Rip that Fist of a Heart Open. ~ Kelly Morris

Via elephant journal
on May 5, 2012
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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.

Ask yourself, “Do I know how to love?” The answer may surprise you.

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 ( 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:


Editor: Ryan Pinkard


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16 Responses to “Rip that Fist of a Heart Open. ~ Kelly Morris”

  1. MamasteNJ says:

    TY Kelly, your article resonates with me on many levels. It makes perfect sense now, why, after many years of holding tight the act of busting my heart open floods me with empathy, love and compassion. This is the difference that people see. It changes your appearance. It changes your soul. I know what I am supposed to do and I will forge that road with clear vision. And I will always go with an open heart.
    ~Namaste form Mamaste

  2. jodi stuart says:

    love you kelly… great to see your thoughts in print…your visuals on pain are easy to grasp… as a therapeutic yoga teacher I work with changing physical, emotional, imprints every day… as any-thing's a process…
    enjoy today

  3. Brad says:

    Kelly, I mean all of this in the nicest way.
    Since when is heart opening a great thing? Since what is this based off of except a cultural bias. Heart opening is out into the world and away from self care. If there was a deeper understanding of the energy system and how it relates to the mind and psychosis you might actually see why heart opening and all this anusara BS is maybe not the best thing to be doing or teaching to everyone.

    Kelly, I know your intention is in a loving place and i totally respect that.

    Grounding is needed much more than heart opening. Actually it is necessary. Grounding brings your energy into the earth, into the now, reality. Where all your traumas lie. Through digging deep and going into them is the only way to come out of them. Trying to open your heart is just creating more trauma if the traumas that lie underneath are never dealt with. This causes psychosis. The necessary downward movement of grounding leads one into the trauma and the pain that has not released and then it does. This is the grief that cleanses the heart. It is the only thing that does. We are so gung ho on the good ship lollypop with this new age stuff, no one even bothers to get any real education in it or to how it all works.

    Bt go ahead, teach the open hearted stuff, see how well it did for John Friend.

    I know we all are trying, but god, I wish that we who are teaching had more education.

  4. Karen says:

    Hi brad- I’m all for a good debate- but when you end your letter refering to teachers and our lack of education you come across up tight and judgmental. You sound quite sturdy and very grounded- almost too much. My advice to you is to lighten it up a bit. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Being grounded and open hearted = balance. Go there.

  5. trueayurveda says:

    Hi Karen, Thanks for the advise.

    The truth is that there is hardly any education out there on real yoga, how the entire energy system works as well as any consciousness to the healing process and psychology. You know, that book, the yoga sutras…. best psychology there is. But you guys are forcing people to open their hearts. Is that yoga? WTF and where did that come from but an integrity lacking supposed yogi. Look how that one turned out. No yoga sutras there, was there?

    Most teachers have done 200hr trainings. I have done 9 of them. They all were pathetic. Not judgmental, they really sucked. If that was yoga, what the hell is this esoteric science that I have been studied and learned from teachers of the same rank, not western 'yogis".

    As far as the psychology open heart stuff, yes, back bends hardly open a heart, the prana moves to the tailbone or the crown if done properly. Forcing people to open up is extremely irresponsible and most likely traumatizing as a spiritual by pass is more like what you are talking about. Specially when it is going against what is supposed to be going on in an asana.
    Check it out, parvatasana opens the heart (that would be your downward dog) and the throat. Gomukasana opens the heart. Both of them are grounding poses. There are a ton more as well.

    I just watched a clip that surprisingly Bhagavan Das speaks of the same. Maybe you should watch it. 30 seconds in he starts the talk. Maybe one of your own may enlighten you.

  6. ValCarruthers says:

    "When the hearts breaks open, all you want to to do is help others. Not much else matters to you."

    You rocked it, Kelly.

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

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

  7. ValCarruthers says:

    My own heart-opening experience began with Shaktipat, spiritual initiation, more than 20 years ago. It took place at an ashram rather than a yoga studio, via the grace of a true guru, meaning a master whose role was to egolessly serve her own guru in.

    When Kelly so eloquently writes that a life of serving others is the result of having the knot of the heart broke open, I can personally vouch that this is so. One of the purposes of doing seva, selfless service for the guru—either at the ashram or through community outreach—gets that ball rolling. Over time, seva ripens in the heart, bearing fruit when as we swing our toes onto the floor each monring, we're asking our personal deity, "How can I serve you today?" Anyone calling themselves a yogi who would doubt the veracity of this has only to volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter and see what happens for themselves.

    Speaking as a longtime yoga student and teacher, here's my take on including strong heart-opening asanas in class, While Kelly undoubtedly possesses the experience and equanimity to handle the profound psycho-neurological effects (eg crying, shaking) that strong heart openers can induce in a student and can compassionately guide them through it, at this time she is in the minority.

    I would agree with Karen's comment, "The truth is that there is hardly any education out there on real yoga, how the entire energy system works as well as any consciousness to the healing process and psychology." What I don't get, Karen, is why you've been looking for such an advanced level of education by spending your time and money in those 200 hr trainings. Yes, you may experience a profound heart-opening shift under the tutelage of some of the master teachers but what you're looking to learn won't be found in their 101 level teaching programs.

    Ref Kelly's statement, "Ask yourself, 'Do I know how to love?' The answer may surprise you." I highly recommend checking out the brilliant Gita Talk series of articles by EJ writers Catherine Ghosh and Braja Sorensen. The series is an ongoing discussion of the major themes of another go-to text, the Bhagavad Gita. In Braja's latest post, "Love is Found Through Balance," she writes: "If we claim what we’re seeking is 'love,' then we have to have the courage to reach the level where we’re qualified to know what 'love' is."

  8. Kelly Morris says:

    Thank you, Jodi, thats very kind of you. Enjoy your day, too!

  9. Kelly Morris says:

    Brad, thank you for your insightful comments, but I have a policy of responding only to those who use their full names.

  10. Kelly Morris says:

    Thank you, Val, that's very kind of you.

  11. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

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

  12. […] I was a yoga instructor. I sat and cried, releasing my fears in to their ears, and in the process opening my heart to remembering the teachings of […]

  13. Jill Barth says:

    Compelling discussion there. Thanks for the insight, Kelly.

  14. […] In reality, the opposite is true. Crying takes incredible courage and confidence, and it is healing. […]

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