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Posted By Opening the Heart

Twigs as Spiders


In my childhood home there was one room I was afraid to enter on my own.  This was because of the picture that hung on the wall.  It was a framed watercolor painting of a woodland scene.  In the center of the painting were the bare twigs and branches of a hazel bush.  To my childhood eyes the bush seemed to be a large and scary spider. My parent’s attempts at reassurance - ” It's only a painting!” –
“There's no need to be frightened!” - were not effective, and the picture was eventually removed.  When I next saw the painting I was in my 20s, and, although I could perceive how I mistook some twigs and branches for a spider, it was clear to me that the artist was portraying a beautiful, if stark woodland scene.

I recalled these memories as I took my morning walk through early winter woods today, and I thought about how frequently in life I have mistaken something ultimately beautiful and beneficial for something frightening that needed to be avoided or approached with great trepidation.  A case in point was my first Opening the Heart Workshop.

The prospect of attending a workshop where I would be invited to reveal myself to myself – and to others - was scary. I was ashamed of the baggage I was carrying and I didn’t want to look at my own “issues” let alone allow others a glimpse inside that dark place. Being real would mean showing up “warts and all.” It was a prospect just as frightening as entering that room from my childhood.

What finally got me moving was the realization that slinking around in my comfort zone was actually not comfortable. Comfort is not the same as equanimity, and what I really needed in an apparently fearful situation was the ability to see and face it with an open heart and mind, without pre-judgment and without the automatic imagined prospect of suffering – in short, with equanimity.

This realization, and the support of close friends was enough to get me to my first workshop. There I discovered that the thing I had feared – ownership and acknowledgement of my so-called “negative” emotions – was a challenge shared with everyone else present – including the workshop faculty. Instead of finding myself in a court of rejection, blame and accusation I found myself in a community of love and complete acceptance.

Just as my fear of the scary spider picture transformed into appreciation of a beautiful painting, the anticipatory trepidation about the workshop experience turned into appreciation, gratitude and a sense of deep fulfillment. So, if fear is preventing you from living the life you would like, I encourage you to bring sensory clarity to the inner discomforts of the “comfort-zone,” to face your fears with an attitude of “Bring It On!” and move towards the freedom that lies beyond your personal scary spiders. Perhaps we’ll see you at an Opening the Heart Workshop one day.



Posted By Opening the Heart

The Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, a description of 112 methods of realizing full consciousness through meditation, was brought to the notice of the West by in his book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. This was one of the books that sparked widespread Western interest in Buddhist and other Eastern philosophies when it was published in 1939. I am attempting my own interpretaion of this classic, based upon Paul Reps translation, and hope to bring some of the results to the blog over the course of the next few months. Cast as a discourse between the god Shiva and his consort ,Devi, it  presents 112 methods of meditation. Here are the first three:VBTantra 1









Posted By Opening the Heart

Its interesting how events, ideas and circumstances frequently come together in acts of unexpected coincidence. I am currently enjoying two lovely experiences.

The first is as a participant in the UMass Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) created by Jon Kabat Zinn. Facilitating the  OTHWorkshop isn't stressful, but I certainly experience stress in other areas of my life. At OTH we actively promote self care, so participating in MBSR is just me "walking my talk".

The second treat I am relishing is reading Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee, the story of a young woman refugee from Nigeria trying to make it on her own in London.

On Saturday the MBSR program ran a day long retreat. It could not have come at a better time for me, having just completed a strenuous few weeks preparing technical needs for a major dance performance.  To spend the day in silence, meditating, doing gently exercise and yoga with over a hundred others was a deeply refreshing and healing experience. At the end of the day there was a half hour opportunity for people to share experiences and discoveries they had made. It did not surprise me that many reported an up-welling of emotions such as sadness and anger at various times during the meditation sessions. The curious thing was that the participants making these reports seemed to believe that these emotional up-surges were scary and somehow 'wrong'. It was as if the meditation sessions had trawled up material that needed to be left deep beneath the surface. Just like the Innuit fisherman in Jon's recent post people wanted to run away from what had come up. I was reminded how deeply our society has conditioned us into believing that some emotions are ugly, inconvenient and needing to be hidden away - even from ourselves.

On the same evening I read the following in Little Bee:
"We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."
I immediately wanted to share this with the MBSR participants who had been 'shy' about feeling their emotions.

Every one of us carries emotional scars. They are as common as the physical scars we collected in childhood falling off bikes and swings and skateboards. But scars that are covered up and hidden do not heal. They simply continue to fester. Healing scars means finding a safe place to open them to the light of consciousness and compassion. For me one of those safe places has been The Opening the Heart Workshop.

Our next workshop is just two weeks away! March 19 - 21 at Kripalu Institute in Stockbridge MA.

I hope that we will see you there.

Posted By Opening the Heart

A disciple of Bankei asked him:

I become overwhelmed by anger.

I want to be rid of it but I cannot be.

What shall I do?


Bankei did not say a word,

just stared deep into the disciple's eyes,

who began to sweat in those few heavy minutes of silence.

He wanted to break the silence but couldn't gather the courage.

Then Bankei laughed and said; It's strange!

I searched and searched but could find no anger within you.

Still, show me a little of it, here and now.


The disciple said: It is not always here.

It comes all of a sudden, how can I produce it now?


Bankei laughed and said:

Then it is not your true nature.

That remains with you always

- and if your anger had been part of it you could have shown it to me.

When you were born it was not with you

- when you die it will not be with you.

No, this anger is not you.

There is a mistake somewhere.

Go away and think again, search again, meditate again.


Osho 'A Cup of Tea'


Posted By Opening the Heart

I'd like to recommend a book for those of you who have taken or are considering taking The Opening the Heart Workshop™.


The Transformative Power Of Crisis by Robert M. and Jane Alter.


Along with Robert Gass and Judith Ansara Gass, Robert M. Alter was one of the original leaders of The Opening the Heart Workshop during its residence at Spring Hill in Ashby, Massachusetts.


 The Transformative Power of Crisis details the philosophical, psychological and spiritual themes underlying our work at Opening the Heart in a beautiful and accessible format. It was originally published in 2000 under the title How Long Till My Soul Gets It Right?


Here are some customer recommendations culled from


After reading Robert and Jane Alter's book, cover-to-cover, I discovered a calmness, a peaceful feeling that no other book has ever given to me. In reading, I discovered that I am not alone in the many situations that life has visited upon me, and that there is a window that, when ready, anyone can climb through and find him or herself in a more tranquill place. Thank you, Robert and Jane, for a loving, spiritual, affirming and educational look at reality.


This is one of the most positive, nurturing and enriching books I have read on the subject of fulfilling goals, healing, strengthening relationships and boosting self-confidence. As a counsellor, I am continually searching for quality reading material to recommend, and this book will definitely be on the list.


While the book's title mentions 'crisis', I found that the stories and commentary applied to almost every facet of my life. I was taken aback by Alter's deep and wide understanding of the human condition in general, and I believe this book deserves to reach a broad audience. I don't often find books like this to be inspiring--usually you have to wade through chapters and chapters of muck--but almost every page of this book shone with wisdom.


And a recommendation from Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind


"The Transformative Power of Crisis embodies an earthy wisdom of the mind and soul that speaks to the heart of therapy. Many times in life I have longed for teachers like Robert and Jane Alter who could gently and truly lead me to face myself, while also seeing the divine light that shines through the human predicament. Their humor, wisdom, and vision enlighten every page of this honest guide to the journey of life. " 

Posted By Opening the Heart

Here is the first in an occasional series of self guided meditations. These meditations are good ways to calm the mind, empty mental clutter and ease stress and difficult emotions. In them we use the breath as a tool and our imagination as our guide. Each meditation involves imagining sending a complete in and out breath cycle to paticular narrowly focused parts of the body. This time we'll work with:





 head focus points

Begin by finding a comfortable seated position. Settle yourself into a place where your body can be relatively still.


Close your eyes and gradually bring your attention to your breathing. There is no need to change anything about how you are breathing.


1) Let your inner focus bring your attention to your nostrils- the place where breath enters and leaves the body. Take a breath into the space inside your nostrils and imagine a hollowness, a sense of spaciousness inside them. Notice any relaxation of tensions around the nostrils as you do this.


2) Now bring your attention to your sinus area at the bridge of your nose. Take a breath into the space inside your sinuses and imagine a hollowness, a sense of spaciousness inside them. Notice any relaxation of tensions around the sinus area as you do this.


3) Bring your attention to the part of your head immediately behind the center of your eyebrows. Send the next breath into this place and imagine a hollowness, a sense of spaciousness being created there. Notice any relaxation of tensions around this area as you do this.


4) Use your imagination to send your next breath right up into the top of your skull. Allow the breath to relax and dissipate any tensions there simply by imagining a hollow, spacious emptiness.


5) Using your imagination again, send your next breath to the extreme back of your skull. Image an empty space there, wide and tall and open.


6) There is frequently tension at the place where the skull joins the backbone. In your imagination send the next breath deeply into this area. As you breath in allow that place to be infused with airy spaciousness. As you breath out notice the letting go.


7) On to the top of the throat. Breathe a great open space there.


8) Put the tip of your tongue gently on your hard pallette just behind your front teeth. Breathe a deep breath there.


9) and 10) Take two deep, emptying breaths into your whole head, imagining a hollow, empty space.


You can take more than one breath at each of the above stages if you find that works for you. You may also repeat the sequence as often as you would like.

As you lean the sequence you might like to have one of the pictures nearby. Feel free to copy them (female head is above, male head is below.)


malehead, focal points

Posted By Opening the Heart

Continuing in the tradition of "world's most inconsistent blogger" I'm back again after a five month hiatus. Once again, pressures of my day job have been occupying all my time and energy. I am the first to admit that keeping things in balance is not one of my more developed skills!

The Opening the Heart Workshop has been going through an organizational transition as well. After 10 years of holding up the business end of the workshop I have been passing over some of those responsibilities to my dear workshop co-presenters Linda (Aranda) and Donna (Macomber). This comes at a time when we are developing new and exciting variations of the original workshop to present to particular target populations - such as the recently berieved.  I will continue to be the OTH "Webmaster" - and hope to do a better job of keeping this blog updated on a regular basis.

The mission and purpose of this blog is in part to stay in touch with the many participants who have taken one or more of our workshops, it is also to offer support, encouragement and hopefully some humor to anyone with the desire to open their heart to life, love and laughter.

On this occasion I would like to point you all towards one of my favorite teachers, Gil Fronsdal. He has recently begun a series of talks on the EMOTIONS - and as working with emotions forms such a core part of the OTH Workshop, I want to share his wisdom with you. The series will be added to over the next weeks but he has already given an overview introduction and a teaching about fear. They can be found at:

Posted By Opening the Heart

Staying present in the moment is a challenge.

A bird flitted across my path this morning as I walked around Walden Pond near my home in Massachusetts.  It took maybe a second to startle, pass right in front of me and disappear into the woods. I was immediately totally present. As i walked on I tried to maintain that moment's wakefulness and awareness but in the very trying my mind had already seized on the event and begun to extract its meaning. I thought of how many moments like that make up a day and how many moments are missed as the mind churns its apparently endless stories.

Its hard enough to remain present in the moment, even in the peace and quiet of the early morning woods. Our minds are still there hitching a ride, chattering away and stealing our attention. But we make it even more difficultr for ourselves. A minute or two later I passed a guy taking his morning walk with his IPod buds firmly in his ears.  How much harder is it to be in the moment in the peaceful woods while listening to  a play list?


I love using my IPod but if I couple that activity with another one - even one as beautiful as walking in nature, I find it impossible to stay present to what I am listening to. For me, multitasking is not conducive to being in the moment.

Just then I passed the site of Thoreau's cabin where he wrote Walden Pond.

His mantra: "Simplify, Simplify, Simplify" seemed particularly fitting.


Posted By Opening the Heart

Yes, I know that the title sounds really daunting and technical but I absolutely needed to alert you to this fascinating and engaging talk about the increasing scientific evidence supporting meditation as a key component of an emotionally healthy lifestyle.


Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation

Enhancing '
emotional awareness and psychological flexibility' and inducing 'well-being and emotional balance' *(see below in Abstract) have always been core goals of The Opening the Heart Workshop™ I am absolutely convinced that a regular, supported meditation practice is an important tool in maintaining and extending the positive effects of the workshop.


I particularly recommend this video fo those who like to see the scientific evidence for the benefits of various forms of 'spiritual' practice.



Mindfulness meditation, one type of meditation technique, has been shown to enhance emotional awareness and psychological flexibility as well as induce well-being and emotional balance. Scientists have also begun to examine how meditation may influence brain functions. This talk examines the effect of mindfulness meditation practice on the brain systems in which psychological functions such as attention, emotional reactivity, emotion regulation, and self-view are instantiated. We will also discuss how different forms of meditation practices are being studied using neuroscientific technologies and are being integrated into clinical practice to address symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Speaker: Philippe Goldin
Philippe is a research scientist and heads the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. He spent 6 years in India and Nepal studying various languages, Buddhist philosophy and debate at Namgyal Monastery and the Dialectic Monastic Institute, and serving as an interpreter for various Tibetan Buddhist lamas. He then returned to the U.S. to complete a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University. His NIH-funded clinical research focuses on (a) functional neuroimaging investigations of cognitive-affective mechanisms in adults with anxiety disorders, (b) comparing the effects of mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy on brain-behavior correlates of emotional reactivity and regulation, and (c) training children in family and elementary school settings in mindfulness skills to reduce anxiety and enhance compassion, self-esteem and quality of family interactions.

Posted By Opening the Heart

The purpose of this occasional series is to point you toward some of the inspiring talks freely available on the web. These recommended talks have been chosen because in one way or another they relate to or amplify teachings, practices and meditations that we present in The Opening the Heart Workshop™. Our hope is that these recommendations will encourage you to continue and develop your practice of Opening the Heart.


Today's recommendation is 'Feeling feelings'


This very personal talk be Kevin Griffin addresses the issue of working with feelings and the body during meditation. Information about Kevin  - and more of his talks and guided meditations - are available at his website