How Big is Your Heart?

Lately I have been struggling with overwhelming feelings of being hurt by and resentful towards someone and I feel like it poisons not only my relationship with that person but, to a small, insidious degree, the rest of my life as well.

I tried the trick of opening a book randomly (this time I chose The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, which is sort of cheating because every page is brimming with wisdom) and hoping to find just the answer to my question.  Which I did:

If you take a handful of salt and pour it into a small bowl of water, the water in the bowl will be too salty to drink.  But if you pour the same amount of salt into a large river, people will still be able to drink the river’s water… Because of its immensity, the river has the capacity to receive and transform.  The river doesn’t suffer at all because of a handful of salt.  If your heart is small, one unjust word or act will make you suffer.  But if your heart is large, if you have the understanding and compassion, that word or deed will not have the power to make you suffer.  You will be able to receive, embrace and transform it in an instant.  What counts here is your capacity.  To transform your suffering, your heart has to be as big as the ocean.

The Pacific

This resonated as exactly the perspective I need.  When I feel hurt, it does feel like my heart, like the Grinch’s, is three sizes too small.  I feel very closed off and vulnerable, like a little critter hiding wounded under a log.

How to cultivate a heart as big as the ocean?  How to encompass the power, capacity, endurance, the inexhaustible ability to receive and transform without being poisoned in the exchange?  I accept that suffering will return again and again; my focus is not to avoid the hurt.  It is to avoid the carrying around of the hurt in my tiny jar of a heart, where the momentary conflict displaces all the fluid of my emotional self and results in my heart becoming a little cesspool of negativity that I pull from in my interactions with others.

I have no strategies yet, other than my new awareness of my feelings, and how I imagine I might someday, ideally, handle them better.  I visualize mentally and emotionally what an oceanic heart would feel like, and it feels wonderful. 

How big is your heart?  Do you find that the smallest drop of hurt fills your cup?  Do you receive the hurt, embrace it and transform it into something loving?  Do you have any advice to share from your experiences in expanding your capacity to love?

31 responses to “How Big is Your Heart?

  1. I really like this post of yours – it’s so ‘deep’. On many occassions I too have felt like you describe and it often feels as if everything is closing in and all is bad.
    What I generally do now, is accept that I need to time ‘get over’ (perhaps process might be a better description) the emotions, I accept that I need to feel angry/bitter/resentful and just go with it. I do however put it in a time frame, after a day (usually) I need to’snap’ out of it and move on.
    If I want to do something about it, I need to have decided what to do, if not then I need to ‘let it go’.
    My other half, very very mindfully takes on the attitude of, it’s only you who is upset, they (the person you’re angry with) doesn’t know/bother/care…you need to let it go. A bit like the story of the two monks carrying an attractive woman across the stream.
    Has visualling the ocean helped? Will you be talking again to this person who has upset you?

    • Without revealing too much of the person’s identity, I must say that I definitely will be talking to this person for the rest of my life.

      It does help me to visualize the ocean. It helps that I used to live near the ocean and used to go sit on the cliff’s edge and breathe it all in, so I can recall its expansiveness instantly. What is a little bit disheartening is that, from a very young age, I was aware that emotions are like the ocean, and yet despite this almost constant meditation throughout my life I am still so far from where I want to be in terms of having a healthy emotional life.

      Your method sounds very healthy. It sounds like you are able to look at the big picture and take a kind of mothering role with your emotional self, in terms of accepting that your feelings are valid but then not letting yourself wallow too long.

      • One of the advantages (there are some downsides too!) of being an immigrant, is that sometimes life seems very compartmentalised, because there’s no one around (family-wise) to ‘wind you up’.

        There’s a bit in Jack Canfield’s Sucess Principles, that says to avoid negative people, even if they are your own family. I liked that idea, but wondered how it could actually be done!

        • I use the telephone and keep visits and conversations to the minimum. I’m reading Jack Canfield’s Sucess Principles at the moment. Second time. First time, just read it. This time doing it.

        • Let’s pretend I’m speaking hypothetically… what if the extremely negative person is your own child? What if you did the best you could to be an example of a positive outlook (and I’m pretty dark myself at times, so admittedly my example has always been far from perfect) and you did your best to hang in there and ride it out, hoping that this person’s fundamental abject misery would heal, but the bitterness and anger keeps coming? If this child were an adult, would you be justified in avoiding them or at least keeping contact to a minimum?

          I believe very deeply that a parent can never give up on their child, even if they become a murderer and you have to turn them in and let them be kept in prison for the rest of his or her life, you still have to be their parent. Just because a child is grown and is super gruff and whiny all the time, I don’t feel like I am allowed to walk away, even a little bit (although at times I do anyway). Hence my deep desire to make my heart big enough to take whatever people can dish out, especially if it is my child, and only give back love.

          • I think it’s very true that you’re a mother forever, but, and this is a big BUT, loving and liking are two very different things.
            I think at some point there has to be some ‘expectation’ placed on the child (this flies in the face of acceptance). If there is realisation that this gruffness and whiny-ness is present, are there reasons(?) and then would they choose to do something about it?
            I’m not prone to depression but have seen it’s effects, I often can’t imagine it being more than a mental attitude, but from a biological and chemical point, there are greater causes at play. Is depression a reason for this behaviour?
            Admittedly, I’m sometimes like this adult whiny child (again because of expectations! (mine mostly). One of my parents can be quite negative and sometimes I find that really hard to deal with, and I become snappy and sarcastic, just because… (I know it’s wrong, and I find myself being annoyed – at myself – but do it anyway). I do find that some space and some time – helps tremendously.
            At the end of the day, I keep reminding myself, that I need to accept, the person as they are and change my own expectations (of them – oh so hard!). I hope, you find some answers. *HUGS*

            • Thank you for all your thoughtful comments (and hugs!) I think she is in a really tough space right now, entering the adult world, but at the same time, she’s been like this for years and years, and I just feel ready to step back and stop feeling responsible for her misery. And yet, IF I knew that something I could do would help, I would do it. I am just out of ideas and out of energy trying not to be dragged down…

              Also, like you say, I too am fairly negative at times, and I probably drag some people down, so then I feel like I deserve to have to take what I dish out?! There are so many conflicting feelings going on for me and I wish I could find some space to sort them out. ( I guess that’s what I’m doing here! 🙂 )

              • Sometimes finding the appropriate metaphor helps.

                Parents complained to the therapist (Brian Cade) that their adolescent daughter was ‘treating the house like a hotel’. She was not telling them where she was going, staying out late, not talking to them. Brian advised them to go with their metaphor. He advised not to ask where she was going, but to simply say ‘have a nice day’, fix her bed and place a clean, folded towel at the end of the bed, not to ask where she had been, not to nag her about cleaning up after herself. After two weeks of this treatment, the adolescent broke down and told her parents that she wanted them to start caring about her again. From there they were able to work out a plan of what was acceptable behaviour for their family.

                The paper can be obtained from

                • Hakea, I like this!! 🙂
                  In all honesty, I was the most horrible teenager ever, I felt very misunderstood, hated my parents most of the time, felt they weren’t fair at all. I walked out/ran off on several occasions, because I couldn’t work out how to ‘deal’ with my emotions. (Essentially, looking back, I think I just wanted someone to listen, not ask questions, and not pass judgement – if you know Asian parents – these are impossible asks 🙂 (I sure hope Georgia isn’t like me!)
                  The path to adulthood is very fraught, Hakea’s story/advise, strikes on so many levels, because in essence, the teen is allowed to just ‘be’, and parents have to learn to accept, and trust, that they have done their best, and done right by their child…kinda reminds me of ‘letting go, so they’ll come back’
                  There was a Times article, a couple of years back detailing how chemically, teens are wired to be difficult, as they have so much going on biologically and they eventually settle down again.
                  The other thing I thought of that might help, is something out of Canfield’s Success book – to keep an achievements journal. To write down every day, no matter how little or insignificant, what the achievement/s were that day.
                  We started it with Georgia going through a challenging phase, and it has worked really really well. We call it the Star Book: (although perhaps not stickers as rewards)

                • That’s fascinating! Under the section “Things that don’t work” I am almost continually violating all of the things under “self-sacrifice/denial”! I think one of my underlying theories (even though I know it will never work) is if I just give *enough* then things will work out.

  2. I’m going to take a different approach to this one, Elena. I had a major problem with a person who I shall have to face for at tleast the next 20 years, on and off, and I was trying to forgive, expand my heart, make an effort etc. When I spoke to a friend, who is a psychotherpist, she said, why? There’s a whole power triangle you can get into, and by trying to forgive or expand your heart you can actually make things worse for yourself. Only you can decide if it’s one of those situations…but this approach has helped me a lot.

    • I like your approaches, Karyn! I’d like to hear more about this one… I’m not sure how expanding one’s heart can lead to a power triangle?

      From my perspective, having a heart big enough to absorb the negativity and not let it poison your waterhole just means that I don’t carry around angry baggage or harbor ill will. There are people from my past who I never want to see again, and who I would actively avoid for my own safety if there were the possibility of encountering them, but I try (key word! 😀 ) to come to peace with what happened and not wish them utter doom.

      I think the ocean of love is for oneself too, and I imagine it is possible to protect oneself emotionally and physically while at the same time not participating in the negativity. I haven’t entirely figured it out yet, but that’s the theory I’m working on! 😉

      • Hi again,
        I think the idea is that you give yourself space to heal, before trying to ’embrace/forgive or love’ the other person.
        My interpretation of the power triangle is that we need to assess if the other person is the kind who sucks energy from people as a form of emotional survival themselves, and to prevent that happening – we sometimes have to protect ourselves by completely disengaging – as you’ve said you do/have done. I agree that ultimately we need to find some sense of peace over the issue, but I sometimes forget that it helps to have space and time to heal first and rush in to forgive or love too early – ultimately causing myself more problems.

        • Thanks for clarifying! I can relate to what you’re saying, because I often forget to factor myself into the equation. We have to be loving and kind to ourselves first, I think, or else we will feel too vulnerable to be truly loving to others. I sometimes feel like giving myself what I genuinely need is selfishness or emotional stinginess of some sort, and I need to get over that!

  3. I love Thich Nhat Hanh also. He has come to Australia a few times and he is such a humble man. Do you have “The Sun My Heart” and “Interbeing”?

    Breathing and smiling are good remedies for many maladies.

    Best Wishes

    • I don’t have those books, but I’ve read “Living Buddha, Living Christ” and “Meditations on Mindfulness.” The way he writes is so loving and approachable.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • The two books I mentioned above are some of my favourites on Buddhism. In Interbeing, Nhat Hanh asks “what do you see in a piece of paper?” I do this exercise with my kids sometimes, mainly at the dinner table, “what do you see in this carrot?” (for example). They’ll list the sun, earth, water, farmer, the farmer’s family, the farmer’s dog, transport, market, and it goes on and on.

        My other favourite books on Zen Buddhism are:
        On Having No Head, by DE Harding
        Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps
        Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, by Thich Thien-An

        Nice chatting with you.

        • I love to think of how everything is connected across space and time, containing so many elements in common. It’s like the separateness we see truly is an illusion!

          Thanks for all the book suggestions! I’ll look into those.

  4. We’ve run out of thread – reply to Li-Ling’s post March 14…

    …and I suspect we are getting off topic (sorry Elena)…

    If you go back to Erik Erikson’s theory on development (expanding on Freud), every age has its own psychosocial crisis. For adolescence, it is ‘identity vs confusion’, the psychosocial task is to find oneself, and the significant relationships become peers and role models. So all that rebellion, angst, and anger, is normal. It is part of the process of separating from the parents. Unfortunately, some adolescents separate in dramatic ways.

    I think Cade’s article provides some good advice for parents of adolescents. Having had my step-daughter live with us for several years, the most difficult years (14 – 17), I can vouch for ‘letting go’.

    • Oh please don’t be sorry! What a great conversation!

      I can definitely see how the identity thing would be extra hard for my 19 year old right now. We moved away from Oregon (where she’d lived all her life) four years ago and we live in a slightly different culture (the South), plus she tried her hand at college dorm life for a semester but couldn’t keep up her grades, so now she’s stepped into the role of a working woman. I think she wants all the normal things: control over her life, respect, close ties, etc. but she’s having to do it all at once. And we aren’t the most stable people right now with all we are doing in the Habitat program to move (it’s a whirlwind I tell ya!)

      I really appreciate all the info and perspective you’ve shared and I’m going to go check out that article you linked to!

  5. Emotionally, I agree, we need to be that soft landing for our kids, and I think that teenagers sometimes force their parents into a place where they have to make a stand,so they can break away and get on with their own life. For some it is dramatic, for others not so. Our latest parenting guru was on the tele last week talking about the mad things some teenagers (girls in particular) say to their parents – and he suggested you just let the comments ride – understanding that they are trying desparately to make sense of it all themselves.
    This probably is not be the case here, Elena, but I know as a teenager I just wanted my parents to listen rather than try to help. I needed a sounding board rather than a list of things to ‘solve’ the problem. And then you’re trying to move too. Hugs. 🙂

    • I think you’re right, Karyn, that at this point I have to let her comments ride for the most part (heartbreaking!) but I often wonder if letting them ride when she was younger wasn’t part of what I did wrong. I was a single parent for a lot of her childhood and I’m not good at the discipline end or setting boundaries with people in general (although I’ve learned a lot from my current husband and I’ve improved in this area). I let her get away with speaking to me in a fairly mean way for a long time and I know that part of my reaction is to think, “Still?” And part of it is, “Well, you got her in this habit, so you deserve it.” Which I don’t truly believe, but nevertheless the thought pops into my head.

      • Ooohh…Elena, you’ve really hit the nail for me.
        I was going to write a post on this (talking back), among other challenges we are facing at the moment. Sigh…parenthood-love it, hate it, with it for life 🙂

  6. @ Li-ling’s link – this is a great idea… so many times I get to the end of the day and I feel like I’ve done nothing, simply because there are so many things left on my to-do list (because I made it too long!) It seems like a healthy habit for everyone to take a few minutes each day to realize that they really did accomplish something. Especially helpful if they are in the habit of negative self-talk, which tends to drown out any realization of success.

  7. OK, it’s the middle of the night here Elena (1.44am!) I got up for a drink, read what was going on here, wrote the hugs and tissues comment and went back to bed. Then a conversation I recently had with a friend who is a psychotherpist popped into my head. She and I both use a technique for bad or mean language aimed at us, that works really well.
    Say she says, “You B*** you’ve ruined my life.” Ignore this, and then when she comes to you for something, and she will, you say, “B*** who ruin people’s lives can’t do that.” (And don’t do as she as requested.) But you have to say it without emotion, you don’t have to shout or anything, be really quiet and calm. Until you feel she has gotten to a space where she is genuinely remorseful, keep saying this to any requests she might have of you. It works a treat. It might not get her to a remorseful place the first time, but I can guarantee it will knock the wind out of her sails -in a good way. She wants a boundary with this, and she needs one. You don’t deserve to be spoken to in any mean way, you were doing the best you could with the resources you had available. Now: hugs and tissues and I need some sleep.

    • Thanks for the hugs and tissues! 🙂

      That’s a good idea, mirroring back her own words. I am currently using it for the whole “I want my own room” thing with her (which requests I greet with: “People who hate living in other people’s houses generally don’t want their own room therein…” because she has not been shy about telling me how much she hates me and my home since she was about 9) I should use it with other things… Thanks for sharing!

      p.s. I hope you are having sweet dreams as we speak, my dear! 😉

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