When I was about six years old, I received an essential teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day, feeling lonely and unloved, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”
Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can close our hearts to life to try to protect ourselves against difficult circumstances. Or we can let difficulties soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.
If we see the fears and suffering we’re all experiencing now as a chance to grow in bravery and wisdom, in patience and kindness, then our personal distress can connect us with the discomfort and unhappiness of others. What we usually consider a problem becomes the source of empathy, a way to connect with the natural warmth of our hearts.
Discovering our inner warmth can be the value of our personal suffering, the silver lining of the very dark clouds we’re experiencing.
Natural warmth is our shared capacity to love, to have empathy, to have a sense of humor. It is our capacity to feel gratitude and appreciation and tenderness. It’s the whole gamut of what are often called the heart qualities, qualities that are a natural part of being human.
Our natural warmth has the power to heal all relationships—our relationship with ourselves as well as our relationships with other people and with all that we encounter every day in our lives. Discovering our inner warmth can be the value of our personal suffering, the silver lining of the very dark clouds we’re experiencing.
In these times, it is easy for us to see firsthand that we are all in the same boat and that the only thing that makes any sense is to care for one another. This difficult time is our chance to come out of our self-protecting bubble and realize that we are never alone. This is our chance to finally understand that wherever we go, everyone we meet is essentially just like us.
When we feel fear, when we feel discomfort of any kind, it can connect us at the heart with all the other people who are feeling fear and discomfort. When things fall apart and we can’t get the pieces back together, when we lose something dear to us, when the whole thing is just not working and we don’t know what to do, this is the time when the natural warmth of tenderness, the warmth of empathy and kindness, are just waiting to be uncovered, just waiting to be embraced.
Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world. When you touch your sorrow or fear, your anger or jealousy, you are touching everybody’s jealousy, everybody’s fear and sorrow. You wake up in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack and when you can fully experience the taste and smell of it, you are sharing the anxiety and fear of all humanity. People’s stories are different, their situations are different, but the experience is the same. Instead of your distress becoming all about you, it can become your link with everyone all over the world who is in the same predicament.
The natural warmth that emerges when we experience our pain includes all the heart qualities: love, compassion, gratitude, tenderness in any form. It also includes loneliness, sorrow, and the shakiness of fear. Before these vulnerable feelings harden, before the storylines kick in, these generally unwanted feelings are pregnant with kindness, with openness and caring. These feelings that we’ve become so accomplished at avoiding can soften and transform us. The practice is to train in not automatically fleeing from uncomfortable tenderness when it arises, and with time we can embrace it.
Of course, it is fairly common that times of crisis and suffering connect people with their capacity to love and care about one another. It is also common that this openness and compassion fade rather quickly, and that people become afraid, guarded, and closed again.
The question, then, is not only how to uncover our fundamental tenderness and warmth, but also how to abide there with the fragile, often bittersweet vulnerability. How can we relax and open to the uncertainty of it? How can we face all the fear and uncertainty and not close up again?
The fear we’re experiencing these days is so palpable, so atmospheric. You can almost smell the fear around you. We know we are on shaky ground and we don’t know what is going to happen next.
The truth is that the ground has always been shaky, forever. But in times when fear is prevalent, like now, that truth is more obvious. We can’t make this fear go away. But we can smile at it.
Fear is like a doorway we go through, but where that doorway leads is not predetermined. It is up to us. Usually when we’re afraid, it sets off a chain reaction. We go inward and start to armor ourselves, trying to protect ourselves from whatever we think is going to hurt us. But our attempts to protect ourselves do not lessen the fear. Quite the opposite—the fear escalates.
On the other hand, if we choose to take notice of the actual experience of fear, whether it’s just a queasy feeling in our stomach or actual terror, whether it’s a subtle level of discomfort or mind-numbing dramatic anxiety, we can smile at it, believe it or not. It could be a literal smile, or it could be a metaphor for coming to know fear, turning toward fear, touching fear.
We’re all very familiar with the experience of fear escalating, and the experience of running away from fear. But have we ever taken the time to truly touch our fear, to be present with it and experience it fully? Do we know what it might mean to smile at fear?
It’s not so easy to do, but fortunately we have a method that can help us discover the courage to smile at fear. Meditation practice is a method for being with ourselves fully and completely, allowing the time and space to see everything we’re experiencing, including fear and discomfort, with gentleness, kindness, and honesty. It is the safest environment within which to undertake this mission impossible. Because to know fear is to smile at it.
If you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness, vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness. It can sound corny, but you feel grateful for the beauty of the world. Your heart is filled with gratitude, appreciation, compassion, and caring for other people. It’s a very special way to live.