holding hands

In my personal life, I keep dancing around the concept of heart protection. Living an open-hearted life comes with so many gifts that it seems worth making the heart vulnerable. But how do we live open-hearted lives without being at risk of feeling hurt or disappointed all the time? Are we supposed to keep the heart open at all costs, knowing that getting hurt or disappointed is simply a side effect of living an open-hearted human life? Or are we meant to protect the heart exactly because it is so vulnerable without armor?

Most people aren’t capable of keeping the heart fully open. They build prisons around their hearts and make you earn your way in with tests of your trustworthiness. Even once you pass the tests, you find more walls, and this limits the capacity for depth and intimacy. Rachel Naomi Remen keeps reminding me that when someone rejects your love, they’re not rejecting YOU; they’re rejecting LOVE. Because most people have armor around their hearts, they can’t fully let love in, and if you’re offering them a blast of unfettered love, it may bump up against a fortress of solid metal. They simply don’t know how to let the love in, and because they can’t receive love, it’s very hard to find true compassion within.

Open Your Heart

Yet living an open-hearted life means that even when you get hurt, instead of judging people when they don’t behave the way you wish they would, you’re able to find in your heart a place of compassion. You’re able to open your heart to why they might be acting the way they do. Your heart expands when you shift your perception this way. It’s not that it hurts any less, but you’re able to understand.

Where I get stuck is with the issue of boundaries. Yes, it’s okay to protect yourself with boundaries. Otherwise, people can walk all over you. You can get emotionally wrecked. You can get physically hurt. It’s okay to say no. In fact, it’s imperative that you say no when you discern that no is the right choice. It’s okay to set limits. It’s okay to barrier against repetitive hurt. It’s even okay to walk out. You’re not there to get taken advantage of over and over and over. At some point, it’s self-loving to pull back. But where is that line? How do we live open-hearted lives, giving those we love permission to break our hearts, and still maintain healthy boundaries?

The One Thing That Links Compassionate People

I was deep in my own personal reflection around this issue when I was teaching the new class of doctors of the Whole Health Medicine Institute with Martha Beck this past weekend. Martha was talking about a study by Brené Brown who investigated exceptionally compassionate people to try to uncover what makes them so. Was it that they were raised in extraordinarily loving families? Were they more or less educated? Did they make a lot of money? Were they religious? What kinds of professions did they have?

Turns out that the one thing they all shared was exceptionally high boundaries. They walked around with wide open hearts, but only those who were invited in had access to those exceptionally compassionate hearts inside the high boundaries.  Martha concluded that, in order for doctors to fully embody the shamanic archetype and be true healers, only two things are necessary. The first- high boundaries. The second- finding what she calls your “sweet spot,” which allows you to be radically present. Finding this sweet spot requires stillness and, as Mary Oliver says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Finding Your Sweet Spot

As Martha was teaching this, she was dropping into that state of radical presence and entraining everybody else in the room. You could feel the energy. The room literally had a pulse, the heartbeat of the soul of the world. Her energy was infectious and we were all dropping into this sweet spot with her. I don’t doubt that we might have healed whatever walked into that room.

You don’t have to be a doctor to be a healing force in the world. Try it yourself today. Let go of your fear and anxiety and quiet the monkey mind. Open your heart, and invite in whoever you choose to invite in- but only allow in those who have your permission. Drop into that still point, find your sweet spot, and let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Keep your heart open- with appropriate boundaries- and from that centered, quiet, sweet place, go out into the world.

Practice Compassion

Notice the store clerk whose brow is furrowed because he’s worried how he’ll feed his family if he gets fired. Pay attention to the woman behind you in the coffee shop who is scared because they found a spot on her mammogram. Consider your friend, the one you’re angry at because she didn’t meet your expectations, and notice what might have caused her to disappoint you. Open your heart to that family member who doesn’t treat you the way you wish to be treated.

Play around with how to use boundaries not to keep love out but to allow your heart to love even more.  See what happens to those around you. How do people react at the grocery store? What happens on the schoolyard when you pick up the kids? How do others respond? How do you feel when you do this?

Try researching your ability to practice radical compassion and report back in the comments.

Researching with you,

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  1. polarbear4


  2. Richard

    Really good post! Thank you.

    Radical compassion is a risk. Radical compassion is the opportunity to approach your edge of vulnerability. Think of it as no risk – no reward.

    It is at the edge where life occurs, where growth happens, and “the soft animal of your being” thrives.

    Radical compassion invites us to live fearlessly from the core. It is from this core that heart wisdom rises.

    So, it is then that a Full life is one from the center to the circumference of being.

  3. Gordon Yumibe

    Thank you Lissa …this gives me another idea…I am giving a workshop on inner healing at the end of the month…it is about my work I have been doing for over a decade but this will be the first time I am going to talk about it and hold a healing circle…staying in the heart seems like the way I want to be tackling it…
    The title will be “The rainbow bridge…a healer ‘s gift…”

    Gordon Yumibe

  4. Kurt Wilkens

    Dear Lissa, Understand completely, Out of insurmountable pain, I had to completely let go. Locked on a long term psych floor in 1986 with the prospect of going to a state mental hospital I had to let go. Given inspiration to say what I know now is an affirmation or scientifically speaking a positive statement affecting neural plasticity, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. Also, practiced proper nutrition and aerobic exercise i.e. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Aerobics. I literally sailed out of that ward a free man in months with no symptoms and on no psych meds. One problem-did not forgive those who originally hurt me. That said, had remission for years. Psychiatry dismissed my recovery as “spontaneous remission”. In 2013 found myself in dire straits again, obsessive compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, obesity, prediabetes, sleep apnea, and high cholesterol. This time used Dr. Mark Hyman’s book Blood Sugar Solution, Ultra Mind Solution and affirmations again. Literally, within months on no meds for medical or psych descriptions and symptom free. And this time I forgave everyone for any and all real or perceived hurts done to me. Not going to visit those “places” again. Love is the only “illusion” that is not an illusion-Love IS Always, All the Best, Kurt E. Wilkens

  5. susan b

    Lissa, I recently took an online course at the Daily OM entitled: Break the Grip of Past Lovers by Jumana King-Harris I really wish she would change the title of her course as it cover sooo much more than breaking the grip of past loves. She covers neglect, power loss, betrayal, trust AND setting boundaries. I am learning to open my heart while protecting myself by setting healthy boundaries. I think it is a great adjunct to your discussion…..

  6. KDfrAZ

    Lissa, can you expand a bit on the high boundaries? I am looking around me, and the boundaries I see look about like those little fences you sometimes see around lawns. I think I need to know a bit more here! 🙂

    Thanks in advance.

  7. Emmeline Craig

    Lissa, a book you’ll totally love (don’t know if you saw my comment on FB a few days ago): Your Vibrant Heart . The kind of doctor you gonna like reading… 🙂 https://yourvibrantheart.com/

  8. Sally B. Sedgwick

    Lissa, I think this has even more to do with being afraid to be hurt. For years, I wasn’t willing to be happy (which I equate with love and an open heart)) because it would utilmately hurt. This sounds like the same thing. The examples you use also feel like the challenge of not briinging story into a situaltion and just reacting in the present. Again, maybe a different conversation, but related?

  9. Raven Dana

    Examples please. It’s one thing to say ‘use exceptional boundaries” but what does that mean, exactly? What does that look like? How does one create the kind of boundary that works to let love flow but keeps (? jerks?) out…What is radical about compassion if it is not extended to everyone…if it is only offered to only ‘those who are invited in’?

  10. 71945

    Lissa, you always make my day, but some times I do have to go in my closet to find out just what you said. You said what I was supposed to hear and it is my job to figure out what it means to me.

    I was inspired by the commenter Kurt who said it took total forgiveness of all former transgressors and transgressions and that helped me to understand that yes, I did find that this past year along with letting go of the stories of all the damage they did and what that has allowed for me is the possibility to experiment with where my heart boundaries are today.

    Thank you, for the encouragement to widen my boundaries, to set my ego aside, if only for a moment now and then, to see that another fellow human being has a greater need than my own.in the moment.

    It is a frightening path to walk and there are not many signs reassuring me that I have not lost my way and often my heart aches and asks what are you doing?

    I was taught to guard my heart on the path to recovery, now I find that I need to open it as wide as I can and the more I can open it, the more I find that the Universe provides all the protection I need. What a mystery!

    Thank you for much needed light and guidance.

  11. Annie lange

    I too have the question, what do high boundaries look like with, for example, your adult children that continue to struggle and puch back from attempts to connect. It is hurtful and I do want to be compassionate. These are kids with big trauma histories. (Russian adoption). Any thoughts? Annie

  12. Christina Haas

    I would not have thought high boundaries was an element of greater compassion. And yet it makes sense . . . I have struggled with boundaries most of my life. In the last month, I have been very focused on healing myself around this issue. One thing that seems to be working for me is with the symoblism of a fence. There are so many kids of fences, right? My fence is a quaint, white-picket fence with a gate and roses growing on it. It is a beautiful fence, like one you might see in a countryside painting. I can open and close the gate when I choose. I can still be in contact with people on the other side of it, but at my discretion and choosing. This image in my morning meditations has helped me shift a lot of “stuff” this past month. And it is cool to think the stronger boundaries I am developing will actually help me become more compassionate! I love that! Thanks for this post.

  13. Kenneth Andert

    I appreciate your willingness to openly ponder some of the essential elements to this lifestream we all must find a way to embrace. I wonder if we are really discussing the flow of energy, or lack of it. And, the interplay of mind and heart?
    The heart has it’s own intelligence and, when trusted, intuitively negotiates the world outside of it. The mind, ego, generally interferes with what would be an organic process if left alone. There is only love and fear, and fear being a product of the ego, isn’t real.

  14. Elizabeth Scala

    I was interviewing a woman named Candace ‘Candy’ Campbell today. She does a Florence Nightingale impersonation. That was really who I was interviewing. The thing she said that touched my heart was when we approach a patient the best thing we can do to establish trust and rapport is to be vulnerable. It’s about being a human being. Sharing our heart, our love so that our patient can feel safe and cared for. This, to me, is what open-hearted compassion is. Being OK enough with the self to feel open enough to share the heart. Being vulnerable is hard, heck I can’t do it all of the time… yet. Thanks for another great post!

  15. Julie Andrea Borders

    I resonate w/your points & suggestions. I also choose to think of myself as similar to the cheerleader character Claire from that series “Heroes” (see link https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9r6J5nAj_gs, show returning 2 NBC in 2015!). She could fall from a crazy heights, walk thru fire, stick her hand in a disposal, and her bod would magically heal itself in seconds, kind of like cyborg Arnold in Terminator. I reason that both pain AND pleasure come w/being open-hearted and could be considered simply balancing. Your emphasis on focusing on another’s pain as a way to profoundly connect is key, as is not so quickly being offended by perceived slights, understanding that it’s not about me, but rather about the other person’s (misguided?) defense/coping mechanisms. I consider that I could provide another w/a safe, loving space to be heard, held, where they can heal themselves to wholeness. I am honored to provide such sanctuary, delighted to behold the miracle of self-love & healing unfolding. This yoga pose is known as Wild Thing’ and is all about being open-hearted; it’s my fave, discovered only last year, though I’ve practiced yoga since the mid-90s. I suppose when this student was ready, the teacher appeared! Namaste!

  16. mellowyellow

    This is brilliant! Thank you.


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