The One Practice That Is Changing My Life

For the first time in my life, it’s October and I’m still practicing my New Year’s Resolution. And it’s changing my life. Before I tell you what it is, though, I have to tell you a story. The story begins more than two years ago…

I’m co-facilitating a couples retreat with intimacy coach Allana Pratt, when she takes the couples through an exercise. She has them face each other, sitting, knees touching. She tells them to follow her instructions without asking questions.

Then she tells them to close their hearts to each other.

Do it, she says, close your heart. Protect yourself. Defend yourself. Get safe. Keep them out. For thirty seconds, she has them maintain this inner posture.

Then she tells them to open their hearts to each other.

Go ahead, she says, open them up. Allow the other in. Soften. Make yourself vulnerable. Welcome your partner into your heart. For thirty seconds, she has them maintain this inner openness.

Then she tells them to close their hearts again. Thirty seconds. Now open your hearts. Thirty seconds. Close them. Thirty seconds. Open them. And so on. Until she finally asks them all to rearrange their chairs in a big circle for discussion of the exercise.

She asks them what it felt like when they were closed, and what it felt like when they were open. Everyone describes similar bodily experiences of being closed-hearted: hardness, tension, rigidity, anger, the sensation somewhere in their chest of a door slamming shut. And everyone has the same bodily experiences of being open-hearted: tenderness, peacefulness, looseness, warm sensations of love throughout their body. However, these descriptions weren’t the most significant learning of the exercise. The most important discovery was this:

They had a choice.

Oftentimes, we believe the state of our heart is at the mercy of others. If they are kind, our hearts open up. If they are cruel, our hearts close up. The truth is, though, in the words of Victor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” What the couples learned that day is that regardless of what life and love is sending their way, they have a choice about whether or not they will remain open-hearted to their people and their problems.

Fast forward eighteen months. It was December 2020. I was feeling more banged up by life and love than I ever have before. And I read these words by Michael Singer: “Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.” Right then and there, I made my New Year’s Resolution:

I will be mindful of any moment in which I feel my heart closing, and I will choose to open it back up.

It happened just now, in a small and subtle way, as I was writing this blog post. A text came through from my wife, saying she forgot to water the potted plants on our deck, and asking if I could do it for her. I had already dismissed the notification before I noticed the tightening in my chest, tethered to a thought like, “This is finally my chance to write this week, you can water your silly little plants when you get home tonight.” Having noticed it, I breathed. I opened my heart, like those couples did almost two years ago in a hotel conference room in Colorado, and I discovered something utterly different and utterly joyful within me:

With just a couple of minutes of my time, I get to show my wife how much I love her. What a gift! What an opportunity!

This year, I’ve begun to learn that the feeling of our heart closing is our ego coming to our rescue. It’s attaching to something it wants, or resisting something it doesn’t. It’s that simple. That’s the function of our protective ego. Every time. And when we invite our ego to chill out, stand down, take a break from protecting us, that sensation of our heart opening is the sensation of our soul (or true self, if you’d prefer) doing what it does: allowing all of life to flow through it—both the hard and the happy—and allowing Love to flow from it.

When that happens, you discover a lot of things about yourself and your life, because Love is now free to carry a bunch of beautiful longings into your awareness. For instance, you want to be authentic even if it isn’t reciprocated. You want to stay curious even when others seem confrontational. You don’t need to be empowered to feel powerful.

Or, more specifically, you want to start blogging again. You want to write a novel this time around. You want to enjoy what you’re doing with your life, even if you don’t know where any of it is taking you.

And perhaps most importantly, you definitely want to water the plants.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.