by Susan Piver
I just finished teaching an Open Heart retreat in beautiful Dechen Choling which is situated in rural south-central France, near Limoges. The beauty here reminds me of what the world felt like when I was a kid in summertime: Verdant, lush, quiet, warm…all you want to do is be outside. These words are misleadingly prosaic… But when you arrive here from gray, cement, noisy, and cold, they are anything but.
I arrived into Paris Charles de Gaulle last week after a late night flight. I waited four hours in the airport for my train to Poitiers where I would connect to the train for Limoges. Each train ride was approximately two hours long (including a heart-stopping 12 minute gap between trains, causing me to remember the last two times I made this journey and missed the connection each time. What is French for wtf do all these signs mean??) This time, I made the connection with literally two minutes to spare.
The train from Charles de Gaulle to Poitiers was a high-speed TGV train. It was clean and comfortable and the scenery was beautiful. The train from Poitiers to Limoges was a regional train, also clean and comfortable—and slower. I thought I would doze or read but all I could do was stare out the window at the trees, lakes, and farmhouses.
I was also very awake. Despite having missed a night of sleep and spending about 15+ hours in transport, I felt super alert. The beauty woke me up. I even went for a short run once I arrived here, at around 8:00 p.m. At this time of year, the sky remains light until about 10:00 p.m. and it was like I had arrived in the land of perpetual morning.
On the final train ride (from Poitiers to Limoges), I also began to think about the program I was coming to teach, The Open Heart Retreat. It was to be four days of exploring the connection between meditation and emotion, which I thought sounded awesome when I wrote the program description. But now, hours away from beginning, what, I wondered, did it actually mean to make this exploration?
How do you teach a person to open their heart?
As Westerners, most suggestions around how to feel involve some type of management system. Create a sense of safety by establishing ground rules. Manage expectations. Take responsibility for your emotions, don’t lay them off on others. Use “I” statements to express feelings. Resolve childhood wounds or at least come to some sort of closure with them. Expect that current relationships will recreate previous patterns and thus offer the chance to intercede to shift the pattern. Explore, reflect, analyze, deconstruct. Talk things through.
There can be great value in such approaches. I have certainly benefitted tremendously from them. However, I’m not a therapist, I’m a Buddhist. Too, I’ve noticed that while systematic exploration of painful emotions and fears can be instructive, by itself, it is not transformative. There is a gap between recognizing an issue and then actually changing.
Expanded awareness of your patterns is powerful and necessary—but what comes next? And are there modes of transformation that feel soulful and rich and human rather than mechanistic, as if I was reprogramming myself like a computer?
In Buddhist thought, especially in my Shambhala Buddhist lineage, emotional pain of all sorts can be said to arise from one particular disconnection: Losing faith in your basic goodness. “Basic goodness” doesn’t mean basic goody-goodness, it means something more like your essential wakefulness. So, with this premise, heart-opening would naturally occur upon recovery of confidence in your basic goodness.
But how do you do that?
Also according to Buddhist thought, every journey has three steps: a ground; a path, and a fruition, so my mind naturally turned to the question, what is the ground, path, and fruition of rediscovering our innate basic goodness? Because that is what this program would have to be about.
Here are the answers I came up with and they are the things we practiced during our retreat.
The ground of rediscovering basic goodness is relaxation. This is where will have to begin, not by further dissecting the root of our problems, but by calming down from the speed and stress of daily life. Without this as a foundation, we will simply continue to pile layer upon layer of conceptual thought onto our problems. So, on this retreat, rather than working harder, we’ll work less, I thought. Instead of trying to change ourselves, we’ll rest with ourselves as we are. Luckily, in the practice of meditation, that is exactly what we are practicing, so we had that one covered.
Then what? If we are able to relax and create space, what will help us to travel on? I realized that the path was the sense perceptions, that if we could spend time becoming absorbed, not in what we think and how bad our problems are, but in the way things look, sound, smell, and so on, we would be connecting with basic goodness itself. So we spent time engaging our senses in various ways.
The fruition, then, I posited, would be doubtlessness When you see a tree with green leaves, there is no doubt in the greenness. When you hear birds sing, there is no doubt that you are hearing a kind of music. When you add salt, there is no doubt in saltiness. And so on.
So this is what we did; we established the ground of relaxation, walked the path of sense perception, and, I believe, recovered at least some sense of confidence in basic goodness and thus could allow ourselves to feel. How did I come to believe this? I saw it happen. It was measured in smiles, tears, embraces, and in greater ease with both emotional confusion and clarity. It was like watching us all turn back into human beings.
Reprinted with permission from Susan Piver’s blog at susanpiver.com.
Susan Piver is a writer and Buddhist teacher and has been teaching meditation for more than 10 years. She is a frequent guest on network TV, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today, and CNN. She is founder of the online mindfulness community the Open Heart Project with more than 12,000 members from across the globe. Susan will lead the meditation retreat, Start Here Now: A Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation, at Copper Beech Institute, October 9 – 11, 2015.