Friday, April 30, 2010

How Your Heart Closes — and How You Can Open It Again

Needless to say, you weren’t born with your heart closed. As anyone who’s ever spent any time with a newborn knows, babies have hearts that radiate love like the sun in the tropics. But as you grow up, the bumps and bruises and hardships of life gradually force you to protect your tenderness and other softer emotions with a layer of toughness and defensiveness — the clouds I talked about earlier. This layer surrounds and encloses the heart, protecting your vulnerability — but also keeping your own love locked inside and the love of other people from entering.
Perhaps you’re one of those rare individuals whose heart remains open most of the time. If so, congratulations! Or maybe you wrap yourself in a cloud cover — or something even denser, like armor — when you head out the door each morning, but lay it aside when you spend time with friends or family members. Perhaps your heart naturally opens and closes in an ebb and flow like the weather. Or you may be among the millions of people who have difficulty letting love in or extending it to others. Don’t lose heart! You can definitely discover how to open your heart again, as I discuss later in this section. But first I’d like to describe the factors that keep closing your heart when it opens — or keep it closed entirely — and the benefits that come with an open heart, in case you haven’t already figured them out.

Breathing with your belly

Healthy breathing involves opening and expanding both your belly and your chest. As a culture, we tend to value big chests and small bellies. As a result, we learn early how to “suck it in” and not let our belly (or our feelings) show. (Believe it or not, there are cultures where a relaxed, expanded belly is considered attractive!) The problem is, we don’t allow ourselves to breathe with our bellies. This habit just limits the amount of life-enhancing oxygen we receive and accentuates the stress pattern of tightening our abdominal muscles and diaphragm (the big internal muscle that covers the bottom of the rib cage) and holding our breath.
To counteract this pattern and help you relax, try the following exercise, drawn from hatha yoga:
  1. Notice how you’re breathing right now. Which parts of your body expand when you breathe, and which parts do not? How deeply and quickly (or slowly) are you breathing? Where does your breathing feel tight or constricted? How do your belly muscles and diaphragm feel?
  2. Make a conscious effort to expand your belly when you breathe. I use the word “effort” advisedly because your abdominal muscles and diaphragm may be quite tight at first.
  3. Breathe deeply and slowly into your belly. Notice your body’s resistance to changing your habitual breathing patterns.
  4. Continue breathing in this way for five minutes and then breathe naturally. Do you notice any differences? Do your abdominal muscles feel more relaxed? Are you breathing more deeply than before? Do you feel more energized or calm?
Practice this exercise regularly — at least once a day. It can be especially useful when you’re stressed out or anxious and your belly starts to tighten and your breathing constricts. Just shift to belly breathing and notice what happens.

Accepting and letting go

Holding on tightly and pushing away hard, lusting and hating, defending and attacking — traditionally known as attachment and a version —are the primary causes of suffering and stress. Along with indifference, they form the proverbial three poisons of meditation lore.
Fortunately, you can cultivate the antidotes to these poisons by practicing the two most important gestures or functions of meditation: accepting and letting go. They’re inextricably entwined:
Until you accept, you can’t let go; until you let go, you have no room to accept again. As one Zen master put it, “Let go of it, and it fills your hand.” Here’s a little exercise that gives you an opportunity to practice both accepting and letting go:
  1. Begin by sitting comfortably and taking a few deep breaths. Now place your attention on the coming and going of your breath.
  2. After a few minutes, shift your awareness to your thoughts and feelings. Take the attitude that you’re going to welcome whatever arises in your experience without judging or rejecting it.
  3. As thoughts and feelings come and go, notice the movement to avoid or push away or not see what you find unpleasant or unacceptable. Accept this movement as you continue to welcome your experience, whatever it may happen to be.
  4. After five or ten minutes, when you have a feel for accepting, shift your attention to the process of letting go. Take the attitude that you’re going to let go of whatever arises, no matter how urgent or attractive.
Notice the movement to hold on or indulge or get involved with thoughts and feelings you find pleasant or compelling. Gently restrain yourself and continue to loosen your grip and let go.
When you have a feel for both accepting and letting go, you can combine them in the same meditation. Whatever arises, welcome and let go, welcome and let go. This is the twofold rhythm of mindfulness meditation