By Margaret Kirschner We sat facing Een—Eileen Kiera—our mindfulness teacher at Indianola, in a serene campground on the shores of Puget Sound, Washington. She was giving us a gift, she said, as she instructed us on how to sit or stand: slight pelvic tilt, sternum lifted as if pulled gently upward by a string, allowing the shoulders to rest slightly back and downward.
Familiar instructions given by yoga teachers, physical therapists. I had often used them myself as I trained chronic pain patients to relax at the hospital where I work. Yet I had a hard time with them personally—reminding myself to alter the chronic slump in my back each time I sat to meditate. Sitting upright was tiring and I would catch myself humped over again and again. Then I heard Een's words, "Lifting your sternum opens your heart."
"Of course I want my heart open," I thought as I raised my ribcage and let my shoulders slip back. For the first time, I had found a position that felt comfortable and relaxing. My mind opened as an awareness shot through me: I had been protecting my heart since my divorce. I had been curling up to protect my soft underbelly—like any animal would do. I realized that I did not need to do that any longer.
I maintained the open heart posture during sitting throughout our week-long retreat, and have been able to continue the posture since. "My heart is open" has become a mantra. To my great joy, I find myself being more spontaneous, having a more open attitude toward others, giving more gifts of smiles or time or material things. That the open heart posture lifts my spirit and changes my behavior is only to be expected when we remember that body, mind, and spirit are one. But it has been my often successful habit to use my mind to change my body. When I remember that I am one with the universe, I find it natural that the universe reflects an open heart posture towards me: a chance meeting with an acquaintance who says he considers me his friend, or being introduced to someone who admires my "caring face." Small but meaningful events that nourish my open heart.
Lifting my ribcage I feel my heart opening. My whole body smiles.
Margaret Kirschner, Mutual Support of the Heart, lives and practices in Bend, Oregon.