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How to Stay Present When Your Heart is Really Hurting
July 10, 2016
My heart has been so heavy with recent heart-breaking events in the news. Many of my patients have expressed deep sadness and grief and outrage and anger about the brutality and confusion and chaos that’s part of our world. I felt a deep longing in my heart to offer you some possible insights about how to handle a tender, heavy heart. This is long. I’m sorry about that. It ends with an exercise that I think might be helpful for you.
We’re all on this planet together and we’re using it up at a rate that brings tears to my eyes. How can we possibly recover from the climate change we’ve initiated? How can we live in a world with so many guns and so much fear, hatred, isolation, and misunderstanding? Everything that happens in the net of our universe touches us, often in imperceivable ways, sometimes as a sudden wake-up call.
Interconnection can seem scary at times because it really means that there’s no escaping life.
Your heart is so wise and beautiful, and maybe, like my heart, your heart is hurting right now. It’s easy to want to escape or shut down. I’m not advocating listening to the news until you can’t take it anymore. And I’m also not advocating trying to wall yourself up to avoid the pain in our world.
What I am asking you to consider is how you can learn to lean into your heart, to stay present to the pain and the grief and the hurt.
Presence is really the number one gift we can give to ourselves or to others. It starts with learning how to stay with yourself, even in really uncomfortable times.
By being brave and staying present, by being completely open to whatever you're feeling right now, you can learn to be available to what’s unfolding before you. Once you start learning how to stay present with your own feelings without judgment, you’ll be able to begin to be present with your friends, neighbors, or whoever you’re with.
A friend recently sent me this 38 minute video (“The Three Gestures of Love”) by meditation teacher Tara Brach. She offers a practice, which I adapted for myself, and which I’ve found really helpful for opening up to the super tender and grieving places in my heart.
Please watch the video (you might also like part two) if you want to learn more. Tara is funny and present and has very grounded and compassionate wisdom to share. I’ve watched it four times. I find it delightful, and so relevant right now.
Below is my adapted version of this very tender and heart-nourishing practice. I’ve been using it to open up to my own tender sadness. It can feel scary to stay with your heart when it’s hurting so much, but, in the end (at least for me) showing up and being present is how we heal our world.
Though this practice can be done anywhere and at any moment (even while sitting in a stressful meeting at work), the best way to get the hang of it initially is to start by trying it while sitting alone in a quiet place for 10 or so minutes at a time.
Finding a comfortable seat and sitting upright with a tall spine, you can bring one hand to your heart, if that feels right to you.
Begin by tuning into your breathe. Breathe in and out for 10-20 seconds to let yourself settle into this moment.
Next, bring to mind a difficult situation in your life or in the world that’s causing a clenching or panicky or sad/deflated feeling in your chest.
You can either focus your attention either on the tender/hurting place in yourself or on the tender/hurting place in another human (or even another nation, such as the people of Turkey after the airport attacks). Pick one or the other (yourself or someone else.)
Begin repeating the following three phrases to either yourself or to the other person you’ve chosen. Go slowly. Be conscious. Devote your full attention to being present with these phrases and noticing how they feel in your body and your heart.
I Love You
Keep repeating these slowly and with your full attention.
You can repeat these silently in your mind or, if you’re alone right now, you can either mouth the words or say them quietly out loud. Your sincerity will infuse these gestures with presence.
Let me break these down a little bit for you.
“I’m Sorry” is, according to Tara Brach, a gesture of compassion and sometimes forgiveness. She sometimes says “It’s ok” instead of “I’m sorry.” Just as you might say, “It’s ok” or “I’m here” (which is the phrase I sometimes use instead of “I’m sorry”) to a hurting friend. This first gesture is one of understanding and empathy.
We often hold grudges, even against ourselves. We can learn to say “I’m sorry” to that hurting part of ourself that’s gotten tripped up trying to do everything “right.” We can learn to forgive so that we can be truly available.
I Love You is described by Tara Brach as an active gesture that shows that “the life that is right here, I cherish.” I Love You is an act of acknowledging yourself or another person in its complete perfection, as a Divine gift.
Thank You is described by Tara Brach as a gesture of “appreciation,” of honoring the life that you have been given. For me, “Thank You” is a gesture of bowing in humility before all that is beautiful and good.
Do you have 10 minutes to try this out? Even 5 minutes will do. This exercise often brings tears to my eyes. I started by addressing the tender parts of myself then moved on to send these gestures to someone who I had recently (unintentionally) hurt. Please email me if you try it. I would love to hear what you think.