Let Your Heart Break

Kimberly Brown offers a practice for when the weight of the world leaves you angry and overwhelmed.

Kimberly Brown
30 March 2021
Photo by Dominik Scythe.

The history of the world is also a history of humans behaving badly, and current crises are no exception. Since the coronavirus contagion was discovered, we’ve seen how shortsightedness, selfishness, and greed have contributed to so much unnecessary sickness and death. In any situation when I’m witnessing the incompetence of leaders, the ignorance of citizens, and the suffering of the most vulnerable, I sometimes feel complete and utter frustration and rage, and I catch myself stomping up and down my hallway shaking my head and thinking how everyone is an idiot.

When I finally let myself feel the terribleness of this time, and really let my heart break, I was able to offer my greatest gifts.

This has happened many times over the past few months: at the young people on spring break, playing on crowded beaches in Florida during a viral pandemic; at the president and his lack of leadership and politicization during public health and civil rights crises; at the federal government unable or unwilling to mount a competent and robust response to provide healthcare, safety, and adequate support for its suffering citizens; at my neighbors, who aren’t social distancing and allowing family members from other parts of the city into their homes to visit; at early news reports suggesting Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu; at people demanding that their “freedom” includes the right to infect me with a disease; and at videos of people in a peaceful protest march, “kettled” by police on the Brooklyn Bridge for hours, frightened and trapped like animals.

Finally, a few weeks ago I woke up in the morning, mad and outraged and frustrated with the entire world. I fumed in the kitchen as I made coffee, thinking about how stupid everyone was acting. As my husband reached into the cabinet above my head for the Cheerios, he noticed me talking to myself. “What’s wrong?” he said. “It’s all wrong!” I yelled, and burst into tears.

I cried because beneath my anger was such sadness and grief, for everyone who is suffering: those with Covid-19 who are very sick; the Black community; healthcare workers who are in danger; for me and my family; for so many right here in New York City who don’t know how they will feed themselves and their children or pay the rent; for the abandoned animals in zoos and sanctuaries around the world; for those in ICE detention already scared and now at risk for illness or death; and for all struggling in all nations everywhere.

I’d been trying to hide my sadness, hoping my anger would protect me from having to feel it. But it’s only through vulnerabilities such as sorrow and grief that natural compassion arises and we can connect with the suffering of everyone (including ourselves), without looking away or getting overwhelmed. When I finally let myself feel the terribleness of this time, and really let my heart break, I was able to offer my greatest gifts—love, wisdom, understanding, and joy—to all who need it. No one (including me) needs more hatred or anger. But we can all benefit from sharing our good qualities with ourselves, and others, as an appropriate response to the world’s suffering and pain. Even if we can’t control what is happening, each one of us can share our heartfelt intentions with every living creature. Those of us who are healthy and safe have a responsibility to ourselves and the world to let our hearts break for the sick and the dead, for the poor and the lonely and the frightened, and for all creatures struggling during this crisis. It’s the practice of a bodhisattva to hold appreciation for our lives with deep grief and compassion for the suffering in the world, and to use our thoughts, speech, and behavior to not harm and benefit all.

If you’re feeling angry or overcome, here’s a practice you might find helpful.

Let Your Heart Break

  • Find a quiet place in your home; shut off your phone, computer, and TV; and ask the people you live with to leave you undisturbed for ten minutes.
  • Take a moment to be still and follow your breath.
  • Put your hand on your heart and quietly say, “I’m here for you, and it’s okay to be upset.”
  • After a few minutes, you can imagine someone who might also be feeling this way and say, “May you be free from suffering and be at peace.”
  • Then you can give this kindness to everyone struggling right now: “May we all be free from suffering and be at peace.”

Excerpted from Steady, Calm, and Brave: 25 Practices of Resilience and Wisdom in a Crisis Copyright © 2020 by Kimberly Brown. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Kimberly Brown

Kimberly Brown

For over a decade, meditation teacher and author Kimberly Brown has offered classes and retreats that emphasize the power of compassion and kindness techniques to reconnect us to ourselves and others. She is the author of Navigating Grief and Loss: 25 Buddhist Practices to Keep your Heart Open to Yourself and Others (November 2022; Prometheus Books) and Steady, Calm, and Brave: 25 Practices for Resilience and Wisdom in a Crisis (revised version to be released in January 2023; Prometheus Books). Kimberly’s teachings provide an approachable pathway to personal and collective well-being through effective and modern meditations based on traditional practices. She is a long-time Buddhist student, trained in both the Tibetan and Insight schools of Buddhism, who retreats regularly at Insight Meditation Society and a Certified Mindfulness Instructor. Kimberly teaches at many meditation centers, including The Rubin Museum, Mindful Astoria, New York Insight Meditation Center, and The Interdependence Project, and is a regular contributor to Tricycle, Lion’s Roar, and other publications. You can learn more about her and her work at meditationwithheart.com.