One of the dangers of practicing yoga is opening oneself up, becoming vulnerable and susceptible to too much love. How can one possibly have too much love? A good question. Technically, I don’t think you can. I think the more love you allow yourself to feel and freely give, the better. The continued and sustained practice of yoga allows us to see ourselves and our larger journey in each moment.
In so doing, we are more easily able to forgive ourselves–this life is a long one and a much more fulfilling one if we allow ourselves leeway to make mistakes, to be selfish on occasion and, temporarily, to become blinded and distracted by shiny objects along the way. Allowing ourselves this space makes us more compassionate and more forgiving of others’ so-called failings. If we can see the light in ourselves, even when at our worst, we cannot help but see it in others, even if we’re offended by their behavior. After all, everyone reacts differently to fear.
So that’s the upside of opening the heart through yoga and mindfulness. However, it is possible to be too open and this is the state I mean to address. An open, compassionate heart is a wonderful asset to a fulfilled life, but if you’re not protecting yourself at all, if you’re walking around that exposed, then it’s too easy to be hurt and to become disillusioned.
Think of it this way: have you ever stubbed your toe? I’m talking screaming-out-loud-pulling-out-every-evil-word-in-the-English-language type of stubbing. Yes? Then you’ll know how paranoid you get about hitting that toe again, that you walk around eyeing every piece of rogue furniture in the house, every crack in the sidewalk, paranoid and closed off. Inevitably, because you’re focusing so forcefully on the vulnerability of that toe, you hit it again.
Conversely, if you had taken the proper precautions–bundled it up mindfully so that if it did receive another bump it could survive more or less no worse for wear–you wouldn’t have spent those last few days walking around wreathed in fear.
The heart is the same way. For example, I heard this story on NPR today about polar bears, their disappearing habitat, and what can be done to save them, if anything. Before I knew it, I found myself in despair, thinking about the polar bears, imagining how frightening it must be to have one’s familiar landscape disappear, to wonder how to feed oneself and one’s children and on and on. I was left, not with a feeling of hope that people are out there working on the problem, but feeling that I alone had to get out there and solve the polar bear crisis because nothing should be allowed to suffer. It just hurts too much to be so helpless.
And then I stopped. Sadly, this issue doesn’t end with polar bears. Hundreds of species face extinction. I can’t go out and save them all personally–though that’s what my heart wants. No, there’s a difference between having an open heart and allowing that heart to break every time you can’t make a substantial difference in the life of something or someone you love. Instead, it’s important to allow that empathy to trigger us, to inspire us.
Yes, it’s painful. Yes, there is so much to do, but the question is where to start? The key is not to lose yourself in (let’s be honest) a selfish expression of pity, as heartfelt as it may be, but to use that pain and that love to move you to action. So, what can I do about polar bears? Well, I can make a donation to the World Wildlife Fund. I can write letters. I can pray to the universe. I can meditate. Does this make the polar bears’ plight less painful? No, not really. But it’s not an obsessive, fathomless despair, either. Despair is the result of love without action; when we can apply action to a situation, to a cause, something clicks in our hearts. We feel no less love, but we do feel more control. As any teenager can tell you, uncontrolled love is nothing if not exhausting and all-consuming.
So, yes. Practice yoga. Open your heart. Feel love and feel pain–but don’t allow that pain to close your heart. There is so much love needed in this world; love spurs us to act. Action, in any size and in any quantity, is the only thing that has ever changed anything.
(you can read the newer, edited version of this article over at that fabulous publication, elephant journal)