Tuesday, May 1, 2018


I have mentioned that I have work to do a number of times in the course of this conversation.  It's time, now that I see at least a provisional end to my current musings, to ask myself what is the nature of that work. One answer came to me ready-made in a simple formulation in the course of an hour's meditation at our Laguna Beach sitting group this past Sunday morning: cultivate an open heart.

I have been working toward this goal, but it has been a slow process for me. I learned at a very early age that closing my heart was an efficient way to to protect myself. At boarding school, amongst other boys of my own age, I soon discovered that it was not safe to keep it open. There was too much hurt to be had. It did not pay to express feelings of any kind, whether fear, or anger, sadness, or even love. Especially love.

Fear was an open invitation for attack. Throughout their childhood, there are boys who sense it like a dog who catches the scent of meat. If they sniff a hint of it, they plunge right in, knives sharp and open. It allows them to proclaim their macho credentials for all to see. They thrive--or used to thrive, I don't know how things are today--in boarding schools. They're known as bullies, and many of them infamously survive well into adulthood. When in their neighborhood, it serves you well to hide your fear.

As for anger, I still remember vividly the first time I lost my temper. A teacher had caught two of us boys squabbling over some long-forgotten cause, and thought--as many did in those bad old days!-- that the gentlemanly way to resolve issues between members of the masculine species was to put on boxing gloves. Which he made us do, in the common room, in front of an assembled audience of our peers. We were seven years old, and the other boy--I remember his name: Fitch--was much bigger and heavier than I. The result of our encounter in the improvised "ring" was predictable: he laid into me mercilessly, bloodying my nose and knocking me into a indignant, uncontrollable rage. This helped my boxing skills not one whit. I flailed, foolishly, and uselessly. As a consequence, I was publicly humiliated in front of a cheering band of onlookers.

I think from that time forward I carried around a well of anger in the region of the lower belly. It was supplemented over the course of the next ten years of school by further attacks of humiliation, inadequacy and resentment. It could have been much worse. I could have been even less resilient than I was, though I was clearly not resilient enough. As a survival strategic I learned to hide the anger and seethe inwardly instead (and I pause to note, as a not irrelevant aside, the numerous disasters in our contemporary America that bear witness to the tragic consequences of this same repressed, neglected adolescent pain-turned-rage).

I have been fortunate to have found help in learning to identify this noxious, and for a long time deeply buried heritage of my childhood days. For the most part, it takes no more than an act of consciousness to recognize when it arises and, with recognition, to disarm it. But those moments of anger still erupt, especially at moments when my offended ego senses threat, when I feel "put upon," or when my vulnerability is exposed. At such moments, my heart resorts instinctively to its defensive, closed position; I shut down, retreating into that inner fortress where I feel safe again. Vigilance, if I'm able to maintain it, is an effective way to counteract the instinct.

I can most often experience sadness without succumbing to that same tendency to close down. Thankfully, I have had little experience with the severe depression I have observed in others over the years, although I confess that age has left me more susceptible to the dark side. Like most of us, I suspect, I must make space for a great deal of sadness in my heart--for friends lost, for opportunities missed, for a human species that seems so often to have lost its ethical bearings, if not its mind... We can't be in touch with our compassion, surely, without some measure of sadness.

How much more rewarding, though, to experience sympathetic joy. Joy is the fourth of the big-group feelings I have learned to identify on the easily-remembered rhyming scale of mad, sad, scared and glad. It is the feeling I most closely associate with love, and to love, of course, is to possess that open heart I wish to cultivate. So to learn to better love is the "work" I need to do.

I've hinted earlier at my reluctance to allow myself to freely love. For many years, I even felt uncomfortable with the word itself, and scoffed at the suggestion that the heart was anything other than the pump that moved the blood around the body. For all those years I was content to dismiss all this as my "Englishness"--a quality that I often used to hear about from friends who would describe me, not unkindly, as aloof, unreachable. (I have been described as "testy," too, but that's the anger part!) But to dismiss this truth about myself so easily, to give myself pass for being English, is to avoid responsibility for a quality with which I would rather not be associated.

Self-protective it may be, this quality, an armor that I forged for myself at an early age. But if I'm to be honest I must recognize it as a want of generosity, a reluctance to give out of myself, to take the risk of putting myself on the line for the sake of true connection. To open the heart is to take that risk. It has been twenty-five years since I published While I Am Not Afraid, a memoir whose subtitle was "Secrets of a Man's Heart." Its purpose, as the title suggests, was to get past the fear and the self-protection and discover what was really happening inside. I was already looking, a quarter century ago, to open my heart. To some extent, I succeeded. At least I placed myself firmly on the path.

I know that I have a ways to travel, but the first--and the most difficult--steps have been taken, and the direction is clear. The work is to real-ize what I know in my heart to be true.

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