There is perhaps no other ideal of how to live one’s life in this world that is as aspired to and publicly lauded as that of following the heart. Throughout the ages, the value of placing the heart first has been celebrated by poets from Rumi to Hafiz to Shakespeare to Whitman and by spiritual masters from Jesus to Paramahansa Yogandanda. Even in this modern world we are encouraged to follow our hearts every single day, receiving our encouragement in everything from pop songs to greeting cards. Barack Obama recently spoke of how a good judge needs to follow their heart when making key decisions. And, when questioned about what led to her speedy and controversial divorce, socialite Kim Kardashian replied that she had to “follow her heart.”
The underlying truth implied by the idea of following the heart is that the heart knows things that the brain does not, and the spiritual reality that this points to is that the heart directly connects us to love and to truth in a way that the often obsessive thoughts in our heads can not. This is a beautiful reality, and one that all spiritual traditions hold as sacred.
However, before eagerly springing into the deep end of the pool of life off of the diving board of our hearts, it is of great spiritual and practical value for us to look deeper into what it actually means — on a day to day basis — to follow the heart.
From the yogic perspective, the heart can lie to us just as easily as the head. The heart can — and does — lead us to unhealthy places just as easily as our thoughts can. So the most basic, fundamental reality is that before we follow our hearts we need to make sure our hearts are healthy. Just as we would not want to follow the meandering and damaging and obsessive thoughts of a sick mind, so we do not want to follow a sick heart. And the reality of our modern culture is that there is a massive disconnect between what our hearts actually want in order to be healthy and happy and how we are encouraged to live our lives.
The number one premature killer of human beings on planet earth is heart disease. This basic fact says volumes about the state of our spiritual hearts and our physical hearts. As much as we tend to think we are doing fine in life, the reality for most of us is that our hearts aren’t in balance and are steadily moving towards some form of disease.
The heart — both physically and spiritually — optimally dwells in a system of total even exchange of giving and receiving. The physical heart receives deoxygenated blood from the body and returns oxygenated blood back in a system of total balance. If the heart is not able to give or receive properly, due to restrictions often caused by excess consumption, it has to work harder, and it becomes strained. Likewise, the optimal state of the spiritual heart is one in which there is total balance in giving and receiving, where we are not too far forward of center, over-attending to the needs of others at our own expense or stressing ourselves out from rushing through life, nor are we shrunk too far back, overprotected and withdrawn and lethargic.
It takes time and care and practice to learn again to know our hearts. Many are those who speak of the heart from a place of not knowing, and many follow their hearts blindly before their hearts are whole. Many close off the windows of the heart from the light of this world and live in a place of consistent shrinking, and many others confuse an open heart for relentless and surging floodwaters; surely such waters will quickly recede and leave us thirsty. Just as the lake needs the basin of the mountains to give it boundary, just as the light of the lighthouse needs a tower to withstand the waves so that it might shine and guide others home, so the heart needs to be well-constructed –both strong and open.
Personally, I spent many years following a heart that was deeply imbalanced. Shown a gallery of many hearts, I could not point to which was true. If asked of what the true heart was made, I would have answered wrongly. If asked what the true heart wanted of me, I would have answered rashly. Of all the hearts I saw, I would have picked the loudest and the brashest one. I would have picked the lamp that burnt out quickly. I would have chosen the heart of lonely wandering. I would have picked the heart of righteous indignation. Wrongly assuming that the hole in my heart could be filled through a deep imbalance toward obtaining, I would have picked the heart of impulse and accumulation.
I was, in fact, following my heart all those years. What I completely failed to consider was that my heart itself might be wildly out of balance and so the decisions I made from it were bound to be just as skewed.
When a heart is conditioned to feel that its natural, healthy state is one of accumulation and impulse and entitlement — as the entire culture of modern consumption would have us believe — then it is quite easy to confuse the emotional desire for immediate satiation for following the heart. It is easy to confuse the pursuit of more and more things for following the heart. It is easy to confuse the desire to be pampered for following the heart. It is easy to confuse the tendency towards being overdramatic and hyperbolic with following the heart. It is easy to confuse perpetual emotional catharsis for following the heart. It is easy to confuse the many, many varieties of self-harm and harm of others that we inflict in the guise of “love” with following the heart.
None of these paths are the path of following the heart. They all involve following one brief and immediate cry from a heart that is out of balance. We have to listen to our hearts beyond that initial cry. We have to go deeper into what our hearts really want. Our hearts want to give just as much as they want to receive, they want to work for us just as much as they want to receive good things from us. The natural equation of balance for the human heart is one of total equality, and for most of us, that means a lot more giving.
We have to get to this place of balance over time. If we want to follow a strong heart, a healthy heart, and a balanced heart we need commit to a regular practice of working with the heart. The heart does not magically open to one beautiful poem or in one transformative yoga practice or one stunning theater production — the stirrings we feel in those instances are profound and beautiful and point us in the right direction, but they are the thinnest layer of skin on the milk of our practice.
Nor can we open the heart and build a strong heart through our intent and our thought alone. The mind cannot know the heart, only the heart can know its own riches. Just as when we sit perched on the shore of a great mountain lake our minds can scan the surface of the waters and can ponder its clear depths but cannot know the reality of it unless we ourselves dive deep, so the heart must know its own waters. And to know the heart and to open the heart we must work within the heart itself. To work like this is the greatest work of all, for in working within the heart we are working within the prime thread of the great loom of the world… and that shining golden thread, that hot filament, that radiant wire is none other than Love.
What will follow is a series of posts on seven distinct practices for cultivating and following a strong and balanced and open heart. These practices are drawn from the Shiva Tantras, from the Krishna bhakti tradition, from the early Christian tradition, and from my own direct experience working with the heart through breath, meditation, athletic practice, and immersion in wilderness. I make no claim that these are ancient, secret practices. I offer them freely, as they have been extremely helpful for me.
The first practice of working with the heart I call The Crucible. This is the practice of taking care of our physical hearts. Our hearts are muscles and they want to be engaged, far more than all but the most active of us do. The heart of an elk that spends all day running free across the high plateaus is clear and strong and rich with blood. We can find that clarity of heart, burning away the impurities and imbalances that keep our hearts sluggish and restricted. But we fundamentally, biologically need to move, much more than we currently do.
The Tuning Fork is the practice of starting to really listen to the heart, day by day, and to be able to tune into what our hearts are telling us on a more regular basis.
Morning Water, Evening Fire is the practice of daily clearing of the heart through breath and physical cleansing. The Rose Garden is the practice of working with the care of the spiritual heart — watering those qualities we want to cultivate and weeding out those that do not serve us. The Lake is the practice of working with the waves of the heart and starting to cultivate stillness. The Chalice is the practice of the free giving and receiving of love from our hearts. And The Lighthouse is the practice of shining forth from our hearts from a place of true foundation.
The beautiful process of constructing a heart that is worth following and that can give and receive love from a place of true foundation is a profound practice, and one that opens us to places of great treasure within ourselves and within the universe. I have been fortunate in this life to meet a handful of teachers in this world whose hearts are in full flower. When we construct the heart upon a firm foundation and open it from a place of fortitude, there is little limit to the light that can come. But we have to do the work in the garden to grow the roses. Stay tuned.
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