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Keeping One’s Heart Open

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

“Do not disregard the accumulation of goodness, saying,

'This will come to nothing.'

By the gradual falling of raindrops, a jar is filled.”

-Gautama Buddha

Throughout my life, I strive to maintain a positive spirit, but repeated acts of deception, cruelty and hate sometimes shakes my faith in mankind. When this happens, the wicked witch of worry casts her spell on me and causes my heart to close. Fortunately, I've learned how to break her spell.

In January of 2016, my son Phil invited me to the 14th Dalai Lama’s panel discussion at the Overture Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Delighted, I said, “yes.”

For several days, I shared my good fortune with anyone that would listen. A few days later, however, only three weeks before the Dalai Lama’s visit, there was another terrorist attack, this time in the capitol of Turkey. Many people were killed and injured.

The wicked witch returned to warn me. “Barbara, densely packed crowds at widely publicized events are recipes for danger. Have you forgotten that crowds make you feel claustrophobic? They swallow your tiny body. Unseen, you could easily be trampled to death!” My heart constricted as I imagined a crowd of people, bottle-necked in the theater entryway, unable to pass through security before any terrorists could be checked for weapons or bombs.

The brochure Phil sent me validated my concerns. All participants were encouraged to come at least ninety minutes before the event to allow enough time to get through the security checkpoint. Food, beverages, sharp objects and large bags were prohibited.

Fortunately, my desire to see the Dalai Lama with my son far outweighed my fear. On the morning of the event, Phil suggested we meditate for ten minutes at his house before leaving. We sat in silence, cross-legged, on soft cushions in the middle of his living room. "Mom, focus on your breathing. If a worrisome thought comes to mind, let it go and return to your breath." My muscles relaxed, my heart stopped racing, and my worrisome thoughts grew quiet.

As we entered the theater, smiling security guards greeted us at the door and directed us to an orderly line of people standing, talking softly. No signs of wringing hands, nervous tapping feet or furrowed brows, the people in the crowd were engaged in quiet conversation.

When Phil and I reached the security screeners, I was pleased that the guards were still smiling. “Enjoy the program!” they said … so different from airport guards that keep straight faces and hardly look one in the eye. An usher directed us to our balcony seats where we studied our programs and enjoyed the rare opportunity to spend time together.

Lights dimmed as music filled the theater of one-thousand people. A giant screen cycled a series of inspiring quotes on soft blue and lavender backgrounds. I began to record the messages in the little notebook I’d brought with me.

“I try each day to view every situation I am faced with through a lens of gratitude. This lens empowers me to appreciate even the small, often unnoticed generosities and gestures people exchange every day.”

I start off the day by doing something kind for someone I don’t know. Giving a compliment. Holding the door open…this small gesture makes me feel lighter and more positive throughout the day.”

The series of quotes continued and eventually faded. Stage lights went up and the panelists filed onto stage: neuroscientists, a leader of a humanitarian organization and a well-known news correspondent.

Finally, the Dalai Lama entered the stage and the audience rose to their feet in silence. Bald and small in stature, robed in red, ‘His Holiness’ waved to us with a smile while he adjusted his glasses, then bowed before us with prayerful hands. An attendant handed him a ball cap to shield his eyes from the stage lights. The cap’s slogan read, “Change your mind. Change the world.” Intrigued, I was ready to learn more.

Other panelists spoke first, giving examples of how mental well-being could be learned and attained. They explained the science and research regarding how meditation and mindfulness affect the brain physically and emotionally in beneficial ways.

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” one speaker said. I nodded in recognition.

Finally, with the assistance of a translator, the Dalai Lama began to share his wisdom. “If you want others to be happy, you must practice compassion. If you want to be happy, you must practice compassion.”

He explained that no matter how small the effort, compassionate actions had the ability to gradually affect more and more people in a positive way.

When the program ended, everyone left as peacefully as they had entered. Outside the theater, a small crowd of about thirty individuals, some dressed in red robes, stood chanting in soft, melodic tones. While Phil went to look for a Tibetan friend he had not seen in years, I waited behind the crowd.

One of the people chanting, an older man with soft almond eyes and a welcoming smile, turned and motioned for me to stand beside him. Touched by his kind gesture, I joined him, despite my discomfort in crowds. He asked me if I would like to know what everyone was chanting. I nodded yes.

He whispered in my ear, “We are praying… “Open our hearts. Open our hearts. And for those hearts that are closing, please open their hearts.”

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