Tolerance - The Gateway to an Open Heart
Have you ever noticed that our culture has never come up with adequate definitions of what constitutes mental health? We might cite everyday terms like “happiness” or refer to Maslow’s “peak experiences,” but a culture which has put much effort into the understanding of mental illness is only on the threshold of understanding the concept of mental wellness – at least as far as the academic study of mental health is concerned. If we look at the history of research in this area, the most consistent working definition of mental health tends to be the absence of mental illness. How good is that? Imagine telling your kid that happiness is what happens when you overcome being not happy.
Why Be Normal?
For years, clients have come into my office saying, “I just want to be normal.” I often ask them if they really want to be normal, inviting them to just look around at folks the next time they are standing in the check-out line – and then they will see normal. How many obviously happy people do you see standing in the check-out line? What we do see in that line is a good representation of “normal.” Too few of us realize that there are levels of “mental health” that go well beyond “normal.” Indeed, according to discoveries in some areas of developmental and transpersonal psychology, the achievement of joyful or ecstatic levels of functioning are our birthright – as esoteric branches of our religious traditions have been telling us all along.
It is no accident that the discoveries of transpersonal (“beyond mental health”) psychology are anchored in the spiritual traditions. From ancient times, the teachings of these traditions have explored the deeper meanings of our existence in life. From them, we have been given the understanding of the importance of opening the heart as a fundamental step in moving beyond the normal day-to-day “there-must-be-more” existence that drives so many of us to overindulgences of every sort.
The Energy Heart
The findings of energy psychology, acupuncture and related disciplines reveal that we really do have an “energy heart” which taps into both our energy (spiritual) and physical bodies. There are levels of transcendent love, of a sense of unity and joy, that far exceed the common experience of what we may call everyday love. This occurs when the “energy heart” opens to receive the grace that permeates every aspect of our existence. This is a literal experience; not a metaphor – though most languages are so lacking in their ability to describe the spiritual that metaphor must suffice. Water is a universal symbol or archetype for spirit. When the Scriptures refer to Jesus’ statement about the believer – that out of his heart will flow rivers of living water, this is a literal reference to the flow of Spirit through the open heart. No earthly pleasure can compare to this experience. Yet, we rarely hear of this experience, or its transforming effect on those who receive it – not even in much of our religious literature.
Could it be that the consciousness of our culture, with its focus on materiality, security, sensation and power – even within religious circles – places us in an environment that does not support the development of the spiritual opening of our hearts? In my lifetime of study on this topic, my experience has supported this to be true. The process of opening the heart is more than one of faith or belief: it requires real change in our perceptions, our behavior and our consciousness. It begins with the practice of tolerance.
When we go through life believing our way is better, our tradition, race or gender is superior, our homeland is finer, we close ourselves off from the experience of unity that opens our hearts. Every time we emotionally judge other people, circumstances, events, ideas, practices – every time we refuse to accept “what is” by closing ourselves off in our negativity, we are closing our hearts. This even includes instances of us rejecting ourselves! Unconditional love is exactly that – unconditional. Tolerance is the first step in which we commit ourselves to being open and accepting. This does not mean that we allow others to violate our boundaries or that we embrace their inappropriate or destructive behavior. We accept the person, in such cases, not the behavior.
Tolerance begins with our tolerating our own limitations and needs for growth. The Reverend Mark Pope, who says we humans are quite good at self-condemnation and self-punishment, defines the capacity to appreciate oneself – exactly where one is at their stage of development – is “an experience of the awakening heart.”
Examples of the Practice of Tolerance
Here are some examples of the practice of tolerance. We remind ourselves that we are always more similar than different in comparison to those we encounter. We may seek relationship on the basis of the similarities, while respecting the differences. We recognize that diversity enriches and therefore seek the learning that comes with exposure to differences. We respect others’ differences of opinion, beliefs, practices and culture, treating them with respect even when we disagree with them. We love ourselves, even with our foibles and limitations, as well as those who “push our buttons” by reminding us of them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable in relationship, while cherishing the courage to be vulnerable in others. We allow ourselves to observe our violent feelings without acting on them. We recognize that conscious dialogue does more to resolve differences than “being right.” We embrace the courage required for personal growth by approaching and befriending those we are most inclined to judge or reject. We remember that we cannot close ourselves off to others without closing ourselves off to ourselves; nor speak ill of others without defiling ourselves – because experience of our unity is the very essence of the love of the open heart.
The End Result
If we embrace these practices, in time, the experience of tolerance will mature to appreciation and appreciation will mature to an open heart. Unbound by all the judgments, demands, expectations, and attachments, the heart will be free to experience the flow of grace that permeates every aspect of our being. Previously unknown, or understood only as a concept, the opening of our hearts to experience the flow of the rivers of living water will at last become a realization for us. I can’t think of a better definition of good mental health.
Next: Overcoming the Post-Holiday Blues
Granville Angell (copyright 01/2006)
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience. His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors. He may be reached at 704-735-1554 or 704-276-1164.