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Over these past weeks and months I’ve become increasingly perturbed and angry about the increasing violence all around us: in our backyards, our communities, across the globe.

I find myself agitated and afraid at times. I struggle with the intensity of my emotional reactions to it all. I find myself disgusted and incensed at the current level of political arrogance that disallows real, genuine discourse about how we live our lives together.

I often don’t know what to do, if indeed I can do anything.  It feels lousy.

Recently I was reminded of a story that mindfulness teacher Sylvia Boorstein once shared with her students. On the evening of the 9/11 tragedy she’d received some emails, the last of which said, “Pray for the people who died. Pray for the people they left behind. Pray that your heart stays open.”

Pray that your heart stays open.

That’s the challenge, yes?  When I am afraid, my heart begins to shut down, I withdraw my energy and attention. I am less present to life. It is difficult to love.

When my heart is open I can be with whatever comes, no matter how ugly or confusing. When my heart is open my mind becomes clear, decisions are easier.

My heart may ache with the tenderness of suffering, yet when I diligently commit to being openhearted, I am alive and connected to the world around me. I can respond to suffering with compassion and love.

The good news is that our hearts can stay open. With practice.  Here are a few of the things I’ve been doing, and will continue to do, to keep my heart open to life.

 

Practices to cultivate an open to heart

  • Cultivate gratitude every day. I remind myself of the many blessings of my life. The trick here is to be specific e.g. I am grateful for the green space all around me on my walk. I am grateful for the laughter of the children on my block. I am grateful for the consideration of my assistant at work each day. And, to share your gratitude with others too, as gratefulness is infectious.

 

  • Maintain my practices.  Sitting practice, working out, aikido, writing-all these practices create space for me to be with life’s challenges, to work the conflict within myself. And, of course, offering kindness to myself when I don’t keep these perfectly, supports my continuing efforts at diligence.

 

  • Refrain from blaming.  This one’s tough, as it’s much easier to blame when I’m scared and uncertain. Conflict is generated by attachment and greed, fear and hatred. Actively refraining from blaming allows me to listen more deeply to others’ concerns, to hold political views and preferences without becoming confused by anger of the moment.

 

  • Drop the storyline. I don’t know about you, but it’s easy to get caught up in my stories, especially those that hold the allure of being unfair, outrageous, and catastrophic. However, when I can drop the story about how bad it will all be, since I really don’t have a crystal ball or know the future, peace comes a bit easier to my heart, literally, and my breathing slows back to normal.

 

  • Monitor my input. What am I taking in each day? A diet of agitation from the daily news? While keeping up with current events is a primary responsibility of any good citizen, limiting the agitating input allows my heart to stay open vs slamming shut in overload each evening.

 

  • Remember history. Disagreements, conflicts, wars and violence – – none are new in the course of human history. The speed of global communications today keeps all informed as to when we’re in trouble so we can move quickly to intervene. Since as a species we have, and will likely continue, to recover from difficult times, perhaps such top notch communication can actually serve our collective will to be a stand for peace and healing.

 

  • Nurture my senses. Reading poetry (I love Mary Oliver, Wendell Barry, and Rumi), listening to jazz (think Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck to name a few), getting out in nature (long walks and gardening) all serve to nourish my creative juices and allow me to feel myself as a living creature on this living planet.  My heart opens.

Our ability to sense ourselves, our connection to one another, and to the earth offers hope that we can do something.  We can craft new ways of being and living together that keep our hearts open and turn conflict, and even violence, into a generative resource for our shared future.

Won’t you join me in cultivating your own open heart?