When used mindfully, a guarded heart is not necessarily the bad thing people often believe it to be.
My friend is currently trying to win over a man with a very guarded heart. As well as advice from other friends, she’s found lots of guidance on the Internet—to be gentle, patient, trustworthy, understanding; to let him set the pace, and so on. It’s clearly a popular topic.
Wanting to heal and open up someone else’s guarded heart can be a very beguiling challenge; and is generally seen as a Good Deed. But it makes me uneasy when people automatically assume that a guarded person is somehow deficient; and that we have some kind of automatic right or responsibility to “fix” them. Sometimes there are good reasons for someone to keep their heart guarded for a while; and these should be respected.
Conversely, some people are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and seem to have no clue how to guard their heart. I have one old friend for example, who is still in trauma from what his ex did to him over a period of many years. Yet his one big focus now is on finding another woman to fill the void, rather than learning to look into that void directly, and ultimately fill it himself. It’s hard to know how best to support him.
So many men and women get their hearts stamped on and shattered; and straightaway start hoping or searching for “someone new.” They don’t think critically about how they might avoid risk, and keep their fragile heart safe this time. There’s just a desperate, blind urge to escape from the feared and despised state of being single.
So on the one hand, maybe be the real project is to spend a bit less time uncritically encouraging men (or women) to be less guarded. Maybe some people need to be shown how to HAVE a guarded heart and keep themselves safe.
At the same time, it would be wrong to go around recommending that all people constantly guard their hearts as if that’s some ideal solution—it isn’t. Vulnerability and emotional openness are the cornerstone of authentic living. Being guarded can cut you off from all kinds of wonderful experiences—intimacy, connection, love.
So what’s the answer? Guarded or unguarded? Or somewhere in between? I believe it’s actually about mastering the art of both; and being able to flow between them as needed.
It’s like the art of kamae within the Japanese martial arts. This word is normally translated into English as defensive stance or combative stance. But it’s also sometimes translated as engagement stance, which is helpful for the idea of the art of guarding your heart in relationships.
Kamae is about far more than where you place your arms and legs. It includes the posture of your whole body; your mental attitude, and importantly your intent towards the other person.
- A person who doesn’t know how to guard their heart is someone with a weak kamae or none. They can’t stop an attack from penetrating their defense; and they can’t deal with the attack once it hits. This might be a person who accepts bad treatment, because they are so needy for a relationship, and don’t believe they are worth any more than that.
- A person with a very guarded heart is someone with a permanently rigid, defensive or aggressive kamae. They are able to keep the attack out, and so they don’t have to worry about being struck as much as the person with no kamae. But if we’re relating this back to relationships . . . nothing else can get in either. This is the person who doesn’t let anyone get close to them—friends or enemies alike.
In fighting terms—or in terms of keeping your heart safe—sticking to the second type of kamae may seem better. But in fact it’s a low level of fighting skill; and in terms of our emotional metaphor can be harmful. A highly guarded friend of mine summarizes this paradox well:
while my subconscious is busy “guarding my heart” and helping me distrust / avoid any intimacy that might lead to a relationship—my heart is broken because of the loneliness and the knowledge that I’m sabotaging any chance at relationship, even though that’s what I want (a lot). So the “guarding of” my heart is the opposite of “taking good care of” my heart. For me.
So what does a more evolved kamae look like, in relation to guarding your heart?
In fact there are many different kamae, all suitable for different situations. Some are defensive; some are aggressive; some are more open. Some are manipulative, to deceive your opponent and draw them in. None of these are good or bad in themselves. It all depends on your intent.
You need to learn a range; and be able to choose consciously which kamae to employ at any given time. In time you need to learn to flow from one to another. If you’re too rigid in a fight, you will be beaten; and the heart is the same. You need to allow it to flow between emotions and stances.
It’s also about mindfulness and control. If you always revert to the same kamae out of fear or panic—or because it’s all you know—you are not in control. You need to make conscious, appropriate choices, and not be governed by your instincts or emotions.
Other people can hurt you; but they can also bring you happiness. The challenge is to navigate this uncertainty while both keeping yourself safe enough AND risking openness at the same time.
And in time, you may even move beyond the need for kamae.
Gichin Funakoshi, often called the father of modern Karate said:
Kamae are for beginners; advanced students will use Shizentai [natural body positions].
Shizentai is just a natural, relaxed, ordinary stance. It doesn’t look like a fighting stance, although it is. The person assuming it is aware, ready, relaxed and confident, with a focused intent.
This doesn’t mean the person has forgotten everything and gone back to the first position of weak or no kamae. It means they have practiced each kamae so many times, that they are now able to move and flow through them with ease and no thought. As Wayne Muromoto says,
Kamae are important, but they are momentary postures. They aren’t meant to be taken and kept like a stone statue, forever immovable. They flow from one to another as the situation changes and you move accordingly.
King Solomon said, Guard your heart above all else, for everything you do flows from it. If guarding your heart is indeed the single most important thing we should do in life, then the art of doing so may deserve more attention; and a more nuanced and skillful approach than we may always realize.
Also by Kai Morgan
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