Updated: Dec 22, 2022
By Jenni de Jong,
I Start Wondering Columnist
The importance of opening our hearts is a perennial topic in music, books, and movies. This topic seems to emerge most often in December when “A Christmas Carol” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” show the transformation that can happen from a heart that is three sizes too small to a wide-open vessel of Christmas cheer.
As busy women, if we stop to watch these Christmas classics with a child, we might feel a tug of resonance with the message about the gifts that an open heart brings us. But often we are just grateful for a few quiet moments in our day, and that’s all we can appreciate.
The Strength of the Open Heart
How does a heart become closed? Perhaps it’s because the concept of opening the heart brings up connotations of being “syrupy” and is synonymous with emotions—and usually of being overly emotional, especially when referring to women. And this whole idea of the sentimentality of an open heart has made us second guess if we really want that. After all, we’ve spent generations fighting to be equals. Frankly, being open-hearted can sound very weak in our society. Intelligence is given top priority, and our brains are kings, leaving any kind of relationship with the heart as an afterthought.
We also might have experienced deep heartbreak in our past, which led us to build a fortress of protection around our hearts. Most of us are walking around with these scars buried in our subconscious and we do not realize that our actions and reactions are being driven by fear and the desire to protect the heart. Sometimes, this barrier is so entrenched that just the thought of opening the heart sounds scary and extremely vulnerable.
Yet all this posturing to protect ourselves may be doing us more harm than good. Science has shown how stress and anxiety have a significant impact on our health, including common problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, headaches, depression, and gastrointestinal problems.
But what if opening the heart has more to do with strength than weakness? Have you considered that the heart could be a thinking, feeling entity that is capable of more than sentimentality?
Maybe it’s time to re-frame our relationship with our heart to see it from a new vantage point. One organization is doing just that. For more than 25 years, HeartMath Institute has been at the forefront of scientific research in demonstrating the importance of cultivating our hearts at least as much--if not more--as we cultivate our brains. HeartMath explains the heart-brain connection in this way:
“Most of us have been taught in school that the heart is constantly responding to ‘orders’ sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not commonly known that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.”
The HeartMath Institute notes that emotional stress–such as anger, frustration, and anxiety–gives rise to incoherent heart rhythm patterns that appear irregular and erratic. These patterns cause our body to operate inefficiently, which depletes our energy and produces extra wear and tear on our whole system.
In contrast, positive emotions send a very different signal throughout our bodies. Appreciation, joy, care, and love create highly ordered heart rhythm patterns, called a coherent heart rhythm. Our nervous system operates with increased efficiency and harmony, allowing our body’s systems to synchronize and work better.
How do we cultivate these more joyful and peaceful states that characterize an open heart and greatly benefit the functioning of our bodies? It involves cultivating the discipline to interrupt the programmed reactions we are accustomed to and choose a more peaceful response.
Here are a few conscious steps we can take to create a connection with our hearts and enjoy the beauty of living from a place of open-heartedness:
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Consciously connected diaphragmatic breathing sends a signal to our body to shift from the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system that is characterized by shallow breaths from the chest into the parasympathetic “rest, digest, and repair” system and its deep breathing from the belly.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes we need to get stuff done and our sympathetic nervous system can be of great help. But when the stressor ends, we need to be able to rest and repair, which is the job of the parasympathetic nervous system.
But we’ve lost the ability to shift between nervous systems during these stressful times easily. As a result, our bodies are constantly flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, which triggers high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. This also has the effect of closing us off from our hearts.
Diaphragmatic breathing--breathing deeply from our bellies--triggers our bodies to shift into rest and repair, which slows our heart rate, normalizes blood pressure, and calms us down. Additionally, connecting to our breath brings us into the present moment, where we can more easily connect with our hearts and experience peace and joy. In turn, we are better able to extend compassion and connection to others, which is a hallmark of an open heart.
2. Identifying Triggers
We can get so accustomed to our normal reactions to life that we don’t stop to question them or identify some of the negative thought patterns that we have cultivated. Just look to Scrooge to see how negative thoughts and actions impact our lives. Not only was he miserable without knowing it, but he also made everyone around him miserable as well. Even his posture demonstrated a closed-off heart, as he slumped over and drew in his chest.
Maybe we aren’t overtly like Scrooge, but those pesky habits of negative thoughts have the ability to close us off from our hearts. One of the clues to excavating these patterns of thought lurking in the darkness of our minds is to observe how we get triggered. Triggers are any situations or people that cause us to internally react in fear, anger, or grief.
The most common way we deal with a trigger is to blame something or someone for the way we feel. But, in fact, triggers are actually our own internal GPS alerting us to an area that we need to examine. It’s our own stuff, not someone else’s.
If we can soften internally just enough to notice when we are having a reaction, we begin to change how we engage with life. As we continue to practice noticing when we get triggered, we might find ourselves choosing to offer love instead of fear, anger, or grief. And as we choose to love more and more, our hearts begin to unfold from tightness and restriction to a beautiful blooming flower – just like the transformation of Scrooge on Christmas morning.
3. Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
In the quest of opening the heart, the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself can be an extremely profound practice. But many times, our hearts get closed off because we find ourselves angry or impatient with other people.
What if we were to choose differently and consider others’ situations rather than simply how things affect us? What if we were to start to wonder what is happening in the life of that person who is rushing down the highway and suddenly pulls in front of us? And when we start to consider what hurts and pain might be driving their reactions, it can transport us straight into compassion. The heart starts to soften as you consider what someone else might be going through, and we more easily release our own small-minded view.
This is not always easy. In fact, it can be one of the hardest things to do, especially when we feel attacked by someone else. However, putting ourselves in another’s position is a profound way of loving our neighbor as ourselves. And wouldn’t we want someone else to extend this grace when we find ourselves in the middle of turmoil and behaving in ways we would prefer not to?
Most of the time we spend interacting with the outer world without paying attention to the world inside us--that world where our heart resides. We lash out in anger when someone says something we disagree with, not stopping to question or wonder why we reacted so strongly. Self-justifying, holding accounts, and resentments all serve to keep us in negative states, completely unaware of how automatic and controlling these states can be. These negative states keep us separated from the heart.
Meditation can be a gateway for us to first observe, and then begin to quiet the constant stream of thoughts running through our minds all the time. This practice quiets both the mind and body so we can begin to become aware of our internal landscape.
There are many different forms and types of meditation practices. The key is to find one that resonates for you and make it a daily practice. One of my favorite practices is called Centering Prayer. Before starting the meditation, pick a word that you can come back to while you are practicing. It can be any word—release, love, peace, or a short phrase-- that brings you back to the aim of becoming still inside.
Centering prayer involves sitting in a chair or on a cushion for 20 minutes while observing thoughts that come and go. The discipline is to become aware of when a thought enters your mind and then replace the thought with your word or phrase. It’s that simple, and also that difficult, because you start to realize just how many zillions of thoughts try to take over your inner landscape at any given moment.
Please don’t feel like you have to be a Master Yogi, sitting completely motionless for an hour to start to feel the benefits of regular mediation practice. Research has shown that simply sitting for a 10-minute meditation each day can have a positive effect on our physical bodies, including normalizing blood pressure, reducing stress and anxiety, and improving heart health, attention, and clarity of thinking. Insight Timer is a wonderful app that has many meditation options you can explore to find just the right fit for you.
Developing a relationship with your heart can be a new and rewarding adventure. The ideas presented here can help you start the journey if this is a new idea for you. And once you start, you’ll find that these simple but profound practices will deepen your communication with your heart. You may find as you set your intention to connect with your heart that you are guided to other ways of practicing as well. Listen, because the heart is beautifully adept at showing us how to sink into this joyful, peaceful place inside us once we quiet ourselves enough to hear its voice. Then commit to following through with what it has to say. As with any relationship, your interactions with your heart take time and care--including a dose of discipline when we find ourselves pulled too far into the outer world. But the effort is worth it in the end because the world of the heart is a rich and rewarding place of profound transformation.