Keeping the Heart Open

As the days unfolded before Christmas and I cringed at all the tinny holiday music and shopworn decorations, I became acutely aware of a tender heart that wanted more than anything to stay open so it could receive kindness and generosity, give love and hold both joy and pain.  It is a hard business, this keeping the heart open…

It means not only do you bear witness to the confusion, anger, and hurts that are right up close to you, in your family for instance, but you also allow this heart of yours to receive  and hold countless unspeakable tragedies, like a warehouse fire killing 36 young vibrant artists in Oakland, the cruel destruction of masses of human beings in Aleppo, the sinister deceits that lurk in our political system and the arrival of a truly scary individual to lead the country, the senseless shooting of a anonymous homeless couple who sought shelter in a tent on San Francisco’s streets…  The list of sorrows to be born is enormous, it seems we are confronted with one injustice after another.  How to navigate?

Last night I cooked a Christmas goose for one of my daughters and her three children.  We looked at the glossy roast bird on the table, we clinked glasses, and in that little moment we all felt protected by love.  Love is what Christ was all about, and the Buddha too, and we see its healing powers made manifest in many different places: in the kindness of strangers we pass on the street, in the eyes of an adoring dog who lives and breathes love standing at the dinner table, in sheer delight of a boy getting to know his new robot named Cozmo, a whimsical little piece of technology that imparts laughter, intelligence, and sweetness.  We must pause to receive the kindness of strangers, the dog’s affection, and the irrepressible joy of the young boy.  We could miss it if we remained in our head, caught up in our old stories and assumptions.

How easy it is to get pulled back into the old stuff – it’s familiar territory after all, like the story of not being loved enough (a particular favorite of mine), or not being charismatic or capable enough to make an impact on the world, or never having enough love.  That last is a killer.  I have lived too long with that one and know the story inside out.  So what do we do when these voices of dissatisfaction and grief show up?  Instead of getting lost in that other time zone, we could open our hearts, and say, yes, this too is grief – it is my grief, but it is not my fault.  It is not anyone else’s either.  It just is.  Because the human journey is about pleasure and pain.

This heart of ours must stay open both to love and to the sorrows of our times and our own histories.  Most of the time there is nothing to be fixed.  And the more we allow ourselves to feel it all, the wider the opening to our heart becomes.  That’s the good part!  Being with grief and darkness can be unbearable unless we summon compassion – that amazing capacity of the heart to crack open in the face of suffering.   Perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves is to hold open the door to our crusty exquisite heart so we can wish ourselves well on this tortuous journey, so we can wish happiness and safety and health on ourselves, as well as on the people of Syria, the homeless on our streets, the masses of hungry children in our own country, the victims of torture and abuse all over the world, the threatened elephants in Africa, those elders trapped in wheelchairs and dementia in nursing homes, the women who are stoned in Afghanistan …

This is a dark and beautiful world.  We must call upon our bravery and good intentions and go out there and take it all on.  Keeping the heart open.


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