Monday, May 31, 2010

Some good reasons for keeping your heart open

Imagine that an extraterrestrial lands on Earth and tries to make sense of us human beings from our pop music. It would probably conclude that we regard love (whatever that might be!) as infinitely more precious than everything else combined. But once the ET figures out how to measure love, it might be surprised to discover how little of the invaluable substance actually flows between us most of the time. Love, the ET would no doubt deduce, is not only precious, it’s incredibly hard to find.
For creatures who want to be loved, appreciated, even adored, we certainly go about fulfilling our desire in a curiously unfulfilling way. Instead of manufacturing it ourselves in the little love machine inside our chests, we complain about not getting enough of it, search frantically for someone else to give it to us, and try to make ourselves more lovable by improving our looks or earning more money. But the truth is, the Beatles song has it right: The love you take is equal to the love you make. In other words, the most effective way to get love is to generate it yourself.
By cultivating caring, loving feelings, you can actually provide yourself with the nourishment you seek. At the same time, by radiating those feelings outward to others, you can touch their tender hearts and naturally elicit the same feelings in them, creating a flow of love that keeps circulating between you and building on itself.
If you’ve never experienced this kind of flow with someone yourself, you’ve perhaps met people who live this way. Their eyes sparkle with positive regard, their words speak well of everyone, and they elicit love wherever they go. Through the practices described here, you, too, can begin to generate a flow of loving feelings. It all depends on you.
Here are a few of the innumerable benefits of learning how to love:
_ Energy and expansiveness: If you’ve ever been in love (maybe you are right now!), you know how vital and alive you can feel when your heart is wide open. Instead of the usual sense of limitation you ordinarily experience, you feel like you have no boundaries, as though you can’t really tell where you leave off and the outside world (or your beloved) begins.
_ Peace and well-being: When your heart is filled with love, you feel happy and peaceful for no external reason. In fact, love, happiness, joy, peace, and well-being are just different names and versions of the same basic energy — the loving, life-giving energy of the heart.
_ Good health: Yes, love is life-giving and life-enhancing. For one thing, it brings people together to create babies, and, in general, love contributes to optimal health by providing an immeasurable vital spark that not only nourishes the internal organs but also provides the body (and the person) with a reason to live. Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, found that love is more important than any other factor in the healing process, including diet and exercise. To heal your heart, he discovered, you need to open your heart.
_ Belonging and interconnectedness: As another old song puts it, love makes the world go round — and it certainly draws people together and keeps them connected. When you open your heart to others, you naturally feel joined with them in a meaningful way. In the deepest sense, love is the source of all meaning and belonging.
_ Spiritual awakening: As they gradually erode your sense of separateness from others, loving feelings can eventually reveal the essential nature of life, which is, paradoxically, also love. Ultimately, the Sufis teach, we are simply love searching for itself.

Kindness is the key

Although the cultivation of an open heart definitely deserves a chapter of its own, it’s traditionally considered the foundation on which meditation practice rests, rather than a separate technique or approach.
In Southeast Asia, for example, meditators are taught how to develop generosity, patience, and lovingkindness before they learn how to meditate. And Tibetan practitioners dedicate the benefit of every meditation to the peace and harmony of all beings, not just themselves. As the Dalai Lama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, says, “My religion is kindness.” You can follow every technique to the T, but if your heart’s not in it, you won’t reap all the wonderful benefits of meditation.
To be open to the present moment, for example, as mindfulness meditation teaches, you need to be open with every dimension of your being: body, mind, spirit, and heart. So be sure to bring a measure of love and caring to your meditation —especially toward yourself!

Some factors that keep closing your heart

Like most human beings, you close your heart, whether automatically or deliberately, because you feel angry, hurt, or threatened by others. Perhaps you’re afraid they’ll take advantage of your kindness or crush your tender feelings with their insensitivity or restimulate painful memories. Or maybe you’re just ticked off about all the times you’ve been mistreated, and you don’t want to let it happen again. We all have our own unique reasons for closing our hearts. Whatever yours happen to be, they may be preventing you from getting the love you really want.
Here are some of the most common factors that close the heart:
  • Fear: When you’re afraid, for whatever reason — of being attacked, criticized, manipulated, overwhelmed — you close your heart in selfdefense. As one popular slogan puts it, love is letting go of fear — and learning how to trust, both yourself and others.
  • Resentment: When you hold on to old hurts and let bitterness and resentment build up in your heart, you shut your heart, not only to the people who hurt you but also to life itself.
  • Unresolved grief: This natural human emotion can get stuck if you continue to mull over your losses and refuse to let go of the past. When grief fills your heart, you’re reluctant to open it because you don’t want to feel the pain inside.
  • Jealousy: Actually a brand of resentment, jealousy can close your heart to the person who has what you wish you had — and to yourself as well for being somehow “inferior.”
  • Pain: Also known as hurt, this feeling, if allowed to build to intolerable levels, may cause you to board up your heart completely and post a sign saying, “Keep out! No trespassing!”
  • Grasping and attachment: As long as you’re emotionally attached to having life go a certain way, you’re going to close your heart as soon as other people interfere. In fact, emotions like grief, pain, and even resentment are ultimately rooted in attachment — and the fear of losing what you’re attached to.
  • Self-clinging: If you believe that you’re an isolated individual cut off from other people and from your own essential being, you’re going to hold on to your own little piece of turf — your own possessions, your own accomplishments, your own happiness — and close your heart, if necessary, to defend it. Also known as ego in many of the meditative traditions, self-clinging perpetuates separation and gives rise to the other factors in this list.
Ultimately, of course, only the most enlightened, selfless people can keep their hearts open all the time. I mean, we’re talking Jesus or Mother Teresa here! As for the rest of us, we’re going to keep closing our hearts again and again. Only when we’ve dissolved the barriers that separate us from others —which is what enlightenment is all about — can we keep our hearts open even in the most difficult circumstances.
But, enlightened or not, you can definitely develop the ability to open your heart when you choose to do so. In fact, the regular practice of meditation gradually erodes the experience of separation that causes the heart to stay closed in the first place. Who knows? One day you may open your heart and never close it again!