I’ll start with an example. My best friend and I once went to see “La Bohème” at the Leeds Opera House. It was great: the singing, the modern production. Nevertheless, the story, is, of course, heart-breaking. A working-class woman dies. However, although my friend and I were sad at the end of the opera, we also felt strangely uplifted. My friend commented on that and I said that I recall that in Christian Orthodoxy they say that a broken, shattered heart (сокрушенное сердце) is a way to God.
In Buddhist terms this broken heart could be described as shattered walls of an identity. It can be interpreted as a complete disillusionment with samsara: the world of the conditioned phenomena, where one thing begets another and everything revolves according to the law of conditioned arising. The broken heart may happen from realising that everything is subject to this law, but in particular: your own personality, or identity (which I discuss quite a lot in this blog).
In feminist terms, I suppose this broken heart is the crude awakening from the illusion that everything is fine, that women are treated the same as men in our society, and that our lives as women depend solely on our efforts. The question of course is what we do once we find out and what attitude we take. Some feminists are quite militant, and others advocate a more gentle approach to dispensing with patriarchy.
What is the difference between a broken and unbroken heart? I would say it’s softness. When a person survives a broken heart and does not break down or reacts with hardening the heart even further, then certain softness appears around them. It can be very evident even from the person’s physical appearance.
However, I am sure that keeping the heart soft takes a lot of spiritual effort, struggle even. As it says in “Night Watch” (a Russian blockbuster), “It is easier to blow out a candle then to light it.” Keeping the heart soft means keeping it open to ever new suffering and heart-breaking stories and events. This requires strength – and a habit, which can be developed.
I remember riding a commuter train in Ukraine: ordinary train, ordinary people around, each absorbed in their daily worries. All of a sudden, I spotted a face of a women sat opposite me. Immediately, I thought, “She practices”. I did not know what, but I could from her smooth, serene face, from her easy manner that she keep her heart soft and open. My guess was confirmed: soon the woman took the Bible out of her bag and started reading.
For a feminist, I think it is important to keep the heart open, even beyond the initial shock of realisation that the situation is bad. The reason for this is that circumstances constantly change, and we need freshness of approach in order to react appropriately to each new challenge. The hardened heart leads to stale mind process.
In Buddhism, we are urged to react to each situation from the point of mindfulness, or our Buddha nature – call it what you will. The point is, our first response to a saying, or a piece of news, or a situation should come from a place of peace. How do we reach peace? Buddhism argues that it is done through acceptance.
By acceptance I do not mean giving up, in the same way as by broken heart I do not mean a depressed heart. When I say acceptance I mean just that: a realistic acceptance of the facts that for this moment things are as they are. Broken heart comes in when we allow ourselves to feel the sadness of the situation. It also comes in when we allow ourselves to admit that we might not have the power to rectify the situation to the full.
In Buddhism, it is called karma. No one is above karma, not even buddhas (they can only see all the subtleties of all interweaving of karmic effects), not even gods (once their good karma is expired, they are bound to be born in lower realms, such as humans’ one).
When we are faced with the sad state of affairs as feminists, where do our reactions come from: from the place of peace, or from a hard springboard, made out of our own hurts, negative emotions, intellectual conclusions at which we arrived, quotes by our favourite feminist and lines from books? It should be obvious that the hard surface will produce a ballistic response. It has less chance to be appropriate to the situation, timely, or, even, kind.
This is one of the reasons a talk by a monk or a lay teacher in a Theravada centre might seem a bit slow-paced to the outsider: the speaker would constantly pause, take a breath, and look within herself, making sure that what she is saying at nay given moment comes from her soft heart, and not from habitual thinking or speaking.
This is one of the reasons Zen koans and dialogues between a teacher and a disciples can seem so illogical. Normally, logics belong to status quo of the world, which is usually patriarchal. Zen koans or a Zen master’s remarks are aimed at challenging, breaking through exactly that conventional wisdom, and at shattering the walls of a disciple’s personality.
Finding your strength and practising keeping your heart open is a spiritual practice. Feminists have enough on their plates, which leaves little time for spiritual practice. However, taking on at least a few aspects of the idea of soft heart would not hurt feminist cause. These could be: realisation that we are not all-powerful, realisation that we cannot solve all the problems once and for all, avoiding speaking in formulas, avoiding seeing the world though one unchanging lens.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a content writer at http://content4you.org. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. Her works can be found on her blog.