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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7


The Open Heart

by Peter BollandNovember 2019

When the eyes open, the heart opens. The more you see, the more you feel. Even an ordinary walk through the neighborhood breaks you open—the desiccated skull of a hummingbird, an out-of-season flower, a discarded condom wrapper—everywhere you look the poignancy and insistence of life, death, and everything in between. It’s as if the whole world—scattered for a while in disparate embodiments—is longing for reunion.

Being born means initiation into the world of death. Instead of seeing this as bad news or some sort of cosmic unfairness, we shift into acceptance and a door opens, and if we’re brave, naïve, and crazy enough to walk through that door the world begins to shimmer with unspeakable beauty. The only thing left is love.

The world’s spiritual traditions are rife with paradox: it is only when we give that we receive, it is only when we release that we attain, it is only when we let go that we make contact, it is only when we surrender that we win. Grasping, clinging, craving, attachment, ego demands, and self-obsession lead only to suffering. All bliss needs are unclenched hands and an open heart. Give bliss a chance. Let go.

There is nothing to grasp, and there is no one to do the grasping—this is the great secret. A confluence of factors tricked us into thinking we were separate from everything else, and spiritual practice—any spiritual practice—is the long, slow process of undoing that trickery.

As white light scatters through a prism into colors, so too the oneness of Being scatters into multiplicity as it passes through the prism of the human mind. Our crude perceptions and conceptual thinking distort and imprison Oneness into paradoxical categories of our own making. Then we become warehouse workers, taking inventory, and cataloging conceptual boxes into hierarchies. We call this “knowledge.” We squander our lives arguing about doctrines, theologies, definitions, and labels. Meanwhile, the real world—the unquantifiable world right outside the doors of our carefully organized warehouses—flows by like a lazy river.

Water doesn’t ask, “Am I a stream, a river, an ocean, a cloud, or a drop of rain?” It rests in its waterness. It allows individual transformation and evolution of purpose to take its natural course. We, on the other hand, insist on our labels and hierarchies—at great cost.

We have become addicted to explanation. Like drunks lurching for the bottle, we stumble into the arms of any decent argument or self-serving emotional appeal—anything to assuage the uncertainty of not knowing.

Not knowing is the doorway to unity and reconciliation. Not knowing is the embodiment of courage. Not knowing is an act of love.

The simplicity, the clarity, the unmediated symphony of this present moment eludes us when we remain enamored and caught by our thoughts about this present moment. Somewhere along the way we became convinced that our true life, our real life, existed in the realm of thought. That was the most destructive thought of all.

When you wake up in the morning, say thank you. Say thank you as you drift off to sleep. Say thank you between tasks. Say thank you in the middle of everything. Make thank you your mantra. It doesn’t matter who you’re saying it to. Simply be in the consciousness of thank you. We do not say thank you to appease or acknowledge some higher power—the higher power isn’t a needy parent. We say thank you to open our hearts and minds to the truth that we did not create this—we receive this—our lives, these hands, this passion, this beauty, this support, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the love we rely on. We live in the holy thank you. When you do this, you turn the key that unlocks wisdom, wellness, and bliss.

A nearby star floods our planet with light. Through photosynthesis plants utilize this celestial energy to replicate the cells of their own bodies. Plants are starlight storage systems. Then animals eat the plants, and each other. Then we eat the animals and the plants. In this way all life forms are embodied starlight, feeding on one another in an endless energy exchange. Individual forms come and go, but energy doesn’t die—it just keeps changing address. Life is not a possession. No one owns the energy. The water does not belong to the sea—it just holds it for a while. We do not live life. Life lives us. As Eckhart Tolle wrote in Stillness Speaks, “The opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” That’s why the only sane response to any of this is thank you.

When it is our time to navigate death, other’s or our own, we are forced to let go. The pain of the loss is directly proportional to our grasping. The tighter we cling, the more acute our trauma.

A young mother came to the Buddha carrying her dead child. She’d heard the Buddha had powerful magic that might restore her child to life. She asked the Buddha, “Is there anything you can do to help me?”

“Yes,” he said. “But first you must go into the village and find three mustard seeds, and they must be from a house that has been untouched by death.”

She went door to door through the village carrying her dead child. At the first house she asked, “Do you have any mustard seeds?”


“But has anyone died here?”

“Yes, we lost our father last year.”

She went to the next house and knocked on the door.

“Do you have any mustard seeds?”


“But has anyone died here?”

“Yes, we lost our mother last month.”

She went to the next house and knocked on the door.

“Do you have any mustard seeds?”


“But has anyone died here?”

“Yes, we lost our child just last week.”

Many hours passed. Twilight faded to darkness. She had knocked on every door in the village. Not one house was untouched by death.

She walked out into the forest and looked up at the stars arrayed in thick fields of light above her. “The living are few, and the dead are many,” she whispered. “They outnumber even these stars.” She buried her child and went to the Buddha and thanked him. She joined the order and devoted her life to compassionate action and service. Knowing the universality of death and the impermanence of all forms, she now understood that none of us owns any of this, we only get to love it for a while. This is the wisdom of the open heart.

Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Meditate with him on the Insight Timer app and learn more at

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