People would probably describe being “open-minded” as having the ability to accept many walks of life, judging less and loving more, being willing to have new experiences, listening. All of that is true. But there is an even deeper meaning to a truly open mind that in turn lends itself to being able to accept and love and try new things. And that is the discovery that the mind is actually quite limited. That it wants to cling to beliefs and ideas as a way to feel safe. That it thinks in loops, that it has tunnel vision and myopia, that it is fear-based. The mind is powerful, but it is also destructive. It is actually the heart that is more powerful. And the quieter and clearer I can make my mind, the more its perception is rooted in truth and presence, the more open my heart becomes.
I have witnessed what the heart can do when being led by the untrained and frightened mind. It gets tough and closed. It wards people off and judges. At its darkest, it hates and wants to hurt. It can grow self-destructive and harmful toward others. From this place stems all sorts of illnesses and addictions and forms of suffering. A path of recovery has led me to mindfulness and meditation, prayer, visualizations, and all sorts of other woo-woo stuff that just really gets me going and connects me to a Source that makes life rich and meaningful, and it has helped me continuously soften and open my heart.
If I really pay attention today, I can feel my heart soften or harden with each circumstance, with each friend or student or colleague or stranger, and I see that I have a choice in how I respond to the world. It doesn’t mean I have to like everyone or everything (and I don’t) but it does mean that I can breathe into that heart space and look at what makes me not like whatever it is or not want to open up. It’s usually fear or a lack of compassion or self-preservation. All of which are fine in their right. Certain people and situations can be unhealthy at times, and sometimes we need very clear boundaries and detachment, but a present mind will also be willing to face new experiences in each moment. For years I was afraid to feel my own feelings and let people in. I was defensive and judgmental and very afraid. My mind ran the show, and so my heart was blocked and encased in what felt like ice or tar or hardened crust. In early recovery, it was hard at first to even cry. All I felt was rage. But as the process did its thing, I started to feel the ice melt, the tar dissolve, the crust clean away. And then I felt my open heart.
I am learning the difference between shutting down and detaching with love. A good friend of mine has started to do something that, let’s just say I am not wild about and of which I have plenty of opinions. In some ways I may even be right. But so what. She’s not me, I’m not her, and it does no good to harden myself to her completely. It was fascinating to watch the anger in me come up and the desire to lash out and judge and tell her all sorts of things I was feeling and thinking in a not so nice way; but the truth is, what she is going through is really none of my business, and my hardened heart comes from my own circumstances and feelings that need to get sorted out in me. Becoming nasty to her solves nothing and only cuts off connection. It is interesting, too, to see how when I deal with my own feelings, I no longer feel such a strong tug to judge her and crucify her for having an experience that I disagree with. I can let it go and meet her where it feels safe.
I was with friends and colleagues last night, and one of the girls was being particularly drunk and negative. Everything out of her mouth was rude and disrespectful and rather obnoxious. But I have learned, instead of judging her as this or that, I can look deeper and notice that she is probably suffering in some way. It doesn’t mean I have to put up with it and stick around, but by acknowledging her humanness, her suffering, the “knife in her heart,” as Thich Nat Han calls it, I can get some space from feeling offended and instead turn to compassion. In practice. Always in imperfect practice.
Having this sort of open mind and heart helps me not take everything so personally. One of my biggest character defects is internalizing other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and thinking that it is a reflection of something the matter with me. It can become a maddening and highly destructive pattern. Practicing mindfulness and compassion for others, getting that perception of mine aligned with the truth helps to have detachment and space and understand that everyone is dealing with their own humanness.
I think the more we seek to understand others, those who walk similar paths and those who live quite differently, the more open we become inside and the more we can love ourselves in the midst of all our imperfectness. And the great news is that no matter how long we have been shut down or closed, we can always open again. Always.