An Open Heart…
The Irish are known for their friendly warmth of heart. Driving through our small village in Ireland, I pass by a silver-haired woman driving a small blue sedan, and she waves to me. And then I pass a teenage boy walking along the side of the wet blustery country road, and he waves to me. A man wearing rain gear and driving a big yellow tractor waves to me as we pass. As I peer out the window behind the steering wheel, my heart is stirred as both drivers and pedestrians alike, wave in acknowledgement. The wave is a particular one, just the pointer finger lifted off the steering wheel and maybe a slight nod. At first I thought these waves were reserved for those with whom you needed to scoot off the road to pass, as many of the roads here are not quite wide enough for two cars. Yet, I soon realized that nearly everyone waves to each other as they pass on foot or by car, each day, all day. A simple yet profound gesture to say “I see you.” This is one of the many ways my heart is pressed upon as I move through my day in Ireland. These small gestures feel symbolic of a generosity of heart that pervades the Irish people.
My dear Irish-American grandfather, while in his early 90’s could often not get through a sentence without tearing up as he spoke to me of his Irish roots. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. As a young college student at Berkeley, I visited him often in his house in the California Oakland hills. I could always find him sitting in his red wingback chair, a replacement chair after his original house had burned down in the 1991 Oakland firestorm. As we would sit together he would tell me of his childhood — stories of early San Francisco when the lamplighters would come by and light street lamps by hand, his house with a dirt floor, and memories of the 1906 earthquake and the fires that followed. He told me of his parents sailing over from Ireland, County Mayo and County Limerick, and would show me these distant counties on his old map of Ireland. With his crinkly hand in mine, he would read me marked passages from the Bible, most often Corinthians 13: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” His twinkly moist eyes giving way to watery cheeks seemed to have a direct link to his heart. These meetings with my grandfather when I was a young woman were my introduction to Ireland, to the Irish people, to the Irish open heart.
It seems to me one of the elements of a good life, a beautiful life, includes an open heart. What does it look like to open one’s heart, again and again, throughout each day, moment to moment? Practicing an open heart can take on so many forms: an act of forgiveness for a long-held resentment; a simple moment of generosity; self-compassion as we experience our human limitations; a physical stance of shoulders back and a soft open chest. An open heart may appear as eye contact and a genuine exchange with the cashier at the grocery store; or, in a moment of anger perhaps you choose to soften, smile, and release a hardened heart. The practice of breathing into one’s heart can nudge an opening. Sensing one’s interior chest cavity can reveal a protected heart, and with presence and bare attention, this can give way to an opening. An open heart can infuse the simple words: I’m sorry; Thank you; Forgive me; I love you; or simply Hello. The ongoing intention to live from a loving and kind heart can radically impact our speech and our actions.
Various forms of prayer and meditation are focused on opening the heart. During our bedtime prayer, I invite my daughters to “drop down and allow the words to literally be spoken from your heart rather than your mind” and see what happens. They will delight in choosing a prayer from one of our favorite books, The Little Book of Prayers edited by David Schiller, a treasure trove of prayers from around the world. This simple act of a child choosing holy words — from Saint Patrick, the Upanishads, Rabia, Saint Catherine, the Iroquois and Sioux — to convey gratitude, protection, and love, opens each of us. We meditate as a family and have been inspired by the simple lessons on kindness and a loving heart found in the book by Eline Snel, Sitting Still Like a Frog. Children are wonderful teachers of the heart as their willingness to forgive and let the gates of the heart fly open, again and again, is awesome.
The practice of opening one’s heart is prevalent in spiritual and religious texts. The practice of metta or loving-kindness is found throughout Buddhism. In the wonderful book Lost Christianity, Jacob Needleman articulates the ancient prayer of the heart practice of the desert fathers, bringing the mind into the heart through the Jesus Prayer. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche reminds us: “We must continue to open in the face of tremendous opposition. No one is encouraging us to open and still we must peel away the layers of the heart.” The beloved Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan states: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” In the beautiful book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the well-loved Irish author John O’Donohue speaks to the movement of an opening heart: “When love awakens in your life, in the night of your heart, it is like the dawn breaking within you. Where before there was anonymity, now there is intimacy; where before there was fear, now there is courage; where before in your life there was awkwardness, now there is a rhythm of grace and gracefulness; where before you used to be jagged, now you are elegant and in rhythm with your self.” O’Donohue describes the truth and beauty discovered in an open heart.
I believe living with an open heart is an ongoing practice, a sort of koan, a prayer, a meditation, an invitation: Open heart when we are touched; open heart when we are vulnerable; open heart when we are angry; open heart when we are confused; open heart when we are scared; open heart as we love.
The four of us — my husband Sean, myself, and our two daughters — crowd into our village pub and stand huddled in a corner. A quiet looking woman near the window begins to play the fiddle while a stoutly man beside her starts to sing an Irish ballad. My senses absorb the moment — the sound of traditional Irish music; the scent of Guinness and sweat; the sight of children sipping lemonade from bottles and a big fellow in a wheelchair sitting by the bar; the feel of my daughter’s hair pressed against my chest. My heart starts to ache as it swells and I am no longer able to contain the cracking open that wants to push through. I start to weep, not just a few tears but streams running down my face. I am overwhelmed — gratitude for the salty sincere Irish folk whom we have met; the ways in which the wild Celtic spirit has washed and purified our hearts; the intimate connection to our people who have walked this land before us. As I stand in the corner of the pub taking in the music, at first I am embarrassed as my nose is running and I feel out of control, but after a few moments I give in and relax and surrender, allowing my heart to break open. This is my practice. What might your open heart practice look like?
Invitation to Practice:
Here are some Open Heart practices:
We often have our attention centered in our head, following all the many thoughts rattling around in our mind. As you move through your day, let your attention drop down into your heart center. Notice what opens your heart and what closes it. What are the micro-movements of your heart?
Put your awareness on or in your heart area. Do you notice warmth, coolness? Does it feel tight or soft? Is there a feeling correlated with this area — sadness? anger? fear? longing? joy? Breathe into the area of your heart. Does your experience change as you breathe into and put your attention on your heart? Journal about what you discover.
During an exchange with another — this could be a simple exchange at the post office or one with your own child — see if you can put your attention on your heart and allow words to literally be spoken from the heart. How does that impact you, or another?
Thanks for reading and send me an email and let me know how these practices are going for you!