delving in a small circle






Pleasant House
Relating with Heart

by Nanna Aida Svendsen ©


A Few Words of Welcome


Welcome to the world of Relating with Heart. The following has been written

out of a desire to deepen awareness and understanding of a world you may,

or may not, already be familiar with.


These can be rough times for the heart - for our deepest and sincerest feelings.

Though a sense of longing for more meaningful relationships may be tugging

at the edge of awareness, there can still be a tendency not to concern

ourselves much with the heart. But the heart is important. It is a

vehicle through which feeling, emotion and intuitive wisdom may make

themselves known. A messenger of a kind, it lets us know about our responses

to our thoughts, as well as our environment.


A loss of heart can cause feelings of apathy or meaninglessness. Something is

missing. The simple delight in everyday things is gone. Inspiration and

creativity may vanish. Alternatively, a sort of frenetic seeking of

stimulation or an addiction to excitement can overwhelm us as we seek to

replace what we sense we have lost.


The language of the heart is important. It reveals what the core or soul of

us desires. It acts as a sonar, giving us feedback, helping us navigate life.

Indeed in a certain sense it lets us know not only how we are, but who we are

as well. If we do not attend to the messages of the heart, do not cherish

this sonar and learn how to decipher its signals and work with them, we lose

not only heart and part of our natural intelligence and selfhood, but also

the chance of finding ongoing happiness or joy in our relationships.


Tending the Heart


One way of tending the heart is simply noticing what invites it to stay open

and what shuts it down. This can be quite predictable really. Generally the

heart does not do well when we treat ourselves or others badly. It does not

do well when it must surrender its own true experience to the will of

another. It does not do well when subjugated or coerced by ourselves or by

someone else


Any attempt at any of these will likely cause the heart to go into resistance

or to be subdued. Hampered in its unfolding dance, our life force and joy are

likely to be usurped or quelled, our wisdom foregone. The thwarting of the

heart is almost guaranteed to bring pain and difficulty into our inner lives

and into our relationships


Love seems to flows when we feel connected and safe to be real. Love falters

when we feel attacked, disconnected and no longer safe to be true. It takes

so very little for the heart to shrivel or shut down in self-defense and for

soul - who we essentially are - to cringe. It can be well worth while to,

"Take time to be gentle and remember, words harshly spoken trouble the

spirit." ( Gayle Saunders Marriage Take Time to Give Each Other More) This

regardless of whether they are spoken to yourself, or to another.


The Heart as a Trinity


Years spent exploring and following the heart have lead me to believe, that

we are in possession of many kinds of heart. However I believe, in terms of

the heart as a metaphor for our deepest and sincerest feelings, there are

three hearts embracing all the others. These are the compassionate heart, the

wounded heart, and the tender heart. Life can be seen as a rich interweaving

and unfolding of all three.


The Compassionate Heart


The Compassionate Heart is the place in us that can hold and respond to the

world from a perspective of deep understanding. It embodies a universal

perspective beyond, though preferably inclusive of, the personal. It

frequently communicates its wisdom through intuition, insight, a sense of

presence, foresight, understanding and knowing. These represent the

messengers of this heart. You could call this the spiritual heart as well.


The compassionate heart can enable us to travel through life with a more

balanced and stabilized view, allowing us to hold and respond to life's

challenges in a harmonious and comforting way. Rather than shunning life's

experiences, the compassionate heart welcomes them. It trusts they are part

of the heart's unfolding fabric. Though it does not give countenance to or

encourage suffering and abuse, the compassionate heart does embody an ability

to be nonjudgmental, as well as forgiving. It is well able to withstand the

dichotomy created by conflicting and competing views, and hold with

diversity. It is in a sense a bedrock of being.


The compassionate heart can contain a profound awareness of beauty, as well

as of suffering. Responding to the world from a place of far-reaching wisdom,

insight, knowing and trust, it brings meaningful gifts of healing and love.

It renders the world a less dangerous place and makes it more generous and

gracious. When we learn to hold ourselves and others with compassion, a

certain softening and spaciousness happens, an "at-one-ness" or

reconciliation with life that can be quite a boon. It is, however, important

that compassion for others does not come at the cost of compassion for

ourselves, or visa versa, an issue many of us struggle with.


The Wounded Heart


None of us get to go through life without pain. Yet the trials and

tribulations that bring us grief can also bring us odd sorts of gifts.

Sometimes it is our very woundedness that opens us most to vulnerability and

compassion. Sometimes it is the ravaging of the heart or our pain that opens

us to our fragility and connectedness, as well as to that which is most

beautiful, true and creative within us. I do not believe that being wounded

is the only way to connect with our gifts, but certainly it is one.

Becoming Distorted


Wounds to the heart however don't always bring moments of insight or

creativity. They don't always open the heart to heightened awareness and

sensitivity to life. The heart may be hurt or abused. A person may not have

had the chance to come to a creative depth of understanding needed to heal.

If there is too much pain or injury, human experience can become distorted.

The feeling responses and attendant reactions of the heart can become warped

and its function impaired. In hope of relief, a damaged heart can compel us

to act out its pain in ways that do not bring comfort or ease, unless we can

catch ourselves in the process and bring awareness to what we are doing.

Harmed and hurting, it can cause us to harm and hurt others as well as



In a certain sense a wounded heart that has become distorted does not live in

the present moment. Its pains and ways of warping current experience usually

stem from weaving old hurts and defensive reactions and decisions from the

past, into the present, old hurts that have often not been tempered by

awareness, love or understanding.


There is hope, however, for the heart has within it tremendous capacity for

healing, particularly if we are able to embrace its wounds with compassion.

The dictates of the wounded heart - how it behaves and why - are frequently

unconscious, sometimes surprising, and often only reveal themselves to us bit

by bit. But once brought to awareness, they are frequently understandable

and even predictable.


The heart can also become defensive, if it does not feel that its wisdom and

presence are welcome, or if it feels attacked. Ideally, when we need to

defend ourselves, the compassionate heart steps in like a trustworthy friend,

protecting us with its intuition, insight, wisdom and understanding. Ideally,

it does its best to manifest safety.


However, the heart, when it feels wounded, threatened or unsafe, may retreat

and hide behind a distortion, rather than shield itself with compassion. A

wounded heart seeking to shield itself with a distortion will tend either to

shut down, go subtly numb, wrap us in a mood, make some spurious decision,

or go on the attack.


Though the desire of the heart to protect itself is actually quite natural

and at times quite necessary, it is also sad. This is particularly true when

a wounded heart slips into a distortion rather than into compassion and seeks

to insulate itself from the world around it. When this happens, it can be

easy for some role, reactive behaviour or all-but-impenetrable ego layering

to develop that surrounds us like a shell. This can cut us off from our true

feelings, and make us think that the coating we have assumed as armour, or

the distortion we are reliving yet again, is indeed who we are.


The trouble is a heart that has become insulated no longer has the freedom to

be real. It can no longer afford to express its true gifts. When it is

beating within us, sourcing our experiences, something precious in terms of

our essential beauty, sensitivity and aliveness is lost.


Not that we won't slip in and out of wounds, distortions, defenses and

insulations, we will. Not that they do not warrant compassion, they do. They

are simply messages. Heart is probably feeling unrecognized, unsafe, fearful,

hurt, overridden, confused, or in pain.


The heart is probably calling out for love, if we would but be willing to

take the time to hear it, calling out for validation. It is probably seeking

a witness in the form of our compassionate heart, or the compassionate heart

of another, who can hold its experience, not participate in it, but contain

it with care.


Someone who can say something like: "Oh that happened to you. Yes, that was

hard. Oh you are hurting. I am so sorry you were hurt. That you became

wounded. That was so painful. Ouch." So the wounded heart can feel received.

So that it has a chance not to become distorted or defensive. So that it has

a chance to remain tender.


The Tender Heart.


To me it is the tender heart that is perhaps the most precious of all, yet it

is also perhaps the most frequently denied. The tender heart contains the

essence of our undefended selves. It contains the expression of our deepest

truth and our deepest vulnerability. Though intimately interconnected with

all that there is, it is also unique. Born out of something essential

interwoven with life's complexities, it is our individual voice. In all the

universe there is only one of us. The tender heart is not our roles,

defenses, distortions and staged behaviours. It is something deeper or more

profound than this. It has to do with soul. That part of us that craves what

Thomas Moore refers to as " a rich experience of everyday life." You could

call the tender heart, the personal heart as well.


Like a delicate flower or sea anemone wafting in a breeze, the tender heart

is not only sensitive, but also beautiful, containing as it does the

child-like qualities of spontaneity, creativity, expressiveness, and responsiv

eness. To me the loss of the tender heart to a wound, to a need to defend,

or a distortion, is always a grief. It is then as if some of our true

grace, sensibility or essence is lost.


The tender heart holds the experience of our deepest feelings, our passion as

well as our pain, our love as well as our grief, our joy as well as our

anger. It is of the present. It is connected to instinctual knowing, as well

as to intuitive wisdom. When the tender heart is fully present, the

compassionate heart is as well.


The tender heart has the capacity of being deeply empathetic. It is so

sensitive to feeling, both of others and of itself, that it has no desire to

harm. It would rather help. Yet the tender heart can easily be hurt, if not

tended well. It can withdraw in an instant in self- defense, if it is not

safe to show its true face.


The tender heart can sometimes be confused with a wounded heart that has

become distorted in that they can both appear sensitive and quick to react.

Yet there is a crucial difference. The reactivity of a distorted heart is

usually an expression of a way it has been hurt in the past and become



The responsiveness of the tender heart, in contrast, simply involves its

response &endash; a welling of grief, a cry of shock or surprise, a rush of joy, a

blessing of love in the present moment. In a certain sense the heart only

becomes distorted when the feeling experiences of the tender heart are

ongoingly refused, if they are not held with awareness and compassion,

recognized, accepted and named.


Being Tender Hearted


You could say that when we are being tender hearted, the tender heart is

beating snugly within us and we are well connected to it. We have created a

safe 'house of belonging' in which the tender heart may dwell. and we are

welcoming its feelings.


We can frequently know when we are connected to the tender heart, and it is

dwelling in a safe house of belonging, because there is very often an

attendant sensation of well-being, joy or ease, a sense of comfort or

rightness or oneness with life. Heart is tender, open, its experience is

flowing. Even if it is feeling hurt, it isn't shut down but rather is

vulnerable and present.


Being Vulnerable


Moments of vulnerability in which the veil of our distortions has parted, the

shell of our defenses has cracked, and the door to the house of the tender

heart is standing open, can be a gift. They can also be tricky. The strength

of an experience like this may bring to light all that might be standing in

the way of open tender heartedness being a more available experience.


As the presence of the tender heart flows through us, it will tend to bump

into any obstacles it finds in its way and seek to flush them out. Thus

moments in which the tender heart has been fully present, may be followed by

encounters with aspects of the heart that have been harmed. This can actually

be useful &endash; even liberating - if we are willing to embrace ourselves with a

compassionate heart and acknowledge the heart's grief or wounds.


This feature of an intimate encounter with the tender heart being followed by

an encounter with a defense or a distortion may be quite common. It can

occur in an intimate situation within ourselves or with another. It

certainly shows up in many relationships. The trick is to allow this, to

recognize it for what it is: a chance for awareness healing and love, a

chance to become more ensouled, a chance to open the curtains of the windows

of the house of the tender heart such that its light can come shining



Creating Safety


We can frequently know when we are not connected to the tender heart, when it

is not dwelling safely in a house of belonging. Life seems to lack rhythm

and flow. The "life" may seem to go out of life somehow, it may feel

sterile. Or we may be too anxious or caught up in some forced intensity to

sense ourselves and our hearts at all. When we become aware of this, the

trick as always is to stop. Pause for a while and find a way to create a safe

environment in which the compassionate heart, our own or someone else's,

can begin the job of witnessing, of accepting, acknowledging and naming what

is going on, such that we can become vulnerable, real and tender again.


This is also true in situations when the tender heart feels unsafe and is

tempted to withdraw and become hidden behind a defense or a distortion. It

can then be helpful to wrap the withdrawn tender heart in the embrace of a

compassionate one and say something like: "Oh my tender heart senses that

this is not an arena in which its presence is welcome, in which it is safe to

express what it really feels. Rather than turning it away, I will simply

welcome its presence, myself. I will shield it and hold it quietly inside

with warmth and love."


We can learn not to lose our connection to the tender heart just because

someone else, or ourselves, has been unwilling or unable to receive it. And

if we do lose our connection, we can trust that the tender heart just did not

feel safe, and endeavour to do what we can to make it safe again.


Sometimes the rigours of life can be such that we may temporarily choose to

put the tender heart's deeper experiences on hold. Whilst out in the world,

involved in some busy-ness or even some difficulty, we may embrace ourselves

with the wisdom of the compassion heart and say to the tender one: "I know

there are feelings you wish to convey, that there is something you wish to

say. Don't worry. As soon as I can, I will be present and listen to you. I

will create the kind of environment in which it is safe for your voice to be



The tender heart can be very comforted by a promise like this as long as it

is true! The tender heart delights whenever we are willing to receive it. A

useful practice can be to endeavour to take time &endash; preferable every day

simply to be in the tender heart's presence.


There are many ways to do this. Some find journaling to be a way. Sacred

time alone in a favorite place or in conversation with a loved one or friend,

also may work. The form or type of activity do not really matter, just as

long as you feel safe to be undefended, vulnerable and true and, in the

spirit of generosity and mutuality, are willing to offer this kind of safety

to others.


Being Tender Hearted with Another


If we wish to invite the tender heart to be present, to show its face on an

ongoing basis, a crucial prerequisite is an ongoing interest in creating a

safe environment for it. If we wish the tender heart to be present with

another tender heart and delight in this intimacy, we need not only to create

a safe space for our own tender heart, but for the other person's as well.


When we choose to be tender hearted with another, you could say that the door

to our tender heart is standing open. The tender heart is being offered up

for connection with someone else as well as ourselves. When the desire to

connect with another's tender heart is mutual, this implies that the other

person is opening the door to their tender heart in concert with us.


Such mutuality can cause the two hearts to seem almost to drift out the doors

of their respective "homes" and come together like children at play in a

third house of joyful connection. This can be a divine experience. Tender

heart is present, free and filled with delight. Though it is perfectly

possible to be tender hearted on one's own, tenderheartedness with another

does call forth its own special magic. It is almost as if the experiences of

the tender heart become synergistically intensified and the profundity of the

moment enriched, such that insight or joy may abound.


Not only this, mutual tender-heartedness does require both people to be

completely undefended with another, a thing that being tender hearted when

you are alone does not. Not to belittle being tender-hearted alone - it is

a beautiful state. But if one is to be mutually tender-hearted, one needs to

become skilled not only at creating safe, attractive experiences for one's

own tender heart; but for someone else's at the same time.


Moments when the heart is bequeathed to a third home of mutuality will again

find it vulnerable. The heart reaches beyond its original "home" and delights

in the fact that it can be naked and real in the presence of the other. Oh

the joy, the simple pleasure and relief in a moment like this! There is just

nothing like it! It really is a benison, a boon.


However, if one wishes to maintain connected tender-heartedness and intimacy

like this, care needs to be taken lest the tender heart get hurt.

Otherwise, it will not only beat a hasty retreat towards its original

home, but will likely close the door behind it as well. This also applies in

relationship to ourselves. If we do not tend our own tender heart well, it

will likely slam the door to its house of belonging right in our face. And it

will remain behind its door until it again feels welcome and safe.


We can usually know when the tender heart has done this, for some sense of

aliveness, joy, trust, or flow will be gone. In its place will likely be some

agitation, some need to defend, some subtle numbness or disconnection, a mood

perhaps or a sense of disquietude, anger or frustration, or an old wound.


The closing of the door to the heart besets many relationships, particularly

if the door remains closed for a jolly long time. In certain relationships

that are not proving safe and inviting enough for the tender heart to stay

present, we may wisely choose to close the door. Even so closing the door

can none the less be a grief. Even if the compassionate heart may step in and

help the tender heart make sense of its experiences, the tender heart is

saddened when it feels it must turn its face away.


Freedom and Love


There is, however, a crucial point regarding tending a shared house of

belonging that needs to be made. The point is this. Being intimate does not

mean forgoing responsibility for one's own tender heart or its original home.


Indeed, intimacy can only work to the degree that each person is not only

alert to the sensitivity and well-being of another's tender heart, but is

also assuming responsibility for the well-being of their own tender heart

as well.


Jane Roberts in the Nature of Personal Reality puts it this way. "You must

love yourself before you love another. By accepting yourself and joyfully

being what you are, you fulfill your own abilities, and your simple presence

can make others happy."


In a certain sense, this is what makes it possible to open fully to oneself

or to another: the sense that the simple presence of the tender heart makes

us and/or someone else happy. The tender heart opens when it senses that it

will not be abused, that it will not be used against itself to fulfill the

need of someone else or some other part of ourselves..


Though the tender heart may yearn for love, it also yearns to be free. Free,

as poet John O'Donohue puts it, "of the hungry blistering need" with which

people so often "reach out to scrape affirmation, respect, and significance"

for themselves "from things and people outside them."


There are things we cannot ask others to do - even if we may want to. We

cannot ask them to do our inner work &endash; our heart's work &endash; for us. They simply

cannot. Nor can we ask them to be for us what we must needs be ourselves.

Though we certainly need one another's support, safe holding, witnessing and

reflecting, the ultimate recognition of the truth of these reflections always

lies with ourselves.


In a certain sense we must learn to inhabit our lives, and find the joy in

following the wisdom of the heart in all its forms for ourselves. And when

we do, when we find and connect with the tender place in the experience of

life can be rich. For me its like a vision and a dream: a world that is safe

enough for our tender hearts to be. I think of an image, a drawing of a child

cradling a globe. There is just so much tenderness there. So much hope and

vulnerability, it makes me want to cry. This is what I dream of: Child and

world safe in the presence of our compassion, tenderness and love.

Copyright © Nanna Aida Svendsen 2002

Drawing by Chris Lindstrom©