Young Michael, the Hard-Hearted
“Michael, don’t harden your heart.” My grandmother was standing in the doorway of the little apartment that was her summer bungalow. I had stopped by to say hello. She could see I was frustrated and asked me why. Grammy listened quietly as I shared a few details about a difficult relationship.
Grammy was Christian, but she had stopped attending church before I was old enough to notice. Family, especially her grandchildren, was her focus. None of her children or grandchildren were church-goers. In my late teens, I was already a proud Buddhist. And while she was full of wise sayings, Grammy almost never shared an opinion about me personally. So when she did, her words carried weight. Looking back, I wonder if she saw callousness in the competitive young man standing in her doorway. Perhaps she had thought of sharing this wisdom before, and had simply found the right time.
The Bible Says
Some 40 years later, I have come to realize that much of the wisdom shared with me by my Grandmother came from the Bible. The admonition to not harden your heart is no exception. A Google search of scripture identifies over 45 instances where the phrase “harden your heart” (or something close to it) is used. The hardened heart is invulnerable, the proverbial heart of stone. But who would seek such a thing? Who wants to be an unfeeling person? At the same time, who wants to suffer? When we do suffer, we often resolve not to let ourselves be hurt again.
How to Harden Your Heart
In my experience, the temptation to harden the heart comes in many ways. When I am afraid or overwhelmed by how I feel, I find myself falling into habits that dull the sensitivity and depth of my experience. For me these reactions are ordinary and poignant. They include retreating to the depression of resentment, scarfing food that isn’t healthy, or stubbornly ignoring insight into my experience. In the name of relief, unhealthy habits bring their own suffering. They also leave me insensitive and therefore blinded to the experience of others.
A Heart Deceived
What does a hardened heart have to share? According to the Bible, a hardened heart is a deceiving heart. Deception begins at home. When we harden our heart we deceive ourselves. Naturally, what we share with others isn’t true. As I see it, the root deception here is not to recognize our own vulnerability and connection to each other and to our world. When we feel our own heart, deception is revealed as a missed opportunity.
The Courageous Heart
If we review the context in which “harden your heart” appears in the Good Book, it’s clear that hardening the heart is a step on the road to blindness. To turn away from our own or another’s suffering is to surrender our very pulse. But turning away also does something more. It traps us in an incomplete understanding. Wisdom is about being willing to look, being willing to see. But hardening our heart is about turning away. Looking the other way may feel safe, but it is the safety of ignorance. What is the heart revived? The heart with the courage to look.
The Head and The Heart
A “seeing heart” means that mind and body, intellect and intuition, head and heart are joined. The spiritual life is about this journey. Sometimes the challenge seems clear: just simply be who you are. In the discipline of meditation or centering prayer, this means letting go of where your thoughts and habits would take you and returning to the moment that is now. This very moment is where and when we celebrate our goodness, our innocence, or if you prefer, the divine.
Sometimes “now” is easier said than done. In my own experience, it helps to begin with small steps: slowing down, letting go of entertainment, and taking the time to self-reflect. And as I’m older, to accept and respect the pleasures, pains, life and limitations of my aging body.
The Wise Heart
Wisdom is a mysterious thing. Why do some words touch us and others leave us cold? For words to make sense, they have to reach a place that already knows or intuits what is being shared. How else is understanding possible? At the same time, it is the gift of wisdom and the love that it implies, that allows us to fully appreciate the insight which is already ours.
Grammy’s admonition was the gift of love. Love brings relaxation. It is in the awareness of love that the tension between “us and them,” “me and you,” melts. What happens when our heart is exposed? We don’t know. In meditation, we relax with this uncertainty, surrendering the demand for personal assurances. Relaxation helps us overcome the habits that would deaden us to the world. This is challenging work that sometimes requires encouragement. That’s where grandmothers come in.