Sunday, February 14, 2016

Softening A Hardened Heart ...

There is beauty to seeing stone 
turned to moist soil, broken open, receptive
to the seeds of love.

Omid Safi

Hi Everyone!

Last time, we spoke about how our hearts can become hardened through repeated exposure to our own and others' trauma. Today, I'd like to move on to how we can begin to soften our hearts, allowing us to receive more love, nurture and support.

We all have a wall around our hearts. According to Persian tradition, the heart is a walled garden, an inner garden protected by an outer wall. When we have experienced great pain, our own or others', that wall can become a hardened fortress, protecting us but also keeping out the very ones who could be a source of our healing and renewal.

Omid Safi, Director of the Islamic Studies Centre at Duke University, likens this hardened heart to dry land - hard, parched and cracked. To break it open, to till and water it so it is ready to receive a seed of love, (a kind glance, a touch, a word, a compassionate action), takes time, patience, effort and vulnerability.

As Professor Safi says:

The seed of love falls on the heart's soil. Is it a hardened earth, a rock-covered surface, one that will have the seed washed away with the first water? Or is it a soil that has been prepared, tilled, softened up, opened up again and again and again, ready to embrace the seed of love that would surely come?

When we suffer Compassion Fatigue, our hearts' soil hardens and we become less receptive to the seeds of love sown by our colleagues, family and friends. As we recognize and acknowledge that this is the case, we can consciously make an effort to till, water and soften that soil.

Three ways we can soften the soil of our hearts are to practice self compassion, learn heart-centered spiritual practices and consciously allow ourselves to open up and become more vulnerable in our daily relationships.

1.  Self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, describes self-compassion as, "acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don't like about yourself, as you would toward a friend." She says that instead of just ignoring your pain with a "stiff upper lip" mentality, you stop to tell yourself, "This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?" You can learn more about practicing self-compassion on her website

2.  Heart-centered spiritual practices can be found in most spiritual traditions. The point of these practices is not to resolve our emotions or to figure them out but to simply to allow them to have some space within us without pushing them away. Here is one (slightly abridged) practice written by Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, Benedictine Abbess of the virtual online monastery, Abbey of the Arts.  (It is a simple practice that should only take about 5 or 10 minutes to complete.)
1.  Begin by becoming aware of your body. Notice how your body is feeling simply by being present to sensations you are experiencing, welcoming in both the body's delight and discomfort. 
2.  Connect to your breath, deepening it gently. As you inhale, imagine Love breathing life into you. As you exhale, allow yourself to experience a moment of release and surrender into this time and place, becoming fully present. Take a couple of cycles of breath to simply notice this life-sustaining rhythm which continues moment by moment even when you are unaware of it.
 3.  In your imagination, gently allow your breath to carry your awareness from your head (which is your thinking, analyzing, judging center) down to your heart center (where you experience life from a place of greater integration, feeling, and intuition). Consider placing your hand on your heart to experience a physical connection with your heart center and draw your awareness to this place.
 4.  Breathe into your heart center and begin to notice what you are feeling right now in this moment without judging or trying to change it. Take a few moments to simply be present to whatever you are feeling and making some room within yourself to experience this without pushing it away (this alone can be revolutionary for many of us - to just allow ourselves to have the experience we are having without judgment.)
 5.  Call to mind the spark of Love which the ancient monks and mystics tell us dwells in your heart. Bring the compassion of Love to however you are feeling right now, not trying to change anything, but just gently holding yourself in this space.
 6.  As you experience yourself filling with compassion for your own experience, imagine breathing that compassion out into the world and connecting with other hearts beating across the world in a rhythm of love.
 7.  Gently allow your breath to bring your awareness back to the room and take a moment to name or write what you noticed in this experience.

3.  Becoming more vulnerable to others, the third way we can soften the soil of our hearts, may seem like a risky weakness in our toughness-saturated workplaces. But, as shame and vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown, writes, "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness."
It takes honesty and courage to open ourselves to speak from our tender places and to receive the healing love of others. While it is important to choose wisely those with whom you will be vulnerable, it is also important to have people in your life with whom you can really be yourself, "warts and all", knowing that you will be accepted and respected. To learn more about intentional  vulnerability, try listening to Brene's TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability .

There are many more wonderful ways to soften the soil of our hearts but these three are a good start. Let me  leave you, once again, with the words of Omid Safi - There is beauty in stone being turned to moist soil, broken open, receptive to the seeds of love.

May this Valentine's Day bring each of you an opportunity to soften your heart and receive some much needed seeds of love.


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