Expanding The Heart
To Embrace The Unbearable
Cultivating an expansiveness of heart can lead us to transform life’s challenges into life’s greatest lessons. By Lauren Bloxham
How do we keep going? How do we bear the unbearable and still wake up each day and live? If we could have imagined some of the challenges we have endured before they’d happened, we just couldn’t imagine surviving them, let alone rising from their ashes with greater strength and clarity. When we imagine the worst outcomes, or look towards our worst fears, again, we simply can’t imagine how we’d cope.
The idea can turn us away from ourselves completely, the thought can lead us to embrace fear and abandonment. But the invitation that fear extends is more complex than this, more multi dimensional when it’s experienced with an open heart.
It's easy to label experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, as ‘nourishing’ or ‘depleting’, but in doing so we diminish them. We separate them from the whole experience and view them through a narrow gaze; our view point becomes limited and likewise the experience. We process only a slither of what’s truly happening. Maybe through ignorance, maybe through preservation of known outcomes, or maybe through lack of knowing what else to do.
So how do we find the courage to lean into life with an open heart, when it leads us through turbulence? How do we imagine things going wrong, alongside imagining them going right, and firmly occupy the space in-between? We have to let go, to surrender to the ride and to say ‘yes’ to the experience, which means acknowledging it for all that it teaches us. All pain, all sorrow, all grief, all relief, all joy, and all peace.
When we have no investment in the outcome, when we stop attempting to control, manipulate or change how things are going to go, but simply say ‘they’re going’, then we learn to ride the turbulence and the richness of life that is on offer.
Nothing we experience in life leaves us unchanged. But rather than leaving us closed, embittered, feeling resentful, neglected, abandoned, or that life is unfair, opening our hearts to the circumstances which have triggered those feelings, moving closer again to ourselves, we have the opportunity to turn them inside out. To transform them by seeing both sides of the experience.
Becoming intimate with the shadows fear casts we begin to explore the source of light that inevitably exists alongside those shadows, and we know the darker the shadow, the stronger the light; we simply have to alter our focus and allow ourselves to notice…and this takes practice, persistence and often reminders from external sources.
Our presence is our greatest ally in staying open to the experience of life, in keeping our hearts soft and supple. We have to give ourselves the time and space to notice how we feel, to stay embodied rather than abandon ourselves. Spending time with our own feelings, sitting in the chaos and confusion, assessing the mess and the devastation, and soaking up the peace, beauty and joy, whether it’s through rest, meditation, in therapy or through our asana practice.
We have to be present for life and all that it brings us without pushing th experience aside, diminishing it or denying it. We have to cultivate a strong relationship of faith in ourselves to stay with the experience, and in the process of developing this relationship we get to notice our hearts blossoming and shying away. We begin to develop compassion for fear, curiosity for feeling and ultimately the strength to embrace the unbearable as the teacher that it is.
We all live with shadows, our fear, shame, grief, our denial, and our guilt. We use them to tell ourselves we are not worthy of life; we use them to keep us small and conforming We use them to shape a life that we believe is acceptable, setting harsh boundaries on what is ‘right and wrong’, using judgement as a guide.
But these shadows can be our greatest teachers, and whether we choose daily to lean towards them with the light of our own awareness, or we wait for them to become monsters before we tackle them, ultimately, we are left with no choice but to tackle them.
Life’s circumstances are the same, however unbearable they become, and when we have to tackle them, we will… and we will because we have the capacity to do so, it’s what we’re made for. We all have the capacity to experience life in all its complex, unbearable, beautiful, and paradoxical glory.
The practice of connecting with the heart
We need to carve out time to practice connecting with our hearts. We need to feel safe, comfortable and be undisturbed for a period of time. Offering ourselves physical softness, comfort and warmth will encourage the body to relax, minimising distraction and maximising the conditions which encourage pratyahara, where our awareness moves from the outside environment to the inner environment, allowing stillness to arise naturally.
Cultivating awareness of our physicality, without judgement, and for the sole purpose of softening our physical bodies into relaxation leads us towards being able to cultivate awareness of the breath, and more subtle still, awareness of our thoughts and feelings. We begin to experience the condition of our being, and in doing so extend compassion towards harsh feeling in the same way we extended comfort towards tension.
Here is where we start to soften subtly. Here is where we begin to melt our hearts, and in doing so encourage the suppleness of heart elasticity to expand around the experience we are having. This is the point of transformation, where the unbearable circumstances we thought we’d never survive become our greatest teachers, where harsh lines of division are blurred and our experience of living becomes something precious, to be embraced and nurtured.
Practice yoga with Lauren Bloxham online at blackdogliving.com or in person in West Cornwall. You can also join her on her retreat, ‘Embodying the Elements’ at Bala Brook retreat centre in Dartmoor National Park (April 20-23, 2023). Follow her on Instagram @blackdogliving
First published in November 2009, OM Yoga magazine has become the most popular yoga title in the UK. Available from all major supermarkets, independents and newsstands across the UK. Also available on all digital platforms.