A Heart Wide Open
When we start out in the world, we begin with an open heart. In our mother’s womb, the heart is the first organ to develop and support the whole physiology. We are receptive and open in the womb and receive not just nutrients but also a felt sense of hopefully safety, love and a warm holding.
We begin vulnerable, eager and receptive. We learn love by being loved. We learn care by being cared for by another. We learn to be responsive to others by having our needs and our early cues responded to. We learn it is safe to let our hearts be open not because we never had it bruised but because each time it got bruised we had someone to hold us and let us know it was all fine and they were there to listen to our feelings.
We learned to trust by having someone consistently and predictably showing up for us. We knew they were reliable and dependable in our little hearts. We learned to trust ourselves because the adults in our lives were genuinely interested in what we had to say, why we thought and felt the way we did. They paid us attention when we wanted to say something and they respected our contributions, however small or imperfect.
Someone really saw us, both in our moments of quiet as well as in our loud expressions. And so we could really see ourselves. And we were lucky someone saw us as always whole irrespective of our many apparent mistakes, shortcomings and failures and received us unconditionally and demanded nothing more of us in order for us to feel worthy of their love.
Research in attachment work shows that we don’t need this kind of attention and holding all the time as children in order to receive these messages. Barbara Coloroso, the author of `Kids are Worth It’ says that there are some critical life messages that we all need to receive. `I believe in You’, `I trust you’, `I know you can handle it’, `You are listened to’, `You are cared for’, `You are very important to me’. I’d like to add another life message to this `You are loved’.
We just need to receive these messages about 30 to 35% of the time. Some of us may feel that we received this amply and yet for some of us we may feel it wasn’t really there for us from the people we needed it from the most. We however can and possibly have received these messages from someone in our lives, even if it was in small proportions. And each of these moments are like little spaces or memories of refuge that are stored in our memory of our souls.
Just a kind glance or smile from a kind neighbour or teacher who just greeted us in a welcoming and warm way is enough. Yes perhaps someone around where we lived who smiled a smile of `everything is alright’ when we returned from a tough day at school or as we braced our tiny ourselves as we returned to a messed up home. It could be enough. We perhaps had a teacher who really believed in us and was ever so proud of our achievements. It could be enough. It could have been that grandparent who perhaps we saw occasionally but whose home was always warm and welcoming, who ran their hand through our hair that left us with a feeling of `all’s well now’. It could be enough. It could have been a pet or a stray that was always so welcoming like a good friend. That could have been enough.
No matter what our circumstances when growing up, we all have had some raft that held our hearts and our young beings when something in us began to break.
In the early years of my career, I started out as a school counsellor. I had the good fortune to see children of all ages and their parents as well as teachers and work with the whole eco-system. There was this young boy I remember and his mother who was struggling with paying attention to just his basic needs because there was so much going on for her and the family. And for a long time and over many years, I saw the light in his eyes never die, his enthusiasm that got sparked with kind attention was not ready to be extinguished by the repeated disappointments in his life.
Something in us finds a way, that spark, that life, that impetus for living, something within us adapts almost adamantly to life. This life force, propels us, always in a forward moving way. Eugene Gendlin, the developer of Focusing calls this `life forward’ or `living forward energy’. It’s pretty much like a plant that finds its way to the sunlight. We always move forward. We always find our way towards life no matter how twisted or discoloured we are. We move towards life with all we’ve got.
If we even see those behaviours that are apparantely `maldaptive’ such as disruptive behaviour in children or angry outbursts, even these at their very core have this life energy. Often when there is someone who can deeply listen or look through the seemingly undesirable qualities, this life energy has a way to move more freely and harmoniously. The point is, that no matter what our circumstances, we will move and want to manifest in the best way possible. In the crookedness there is beauty to be seen. Like every plant, no matter if it is placed in a darkened corner, will find its way through the cracks towards the sun. And in so doing it finds it’s own unique shape and form and thus offers its own gift to the world.
This movement towards life is what I like to describe as `wholeness’. We are never broken even if we’ve had challenging experiences, yes even those sometimes terrible experiences that tear at our very souls. We are always inherently whole.
In Buddhist philosophy this is refered to as our basic goodness, our inherent nature. Our inherent nature remains untouched irrespective of our experiences. Our being is always intact. And at any point of time we can have access to that sense of fullness and goodness and all those qualities of a full heart and wide open mind. Therefore all mindfulness practices because they come largely from the Buddhist tradition are imbued with such a view.
We can have our heart wide open at any moment, in every moment. Having our heart wide open means having a receptive quality of ‘beingness’, a welcoming quality towards life experiences, `an interested’ quality in what we encounter and in our relationships. And when we don’t feel this receptiveness, it requires just a willingness and an openness to how it is now. This receptivity sometimes feels like a spacious sense of who we are in that moment.
We’ve seen how our early relationships with our primary caregivers shape our capacity for relating from a wide open heart. When we have our strong base in what is called a secure attachment pattern, it means we can usually have this openness without a fear of getting engulfed by the other or hurt by the other. We can bounce back from our hurts and disappointments and make amends and `repair’ the `ruptures’ in our relationships.
Our secure relationships are in some way a bridge in a very human way to always be in touch with that inherent sense of goodness. We need another in order to see this in ourselves – both developmentally and spiritually. And when we do not receive this seeing from another, it feels like this basic felt sense of who we truly are is inaccessible, not available and we find ourselves in search, seeking this other (or something else) that could replace this seeming loud hollowness or emptiness of the heart. We feel shut down, our hearts seem inaccessible. And perhaps we needed to do that in order to survive our circumstances or environment.
So we develop our own adaptive patterns, as it is called in psychology, in our relationships and within ourselves as well as how we see the world. We move and grow and develop in the best possible way, but with our hearts closed or trembling with fear.
However, there is always hope. We know from attachment theory and the work in interpersonal neurobiology that these patterns of secure attachment can always be accessed. Our brains are wired for secure attachment as stated by Diane Poole Heller. We can and do sometimes have relationships in our adult life through which we receive these critical messages that we perhaps didn’t receive fully when we were little. We can receive it from our partners, spouses, colleagues, friends. One relationship might be enough to find our way back to ourselves. Sometimes community spaces and listening spaces or simply spaces where we can share and explore our interests with like-minded people may be restorative.
And we slowly return back to a heart that is wide open and continue with our willingness to open up as we encounter ourselves and the world. Our apparent brokenness of the heart, is an access, a gateway or a portal to a deeper heart, to a fuller sense of self and an opportunity for deep rest and a compassionate engagement with the world.
In the next article we can read about practices to keep the heart open that might be helpful to lead a heart fulfilling life.