October 29, 2009
Today we are snowed in at Shambhala Mountain Center, an extraordinary Buddhist retreat center in the Colorado Rockies. This may be my very favorite spot on earth. I’m here for a week, teaching a meditation retreat for writers. When I look out my window, this is what I see.
It’s like the best writing situation ever. There is no cell phone reception. We are almost two hours from the nearest city of any size. We spend the day practicing meditation and writing and absolutely no one or nothing can interrupt us. In the evening we meet to hear someone read their work. The snowstorm only adds to the sense of being sheltered, hidden away, embraced, at peace. Each day is a deeper experience of relaxation, joy, and creativity.
This sounds good, no?! It is. However, I can’t help but notice that the more fun it is, the more my students cry. During meditation, I see people tearing up. When I give my little talks on creativity, some eyes well up. When people pull me aside to chat about this or that, before they can get any words out, they begin to cry.
Awesome because, in the Shambhala tradition, sadness is seen as a mark of warriorship. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says that this tenderness is the first tip of fearlessness. You are not afraid to open yourself to the world and when you do, everything touches you. This is just how you are built.
When you taste your own gentle goodness, it can be quite frightening. If I had say, $10,000, for every time someone said to me, “Well all very well and good about this softness thing, but what happens when I get back to the real world?”, I’d be a millionaire. My friends. THIS is the real world. The real world is where people are kind to each other, help out in times of need, celebrate each other’s victories, and maintain a powerful sense of inner balance that enables them to maintain these qualities through good times and bad. That other place—the one built on speed, aggression, insecurity, and “me first,” do you really think that is the way we were born to act? I think not. Babies are born soft and open and loving, they don’t come out of the womb demanding better accommodations, hoarding away milk and toys from other babies, or giving people the finger in traffic jams because they’re in a hurry to get to a playdate. (Although that last one I’d kind of like to see.) That is the phony world, the one built on misconception after misconception about what is valuable, meaningful, and important. I mean, really.
So how does one return to the fake world without slipping right back in to old, bad habits? How do you protect your gentle, open heart so that it doesn’t get stomped?
The first thing to remember is that your heart only needs protecting if what you’re trying to build is a comfortable, threat-free life that shuts out whatever and whomever you don’t like. (Which is actually impossible, but don’t tell.) However, if what you’re after is a life of authenticity, wakefulness, joy, and deep connection with others, an open heart is your best friend. It is how you take the world in.
This doesn’t mean you need to walk around like a sap, being all hushed and new-agey and more blissed out than thou. A person with an open heart can be spotted in this way: They laugh hard. They cry a lot. They pretty much like themselves. They question themselves and experience doubt frequently. They get their feelings hurt. They are there for you in a crisis. They keep trying to love you and get you to love them back.
One reason people cry so much on retreat is because they glimpse this possibility and it is so incredibly touching and real. The trick is to stabilize your heart in the state of openness so that you can use it for good instead of being overwhelmed by your own sensitivity. It is possible to do this. A daily meditation practice really, really helps. I mean REALLY. In fact, I don’t know how one would practice openheartedness without it.
So I super-strongly suggest to my students that they continue to practice meditation in some reasonable way, like 20 minutes a day or 10 or 90, whatever they can do. And beyond this, I try to explain the three steps that can make their meditation more than an exercise in relaxation (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but a sacred declaration of aliveness and goodness. I write about them in my upcoming book, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, and I’d like to share them with you now.
Before you do your spiritual practice:
1. Make offerings. When you walk into a shrine room of any religion, there are often flowers, candles, and incense. These are offerings. You can make a similar type of setup in your home, by creating a smaller version of a traditional shrine. Or you can simply place some fresh flowers next to a picture of someone or something you love and aspire to emulate. You can light a candle as an offering of warmth, light, and safety. And, when in doubt, the best offering is one you can always make, no matter where you are or how you feel and that is your own experience in the moment.
Before meditation, touch in with how it feels to be you right now. Maybe you feel great, crappy, or all of the above. Feel it. Offer it to whom or whatever you hold sacred by saying something like, “I offer exactly who I am right now to the highest wisdom and goodness I can imagine.” You don’t have to know exactly what this means, just rouse a sense of generosity.
2. Request blessings. It’s totally OK to ask the world to bless you. And who do you ask? If you are a Christian, you could ask Jesus. If you are Buddhist, you can ask for your teacher’s blessing. You can seek the blessings of magic if you are an Alchemist, of Gandhi if you’re a pacifist, of the earth if you’re a Pagan. The idea is to seek the blessings of your lineage.
What lineage do you belong to? Is it a religious tradition? Maybe so, maybe not. Maybe you’re of the lineage of poets or scientists, of painters, mothers, CEOs, crusaders, or lovers. Get a sense of your heart’s lineage and, in whatever way feels natural to you, request the blessings of that line.
After doing these two things, do your spiritual practice, whether it is meditation (hint, hint), journaling, hiking, or reading something uplifting.
3. Dedicate the merit. Once you have finished your practice, connect with whatever benefit you may have created for yourself through undertaking this practice. Once you have this felt sense, give it away. In whatever way feels natural for you, make the aspiration that the results of your practice could be used to also benefit others. This is very important. My beloved teacher, Sakyong Mipham, says that not dedicating the merit is like not hitting the “save” button on your word doc before shutting down.
So try these things. I wish for you the precious and potent tenderness that comes from acknowledging your own basic goodness.
From the bottom of my laughing, crying, cranky, needy, and deeply loving heart, Susan