Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Swinging Gate of the Heart

It has been a rough couple of weeks. A friend’s sister passed away and so did my friend from Spain, Luz (see Christmas in London). While trying to feel my own grief, I also wanted to comfort my dear friend and colleague Sofia, who was deeply connected to Luz and so full of sadness. My mother-in-law suddenly seemed to lose her appetite for living and announced she’s ready to check out, no muss, no fuss. One daughter is wondering how to be with the 6-year old boy in her class who survived a car crash that his Mom didn’t, the other is struggling with summer plans with her stepson and both are at odds with their bosses (now where did they get that from?!). I went to greet an old colleague at a recent workshop and she turned away, offended by a remark I had made last week in an e-mail. My arthritic 18-year old cat limps more very day and three of the tender preschoolers burst into tears in my class today because they didn’t get the penny or paperclip right away in our little game. From the tiny disappointment to the unbearable loss, there is a lot of weight on the heart these days.

In my work and philosophical ramblings, I am a staunch advocate of the open heart. Sing and play with vulnerability and tenderness at the core. Dance to the center of your grief and joy, holding hands or supporting the weight of fellow dancers if you can. Write as if every word is a love letter to the world or a farewell note to loved ones. Carry as much of the world’s suffering weight as you can bear. Hear the stories of those in pain with a listening ear and a comforting shoulder. Stay attuned to your own sorrows and look them in the eye. Cultivate compassion.

Well, it sounds good on paper, but really, why would I wish it on anyone? It hurts! Hard enough to bear one’s own trials and tribulations, but when you add all the people you know to the mix, the shoulders start to droop from all that weight. And then if you read the newspaper and you start to hear about all the folks you don’t know…well, frankly, I don’t know how people do it. Every morning I chant the Four vows of Zen Buddhism and luckily, in an ancient Sino-Japanese language. If I realized I was vowing to “save all sentient beings”—all 9 billion of them— I would stay rooted to the cushion, immobilized by the enormity of bearing the sorrows from each.

No wonder most of us treat the heart as a “mighty fortress,” sequestred, protected and armored from the slings and arrows of misfortune. But the closed heart ain’t no good for no one. It allows too much rampant harm to continue unchecked, leaves our fellow humans out in the cold, hungry and unloved, and ultimately, takes its revenge on us, all those deferred sufferings gathering strength and energy to attack us full force when we let down our guard for a moment.

But the perpetually open heart has its issues too. It always feels like it could and should do more, but ultimately can do nothing to heal another’s pain. So most of us are equipped with some kind of swinging gate, available to let another in and hear their story and offer a refuge and haven that accepts salty tears and cries of pain. But at some point, it needs to swing close and tend to its complex mixture of joy and sadness.

Really, when you think about it, it’s a miracle that any of us can be happy for even a minute. But that is the miracle of it, that amidst all the conflict and confusion and chaos, joy awaits its bloom in the spring rain of tears. Relationships are a mess, life sends us reeling, death even more, but be joyful and dance.

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