How to Become Open to Life

Keep your hands open, and all the sands of the desert can pass through them. Close them, and all you can feel is a bit of grit.’ ~Taisen Deshimaru

By Leo Babauta

In many ways, I close myself off to life in all its fullness. I close myself off to others, as a form of self defense.

It happens to all of us. When you left yourself open in the early part of your life, you likely would get hurt from time to time. That pain taught us to close ourselves off in different ways: don’t let others in, use humor to keep some distance, hurt others before they hurt you, back away from anything new, and so on.

I close myself off, and miss the world. I miss out on life when I do that.

And so I’m learning to become more open. It’s a slow process, but in many small ways I’ve learned a lot, and am much more open now than I’ve ever been.

What does it mean to be open? It means that I accept more of life without judgment, and am happier no matter what comes. It means I judge others less, criticize less, accept others more, and learn more about their wonderful particularity.

It means more than ever before I am fully experiencing life.

I’ll share a little about becoming open to life, and to others, in hopes that you’ll find it useful.

1. Judge less, accept more. It seems natural to judge others, but in doing so we close ourselves the truth about these people. The same is true when we judge all the things around us — we close ourselves to finding out more. If judgment is automatic, we should get off autopilot and be more conscious. When we notice ourselves judging, instead, pause, seek to understand, and then to accept. And then to love, and to ease suffering. We should let go of our expectations of everyone around us, and of the world around us, and accept people as they are, and see them as they really are. Does accepting mean we never change things? No, it means we don’t get upset, irritated, frustrated when things aren’t as we’d like them to be, but instead seek to ease suffering.

2. Let go of goals. Many of you know I’ve been experimenting with having no goals, but not everyone understands why. One of the biggest reasons is that when we set a goal, we limit the range of possibilities, because we are setting a fixed destination (the goal). For example, if you say, “I want to run a marathon in six months”, then you will focus your actions on the things it takes to get to that destination (marathon training). But what if someone asks you to go surfing when you’re supposed to do marathon training? Or a new race opens up that you didn’t realize would be there when you set your marathon goal — and it’s even better? If you remain fixated on your goal, then you’ll close yourself off to the surfing, or the new race. This is only one example — it becomes much more subtle (and less clear) when the goals are work goals, because the possibilities are so much broader and wide-ranging. I’m not saying you should never set goals (though that’s a possibility), but you should develop the flexibility to let them go depending on the changing circumstances of each day, each moment.

3. Recognize defense mechanisms. The defense mechanisms we build up over the years in response to painful experiences are many and varied. More importantly, we don’t realize they’re there most of the time, so they are automatic and thus powerful and hard to beat. So learn to recognize them. When you find yourself not doing certain things, ask why. Maybe it’s because you’ve had a bad experience in the past. When you find yourself hurting people, ask why. When you find yourself shutting people or experiences out, ask why.

4. Be like the sky. Suzuki Roshi had a great metaphor … the sky has substance (gases, dust, water), but it is open to accepting everything. This “empty sky” allows other things, like plants, to grow into it. Our mind should be like the sky — accept things as they are, not discriminating. By saying, “this is beautiful, this is not beautiful”, we reject some things. Instead, we can be empty. We can treat everything like it’s part of our big family. We can treat anything as if they were our hands and feet.

5. Watch your fears. Fears are the basis for our automatic defense mechanisms, and similarly, they have power when we don’t know they’re working, when they lurk in the backs of our minds in the dark. Fears close us off to others, to the world, to experiences. Watch your fears, by learning to be quiet, by listening to yourself talk in that quiet. Pay attention to the fears, shine a light on them, and they begin to lose their power. Then you’ll be freed to be open to new things, to anything.

6. Let go of control. We constantly strive for control — of others, of ourselves, of the world around us. Goals, planning, measuring our work, expectations and more — we try to control things in so many ways. Of course, we know that control is an illusion. It’s also a way of shutting out most of the world: if we can control the world, and the future, we are fixing the course of events … and shutting out other possible courses. What happens if we let go of that control? The possibilities open up.

7. Open hands. Walk about in the world with open hands. It’s a simple practice. Your hands are open, and they are empty, ready to receive the world and all that comes, as it is.

‘Walking along the edge of a sword,
Running along an ice ridge,
No steps, no ladders,
Jumping from the cliff with open hands.’
~Zen verse