Sea anemone by Virginia Draper
Opening, closing, opening, closing …
Everything has its natural rhythm, including the human heart. I’m not sure why it took me so long to understand this, but a childhood memory – of exploring rock-pools with my father while on holiday in Scotland – helped. On family visits to chilly windswept beaches, he and I would wander at low tide among the exposed rock basins in search of marine life: crabs and starfish and sea anemones and jellyfish and small see-through shrimpy things.
Of all of them, I was completely fascinated by the sea anemones, each one a blob of red, brown or orange jelly, fringed with translucent tentacles swaying in the salt-water currents. My father would reach down and gently touch the array of tentacles with his finger. Like magic, they disappeared, leaving behind just a smooth blob of jelly.
Of course, as a five-year-old I wanted to know “WHY? Why do they do that?” And of course, as a father, he knew everything. He said it was because they needed to be safe. I asked him “Then why don’t they stay like that all the time?” And he said it was because they needed to eat; that unless their tentacles were open, they couldn’t feed.
Something about this dilemma stayed with me. Food or safety, but not both. Years later, I attended an Insight Dialogue retreat, where we spent nine days meditating together in pairs, practising mindful speaking and listening. As time went on, with each new partner I became more sensitive to the responses of my own heart: the subtle openings and closings that seemed to happen automatically, in response to whoever happened to be sitting in front of me.
And I thought again of the sea anemone’s dilemma: survival or nourishment, but not both. Not both together at the same time, perhaps, but both are necessary. I understood then that I’d unconsciously been trying to push myself to open, and stay open, assuming that “closed” was bad.
I see a similar misunderstanding in some of the people who come to my brahma-vihara retreats, where we practice specific forms of meditation designed to develop kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. Often people assume that they’re supposed to somehow force themselves into a state of kindness and stay there, no matter what. But this is a subtle kind of violence, and it goes against all the laws of nature.
Apparently, even newborn infants and mothers do this dance of opening and closing. The baby will hold its mother’s loving gaze for some time, but then it looks away. It needs a break! It’s unrealistic to expect constant intimacy – or constant anything, for that matter. Like only breathing in, and never breathing out …
Instead, can we get comfortable with opening and closing? Because we can’t have one without the other. And as we get more attuned to our own hearts, like the sea anemone, we’ll know instinctively when to stay safe, and when to feed.