Broken heart, soft heart by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaToday my topic is a bit weird – it is about broken heart, but in a good sense.

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.

Open_Heart_by_charcoaledsoulIn 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.

LotusHeartI 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).

HandHeartWhen 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 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.

Categories: Buddhism

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15 replies

  1. In the aftermath of the grand jury decision on the Eric Garner case, some of those in the MSNBC discussions (especially but not only the white people) were visibly shaken. I can’t remember the name of the younger black male journalist who was completely calm. He said the decision did not surprise him and went on to say that racism in America goes back centuries and that it is only in the last 50 years that there have been sustained efforts to overcome it. He said he did not expect racism to be overcome today or tomorrow but also that there is no reason to give up because some things have changed and that is because others have struggled. He also said that we should struggle against racism now even though we may not be around to see the fruits of our actions. This is the kind of calm you are talking about. It is also what is needed for a long term struggle against injustice.

    The realization that we are not all-powerful and cannot do everything or solve everything now which you mention in your last paragraph is sooooo important. But we also need as you say earlier not to close our eyes and hearts to reality. Thanks so much.


  2. Of relevance here–although categorically repudiated, condemned and ridiculed by the monotheistic theologies–is that the Revelation of “the resurrection” (including the revelation of the memories of previous lives) can be received *only* by a broken heart; a heart which has been completely crushed by an excruciating sorrow. It was in the context of such a sorrow, for example, that the closest followers of Jesus received the revelation of memories of previous lives at the time of his crucifixion (as cryptically and metaphorically described in Chapter 27, verses 53-54 of the Gospel of Matthew).



  3. In terms of broken hearts and good outcomes, I’ve never had my heart broken by feminism. I’ve never been disappointed in the path. There was a time of breakage, however, and that softening you speak of, thanks Oxana, and also when I was floundering miserably in the waters of self-pity. But feminism saw me struggling for survival and pulled me into her boat. We’ve been paddling the rapids together, it seems like ever since, but there are no wounds from the relationship. She is really very kind, very supportive, and a good soul.


    • Sarah, I love your response. It sooooo speaks to my experience with feminism. I’ve usually used a Christian metaphor to describe that the women’s movement came along and saved me. But I love your image of the boat paddling the rapids.

      There was a time when I feared that I had to let go of feminism in order to grow spiritually, but I realized that I only had to let go of any automatic reactions, feminist or otherwise, but that the tools that feminism had given me would still be useful. I think that turning is what Oxana is talking about.


    • Hello, Sarah, and yes, I have written this post having a lot of experience with self-pity. Exactly. And I just found that standing up to my own failings, mistakes and sorrows is extremely hard, but the only healthy way to be.


  4. So much is revealed in our heart break – what does the breaking, and how we respond to it reveals so much of ourselves. Thank you for this reminder, Oxana.


    • Hello, Barbara, yes. I have noticed in my experience and that of other people that it is only people who face their deepest pain who grow the most. And it can take them years – and these can be quiet years, nothing much happening on the outside – and people might be saying: “oh, she seems lost”, or “oh., look she’s so pale, she’s lost a lot of weight”. But then, if the right work is done these people emerge from these periods absolutely reborn.


  5. Oxana, I love your post. You start out with an example that I’ve experienced myself. La Bohéme — especially since it was performed magnificently the last time I heard it at the Met — brought tears to my eyes, and uplifted me powerfully. I think the kind of heart shattering you describe can happen many times in a person’s life, even the kind of heart opening that allows for greater spiritual growth. My only question is if heart opening is the same for all of us? It seems to me that there are probably many different bhavas or svarupas, Sanskrit words meaning our true nature in different ways (are these just Hindu terms or are they still a part of Buddhism). I think my authentic nature has more to do with ecstasy than peace, other people seem at home in love or freedom, etc. Peace seems to limited a category to encompass all of us.


    • Hello, Nancy, thank you for your very thoughtful comment. Yes, I think you are right. You know, I was thinking recently about this sort of thing in terms of different Goddesses: you know, all women are Goddesses, but some are more nurturing, and some are more… commanding, you know. Like I’ve got a friend who cares for four children of your own, plus their partners. I am not this type of person at all. I am more of a setting the standard – type of character. And there are Goddesses of all kinds: giving love to all, virgins… and so on.


  6. In honor of your blog, I watched two of my DVDs of Rent last night. As you know, it’s based on La Boheme. As you probably also know, the composer, Jonathan Larson, died the night after the final dress rehearsal, leaving a broken-hearted cast. They went on, however, and the show won Tonys and Larson won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.


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