I admit, I am drawn to books by their covers and titles. I know, I know, how shallow of me. Judging a book by its cover. I do the same with wine bottles which could be equally telling. It is my philosophy that one should go the extra mile to create something vaguely enticing on the outside, that directly reflects the quality of the work inside. Isn’t it this outside shell that will first lure your potential reader (or drinker as the case may be)? It gives a little intimation of what is to come if you commit. If I were to write a book or create my own wine I would likely spend more time creating the cover, title or label than I would spend on the product itself. Ok, maybe not more time, but I would certainly fuss over it. Wouldn’t you?
With ten minutes to spare I decided to dart into Wellesley Books, one of my favorite local bookstores. It is not often (or at all) that I arrive early for a dinner date, but this particular evening I did and the venue just happened to be right next door to Wellesley Books. It is difficult for me to resist a walk through a bookstore – if only to inhale the smell of books. Almost immediately, (as it was displayed on the rack titled “Staff Picks” right in front of the entry), Jan-Philipp Sendker’s novel titled “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” grabbed my attention. As I reached for it, the woman standing next to me said, “Oh, how I loved that book.”. This prompted the employee behind me to chime in – “I’m Ann, and that book was my “staff pick” and truly, I did not move for two full days while I consumed every word of it. There is a sequel called “A Well Tempered Heart”, but you must read that one in your hand first.” Well, at this point, how could I not purchase this book given the mere lifting of it generated such emotion in not one, but two beating hearts.
Oh, how I slugged through those first seventy-five pages. I not only judged the book by it’s cover, but then I questioned the judgment of two individuals with whom I had only a fleeting encounter. I kept thinking, “What in hell were they talking about? This is painful.” I was having trouble with the transitions as the main character, Julia, narrates her struggle with the recent loss of her father. (I won’t give anything away, because you really do need to read the book!) And then, finally, for the love of Pete, the story started to draw me in. To give you a little tease… the book is a magical tale of the power of love, while at the same time, it offers a most humble view of the human ability to persevere, no matter the hand it has been dealt.
The story is beautiful, (once you get through he first seventy-five pages) and its words sparked an epiphany in me that goes something like this:
Our hearts reflect the story we have written for ourselves. A story that is either played out or imagined.
Yes. Our heart is a physical object responsible for literally pumping life force and sustaining every cell in our body. Oh, but it is so much more than just that! Our heart is also a rhythmic organ that maintains the cadence of our existence. When our cadence is off, it is first noticed in our heart. And most underappreciated or taken for granted is that our heart is an energy center capable of opening and closing off LOVE itself.
We must think of and care for our hearts from each of these perspectives – all of the intricate connections between our brains and our hearts, our thoughts and our emotions have a powerful effect on our heart’s rhythm. The way we choose to live is played out in each and every heartbeat. Evident in the rhythm of our heart is the quality in which we have chosen to live.
In the book there is a boy who, because of his blindness, had an extraordinary sense of hearing. He could actually hear human heartbeats. As he got older he perfected this skill of hearing heartbeats and was able to glean the character and disposition of it’s owner from the quality of their heartbeat. The author depicts this beautifully on page 255 as he describes the boy imagining what his uncle was like.
“Did his eyes sparkle or was his gaze as expressionless as the thumping in his chest?”
As I read this it sparked a connection for me. Months ago, in preparation for a yoga workshop I was going to teach, I researched the affect that life transitions such as menopause have on the heart. Dr. Christine Northrup first peaked my interest when she noted that cardiovascular disease in one area actually means it is present throughout the entire body. Though it “shows up” in midlife and that is when we tend to begin treating it, heart disease begins in childhood – from the genetic cards we were dealt, our diet, our learned experiences, our exercise habits, and how we learn to handle emotional expression. Dr. Northrup went on to explain, “The years around menopause are the time when women’s risk for heart disease, hypertension, and stroke rise significantly as our hearts and the network of blood vessels that carries nourishment to every cell in our bodies call out to us more loudly than ever, demanding that we listen well and allow ourselves to feel the exquisite joy of life more fully than ever.”
It is during this midlife point that many women begin to “listen to their heart”. Some even “follow their heart” and begin a new journey, go back to school to start new careers or … start writing a blog about the grace in her life. We also know these transitions and the affect they have on the heart are not relegated to women only. In fact, there is a well known phenomenon called “male menopause”. The pharmaceutical industry has profited greatly from both genders mid-life crises –think hormone replacement therapy and Viagra. Change is much more difficult for men. They tend to “stuff” their fears and emotions which tend to “harden one’s heart” or leave them with a ”heavy heart”. Where as women tend to “pour their heart out”. (Ok, enough of the idioms, I could not help myself.)
Make no mistake, for both women and men, it is in the midst of midlife that our hearts begin to speak loud and clear, and we all know the potential if we ignore. There is so much information on this topic and I would highly recommend further reading. For women, Christine Northrup, M.D.’s book called “The Wisdom of Menopause” should be your “bible” during this time. For men I would suggest you, and your wife, read Gail Sheehy’s “Understanding Men’s Passages” to validate what might be happening in your midlife transition and possibly soften your heart in the process. (Yes, I will be reading it and making Andrew read it as well. Even though he looks and acts like he is in his 40’s, I know this empty nest change is having its own silent effect on him.)
Thinking about all this a bit more, I have changed my thoughts slightly since my post titled “Hello from the other side.” In that post I spoke about tribulations and how a single moment can transform us. My slight change in thought is that perhaps it is not only a single moment. Perhaps a tribulation can be a series of single moments or a gradual change, such as this midlife experience. “And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next.” This is how Michael Singer, author of “The Untethered Soul” explained it.
Just like in an instant tribulation, we have the opportunity of grace. This grace exists in that we have the ability to control how we are going to react to the events of our lives. It astounds me to think that how we choose to deal with each and every moment of our life actually defines the quality of our next heartbeat. And the one after that, and after that. Our choices literally change the energy of our heartbeat. Not to mention if we were as in tune with our body and our mind as the little boy in the book, we would be able to detect instantly how our decision has effected the cadence of our internal rhythm. This is the level of awareness we are all searching for. It is why “mindfulness” has become so popular in this fast paced, ever changing, instant world.
It just takes a moment of awareness. Seems so stupidly simple, doesn’t it?
Mr. Singer had a good example that might make this whole concept more obvious. He explains in his book that each of us has this enormous amount of energy inside of us that does not come from food or sleep. It is an endless supply that can be called upon at any time. When it is tapped one feels as though they can accomplish anything. Can you think of a time when you experienced this type of energy? For me I recall feeling on top of the world when I first met Andrew. We would talk for hours on the phone or stay out late talking long after the dinner part of our date was over. Staying at the Sunset Grill in Allston until closing. On a work night! I would jump out of bed the next morning, ready for work with only 2-3 hours of sleep. So excited to start the day and looking forward to chance (or planned) encounters with Andrew at the office. My career was taking off. I had great friends, and I was in love. I had an unmistakable, boundless energy during this time.
Mr. Singer further explains the reason we don’t feel this energy all the time is because we block it. How, you might ask? We block it by closing our heart. Closing our master energy center. Letting our real or perceived experiences leave scars and form energetic walls.
Take a moment here and think of someone you love. How do you feel when you are around this person? Free to express yourself? You trust them right? Your heart is open. You can almost feel yourself smiling from the inside.
O.K. Now this time, think of that someone you love and a moment when they let you down. Maybe they said something that hurt you. Do you feel a little tightness in your chest? This happens because you closed your heart to them during that specific experience and you continue to hold on to it. You are allowing it to block your heart. We, each and every one of us, have the ability to open and close our hearts at will. It is something that we can control. We have the opportunity to let go or grip onto life’s real and imagined experiences. Letting them go means we are aware of what is happening but have the ability to let it pass through us. We don’t attach. We don’t let the story spin. Gripping the experiences allows them to leave a mark. A little piece of hardness. A plaque (yes I intend on the dual meaning here) stating “I have been hurt”. This plaque is reflected in our heartbeat. Do you see?
You don’t need to suffer. Really, you don’t. There is nothing that happens in life that is important enough that you should be willing to close your heart over it. The only person that you hurt is yourself. You scar your own heart and the beat and the rhythm of your life will reflect that scar. Learn how you can acknowledge changes and fears without allowing them to make your heart heavy. Instead find the ways that empower you to lift your heart and live lighthearted. (Sorry, there are so many idioms!)
To think that each of us has the power to create the music of our very own heartbeat.
For more information look into Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses near you. I have found them enormously helpful and look forward to hearing about your journey as well.