I don’t know about you, but over these past weeks and months I’ve become increasingly perturbed by the 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’ve felt that I don’t know what to do, if indeed I can do anything.
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.”
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 to keep my heart open to life. Maybe they’ll be useful to you too.
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 e.g. how do I want to show up given this stress, pressure or conflict?
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 and religious views and preferences without becoming confused by any anger in the moment.
Drop the storyline. I don’t know about you, but it’s easy to get caught up in my own stories, especially those that hold the allure of being unfair, outrageous, and catastrophic. However, when I can drop the story about how bad and awful it will all be, since I really don’t have a crystal ball or and can’t see into the future, peace comes a bit easier to my heart. Literally, my racing heart slows and my breathing slows back to normal, my mood can settle and open.
Monitor 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. So I limit or turn off the TV. I ride in the car with the radio off. I only read the newspaper on Sundays.
Remember history. Disagreements, conflicts, wars and violence—none are new in the course of human history. We know this. And today we know it sooner as the speed of global communications today informs us—in real time—when we’re in trouble. The good news here it that we can move quickly to intervene. As a species we have, and will likely continue, to recover from difficult times. Perhaps we can trust such top notch communication to 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.
Listen. We’re wired for connection. To one another. To the earth. So stop to listen to the concerns of your friends, colleagues and community members. Listen deeply. For inspiration, engage in a conversation with someone you typically wouldn’t, and listen to their hopes and fears and concerns. Even if you don’t like them. Maybe especially if they make you uncomfortable. It’s at this edge that our hearts either open or close.
Our ability to sense ourselves, our connections to one another and to the earth offers hope that we can do something. With practice we
can craft new ways of being and living together that turn conflict, and even violence, into a generative resource for our shared future.
How are you keeping your heart open?