Monday, May 17, 2010

Softening the Heart

My day began with the discovery that three people had not done something each had separately agreed to do. These oversights cost me a bit of time and some inconvenience. Nothing terrible in the overall scheme of things, but they did mess with my plans for the morning.

An old tendency of mine returned. I began to stew. When someone’s lack of follow~through costs me, I often feel completely justified in grumbling. Depending on the particulars of the incident, I’ve even been known to fume.

While I took the appropriate action in each case today without behaving badly, my internal grousing continued. A waste of energy, to be sure. So as I waited for the corrections I’d put in motion to materialize, I decided instead to work on this essay. I opened my laptop, retrieved the page on which I’d made some preliminary notes, and burst out laughing.

I’d planned to explore a quote my sister~in~law, Martha, had placed on her wall. The words of the Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chodron, urged me to “Soften what is rigid in your heart.” And those words arrived now, just when I’d closed down around perceived slights.

There are many ways in which we harden our hearts~~anger, self~righteousness, a tangled knot of fear, being judgmental, perfectionistic, or willful. What good do any of these bring us? None, of course.

While taking action when things go awry is often necessary, I suspect that the tone underlying our actions may count the most. I can “do the right thing”, but if I do so with an attitude that bleeds negativity into the world, my right action seems, at the very least, diminished.

So how do we deal with our heart’s rigidity when it arises? First, we stop feeding our upset. I’d been fueling mine through my choice of thoughts. No matter another’s actions, my response is solely my responsibility.

Second, while distracting ourselves might work temporarily, if this issue is a recurrent pattern in our lives, more will be needed. At some point, rather than avoiding this tendency of ours, we must turn toward it. We do this, though, in a very specific way. We neither abandon ourselves to the disturbance through giving it full sway, nor do we attempt to beat it into submission. Neither choice is effective long~term.

In his book, Anger, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we tend our discomfort by calmly holding it in our awareness. Just like a parent soothing a distraught infant, a gentle and kindly attitude will begin to transform our distress. While the effect is not always immediate, with the clear and focused attention of our wisest self, our difficulty will ease.

Once quieted, we can unearth the true basis of our upset. “The main cause of our misery,” writes Nhat Hanh, “is not the other person~~it is the seed of anger (or other emotion) in us.” Some folks, for example, would not have become agitated as I had earlier today. The morning’s events merely activated something that already existed within me.

With my upset soothed, I was able to learn more about the inner workings of my psyche. This increased understanding allowed me to deepen a bit and to become more conscious of how I am~~and how I wish to be~~in the world.

In other words, I softened a bit more what was rigid in my heart. Not bad for a morning’s work, eh?


Loanne Marie

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Leia Marie