Letting Life Touch You
“Closing your heart is the original sin.”
Anam Thubten Rinpoche
Doesn’t it seem that something positive always emerges from a broken heart? A tender heart has unlimited “give” while a brittle or contracted heart—a heart focused solely on me and mine—has no choice but to break. If we allow our heart to continuously break as a practice, we will make space for the infinite suffering and beauty of our world, excluding no one. So I say: let it break.
I have a personal story to share about the value of broken-heartedness. Many years ago, during a time when I found myself at a crossroads in my life, I turned to my great childhood love: horses. I love everything about horses — their smell, the way they move — and when I go out into nature with a horse-friend, I feel free, unhindered, and confident. Horses can meet you half way into the human realm if you are willing to go half way into theirs. It can be a very sweet and poignant relationship.
Soon after I got back in the saddle, I met a new friend. Jasmine was a big red mare with a flaxen mane and lots of attitude. She was stunning and strutted around as if she knew it. She didn’t get along well with other horses, but she loved me. All I had to do was get on her back one time and that was it. Everyone saw it. There was no way I could part from her, and I became her “owner,” her partner in crime, and caring mom. For two and a half years we rode across the vast plains of the San Luis Valley, and I thought I was in heaven each and every time. I really didn’t need much else.
On a warm summer evening while I was away at a seminar with my teacher, I received an unexpected phone message. Jasmine’s intestines had twisted and she died. As my friend Joanna described, the vet gave her morphine and all the young girls from the stables sat with her, held her head, and sang to her as she left this world. By the time I got the message she was almost in the ground. I could not describe my despair. She had been my best friend. The next morning I remember going to the pool to swim. I remember crying under water...strange, all those bubbles.
That day I pulled myself together to attend some special teachings given by my teacher on the nature of the bodhisattva Chenrezig. I walked into the teaching tent and saw my teacher sitting there, having just finished a particular practice of bodhicitta himself. I could feel the expanse of his mind—his kindness. Something strong overcame me, some strong words, which seemed like someone else’s, or possibly my own—I cannot say. They were: “Fuck it, I’m going to love even more now.”
It was a fierce and genuine commitment I made just then, and it just arose without my ability to control it. I felt in my bones the realization that genuine love is never in vain. I declared my willingness to feel the pain of the world and never restrict my heart even in the event of loss, despair, or grief. In fact, I felt determined to love even more now. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but it felt like a fierce pledge of allegiance to bodhicitta. In fact, something in my life shifted just then and I have never been the same since.
The Practice of Equanimity
How do we love even more?
Our love is often small. By "small," I mean we often fixate on those we associate with our selves. “My horse,” “my son," or "my daughter.” The practice of bodhicitta aims at widening the realm of our care. As living beings, we live and move about in the great nature of interdependence. Our happiness is inextricably linked with the happiness of others and so others become the source of unconditional joy and meaning for us. In turn, we extend care to others and their wellbeing naturally increases. When we fixate our care only on those close to us, it can get sticky and neurotic. Our love is often conditional and based on our own preferences. Preferences have to do with the ego: what is good for me, what is not good for me. It’s a fragile, fickle, and precarious kind of love.
Once, when my son was about six, and I was doting on him just a little too much, he said: “Mom, why don’t you spread that care around a little?” Good advice.
So who else do you include in the realm of your care? What about the multitudes of beings you pass by on the street or don’t ever “see”? Are they cold, hungry, lonely? Everyone has a story. Think of how often you change the station on your radio when you hear about others’ suffering on the news. Do you take the time to take it in? Do you take the time to think about them as human beings with mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers? Can you take a moment to bear witness to their suffering? You may have indifference for most of the creatures who walk this earth, the billions of creatures that swim in the oceans and lakes, or those who fly through space. What would it be like to extend loving kindness to all of them?
When we talk about practicing equanimity on the path of the bodhisattva, “equal” does not refer to indifference, or suggest a way to neutralize our relationships or make everything the same. It describes a way to awaken and develop the same care and sensitivity to the joys and sorrows of everyone without exclusion. As a spiritual practice, the bodhisattva develops an acute sensitivity to suffering. You could compare this sensitivity to having an eyelash in your eye as opposed to having it in the palm of your hand. When you have an eyelash in your eye you will feel it immediately and your eye will fill with tears. However, when you have an eyelash in your hand you most likely won’t notice. The path of the bodhisattva constitutes emerging from your bubble of self-concern and through noticing others, finding a natural sensitivity to their suffering. In fact, you can compare this level of sensitivity to feeling a discomfort in having an eyelash in the palm of your hand. In this way, the bodhisattva awakens from the pain of self-concern through responding to the needs of others.
Furthermore, you most likely have people in your life that you don’t like, for whom you feel animosity. You may have negative feelings toward someone you know personally or people you have never met, like a politician or a whole political party. It could be someone who has harmed you, who you fear, feel jealous of, a rival of sorts. What would happen if you included them in the realm of your care? Take note how, in withholding love from them, it cuts you off from the warmth of your own mind.
Do consider too that in this world where everything leans, we can’t distinguish, in a determinate way, friend from foe. Someone who has hurt us in the past may step up and save our life in the next moment. And someone we trust now may break our heart in the future or cause us harm. Everything arises based on limitless causes and conditions.
You may look at someone and assume you know who and how they are, but in a broader sense you only ever see a little piece of things.
When you begin to do this practice you may notice that as much as you want to, at times you can’t access the warmth of your own mind. This is very painful, but profound and crucial to observe. You may have trouble finding a sense of love or care for anyone — even those that are close to you. It may be that at this moment, your mind feels barren like a dry seed that nothing can grow from. It is not that you want to be this way. In fact, I’m sure most people would prefer to feel caring and loving to others.
So, please don’t judge yourself. Have the courage to look openly. Let yourself feel the pain of this and honor the longing you have to feel love and connection to others. This longing is an indication of your own altruism and yearning to extend care, which reflects a deeper intention. And so, you are not stuck. As my teacher says, the heart is elastic; it has the capacity to stretch indefinitely to include all beings. This is why we practice.
When you feel you can’t access the warmth of your own mind, ask yourself some questions. Questions direct your mind and protect you from your own judgments. You can ask yourself: “How can I cultivate more warmth in my heart?” “How can I include all beings, without bias, in the realm of the love and care I usually reserve only for myself?” Open questions work like aspirations; they will carry you toward your intention
The wisdom of seeing in this way provides you with the openness from which deep tenderness will arise and you will feel alive and touched by the pain and beauty of it all. When you see pain, you will respond to it with compassion instead of despair. When you see beauty you will rejoice and marvel at it. You see life all around you—as your teacher. Then you will feel rich, and realize nothing is lacking.