"The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe."
— Joanna Macy
The moment I heard this sentence spill from the lips of a former mentor of mine, it immediately struck a chord. Like it was a sort of justification for my modus operandi as a deeply feeling and relentlessly vulnerable person. At that time, I interpreted it as referring to close or intimate relationships, indicating that if we give fully, love courageously, and show up with a vast openness, we by extension have an expanded capacity to notice, be present with and receive the intricate isness of the universe.
When the quote floated into my head today, as it does on occasion, I unexpectedly began to consider it in a new light. What if the grandeur of this statement didn't exclusively relegate it to grand situations? What would it look like if we approached our lives in each tiny moment of every passing day with a heart broken open?
I have a vivid memory of an exchange I had with my therapist in London many years ago, on a day that I was feeling particularly defeatist about...basically everything. Prompted by something that I had said that I can no longer recall, she asked me if I thought it didn't matter whether or not I smiled at bus drivers as I rode my way throughout the city. I huffed a dejected, "No, not really." She sat, visibly aghast, and proceeded to earnestly detail to me why these seemingly insignificant interactions really, truly matter.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. As I stood in line at a small, local cafe, I noticed that the cashier was this guy who a friend and I had encountered in the same spot back in December. His expression was ceaselessly stern, unfaltering as he engaged with customer after customer; my friend and I found this to be, for better or worse, absolutely hilarious. Seeing him again, that same surly expression, I laughed to myself as I recalled our failed efforts to banter with him that day. Approaching the register all on my own this time, I couldn't help but utter something benignly jokey about his deadpan schtick. His initial response was vaguely defensive, perhaps simply based in surprise, as he rattled off justifications for his demeanor. But as our back-and-forth grew, a fissure was struck and he eventually caved into a good handful of smiles.
There's nothing particularly remarkable about that story—having a genuine interaction with a stranger with whom you could have easily had a rote interaction instead. The remarkable bit is this: The following week, I returned to the cafe for a casual breakfast and card writing session (...because you can do that on a random Wednesday when you only work part-time). Halfway through my divinely comforting ghee drenched porridge, I felt a presence hovering nearby. "Hey"; I looked up and was surprised to find the guy from the register standing right in front of me. "You made me laugh last week," he said. "Uh...yeah, I did..." I mumbled, caught entirely off guard. "Thanks for that," he replied. He went on to say how easy it is to get caught up in the details and necessities of the job and consequently how important it is to be pulled out of that from time to time, to experience some levity and be reminded of his own and everyone else's humanness.
So yeah, apparently it does matter. And, needless to say, him coming up to thank me was definitely a highlight of my week.
A few days later, I attended a workshop about chakras, which are part of a fascinating energy system that I hesitate to oversimplify. For the purposes of this story, I'll quickly say that chakras are swirling energy centers in our bodies that filter physical and emotional energy. Each of the 7 main chakras reside in a specific anatomic location and are connected to particular qualities of being, i.e. creativity, material groundedness, communication, sense of purpose, sexual desire, and so on. They can be over-exerted, depleted or in balance at any given time.
The heart chakra, which resides at the thymus gland (a bit below your collarbone), is the home of love and compassion. It works with emotions and is the connector between our physical and spiritual selves. In detailing the actions we can take to tend to our heart chakra, our workshop instructor encouraged us to volunteer, take ourselves on a date and...wait for it...connect to strangers. I couldn't help but smile.
So what if a broken open heart simply means moving through the world with presence, compassion, and vulnerability to the wonder that resides in the details? What if it means showing up in each moment with a willingness to connect, or a belief in the possibility that you might encounter some everyday magic? What if a broken open heart is the courage to acknowledge the humanity of another being through the simple act of eye contact and a smile?
I don't have all the answers, but I think they're interesting questions to ask. It is so easy to move through our days with our attention turned inwards, caught up in our own dramas and stories and responsibilities, failing to be open and present to everything and everyone that simply is. But the fact of the matter is that we're all in this together, a seemingly disparate web of beings who, every damn day, collide. Maybe if we did so with broken open hearts, our collisions might be more rich, more playful, more surprising, more meaningful, more thoughtful and more beautifully human.