One of the challenges in my personal life has been opening my heart. An open heart is an open posture to the flow of love, life, beauty, hope, deeper relationships, new possibilities, healing, and a movement towards a greater wholeness. This is not easy for me for a variety of reasons. If I were honest, the biggest challenge is fear in various forms.
A Few Reasons for Closed Hearts
We have all been born into a cultural story that shapes so much (everything) of how we see the world. From birth, we have been steeped in very western ideas about heroes, strength, winners, losers, failure, success, love, hate, sacred violence, etc., etc. and a pretty rigid idea of a good, successful citizen a “good life” should look like.
These systems prefer (demand) conformity to the cultural stories, and they co-opt other much older, deeper stories to support the way things are and to help incentivize conformity. It's not my intention to wade into political discussions, just to state that the celebrated cultural stories we tell each other can work against the flourishing of our hearts and lives. This can close our hearts.
Have you ever poured your heart and soul into something you really care about, only to fail? With a failure or two, we can find ourselves in a place where we can’t stand the thought of trying again. Failure and the related shame and discouragement will close your heart.
Often we close our hearts to avoid being hurt, excluded, excommunicated or in a general sense rejected as a pariah and an outlier in our community. As we close our hearts, we can't help but begin to live smaller. We spend a great deal of time rationalizing and medicating this until one day we awake from our stupor to find ourselves wondering where the hell the joie de vivre has gone? At other times, we are jolted by experiences of grief, alienation, loneliness, and depression. Despite our best efforts to play by the rules, we can't help but wonder why we feel so hollow.
When we muster up the courage to share these feelings, we are often quickly shut down and pushed back into the box, encouraged to stop doubting and questioning. Many retreat and muster the effort to double down on the great myth of our culture, the promise that life is found in our next purchase, deal, or conquest. Those who can’t pick by themselves up by the boots straps often stop trying. This closes the heart.
Other hazards can slowly turn our hearts to stone. The betrayal and the hurt inflicted by those nearest and dearest to us cut us at a depth that threatens to disembowel our very personhood. We recoil in pain and scramble to build walls to make sure we'll never experience that kind of hurt again. Hot on the heels of these experiences is bitterness and unforgiveness. A truly toxic mixture that, if left unaddressed, can over time turn even the most supple and vibrant hearts to concrete.
Many kinds of loss produce grief - the emotional response to a loss of any kind. The experts remind us that grief is cumulative, and we can try to ignore it, but over time, combined with other losses, this pain will leach into other areas of our life. The work to forcefully restrain our ignored grief takes a lot of energy, and because grief is a form of heartbreak, we work to distance ourselves from any interaction at that level. Ignored grief closes the hearts.
Throughout the ages, sages and mystics have affirmed that our hearts are the centre of our being. While they can break so very easily, they too can be mended and learn to live again (even with a limp) and learn to tend to our hearts in ways that connect us in the deepest ways to life and our true self.
He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.
- Psalm 147:3
Things that Open our heart
I have found that opening my heart always starts with responding to an invitation. I am reminded of a bit from the book of Revelations of bible fame, loosely: "Hey! I'm here, and I'm knocking at your heart door. Please open the door, so I can come and be with you." The great works of art depicting this saying show a knocking Jesus in front of a door with no doorknob, implying that the knob is on the inside and it is up to each of us to open it.
Lest this is mistaken for some cheesy alter call - this truth is universal. Divine love knocks at the closed doors of every heart. Inviting each of us to open the door. To this end, opening the door to our heart always starts with our "Yes."
This Yes, and the hundreds of thousands of Yes's that follow are all part of the journey. It is a choice of opening our hearts once again to life. Little by little, wading into the cosmic flow of divine love, at times bracing against it, sometimes splashing about in its pools, and yes, at times abandoning ourselves to ride the current of love.
In more concrete terms, we open our hearts with a regular Yes to the invitation of life and love. For me, I find it a part of my daily rhythm. I say it out loud, asking God for the grace to open my heart and to experience the joie de vivre - even during the tough stuff. I find prayer, contemplative prayer, Lectio, and Visio Divina as a healing salve for the parts of my heart that have grown calloused or bruised. These practices also support the progress towards wholeness that I have made. Some of these exercises are so very simple. For example, I have been known to sit for hours in front of a rose or birds at the feeder in wonder, very much aware of the immanence and transcendence of the God who is love. The same is true during a walk or a visit with a faithful forgiving friend. Love begets love, faith, and hope. These experiences open the heart.
Choosing to forgive is huge. For me, it is seldom a 'simple and done' forgiveness. I find I have to keep forgiving, over and over. Of course, forgiving others (good boundaries are a part of good forgiveness), but the hardest to forgive is often ourselves. With forgiveness, sometimes it's helpful to get some help and to work these feelings through. Forgiveness is often necessary for the shadow of loss of one kind or another, and forgiveness is one part of healing our grieving hearts.
Many begin to realize that nothing in our lives is wasted. All parts of our journey can be integrated into our wholeness—even the ugly hard things. God is at work squeezing every ounce of possible goodness of them and working with us and through others to mend our hearts.
As we journey, we will learn to trust what's happening inside us. Some have been taught that our hearts are untrustworthy, and some bad translations of scripture say that our hearts are wicked and deceitful beyond all things. Sometimes even our inherited wisdom can prove counterproductive to cultivating an open heart. As we practise saying Yes, we learn that our heart is where the Spirit meets us and inspires us. In time we will learn to recognize and trust that voice that is deepest in us.
The opposite of faith is certainly - not doubt. Yet, many have been taught the opposite. Part of my journey was (is, still) to recognize and deal with the cognitive dissonance. We can do this by being honest about our doubts, ask our questions, do our (re)searching about faith, knowing that you can trust your experience of faith and relationship with the divine. This takes courage. Sometimes, an experienced spiritual companion (or spiritual director) can help you ask your questions, express your doubts, and serve you as you untangle your faith.
As we practise opening our hearts, we will begin to recognize those things in our lives that don't fit and that we have outgrown. As we become open, we feel safer, more authentic, and our true self begins to emerge. The funny thing is that as we do this, as we discover who we are at the core of our very being, we discover, as if for the very time, God. Christ in us the hope of glory.
One thing is certain, as we open our heart to that which is transcendently lovingly faithful, we will discover a love that envelops us and holds us securely, including our fears, our mistakes, our doubts, heartbreaks, and deepest desires.