The Heart Breaks Open

Most of us have had our hearts broken, and sometimes we broke someone else's heart. Generally we're not that well equipped to have a compassionate relationship to bruised hearts. We feel helpless before someone else's pain. We feel clumsy. Sometimes we put on a feisty face, a hurt face, or a game "I don't care" face. We armor up. Now, there are many circumstances when armor is necessary. Exposing where we are wounded isn't always healthy. Surrendering our armor doesn't work that well until we are strong enough. There is such a thing as healthy denial. Spilling the beans prematurely can imbed trauma more deeply.

In working with post-traumatic stress disorders, or PTSD, most professionals now agree that going back into the memory of the horror that happened too soon can be damaging. It can re-traumatize. Rather than healing the trauma, the damage is burned deeper into the nervous system. Many veterans of war never reveal what they saw and went through. Retelling becomes re-experiencing, and the experience is just too much. But they have rich, rewarding, compassionate lives nevertheless.

Rarely is it wise to aggressively dissolve the guardians we have needed to protect our hearts. When we're too impatient and adamant, the heart just feels more threatened. Still, it takes energy to hide the heart. We don't always know when we're ready to bring our bruised heart out of its protective shadow. But our soul knows when, and something inside us begins to shift. The energy and desire that has been in limbo can then be returned to be available to our life force. The bruised part of our heart is very much part of the wholeness of our heart.

The tricky thing is that this shifting is for the most part uncomfortable. It requires a time for mourning.

There is a wonderful story told by the Benedictine monk and teacher, Brother David Steindl-Rast. He points out that if we can somehow manage to let our heart break all the way, our heart can break open. Brother David has a problem with nosebleeds. One winter that problem climaxed at Christmas Mass. Brother David is a Benedictine monk, and he wears white at services. At the perfect moment during Mass his nose just blasted open and he was a bloody mess. Afterwards, he visited a trusted friend to talk about what had happened. His friend said something like, "Brother David, I must say this. You stick your nose in a lot of things that break your heart. But you don't always know how to let your heart break, so your nose bleeds instead."

Brother David was honest in the telling of this story. He was not always able to yield to that degree, but those times he managed to let his heart break all the way, his nose did indeed stop bleeding.

I love this story. How many times when I am surprised by an incident and I fear my heart might break, do I reflexively go numb, or I get tense and tight, and I want to run? The story helps me to pause, to take a moment to let myself be disturbed without rushing into all the devices I use to avoid the moment: interpretation, thoughts of fixing or blaming, grasping for explanations of cause and effect, all these familiar things I can use to avoid the experience of what my heart actually needs the most-to cry cleanly.

Truthfully, I can't claim to know when it's best to allow my heart to break all the way, or when I would be better off to abide within my protective reflexes. I sometimes can't tell when I am not ready to surrender or if feeling too much would be damaging. But I have learned that there are indeed times when I get more value by letting myself feel the whole thing. So I gather myself and go into the storm. And I abide until the storm passes through, and I am left in a mysterious, unexpected, inexplicable, peace.

I've even found that sometimes what breaks my heart can in time open a gateway to becoming even more loving. In those times, by not running, grace catches me.

There is pain that is just part of having an open heart. This pain of the open heart is intrinsic to being connected, compassionate and accepting. But it's so very easy to create extra suffering on top of the already complex feelings that come with simple vulnerability. When we encounter something sad, the first reflex is to resist. We resist feeling helpless. We flounder. We feel trapped. We rush to have some sense of control. Our thoughts anxiously pursue causes, reasons and cures. But that anxious thinking can still just be our attempt to run from the straightforward experience of what we're going through-or what that person in front of us is going through.

When we manage to stop resisting this compassionate sadness, we experience a gentling and a softening, a willingness to be human and in the human condition. This sadness is more able to respond to the ache of loss and change with love and kindness. This sadness is more able to fall and still get up to continue with the steps of life. This sadness allows me to be loving even while I ache.

"There are no words that will comfort you," a wise person told a grieving man, "but I will sit here with you. I will be here for you. I will listen to you if you want to talk, and I will be quiet when you want to sit in silence. I am not afraid of your grief." - Jeanie Miley

Post by Woo Du-An

Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B. "The Price of Peace." Excerpted from talk given at Spirit of Peace Conference, Amsterdam, March, 1985. Reprinted at

Jeanie Miley. Sitting Strong: Wresting with an Ornery God. (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2006), 65.