Opening to the thorny parts of life, a sunset, and thoughts of William and Becky

Hug Me, Simona Ciraolo
Simona is a Sardinian born author and illustrator who studied animation in Turin, Italy. Simona's shop. Find her on Tumblr. Hug Me is a children's book celebrating connection and inner softness. Image via Brain Pickings

This morning I read about how to live with endless inspiration and love. The message: Live open-heartedly. Simply allow life experiences to come in and pass through your being (Michael Singer).

Let experience come in and pass through? 

Yes. For example, when I'm walking to Le Celle (I'm in Cortona, Italy), I pass hundreds of olive trees. Those trees don't stick to my thoughts. I don't begin to judge the tree's leaves as needing to be another color or its branches as less crooked or whether there will be enough olives in my pasta tonight. I walk by and see the tree, take it in, let go, and see the next one. No issues. Same with the wildflowers I pass. I don't worry that crocus stamens are too delicate.

I see and let go so that I'm aware for the next moment.

Well, I decide that today I'll practice letting all of my experiences come in and pass through. I'll go with the flow. No problema.

So it's late afternoon and I decide to walk to the university to read email and write. As I head up the hill, I feel pink light envelope me. I turn and look.

Oh my.

Close your eyes and imagine this experience.

Bring forth from your memory the most spectacular sunset of your life. Think big sky with tangerine-oranges and pinks gradating to reds, magenta, indigo, and violet. Above that color, place patches of cerulean blues.

Next, place an expansive valley of terraced olive groves and vineyards with mountains in the distance. Highlight the mountainous silhouette in yellow-white light.

Then saturate those colors, all of them. Deeply.

I put my book bag on the ground, and walk to the waist-high Etruscan wall, lean on the edge, and gaze longer at the sunset. My breath grows deep and slows. 

I know enough about the science of sunsets that right now I'm only seeing a fraction of its stunning breadth. I’m struck that color is not permanent: the sunlight hitting me now is leftovers from the west, perhaps even yesterday's Florida or Houston sky.

Which reminds me that everything is connected. I take that in.

Moments pass.

A large bat flies by.

The bat circles in a bug feast. Loop de loop, again and again—bat as a child with a flashlight drawing lines.

I take in the experience.

I remember what I read this morning about keeping an open heart. I think, if I can be this open, and oh my goodness, my heart feels flung wide, then maybe I can be this open in any moment in any experience. All I have to do is what this sunset invites: open, relax my heart, and breathe. Let feelings in. Let thoughts come and pass.

That's it.

Okay. Now I'm where I want to be in telling you what happened after I had this wonderful sunset experience.

Well…I notice that I have an itsy bit of arrogance about how well I'm doing. Maybe it's not teeny. No, it's full-blown. Like, "Hey I've got this open-heart thing down, check this off my list."

Which is usually a sign that I'm going to get a chance to grow.

So I get to the university (and WiFi) and open my email.

The first message includes a video of the youngest member of our family and his brother who I see can now swim. I feel like I'm missing out and start randomly trading, well everything, for a chance to hug those two bundles. The next message includes a photo of seven of our grandkids dressed up, and longing joins my missing-family feeling. Then a message from a loved one, and all of a sudden a lump of homesickness saddles up and canters into my heart.

I breathe and feelings swirl, settle for a while, and pass.

But then this.

I read an email from my dear friend and yoga teacher, Becky. She and her husband, William, are at MD Anderson Center where he continues treatment for a serious illness and she continues to care for him.

There you go. Now there's something to work with.

A little humility creeps in. Life isn't always a magenta sunset.

Thoughts and feelings about illness and caregiving don't pass through easily.

I know: I have cancer and I've cared for my husband through two cancer diagnoses, one late-stage. So I'm intrigued about how to stay open.

After reading Becky's message, I'm wondering about this morning's reading and thinking about softening and opening to the thorny parts of life. Is the practice of opening my heart when life is tough really the same as my experience of watching the sunset?

Yes. Every book I've read and teacher I've listened to says yes.

It's painful. (Sometimes it's impossible for me to open.) And I realize that I often read teachings and think practicing what I read is easy. I sometimes even think I should…you fill in the blank. I should be able to do or think or feel or let go and let it all pass. But softening and opening is grueling work.

I have a tender memory of a young woman standing in line at a Pema Chödrön retreat. Pema had just finished talking about softening instead of hardening when things fall apart. She suggested that we sit with our pain: "Let your thoughts and feelings come and go."

So, it's this gal's turn. She goes to the microphone and says, "Pema, but what if a person is really ill, even dying? How does someone open to that? How do I open to watching this person suffer?"

I remember Pema's answer. And her face.

Pema sat for over a minute. She looked out at the woman. She blinked slowly. She swallowed, looked down, swallowed again and looked up and into the woman's eyes. I could see Pema breathe and soften, and I could see that it was painful to answer. Clearly, Pema had personal experience with this question.

In a whisper of a voice she said, "It takes a lot of courage."

Just remembering this and typing it now makes me cry.

My cancer is stable. I'm well. My husband is cured of his two cancers. But William and Becky, and too many others, are actively practicing softening their hearts to extreme challenge.



So I want to hold up and acknowledge the courageous heart that opens to deep pain and fear.

If I were to imagine the color of this type of courage, you know, what a heart of such softness and strength might look like, it probably would appear as the grandeur of that most-beautiful-ever-sunset I saw tonight.