Oysters protect the soft part of their bodies by snapping their shells shut as a response to any sign of danger. For the mollusks in the sea, the closing down action makes sense as a defense mechanism. The case is not so for us humans when confronted with emotional or psychological difficulties. We often close down our hearts at the sign of imminent emotional hurt. When we do so in protection against emotional perils, the effect is not analogous to that of the oysters. In fact, it causes more harm than good. Shielding ourselves to avoid exposure to the feelings that follow an experience of betrayal, abandonment, rejection or any other inner difficulty, more often than not adds insult to injury and puts us at risk of becoming close-minded.
The reaction of closing our hearts like oysters is instinctive and self-protective. How could it be otherwise? No one wants to suffer. I have had my share of heartbreak and abandonment, both intentional and unintentional. When I was six, my father traveled to the United States in search of a better life; his decision had a profound impact on me. Then later on, as an adult, I experienced the rifts and endings of meaningful relationships. I have more than once found myself stranded in areas of darkness from which I had to struggle to emerge. It is precisely because of my experiences that I am writing this blog about keeping the heart open as we walk the trails of emotional pain.
Recently I had a heart-to-heart with someone I love. We have hurt each other over a period of time. Unintentionally, we both engaged in behavior that added to our pain. In looking back at the conversation, I can see how in an attempt to protect ourselves from more pain, we were both closing our hearts tightly, so much like the oysters, which for sure lowered the chances of connecting, something we need in order to save a friendship that would, most likely, make us feel more whole.
The emotional pain that comes from unresolved feelings is both disruptive and uprooting, like any traumatic event. That sense of uncertainty makes us feel, at least temporarily, like our life is submerged in some kind of briny water where danger lurks. While not all breakdowns are traumatic, most of them, in the least, stop us in our tracks. Our psychological stability depends so much on the kind of mental health fitness and on the solidity of our support system before the painful event. When our mental health fitness and our support system are unsteady, the sense of danger increases and the likelihood of us running for shelter inside the tough shell of disaffection also increases. Emotional trauma that breaks the heart has the potential to close it tightly in self-defense. Conversely though, healing is about shedding hard layers that caged the heart.
Opening the heart after it has been broken is an act of self-compassion. The heart has to open to let grief out and to invite love back in. Compassion has to be practiced with intention and continuously in order for healing to have a chance. Healing from a broken heart has a lot to do with learning to be compassionate with ourselves and with the one who has hurt us and whom we have hurt. More often than not, hurt has a boomerang effect; it comes back to hurt the thrower. This is a rather complex issue. When we are hurt, we tend to harden the heart, becoming alienated individuals, capable of withholding love. When we withhold love we deprive ourselves of the wonderful feeling of loving. The heart is the place of residence of both pain and emotional healing so attending to the two is in and of itself a spiritual practice. The intentional cultivation of mercy and compassion, toward ourselves and, toward others, has the potential to transform our emotional wounds into emotional strengths.
Most recently, I have increased the frequency of my Kundalini yoga practice, with a focus on kriyas and meditations that aim at opening the heart. I want life, not death, to flow through me. Of course, I am finding it is easier said than done. Soon I realized how in order to open the heart chakra other chakras needed to be open as well. To access the heart we must clear the path to it. For instance, I noticed an avalanche of fear and insecurities within me, which led me to believe that my root chakra, located at the base of the spine was blocked. This first chakra is connected to our basic needs for survival, security and safety, which get threatened by emotional pain.
On the other hand, my creativity, my sense of worth declined, which points to the blocking of my second chakra, my belly chakra, where emotions are held. This explains how hard it was for me to relate to others. Now, my third chakra, right at the center of my stomach, where personal power begins, was most likely also blocked, given how low my sense of self, my ego, my passion for things was. So I’ll continue to show up to my practice everyday to further ease the blockages.
When my heart is closed tightly, I feel weak. I reject others before they reject me. I close the doors of opportunity to avoid risks, to be “safe.” Of course it is natural for me to feel that way. After all I know how bad pain feels. I also know that if I don’t allow myself to experience the pain, if I don’t use the past to soften up my core, the hurt will be the boomerang that brings me back more pain. To love is to risk it all. I want to open the heart so anger can turn into grief and so the healing can begin. I want to practice true love, toward myself first, then toward the other.
Each morning I chant this Kundalini mantra, holding the person I have hurt and myself in compassion:
May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you and the pure light within you guide your way on. Sat Nam.
Opening the broken heart is an act of self-compassion and strength. The heart must open to let grief out and to invite love back in.
Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.