“The heart that breaks open can contain the universe.” Joanna Macy
What is your way into heart softening? Is it witnessing a child’s unadulterated joy in being alive? A poem? A story that creates a special connection between you and the person speaking?
What does “heart softening” mean and why does it matter? The other day I had such a softening moment as I drove home from a meeting with a client. I realized that while I sat listening to him his story had touched my heart with an almost physical touch. I felt a softness, a sense of opening within, that had been missing for some time.
I allowed myself to feel that softness for a few moments. It took those moments for me to realize what was happening as I moved from the meeting toward the next event on my schedule. I liked how the softening felt. I decided I would do my best to hold onto that feeling as I went about my day.
I allowed myself to acknowledge the sad fact that I had been missing that feeling of softness, and the peace that followed it, for some time. Events here in the U.S. and in the wider world have been dark and painful, for days, for months. The shortened, darker days of November had been hammering home a sense of despair and deep sadness that was living in me. I found myself having small fits of anger at the irritations in my daily routine and those incidents were increasing. My heart had hardened.
I was becoming more and more cynical about our government, the future of our environment and planet, and my ability to have any positive effect on what feels like a terrible onslaught of bad things, with no end in sight. These negative feelings were becoming my norm. I was walking through my days as if I was moving through mud, and the mud, I saw, was depression. My energy was low, a sense of inertia marked my days. Yes, it was ugly.
Luckily things crack open. Eggs—my morning one into the cup to poach for breakfast, an eagle’s to birth her chick. The clouds—this morning as the sun rose—split open along the horizon over the Cascade Mountains and the Seattle skyline, revealing a surreal pink light that spread onto the water. The soft salmon-pink buds of my cactus on the kitchen counter were spreading wide to release their inner beauty, the cactus a gift from a dear friend. Rocks crack open from the movement of the energies contained within, as does ice. The cocoon splits open and the butterfly emerges, transformed. And seeds—seeds crack open in the dark, releasing life. As Leonard Cohen wrote “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
What in your world cracks open each day? What would you tell me, once you start looking for things that open, things that soften your heart in your day? I am so curious to know.
The crack appeared in my session with my client. He told me a story about being hurt by someone he revered and we walked into the pain together. I listened closely. I did my best to ask questions that would help him reflect in order to become clearer about what had happened and who he was in that experience. I tried to plant a few seeds. I tried to water the seeds he had already planted for himself.
On my way home I felt a gentleness in my body and realized my heart was softening, cracking open, and compassion was taking root again. I felt some inner peace. Then came a sense of relief that I hadn’t lost my capacity to care. My client had gifted me with his story.
Real feelings shape us. I don’t discount the power of anger to move us into action. I don’t negate deep grief at the loss of a loved one, a pet, the loss of one’s own agency when health falters. The toughest emotions activate us, push us to work for justice, to help others. My poems hold strong emotions, speaking to the pain and tragedy of real life, in hopes of connecting to someone else. Some would call them dark. I write the poem that needs to be written, as my teacher points out, and if I am listening closely, the poem writes itself. I write these poems because I believe we need to know these feelings. In the knowing we can find our hearts again, we can find one another and we might even be transformed.
A wise person once told me our lives are like a spiral staircase that we continually climb, going around and around, trying to gain understanding of who we are and where we come from.
We climb up and up, and in the circling we sometimes hit against the bannister—those old hurts, sad memories, hard experiences, those losses. Gradually we learn how to navigate the stairs, naming the emotions that are triggered by those bumps. We learn to acknowledge the bumpy place as something that is a part of us and let it go. We can be gentle with ourselves and others in this process, keeping our hearts soft.
How then do we find our way to heart softening? How do we become aware of the places where things crack open and the light can enter again? I find m heart is touched most often in the small, often simple, events and moments of my daily life these days.
In that touching is the softening, like kneading bread, or stroking the cat’s fur. It is in the moments when I take the time to stand still and look, really look, at the lime green alder leaf lying on the dark gray gravel amidst red mountain ash berries and soft brown pine needles, all in their death throes, all dying to live into life in the spring, all so colorful, together. These small, often physical events throughout my day bring me present so that I see beyond them to the many good people doing many thousands of good things in the world.
You can do this too. Try using your five senses as you move through your day. What do you see? Smell? Taste? Hear? Touch? What does your softened heart actually feel like? What cracks open the hardness or protective shell that covers your heart like the green fuzzy casings of the deep red oriental poppy bud that split apart releasing its petals in the warm sun?
Find your own heart softening things—music does it for me every time, especially when I’m feeling most hardened up and stuck. Poetry is another of my go to ways to shift my energy.
Sometimes life is not warm and fuzzy. Let yourself feel the hard things, the painful things, like the cold steel of a prison door or the sound of a child crying whose parent has been taken from her. Your heart will crack open and you will find compassion waiting.
Find your softened heart, though it might be sorely tested, and feel it pump life and guide your thoughts and actions. Meet a good friend for coffee and listen attentively. Stop for a moment and look closely at morning frost on a fallen leaf. Listen. You might notice that the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.