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  • Written by  Ian Gawler
  • // Sunday, 20 October 2013 11:57
Ian Gawler

An Open Heart

Sitting to meditate at home a few days ago, I found tears pouring down my face. Pouring. Flowing freely. Yet no distress. Just lots of tears.

I had just learnt that Mark, a delightful young doctor from Hong Kong had succumbed to the same cancer I used to have. So what were the tears? Common grief? Sadness? Despair? Self identification?

Maybe. But actually most came courtesy of a profound insight. An insight you may well also value.





But first, consider this

Of all the sad things I see

The worst of it

Is the fear of death

Sogyal Rinpoche



It had been my good fortune to come to know Mark a little. It was easy to appreciate his many fine qualities; particularly his love of life and his commitment to staying alive.

My response to his death was echoed eloquently by a woman in one of my groups a few days later when she commented on the death of one of our much loved members recently:

“Death sucks!”

Our friend had lived for many years with a vibrancy that belied the severity of her illness. All she was doing to look after herself kept her feeling well right up to the time of her death. According to her family, she also died well.

Maybe as a result of all this, her death came as more of a surprise. Some people were shocked. Like that of Mark, her love of life, her enthusiasm, her energy, her vibrancy…..

Yet death does come to us all. Clearly some do die of cancer. Some die of other things. One thing is for sure. We will all die one day. One day. We do not know when.

So here is the point. Faced with the reality of death, faced with the grief of loss, even just the anticipatory thought of loss, it is so easy to become fearful and defensive. To close our hearts.

It seems clear that in an attempt to defend our emotions and to protect our selves from emotional pain, many attempt to build barriers, to wall off the heart.

Yet if we do close our hearts, one thing is certain. Relationships will always suffer. Always be compromised. Always be filtered through those barriers. Always be closed to some degree.

In my view, it is exactly because we do not know how long we may have with those we love, that it makes sense to do all we can to keep our hearts open and to get the best from whatever time we do have with them.

Close the heart and we may well miss the most important parts – the closeness, the intimacy of relationships. 

However, it takes a brave heart to be open. There are bound to be times when the tears flow. But then, there is the chance for open relationships. Real engagement. Real sharing. Real intimacy.

People often ask me how I have sustained working amidst the emotional intensity of cancer for so many years. So many have died. The answer is simple.

Learning to keep an open heart.

For those working with people with major illness this means not hiding behind some fey clinical detachment, some cool professional persona.  

For myself, after over 30 years in this field, precisely because of the reality of death, I remain keen and open to make friends with as many of the people I work with as I can.

Now I am not sure how this would be possible without the practical support offered by some profound and direct inner experience.

Maybe some gain a sense of these possibilities courtesy of working with, being with someone of stature. Being inspired by, or modeling themselves upon someone like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, The Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche or even someone on a more local, personal scale.

But speaking personally, this is what I have found to be a real blessing that comes through the deeper experience of meditation. When we do manage to meditate more deeply, the heart does open and we can experience the direct knowing that there is a part of each one of us that is beyond the pain of loss; a part of us that is pure and enduring. A part that is capable of remaining open and in a real sense, not being hurt.

Even so, it is a brave choice to aim for an open heart. But this is a choice that offers the possibility of deep contentment, deep satisfaction.

This insight came courtesy of the truth that is life is so fragile, but at the same time so precious, so wonderful, so valuable. This insight, that came as a result of contemplating death, is that in the face of grief, rather than closing our hearts, it makes much more sense to actually open the heart.

So death reminds me to open my heart. And sometimes tears flow quite naturally.

So what is your experience? Any comments? Maybe this is a good post to share and discuss with family and friends? Or add a comment below.