Can you think of a more common piece of inspirational life advice than “follow your heart”? So many of us heard this growing up, and perhaps we’ve even passed it onto our young people, but just how much do we trust it? Is it trite or true? I’m going to cut to the chase and stand in the conviction that it is always wise to follow our hearts. But there is a disclaimer here, and it is a big one: We have to be very attuned to how we define “heart,” and also what truth is for each of us in every moment.
Let’s take the first part of this statement because it’s a bit easier to deal with. For the purposes of this discussion I am defining “heart” in a very particular way. To be clear, when I suggest that we work on dropping from our head to our heart, I am not saying we should sit on our brain and let our emotions rule. Remember, the heart is the fourth chakra. It sits at the center of our being and connects our three lower chakras with the three higher chakras. So when I say “follow your heart,” I mean find that alignment in your entire being. This is about being in integrity, not about letting one aspect or another rule.
Let me say this clearly: the heart is not your emotional center.
While emotions provide a big clue as to what’s right for us, they can also pull us out of balance. Fear, for example, is a powerful emotion that can hold us back or steer us away from our highest path. Feelings of love and attraction can lead us to remain in a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat us well. Part of developing emotional intelligence and higher wisdom is being able to sift through contradictory impulses, and often that means being able to hold contradictory truths all at once.
So how do we embody this in real life? Well, let’s tackle the second part about truth, which is admittedly trickier. What I will ask is for you to dispense with everything you’ve ever learned about “right” and “wrong” and approach each situation with beginner’s mind. Let me give four examples below, in juxtaposed pairs. Pay attention to the feelings and thoughts that each scenario elicits in you.
ABUSED WOMAN SCENARIO #1
A trained therapist once told me that after working with many abused women she has learned that not every woman stays with abused men out of poor self esteem. Some women, she said, can truly see the very best in their partner, and that is the aspect that they love. She said in all cases what she counsels is that they set those feelings aside and make their personal safety the top priority.
ABUSED WOMAN SCENARIO #2
This story comes from a dhamma talk on anger and forgiveness by Ajahn Brahm, and is also found in his book Opening the Door of Your Heart (which is comically titled in republication as Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?). He tells the tale of a woman who used to come to his monastery, initially not out of devotion, but to get away from her violent husband. After listening to the monks speak of the power of forgiveness, she started practicing it at home with her husband. Each time he beat her, she would let it go, forgive him, and demonstrate her love for him with kisses and embraces. It took seven long years, but her unconditional love for him helped transform him into a kind and loving husband and father. Ajahn Brahm himself was moved by the woman’s story, but admits that he does not counsel other women to follow this extreme example.
FOLLOW YOUR BLISS #1
In brief, the common wisdom seems to be: “Keep your day job” while developing your “side hustle.” In other words, be smart and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Make sure you plan your financials out so you can pay the rent while pursuing your dreams.
FOLLOW YOUR BLISS #2
I’ve heard a version of this story enough times to get me to sit up and pay attention. It goes something like this: I got this wild idea into my head that really makes my heart sing, and I gave a two-week notice to my boss / broke my lease / left my partner / put all my stuff into a car / hopped on a plane, and [fill in the blank with something really wild and crazy]. And guess what, it all worked out! I lucked into housing / a dream job / my soul mate, etc. and now I’m living out my wildest dreams! Yep, it happens.
What’s right and true? Well, it all depends on YOU. You are a unique being in a unique set of circumstances and no one can tell you definitively what is the “right” thing to do in any given situation. Sure, you can seek out advice from professionals and trusted individuals. In fact, I highly recommend this, especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory. But in the end you can out your own truth by getting quiet and going inward.