Tenderness is a theme that is popping up for me lately. Tenderness is often used to describe food that you eat. “That was a tender steak” or “those were tender green beans.” However, tender also refers to showing care, warmth, and kindness toward yourself or others. It’s not a word I often hear used in this regard, however. And, I think it’s one that we would do well to consider more deeply.
My interest in tenderness started with the choice of a book that my book group decided to read. It’s called Training in Tenderness by Dzigar Kongtrul. I didn’t even have to look inside to know that tenderness was something I was interested in exploring. In the world today there seems to be so much unlike tenderness that reading about it seemed like a great idea. I have just started it, and I was not mistaken.
What is tenderness?
According to Dzigar Kongtrul, tenderness is a profound quality that is innate in each of us. Every being has the capacity for warmth and tenderness towards others. And it is this quality of heart that can give us the most “pure and profound happiness that exists.” You don’t require anything other than what you have now. You don’t even need to read the book. In fact, it is accessible at all times, so he says.
What keeps us from accessing tenderness?
So, if tenderness is always available, then why aren’t we happy all of the time? Why does our happiness seem to ebb and flow with the passing circumstances of our lives? What is the secret of this happiness of a tender heart?
If we go to the Buddhist teachings, there are many obstacles that we can identify as getting in the way of this tender heart—this golden pot at the end of the rainbow. But mostly, it’s our greed (being caught in our capitalist world), hatred (often showing up as anger or impatience), and delusion (believing that our happiness lies elsewhere but you’re not sure where or how). And, I believe that the pace that we live at has a lot to do with it. We don’t take time to stop and reflect on where our true happiness comes from. We get pushed and pulled about by outside forces instead of looking inside for the answer.
Interestingly, Dzigar Kongtrul also mentions that even activists working on making positive changes in the world often overlook the importance of a warm heart “as the basis for all beneficial actions.” I see this every day lately as the politics of the season begin to heat up.
For instance, I am constantly amazed at the language people use on Facebook. Wow! It is quite disturbing. If people don’t entirely agree with one another, they lash out with such vitriol that a useful conversation will never take place. Many Facebook users could use a course on tenderness. I do strongly believe that there is a way to communicate forcefully while using a clear, caring, and curious tone.
Tenderness to the rescue.
Tenderness has been front and center in my own life this week. My heart was surely tenderized by almost watching my husband die in front of me. That surely connected me to my heart. He had unfortunately ignored the signs of an oncoming heart attack for some time and, when we came to the mountains for vacation, the altitude tripped it off. Thanks to some great emergency responding, fantastic doctors, caring staff, and quite simply a lot of grace, he is still alive. The preciousness of life becomes quite real under these circumstances. His heart got stents and my heart became tender, quite tender, in the middle of it all. I felt such tenderness toward him, his doctor, the staff and even the people that did my COVID check at the hospital entrance. When life seemed so precious, there did not seem like there was room for anything but tenderness.
But, don’t wait for an emergency to get curious about tenderness. Begin to explore in your own life what a tender heart feels like? Under what circumstances is it more accessible to you? Under what circumstances does it seem unavailable and shut down? These are important reflections to make in order to understand how it can happen more often and what are the effects when you are feeling tender. In my experience, it feels like soft openness, connection, and defenselessness.
I have felt a tender heart most vividly at the end of long silent meditation retreats or a particularly wonderful yoga training. When I leave, I feel like my heart is wide open and that everyone is my friend. I often go up and hug people who may not think it’s appropriate. (Of course, this was pre-COVID.) Now, we just have to smile with our eyes and give the elbow bump (which my husband calls the COVID cuddle). You can communicate your tenderness in what you write, what you say, and how you connect through your actions.
Practice your tender heart every day. When you notice the heart closing because the car in front of you isn’t pulling out when you think it should, pause and connect to your heart. When you read something that makes you mad, pause and connect with your heart. When you feel tired and discouraged, pause and connect with your heart. When your children, your spouse, or your friends make you irritated, pause and connect with your heart.
When you pause and connect, consider that we are all just trying to do our best. This understanding has always served me well. We are humans. We are imperfect. And, we are trying to do the best that we can. With that in the back of your mind, can you open your heart with tenderness towards yourself and others? This is a hard world to navigate and is only made better and you happier when you work on tenderizing.
When tenderness meets hardness, the heart has the capacity to soften. When tenderness meets confusion, there is a movement toward clarity. When tenderness meets anger, there is the capacity to forgive. Basically, when tenderness meets anything unlike itself, it can be a balm of healing. Try some today.