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Posted By Opening the Heart

One of my jobs in co-leading the weekend-long Opening the Heart Workshop is to read the "data sheets" that participants send us in the weeks leading up to the workshop. The 4 questions are : 1) Why are you coming to the workshop now in your life?; 2) What experiences are occurring in your life that you would like to address in the workshop?; 3) What major traumas have happened in your life?; 4) What major exultations have you experienced? Because the questions are optional, not everyone answers them, but many do. As the data sheets come in to me (mostly by e-mail), I sit with them, read them, "absorb" them, again and again, so that when participants enter the workshop space, as staff welcome them, I am putting faces to stories. I find the process of reviewing the stories very grounding and it helps me sincerely acknowledge people as they come into the room to sit in the circle. "Thank you for writing to us, Rita. You came a long way. Welcome...."

People look pleased that their words were read and I imagine that I see a bit of the terror in their faces that they walked in with, relax just a bit. As we sit waiting for the circle to fill, I look at the faces and remember that I have been doing this opening ritual now for 35 years. What I see as I look at our circle is that most people look alone and scared. I make up in my mind that some are thinking "What did I get myself into!?" I also make up in my mind that other people looking around the circle see 35-40 strangers, all trying to look comfortable and at ease. I will later refer to what's going on in this opening circle and say that as we look around into another's eyes and see difference, then we experience separation.

I do not experience this separation because I have already been priveleged to be able to look behind the mask by knowing many peoples' stories. So, as I look across the circle at James, I see a tag line above his head that says "New father- wife just asked him for a divorce". When I look over at Carol, writing in her journal, the tag above her head is "Three children- newly diagnosed, inoperable cancer". Michael, off to my right, has a tag that says "Divorced twice- lonely".

I explain toward the end of the Friday night session that the reason I have come back to this workshop for so long is to see the miracle of the transformation of the circle from Friday night to Sunday morning when most will look into another's eyes, with the mask gone, and they will see what I saw Friday night: no difference. And when we see "no difference" in another's eyes, what we experience is compassion. We "get" the real story, the deeper story than the outer presentation we see on Friday night, and the one we, perhaps, usually see when we go to the post office to buy stamps or to the grocery to buy dinner.

I may tell the story about the father who brings his two young sons into a crowded waiting room of the pediatrician. The boys are disruptive. Most waiting patients go deeper into reading their magazine, but one older woman is visibly upset. Finally, she says to the father "Can't you control your boys!?" The father looks embarassed and says "I'm so sorry. They lost their mother yesterday and I have not been able to console them". And so, in an instant, we "see" something different than what we thought we were seeing and our experience changes from judgment to sadness and compassion. There's an invitation, I think, to see beneath the mask when we can, and to even "make up" a tag, or story, that goes deeper than the one we think we see. Because when we can do that, it just becomes easier to practice lovingkindness with everyone. The Dalai Lama says that when we can do that, we create a more peaceful, loving world.

   With Love and Respect, Jon