Setting Your Heart on Fire

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 and difficult people were so easy to deal with. All "problems" became the smallest hurdle. Sadly, it didn't last. It rarely does. 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 begin looking for 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 feel everything means approaching every single moment as you would if you were spending time with that one and only lover. When a moment brings pleasure, being open is easy. But when it brings frustration or pain, your reaction is likely the exact opposite. You close off, shut down. Shutting off is your instinctive response to any emotion that you don't like or don't want. It's your way of saying either "I don't want to feel these feelings," or "Get me away from them!"

Whenever you shut down, you're unavailable to the energizing power of love. Though this initial response is unavoidable, you can always choose to move beyond it. To do so requires experiencing all your emotions, even the most difficult.

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: scowling, tensing your shoulders, holding your breath or all of these signs.

Once you recognize how vital it is to feel everything, three things happen. First, feeling everything is not the same as expressing everything. You may shy away from feeling because you confuse the two, imagining that allowing your emotions to be expressed leads to melodrama and narcissism. While sometimes nothing is more appropriate than sobbing, raging, leaping with joy or singing at the top of your lungs, these expressions aren't always called for.

Second, feeling everything is not the same as exaggerating everything. Exaggeration can take many forms. You may hold onto feelings after they're ready to dissipate instead and take their natural course. You may analyze feelings to the point of obsession. Finally, feeling everything is not the same as enduring everything.

This was adapted from Raphael Cushner's new book, "Setting Your Heart on Fire" (Broadway; 2003). Raphael lectures at workshops nationwide and holds individual sessions. His work was recently the subject of cover story in Oprah magazine. For more information, visit heartonfire.org.