Keeping a Warm Heart in a Cold World
Jan 30, 2014 01:49AM
By By Jonathan Baxter
It takes a strong heart to live in this world. Disturbing incidents like school shootings and other violent crimes are all too common. Politicians and pundits take to the airwaves to stir up emotions on hot-button issues, and the internet brings images of natural disasters from around the world to everyone’s desktop and mobile phone. Even day-to-day life brings plenty of fodder for emotional reactivity. Rumors about layoffs at work raise anxiety; a loved one’s health concern brings a sense of powerlessness; even positive events, like holiday gatherings or a new job promotion, deliver an emotional jolt.
All this turmoil can leave a person feeling emotionally drained and worn out, constantly feeling pity for those in the wake of disaster or worry for those at risk. Or it can push people in the other direction, toward a hardening of the heart, a clamping down on emotions and a turning away from caring. Fortunately, there is another option, though it is not widely recognized. Emotional strength can be trained and cultivated, and with practice, one can learn to maintain a warm-hearted stance even in the face of overwhelming emotional events.
There are several requirements for developing warm-heartedness as an alternative to being soft-hearted (too easily ungrounded by emotional events) or hard-hearted (unfeeling and uncaring). First, the practice of warm-heartedness requires a sense of safety, both physical and emotional. This safety might be accessible within a family, between friends or available in a spiritual community or classroom. It may need to come from the support of a professional counselor or another kind of healer, but whatever the source, safety creates the opportunity to open the heart in a new way.
Second, warm-heartedness requires the ability to both focus and expand one’s attention. Keeping a warm heart means paying attention to one’s own experience as well as to the experience of others. In a society that loves multitasking, a singular focus is not always easy to accomplish, but distraction is the enemy. Warm-heartedness demands attention to the ever-changing present in the same way that listening to a song demands paying attention to the unfolding melody.
Third, warm-heartedness requires acceptance or a willingness to let go of control. The practice involves accurately recognizing the limits of one’s own ability to make change in the world. Insisting that others behave in a certain way is a sure formula for slipping out of warm-heartedness. Keeping a warm heart means having the faith to let go of the illusion of control.
All of this emotional work takes time and energy, just like learning any other skill, but the rewards can be life-changing. From a warm-hearted stance, relationships become pleasure, play, and teamwork, instead of competition and conflict. With a warm heart, a person is free to be creative and intuitive, to see new opportunities rather than fighting off unwanted experience.
Warm-heartedness leads to clarity of action, because fewer resources are dedicated to worrying about things that are out of one’s control. Instead of pity, the warm-hearted person offers support. Instead of frustration, he feels acceptance. The warm-hearted person sets limits with everyone’s best interest in mind rather than cutting people off out of defensiveness or anger. With a warm heart, the beauty of the world is apparent, even in the midst of struggle.
Jonathan Baxter, MA, MS, LMHC, is a psychotherapist, couples counselor and consultant based in Lexington. For more information, visit JonathanBaxter.com or call 617-306-0264.