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A Heart-Centered Approach To Wellness

Jeffrey, the topic of your public lecture at the Ballsbridge Hotel in Dublin this year is, A Heart-Centered Approach to Wellness.  It looks as if you’re building on last year’s talk, in which you spoke about Empowering the Self to Confront Illness, and developing the ideas of reflection and responsibility, which so many people who attended the talk last year found so meaningful and moving.

To begin, could you explain what you mean by the phrase “a heart-centred approach to wellness”?

As I would define it, a conversation with one’s heart has several components.

First of all, there is a sense of gratitude for everything that occurs in your life. This is not about judging whether things are good or bad, but being appreciative of everything, good and bad. In that way you’re really transcending judgment. Also, if you think of everything that occurs in your life as being part of a divine plan of some sort, then you’re giving reverence back, as well.

The second component has to do with finding what is joyful in your life.  In Chinese medicine the heart is the organ of laughter; so, despite the fact you might be ill, you can still be excited about life itself, and about living. I think a lot of that comes first from gratitude, because to find joy a lot of people compare themselves with other people.  We say,  ‘That person looks happy’.  Or, ‘That person looks vibrant and healthy’. It’s not about comparing yourself with anyone – it’s about being excited about life itself. Laughter is so important. If you can find laughter – be it just hearing a joke, or something which makes you smile – it makes you become lighter in terms of the burdens you carry in life, or the burdens you feel about yourself.

Another way to think of it is to think of having fun.  That’s really the quality of a child. A child is always finding fun, finding laughter and joy in his or her life – so if you want to be healthy you can just imitate a child. Children go through the day enjoying themselves. When they go to bed, they don’t have insomnia. They have a good night’s sleep and they wake up feeling rejuvenated, and very excited about dealing with the day and having fun all over again. Having fun is challenging us to be creative in our lives.

The other theme that’s important is the emotion of the heart. Its expression is joy and laughter, but the emotion itself is love. It’s almost a cliché to talk about that  – but ultimately, if you want to take a heart approach to healing, you must be willing to love yourself, love what you’re doing in life, and allow that love to be a motivating force as you go through life.

Every day is an opportunity for us to experience something new, to do something new with our lives. I think one of the first things one can start out with is, ‘Right, today’s an opportunity for me to have a better sense of love for my life and for what I’m doing’.

So those are the themes.  Gratitude and reverence; joy and laughter and fun; creativity; feeling love and allowing it to saturate your entire body.  Looked at from a healing point of view, you are allowing that love to saturate all your cells – and as it saturates all your cells, then you can really begin to emanate love from yourself.

What a beautiful idea.  And this kind of visualisation is very important in the healing process, isn’t it?

I think it is absolute. Because, you know, when you’re not feeling well you sometimes get disgusted with your body. And that’s not the type of dialogue you want to have with your body – because it is your body!

When we go to negative places in life we tend to focus only on the negative. We need to also appreciate the positive.  This is not the same as positive thinking. Positive thinking is about judgment. Someone who is applying positive thinking might say, ‘Well I’m in a negative place – so let me focus on the positive instead’.  Rather, you focus on everything.  Gratitude, in a way, is saying ‘I have appreciation for everything in my life’. When you do that you can start to lighten up the burden of these dark places or these dark thoughts that you have.

Which, of course, is easy to say  – but very difficult to do…

I agree. That’s why it’s very easy to come to these talks, or read a self-help book, or have some CDs that guide you through meditation and all that. But ultimately it’s a question of commitment. Once you realise all these things, the question is: how mindful are you? And are you going to allow yourself to commit to these possibilities in your life? That’s where mindfulness comes in. And the discipline to say, ‘OK, each day I’m going to meditate for an hour’. Or,  ‘I’m going to focus for an hour on these things that I believe are crucial to healing’. Healing yourself first – and then it’s going to heal the people around you.

Do the Taoist masters have any helpful advice on this topic?

Well, if you think of the masters, they talk about the things that they love – and you can see the excitement when they talk about that. They don’t go into philosophical dissertations.  Instead they say that every day you’re making choices to be more loving. Every day you’re making choices to demonstrate greater gratitude for what’s occurring in your life. And every day you’re going to find something that’s fun or creative or meaningful in the sense that it allows you to laugh about life.

“So, just as children do, they offer a model for how we can begin.  But if we rely on them too much, books and meditations and classic texts can be a kind of crutch.  We like crutches because they allow us to blame somebody else. We can say,  ‘Oh, that wasn’t the right meditation’.  Or, ‘This isn’t the right approach’. In that way we shift the responsibility on to someone else. But ultimately change must come from within. Changing the way we react give us the opportunity for something that’s totally new. If you can change the way you think one thought, or the way you feel one thing, it begins to change your life.”

Change can be very scary too.

Yes. Most of us want to have a sense of harmony. And for many of us that doesn’t mean we think for ourselves  – it means we try to live as a community. Which, in turn, means that everyone believes the same thing rather than thinking for ourselves. That’s where the challenge lies.  And that’s the whole point of going on a spiritual or healing retreat. You go to a place that isolates you from everyone else so that you have the opportunity not to be like everyone else  – because there’s no one else there to judge you, or to remind you that this is not who you are, or this is not the way you should be. You can simply be whoever you want to be.”

Is the constant chatter of technology making it even more difficult to do that?

It is. With more information we get bombarded by an even greater external sense of what the world is like, and it takes us away from our own inner cultivation.  So you have to be willing to turn off the television, and not read newspapers and books, and just be reflective. For some people that’s really hard. Because they’re so caught up in the frenzy of what the world has to offer – or the excitement of the world – that they don’t realise the excitement comes from themselves.  You give to the world the excitement that comes from within.  It’s not something that’s really from outside.

You began by talking about the important of gratitude as a starting-point for this healing journey, Jeffrey. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Gratitude basically means that you take time to observe everything that’s in your life  – be it your friends, be it people, be it circumstances.  First of all it’s about recognising that who you are is based on what’s around you or what’s occurring around you.  It’s reacting to the way you are, and it pulls to your life these events, these objects, these people. And they become the process by which you can grow.

So gratitude is really a practice. It’s not just a case of, ‘OK, I’m just going to chill out, be mellow and just be appreciative’. It’s a practice by which you realise that everything in life – good or bad – has meaning and relevance. And then you start to develop a sense of reverence for whatever occurs in your life.

In Chinese the word for reverence is Jing. Essentially, it means you realise that everything has a spirit – living things and inanimate things – and that as you give reverence to these things you’re really giving appreciation to something beyond the form. Beyond the actual thing itself. What your giving reverence to is the spirit or intentionality in your life. Now if you take that word and you put in the Chinese character for horse underneath Jing, then instead of ‘reverence’ it means ‘fear’.  So fear, in a way, is the resistance to finding things meaningful in life. We become afraid because we don’t like the meaning.  We become fearful because we’re resistant to things which occur in our lives.

We tend to think that fear is the opposite of love. In the same way, we say that illness is the opposite of wellness.  We tend to polarise everything, rather than realising that it’s not really the opposite.  You might also say that illness is a resistance to wellness. Darkness is not the opposite of light, but the absence of light.  And fear is not the opposite of love, but the absence of love.

When we’re ill, one practice that we can do is ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing that’s making me resistant to getting better?’  ‘What can I do that will allow me to realise I don’t have to make my life so difficult?’ Again, it comes back to that heart approach. Your life becomes difficult when you don’t have joy. Your life becomes difficult when you don’t have a sense of gratitude – when you’re not able to find the creative force to feel animated about what you’re doing.

As you speak about gratitude and reverence from a Taoist perspective, Jeffrey, I’m reminded of the Christian tradition of the Hebrew Bible, whose writers often speak about “praising God” – which also results in an outpouring of joy, or a listing of the beauties of the natural world, for example. And poetry also does that…

It’s whatever comes to your mind. That’s the spirit making you pay attention to it, so you reflect on those things. But it doesn’t have to be very grand things.  It could be, you know, I appreciate the fact that right now I’m sitting on a chair. I could be sitting on the floor and be appreciating of that. It doesn’t have to be; I’m appreciative of my wonderful parents or my wonderful spouse or my wonderful friends  – things that have strong emotions attached to them.  It can be simple things, you know? That I have a pen right now to write with, so I’m not going to be in a frenzy going ‘Where is that pen that I need to write this interview?’

That particular frenzy sounds very familiar to me, Jeffrey!  But a frenzy, bad as it is, is at least a kind of energy. As I get older I notice that when I’m feeling under the weather, it’s a challenge to gather enough energy to even begin to think about healing and wellness.

Yes, because you might be focusing on the fact that you’re sick.  You might say, ‘Oh, it’s hard for me to drag myself out of bed because I’m so tired. Or, ‘I feel the pain and I can’t think of anything else’.  In a way, what we’re really saying is, ‘my mind, or my thoughts, or my emotions, are focused on that part that doesn’t give me a sense of life. That doesn’t give me a sense of love. And as difficult as it might be at that time, a heart-centered approach is asking us to give a sense of an opening: something that can shift the focus away from the pain, away from the fatigue, away from the symptoms.

So we might say, ‘Yes, I’m tired – but I’m still breathing’.

‘I’m tired – but I still have this wonderful bed that I can lie on to rest my fatigued body’. Yes I have pain in this area but I still have mobility in the area. It might seem like positive thinking, but it’s more than that. It’s a practice by means of which you are shifting the focus of intention away from things that dispirit you and bring yourself back to that sense of gratitude for being alive.

Life is so exciting. There’s just so much it has to offer us.

That’s a good note to finish on, Jeffrey – let’s hold that thought!

I feel incredibly privileged that we have these conversations every year.  And we are so lucky to have you come and talk to us in person. Once again, thank you for your insights and your inspiration; and we look forward to seeing you in Dublin in a few weeks’ time.

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