How pain can teach empathy and spiritual wisdom.
The very words ‘open your heart’ make most people want to punch in a wall, me included. Other folks make that ‘heart’ sign with their fingers. That’s, uh, sweet, but it doesn’t answer why you would want to open your heart, or what actually needs to be done to make it open.
Over the last 20 years, students have arrived on my doorstep. They are tired, shut down and angry. Life is not what they expected. Reiki, Harville Hendrix, medication, far-flung travel, high-end shopping, VIP access, gourmet food, designer drugs—they’ve done it all and nothing worked. Fed up, they gaze up at me.
Here is part of what I share with them.
Your body and mind bear the history of everything that has happened to you, a lively collection of mental images called ‘your past’. Some images are wonderful. Others are less so. The more of them there are that are less so, the harder it can be to open your heart and love people (Nelson Mandela notwithstanding).
The beginning of a legitimate spiritual practice is not the end of pain. Often, it is just the start. But before you throw in the divine towel, know this: if used with wisdom, pain can singlehandedly engender empathy. The pain we experience can force us to recognize that others are suffering as much or more than we are. I’m not talking about wringing our hands about sub-Saharan malnutrition as we tune into CNN. I’m talking about the co-worker who chews her tuna sandwich with her mouth open, the parent that you refuse to turn into and the tripped out dude on the subway who thinks he’s still at Burning Man. They may well be suffering too.
In short, pain begets empathy.
Empathy, the willful leap into another’s Armageddon, opens the heart much like a flower to the sun. It sounds berserk, but pain is the sun, water and soil of the spiritual heart, if used properly.
Pain can also cause us to spiral ever more deeply into ourselves, curling away from life and its horrors. We all have tragedies behind us, not just you. Every second someone, somewhere, is experiencing their own personal tragedy. If I could reach into your crying heart, a la Hanuman, and rip it wide open, I would, celestial blood and guts be damned. But I can’t. Perhaps all those Indian deities sprouted multiple arms out of empathy, to enfold ever more beings in love. Maybe it’s why your shoulders always ache. More arms are trying to grow.
Lately, we’ve been taught that to heal you needed to drink all-green juices, avoid smog, get the right amount of sex/money/fame/vacation time, and steer clear of assholes. But those aren’t the actual karmic causes of happiness or healing. According to Master Patanjali, the go-to for all things holy in yoga and the writer of the Yoga Sutra’s, pain comes from causing pain to others.
From this perspective, most of us have been refusing our whole lives the very thing that generates happiness. We refuse it by divorcing it, quitting it, leaving it or otherwise putting the kibosh on it. We don’t care because we don’t feel anything. We don’t feel anything, good or bad, because our heart is closed. Our lives unwind like in slow-motion.
Pain itself is not so bad. When we finally let it in, pain transforms us. It wrests the fist of the heart open faster than that hug from Amma you waited on line for nine years for (Maybe not, my hug from her was pretty memorable). Pain allows communion. Moved by another, we can take compassionate action. Empathy spells the end of apathy, and the end of not knowing what to do with your life. When the hearts breaks open, all you want to to do is help others. Not much else matters to you.
All you need to do is take care of someone else. Close your eyes. Breath. Think of someone whose pain has been too much for you to take in. Allow yourself to enter their experience. Send them what they need with your out breath. Tell them you love them.
How does it feel? Do it again and again, until one day, that’s all you do: help others. You can do it. You were made for it.
Kelly Morris. Unapologetic, famously frank, jacked up on compassion. Like no other yoga teacher you’ve ever seen. Authentic lineage holder in the gelukpa tradition of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Initiated by Amritananda Mayi Ma, Satchidananda and several Tibetan Buddhist tantric mandalas. Jivamukti’s top teacher for a decade. Left to create the renowned Conquering Lion Yoga Teacher Training Program/NYC. Columnist for Origin Magazine. Sole teacher of yoga for The Hangout Festival/AL with over 45,000 attendees. Creator of non-profit The Vow Project (http://www.thevowproject.com). Presenting at Wanderlust/VT this June in The Lair Of The Conquering Lion. New York Magazine: “Best Of” 3 years in a row. The New York Times and Yoga Journal: “one of NYC’s foremost teachers.” Favorite thing lately: phone sessions with clients all over the world. Find her at: http://www.kellymorrisyoga.com
Editor: Ryan Pinkard