The phrase “an unguarded heart” had been floating through my mind so much that I finally sat down and Googled it, but what I found was not what I expected.
Several searches brought me to religious or biblical references which were the complete opposite of what I had been thinking about when the phrase first popped into my head.
“Do not let your armor slip, not for one moment. Satan lurks nearby, always watching to find an unguarded heart…” (Ephesians 6:10)
“I entreat you not to leave your heart unguarded, so long as you are in the body. Just as a farmer cannot feel confident about the crop growing in his fields, because he does not know what will happen to it before it is stored away in his granary, so a man should not leave his heart unguarded so long as he still has breath in his nostrils. Up to his last breath, he cannot know what passion will attack him; so long as he breathes, therefore, he must not leave his heart unguarded, but should at every moment pray to God for His help and mercy.” (St. Isaiah the Solitary)
In the first quote, we could substitute other people for Satan, as well as hurt, passion, our own “demons”—anything which could creep up on us when we drop our guard. And I know there are many that feel a sympathy with this point of view—many that are scared of what might strike if they stop being vigilant.
The vigilance can take many forms—spiritual practices, social structures, group membership, inflexible belief systems; never mind the huge market in vigilance which surrounds us every day, from alarm systems and panic buttons to vaccines (all of which may have their place but are often sold and bought on the basis of fear). All are barriers, erected to protect us.
For every threat or enemy we meet, we build another wall. Every time we’re hurt or feel threatened, we erect a barrier—either an emotional or a physical one. By the time we hit mid-life we can be well and truly imprisoned behind guarded hearts and minds.
I confess to dreaming of another way of living.
Long ago, I saw the damage it does when we build emotional walls, and I realized that we could continue indefinitely to be wall-builders as there is no end to what can be considered the “enemy.” Perhaps we come from such a long line of wall-builders over the generations that it’s a difficult pattern to break. We take such pride in our ability to build walls and defenses, and have spent millions of lifetimes perfecting the craft in one way or another.
It’s not something we are likely to drop easily. But those of us who see another way of living are finding new words to describe our experiences; we’re starting to gently say, “Hey, be brave, open up, come out and meet life.” This isn’t about being part of a particular religious or spiritual community—it’s simply about trying to allow more love, rather than fear, to dominate our lives.
There is an incredible compassion in being able to face the world with a heart that is soft and vulnerable enough to accept it as it is. It takes time, humility and practice to live this way. Time because it’s a gentle and sensitive process which can’t be forced. Humility because we have to let go of the need to be right, the need to be best, the need to be the only one. And practice, because that’s what it is—a practice of opening/re-opening when we want to run away and close ourselves off, and also a practice of keeping the mind out of the way when it wants to take over.
But how to start?
This is the work of a lifetime. It means a journey inside—a journey away from what other people think and do, so that we can take a closer look at why it is we choose to guard our hearts. What are the fears, longings, passions and other “demons” that scare us so much that we fight them both in ourselves and others, guarding our hearts and tying up our energy in the process? Why do we feel the need to control our own behavior and that of others? What holds us back from the natural desire to love and be loved than unites all of us?
I won’t pretend it doesn’t hurt, because it certainly does at times. But somehow the hurt seems to come and go much more easily when there is energy flowing in and out of the heart, keeping it fresh and immediate. Ultimately, the heart feels stronger, and the love that we can connect into so far overshadows all other emotions that we never want to turn back once we tap into it. It is a love so immensely powerful yet wonderfully humbling that it fills us with an inspiring mix of magnificence and awe.
It is love that encompasses the human, but is so much more.
And all it takes to start the flow is for us to start opening those little valves of the heart.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel