For how many moments of your life is your heart present? Do you do things in a “half-hearted” way? Do you agree to do something, knowing that your “heart isn’t in it”? We use expressions like this to describe lack of enthusiasm, but they are really just another way of describing an absence of mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, described in an interview the Chinese ideogram for the word mindfulness. He said it is made up of the character for presence, combined with the character for heart. In essence , mindfulness means presence of heart. By cultivating a quality of presence, he says, we inhabit our true selves and are more able to uncover our sense of compassion.
I’ve spent the past few days reading a book called The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. It is a novel about separation and grief, loneliness and misunderstanding, freedom and imprisonment. It contains a beautiful passage that, to me, perfectly describes mindfulness:
“When she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way, but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth, and also felt very grown up, rife with compassion.”
Is mindfulness necessary for compassion to exist? Are we able to feel deep sympathy for someone else, and to care about ending their suffering, if we don’t have the ability to pay attention and be present to what they are feeling? The character in the book realizes in moments of mindfulness at work that she has attained a greater capacity to feel, that there is a spaciousness in her heart that wasn’t there before.
I’m also reminded of Like Water for Chocolate, in which all of the emotions of the character Tita become contained in the food she prepares, so that when people eat the food, they immediately feel what she feels — sadness, joy, pain. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the magic; there is something to learn from the idea that our work can contain some essential part of ourselves and that others can use their senses (taste, in this instance) to feel the emotion and presence that we put into it.
If we tune in to what our senses are telling us, really tune in, what can we learn? Whether it’s the expression on someone’s face, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of someone’s perfume, the taste of just-baked cookies, or the touch of a dog’s nose on my arm — engaging with my whole heart in that moment can help me understand what someone else feels, what is happening in my world, or just how much love can be contained in a batch of cookies. And that sense of understanding can open doors in the mind.
Our brains are plastic; we can change them if we desire. The work of Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists has shown that if we train ourselves in mindfulness, we can hone skills that help us experience more happiness and compassion. But this isn’t something minor that just makes me or you happy on an individual level. The more we “widen our circle of compassion” as Einstein said, the more chance there is for harmony and peace in the world.
Our brains are plastic, but in order for them to expand, our hearts need to be present. So think about it — can you bring your whole heart to more of what you do every day?