Taking Heart to Make Change
Goldstein Director, The
Women’s Institute at Omega
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Activism main page
Principle 1: Awareness, Compassion and Love.
take action that is born out of awareness, compassion and love,
not out of reaction, fear and anger."
My daughter’s voice quivered over her oatmeal as she explained
her bad behavior, “I yelled at you that way, mommy, because that
is exactly how you just yelled at me.” She was struggling with
feelings of injustice and I could see her heart contracting in
self-protection. She was right; I had yelled with too much vigor
for the provocation. I ached from the challenge of living in the
world, neither wanting to cause nor feel pain.
Having a human heart is treacherous business, yet it is the source
of our greatest meaning and joy. A central tenet of spiritual activism
is that when we keep our hearts open we are better change agents
because we can see more clearly and act more skillfully to transform
suffering. But it is hard to stay open when life dishes up so many
painful experiences. Our tendency is to try and create a “pain-
free” zone by building a fortress around our heart, but ultimately
this fortress also blocks the channels for giving and receiving
In an article appearing in Ode Magazine, “Cracking the
‘Cool’ Conspiracy,” Tinj Touber suggests that in contrast to years
ago when we suffered from diseases that led to fever and being
“too hot,” today we suffer from diseases that come from being “too
cool” and disconnected from our own hearts. The reasons for the
disconnect are worth examining so we can unravel the psychic knot
that cuts us off from the heart and impedes our ability to bring
deep, transformative healing to ourselves and the world.
Fear and Fatigue: As our lives unfold we experience frightening
things of all magnitude that threaten our well-being and our psyches.
Fear drives us to avoidance, and we learn to push undesirable experiences
away, building our “out of sight, out of mind” muscles. Day-by-day
we wrestle with the emotional chatter running through our minds
and train ourselves to ignore rather than decipher the often confusing,
volcanic signals. In addition to avoiding emotional connection
in the first place, we also shut down due to compassion fatigue
-- making too much emotional connection. For those who work on
the front line of caretaking, being in a constant state of serving
the needs of others can create burn-out and the heart closes up
shop due to sheer exhaustion.
The Trap of Going it Alone: Our hearts also close down
in response to the cultural mythology of rugged individualism.
An overemphasis on self-reliance clouds the profound truth of our interdependence,
which is seen as something to be ashamed of and denied. We have
been taught that we can and should do things on our own and often
carry on under the painful pretense that we don’t need one another.
To need someone is to admit vulnerability, and our culture shuns
vulnerability even though it is as fundamental to human nature
as breathing and is the very source of our deepest experiences
Worship of the Reasoning Mind: Our emotional intelligence
has also been dwarfed by our worship of the reasoning mind; the
feeling realm is relegated to the irrational and illegitimate.
It is true that linear thinking can produce impressive results
necessary for survival, but recent scientific findings show that
our brain is not the sole “central command post,” we once thought
it was. Our heart turns out to have many directive functions that
don’t originate from the brain and is the sole trigger for functioning
throughout the body, including the brain. Science is now documenting
what mystics have long known, that cultivating a strong heart,
with the capacity for emotion, empathy, intuition, and relational
response, is necessary for the optimal well-being of individuals
and the collective human family.
Opening the Heart: So how do we open our hearts after years
of shutting down? Reconditioning ourselves takes regular, committed
practice and is a lifelong journey. Just as we can develop mindfulness
through meditation and quiet reflection, we can develop heartfulness
by paying attention to our hearts and allowing ourselves to fully
experience the emotional feelings rocking around inside. The more
practiced we become at feeling rather than denying our emotions,
the greater our ability to handle things that might create a seismic
reaction. As we block out less of the scary, sad, and threatening
elements of the human condition, our field of vision grows, deepening
our ability to experience love and joy. We begin to understand
that the source of suffering is actually the isolation we experience
when we close down our hearts. When we can widen our perspective
to accept the coexistence of joy and pain, our hearts and our experience
of love grow exponentially.
Personally, after decades of trying to be “cool,” becoming more
heartful has been and continues to be a welcome challenge. It is
a sweet relief to realize that having a heart is the way life is
supposed to be, and that one can protect the heart appropriately
without closing the shop. I began my own heart excavation by taking
up a regular practice of sitting alone for a relatively short period
of time (15 minutes) and opening to my feelings. Following an exercise
described in Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser’s book, The
Seeker’s Guide, I simply put my hand over my heart and welcomed
in my feelings. Without too much strain my heart began to reveal
itself. The more I practiced this process, the more deeply I experienced
things and the more quickly I moved through emotions that threatened
to knock me off my feet.
As a result of my heartfulness practice, my activism has radically
changed. It has gone from being something I do to accomplish a
social change goal to a way of being. I have come to understand
that the means and the end are equally important, which brings
me to know that yelling at “the other side” (or my daughter) is
doing exactly the same thing I am condemning – creating fear and
anger. The more I get in touch with my own heart, the more I am
in touch with the hearts of others and the more interested I become
in cultivating peace rather than polarization.
At the core of spiritual activism is the notion that when our
actions arise from heartfulness we are working in congruence with
the truth of our interconnectedness. When we act as if we are all
in this together, which we undoubtedly are, everyone is better
served. By taking heart in our daily lives, spiritual activism
becomes a promising ground for creating a more unified, loving
world. So take time to excavate your heart and practice being uncool,
even if it’s just a few minutes a day!
Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega's Director of External
Affairs and Director of The
Women’s Institute at Omega. Carla is
an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy
and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues
related to women's rights, poverty, public health and social justice.
She has contributed to over 100 city, state and federal laws. Carla
has appeared on local and national radio and television and makes
public presentations to a wide range of audiences on issues related
to women’s empowerment and activism. Prior to joining the Omega
Institute, Carla was the VP for Public Affairsat Planned Parenthood
of New York City where she directed the agency's advocacy and strategic
communications work. She also served as the founding director of
the PPNYC Action Fund, the political arm of PPNYC. For eight years
Carla was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College, where she
taught, “Law and Social Justice,” a course designed to empower
students to be effective advocates for progressive social change.
As part of Omega’s Faculty, Carla teaches “Spiritual Activism,”
a workshop designed to help people develop their activism in creative
ways that align with their values and lives.
Founded in 1977, Omega is
the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is
provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best
in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals
and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops,
retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside
of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.
Women’s Institute, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated
to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the
momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that
Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since
2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and
inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom
is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving
culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political.
The Women’s Institute provides opportunities for women and men
to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices
through unique learning and community building experiences.
For more information, visit www.eomega.org.