Opening Our Hearts to Everything

Here is an excerpt from my new book, ONE SOUL, ONE LOVE, ONE HEART: The Sacred Path to Healing All Relationships, due to be published by New World Library in October 2009

Buddhist meditation practice recognizes that in order to be “free,” in order to be a “full” human being, we need to cultivate the ability to open to all of the experiences of our humanity . . . all of the experiences of our life “in form” . . . the beauty and the horror . . . the joy and the suffering . . . the clarity and the confusion. In that process, we cultivate natural compassion in our minds and in our hearts. We learn to open our hearts in the presence of whatever the Universe offers. We cultivate the ability to look at all of it, to experience all of it, with awareness, compassion, and love. As my friend, Stephen Levine, used to say, we learn “to keep our hearts open in hell.”

Our culture has encouraged us to do the opposite . . . to look at all of it with our hearts closed. The constant barrage of images of graphic violence, graphic injury, human suffering, profanity, and ruthless, cold-hearted cruelty on television, in movies, and in professional sports have now created generations of young – and old – Americans to whom cruelty and violence are equated with entertainment.

Nevertheless, there are moments when we simply can’t ignore our inherent sense of connection. The extraordinary devastation of the Asian Tsunami in December of 2004 was one such event. The unimaginable human toll – approaching a quarter of a million people killed instantaneously – happening as suddenly, as incomprehensibly, and as violently as it did – shattered, for a time, our ability to be callous and indifferent. The recognition of our shared vulnerability and the inherent uncertainty of life in form are potent Truths that have the ability to override the ways we have programmed ourselves to be detached.

In such moments, we spontaneously respond with compassion. We spontaneously reach for the phone to call and offer financial support. We agonize over the sobbing children whose parents suddenly vanished . . . the sobbing parents whose children suddenly vanished. Some of us pack and go to the airport and fly to the scene of the disaster to offer kindness, support, healing, and love.

I remember one day in particular when everything changed . . . for a time. I met neighbors I had never met before. Absolute strangers spoke openly, and freely to one another. There were no strangers. The unpleasant man at the convenience store was warm and friendly. The toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike made eye contact and gave me a sincere greeting. He asked if I was “all right.” People were unusually courteous and thoughtful. They weren’t speeding on the highway. They weren’t pushing and shoving to get ahead in line. Families hugged each other and walked to church holding hands. Kindness and generosity were everywhere. No one cared about the color of anyone’s skin, where they were born, or how much money they had. No one cared how fashionable another human being’s clothes were. Everyone seemed concerned about the welfare of fellow human beings.

I thought I had stepped into Heaven.

It was September 11, 2001.

And though, just twelve miles away, there was a vision of Hell at “Ground Zero,” with smoke and fire and thousands of people lying dead, crushed, or incinerated in the incomprehensible mound of flaming rubble, all around that inexpressibly horriible disaster people were acting like angels – kind, courteous, thoughtful, friendly, generous, courageous, and loving. There were no republicans or democrats. No conservatives or liberals. No cool people. No squares.

Just loving open hearts. Just human beings sharing a moment of conscious awareness. Everyone felt connected, recognizing that we are all in this together. We like that feeling. We like it because it is such a vivid expression of our True Nature. Through our shared heartbreak and vulnerability, we were allowed to glimpse who we truly are. Faced with a series of events our minds couldn’t categorize or comprehend, observing the heartless, wanton destruction an angry mind is capable of wreaking . . . our hearts opened. And when our hearts opened, what poured out of us was love. When our minds quieted, our hearts opened.

The experience was so profound that in the weeks that followed I participated in a number of conversations where someone would ask, “Don’t you wish we could go back to September 10th, back to the time when we didn’t have to worry about all the things we have to worry about now?” And someone else would inevitably say, “No. It’s nicer now. People are being more kind, more friendly, and treating each other much better. I’ve met neighbors I never met before. I’ve made friends I never had before.”

During interviews with newspapers, and on radio and television in the weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, I often spoke about this extraordinary transformation. The interviewers would ask, “Is it going to last?” I really didn’t like the answer that came into my consciousness, but I think it has proven to be true. “It will last only as long as people feel a sense of imminent danger,” I would say. “If that begins to wear off, and if we begin to feel less threatened, we will probably go back to our former sense of disconnection. We’ll start being rude and self-centered again.”

Three and a half years later, in 2004, we went through a presidential election that was described as “the most divisive and mean-spirited election in history.” In its wake came a period of remarkably abrasive political and social discord. We became engaged in a very controversial war that has divided the country almost as dramatically as did the Viet Nam War. When we talk about the warm, open, loving atmosphere that permeated our society in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, people look back wistfully – almost longingly – and say, with an obvious air of nostalgia and melancholy, “It didn’t last. Within a few weeks it had faded away . . . “

But we tasted a possibility. And that possibility gave us a glimpse of who we truly are when our minds get out of the way and we open our hearts. Love, connection, and compassion are always within us. They are who we truly are.

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