Wisdom and the Heart

In a 2014 meditation and philosophy class, Ellen Tadd had us consider the heart chakra, one of the seven centers discussed in her Framework for Wise Education. She asked us to meditate on the concept of wanting the best for ourselves and for one another. “What does this really mean,” she asked? How do we want the best for someone who has hurt us, stolen from us, violated our privacy, or brought injury and pain to others or to the earth? How do we want the best for ourselves when we too make mistakes that cause pain?

Her questions brought me back to an experience decades before—in February of 1988. I was twenty six years old and in a happy, focused and fulfilling time—in love, about to be married in March, working at a job I enjoyed, exercising every day, and seeing a very wise and helpful therapist to resolve some issues from my past.

Sudden Change
Late one night that month I received a phone call. My mother’s best friend was on the other end of the line to share the painful news that my mother had been killed—the victim of a seemingly random homicide in Palo Alto, CA. The news of her death was such a big shock, and the accompanying grief of family and friends so challenging there were only two choices: sink or swim. With hindsight, I now realize that once I had caught my breath, the energy center which Ellen Tadd refers to as the "kingpin" of the chakra system--the center of clarity and discernment--opened wide.

I could handle the many details that so suddenly arose: getting home, helping my younger sister get home from college, meeting with the Minister and planning mom’s funeral, her memorial, discussing her things, her home, the needs of my family and friends, picking the headstone, etc. I could also hold a larger view: my mother’s life and death had touched many, many people.

When I visited the funeral home to view her body, I could perceive our profound interconnection as mother and daughter, and also, for the first time, our status as two equals who loved each other and wanted the best for each other. There was a sense of complete forgiveness between us.

Anger was not part of this journey. Nor were the stages of denial, bargaining, or depression discussed in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ theory of bereavement. I never wished anyone ill, though I hoped her attacker would be caught and stopped from harming others. I understood that his actions could only have arisen through great confusion and hurt. What I also hoped was for him to become “truer to himself.” This is what Ellen helps us define as wanting the best for others: recognizing and rooting for them to share their intrinsic, essential qualities and goodness.

Protecting the Heart
There was an efficiency to all this that was directly related to sustaining an open heart.  Deep clarity enabled me to experience and process my sorrow without trauma, as my feelings were aligned with a wiser perspective.  Falling into hurt, reaction, closing my heart to life, succumbing to fear of what might happen, or becoming bent on “pursuing justice” could have drained years of my energy. These were not choices I made.

Of course I did cry, was deeply sad, and profoundly missed my mother, but I was not overwhelmed and I did not lose my way. There was no desire to add insult to injury by becoming fearful and distracted from my own life’s path. I wanted the best for myself as well--to continue to express the qualities I had been bringing to my life and work at the time.

I felt immersed in what I can only describe as ‘a great sea of love and clarity.” Over the subsequent months, my therapist helped me let go of my mother’s pain and trauma and I re-planned my wedding. When the special day arrived in August, I realized a degree of joy and well being that have never been forgotten.

Experiencing Compassion
The postscript is that 20 years later mom’s unsolved case was reopened and suddenly resolved. I was able to go to court at the close of the trial and speak to the man who had killed her so long ago. There in court I shared my conviction, reinforced through study with Ellen, that our behavior does not always reflect who we are in our depth, and share my belief that though we can make huge mistakes (and must accept the responsibility and consequences) we each remain essentially good.

I stated that I wanted the best for him. I told him "I could feel my mother there with us in our grief: expansive, nurturing, wise. She seemed no longer limited by human form, and I knew that she forgave him, just as she forgave me for the things I had done to hurt her.” I shared that I was rooting for him, and I knew my mother was as well--that transformation could happen no matter what our circumstances.

The Palo Alto Weekly wrote an article about what happened next:

“Hamel, now in his 40’s, stunned the Santa Clara County court by confessing and pleading guilty to the crime, which he'd previously denied committing. At the end, he turned to face the family, tripping over the word "humanity" as he spoke. From his lips, the word repeatedly came out "hoo-man-in-ity." It is a word he had little experience with, he said.

"I ain't got no written statement. I don't really understand how somebody could show so much compassion. I'm just all shook up," he said. "I don't know if y'all believe me or not, but I'm crying a river of tears inside. ... I just want to be a more productive human being in my life. I do feel pain inside -- the most extreme pain," he said, causing one of his defense attorneys to cry.” (Sue Dremann for the Palo Alto Weekly, 2.27.2008)

Hamel continued: “I know there is good in me, because I’ve regretted what I did every day since it happened. My mistakes was all my responsibility, ‘cuz people tried to help me along the way. But my heart was closed, and I turned away from them, and back to my ways…If I could now, I would trade my life for hers. Your mother was the courageous one and I was the coward.”

The prosecuting attorney on the case was also moved to tears. She had hoped to apply the death penalty, but honored our strong desire to avoid this path. Afterwards she wondered, “Am I bad? Am I evil? I never knew something like this could happen.” “You’re not evil!” I told her. “I think you’re just learning more about love.”

Love can feel light hearted, great hearted—it can walk hand-in hand with joy, and it walks hand in hand with courage. Ellen Tadd defines love as “a force that connects all of life.” She further defines compassion as “the synthesis of unconditional love and wisdom.” These were indeed my experience after my mother’s death.

Having experienced such compassion for others, it’s poignant to realize that it has been a much harder lesson to forgive my own human confusions, mistakes and weaknesses, especially as I age. “I should know better by now!” These days, as I more deeply study Ellen’s understandings of the chakra system and apply them in education, and in my own life, I understand that my most profound error over time has been a lack of compassion for myself. My strengths and my weaknesses are related. As self-love and understanding begin to dawn more deeply, I am discovering compassion as the greatest remedy for my mistakes and transgressions. I can look at the things I need to correct while still feeling unconditional love for myself. Shame is unnecessary, and actually—it’s inefficient.

Most of us find one of these—love for others or love for ourselves—easier than the other. Children do too. As we help them along the way, it is critical to pay attention to their hearts and allow them to experience what wanting the best feels like when applied in both directions—inward and outward. The key is cultivating strength of 3rd eye perspective, and building strengths in the chakra system as a whole. My habits, my self-discipline, and my healthy relationships—all these played a role in keeping an open heart through such a significant challenge.

Unconditional love and wisdom combined, towards ourselves, towards each other--this is what we all have the potential to manifest in our homes and our classrooms, and what our children have the potential to manifest in tending to our world as they grow.