open heart

A heart that is ready for anything

When the Buddha was dying, he gave a final message to his beloved attendant Ananda, and to generations to come: “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge.”

In his last words, the Buddha was urging us to see this truth: although you may search the world over trying to find it, your ultimate refuge is none other than your own being.

There’s a bright light of awareness that shines through each of us and guides us home, and we’re never separated from this luminous awareness, any more than waves are separated from ocean. Even when we feel most ashamed or lonely, reactive or confused, we’re never actually apart from the awakened state of our heart-mind.

This is a powerful and beautiful teaching. The Buddha was essentially saying: I’m not the only one with this light; all ordinary humans have this essential wakefulness, too. In fact, this open, loving awareness is our deepest nature. We don’t need to get somewhere or change ourselves: our true refuge is what we are. Trusting this opens us to the blessings of freedom.

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Buddhist monk, Sayadaw U. Pandita describes these blessings in a wonderful way: A heart that is ready for anything. When we trust that we are the ocean, we are not afraid of the waves. We have confidence that whatever arises is workable. We don’t have to lose our life in preparation. We don’t have to defend against what’s next. We are free to live fully with what is here, and to respond wisely.

You might ask yourself: “Can I imagine what it would be like, in this moment, to have a heart that is ready for anything?”

If our hearts are ready for anything, we can open to our inevitable losses, and to the depths of our sorrow. We can grieve our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost health, our lost capacities. This is part of our humanness, part of the expression of our love for life. As we bring a courageous presence to the truth of loss, we stay available to the immeasurable ways that love springs forth in our life.

If our hearts are ready for anything, we will spontaneously reach out when others are hurting. Living in an ethical way can attune us to the pain and needs of others, but when our hearts are open and awake, we care instinctively. This caring is unconditional—it extends outward and inward wherever there is fear and suffering.

If our hearts are ready for anything, we are free to be ourselves. There’s room for the wildness of our animal selves, for passion and play. There’s room for our human selves, for intimacy and understanding, creativity and productivity. There’s room for spirit, for the light of awareness to suffuse our moments. The Tibetans describe this confidence to be who we are as “the lion’s roar.”

If our hearts are ready for anything, we are touched by the beauty and poetry and mystery that fill our world.

When Munindraji, a vipassana meditation teacher, was asked why he practiced, his response was, “So I will see the tiny purple flowers by the side of the road as I walk to town each day.”

With an undefended heart, we can fall in love with life over and over every day. We can become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We can find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath.

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Put no one out of your heart

Colourful Crayon HeartWe all know people who are, ah … challenging. It could be a critical parent, a bossy supervisor, a relative who has you walking on eggshells, a nice but flaky friend, a co-worker who just doesn’t like you, a partner who won’t keep his or her agreements, or a politician you dislike. Right now I’m thinking of a neighbor who refused to pay his share of a fence between us.

As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: “Hell is other people.”

Sure, that’s overstated. But still, most of a person’s hurts, disappointments, and irritations typically arise in reactions to other people.

Ironically, in order for good relationships to be so nurturing to us as human beings – who have evolved to be the most intimately relational animals on the planet – you must be so linked to others that some of them can really rattle you!

So what can you do?

Let’s suppose you’ve tried to make things better – such as taking the high road yourself and perhaps also trying to talk things out, pin down reasonable agreements, set boundaries, etc. – but the results have been partial or nonexistent.

At this point, it’s natural to close off to the other person, often accompanied by feelings of apprehension, resentment, or disdain. While the brain definitely evolved to care about “us,” it also evolved to separate from, fear, exploit, and attack “them” – and those ancient, neural mechanisms can quickly grab hold of you.

But what are the results? Closing off doesn’t feel good. It makes your heart heavy and contracted. And it primes your brain to be more tense and reactive, which could get you into trouble, plus trigger the other person to act worse than ever.

Sometimes you do have to hang up the phone, block someone on Facebook, turn the channel on TV, or stay at a motel when visiting relatives. Sometimes you have to put someone out of your business, workgroup, holiday party list – or bed.

In extreme situations such as abuse, it may feel necessary to distance yourself utterly from another person for awhile or forever; take care of yourself in such situations, and listen to that inner knowing about what’s best for you. But in general:

You never have to put anyone out of your heart.

How?

When your heart is open, what’s that feel like? Physically, in your chest – like warmth and relaxation – and in your body altogether. Emotionally – such as empathy, compassion, and an even keel. Mentally – like keeping things in perspective, and wishing others well.

Feel the strength being openhearted, wholehearted. Be not afraid, and be of good heart. Paradoxically, the most open person in a relationship is usually the strongest one.

Get a sense of your heart being expansive and inclusive, like the sky. The sky stays open to all clouds, and it isn’t harmed by even the stormiest ones. Keeping your heart open makes it harder for others to upset you.

Notice that an open heart still allows for clarity about what works for you and what doesn’t, as well as firmness, boundaries, and straight talk. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are famous for keeping their hearts open while also being very effective.

Seeing all this, make a commitment to an open heart.

In this light, be mindful of what it feels like – physically, emotionally, mentally – to have your heart closed to a particular person. Be aware of the seemingly good reasons the reactive brain/mind throws up to justify this.

Then ask yourself, given the realities of this challenging person, what would have been a better path for you? For example, maybe you should have gotten more support from others or been more self-nurturing, so you wouldn’t have been as affected. Or spoken up sooner to try to prevent things from getting out of hand. Or managed your internal reactions more skillfully. Maybe you’ve done some things yourself to prompt the other person to be difficult. Whatever these lessons are, there’s no praise or blame here, just good learning for you.

And now, if you’re willing, explore opening your heart again to this person. Life’s been hard to him or her, too. Nothing might change in your behavior or in the nature of the relationship. Nonetheless, you’ll feel different – and better.

Last, do not put yourself out of your heart. If you knew you as another person, wouldn’t you want to hold that person in your heart?

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Five steps to opening the heart to peace

Overhead shot of woman doing seated yoga pose

For many years I co-led a yoga and meditation retreat with a friend.  The retreat was called Open Heart, Quiet Mind and it was offered  at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. My friend taught yoga and I led guided meditations on the metta bhavana, the meditation on the development of loving-kindness.

The retreats initially began on Friday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon. They were so popular the next retreat was fully booked at the end of each retreat. After sensing the rhythm of the retreats for several years, we decided to extend the timing of them and so we started Thursday evenings and ended Sunday afternoons so that we would have an extra full day to meditate and practice yoga.

With the combination of yoga and meditation, participants relaxed and looked inward and a community was established. Throughout the retreat we thought about an intention, something we wanted to consider during and after the retreat. The intentions came as a result of the yoga, meditation, silence, cooking together and having spaciousness from the usual routine of daily life.

Towards the end of the retreat we shared our intentions, with each person listening quietly as individuals described their intentions. The intentions spanned a range of topics from exercise, meditation, diet, communication, music practice to making amends with estranged friends and family members. Although each person’s intention was different, the common thread was that they came from the heart.

Although we did not lead people to make intentions based on ethical disciplines of yoga, most of them did fall into five ethical categories.  So, eventually, when leading meditation at the yoga retreats, I spoke about these steps to freedom.

Just as the practice of yoga releases tension in the body, these five steps will release blocks to the flow of the heart and release unconditional love.  When we love, we are free from the restrictions of ill will.

Here is a list of five ways to open the heart:

1. Ahimsa – nonharm – the practice of compassion and unconditional love for ourselves, for all human beings and all sentient beings

We can practice ahimsa with each word we speak, each action we take and each thought we think. Ahimsa is the foundation for vegetarianism.

Of course we don’t always reach our ideals so an important aspect of this practice is to be gentle and accepting of ourselves when our practice falls short of the ideal.

As a way of practicing ahimsa we might ponder the following queries:

  • In what ways am I critical of myself and others?
  • Recall a time when I blamed myself for an outcome of an action. What could I have done differently, if anything?
  • In what ways have I allowed others to be critical, cruel, unloving to me? What will I do to become free from this situation?
  • How can I be more loving and accepting of myself and others?

2. Satya – truth – the practice of being true in our thoughts, words and actions

To practice satya, we are fearless in understanding the truth and this is reflected in what we think, how we communicate and how we behave. We are also fearless when listening to others, to understand their truth. We recognize that the foundation of truth is ahimsa.

As a way of practicing satya, we might ponder the following:

  • In what ways am I true to myself?
  • When do my actions conflict with honoring the truth?
  • With whom am I truthful and which people “not so much”?
  • Reflect on relationships that are not based on truth and consider whether it is time to communicate with the person in an honest and kind way.
  • How can I be more true to myself and to others?

3. Asteya – not stealing – being free from desiring what belongs to others

Desire and craving what we do not have means that we feel insufficient, as though we lack something. This practice means that we respect the property of others, return what we borrow, act in a courteous way with others (respecting their energy and time) and to be at peace within ourselves.

We might practice asteya by reflecting on the following:

  • With whom do I feel “lesser than” or jealous? What is beneath this feeling and how can I change this sense of lack?
  • What material things of others do I desire?
  • When do I feel at ease and grateful for how things are? How can I develop this sense of ease?
  • How does generosity fit with asteya?

4. Aparigraha – letting go – freedom from collecting possessions

We desire to possess many things including material objects, thoughts and ideas, and even people. We cling to things – homes, cars, technological toys, books, adventures, partners, travel and pets. We feel secure when we have our “stuff”.

To practice letting go:

  • Consider times when you released your attachment to something or someone.
  • Consider what you cling to. In what, who and where is your sense of security based?
  • Which possessions are you most tied to? Which can you easily let go?
  • Make a list of your possessions and consider a giving away 10%- 25% of them! What is your felt sense as you consider this idea?

5. Santosha – contentment – being at peace no matter what our situation is

We may be in a partnership or single, live in an apartment or a home, drive a Subaru or a Lamborghini, work in a cubicle or the corner office with the view, we may be twenty or seventy, have a high school education or a Doctorate, healthy or ill, intellectual or not, artistic or not – whatever our circumstances, we are content and at peace.

Being at peace means that when we work with, or know, or hear of someone who seems to “have it all” or “have it easy”, we are centered and at peace with the understanding that we lack nothing.

Some ideas to ponder when working with santosha include:

  • When I find myself feeling jealous of someone’s conditions, how do I feel in my body and what emotions arise?
  • Consider a time you were filled with negativity, how did you react? How could you respond to move towards contentment?

Patanjali (150 BCE) is the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, an important collection of aphorisms on yoga practice based on reflection, meditation and ethics.

He wrote: “Peace can be reached through meditation on the knowledge which dreams give. Peace can also be reached through concentration upon that which is dearest to the heart.”

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