“Real love is a permanently self enlarging experience.” -Scott Peck
I learned about Tara Brach, as many people have, through her podcast. She’s a well known American psychologist and meditation teacher.
Looking back, I’m not sure exactly how I found out about this retreat, but I knew that I wanted to do a retreat with a well-regarded teacher, and Tara was certainly that, and so when I saw that she was holding a 5-day silent New Year’s retreat, it seemed like the perfect fit.
Interestingly, I didn’t pay much attention to the actual title of the retreat: Awakening the Heart of Compassion. But this is exactly what ended up happening.
Each day of the retreat, from 3:45 – 4:30 pm we had a Guided Heart Meditation. I was looking forward to the first, because it was guided, and any time the teachers spoke was exciting. (The majority of our seated meditation sessions were silent). The teacher for the first day was Anam Thubten, a Tibetan monk. As he began the meditation he asked us to bring to mind someone in our lives who was easy to love, and imagine ourselves regarding them lovingly.
“Ok, Easy,” I thought. I brought my husband to mind. It’s easy for me to imagine regarding him lovingly and vice versa is easy too: to imagine him regarding me lovingly.
After a number of minutes, Anam asked that we bring someone else to mind: a friend, and hold their image in our mind and imagine regarding them lovingly. I brought a dear friend to mind. Tried to imagine regarding her lovingly, and her regarding me lovingly. This felt hard. This felt vulnerable. This felt like something I wouldn’t really do. And something they wouldn’t really do to me either. Hmm how about someone else? No this felt weird too. I didn’t want to do this.
It struck me as strange, because it’s not like Anam was asking that I actually go sit in front of these people and regard them lovingly. He was only asking me to imagine doing this. No matter. Why did this feel hard? (Hint: Heart not open). I started to cry. Wracking sobs. Some kind man sitting nearby found the tissues and gave them to me. I was upset and angry. I decided the meditation was a stupid one.
Day two and three I cried (sobbed maybe more like it) again during the heart meditations, and at this point I had a designated tissue box lying near me at all times. But, I was feeling less angry during the meditations, so I considered it progress.
On day four Tara led the heart meditation. She began by asking that we inquire into a vulnerability, a place that makes us feel small or shameful. And invite a universal compassionate being to nurture that vulnerability. (More on that later, that meditation is smart.)
Later we expanded that nurturing compassion to all beings. And here was the magic: I found that there was no one I could find who I could not wish well. Could not wish so well. Ex-friends, frienemies, ex-colleagues, ex-boyfriends, bosses, people I envied, classes of people with belief systems I find disturbing or wrong — there was no one I could think of that I did not wish well. No one for whom I did not wish happiness, for whom I could not find love.
And I felt, for the first time, in my entire life, that my heart was actually tender.
I had heard that phrase so many times, “a tender heart.” But here it was, the actual experience of it. Sensitive, open, warm, feeling, in the chest. Broad shoulders, chest open. Heart vulnerable, feeling, brave.
As I continued to sit, a dialogue arose, between me and the other individuals I encountered in my head.
“Oh you have a problem?” I found myself thinking.
“Yes,” the person said, “I have many problems.”
“It’s ok,” I said, “Let’s pour some love on them.”
“Oh I’m afraid I have no love for them,” they said.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I have some love to spare.”
I felt, for the first time in my life, that I had love to spare. I felt, with not even a sliver of doubt, that I was capable of great and boundless love. Seated, cross legged. Eyes closed. (Still crying). I was pouring love on every one I could think of.
And that’s it. That’s the answer: Cultivate love and give it away. Uncover your ability for love and offer it, over, and over, and over again.
I will note that this shift had been happening over a number of months. I don’t think Tara Brach is 100% to blame. I have been working hard to move from a place of guarded cynicism to a place of generosity and openness. I’ve been working to take responsibility for myself, to accept and love myself. I have been sitting in meditation. Every day.
But during these five days of silence, the heart that had been cracking was flung wide open.
The shift from a closed and guarded heart, a small self, living from a place of scarcity, from a place of fear, to living from a place of generosity, abundance, and compassion. We hear these things all the time but have you ever actually felt it? I hadn’t until that day.
I spent the remainder of days four and five in a place of deep peace and presence. I wanted for nothing. I did not think to hurry. I resented no one. An annoying fellow meditator brought a smile to my face. When I was walking I walked. I looked forward to sitting. I sat more than I needed to. One evening, I relaxed in front of a fireplace for a full hour, with a cup to tea, doing absolutely nothing.
And I came home with a fresh heart. It is open and it is tender and it loves so good.
I have been more patient in my daily life, kinder to the people I encounter during my day. Kinder at work, at home, while in traffic. I have been generous.
And also my new heart is in danger of closing back up. It’s been 22 days since I’ve come home from the retreat. 22 days to fall back into habits, to sit slouched at my desk most of the day, chest closed, heart shutting down.
And this isn’t meant to be pessimistic but to be honest. Being clear that this requires ongoing work. The practice of compassion, of generosity, of lovingkindness meditation: this is the work of a lifetime.
As Tara said on the retreat: “We do not wake up once. We need to wake up over and over and over again.”
Thanks for reading. It means a lot.