Mount Shasta at dawn.
Take a moment and do a little exercise with me, if you feel inspired to do so.
Consider someone you really loved and lost. Remember the feel of that person, the joy he or she evoked in you. Pull up a memory of how you felt when you were together. Then find the memory of how it felt to feel them slipping away from you. Maybe a beloved parent or child or spouse died. Maybe you finally met the love of your life, but he couldn’t stay in the presence of such intense intimacy, and he left. Find the grief of losing that person. Really feel it. Locate it in your body. Feel where you contract, the intense pain of the loss. Do you feel it?
Now let’s switch gears. Find a memory of an encounter you had with magnificent beauty—the mountain just coming into view at daybreak, the cheetah that saunters into your awareness like a courtesan on your African safari, the whale that breeches right in front of you and smacks his tail, causing great ripples across the ocean, the sight of Machu Picchu at dawn. Think of something magical that happened in your life, something you can’t quite explain with your rational mind. Locate the feeling you have when you discover that plants can actually sing when you hook them up to synthesizers, suggesting that plants really are conscious beings. Feel what you feel when you realize that someone telepathically connected to you in order to meet your needs. Take in what it really means when you listen to Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer tell the story of how she found her daughter’s harp. Or try to digest the near death experiences of Proof of Heaven author and neurosurgeon Eben Alexander or Dying to Be Me author Anita Moorjani. Let yourself really take in what it means that you can learn how to bend spoons by becoming One with them or that you can call in the animals by telepathically communicating with them and seeing if they want to “play.” Allow yourself to digest what it means when inexplicable cures happen. Let yourself feel what you feel when you stand over your children at night when they’re sleeping or when you look deeply into your lover’s eyes and see God looking back at you.
Find the feeling of deep, sustaining awe that arises when you are in the presence of extreme beauty. Feel what happens in your body when you are in the presence of an extraordinary mystery. Let yourself fully feel the love you feel for those you care about. Take those feelings in. Let them abide in you. See if you can find the feeling of deep gratitude that we live in a Universe filled with so much beauty and mystery. See if you can locate the feeling of being so lucky to be alive, so intensely appreciative of the people you love, the nature that surrounds you, and the Divine who blesses you with miraculous moments.
Two Encounters of the Heart
If you really dove into the intensity of these two exercises, you just experienced two encounters of the heart. One arises from heartbreak, and the other emerges in the presence of awe and mystery. Both heartbreak and awe open the heart. Both can break you open and let more light in.
A lot of my heart opening has come in the form of heartbreak, but I have also experienced the intense heart opening that accompanies wondrous awe and the presence of mystery. Yesterday morning, I awoke with one of those inner knowings that seems to drop in from elsewhere. My first thought of the day was “When the heart is ready to open, it will call in whatever it takes to open itself. You can open the heart by attracting more heartbreak, or you can choose the other route and attract in more awe, wonder, and mystery.”
That landed on me hard. What if we have a choice? If the heart’s goal is to open at all costs, what if we can accomplish the heart’s mission by calling in more beauty, mystery, and awe? What if we will need less heartbreak if the heart is already opening through the magic of gratitude and appreciation? I’m not suggesting some sort of prescription for avoiding adversity. As Elizabeth Lesser writes in Broken Open, “Adversity is a natural part of being human. It is the height of arrogance to prescribe a moral code or health regime or spiritual practice as an amulet to keep things from falling apart. Things do fall apart. It is in their nature to do so. When we try to protect ourselves from the inevitability of change, we are not listening to the soul. We are listening to our fear of life and death, our lack of faith, our smaller ego’s will to prevail. To listen to your soul is to stop fighting with life—to stop fighting when things fall apart; when they don’t go our away, when we get sick, when we are betrayed or mistreated or misunderstood. To listen to the soul is to slow down, to feel deeply, to see ourselves clearly, to surrender to discomfort and uncertainty and to wait.”
Heartbreak is inevitable. We can’t avoid it, no matter how “spiritual” we are. As Leonard Cohen writes, “Ring the bells that still can ring; Forget your perfect offering; There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.” But if the hearts goal is to open, what if we can somehow diminish the amount of heartbreak we experience in this lifetime by focusing our attention on opening the heart through experiences of beauty, mystery, and awe?
How to Feel More Awe: The 3 Question Journal
Let me share with you a tool I learned 7 years ago from Rachel Naomi Remen, who learned it from Angeles Arrien. In her blog post “Growing New Eyes,” Rachel describes The 3 Question Journal this way:
All you need is a journal and a quiet place to reflect where you will not be disturbed for 10 or 15 minutes. Personally I like doing this after dinner.
What you do is simple. Just sit quietly and slowly review your day BACKWARDS, starting in the present moment and watching in your mind’s eye a sort of “day video” that runs from the present moment towards the morning. Recall your activities and meetings, the people you spoke to, the things you saw and the people you passed on your way to somewhere else. You get to do this review three times, each time asking yourself a new question.
So start by slowly reviewing your day backwards, moving from the present moment towards the morning and asking yourself the first question: WHAT SURPRISED ME TODAY? As soon as you find ANYTHING AT ALL that surprised you, stop your review and write about it briefly in your journal.
Then slowly review your day backwards again, moving from the present moment towards the morning. This time ask yourself the second question: WHAT TOUCHED MY HEART TODAY? As soon as you find ANYTHING AT ALL that touched your heart, stop your review and write about it briefly in your journal.
Then slowly review your day backwards for the last time, moving from the present moment towards the morning. This time ask yourself the third question: WHAT INSPIRED ME TODAY? As soon as you find ANYTHING AT ALL that inspired you, stop your review and write about it briefly in your journal. Then put your journal away until tomorrow.
Doing this simple thing every day builds your capacity to be surprised or touched or inspired by small things. So the trick here is to write down THE FIRST THING YOU COME TO that answers the question for you and not to look for the most surprising or most touching or most inspiring thing that happened in your day. And this is important: DO NOT BECOME DISCOURAGED!! Many people find that for a little while the answers to all three questions are exactly same: NOTHING, NOTHING and NOTHING.
But then a magical thing starts to happen. At first, people begin to notice things that completely passed them by as they were living through their day. Little things, then bigger and bigger things. As Tony says, “In the beginning I could only see and appreciate things 6 hours after they happened. It was like being under a spell. I could only really see my life when I was looking backwards over my shoulder.” Lots of people experience this same thing. But as people begin to grow new eyes, this time gap starts to close and eventually they become surprised and touched and inspired in the very moment their lives are actually happening to them. And then, of course, everything changes.
What Touched Your Heart?
So I ask you, dear friend, what surprised you today? What touched your heart? What inspired you? Share your stories of surprise, awe, mystery, and inspiration with us in the comments.
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