An Open Heart Absorbs, A Closed Heart Rejects

The littlest inconveniences or imperfections that come before me in the evening hours are enough to bring me to my knees. I feel broken down, defeated, and exhausted. I have no emotional or mental strength left with which to help me cope with the most miniscule, commonplace hurdles in life. Last night, for instance, I was nearly brought to tears at the frustration of a home that cannot seem to remain clean for even an hour despite my seemingly constant maintenance. In my despair, the only thought that brought me any comfort was the idea of just burning the whole structure to the ground. If my home cannot be perfect, it cannot be.

Even though I realize in the moment how unreasonable I am being, even though I know the next morning all will seem manageable again, I can’t keep my heart above the swirling current of my despair. My saving grace these last few months has been my evening reading. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been quickly and hungrily devouring all the works of Charles Dickens. Currently I am near the end of David Copperfield. This one is definitely my favorite so far after A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t quite understand it, but the way this man writes is a balm for my soul.

With elegant simplicity he seems to reflect back to me my own suffering and at the same time help me find peace in it. Even more than that, his words help me pull my heart back into a state of openness and gratitude. There is such beauty and dignity in even the most unfortunate and wretched characters. Last night I came upon the phrase: “the fear of not being worthy to do what my torn and bleeding heart so longed to do, was the most frightening thing of all.” This touched me so deeply in exactly the most tender spot within my contorted heart that I burst into tears that did not stop flowing for the next several pages.

Somehow Dickens is able to cut to the quick of all my inner struggles and show me the beauty that resides even inside the most bitter of suffering. He reminds me that I am not alone in my feelings, that there are so many others throughout time that have felt what I feel. Not only that, but that these individuals have lived despite it all and found their place, their gratitude, and their peace.

But I am not only writing about my deep love of Dickens’ works, I am writing about the energetic shift that they are able to illicit in me. Nothing externally changes in the first few moments of quiet reading and self-reflection. My problems remain. Yet in an instant, the weight of the world is lifted and loving kindness towards myself and all of existence bursts forth and spills from my overflowing, open heart.

It’s a physical sensation, a true energetic metamorphosis. I literally feel my heart space grow warm and emanate good will, understanding, and true love. I’ve learned through this reoccurring, mesmerizing experience that the power to heal and persevere are mine to wield whenever I choose. It’s not always easy to make that choice, but the more often I am able to unclench my twisted heartstrings and let all the goodness I’ve been disregarding flow in, the more possible the choice seems to me.

Often I try to “logic” my way out of emotional states. But logic means nothing to emotion. We delude ourselves into thinking we must “fix” the problems we are despairing about before we can return to a sense of ease and wellbeing. The bad news is we will never be able to fix it. The external world’s problems are not what hold us down, it is our inclination to focus and obsess about those problems. Fix one, and surely we will find another. No, the true remedy is redirecting ourselves away from these ruminations and dissatisfactions. The good news is we don’t need to find a “reason” to do so. We just need to remember the feeling of our hearts opening. That’s enough to change everything.

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Finding the Feeling

For years now, I have practiced yoga, meditation, and gratitude daily. While I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental health since implementing these practices, it still feels like the changes I’ve experienced have been underwhelming. I thought that after such diligent effort over so many years, that I would be further along in my spiritual journey by this point. I still struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, etc.

In the beginning, these daily practices were done very intentionally. It was easy to remain mindful because everything was so new to me. However, after solidifying these routines, they became just that, routines. Many days I find myself just going through the motions. That is the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy more of the benefits ever after so many years. I also think this may be a reason some people find themselves giving up on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness all together.

We must always be careful not to allow these things to become just words, just routines. Going through the motions may be better than doing nothing at all, but it isn’t going to result in the profound changes we’re seeking in ourselves. Yoga isn’t about the shapes the body takes, it’s about where the mind goes, learning to watch our own thoughts, learning to let go, to make peace with our perceived flaws or shortcomings, and so much more. In the same way, a daily gratitude practice isn’t about how fast you can list things off, or being able to fill up a whole page. It’s about the energy, the emotion behind the things your listing.

It’s almost funny when I think about it. I don’t know why I would expect writing a list of things I’m grateful for to be any different than writing a grocery list considering the way I normally feel while doing so. I usually don’t feel anything at all. If anything, I feel annoyed. “Ugh, I don’t have time for this. I can’t think of anything to write. Why am I such an ungrateful person? Why is this so hard for me?” That’s usually the kinds of thoughts occupying my mind as I struggle to think of enough bullet points to fill the page in my gratitude journal. Saying the words, “I am grateful,” isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel it too.

Now for some people this may just be something that blossoms naturally from doing the practice. That’s how it is for all of us at the beginning I think. But for an emotionally blunted person like myself, after the initial novelty of the practices begins to wear off, it takes a bit more effort to uncover that emotional energy. Words and actions may help to illicit certain feelings, but we can’t allow ourselves to become to distracted by the words and actions alone. It’s the energy, the emotion, the sensation, that really matters. Having the emotion without the words, will still work wonders. Having the words without the feeling behind it, does nothing.

So the next time you embark on any mindfulness practice, try to focus on the energy behind your intention. What is your goal in doing this practice? What types of feelings and emotions are you trying to invite into your life? Are you trying to train your brain to quickly list things? Or are you trying to train your brain to actually experience a certain kind of energetic state? If you want to be able to more easily experience gratitude, you’ve got to actually practice feeling grateful, not just telling yourself you are.

This may be a lot more difficult of a practice, if you’re like me. I really struggle to get in touch with my emotions. If someone told me to imagine what love feels like, I’d feel confusion and maybe anxiety rather than love. If that sounds like you, try this short exercise:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out.
  3. Now, imagine someone or something that you love. At first, you might still struggle to feel anything. If that’s the case, keep concentrating on more and more details. You might try to remember and recreate in your mind a memory with this person/animal/object.
  4. Once you’ve got a clear image in your head, move back into your body. What types of sensations are you experiencing? What do you feel and where are you feeling it? Maybe you feel an opening in your heart space or a lightness in your stomach.
  5. Whatever you’re feeling, focus on those bodily sensations. That is love. Not the words, not the thoughts, but this, right here, this feeling.
  6. Stay with that feeling for awhile, breathe into it, explore it, try to savor the subtleties of it so that you may more easily call yourself back to this energetic state in the future. Try to memorize every aspect.
  7. When you’re ready, you may release the practice and open your eyes. You can come back to this practice as many times as you need to. Eventually it will become easier and easier to cultivate this feeling whenever you want to.

If you’ve been practicing for a long time like I have and are just now coming to this realization, no worries. Obviously it took me this long to realize too. No need to be harsh on yourself about it or feel like you’ve just been wasting time up until now. The foundation you laid by “going through the motions” has led you to a place where you’re now able to delve more deeply into your practice, to add a new layer to your daily routine. We all move through our spiritual practice at our own pace, with our own unique obstacles along the way. Honor where you are now and keep moving forward.

If you have a daily gratitude practice, maybe today try to list only 1-3 things. Rather than quantity, focus on the quality of emotion behind each listed item. Let me know how it goes! I’d also love to know: What does love feel like in your body? What does gratitude feel like to you?

Gratitude Journal for a positive mindset - The Happi Empire

With Love

My intention for today (and hopefully for many days to come) is to move and act from a place of love. There is so much joy to be had in each moment if we can just manage to stay centered in our hearts. I’ve noticed that a lot of my anxiety comes from being too focused on myself. I am so worried about how I’ll look, what I should say, what other people will think of me, etc. Sometimes the best way to get past those fears is for me to shift my focus to others.

At times I’ve felt guilty about how often I am thinking about myself as compared to others. I’ve even wondered if I could be a narcissist. However, once I considered that I may actually be autistic, this self absorption made a little more sense. Even though it is quite difficult for me to put myself in someone else’s shoes or make their thoughts and feelings the priority, it still helps when I try.

For work today I was accompanying a client’s mother to testify for grand jury. She was very nervous about it and wanted someone there to support her. I am the victim advocate, so naturally that is my job. Yet I always feel hesitant about it. How on earth could I be a comfort to someone? I feel terribly inadequate to be honest. I’ve never been very good at comforting people. Especially people I don’t know well. It is also hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that anyone would want someone like me to be there. The things that seem to bring others a sense of security and comfort are the exact same things that make me anxious.

As I was driving to the courthouse this morning, I was very nervous. What should I say to her? Will I remember what she looks like? How long will we have to wait together? What if she cries? I was mainly worrying about myself. I didn’t want to look or feel awkward. I didn’t want to seem incompetent. But then I remembered that none of this was about me. It was about this poor mother. She was feeling scared and I had been entrusted to help her. This morning was about doing everything that I could to make her more comfortable and to be there for her.

I stopped thinking about myself. I stopped worrying if I would make a fool out of myself. Instead I began to imagine how this mother must be feeling this morning. I imagined her as a close friend. I felt such tender, protective, loving emotions well up inside of me. This allowed me to walk into the courthouse with confidence. I had a mission and it wasn’t to save face. It was to be a friendly face for this woman.

Moving from a place of love, compassion, and consideration for others evaporates fear, anger, even sadness. For some people this comes more naturally than others. And it seems to me that for the people that do this instinctively, they seem to be much happier people in general. It is those of us that become fixated on ourselves that suffer unnecessarily.

So from now on I am going to try my best to learn from the example of those generous, open-hearted people around me. No matter what I am doing, I am going to try to do it with love in my heart. With love as my guide and my inspiration.

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