Alice Walker is probably best known for her novel The Color Purple which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1983. Now is the Time to Open Your Heart was first published in 2004 and dwells on themes of ageing, spiritual enlightenment and the impact of the modern life on the human spirit. The novel follows the story of Kate – author, wanderer, adventurer – who, shaken by the first signs of ageing, begins to reconsider her life and embarks on a journey seeking self-knowledge, fulfillment and spiritual enlightenment.
“Her life was changing. She had felt it begin to shift beneath her feet. Or above her feet, because the change had started in her knees. In her fifty-seventh year they had, both of them, mysteriously, out of the blue, begun to creak.”
In the West, we live in a world that is “afraid of old age.” We only have to consider the stories of elder abuse and neglect taking place everyday in nursing homes to known the complete disregard and contempt many people have for the elderly. Everyday we are bombarded by youthful images in advertising and experience the effects of ageism in the employment market. And during a pandemic there have even been suggestions of reserving life saving treatment for the young. After all, the elderly are fast approaching their use-by date, aren’t they?
The search for spiritual enlightenment is not a sudden shift in Kate’s life. She has her own meditation room complete with an altar, candles and a statue of Buddha, but a meditation session led by a “well-fed-looking soul” leads her to question the western appropriation of spiritual practices. Looking around at the other participants, she realises that they too possess the same “well-fed look,” and were “overwhelmingly white.” As the only person of colour in the room, she asked herself, “What was wrong with this picture?”
And so Kate sets off on a journey for spiritual enlightenment that takes her far from home and her partner, Yolo. Recent dreams about the search for a river, lead her to wonder if the answer lies in a trip down the Colorado River. What could be more renewing and invigorating than a peaceful journey down a wide, calm river. Water, after all, is supposed to have a calming effect on the soul.
“They had told her the river was wide. They had told it was cold and deep. They had told her it roared through the Grand Canyon like a locomotive. They had forgotten to mention there were rapids.”
After the river experience, Kate tries a spiritual healing retreat with a shaman in the the Amazon forest. Under the supervision of the shaman, Kate and her fellow participants take a drink called yagé which induces vomiting and diarrhoea to purge the body of toxins and negative emotions. The yagé also produces a kind of hypnotic spiritual experience. This practice actually dates back at least 1000 years. Also known as Ayahuasca, yagé is a psychoactive drink produced by a combination of natural substances and was used as spiritual medicine by the indigenous people of the Amazon. Scientific studies have shown that it activates vision and memory within the brain to create a heightened sense of internal reality and spiritual healing retreats have become quite popular with westerners seeking a mystical experience.
It is interesting how spirituality, enlightenment and renewal are often associated with the natural environment. I don’t think many retreats are held in the middle of the CBD. It is only when we can get away from the noise, our screens, and the constant distractions of modern life, that we can pay attention to our interior life. Kate’s reflection on the speed of life probably resonates with us all.
“For her life, like human life everywhere on the planet, had speeded up and speeded up until peace was rarely possible. Always there was movement, noise, inevitable and constant distraction….a madness had seized the earth. The madness of speed. As if to speed things up meant to actually go somewhere. And where, after all, was there to go?“
The pace and madness of modern life leaves us seeking silence and solitude. We dream about escaping the rat race. We look forward to going bush for a few days or relaxing on a beach or wandering through a rainforest. We imagine the quietness of nature and the slow pace of the natural rhythms of nature. As a city dweller, though, Kate discovers that the forest is not as quiet as she had expected.
“…it was the loudest thing she’d ever heard…every being was chatting, talking, whistling, singing…and everything was in motion…slithering, sliding, jumping, hopping, ambling, crawling, flying…“
While in the forest Kate calls upon the Grandmother Spirit for advice about how to live her life, confront her fears about getting older and reconnect with her inner self. In non-western mythology, elders play a prominent role as sources of wisdom. In Native American culture the Spider Grandmother is often called upon for advice or medicinal cures, and quite interestingly, also appears in Walker’s novel Meridian published in 1976. The Grandmother Spirit helps Kate to understand the power that lies inherent within every woman.
“Grand Mothers. We must acknowledge and reclaim our true size. Dignity is important. Self-respect. We cannot lead by pretending to be powerless. We’re not. Age is power.“
While Kate is in the Amazon forest, Yolo is on his own journey in Hawaii. Throughout the novel we are also introduced to the many people that Kate and Yolo meet on their journeys, people who are also looking for spiritual healing and enlightenment. Their stories are filled with violence, rape, incest, slavery, incarceration, addiction and abuse. Many of them had sought to drown out the pain through alcohol, drugs or moving from one high to the next. But with the support of their fellow seekers, they find the courage to expose their deepest fears, confront their demons, and find release from the past. Spiritual healing requires a deeply personal encounter with the truth.
I first read Now is the Time to Open Your Heart a few years ago, but it has only been rereading it in the light of the Covid pandemic and the current pressures and stresses of life, that I have appreciated the message of taking the time to feed our souls. Our modern lifestyle is driven by technological connection and yet loneliness and depression is on the increase. We end up being so busy trying to juggle everything in our lives, rushing from one place to another, accumulating more stuff and wealth than we can possibly need, but are totally disconnected from each other and from ourselves. Grandmother tells Kate:
“When you are caught up in the world that you did not design as support for your life and the life of earth and people, it is like being caught in someone else’s dream or nightmare ….it is not really living…humankind will not survive if we continue this way …driving their lives forward while watching what is happening along the road…“
We don’t necessarily need to raft some rapids or journey to the Amazon forest to find emotional or spiritual healing and enlightenment, but we do need to pay attention to our inner life and our need for deep personal connections with others. Opening our hearts also means opening our eyes to the opportunities that surround us in the everyday of life. Lighting a candle to read reflectively or meditate, taking a walk in the park and opening our ears to the sounds of nature, or gazing at the stars and contemplating the mystery and meaning of life. Taking the time to open our hearts, renew our minds and connect with our inner self. There is a lot we can learn from other traditions.