Read an Excerpt
THE FIRST INVITATION
Sometimes we kill our heart in order not to feel.
In the First Invitation, love calls you to experience your emotions fully. To do so requires learning when and why you deny them, and developing the capacity for reconnection.
To love is to open. To love fully is to open wide. When we're wide open, love rushes toward us and emanates from us. We recognize it as the essence of our existence. Naturally, without effort, the illusion of separation vanishes. We experience ourselves as part of one great whole, indistinguishable from all we survey.
Too often, however, we shrink from the experience of oneness and then get used to it. We come to mistake the lie of limitation for the boundless truth of love. We let ourselves love family, friends, and country, but stop there. We offer our love to God, but withhold it from much of divine creation. Yet none of this is irreversible. Nothing, outside of our own unwillingness, can keep us from reconnecting.
Think of the first time you fell in love. Remember how everything was somehow different, how the entire universe seemed to harmonize with joyful intent? Your senses were heightened, your blood quickened. Daily annoyances became sources of awe. Difficult people seemed suddenly wonderful. All your problems, a moment ago insurmountable, now felt like the smallest hurdle.
Sadly, it didn't last. It rarely does. But for however long you're rapt, falling in love causes you to remember the vastness of love's reach. Afterward, if you're like most people, you quickly begin seeking the next one who will supposedly, miraculously, return you to that rapture for good.
But you can feel such rapture all the time. Love is yours without a partner, without any object whatsoever, once you're willing to feel everything. To accept the First Invitation means approaching every single moment as you would a lover. You don't just feel the moment but lean into it, let it roar right through you, and meet it with equal intensity.
When a moment brings pleasure, such openness is easy. But when it brings frustration or pain, your likely reaction is the exact opposite. You close off, shut down. A shutdown is your instinctive response to any emotion that you don't like or don't want. It's your way of saying either "Get these feelings away from me," or "Get me away from them."
Whenever you shut down, you become unavailable to love. Though this initial response is unavoidable, you can always choose to move beyond it. To do so requires welcoming all your emotions, even the most difficult. In doing so you inevitably reopen, gaining immediate access to love even while challenging times continue. As you embrace the fullness of life, with all its trials and traumas, love embraces you in return.
All of this happens only in the present, one moment at a time. To determine whether you are open or closed, you must bring your awareness into the present. The simplest way to do this is by turning your attention to your body, and by learning to detect the stress patterns that indicate a shutdown. These stress patterns exist in the body because that's where emotions exist as well. As part of their nature, emotions strive to flow through the body as quickly as possible. And they always succeed, unless you block them by shutting down. While in a shutdown you may find yourself scowling, tensing your shoulders, holding your breath, or all of the above. Each of us is unique in our signs and symptoms, but the more you look for them the more easily they become apparent.
Look. Keep looking. Look so often that the very first indication of a shutdown sounds a bell through your whole being.
Regardless of how it manifests, a shutdown means only one thingthere's an emotion you're not feeling. Why aren't you feeling it? Because you're afraid. You're afraid that feeling it will be worse than not feeling it. But in reality that's seldom the case. While you can certainly choose to avoid situations that may elicit a particular feeling, you can't protect yourself from a feeling once it arises. Any attempt at such protection, even when well intentioned, will only serve to keep you shut down.
The need to feel is a basic human trait, as vital as the requirement for food. Most of us would never consider self-starvation, yet we starve ourselves emotionally on a daily basis.
We tell endless stories about why we can't or shouldn't feel. I'm too weak, for instance, or I'm too busy, or Everyone will think I'm a wreck. Some stories have to do with how we see ourselves, and some with how other people see us. But all stories point toward one fundamental truthsurrendering to unwanted feelings means giving up our sense of self-control. This applies whether we avoid most feelings, or have learned to accept all but a few.
We can't control our feelings because they're part of our very life force. They have a powerful will of their own, like the currents in a rushing river. We never know how long we'll feel insulted, or hopeless, or vengeful, or lonely. This unpredictability is as frustrating as it is inconvenient. So instead of letting feelings just sweep through us we gird ourselves against them, attempting to keep the whole uncontrollable mess far away, out there.
The problem is that feelings are never out there, they're always in here. And once we're locked down there's absolutely nowhere for them to go. Unwanted feelings become stagnant, foul, and ultimately poisonous. All those supposed victories of self-control against wayward emotion turn into defeats with names like depression, cancer, obesity, heart disease, and stroke.
Yet, of course, you know all this. On some level you always have. Which is why it's so easy to ignore. Which is why it's the First Invitation. The other six Invitations are built upon this commitment to emotional presence. Without it they are mere words, dry and austere ideals.
Once you recognize how vital it is to feel everything, three key distinctions arise. First, feeling everything is not the same as expressing everything. You may often shy away from feeling because you confuse the two, imagining that allowing your emotions to flow leads to melodrama and narcissism. While sometimes nothing could be more appropriate than sobbing, raging, leaping with joy, or singing at the top of your lungs, at other times such extroversion doesn't fit. And love, in its wisdom, leaves the decision to you. Sometimes venting your feelings might seem selfish, reactive, or counterproductive. That's why you're always free to assess the situation and then decide whether to express yourself now, later, or not at all.
Second, feeling everything is not the same as exaggerating everything. Such exaggeration can take many forms. You may hold on to feelings after they're ready to depart, instead of allowing them to take their natural course. You may analyze feelings to the point of obsession, rather than just letting them be. You may become overemotional in a way that's not quite genuine, forgetting that everyone experiences feelings uniquely. None of these exaggerations is in keeping with the First Invitation. In fact, manipulating the free flow of feeling is a subtle way of rejecting it.
Finally, feeling everything is not the same as enduring everything. There's no need for it to render you stuck, or passive, or victimized by circumstances you can change. Emotional presence actually ensures the opposite. It invigorates you, tapping into the storehouse of energy that feelings possess. By remaining open you become more creative, more attuned to what's in your own best interest. Often, once your feelings come into focus, the right path of action suddenly does, too.
Emotional presence also keeps you from "acting out." This term, employed so often in regard to children, has even more relevance for adults. It means using your actions to demonstrate what you're unable to feel or express directly. This may apply to the smallest act, like making a nasty remark instead of communicating the hurt that gave rise to it. But it also may apply to a major event, like having an affair to convey marital rage. In truth, many people spend their entire lives acting out. The urgency of their external goals holds a clue to what roils within. A desperate need for wealth, for example, may arise from deep-seated insecurity. The drive for fame or status, likewise, often stems from feelings of worthlessness.
Considering these last two examples, you may wonder what's so bad about acting out. If shutdowns around insecurity and worthlessness can lead to wealth and fame, wouldn't that be turning a negative into a positive? It would if the motivating feelings went away, but they rarely do. The same achievements that might provide real satisfaction for other people, in these cases ring mostly hollow.
When it comes to feelings, the only way out is through. It's that simple. The beauty of opening to all feelings, even the ones we judge as negative, is that in time they let go of us. At the start feeling everything can seem like annihilation, like being engulfed by wave after emotional wave. But actually the reverse is true. In giving up our illusion of self-control, we gain a lasting sense of authenticity. This authenticity gives rise to greater power, freedom, and an astonishing revelation:
The more we feel, the more we love. And the more we love, the more love becomes us.
ILLUMINATING THE FIRST INVITATION
The master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings.
Recognizing the shutdown of feelings is how emotional presence begins.
In order to open to your feelings, you need to pay attention to them. Paying attention to what you're feeling is a simple act. It's simple, but not easy. To pay attention consistently requires breaking habits that may have developed over decades. Even those who have become highly skilled at meditation, witnessing their thoughts and emotions silently for hours on end, can lose all ability to pay attention in a charged situation.
Remember, paying attention to feelings is not the same as expressing, exaggerating, or acting out. All it requires is a gentle focus, a turning toward what's already present. As you begin this practice, what may be present most often is a lack of feelingin other words, a shutdown. Shutdowns aren't just big and dramatic; they are also small, everyday events. On any given day, the first shutdowns may happen even before you open your eyes.
I don't want to go to work. Who's making so much noise? The damn cat's in the way.
No matter how seemingly insignificant, thoughts such as these are often initial signs that you're fleeing the moment rather than opening to it. If you haven't yet found any tension in your body, they provide a reminder that it's time to look. The sooner you look for these shutdowns, the easier it is to reopen. That's why even just the hint of a shutdown is worthy of your complete attention.
I can't stand this traffic. My desk is a mess. Why'd she give me that dirty look?
Think of someone or something that's really been bothering you lately. Just for a while, no matter how unpleasant, let yourself dwell on this subject. Let all the frustration it induces arise without opposition. This will create an intentional shutdown. Now, turn your attention to your body. Where is the shutdown located? You might find a throbbing temple, a knitted brow, or a clenched jaw. You might find a tightened throat, a pounding heart, or a knot in the pit of your stomach. What one area draws your focus most acutely?
Once you've recognized the shutdown's primary location, keep your attention focused right on that spot. Don't try to understand what's happening there, or why it's happening. Don't judge it in any way, or attempt to change it or make it go away. Don't even try to describe it, or to distinguish whether it's mostly physical or emotional. Simply keep your attention on whatever arises. Invite it to express itself fully. Let go of any expectations about what's supposed to happen, or how. Trust that everything that transpires will be just right.
If your mind wanders during this process, gently bring it back. If you find your attention drifting toward the bothersome issue itself, return it to the sensations of your physical shutdown only. If the sensations begin to move, move your attention right along with them. If you see colors or images in your mind's eye, invite them to manifest fully as well. Make sure not to urge anything forth, or to become lost in what does come forth. Just continue to keep a close but relaxed watch, welcoming all that you experience and feel.
Strange as it may seem, this consistent and receptive awareness is all that's necessary for a shutdown to ease. Watch how long it takes. If you weren't already shut down before beginning the exercise, it might only be a few moments. At most it shouldn't be more than a minute.
The same tensions you just felt will likely occur whenever you're closed. Depending on the circumstance, they may occur alone or in varying combinations. A definite few, however, will show up more often than the rest. This is your shutdown pattern. It's unique to you. Learning your own patterns is a key part of becoming more open, not just to feelings but also to love. When you're closed, access to both is restricted. When you're open they can both flow freely.
Over the next few days, see if you can spot your shutdowns whenever they happen. Whether they're large or small, pay attention to them just as you did in this exercise. You can do this when alone or right in the thick of things. Soon, your own shutdown pattern will become clear. This will allow you to find it quickly. It will also enable you to recognize your shutdowns in the early stages, before they really take hold.
While it's relatively easy to spot and experience shutdowns, since they create specific physical sensations, the state of openness is a little more subtle. You can't point to it, and it exists in varying degrees. The absence of a shutdown indicates a certain amount of openness, but it may only be slight.
To understand openness more clearly, imagine yourself in the pouring rain without an umbrella. If you're on your way to an important meeting and can't get wet, the rain is a bona fide crisis. If you're headed nowhere special but would rather stay dry, the rain is a minor nuisance. If it's a warm summer day and you enjoy the cool cascade of drops, the rain is mostly welcome. And if you're delighted by the downpour, soaking it up in appreciation, the rain is positively cherished.
As you can gather, each of these instances represents a spot along the spectrum of openness, heading from least to most. Rain, of course, is what happens to you in any particular moment, and your ultimate goal is to cherish whatever that moment brings. This includes tragedies as well as triumphs, problems as well as solutions, joys as well as sorrows.