Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love begins with you

You may find it difficult to feel love and extend it to others because you didn’t get much of it yourself as a child. Even though you never really learned how to give and receive love freely, people are constantly asking you for what you believe you don’t have. You’re like a person living in the desert with a dry well; you can’t share any water with others because you don’t have any yourself. Or you may find that your well has water but constantly runs dry just when you need it most.
The meditations provided in this chapter dig a well deep into your soft spot, where the waters of love never run dry. (In fact, the love I’m talking about doesn’t belong to anyone; it just bubbles up from a mysterious and inexhaustible source.) You may need to prime the pump, though. That’s why the traditional instructions counsel you to begin each meditation on love and compassion by focusing on yourself. When you’ve filled your own well to the brim, you can begin to extend the overflow to include others as well. Just as you can’t really heal others until you’ve healed yourself to a certain degree, you can’t love others until you feel deeply loved yourself. Besides, you deserve love at least as much as anyone else. In the West, we often practice self-denial, while equating self-love with selfishness. Yet, the reverse generally holds true: People who love themselves give love more freely and generously than those who don’t.
As a remedy for the widespread Western disease of self-criticism and selfdenial, the meditative traditions offer the practice of self-love. In particular, as you work with opening your heart, you can remember to keep your heart open to yourself even, paradoxically, when your heart is closed.

The warrior of the heart

For all you tough guys (and gals) who believe that opening the heart is best reserved for sissies and fools, here’s some wise counsel from the Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa. (No stranger to toughness, Trungpa, like the Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans, escaped from his homeland when the Chinese invaded and walked across the Himalayas over a series of precipitous mountain passes to India.)
In his book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, he explains that facing your fear and negativity and being willing to keep your heart open — even in the most challenging circumstances — takes tremendous courage. Although you probably think of warriors as impenetrable, unfeeling, and heavily defended, Trungpa takes the opposite view. The sacred warrior who practices meditation, he suggests, is not afraid to feel tender — or to communicate this tenderness to others.
The point is, you can take care of yourself —even defend yourself from harm, when necessary — without closing your heart. An open heart doesn’t make you powerless or ineffectual. Quite the contrary, it allows you to respond to situations wisely and skillfully because you feel others’ suffering as well as your own.

Discovering your “soft spot”

One of my teachers, the Tibetan meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche, used to refer to the place inside where you feel tender, loving emotions as your soft spot. The soft spot can be found in your heart, beneath all the toughness and defensiveness. To reach it, you have to risk encountering feelings you might otherwise wish to avoid, such as fear, grief, anger, and the others talked about earlier in this chapter. You’ll know the soft spot when you get there because it has a tender sweetness to it that’s often tinged with a certain sadness or melancholy about the human condition. (In fact, you may find it slightly painful to open your heart at first, simply because of this sadness, which is actually one of the seeds of compassion.) Because you’ll need to be familiar with your soft spot in order to practice the meditations provided in the remainder of this chapter, you may want to experiment with the following exercise:
  1. Begin by closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and relaxing your body a little on each exhalation. Remember to be kind to yourself.
  2. Imagine the face of someone who loved you very much as a child and whose love moved you deeply. In the East, they recommend using your mother, but some Westerners tend to have more problematic relationships with their parents, so you may prefer to use your grandmother or grandfather or some other unconditionally loving figure. (If you never received love like this as a child, you can think of some famous person that you consider to be unconditionally loving, such as Jesus or Buddha or the Divine Mother.)
  3. Remember a particular instance in which this person showed his or her love for you and you really received it and allowed it to nurture you.
  4. Notice the tender, loving feelings this memory evokes in your heart. The place where you feel them is your soft spot.
  5. Notice if any other feelings accompany the tenderness and gratitude you feel.
  6. If you find it difficult to re-experience the love, pay attention to what gets in your way. What are some of the feelings standing guard over your soft spot?
  7. Begin to explore the area around your soft spot. What is the state of your heart right now? What are some of the other feelings you find stirring inside, in addition to (or instead of) love? Do you notice any tension or bracing around your heart that keeps it from opening to love?
  8. Be aware of what you find, without judgment or self-criticism.