“In a full heart there is room for everything, and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.” —Antonio Porchia, Argentine poet
We commonly think of the heart as simply an organ that pumps blood through our bodies. Yet we use the word heart in myriad ways in our everyday language. We learn things by heart, have a heavy heart, are lighthearted, or have a heart-to-heart with someone. Our heart sinks or turns to stone, we suffer from a broken heart, or our heart goes out to someone. We follow our heart’s desire, give from the heart, or get to the heart of something. Clearly, our heart has many more functions in our lives than simply pumping. These functions represent fragments of a greater wholeness of being we have a tendency to lose sight of. It’s at the heart of whole-hearted living.
It appears that the heart has a mind of its own. Since the 1980s, heart-brain communication research at the Institute of HeartMath, an internationally recognized nonprofit research and education organization, has shown that our brains are an extension of the heart, and the heart has its own intelligence. Half the cells in the heart are neurons, or nerve cells—the same type of cells that are in our brains. The heart starts beating in an unborn fetus before the brain is formed, and it has its own independent nervous system.
When the brain processes negative thoughts and perceptions, emotional responses are stimulated that can cause us to feel limited or fragmented. Tuning in to the heart helps us access a deep authentic wisdom that can transform negative emotions, thoughts, and beliefs and help us feel more whole.
Challenges of being human
In his poem “The Guest House,” the poet Rumi wrote: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.” None of us is immune to these arrivals. If we had our druthers, we’d choose joy and harmony and throw out the rest. Who wants to suffer? But living wholeheartedly requires us to embrace it all. Wrote Rumi “The dark thought, the shame, the malice. Meet them at the door laughing, And invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes….”.
When we approach life half-heartedly, or try to avoid things that make us suffer, we deny ourselves the fullness of what life has to offer us. Living wholeheartedly is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and requires us to be in tune with and accept our own vulnerability. Acknowledging our vulnerability enables us to access the core of meaningful experiences. Long ago I shuddered when I was asked to speak to groups, yet I allowed myself to step up, make mistakes, learn, and grow from these experiences. Embracing my own vulnerability enabled me to have compassion for myself and others. I became aware that I wasn’t the only one with flaws and imperfections and a fear of public speaking.
We have the choice to be victims of our life stories and allow them to define us or to acknowledge what we have been through and become the hero or heroine. As a shy 16-year-old with low self-esteem, I was told in my first job interview I would never be able to work with people. While the statement is still part of my memory bank, it no longer defines me. I eventually began to embrace another, heartfelt message that spoke of wholeness and connectedness. This deeper message helped guide me on a fulfilling path that ultimately became all about communicating with people! My yoga practice and studies have been major influences in this process.
Early on, I perfected a false face of ease and harmony, while feeling inner fears and insecurities. It’s been an arduous life journey toward wholeness. But I have learned that we need to embrace our imperfections as well as our gifts—and not let emotions like shame, anger, and fear get in the way. These are generally rooted in old emotional injuries. I’ve come to acknowledge my emotions as having messages to share, so I give them a voice. When we run from struggle we are never free. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times author Pema Chodron writes, “To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening.”
Claim your wholehearted aliveness
“You are not here to love the world, you are here to be love in the world.” —Grace Johnston, Actress
Chodron has noted: “To live fully is to experience each moment as fresh and new,” no matter what is happening. To claim aliveness, we need to develop an unconditional love of ourselves, keep our hearts open, and be willing to risk vulnerability. This is a tall order as it requires our past history to remain history, the trail we leave behind. We may reflect on it and learn from it, but we should not allow it to define our current experiences. We may not be able to do this alone. In fact, we can’t really experience our true aliveness unless we know it in the context of our relationships with others and the world. We weren’t meant to live in isolation, and we need to find confidants who can help us tune into our heart-centered truth.
To live wholeheartedly we need to let go of the notion of the brain running our lives. We are multifaceted beings who require us to be in tune with all the facets of our humanness. In his book In Touch: How to Tune In to the Inner Guidance of Your Body and Trust Yourself, John J. Prendergast, Ph.D., writes: “Heart wisdom is a combination of love and clear understanding.” This understanding is acquired through clear-sighted questioning of limiting beliefs that create suffering for us and others. This process helps clear away the barriers to accessing inner guidance.
Another way to move beyond our fears is to find self-acceptance and self-love in our heart. In meditation, contemplation, or prayer, we learn to face our fears and be with our true self. When we listen to our core needs and set boundaries, when necessary, we can live more in balance.
Hearts and minds in sync
When we live wholeheartedly, we open both our hearts and minds to what we truly care about. Generosity, humor, and joy become our calling cards. Vulnerability becomes our strength. Being genuine cultivates courage. Seeing beyond our own flaws generates compassion and understanding. We discover wholeheartedly that we are not separate but interconnected.