Living with an Open Heart in Times of Trouble
We all come into this world with healing to do and lessons to learn. Emotions are the signposts on the path to growth, guiding us to our unresolved issues, deepest fears, and truest longings. When you feel yourself closing and hardening, that is precisely the time to open and grow.
In this age of seemingly never-ending tragedy and violence, it can be tempting just to shut down. Or perhaps it is the curated collections of your friends’ lives on social media feeds, replete with happiness, success, and perfect moments, that drives you to put the “closed” sign up on your heart. With our faces in our phones or tilted to the TV screens, the potential for anger, sadness, hurt, jealousy, or any number of difficult emotions is there with us nearly every moment. Perhaps more than it has ever been.
In this environment, closely guarding your heart may seem like a sane response. Hell, it is a sane response. But it is not the response that will best serve you. Why? Because a life lived with an open heart is a richer, fuller, and ultimately more joyous life. And it is your purest, most natural state.
So what does it look like to live with an open heart? A few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. My heart was pumping blood in and out, but not much else was getting past the gates.
Until my big crack came. As my hard outer layers split and the light rushed in, I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Emotions long since banished down the forgotten hallways of my heart started making their way up from the depths. My heart was like a giant open wound plunged into salt water, with jellyfish. But as I cried through the sting and the pain, I started to feel better, like the heaviness I’d been carrying was lifting.
Pain, what pain?
It shouldn’t surprise me that when my heart cracked opened, lots of sadness and hurt came out. Truth is, I’m one of those people who tends to shut down when faced with emotional pain. I get cold and hard, visiting a dead place in my heart where there is no feeling. I tend to become analytical and calculating, immediately beginning to plot my exit route away from those bad feelings and the situation or person that triggered them.
It’s most likely a vestige of my upbringing. Born of sturdy New England stock with direct lines back to austere England, my kin approached life’s trials and tribulations with a stiff upper lip. When they suffered, they tended to suffer quietly and alone.
I was no different. Following in my ancestors’ footsteps, I learned over time to fight back the tears and stifle the pain. I actually got quite good at it. I remember going to see the movie Beaches with my ballroom dancing partner. As he tried to hide his tears and pretend he wasn’t crying during the sad parts of that movie, I sat stoic and dry-eyed in my chair. I felt the same emotions watching that movie as the boy sitting next to me, but had the self-control to push those feelings down and bury them away. I was very proud of myself, having finally lived up to my dad’s mantra to “take the pain.”
Welcoming our feelings
The problem with repressing feelings, particularly those that make us uncomfortable, is that they never really go away. And when they are forced into hiding, into exile, they may plot against you. They may even grow in strength. For example, you might be having a normal day, but then something will happen and all of those emotions will come back one-hundred fold, usually when you are least prepared. Or you might find yourself with a stubborn unhealthy habit as you keep trying to distance yourself from the emotions you don’t want to feel. Borrowing from Freud, it’s the “return of the repressed.”
Perhaps more importantly, repressing feelings closes yourself off to what they have to teach us, denying you of your human birthright. Feelings allow us to process our human experience—in fact, they are our human experience. Emotions are part of the unique joy (and misery) of being human, which we all share. Feelings, in all their messiness and raw primal expressions, are meant to be felt.
We all come into this world with healing to do and lessons to learn. Emotions are the signposts on the path to growth, guiding us to our unresolved issues, deepest fears, and truest longings. When you feel yourself closing and hardening, that is precisely the time to open and grow. Emotions have a lot to teach us if we sit with them and ask questions like: What is this feeling trying to teach me? What knowledge and understanding is available to me now? What is needed for release? Or how can I help?
This goes for feelings we associate with pain and discomfort, as well as those emotions born of exaltation. Joy is a clear sign of being on the right path. Love makes for a strong compass. By understanding what brings us joy and what fills us with love, we can more easily find our way in life. And by cultivating joy, love, peace, and forgiveness, we can bring light to the parts of ourselves still waiting to be healed.
Clearing out the cobwebs
To truly experience all of what our emotions can teach us, we need a receptive heart that is not blocked or cluttered with old pain. We need a heart that will welcome in whatever needs to be felt—heavy or light.
My first step toward living more openly was acknowledging that my conditioning leads me to shut down instead of open up when faced with difficult emotions. This habit of shutting down meant that: (1) there was a lot of old stuff sitting in the purgatory of my heart, and (2) I would need to change my behavior going forward to avoid packing away more pain.
That old stuff came out in waves. I mentioned that big, cathartic cry. Well, there were a few of those. And even after I thought I had gotten it all out, there was more.
This past October I went to a meditation retreat on the California coast. One morning, after a sunrise meditation, we were led in a kundalini yoga heart opening practice on the beach. It was my first time doing something like that and I put everything I had into my breath and body until I could barely hold up my arms. As the practice ended, I could feel my heart more open than it’s been in a long, long time.
And then I cried. I sobbed into the ocean, choking on sea mist, as the waves washed over my feet. When I could breathe again I sprinted down the beach as fast as I could, releasing whatever was still holding on. As I walked back to the house, I felt a new feeling in my heart. Where there had been grief, there was now purpose. It was like I had been walking through life with leg weights and now I was free.
I know people, myself included, who have used Reiki and other healing practices, like breathwork, to release stored emotions and open the heart. My experiences suggest that these practices can be very effective at dislodging stuff that is in there so it can be flushed out. That big crack I mentioned earlier came one day after a Reiki session. Even if you are skeptical about those types of healing modalities, I recommend experimenting. If nothing else, you are signaling your intention to release and creating some time and space to work on your issues in a safe and supportive environment.
For some people, healing will be a long journey and living with an open heart will be a slow process as they build trust. Other people may just be able to decide to heal and have it be done. I’m increasingly feeling like transformation can happen in an instant. That it need not take years and thousands of dollars in counseling fees.
Perhaps it is a thought or experience that pivots your whole perspective on life. Perhaps it is a glimpse into the futility of blame and clinging to a past that cannot be changed. Perhaps one day you give yourself permission to forgive and forgive so completely that your grievances dissolve and wash away. It may sound too easy or too good to be true, but the energy available to us now makes it possible for those who believe it can happen.
To keep from shutting down, I practice noticing the constrictions and closings of my heart in near real time. I can feel when I’m tightening, when the jolt of conditioning is kicking in. I’m starting to recognize the situations that trigger that agitation, and do my best to “choose a fresh alternative,” as Pema Chodron says. Instead of repressing the emotion or acting out, I acknowledge it, take a deep breath, and let it pass through me without getting hooked.
Just as meditation teachers instruct students to be a witness to their thoughts, so too should we be a witness to our emotions. Sometimes I like to pretend that there is a psychologist or coach in my head watching my emotions. ‘Now Carolyn,” I can hear her say, “what is the programming you are acting out right now? Is this feeling based on facts or are you making up stories?”
This is an important point. Living with an open heart doesn’t mean letting your emotions rule you. Nor does it mean you take those emotions out on other people, completely lose yourself in how you feel, or hold onto those feelings. Your feelings are yours to experience and learn from, not to force on others.
The gift of an open heart
I’ll admit it—going through life with an open heart does mean I feel the sorrows of the world and small beauties of life more poignantly. I choke up when reading the Farm Sanctuary newsletter or when I witness a flock of migrating geese cross the sky. I now openly cry at movies instead of burying my emotions in a bag of popcorn.
For me, allowing myself to experience that tenderness and emotion is part of authentic living and what wakes me up to greater compassion, empathy, kindness, and giving, which the world sorely needs. As Michael Singer writes, “If enjoying a full life means experiencing high energy, love, and enthusiasm all the time, then don’t ever close.”
I’m taking that advice. I want to experience the wonders and joy of life. I want to feel alive inside. I want abundant love, energy, and happiness. So, for me, it is an easy choice to stay open, even amidst so much pain.