Opening the Heart (written 2002)
I remember a picture that one of my grandmothers had. It was large and in exaggerated colors. The picture was of Jesus, one hand cupped toward his chest where in a blaze of light the artist had depicted his large and glowing heart. Like the drawings in the cutaway anatomy books my sons are fond of, this exposure of what is normally hidden both intrigued and disturbed me then. Yet, it stayed in memory only subliminally.
The practice of metta or loving-kindness meditation has often provoked this image for me, drawing it out from among so many lost childhood impressions. In loving-kindness meditation there is much talk about opening the heart. So the association, I guess, seems natural. Part of what is disturbing about exposing the heart in pictures like the one I recall is a feeling of vulnerability. This will hurt, won’t it? When books on metta meditation describe the pain of compassion, I at first thought I already knew what that was. Feeling sorry for someone hurt. Wishing things were different. Feeling angry about injustice. But I’m finding that the opening of the heart is one of those subtle changes only apparent at first by the pain it brings. This pain is something I’m struggling to describe. It is not angry. It is a long way from angry. It is not feeling sorry, for it doesn’t have that distance, that separation between myself and other. It is not wishing things were different because it is a being in the hurt now, with no room for imaginings.
These are the things I’ve become aware of as I mindfully watch my own thoughts and feelings moment to moment. A prayer for the pain of animals brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart that this is so. Seeing a piece of paper thrown into the garbage rather than into the recycle bin causes a twinge of pain and a welling of sorrow. Piles of magazines whose sole purpose is to sell products and images and desires cause a closing in my throat. And a politician’s casual remark revealing deep-seated notions of separation, keeping “our water” or “our resources”, triggers those same physical sensations of pain. State of the economy reports which assume the possibility and desirability of unlimited growth. These hurt.
I have felt anger and indignation before in response to some of these things. I have felt hopeless longing for things to be different. I have felt superiority to those who could not see the larger picture. But I am only beginning to understand what it means to not separate myself from this. To know my part in it. To open my heart to the pain of all beings, to the pain of this earth, to the karma we have created and continue to create. I didn’t know that the pain spoken of by the wise was real and not metaphorical. I didn't know because I hadn't opened to it.
Not pushing away this pain is part of what I’m learning. To let it be. But also to let it pass as all things do. And to realize that as my heart opens a little more all the time with these experiences, so my actions may begin to reflect that opening.