“To know that your deepest well-being rests in your own open-heart.” Belleruth Naparstek
This is a powerful statement. I don’t think there is anyone who does not want to experience the sense of “deepest well-being”. Just saying the phrase evokes calm and contentment and affirmations of peace. Some of the beauty of this phrase, comes from the pure simplicity inherent in the words… “To know that your deepest well-being rests in your own open heart”. It implies that it is already there, our deepest well-being. Waiting for us. Inviting us to open our heart so that we can receive its blessings and gifts. Easy, accessible, possible.
And yet, at the same time, it is a complex invitation. If opening our hearts were easy, we would not suffer so much and we would not be so unreceptive to others’ suffering. But if we look closely at our hearts, we might find that more often than not, the truth is, they are closed. Not just kinda, sorta closed, but locked up with homeland security protection.
Humans know how to protect themselves. It is an ancient skill that helped us to survive the woolly mammoths, tigers, and all the other kinds of danger that had the potential of resulting in our deaths. The problem is, that humans today use this same strong defense system just as we go throughout our daily lives, at work, with our partners when we are arguing, when we feel fear or shame or guilt or the pressure to be perfect. As soon as anything even slightly sparks our brain’s stored memory of the dangers of our ancestors, we shut down and go into our protective mode. In the process, our hearts must close. It is impossible to be self-protective and open-hearted at the same time. Unfortunately, I think the choice most of us make more often is one of self-protection, instead of an open heart. And then we suffer, because we lose the opportunity to access our “deepest well-being”. The more we strive to protect ourselves from our suffering and our overwhelming emotions, the more our hearts close and the less opportunity we have to experience deep well-being.
So how do we open our hearts in the face of life’s challenges and difficulties so we can experience well-being? How do we do this when we feel those overwhelming emotions that urge us to just run and protect? I believe it starts with both an awareness of what we are feeling and experiencing, and then the ability to practice self-compassion in the face of those feelings and experiences.
So, we are hurting and it feels “bad”. We have been trained well in our society to make the “bad” go away and to restore “good” as quickly as possible. But when we categorize our emotions as “good” or “bad”, we step into the land of judgment, harshness and criticism, which puts us back on the road toward fear and protection again. Hearts do not open when judgment or harshness or criticism is lurking.
Instead of judging what we feel, it may be more effective if we practice accepting that our emotions are just part of being alive, part of the human experience. Even the strongly intense emotions that feel uncomfortable and feel scary, serve a purpose. When we become curious and allow ourselves to reflect on what emotion is present without judgment, this is the first step to opening our hearts. We are not shutting down the minute something feels uncomfortable. We are not berating ourselves for not being stronger. We do not allow our critical inner voice to tell us we are inadequate. Instead we take a breath, look at what we are feeling and then, boldly, name it.
The Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, says that naming an emotion begins the process of calming it and ourselves. We accept what we feel, and as we name it, we calm ourselves. We see it is not something to run from; it is not actually going to kill us. And once our protective mode is in check, we have the freedom to move toward our experience with curiosity. This moving toward one’s experience requires self-compassion.
Self compassion thrives in environments of non-judgment and acceptance, curiosity and understanding. We have to become like the soothing mother holding her infant and saying, “There, there. It’s ok that you are struggling or fretting, or feeling scared or confused. I will not leave you. I am here. There, there.” Not abandoning ourselves by becoming critical and harsh and judgmental in our own darkest moments is the start of self compassion. Offering ourselves comfort and gentleness and the permission to be less than perfect. Soothing ourselves when we feel inadequate, instead of beating ourselves up for not performing according to some abstract “should” or deeply buried belief. Loving ourselves in the face of our own imperfection and suffering is self-comapssion at work.
All of us deserve to access our “deepest well-being”. We all deserve the peacefulness and contentment that comes with this. But in order to cultivate this in our lives, we must keep our hearts open. We must learn to trust that we will not fall apart when things feel “bad” or uncomfortable or scary. We must learn to trust that we have the inner resilience to survive stressful circumstances. We must practice non-judgmental awareness and then self compassion. Approaching ourselves like the soothing mother, in love and gentleness and understanding. Trusting that when we take the chance and keep ourselves open to feel what we feel, we are safe. And knowing without any doubt that our deepest well being is just an open heart beat away.