Simple Instructions to Open Your Heart.

Via Carolyn Elliott
on Mar 13, 2012
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Meet throbbing sadness with giant grace

If you’re a sensitive soul, you probably you know it—the immense sadness that wakes up with you in the morning some days, some weeks. It holds at your throat and squeezes like a mad assailant who both wants an answer now and also wants desperately to prevent you from giving one. I’ve struggled with that kind of brutal sadness on and off for years.

It’s salty, thick, throbbing and vicious.

What’s at the root of the awful feeling? A sense of loss—not a loss of a particular person or thing, but a loss of hope, a loss of trust that the world we’re in is a good place to be.

The sense of loss grows when I go through my memory and I seem to come up with a wealth of incidents in which people I adored left me, burnt me, insulted me. I get a desolate sense that I’ve somehow been wrecked by the brutality of others, a brutality that I couldn’t predict and couldn’t defend myself against.

These memories can feel like a pile of irrefutable, immense evidence that life is cruel and that other people are hard, shallow and mean. Under the weight of such evidence, my own heart starts to close down. My resentment calcifies around me like an impenetrable shell.

Milica Sekulic

In this closed state, I have nothing to give. I’m stingy with my energy, impatient with my life, bored with everything, suspicious of everyone. I’m a whining, self-pitying mess.

Our hearts naturally close when we encounter trauma: betrayal, disappointment, hardship. It’s natural to want to shut down like a fearful mollusk and keep the pink, tender sides of us safe from the onslaught of the world. It’s natural, but it’s not graceful.

Grace is an attitude that counters the brutality of life’s inevitable pain with radically loving openness rather than shutting down.

The problem with heart-closure in response to trauma is that it’s what everyone else is doing too. Other folks all around have walled their hearts behind hard barriers, and it’s from that insulated place that they go ahead and do the very things that end up hurting us.

So if I recoil from pain inflicted on me by hardening my own heart, I’m just perpetuating the problem. The more closed-down and protected I make myself, the less easy it is for me to empathize. I become more likely to behave thoughtlessly, self-righteously, even meanly.

I’ve found that I can’t afford to hold any grudges. The more resentful I am, the more my perception is distorted and the more I’m inclined to feel entitled to violate other people on my way towards getting what I want.

I have a way of dealing with life that many people don’t like to hear me talk about, because it can sound like stupidity and denial. And it would be stupidity and denial, if it weren’t a response that arose out of much thought and much acceptance.

My approach is this:

To the best of my ability, I refrain from judging what happens around me and what other people say. I pay attention to everything with my heart rather than with my mind.

What does that mean?

It means that a person could be going off on a crazy racist rant in front of me, and rather than going up into my head and silently resisting and criticizing everything that they say, I just open myself and listen. I ask my heart to receive the person’s wisdom and their love (even though my brain tells me that the raving racist doesn’t have any of those things to offer).

When I do this, I find that something about my inner non-resistance has an almost magical effect: I’m able to absorb the person’s words without them harming me at all (i.e., they don’t infect me with racism or infect me with hostility towards the person ranting), and I notice that gradually the person speaking begins to soften and lighten.

This practice becomes a lot harder when the person ranting is not just going on about some generally misguided ideas, but when they’re actually insulting me.

Yet I find that when I can stay anchored in my heart while someone else is telling me all about their negative perceptions of me, I often end up feeling more compassion for them than I do righteousness for myself. It begins to be clear to me that they’re feeling a lot of pain and frustration that they don’t know what to do with. I’m able to hear whatever truth there might be in what they’re saying without internalizing their vitriol or getting rude with them in return.

In brief, the only cure I know for big sadness is to increase my willingness and decision to love without judgement: to love the world, love myself, love others. And by “love” I guess I just mean, “enjoy with kindness.”



Editor: Brianna Bemel


About Carolyn Elliott

Carolyn Elliott is a bad bitch with a bodhisattva vow. She's also the internet's favorite writing teacher. You can grab her free lesson on The Dangerous Secret to Growing Your Online Audience to 1000 Raving Fans by clicking here. Carolyn also co-edits BAD WITCHES magazine and teaches courses on practical magic. Carolyn is the author of the cult-favorite creativity book, Awaken Your Genius, and has a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in Critical and Cultural Studies. She currently resides in Ubud, Bali where she spends a lot of time writing and doing yoga. What's Next? On November 16th, 2015, registration will open for THRILL, Carolyn's virtual masterclass on writing for the social web, growing your online audience, and getting paid. To find out more about THRILL and be alerted when registration opens, make sure you sign up for Carolyn's free lesson and email list by clicking here. 


3 Responses to “Simple Instructions to Open Your Heart.”

  1. ValCarruthers says:

    "I ask my heart to receive the person’s wisdom and their love (even though my brain tells me that the raving racist doesn’t have any of those things to offer)." Thank you for offering this, Carolyn. Being open to receive, even under comfortable circumstances, can be immensely challenging in spiritual practice. That's why Pema Chodron and other Buddhist teachers show how to invoke the practice of Metta—wishing peace and happiness for oneself and others.

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  2. […] I have had those days too, sometimes weeks, when my phone is almost silent; there are no red light ups under my notifications on Facebook and I am greeted by unrest everywhere I go. Those are the days and the weeks when I’m not feeling good about myself. I question myself and give in to my insecurities like an alcoholic to liquor. I keep myself locked up and detached from my heart. If I can’t see my heart, neither can anyone else. […]

  3. Amy E says:

    Great suggestions. Very helpful advice. Compassion is a good tool. You never know what the other person is going through.