This essay is inspired by Michael A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul. At the end, I’ve summarised and added to what he writes about opening the heart. You could skip ahead and just read that. My hope in posting this is that you will consider reading his book.
Everything was working out. The apartment I wanted was available, close to a station and a river and park. The agency said that if I was approved I could move in just before my current lease ended.
But they weren’t sure they could approve me. Renting in Japan is tough: most landlords require a guarantor and up to six months’ rent upfront. Over the next two weeks the agency kept coming back with various concerns and requests, and in the meantime I had to give notice on the place I was staying.
I’ve written about the challenges I’ve had since moving to Tokyo. The usual ups and downs of moving. All of it has taught me something and helped me become more self-sufficient and resilient. And maybe a little bit more accepting of change and uncertainty.
I’d put into practice some of what I’d learned about mindfulness and had been able to experience moments of presence even during stressful times – before being drawn back into old patterns. But was I repeating the same lesson about living in the moment when there were other things to learn?
In one of the books I refer to often, The Seeker’s Guide – an inspiring synthesis of every different kind of teaching out there, from Jung to Sufism – Elizabeth Lesser divides the spiritual path into four areas: mind, heart, body and soul. I’d spent a lot of time on the first, some on the last, not enough on the third. But I’d been avoiding the second area, the heart. I needed an experience that would take me there.
It was delivered through my body. The first sign came during meditation, a sharp pain that lasted for about half a minute. I dismissed it at the time, thinking it might have something to do with my posture. A week later it happened again, in the same area. When it did not go away this time and other symptoms started, my initial concern was that if there was something wrong, it might be expensive to fix.
The old voice in my head chastised me: maybe my ideas about how I wanted to live had been naïve and idealistic. I think there was a part of me too that could not accept I really deserved to live the life I wanted. So I was looking for something to derail it. Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I tried various things I thought might help, but it got worse. Then one morning, I stood in an empty classroom at one of my schools. It was a bright autumn day. I looked outside and saw four black birds flying over the playground. A thought came into my head. In the next moment, I might die. Not in the near or distant future, but right now.
For the first time, I really understood what that meant. Standing there, all my worries melted away in their insignificance. I felt calm and at peace. I was able to grasp what I have read and talked about so many times. That all of this really will end. Nothing lasts. I am going to die.
I thought about how I wanted to spend the rest of the day, this moment and the next. Definitely not stuck in my head, worrying about things I couldn’t control and missing out on everything in front of me.
This was the first of several such instances which came and went over the next two weeks as I shifted between worry and presence.
A few days before I had to move out, the agency told me I’d been approved. The apartment was mine. But the relief I’d anticipated didn’t come.
Here it was at last, “security”. But hadn’t I been learning over and over that there’s no such thing as security, that chasing after it only causes suffering? It bothered me that I was still so attached to this illusion of certainty. Like Pema Chödrön says, there is no such thing as pausing on “Happy”. Life is always changing and you can never know for sure what will happen next.
These past few months have taught me I can be content anywhere, in circumstances I hadn’t imagined I could. And it’s not my plan to live here forever. But I really wanted to believe that I had the ability to manifest the kind of life I wanted. Although in many ways I already had, I don’t think I trusted this yet. I feared that if all of this didn’t work out, I might start giving up on other things.
I just needed to relax, I thought. Let go of the residual tension from the past few months. Maybe the pain would go away then too. But it didn’t, and nor did the feeling of uneasiness.
On the day I moved in, walking back from the ward office, I felt frustrated with myself. Why couldn’t I shake this feeling? I thought about the moment in the empty classroom again and noticed something with surprise. All my life I’ve been terrified of death. But the panicky feeling I usually got when I started contemplating non-existence wasn’t there. If I no longer had this near phobia of dying, what else was there to fear, really? I wasn’t sure if it would last, but I was grateful for the moment of clarity.
I had read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying a year before and at the time I’d felt a shift in my feelings towards death. I was eager to read it again. In it Sogyal Rinpoche writes about what lies behind all the changes and deaths of the world, the “something” within us that cannot be destroyed or altered. He calls it the “deathless unending nature of mind”, which you could also see as consciousness or soul, even God. For me, coming to an understanding of this “something” was the starting point for every change that’s happened since.
He also writes about the nature of reality, how everything is in a state of constant change, and nothing can exist in isolation. As solid and stable and lasting as things may seem, “they have no more reality than a dream”. One afternoon, watching the teachers bustling around my desk in the staffroom, I had a strong sense of how it all seemed not quite real. It was a strange feeling, as if I were watching a movie in which the actors didn’t know they were acting. It struck me that people had no idea what they had or rather what they were. In Elizabeth Lesser’s book a dying friend says “If only people realized what they had in life, they would not be able to contain their joy.”
There were moments when I felt this joy, intensely. Walking through my new neighbourhood on the way to the station one day I was overcome by everything I saw, each person I passed filling me with joy and love.
The music I was listening to sounded so beautiful it hurt. I felt a kind of sadness which wasn’t sadness – I have described a similar feeling before, a tenderness, or mono no aware in Japanese, the poignancy of things passing, but this was not quite either of these. It was all-consuming.
I did not know how to put it into words until I came across this description by Chögyam Trungpa in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, talking about the awakened heart:
It is not the sadness of feeling sorry for yourself or feeling deprived, but it is a natural situation of fullness. You feel so full and rich, as if you were about to shed tears.
That day on the train across from me a row of little girls sat bathed in sunlight. And they were so perfect I could not stop the tears. I felt just as Chögyam Trungpa had described, full and rich.
Small miracles started to happen. My step-sister sent me a photo of a single black tree attached to a poem which she’d found on Instagram, not knowing it had been posted by a good friend of mine, and what the poem, Robert Frost’s “The Road not Taken”, meant to her.
A few days before, another friend and I had stopped at a palm-reading stall one evening in China Town, and as we decided whether to go in or not she looked at my hand and pointed out the clear fork in my lifeline.
I’ve always been a bit weary of seeing signs in anything and everything, as I think it can be way of confirming what you want to see rather than what you might need to see. But maybe this is how life is when you just let it happen, if you surrender to it as Michael Singer talks about in his books.
I had just started reading The Untethered Soul, in which he describes non-dualistic concepts in a way that cuts through the mind’s noise and reaches a level of understanding beyond language and the analytical mind.
Tibetan Buddhists often refer to boddhichitta, or awakened heart, and Singer talks about the same thing, as open heart. He explains how the heart becomes blocked by stored, unfinished energy patterns from the past – all the hurts we haven’t processed or released
He talks about how in the absence of physical danger we have adapted to defending ourselves psychologically rather than physiologically, and thus developed “hypersensitive psyches” that we constantly use our energy to close around and protect.
For many, he writes:
You will get to a point in your growth where you understand that if you protect yourself, you will never be free … A good day means you made it through without getting hurt. The longer you live like this, the more closed you become.
You have to decide if you want to continue to walk around with stored pain blocking your heart and limiting your life. The alternative is to let go when it gets stimulated.
He describes how when somebody says something you don’t like, you start to feel a tightening. Your instinct is to go into defensive mode – close up and contract mentally and physically. But, he says, “That is your cue that it’s time to grow. It’s not time to defend yourself, because you don’t want the part of you that you would be defending.”
If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it and keep it? If you don’t want it, let it go.
I thought of all the times I’d closed up protectively, retreated behind my wall, and saw that all I had been doing was holding on to the pain. Maybe even finding a kind of familiar pleasure or comfort in it.
I started to observe what happened in situations where I felt rejected or judged, and saw how often the desire to shut down arose. I noticed how instinctive that response was, to close my heart and stop feeling, telling myself I didn’t care, that I could just block out that person or situation. I would retreat mentally and literally behind my locked door, the only place I’ve ever felt safe: alone.
I decided to try it the next time I felt under threat. I pushed back my shoulders so that my chest area was open and stood straight as I repeated in my mind the words Open your heart. Don’t close.
I could feel the resistance in my chest and shoulders, the desire to contract, but I stayed where I was, focusing on my breath and repeating the mantra over and over. Don’t close, just don’t close. Keep your heart open. Let it hurt.
It felt very uncomfortable, like an animal exposing its belly to a predator. I didn’t like what was happening. I badly wanted to put up my wall.
But it worked. When I didn’t shut down, I felt a shift in energy, and relief. I clearly experienced those around me responding to the change in me, and felt this new energy being reciprocated. I had been able to stop my mind from going into attack and defend mode, seeing things as fair or unfair, right or wrong. I had kept my heart open.
One morning I listened to a talk by Pema Chödrön’s on learning to stay. She told a story about how once during a retreat, a close friend stopped talking to her, refusing to explain why she was so angry. “I felt she hated me. It brought up painful feelings of helplessness.”
She tried all the meditation techniques she’d taught over the years, but nothing worked. Then one night she couldn’t sleep, and she went to the meditation hall where she sat all night in raw pain, with almost no thoughts. It felt like fire, she said, but she experienced a transformation:
A completely clear insight that my whole personality – ego structure – was based on not wanting to go to that place. Everything I did, the way I smiled, the way I talked to people, the way I tried to please everybody was all to avoid going to that place.
And once you’ve touched it, you get pretty fearless because there’s nothing to hide and you’re no longer invested in the ignorant dance of trying to move away from it all the time.
I’d been doing this dance all my life, avoiding that place, closing my heart over and over. But there were cracks in it now.
I’d been hesitant to talk to anyone about what was going on before I’d seen a doctor. But I’d made plans with a friend to go to the Christmas market in Yokohama and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pretend there was nothing on my mind. I also knew that this friend would not judge, that as always, she would just listen.
We sat on a bench in front of the harbour. In front of us, the lights from boats and skyscrapers reflected on the water. Behind us the Ferris wheel had been turned on and we could hear friends and families on their way to the market, laughing and chatting. On our bench we were for a time separated in our own world. As I spoke about what I’d been experiencing, saying the words out loud I had never felt more certain of things, what really mattered, why we are all here, how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. We talked until it got dark. It was an intense exchange, heightened by everything we’d shared over the past year, and I think the conversation changed us both in a small way. But would it last?
The next day the pain was worse than ever and I could not put off going to the doctor any longer. I was advised to go to the hospital, where I was treated by a doctor who’d recently returned to Japan after 25 years in Georgia. She was warm and attentive, giving me a long hug when I left – something that doesn’t happen often here, in a culture which is not very tactile. I felt the healing in this, and something waking up.
As I waited for my results on the next visit, I was taken over by calm. I felt safe and protected by what Michael Singer describes as the witness – the part of you that is watching all your thoughts and actions, that doesn’t change no matter who or what it is observing. Another word for the deathless, unending nature of mind.
I was aware of a paradox too – as much as I wanted the assurance that nothing serious was wrong, I didn’t want to lose this newfound clarity. Still I was sure that even if I wasn’t able to sustain the same urgent and immediate sense of the precariousness of life, a seed had been planted.
That night a friend posted a quote by Jonathan Franzen about how profound change can result from a moment of insight:
“You see things more clearly and you know that you’re seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about. Moments like this.”
I wanted to write about this so I wouldn’t forget how I’d felt while I was seeing things so clearly. I wanted to be able to read this when I got lost in reactivity and fear again.
But as I neared the end of writing, I got stuck. Week after week went by and I couldn’t finish it. For some time I have been conflicted – once again around issues of sharing, stuck in a limbo phase of wanting to continue this blog while longing to go back into hiding, but knowing I can’t.
I kept writing and deleting, and in the process figured out some things that I needed to let go. But still I hadn’t reached a conclusion about sharing – what was self-indulgent, what could have real value for others. Whether writing could ever be either/or. Joan Didion writes that any value in writing is “accidental and secondary” to the compulsive act of it. I think there’s truth in that. But does it matter?
I started reading the book Elizabeth Lesser had referred to, by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He writes about what it takes to open your heart, the bravery required. He says that discovering fearlessness, which does not mean having no fear but going beyond it, comes from working with the softness of the human heart.
Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.
It’s not only in my life and relationships that I’ve been closed. As much personal detail as I’ve revealed in this blog, I realise that I haven’t been as open as I set out to be when I started it. So that is what I’ll try to do from now. Stop closing. And share my heart.
How to open your heart
- Stop protecting yourself from pain.
Your heart is where your pain lies. When you keep your heart open, and drop the mind’s defences, you can’t hide anymore. It’s scary and it hurts. Let it. The more you try to prevent yourself from feeling this pain, the more you have to control everything that happens around you.
You bring this fear of feeling pain – for example rejection – into every situation, and in this way create the potential to experience exactly what you’re trying to avoid in each encounter. You become so sensitive that you are constantly getting hurt.
If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it and keep it? If you don’t want it, let it go.
- Let it hurt
When something upsets you – an unkind comment or rejection in some form – keep your heart open and feel the sensations of pain. Go right to the place it hurts. Let it burn and ache. Don’t fight it or add a story to it. Let the person or situation that triggered this reaction be.
To help with this, put your shoulders back, open up your chest so that your heart is exposed, and breathe. This will keep you from contracting and shutting down (e.g. tensing up your body defensively or closing off to someone with thoughts like “I don’t need this person in my life anyway”).
You have to feel the pain to release it, to be free.
Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever.
You may even start to welcome opportunities to release the pain.
- Use mantras or keywords to stay open.
There is very little time before a reaction is triggered. Mantras or key words can help slow things down. Mine are “open heart”, “shoulders”, “circling mind”.
- “Open heart” reminds me to stay with my heart, and not seek refuge in thoughts. To feel the particular sensations of the pain I want to avoid – afraid, embarrassed, resentful, irritated, jealous, ashamed, restless, rejected.
- “Shoulders” is a physical reminder to put my shoulders back, straighten my spine and open up my chest, so that I won’t contract and hunch over, holding in the pain and closing off my heart.
- “Circling mind” is a reminder to just let my mind carry on circling as it always does and probably always will, endlessly trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to fix things or come up with arguments to make things right or wrong.
Just let this circling mind be and pay it no heed. You can’t stop thoughts but you can stop paying attention to them. They’re just another form of energy, not who you are. Not even the pleasant ones.
- Let go of things as quickly as you can.
Your heart reacts first, before your mind starts talking.
When you keep your heart open, you can bypass your thoughts and all the suffering they cause. Try to let things go straight away, otherwise you will get trapped by the mind and you will not reach the heart and release its pain.
When you release the pain in your heart, you set yourself free. This is how you discover fearlessless.
- Forgive yourself over and over again.
Not only for the big things from your past, but every time you catch yourself lost in thought, reacting with anger, stuck in fear. Freedom lies not in being perfect but in accepting all your thoughts and feelings – good and bad – and knowing that none of them are you.
- Love with no expectations.
Let love soften and purify your heart.
7. Read The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer.