The esteemed poet, Mary Oliver, died earlier this year. Her poems have always enlivened my spirit. One of my favorite of her poems is entitled, “Lead.” It speaks about Mary’s experience of seeing a baby loon singing sweetly on the water and she describes this as a holy moment. But the next day she is deeply saddened to see the lovely bird deceased on the shore.
Her poem reminds me of when I was 14 years old and our dog, Shadow, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback, had just given birth to four puppies. As dogs often do, Shadow rejected her runt and it sadly did not look promising for her sweet baby pup and so I stayed up all night holding the dog on my chest and feeding her a bottle. Despite my efforts the puppy died in the wee hours of the morning. I remember feeling shattered and crying the type of tears that come from deep in the gut. Even when we have only known a pet for a short time the feelings of both love and loss can be quite profound.
Every time we experience grief, such a Mary Oliver’s moment of seeing the passing of the loon or my own heart ache over the death of the pup, we have the option of closing our hearts to others or of choosing to keep our heart open. Mary Oliver ends her poem about the death of the loons with these words:
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
This journey is one full of seasons that will break your heart. In this lifetime you may experience heartbreak in many ways including divorce, the end of a friendship, the death of a pet or loved one, infertility, miscarriage and many other types of losses. When devastations like these happen, you might be tempted to close yourself off from the world. But Mary Oliver’s sage advice is to keep your heart open. This doesn’t mean there is not a season for anger, sadness and fear, but there comes a point in the grief process where you have the choice of either closing up your heart or opening yourself back up to absorb the beauty in others and in the world.
If you have ever spent time with a toddler, you have likely been struck by their big smiles and how open hearted they appear. Toddlers are also often so inclined to forgive. If you hurt their feelings they don’t hold onto the anger like adults do. Instead, they are ready to give you a bear hug sometimes minutes after they have been angry with you. What would it mean for you to be more like a child and let go so you can open yourself back up to the world? Keeping an open heart involves compassion, empathy and seeing the best in one another. It also includes being mindful that others are fallible just like you are and they have feelings and want to be understood just like you do. When you keep an open heart it will enrich their lives and your own.
Now keeping your heart open to others does not mean that you allow people to walk over you or that you don’t set healthy boundaries with people who hurt you. If a loved one has been verbally or physically abusive towards you than you need to exercise strong limits with them. On the other hand, there may be a loved one in your life who you have closed yourself off to who does not deserve the vitriol you are directing towards them. Sometimes when you take a reactive position towards someone else it has more to do with your own demons than it has to do with the person you are showering with contempt.
One relatively new expression in our modern vernacular is the phrase “text neck,” which causes young people have a kyphotic posture. This slumped forward position of the shoulders is caused by teens spending hours a day looking down over electronic devices. Not only does this damage young folks necks and spines, but another price of technology is that this is causing people of all ages to make less eye contact and have far less social connection with one another.
Dr. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who teaches at Harvard, recommends that before you enter a social event you should be “…pulling your shoulders back, standing up straight, walking in a more sort of expansive way…” I have become more aware lately about how my body language affects my mood. Now before I have engagements with others, I intentionally open my arms wide and soften in my shoulders, neck and jaws so that I am opening myself up to others. These postures will decrease your anxiety while concurrently raising your confidence. This happens because emotions physiologically respond to changes in the body. When people open up in physical ways, they tend to become more mindful and better connected to the present moment, their feelings and thoughts, and then they are able to connect more fully with the feelings and thoughts of others around them.
Perhaps take some time today to practice a heart opening breathing meditation. You can start this meditation in any seated position with your hands at your heart in prayer. You can do this sitting in a chair at home or on the toilet seat in a bathroom stall at work! If it is comfortable to do so, close your eyes. On the inhale with your hands at your heart say these words in your mind’s eye, “May I.” The next step is to exhale through your mouth and in unison with this exhalation open your arms wide and then in your heart utter the words, “Stay Open.” Repeat this breathing exercise for at least ten sets of breath.
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, what score would you give yourself in terms of keeping your heart open to others? I know I am not at a 10 yet, but I also know that I am working hard to intentionally keep my heart open to others. Mary Oliver’s advice for us let our hearts break open “and never close again to the rest of the world” are words I desire to live by. I hope you will join me in this open-hearted venture. Our polarized world surely needs this way of living more than ever.
Let’s stay open-hearted,
I originally wrote the article above for the Mountain Mirror. http://www.mountainmirror.com/