From Terminator to Tender: The Journey to an Open Heart

Light-in-Heart I heard Susan Piver at the first “Awake in the World” conference run by the Shambhala Mountain Center.  In a sea of voices, two stood out to me very clearly – Dr. Jan Chozen Bays who taught on mindful eating (that’s for another post) and Susan.  After her presentation I followed a link to The Open Heart Project. I liked all the words on the website (particularly “free”) and I knew what all the words meant except for the title.  What does it mean to have an “open heart?”

Fast forward two years.  I have been a member of the Open Heart Sangha for over a year, took refuge vows, and have a wonderful practice including meditation and a dharma talk every day possible. I am growing in spiritual health and balance. But the question continued to nag me. What does having an “open heart” mean to me?  So – in January, after months of pre-study – I made it my New Year’s intention to be more open-hearted – whatever that means. Think of this as my “first quarter review” of this amazing journey.

 Hope or Fear?

In our monthly dharma talk Susan said something that helped me frame this odyssey into words I can type.

“We don’t experience people for who they are. We experience them through two lenses: the lens of hope (Will they be kind to me? Will they love me? Will they leave me alone? Will they accept me?) or the lens of fear (Will this person hurt me? Do I need to keep them away from me? Does the way they act make me feel good about my life or bad about the world?).”   Susan Piver, “Walking in Each Other’s Shoes” 4/1/2016

Hope or fear.  For the vast majority of my life fear wasn’t just my lens, it was my survival technique, my protection, my intuition and my daily bread. Even when I’ve approached someone with hope – it was laden with protective fear (“Enjoy them, but don’t get attached. Pain can come any moment.”).  For me – to live as an open-hearted person is to find the middle ground between hope and fear – to see others as they are, and to share myself as who I truly am (in this moment) as well.

People First

That might sound like an obvious statement or the advertising pitch for some awful soul sucking corporate entity – but for me it is quite a revelation. I hate people.  I spent my first career as “the minister who hates people” only to go into my second as “the writer who hates people” and I fear I am soon to be known as “the Buddhist who hates people.”   It isn’t really hate, of course. It is fear. Coming from a confusing, cold, and often cruel childhood – I tend to look at new people like this:


Terminator Vision

Emphasis on “Defense Systems Set”

Once I’m done scanning, I’ll either engage them in conversation or politely fade into the nearest wall never to be seen again. Like the Terminator, I quickly collect all the facts, intuition, and observations then make a determination.  In regard to that small group in my circle of friends I often say, “my life is by invitation only.”  What I mean is – “If I let you into my world, you have passed a screening that would make the Department of Defense’s top security clearance seem like a elementary school hall pass.”

My fear of pain, and people, has allowed me to put most human beings behind a wall of ideas, things, and systems. I noticed this one day when I was listening to a dharma talk on impermanence. We were supposed to be reflecting on how we know about impermanence from our experiences. After a few moments of silence the teacher listed all the people he had lost in his life, including his parents. I was thinking, “I’ve been through 4 laptops in 6 years.”

So impermanent

So impermanent….

Why?  Because it would hurt too much to think of the people I have lost – to death, to disagreement, or just the inability to stay connected. So – the open-hearted me had to stop, recall, feel the loss and then the warmth of gratitude those folks had been in my life in the first place. In order to open my heart, I now try to do the following things:

  1. Look at the person, not the perception. Instead of scanning people for anything (clothing, hair style, political party bumper stickers, accents, big crosses or small pearls around their necks) that might indicate they already disapprove of me, I just try to listen to them. Just as cats always head straight for the one person in the room who doesn’t like cats – people have always flocked to me with their stories. Instead of disinterested listening or suspicious cataloguing, I ask open questions and feel compassion for their victories or defeats. Instead of a collection of dangers or perks – I’m seeing them for who they are.
  1. Look at the person, not the idea. This has helped a lot during our tense political American Spring. I have a diversity of people in my life (confession: for someone who hates people – I adore and am delighted to share space with lots of very different people who I love). Among my friends are several ardent Donald Trump supporters. It would be so easy to argue, chide, or reject the memes they put on facebook. With an open heart I see – these folks aren’t ideas – they are people. They just want to be safe. They want to be hopeful. They want to be heard. I’m not going to vote the same as they do and I reject almost everything Donal Trump stands for,  but I am going to see their value as people, as friends, as beings – when we go to the polls, and beyond.
  1. Look at the person, not the problem/puzzle they carry. Long before I took refuge vows I was a recovering “fixer” and puzzle solver (Yes – I was that kid in high school who would take someone’s rubik cube, solve it, and put it back in his locker). I rarely let someone get the whole story out before I offered advice, insight, prayers or promises.  I have learned, over time, to listen and not “fix” overtly. In my head, however, is a rocky rushing river of “She just needs to,” “If only he would,” and “Why don’t people just…”  Having an open heart means putting the person first, and letting the puzzle wait until someone asks me to help. Even then,  I try to help people see they already know the answer and provide support and encouragement instead of prescriptions and control.

Helpful Hint: Just like life – you line up the colors with the center square, not the sides.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of my open heart – much like a flat rock skipping across a lake touching down momentarily then flying off to places unknown. It has been challenging, frightening, illuminating and satisfying.  The big fears – that I would be hurt, that I would look silly, that I would lose the few people I’ve let in – have not happened. The big joys – that I would be butterfly free with no doubts or issues floating on white clouds of relationships  – have not happened either.  I’m not depressed or elated, idiotic or wise, boundless or captive. I’m just me.  That’s the best part of all.



Photo Credits:
  • Top image from
  • Terminator pic (c) 1984 20th Century Fox
  • Laptop/Rubik’s cube – Public Use photos.

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