Monday, December 6, 2010

Open Heart

I have been thinking a good deal, this past weekend, about the anger I carry around with me, observing how and when it arises, how it takes possession of my body--especially my heart--and what it takes to settle myself back down. I know that its origin is in my sense of self, my ego. I sense its arrival when "I" feel in some way threatened, when something or someone imposes on "me," or invades what is "mine." I recognize it when the heart inside my chest begins to shrink in reaction, in an effort to protect itself from pain.

This morning it occurred to me, as I sat down to meditate, that some open heart surgery might be the beginning of a cure--or at least a therapy. I spent my half hour focused entirely on the physical sensation of drawing down the reactive defenses of the heart and allowing it to open. I learned that it's not an easy task even with those closest to me--with family and friends. Those in the business of psychotherapy, I know, speak of "borders." They teach that it's important to recognize and vigilantly maintain our borders, so that our ego--our "self-esteem"--is healthy and strong in our relationship with others. I understand that term very well, and have often faulted myself for allowing others to transgress them. Which results in... anger!

What, though, if I were to try a different approach? What if I were work at the other end, dismantling the ego itself and disabling its propensity to feel threatened? The notion that the self is just another one of those illusions that our minds create is one that has begun to make theoretical sense to me, when I "think" about it; but when I feel my anger rise, I know that my own mind has not yet come to fully grasp that truth. I was writing about this just the other day in the context of my reading of Bodhipaksa's Living as a River, which makes a very well-argued case for the self as a mental fabrication rather than an objective reality. I "get" that in the brain, but it's another matter to believe in it without reservation.

So this morning I sat and tried consciously breathing the heart open. It had surprisingly little resistance to begin with--perhaps because I had nothing, at that moment, to be mad about! Starting with those closest to me, I discovered that it's in fact a pretty pleasurable sensation, opening the heart. Since much of my anger, over the weekend, had been about politics, I moved on to see how it would be to open my heart to some of those people I have been truly angry at. You can guess who they are. You've probably had your own. It was a challenge, as you can imagine. And yet... I got far enough with the process to learn that it's actually rather beneficial to drop the reactive presumptions about people I don't know and opinions I don't share and, yes, open up to them without the need to be right or prove them wrong.

The fact that I "know" that my anger does not serve me or the causes I support is not particularly helpful when the anger arises. What may help is recognizing where it comes from and understanding what I can do to prevent its poison from spreading. When I stop to ask myself, How is this working for me? it's clear that my anger brings pretty poor results. It does myself more harm than any of those who provoke it. Expanding the capacity of the heart is not only a healthy activity, it's a path that is not as unimaginable as it first might seem. All it takes, to find the trailhead, is some quiet time and some conscious management of the direction and quality of the breath.


kara rane said...

Hi Peter-
yes, Breathing and writing letters to the President are great ways to release anger! I -too- struggle with this emotion and I -too, sent letters to Mr.President Barack Obama, 3 snail mail packages of narrative, photographic essays to the White House. The recent, largest FBI raid of corrupt police officers in Puerto Rico, was the result of People and photos telling the truth. Keep writing the good fight, it is powerful.

roger said...

well done on both the heart and the letter to the president. thanks.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Kara. Thanks, Roger. Good to hear from both. Roger, your note especially "heartens" me. I send wishes every day for your return to good health.