Thursday, August 1, 2013

Accessing Our Big Hearts

    Once our work day begins we are in the psychological field of whatever each patient brings to us that day. Sometimes what they bring feels enormous and overwhelming: profound sadness or despair, terror or unrelenting anxiety, tremendous rage, or, a huge void. When our patients experience these big feeling states, there is a palpable shift in the energy in the room. In the presence of these states it is understandable that our first response, often unconscious, is to constrict our emotional hearts as a way of protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed.

   On some days there is something occurring in our own lives that makes it very difficult for us to be compassionately present. We are feeling miserable because we have a heavy chest cold or did not sleep well. We're worried about how we are going to pay that huge doctor's bill or this month's rent. We had a big argument with our spouse or partner or adolescent daughter this morning.

   Under these circumstances we may wonder how are we going to get through this evening's work and be present to our patients. In these moments it is important to remember that we all have Big Hearts that are able to transcend the limitations of the small hearts of our ordinary consciousness. How we understand the source of this Big Heart will depend on our cosmology. Yet we all know about the existence of these aspects of our consciousness from personal experience. We all have these periodic moments when we transcend our ordinary love and feel a much larger love for our spouse/partner, for our child, for a dear friend, for a particular place, for a beloved animal, for ..... These are Big Heart moments.  From my perspective my Big Heart is an aspect of my Higher Self. Someone else might postulate that this larger love emanates from their personal Higher Power or Buddha Nature or Christ Consciousness or .....  

The important pragmatic question is how do we access his Big Heart during psychotherapy or counseling sessions? I think that it is very helpful to have some image of this larger heart that uniquely fits for us. Many years ago my wife, Jeanne, gave me a piece of California redwood that had been carved into the wizened face of a bearded old man. I keep this carving in my office in a corner behind my patient's chair as an iconic image of my old friend Wiseheart, my name for my personal Higher Self. I think of Wiseheart as the Big Heart aspect of my consciousness. he is also the container of the enlarged compassion that has developed through my life experiences and the conduit for other sources of deep compassion and wisdom that are available to me through the collective unconscious. I encourage my patients and supervisees to develop their own personal image of their Big Heart. Until that emerges I suggest that they imagine a larger emotional heart that is located near their physical heart.  

   About five or ten minutes before the beginning of my first session, I use a small wooden hammer to tap an antique Chinese bell that sits on the floor inside my office door. This tapping ritual is a symbolic reminder that my intention is to enter a psychological space that is different from the concerns of my everyday life. Then I look at the carving of Wiseheart, imagining that I am connecting to my Big Heart and then I do some meditational breathing. Then I open the door to welcome my first patient.

   During sessions whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by the bigness of the feeling states that my patient is experiencing or I start to feel myself becoming emotionally distant I again look at the carving of Wiseheart and do the meditational breathing. At these moments I feel that with the in breath I am connecting to my Big Heart and with the out breath I am releasing the energetic vibrations of my patient's large feelings. Then they do not penetrate the field of my consciousness. I can continue to be a compassionate presence for that person and the next and the next. At the end of a morning/evening of work I do not feel depleted.

   I encourage you to adapt these notions about our Big Hearts to your individual cosmology and ways of working.

   These ideas are described more fully in the Small Heart, Big Heart chapter of my book Working From the Heart, A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy