There is such a vast array of emotions circulating through us in these strange times. I hear about sadness, uncertainty, anxiety, fear. I also hear about gratitude, a sense of connectedness, inspiration, even joy. Within my own heart-mind there’s a swirl of emotions that move from calm to excitedness, spaciousness to tightness. One thing seems certain these days – we are feeling a lot. Whatever the particular emotional experience is – and that seems to change from day to day, even hour to hour – we are in touch with our capacity to emote, that is, to be moved. Like an exquisite line of music, these days are touching our hearts, moving us.
In the Buddhist tradition, our fundamental nature is described as bodhicitta, the awakened heart. Also referred to as the “heart-mind,” it refers to our capacity to feel fully, to be in touch with ourselves, with others and with the world around us. At a relative level, bodhicitta elicits care, lovingkindness, compassion; at an absolute level, bodhicitta puts us in touch with our vast, open-hearted awareness that wraps its infinite arms around all beings equally. Chögyam Trungpa described the awakened heart as our “soft spot,” the place where we are vulnerable and tender. When we let ourselves feel we begin to notice the rawness of our soft spot. Any feeling, even difficult emotions, can take us to our soft spot, to our awakened heart. Go into your anger and you’re likely to find something you care fiercely about. Go into your anxiety and you may feel the wobbliness of vulnerability. Go into fear and you may find yourself face to face with the raw sensitivity of not-knowing.
Our tendency, of course, is to protect or close off our soft spot, precisely because it’s so tender. But our soft spot is our entryway to connecting with the world. It shows us how we are moved, how we are touched. It offers us the felt experience of our fundamental interconnectedness, our undeniable, radical relationship with all beings. Becoming awake to the “web of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully described it, is an incredible resource. We are freed from the illusion of separateness and isolation. Joanna Macy calls this the “eco-self,” the recognition that I am profoundly interwoven with all other beings.
The Buddhist story of Avalokiteshvara offers a poignant image of how we might live with our hearts awakened. Dedicated to relieving the suffering of all beings, Avalokiteshvara gazes out over the universe after eons of tireless, compassionate activity. What they see is all realms of existence still filled with suffering, pain, misery, jealousy, warfare. Overcome, Avalokiteshvara breaks into a thousand pieces. Amitabha, the Buddha of compassion, reassembles Avalokiteshvara to have 11 heads and 1000 arms, an eye on each hand, so they may continue their ceaseless compassion.
When our hearts are awake, we actually see more, like Avalokiteshvara’s thousand eyes. We see our own pain and the pain others are going through. We see our confusion and the ignorance that creates greater suffering around us. But we also see joy. We see the little flowers emerging from the hard winter earth. We see the smile of a stranger passing us by, 6 feet away. We hear the songs being sung from balconies. These days are the time of the awakened heart, and we are feeling it fully.
There’s one more thing, an interesting paradox that I’ve been noticing. As we go more and more into seclusion – from social distancing to stay-at-home orders – I’m simultaneously hearing people talk about how connected they feel to others. How is it that in finding ourselves cut off from others physically, we are nonetheless, or perhaps especially, feeling so connected? Each in our own way, we are having a shared experience; our own seclusion necessarily reminds us of others, all over the world, who are similarly figuring out how to navigate these uncertain days. We can view our seclusion as imprisonment, or we can view it as spiritual retreat. Imprisonment arises when we build walls between ourselves and others; we feel apart, isolated and cut off. But retreat – as practiced in numerous traditions – is a going inward that allows us to relate more genuinely, more profoundly with the wider web of being, or inter-being as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it. In our solitude, we may even experience our radical interconnectedness more poignantly. That inner space is the hearth of the awakened heart. We can cultivate our awakened heart by allowing ourselves to feel more fully, to move towards whatever is arising within our heart-mind experience, rather than away from it.
So I say, let the heart break open. Let us weep. Let us be moved, by anything and nothing in particular. And then let us feel that awakeness, that vibrancy that is the heart of our being.