How To Be Your Own Support System
Dear Karuna Training Community,
Do you sit with relationships in your life that have caused you to shut down and freeze your heart? Sometimes we kill people off in our minds and hearts because they’ve hurt us, and sometimes because we have hurt them. Freezing the heart is common, and we think it helps to protect us. What it does is congest our hearts with unprocessed feelings. We refuse to open to the pain we hold. We intuit thawing the frozen heart will entail an in-depth process of falling apart.
Harms occur in relationships, profound horrors that should never have happened, prideful insults that sting forever, and misdeeds that feel unforgivable. We do and say things that we regret, and instead of apologizing, we shut down our hearts and freeze our compassion. Unfortunately, when we freeze our hearts to avoid the pain, we’re the ones who continue to suffer. We end up suffocating our heart connections due to our fear of openness, vulnerability, and being touched. We refuse to be soft and open and thus become unresponsive and blocked in the heart. As a result, it feels impossible to forgive or even foster a soft spot of possibility to allow others.
What I’m about to write about here is not a love and light topic. If you are easily triggered, please stop, pause and breathe before continuing.
For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, join us for a free live online session on Thawing the Frozen Heart on Saturday, March 20, at 9 AM PST.
Freezing Our Heart is All too Common.
Relationships that we abandon and refuse to relate to congest our hearts with unprocessed grief. It’s no mistake that heart congestion is a leading killer. Because we don’t create spaces and containers to honor our aching hearts and fall apart, we don’t trust that we can afford to fall apart. From a Contemplative Psychology perspective, when we learn to love ourselves genuinely and resource ourselves in basic sanity to meet the pain, then we can afford to fall apart. Falling apart means being vulnerable, and tears are usually shed. In this way, we thaw the frozen heart.
Humans are as capable of shutting down our hearts as we are in opening them up. However, we need safe environments, and we need each other to foster warmth. We need connection and community; we need to belong and to be witnessed. We could say the origins of this are how we evolved in the village in communities of protection from the wilds.
The great good fortune of Karuna Training lies in providing a safe community with which to fall apart. For many years, karuna has provided a loving container that offers some sense of sustenance and warmth that thaws the frozen hearts, even if only for a moment. We’ve also had the usual growing pains and made mistakes along the way, and we’ve learned some things about safe containers in our 27-years of providing seminars. However, the point is not to do this in the safe container of Karuna Training but to take Karuna teachings outward and apply them to our daily lives.
Karuna is a compassion training designed to thaw the conditioning of the human heart. Thawing takes the warmth of human kindness and forgiveness, but it also means we need to venture into territories we’ve been conditioned to avoid. Our conditioning can be such that it diminishes our sense of worthiness, and we internalize environmental messages.
At times we take refuge in and freeze our hearts further by adopting definite views. Views such as racism, sexism, white supremacy, entitled privilege, homophobia, ableism, etc., because we’re unable to love certain aspects of ourselves. We look to fortify ourselves philosophically and block our hearts from touching the pain of other’s lived experiences, especially people we perceive as different from ourselves.
Loving Kindness Thaws the Frozen Heart
Ultimately we must find the love and warmth within to thaw our frozen hearts, but environments can either foster for us -- or deter us from such loving-kindness and connection. We cannot find any warmth within ourselves for ourselves. Thus we need safe containers to help us discover that which we already possess, maitri or loving-kindness.
As Chogyam Trungpa explains, “according to Buddhist teachings, although we acknowledge that people’s problems may have been caused by their past upbringing, we feel that the way to undo problems is to cultivate that person’s maitri on the spot. Maitri is fostered by working with the persons’ immediate environment rather than by delving into their past. Buddhism does not use the Western analytical approach of tracing back to the roots of neurosis in a person’s past… Buddhist psychology works with cultivating good behavior patterns, rather than trying to analyze the person’s problems.”
When I first trained as a psychotherapist at Naropa Institute (now a University) in the early ’80s, I did my nine-month internship at Broomfield Home for Children. There I worked with a 13-year-old girl, whom I will call Jessica for the sake of confidentiality. Jessica taught me a great deal about thawing the frozen heart.
Jessica had spent at least three years in and out of the Broomfield Children’s facility; her adopted mother was Catholic and considered Jessica a curse for her infertility. Jessica was blond, blue-eyed, cherub-faced, and an innocent-looking child on the exterior. Emotionally, Jessica exuded complexity, fear, and hostility, especially if you attempted to engage her in any way. When I met her, Jessica demonstrated severe behavioral issues. She spent a good many hours a day isolated in a time-out room due to incidents of attacking other children and speaking back to teachers.
Broomfield Home for Children was a mal-adapted behavioral institute straight from the father of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner. Jessica did not do well in this behavioral system of punishment and reward; she seemed to have no incentive. Something about the confines of having to earn her freedom and rights through good behavior had done nothing to motivate her up to the time we met.
Jessica had been adopted at age 3, after being taken from her biological mother as a young child due to her mother working as a prostitute. It was suspected Jessica had incurred brutal trauma before the age of three. I was barely 26 when I began my internship in Broomfield. In many ways, way too young to take on the responsibility of a traumatized child. Because I had been trained at Naropa Institute (now University) and steeped in the loving-kindness of Contemplative Psychology, my Broomfield supervisor threw me in the deep end of the behavioral training pool.
I spent my first months in Broomfield meeting with Jessica weekly in a small, cold, cheaply furnished office in the basement of the school’s gymnasium. Jessica sat with her arms tightly wrapped around her knees, not responding, acting hateful toward me. I was rendered inoperative and feeling inept in the first meetings we had together.
One day Jessica saw a pack of cigarettes in my purse and asked me if I smoked. That was the first time she had spoken to me. I told her I smoked sometimes and was so excited that she had engaged me. I instantly broke all the rules and asked if she wanted a cigarette. I allowed her to smoke a single cigarette that day outside the gym. Breaking the rules bonded me to her through bad behavior. We were acting out together.
Engaging Jessica through breaking the rules proceeded for many months. Because seeing me was an earned privilege in the Broomfield handbook, Jessica began behaving better in class to continue our sessions. She began to be good enough in making behavioral points to ride in my car -- eventually, she earned the right to go on an outing with me to Boulder. Our relationship continued to grow over nine months, needless to say, because I broke all the rules. Jessica bonded with me as much as she could, given her conditioning and traumatic background. She didn’t trust anyone that was always clear, yet she was willing to bargain with me for freedoms. She was thawing her frozen heart incrementally and cautiously.
In the end, however, Jessica was deeply needy for nourishment, as I was needy for her connection to prove myself as a good therapist. The space of poverty and neediness is where we met, yet there was a warmth there too. It was not a skillful therapeutic encounter, and in a sense, I was using my behavioralism in the bribery of breaking the rules.
Luckily, through supervision at Naropa, I began to see the downfalls of my enmeshment with Jessica. My relationship with this girl was planting false seeds of hope and connection. I offered her a promise of a bond that eventually, I could not fulfill. I let her down by leaving my internship and not taking her with me. Even if I served to thaw her frozen heart momentarily, I would always feel tender remorse about my lack of skills with her.
Jessica and my story is an exaggerated illustration of how trauma conditions freeze the heart. A genuine and authentic connection plants seeds of forgiveness, and yet, simultaneously, human beings are complicated and tricky. Relationships that don’t go or end well often serve to haunt us. Failed relationships provide fodder to hold ourselves accountable. They help to strengthen and resource us, especially when we’re willing to feel the vulnerable frailties that arise in our relationships with the people we love.
Applying Maitri to Disappointment
People always disappoint us and let us down; relationships often hurt us when we open to them, and things go awry. We all are participating in a discordant home for children, and at the same time, there are glimpses of open heart, loving-kindness, and genuine thawing taking place all the time. Attuning ourselves to authentic connection is a journey of making friends with our whole selves, the good, bad, and the ugly.
In Contemplative Psychology, we call this process of accepting our whole selves, maitri, making friends with ourselves as we are. Maitri is generative warmth that renews itself in further vulnerability. To thaw our frozen hearts, we need to fall apart. That’s the good and the bad news simultaneously.
Karuna training is an environment of practice, a safe space where you can extend warmth toward habitual tendencies, unwanted emotions, and frozen places within. Wherever we go there, we are! In Karuna, we offer an environment of safe and respectful community to see, embrace, befriend, and transform our frozen hearts into responsive, vulnerable, awakened hearts.
Please join Kathryn Rile and me on Saturday, March 20, at 9 AM PST, to explore loving kindness the practice of Thawing the Frozen Heart. The opportunity is to step momentarily into a gentle space and be met to integrate what we all must learn to generate for ourselves. We hope to see you there.