In this third essay about the FLOWING recovery Model which is at the heart of my recently published book, Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Guide to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, we will explore the letter O for Open Heart. Having described the need to Feel our bodies and emotions, and to Listen mindfully for information about the meanings they contain, we now turn our attention to offering the non-judgement of an Open Heart.
The defining element of an open-heartedness is compassion. While many of us may strive to held compassion for others with varying degrees of success, it is when we try to direct that compassion toward ourselves that we often “hit a wall.” Yet it is only possible to truly practice compassion from the center, from our own open-heart. Such openness implies accessibility and to many, may suggest a level of vulnerability that feels dangerous. But it is possible to maintain a position of acceptance of oneself and others without becoming defenseless. Remember that the heart is at the center of this practice and is a finely tuned receptor in our interpersonal environment.
While our true nature as human beings is open and receptive, those receptors tend to respond more acutely – for reasons of survival – to negative events that to positives. This biological predisposition leaves us watchful for potential threats in our environment and in cases where there is unprocessed trauma, creates a “negative filter” through which we view our world. If we are to access recovery from loss it becomes necessary to challenge those old filters and to modify them for a more open view.
Compassion toward the self is the most problematic aspect of open-heartedness, and because we must begin there to have true compassion for others, it is the most crucial. Although every faith teaches some variation of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” there is generally more emphasis placed on self-sacrifice and less on self-care. In practical terms, such an imbalance is doomed to a choice between burn-out and “selfishness” since the necessary flow of energy between the input and output is unavailable, so energy inevitable runs out.
The other main problem with compassion (for self or other) is a fear of attending to the inevitability of suffering. We spend billions of dollars in the country trying to distract ourselves from the realities of pain and loss. But as we’ve all heard in the Disney movie “It’s the circle of life,” and those very elements of suffering are what makes the joyful moments so precious.
A powerful way to explore self-compassion is to focus calm awareness on the area known as the heart chakra. Chakras are energy centers located along the midline of the torso and head. The seven major chakras identified is ancient times each pertain to different aspects of physical and emotional energies and like most structural systems, build upward from the base such that weakness at the lower levels create instability at upper levels. While this essay is about the compassionate energies of the heart chakra, all chakras need attention to support essential functions and balance. In addition, cutting edge work in neurobiology supports the overall validity of energy and information transmission along the midline of the body, in studies of the endocrine and nervous systems, most significantly the poly-vagal theory of interpersonal social response. (Porges, 2016)
If we are to access and maintain compassion, we must first connect with those parts of ourselves that may have suffered confusion and loss in the past. To ignore this important step is to work from an incomplete “script” leading to inevitable miscues. Our own story is the single most powerful source of information about the effects of similar loss on others. If we keep our story a secret from our own awareness, we risk inserting misinformation into the experience of the other. (This is especially problematic for those of us in professional healing fields.) If instead, we are clear about what happened to us along the way, we can sort through that information to clearly access what is like or unlike the situation being experienced by the other. For instance, if my own story included complicating factors like someone manipulating my experience of loss to push blame on me for my own suffering, it is likely to be quite different than the friend’s situation where the loss is more clear cut, and while they are in pain, the level of bitterness or resentment I may have felt, may not fit their story. To misjudge the circumstances of their loss, is to lose track of the very aspect of hurt they most need my support with.
So before reaching out to try to help the other, first breath and check in with how you feel about the friend’s situation, notice if you have had a loss of your own that still feels raw or easily triggered. Of if you find yourself reacting strongly to an event that seems less activating to others, take the time to explore your own heart-space to see whether something is unfinished or otherwise blocking your vision about the situation. If there is a feeling of loss of safety or increased anxiety about this task, perhaps it is time to seek the support of a helping professional to help structure your exploration. Noticing where in your body the tension is held, or where the feeling of distance is strongest, may lead to important information about this potential threat. From there you can explore and express your concerns in a compassionate manner, offering unconditional support for your own recovery. Using creative expression, mindfulness and body awareness, there is opportunity for release and re-balancing your system, bringing new flexibility and new resources to yourself and to those you care for.In the next essay of this series, we will pick up the W in FLOWING to discuss the importance of truly witnessing to validate and release the bonds of held trauma. In the meantime, may you have a powerful sense of abundance and Open-heartedness in the weeks ahead.