How to Open the Heart in Difficult Times
Posted by Virginia Hilliard
My brother died this week, fifteen years ago. Here at the beach, with the world reduced to the simplicity of sky, sand and water, I feel him closer to me than when I am swept up in my usual busy days. As many of you know from The Mindful Day, my brother Johnny was a gentle artist and my soul mate. I know we don’t usually use that phrase for siblings – but that is how he and I saw it. I am grateful to be here and unplugged so I can open up to the love we shared. It keeps him close and alive for me.
These days at the beach, I am experiencing another form of grief – missing my daughter who is on a family adventure in South Africa. Last Friday at the airport checking in with South African Airlines, I was denied a boarding pass to Cape Town. Why? - Insufficient visa pages at the back of my passport. While I have three blank pages in the back, they do not have the tiny italicized word "Visas" on the top. The South African government requires a blank visa page. When I was told I could not get on the plane I was shocked. I was hit with a powerful wave - I could sense my both body tighten and feel sick all at once. Even though I teach the physical stress response in mindfulness and resilience programs - it was unreal watching it happen to me at an intensity level I can’t remember experiencing. I waved goodbye.
When I got home from the airport, I couldn’t unpack my suitcase for a day. I allowed the sadness to be there. The heaviness wasn’t about not seeing the rugged coast, the penguins on the beach, or the jolt of excitement facing a lion on safari – I had a huge ache about missing these experiences with my fourteen-year old daughter. My heartache was a form of grief at missing this intimate week of shared moments with my girl.
I am not a stranger to loss. When I lost Johnny years ago, then my brother Mark; when I moved from Germany to the US leaving dear friends behind, and when I lost my mom – what got me through grief was acceptance. It didn’t let me down this time either. I spent the first day “allowing” – not rushing through the hard emotions but just allowing the ache and sadness to be there. Then I moved to “acceptance” – “Okay, it’s like this. They are on the trip, I am not going this time.” Acceptance is like a soothing friend. Allowing and acceptance are not linear – you go back and forth until you move through. When blame (why didn’t Expedia have a warning?!) or the inner critic showed up (how could you not know about this requirement Laurie?) I took a breath and released the inner chatter to the embrace of acceptance.
In the space of acceptance, I can direct inner compassion as the ultimate way of soothing, comforting and healing. Self-compassion asks the question “What will best serve you now?”
After some walking meditation with my dog Max in the midst of spectacular pink blooming trees, the answer came. What will best serve me is to spend my now free week at the ocean with daily sunrise meditation, intense yoga and deep writing. I searched for a place from Tulum to Miami but didn’t find a good fit. On the next dog walk, I spontaneously knocked on a neighbor’s door for advice. She heard my story and then invited me to her ocean-front house, one mile from an incredible yoga studio. I cried for the second time that weekend. YES!
Grief isn’t reserved for those experiencing the loss of a loved one. The fire this week in the Notre Dame unleashed grief for many, including me for this sacred place. When I lived in San Francisco on Eddy Street we woke one morning to discover the old gothic church one block away in flames. We stood on the street and watched it transform from spires to ashes. It was heartbreaking. The world is collectively mourning the fire and damage to the beloved Notre Dame. Yet is hard to stay with the emotions that come up, so we move quickly to a rallying cry of “we will rebuild!” Moving to action is wise and skillful, but only after we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to feel the loss, to mourn, and to reach out and do it in community. We are all connected, and community helps us open up to grief, to feel our feelings instead of denying or pushing them away, and to heal. Sometimes someone in the community invites you to heal in front of the crashing surf and salty air of the ocean. That is where I am now.
How to open the heart:
Tune in to the physical sensations in your body, below the level of thought, under the narrative of the story in your head. Just sense what is there – your pounding heart, your breath. Or perhaps it is the absence of feeling – a numbness, a coolness, an inability to move. Just sensing.
Notice resistance. We so easily wish that reality is different than it is. We can lock in to denial, or argue with reality, or get lost in cycles of thought that play scenarios that are not reflecting the truth of what is happening. "If only…" Mindfulness helps you develop the skill of seeing your thoughts – and when you recognize resistance, let it go. Resistance only increases emotional suffering.
Be vulnerable. It takes courage to open a defended heart and let yourself feel the wholeness of your experience. By allowing the difficult emotions to be there, to be felt – you allow them to transform. When you stuff them away they get blocked in the body. This is for the brave – being open and vulnerable to your experience requires a fierce heart.
Make space. Create space around your heavy heart. You can do this physically and spiritually. Ocean walks multiple times a day give me space, and open me to the vastness of this incredible earth. We can take walks anywhere – even better if you can be outside in nature. Take some mindful breaths with your eyes closed, imagining surrounding your heart with loving awareness. This is how you make space on the inside.
A compassionate heart asks the question: What will best serve here? If you are grieving someone… take a mindful walk, imagining them walking along side you. Come home and write them a letter, telling them why you are grateful for the time you had together. What are you holding? Is there grief that could benefit from space, compassion and your fierce heart?