s going on outside of us. The material world’s heart is not open. But what price do we pay for this protection we’ve built around our hearts? A quick look at all the vices, aggression, defensiveness, violence, anxiety, depression, addiction (including electronics) and suicide out there and you have your answer. And remember, when we parent with closed hearts, we condition our children to follow suit.

What sometimes happens is that we get where our suffering has reached the point where the idea of finding a different way of living gets strong and persistent enough to override all the resistances we have, generated by the poor ego, and we begin to commit ourselves to a path where the heart opens. This inclination to go deeper can also be triggered by other forms of suffering. The way in can be yoga, psychotherapy, meditation or other spiritual practices. It can be any combination of those and more. The goal is the same in all: We want to get back to that joy of the open heart, which we then bring into the world with a new generosity, radiance, commitment and enthusiasm. When I watch the world today, particular in and close to the political realm, I know that opening the heart will be the only way out of this mess we have created on this beautiful, amazing planet. Don’t give me credit for that, however; it’s been suggested by the Jewish prophets, the Buddha, the Hindu saints, Christ, Rumi, and more recently, greats like Gandhi, Einstein and Mother Teresa. The news is also being spread by today’s great meditation teachers – Sharon Salzberg, Krishna Das, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chödrön, etc. All of them have spoken of the opening heart as the way to meet darkness. All of the above have believed and lived by the rule that we cannot fight hate with hate; we must bring love to the conflict.

I’d like to share a little personal story about heart opening.

I recently found myself at a seven-day silent retreat. (Okay, it was my idea to go!) If you’ve never done this, you’re probably thinking how difficult-to-impossible it would be. I had the same fears. But having committed to it, I waited as it approached. When my anxiety level got pretty high, four days before leaving, I thought it would be a good idea to speak to my old Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. He had always been a deep, loving, generous and enthusiastic teacher and we had connected well. He had recommended such retreats in the past. Okay, I thought, what encouragement can he offer?

I wrote him an email, to which he responded quickly and warmly, and eventually, we spoke on the phone. He sent me another email in which he shared his own retreat experiences in detail, with remarkable clarity, vulnerability, and openness. It really helped. And since we try to get to the concept of Oneness, he reminded me that he would be with me.

He was. Many times when a challenging moment arose, I would let him come to mind and I was comforted. It was amazing! It felt as if his presence were real. And I believe it was. During what was for me the most profound heart opening meditation of the retreat, we were initially instructed, in order to feel protection and openness, to imagine the presence of a loving mentor at our backs, a loved one to our right and a much younger and innocent version of ourselves to the left. I had my meditation teacher, with his love, experience, and commitment to the process, behind me. I won’t get any more personal than that, but suffice it to say that those three in my head helped me have the most incredible heart-opening experience of my life. At the very end of the meditation, I saw, eyes closed, a very clear image of a steep, dark mountain on the horizon with a brilliant yellow sun rising above it. I felt the image was a promise and it has stayed with me.

So I humbly offer my profound thanks and gratitude to all those, from the very beginning, who have been trying to help the heart open. I’ve always held the thought that the Buddhist monks meditating all day are far more helpful to the planet than any military defense system we have created or dreamed of.

Find a way, my dear friends, if you haven’t yet, to move toward opening your heart. You will see and feel so much more and want to bring it to a planet that so desperately needs your love.

Comments and questions?

James N Kraut, Psy.D.

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