The Liberated Heart

by Bridget Mair

Last mid-January found me at a weekend seminar in the beautiful rural setting of the Servite Priory, along the banks of the River Blackwater in Benburb, Co. Tyrone. I had been drawn there strongly, yet solely by the title “The Liberated Heart”. I knew little of Joyce Rupp, the American woman facilitating the weekend, apart from random stumblings across quotations of her writings and poetry from time to time.

Increasingly, as the years have passed the essence of my personal journey, both who I am and what I do, including my work as a psychotherapist, could be expressed in terms of becoming more internally free, of opening my heart more fully to myself and to the world. It seems all that matters and it seems all else follows, yet shedding the skins which I no longer need always has fear as an accompaniment.

Though not always named as such, I have yet to meet a client who didn’t desire authentic personal liberation, not only from addictions or unhealthy behaviour or relationships, but in the deeper sense of self-acceptance. Of course, this life long process of transformation is not easy and not for the faint-hearted. When we open our hearts from the inside, it can get very scary for a while. Confusion and doubt set in; we meet our own weaknesses head on; we discover unexpected twists and bumps and obstacles on the path. With faithfulness to this inner journey, however, we also discover our gifts and giftedness and the awesome uniqueness of our being. With faithfulness, we become more liberated and whole.

This weekend, shared with around a hundred others from all over Ireland, held many enchanting experiences. Even the landscape colluded in the magic, with dense white early morning fog slowly rising to reveal the skeletal trees of the winter landscape. Circling one of these trees, a carpet of dazzling golden yellow winter aconite had made it through the carpet of dead leaves to cast their spell. Moon moments were experienced as a full moon enfolded Benburb with its moonlight.

I came home from that weekend feeling nourished, replenished and connected in a way that surprised me. I had been liberated some more and it wasn’t hard work, as was often customary. I hadn’t been on a war footing with myself, in my efforts to change or heal or transform. All I did was to turn up there, quietly open to receiving. I had much to ponder about personal inner freedom and its symbiotic relationship with a greater compassion and connection with the world beyond self. It also highlighted for me anew the penetrative and transformative power of the words and images of poetry, which can draw us into that inner experience of illuminating silence.

As the year advanced, liberation, the word and concept, fuelled the passions and engaged the minds and hearts of millions around the world. It brought intense debate and action in city streets. Nothing disturbs the world’s collective energy as war does; nothing affects the mind, body, spirit and soul of humankind as war does. Its killing of the innocent, its trail of pain and suffering, cruelty and loss toll mournfully in our inner most cores and the scale of it numbs our minds.

Of course the atrocities and misery endured by people in bondage also resonates deeply within us. We have some personal understanding and can identify with the paralysis of abuse, torture, fear and the resultant disempowerment even when it doesn’t hold centre position on the world’s stage as in the Liberation of Iraq war.

Commonly our response is a feeling of powerlessness and its bedfellow hopelessness. We know and experience it at a safe and polite distance but it doesn’t engender much action on our part, as a quick glance around the globe reveals. We are often people of reaction rather than action. We know well what we are against but we’re often less sure of what we are for. And what form would our action assume anyway? It’s all so overwhelming at times.

War, as a means to liberation in our external world is all too familiar. But what does it mirror about our individual inner lives? What is it telling us about our own places of bondage, our imprisoned hearts where the lost fragments of ourselves are pining to be set free and re-connected with our true selves. More importantly, is there another route to inner freedom other than being at war with ourselves; a war of angry denial and exhausting driving, striving and over-riding of our true selves.

As psychotherapists, we know the theories and are familiar with the territory of where out vital healthy power and empowerment are to be found or perhaps more correctly, we have a map and a compass for the journey. It is against this backdrop of the year that I was moved to share a few of the thoughts, words and reminders that I had feasted on at Joyce’s banquet back in Benburb as the year opened. No matter how familiar we are with map reading, words of encouragement and support are always helpful when the heart gets weary and the road seems long.

There is no freedom
like seeing myself as I am.
There is no freedom
like looking at myself as I am
and saying “yes that’s me!”
There is no freedom
like taking myself in my arms.
Only in that embrace
will I understand my wounds.
Only in that embrace
will I experience healing.
Only in that embrace 
will I come to know my true self.
(Macrina Wiederkehr, 1991: 12)

This is an invitation to go a little deeper. There may be little new in what I’m saying but perhaps you’ll hear something afresh that will resonate more clearly with the truth of your own lived experience and your own innate wisdom. As Thomas Morton says: “You are always becoming that which you already are”.

While leaving aside, but not underestimating the significance of the pre and peri natal experiences, it could be said that we are born with a liberated heart. As the persona develops we lose it, become limited and then spend the second half of life journeying back to reclaim our inner freedom. In the process of liberating our hearts, Joyce mapped out the territory with five headings.

  •   Opening the door
  •   Liberating our hearts
  •   Claiming our wildness
  •   Deepening our awareness
  •   Generativity

Opening the door means opening the door inward. As Rilke the poet says: “There is only one way: Go within”.

Yet so much of modern life and culture, with its powerful focus on production, competition and material values makes this inward opening a risky business, and how can the time be found for it anyway, let alone justified? While opening to change and challenge, there are fragile bridges to cross. Essential gear includes faithfulness to the journey, time for reflection and “loving kindness by the bucketful” It is important to remember that transformation is always the process of LIFE – DEATH – LIFE. How frequently we forget this third stage while stuck in the second.

Opening inward means awakening, being attentive to body, emotions and feeling, mind and spirit. It means coming more fully into our senses. Our spirit is always in motion, made up of our physical mood, our feeling state and our thoughts at any one time, part of the great constant universal vibration of all things, which the quantum physicists are continuing to explore and measure.

So when we liberate our hearts, our vision and how we live becomes radically changed. We find the true self by letting go of the old centre; by letting go of what we think is our security and of course that is the most difficult thing to do. The liberated heart also brings us to a place of integrity, when, what we say and do matches what is on the inside of ourselves. It also means to be freed from discovering and knowing and owning what keeps us from knowing our own goodness.

What prevents us from being liberated? 

The big number one is our ‘ego’, our consciousness, our awareness or lack of it. “The ego is the demon to be slayed inside”, Joseph Campbell has said. Of course, we all know that we need our ego – we would be comatose without it. It is the inflated and deflated egos that keep us from growing and being more liberated, where the ego has too much authority or gets so scared.

The language of the ego is very familiar to us: should, can’t, wont, must, don’t want to hear etc. Getting in touch with our illusions is essential if our hearts are to be liberated, but these illusions can be very elusive and always insidious. When befriended, we must then risk letting them go. You may like to name some of the illusions that underlie your own personal and working life; ones that keep you from living more fully and freely.

Sarah Krzeczunowicz’s article in the previous issue of “Inside Out” describing Wilson Shaef’s “addicted society” refers also to the illusions of power, control and perfection dominating western society with specific mention of the addiction processes operating in the psychotherapy profession. I like Joyce Rupp’s definition of a healthy ego.

She says “ a healthy ego knows that it knows but is willing to let go of what it knows for what it does not know”. We all have our familiar struggles with that. When this reflection seems like self-centredness it is worth remembering that essentially the process is about transformation of the world. This journey inward necessitates meeting and befriending our demons before we can become free to be a person of love. So how we are living our lives is always the test of how liberated we are.

Our darkness and our weakness

We simply cannot be liberated without going through our darkness. Befriending our brokenness, our emptiness, our loneliness is part of the cycle of inner transformation. And it’s in the darkness that the ego loses its power. The poet Rumi has many wonderful things to say, one being: “Living in the heart the mirror gets cleaner and clearer”. So we become less attached, more detached, but retain our passion and purpose.

Getting free means embracing our weaknesses. John O’Donohue in Anam Cara speaks of “a theology of weakness”. When we go deeper into our true inner selves we draw up jewels, but just as in deep sea trawling, lots of debris also comes to the surface with the prize fish, stuff that’s thrown back into the depths. We also discover things within our depths that we don’t like very much. How do we greet these?

In Buddhism, this aspect is central on the path to enlightenment. Detachment or non-attachment is about not clinging onto but also about not pushing away what we do not want, resulting in the peacefulness and equanimity of inner freedom.

We have an image of the caterpillar going into a cocoon and emerging as a beautiful butterfly. But in actuality there is a complete metamorphosis within the cocoon, in which there is a stage of pure undefinable mush: a mushy birthing stage before the butterfly is formed. When we enter our darkness we also find ourselves in a mist of mush and   unless we flee this place, there is only the way of surrender of longing and desires and being with ourselves. In her poem “The House At Rest” Jessica Powers says:

The house must first of all accept the night
Let it erase the walls and their display
Impoverish the rooms till they are filled
With humble silences; let clocks be stilled
and all the selfish urgencies of day.
Midnight is not the time to greet a guest
Caution the doors against both foes and friends,
and try to make the windows understand
their unimportance when the daylight ends.

Perfection

We can never underestimate the power of compassion in our lives and nowhere do we need it more than in claiming our weaknesses, as they are our greatest teachers. We simply cannot afford to reject any part of us. We need to accept and befriend all of us, strengths and weaknesses, light and darkness; only in that process will we be able to let go of all the false securities that choke our ability to live more fully alive. The opening line of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Munich Mannequins” presents a powerful image on this theme. “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children”.

On the subject of perfection and the illusion of its attainment, Joyce Rupp had many comforting things to share. Many of us are only too familiar with this hell-hate, this flawed, never enough or good enough, wounded part of our hearts. Joyce introduced us to the Japanese term ‘wabi-sabi’. While difficult to explain precisely in western terms, it is a Japanese philosophy and aesthetic system for traditional Japanese beauty. It corresponds with the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.

However ‘wabi-sabi’ is an appreciation of the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. At its core is the importance of transcending ways of looking and thinking about things and existence. It is about the beauty of things modest and humble, unconventional, natural process, earthy irregular, simple. It is about antiquity and the authenticity of what has flaws in it; what gives something character when touched and changed by time and weather, for example: an old chipped vase or a faded embroidered cloth or the rugged bark of a tree.

I found this a powerful image, inspiring new perspectives and attitudes about perfection at a personal and cultural level. Having respect for what is not perfect and seeing the beauty in imperfection is a challenge for us in the Western world. Just consider the dominant market place attitudes towards aging, disability, the contrived uniform ‘perfection’ of mass produced food, built in obsolescence and ‘disposable’ thinking to name a few. At a personal and fun level, you may like to think about the parts off your life that contain ‘wabi-sabi’, physical, emotional etc… and maybe discover how a change in thought and attitude, brings a change of heart and feeling.

Claiming Our Wildness

If you want to identify me,
Ask me not where I live,
Or what I like to eat
Or how I comb my hair.
But ask me what I am living for
In detail
And ask me what I think is keeping me
From living fully
For the thing I want to live for (Thomas Merton).

Merton’s poem challenges us to go a little deeper, to connect with our wildness. Wildness is not meaning out of control. It means if you were really and truly free, what would you be wearing right now, doing in your life right now, eating, living for? There is often great safety in being miserable. Risking insecurity, doubt, confusion, letting go of a safe place is frightening and also we don’t want to look foolish. Impression management has no value in true liberation since we only exchange one insecurity for another. Of course it has to be said that there is nothing wrong with security, only when it limits us through fear. So, in what part of your life do you need to become more liberated? In the words of Mary Oliver in her poem, A Summers Day “And tell me what is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?”.

Generativity

Inner liberation is about becoming true to who we really are, where we become more aware of our patterns, where the ego has less power. The opaqueness of the persona becomes more transparent, allowing the wisdom within us to flow forth. We become more generous, more freely loving and we become more free to move out into the world and so transform it through family, work, service or by  simply being. Our voices become stronger and our energy flows creatively rippling into the collective consciousness of the world.

Opening the door of our heart and going in leads to our own transformation which in turn leads to transformation of the world and this is precisely our generativity. One of the questions you may like to ask yourself is: How am I passing on my wisdom? Perhaps like Ghandi, when asked what his message was, replied to the man with notebook in hand “my life is my message”, you may similarly respond.

Generativity is about giving, leaving something behind like the apple seeds, but it is also about receiving. We need to be generative to ourselves. We feel our poverty, our emptiness when we are working too hard, so we need to become more conscious of our motivation in everything. Mary Oliver in a poem on awareness and passion says; “I want to be a bride married to amazement, I don’t want to have just been a visitor to life”.

This reminds us that external attentiveness helps internal awareness. Finally I’d like to end with the inspirational poem by Dawna Markova and a question to ponder. How do you risk your significance in the liberation of your own heart?

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit. (Dawna Markova, 2000: 1)

[Joyce Rupp is internationally known for her work as author, spiritual midwife, retreat and conference speaker. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and is the author of more than ten bestselling books.]

Bridget Mair is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist in private practice in Dublin.

References

Krzeczunowicz, S. (2003) ‘Power and Addiction: The Shadow Land of Psychotherapy’ in Inside Out,  No.1. Spring 2003.

Markova, D. (2000) I Will Not Die An Unlived Life. Boston: Conari Press.

Merton, T. (1961) New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Dimension Books.

O’Donohue, J. (1998) Eternal Echoes. London: Bantam Press.

Oliver, M. (1992) New and Selected Poems. Boston: Beacon Press.

Plath, S. (1985) Selected Poems (ed. Ted Hughes). London: Faber and Faber.

Powers, J. (1984) The House at Rest. Pewaukee, WI: The Carmelite Monastery.

Rilke, R.M. (1992) Letters to a Young Poet. (translated by M. Burnham.). California: New World Library.

Rumi. (1999) The Glance: Songs of Soul Making. (translated by C. Banks) New York: Viking Press.

Rupp, J. (2001) Dear Heart Come Home: The Path of Midlife Spirituality. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Wiederkehr, M. (1991) Seasons of your Heart: Prayers and Reflections (2nd edition). San Francisco: Harper Collins.