Set it Free

birds in the shape of a heartSonya was stuck. Every time she came in for a session, she seemed more inextricably wedged into a life she hated. It wasn’t that she lacked means: Born to wealth and privilege, Sonya had beauty, education, and the talent to become what she’d longed to be—a songwriter. But she couldn’t take the steps that would make her dreams a reality.”It’s just too hard,” Sonya sighed during one session. “I’m stuck in the life my parents want for me. I’ll marry a rich man, have 1.7 kids, do what I’m told. I’m trapped. Completely trapped.”

I couldn’t help comparing Sonya’s comments with another conversation I’d had when I was in Cambodia, doing interviews for a World Bank project. A vibrant man I’ll call Khet told me about his experiences during the war-torn 1970s, when he’d been imprisoned, starved and sentenced to death.

“One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise,” Khet said. “So, you see, I was completely free.” I stopped him. How did he figure that one? Khet smiled. “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.”

And an opportunity did come. As he and some other prisoners were being led to the execution ground, Khet bolted, running for a weak spot in the wire fences. He fully expected to be shot, but the other prisoners distracted the guards enough to spoil their aim. Khet escaped into the jungle.

“You see? My fellow prisoners were free, too,” he said. “No matter what happens to your body, madame, if your heart is free, you are free.”

Most people think more like Sonya than like Khet. My clients routinely tell me they’re deadlocked, hemmed in, blocked, controlled by circumstance. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you don’t have the option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Trust me, the options are there. You’re at an impasse because you’ve been trained not to seize—or even recognize—the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of your dreams. Your body is free but your heart is in prison.

Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.

As a result, few of us speak the truth out loud. All our lives we’ve been hearing things like: What you are thinking/feeling/saying/becoming, etc., is stupid/rude/scandalous/sinful/depressing/ridiculous/unoriginal, etc. All the infinite variations on this theme convey just one message: Silence your heart or you will be rejected. Rejection hurts our little social-mammal hearts so much that just the threat of it convinces most of us to cooperate with our enemies. This is a two-step process: First we go dumb, learning never to speak our deepest truths. Then we go deaf, refusing to hear our own souls.

Sonya was a fully heart-bound when she came to see me. For thirty-some years, her life’s journey had been steered by social expectation, slowed by fear, stymied by conflicting demands. Bad news: If you’re a normal human, you probably act like Sonya at least some of the time. Good news: As your own jailer, you—and only you—can free your heart whenever you want.

To release your heart, you simply reverse the two-step process by which you locked it up. First you begin to listen for messages from your heart—messages you may have been ignoring since childhood. Next you must take the daring, risky step of expressing your heart in the outside world. It’s lucky this process is so simple, because it’s also terrifying.

Step 1: Tune In

People with captive hearts often spend years thinking very hard about things like reawakening their passion or discovering their destiny. This never works, because such information is stored in the heart, not the brain, and is expressed by feelings, not thoughts.Sonya was so numb to her emotions that she couldn’t tell a surge of love or pathos from, say, gas. Not to worry. Paying attention to any feeling unlocks your heart, and if subtle emotional nuance eludes you, physical sensations will do nicely. Try the exercise I assigned Sonya: Write a detailed description of everything you’re feeling in your body. If you do this for more than ten minutes, you’ll find that you’ve also started describing your emotions.

As Sonya began to write about her chronic exhaustion and headaches, a torrent of truth burst from her heart into her conscious mind. “I hate the socialite scene,” she found herself writing. “I want solitude. I need music.” For years her heart had been trying to send these messages through physical symptoms. As she began to listen, those symptoms faded. Sonya’s prison walls were coming down.

Step 2: Think of This As “Shock” Therapy

Once you begin listening to your heart, I guarantee it’s going to say some things that shock you—otherwise, you wouldn’t have locked it away in the first place. You may discover that your heart wants to spend your paycheck on flowers or wear purple spandex to a board meeting. You don’t have to act on these impulses, but you must not judge or repress them.

Treat your heart like a tired, hurt child: Accept its tantrums, revenge fantasies, and pity parties, but don’t get stuck in them. Say kind things to yourself: “It’s okay that you love your goldfish more than your in-laws” or “Of course you want to stab Billy’s third-grade teacher with a meat fork—all the moms do.” When you acknowledge your forbidden feelings calmly, you’ll find that you actually have more control over your actions. It’s when feelings are repressed that they burst out in dangerous, unhealthy ways.

The more you tune in, the deeper the truths your heart will tell and the more intense your emotions will become. You may feel great pain about times others have hurt you—and, worse, times you have hurt others. But as this pain flows through you and begins to dissipate, you’ll find something beneath it, something astonishingly powerful, something one philosopher called the “all-pervading radiant beauty” of your heart of hearts.

Step 3: Defy your inner jailer

At this point you’ll begin to realize that your heart is telling you where to steer your life. You’ll know the next step because you will begin to long for anything that connects you to it.

When desire really comes from your heart, deciding to act on it will bring another strong sensation. You’ll feel an extraordinary clarity, the sense that something inside you has clicked into place. Of course, your Inner Jailer might not agree. You may be flooded with reminders that your heart’s instructions are stupid or boring or rude. Don’t listen. Run.

Step 4: Run for the jungle

I’ll never forget the moment Sonya stopped daydreaming about sending her songs to a music producer and decided to Just Do It. It doesn’t sound like much—until you try it yourself. Acting on your heart’s instructions means abandoning all those careful strategies for avoiding rejection and bolting toward the fertile, gorgeous jungle of human imagination and possibility.

I’ve watched in awe and admiration as many clients took the enormous risk of freeing and following their hearts. I’ve seen high-income executives joyfully switch to low-paying careers as artists or forest rangers, and people who grew up in poverty dare to believe they deserve decent money. I’ve seen folks adopt children with AIDS or lose 50 pounds. As a 13th-century Zen master said, “The place is here: The way leads everywhere.” Once you are present in your own heart, you’ll find your life going places your mind has never even dreamed of.

Step 5: Spread the word

Toni Morrison said that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal.

When Sonya started sending out her demo tapes, she became what she called an overnight failure. For months no one so much as acknowledged her creations. Sonya’s heart broke, but she refused to send it back to prison. Instead she began to think like Khet facing execution: Since things could not be worse, she decided to drop her inhibitions. Her music became less derivative. She began writing raw, gut-deep songs that horrified her family—and impressed some producers. Sonya began to find her “tribe,” the people who understood her true self. She’s still far from famous, but her heart is free, “and that,” she told me, “is what it’s really about.”

As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, calling your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes all-too-human people and societies capable of true humanity. It will chart you a life’s journey as unique and authentic as your fingerprint; send you out, full of hope and breathtaking exhilaration, onto paths you never thought you could travel. It is the way you were meant to exist. If you stop to listen, you’ll realize that your heart has been telling you so all along.

Comments

  1. annie says

    Lordy, Ms. Martha, you continually take my breath away!

    I’m still working ever so slowly on your happiness math/writing project, and then pooof, right on cue as always, you pop up with another perfect doozy of spot on-ness of exactly what the next steps are. So I figure I’m stuck at step 3 (surprise), but i am really paying attention to what makes my heart sing, and yup, i don’t really know where to start…although i have put out a few timid feelers. So i’m listening up…but even though I know it’s not true, I’m getting slowed down toward my dream by the fact that i’m 60, and well, shouldn’t i have it all together by now, and isn’t it too late, and what about my health, my dad’s health,and my disaterous finanaces?

    So here i am at step 3, pretty darn clear about what I love, no clue how to proceed, but doing my happiness math by placing trust in the place of disbelief.

    Unlike the heroes in this story, i’m really foggy about the next step. sooo. Ill just keep remembering to be in trust (instead of disbelief), doing the math, writing down the feelings in my body, asking “tell me what am I doing wrong here”, and pretty much anything else you throw at me. I’ve been in the slow lane for a long while now, so too much speeding up seems, well,like too much speeding up. Even if slow, i definitely feel a determination rising. otherwise the terrorists win.

    Girl, you are something else! Keep ‘em coming, and don’t forget to run for President! (if that’s YOUR dream, of course)

    Much love and appreciation
    Annie

    • Sheryl says

      Hi Annie,

      I agree with you, Martha continues to hit it out of the park. Let’s make a deal, I won’t give up if you won’t. I am 54 (On March 20) and we are teamates. I too am financially, well let’s say “challanged”. But that makes the game so much more fun. If there is any way we can get in touch with one another, that would be even more cool so we could form a Team Over 50…let’s go for the jungle, what do we have to loose right?

      Sheryl

      • says

        Yeah Sheryl, yea Annie!

        I love the little pact you’ve made.

        I’ve been noticing how TV series get boring (and end) once all the drama clears up, and how a financial board game that I’ve played (CashFlow) is most fun when you’re in the most challenging, beginning part of it.

        So fully enjoy the strategy and the challenge. That way once you get all your hearts desires and the financial rewards, you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy it, having lived the initial adventure to it’s fullest.

        Suzanne

    • Linda says

      Hi Annie and Sheryl,

      First let me say: I believe we are kindred spirits. I found a lot of myself in your message.
      I suffer from chronic pain, fatigue, and my heart is literally broken; all great metaphors for how I have felt for most of my 61 years. My finances are let’s say “limited”.
      So we are in similar boats, paddling in different directions on any given day, and not getting where we want to be.
      You are one stroke ahead because I don’t know what makes my heart sing (outside of my love for family). I have been numb for a long time. Call it a survival tactic. I have put out feelers to no resolve. Disappointments bring me way down. Time seems to be of the essence as I grow older….everyday! lol
      You have inspired me to ask myself questions and maybe most importantly listen. It would be nice to be able to get in touch. I don’t have a tribe.
      Namaste…

      • Janet says

        Linda, I see you just posted yesterday, so we both got aha moments from the marvelous post at the same time. I don’t know if Annie and Sheryl are still around, but I’m available for tribal communications. :) If you’re interested in an email tribe of two, post again and somehow we’ll exchange emails.

  2. Nathalie R. Gascon says

    Wow ! A long journey exercice but how worthy it’s gonna be. I will translate more accuratly with Google for sure.

    Thanks Mrs. Beck

  3. says

    This post? Instantly freeing, and one reason why you’re my life coach who resides in my head, :-/

    I have a lot of survival mode/life stuff going on today, but I will take an ‘it can’t get much worse than this’ attitude today and see what happens. Just the thought of even taking on this attitude makes me feel better and distances me away from whatever result I’m hoping for.

    Good stuff.

  4. Shelly says

    There must be a million years of tears behind my eyes right now, and I’ve only read the first few paragraphs.
    Thanks be that I found this in time.

  5. says

    What a different world this would be if we all listened to our hearts!

    Thank you for consistently reminding us that Truth resides within our hearts, not out in the world, and for your courage in continuing to promote personal freedom in a culture that doesn’t yet support it.

    Best wishes.
    Katherine Mayfield
    Author, The Box of Daughter

  6. says

    Martha, I cut this article, pasted it into an e-mail and e-mailed it to myself for future reference. This should be required weekly reading…well, at least for myself :)

    I think this rings so true and I think that’s why you see so many powerful responses above. I feel that there’s this general sense of dissatisfaction and aversion to the lives we’re living. It’s this crazy play where we’re all playing characters based on the perception that others will think our character is the lead. Not sure how much sense that makes, but it’s basically meaning that many people are living lives that are not their own. While we’re living longer lives, we’re healthier than ever, we’re materially more successful than ever (I understand it doesn’t seem that way over the past few years), yet there’s this general sense that something is off and not quite right. There’s a lack of volition and feeling that we’re in control of our own lives.

    That feeling…that literal pull we feel in the pit of our stomachs is our heart talking. Our heart knows….and deep down we know, but our rational brain kicks in and tells us that we shouldn’t complain. We have it ok. I should be lucky to have a job..or if I don’t have that, I should be lucky to have a roof over my head. And, yes, while we should certainly be grateful for all of that we should also take the time to really listen to our heart. To really start to re-acquaint ourselves with those feelings and emotions deep down that we all too often repress.

    Thanks so much for the wonderful reminder.

  7. Cathy Boyd-Withers says

    Martha,
    I want to thank you, from the depths of my heart, for always authentically “telling your story” and for having the courage to fully live out your own truth, so that you can (as Toni Morrison put it) “free someone else”. I’m that “someone else” today! You’ve written exactly what I needed to hear this morning. I’ve never met you and probably never will, but for years your words have helped me beyond measure. Thank you thank you thank you – you are an inspiration!

  8. says

    Martha what a beautiful illustration of how we measure life and freedom by what we perceive in a given context. Unlocking the imprisoned heart to listen to inner wisdom is such a beautiful gift. As are you!

  9. Mr. Big says

    I happened to come across this, it spoke to me and I recalled a time in my 30s–I had been diagnosed with and undergone surgery for skin cancer on my face. I looked like the bloody Elephant Man! Something inside my head changed while looking back at the world that was staring at me during this time [it doesn't always stay with me, sadly!]; I don’t give a damn what you think about me or how I look, I’m saving my life. With that came tremendous freedom! In fact, the most free I ever felt. So, you see, Ms. Beck, you are spot on here and served as a great freeing reminder to me: Free your heart and the rest will follow. Thank you, my dear.

  10. says

    Hello Martha,
    A big thank you for your work, which have helped me a lot over the years (specifically your articles about narcissism, it was such a relief to put a name and a description on a (horrendous) experience!).
    Anyway, I love this message of yours to listen to your heart and your body, and not being imprisoned or frightened by the pressures coming from the outside.
    I have read about it for years, loving it, all the while pursuing a banking career which bores me out of my mind. The fact of the matter is: I just admitted this to myself (that I am bored out of my mind I mean, and that it will not get any better), and what it took to get there is a huge sense of emotional and financial safety.
    Sometimes, the prison is there to keep us from overwhelming anxiety – the famous bag lady anxiety in my case. As soon as this anxiety fades, the prison fades as well – obviously only for someone who has read your books !! ;-)
    Take care
    Lauren

  11. says

    I am so grateful for you, Ms. Martha. My childhood/young adult experiences are similar to yours, and your ability to rise above the shame and dissonance has been a rock for me. Thank you again for opening your beautiful soul to lift and bless others.

  12. Rachi says

    Wow, I am three years divorced out of a 17 year marriage. I decided to stay in the marriage, after being hit repeatedly , to protect my son from the threatened custody battle. In my situation I believe this was the right thing
    to do because there are molesters in the extended family of my ex, (one was convicted twice and sent to prison),and the family is in denial about it. I felt the need to be with my son when he would visit his extended family until he was old enough to advocate for himself.Well, to stay in the marriage, I had to endure… Now, I realize that I am like an elephant, trained to feel trapped, and that committing to listening and speaking my hearts’ truth is my greatest priority, even if I am stepping into unknown waters. One step at a time.
    I am extremely grateful to have community during this undertaking. I am going through a breakup now with someone who conned me, and I have to let go of alot of money to do so, he’s also angry and it’s scary. I am going to listen to the truth of my heart and let that guide me. One step at a time.
    Love and Gratitude,Rachi

    • says

      Rachi,

      I’m moved by your courage. Many don’t take these steps until it’s too late, so kudos to you for running for freedom.

      Sending you hugs, love and support from afar.

      Best,
      Suzanne

  13. says

    You hit the nail on the head. I needed to realize I have to stop people pleasing and hurt those that I love for the benefit of me and those I do love. This article can at a time in my love transition and helped me keep positive, stay with my emotions instead of surpresing them, all I do is cry…what a release!

  14. Alisha says

    Thank you for these inspired words! The Universe knows what we need, and I’m so glad your words found me today. :)

  15. says

    This was wonderful! I have been traveling through the Dark Night of the Soul for several months and so much clarity has come about. I took a leap to challenge myself and though some things happened that I did not anticipate, it was when I listened to my heart that I realize the why, what and also who I was becoming through it all……..thank you for such a great article!

  16. Donna says

    Too often, I mistake myself for a deity or a force of nature, imagining that I have great powers over the happiness and wellbeing of others. I do my thing (caregiving, supporting, defending, fixing) and think to myself “it is good.” Lately, though, it hasn’t been good for me. It has been depressing and anxiety-producing. I have listened not to the voice insisting I am meant to imagine and create and aspire…I have listened to the cowardly lion in me roaring about my lack of courage to break free. The courage has been there all along, hasn’t it? All I have to to is believe. And act.

  17. says

    Dear Martha, each time I open up your Daily Inspirational articles, in my e-mail, I find it “hits home,” with me on either something I’ve been thinking about or feel at that moment! I so enjoy these articles as they really talk to me….I too, have ambitions of publishing my poetry and one day will do so! You’re right about one thing for sure, rejection or even the thought of it can be a “killer” to ambitions and dreams. As I continue my poetry, I will also continue reading your articles for guidance and inspiration. Thank you, Martha Namaste, Jan

  18. Sandra Schlicht says

    Martha,

    You are amazing .
    I also have this 59 year old limited belief that I am too old for finding my way to my truth. But I am going to keep going and keep on taping into my heart song. Interestingly went back for an MBA 2 years ago, and while studying for the GMAT & it had been a while since being in formal schooling, I found my neck locking up and it was the most painful thing I had experienced since my Knees use to give out while nursing etc. After finding the right chiropractor & stopping the MBA program, figured it wasn’t for me & felt disappointed in myself, I am back feeling physically good. Now to keep writing and tapping the heart song that will take me to the Life of my dreams.
    Thank you for your brilliant way of speaking the truth that helps us shine the light on our own journey.

  19. says

    My life changed dramatically when I surrendered and started listening to me heart. I am changing my story–re-writing it so that it reflects who I really am. It took courage and a great leap of faith to change my story. I had to trust that there would be a net to catch me. That leap was the start of a grand re-awakening.

  20. Carole says

    Normally, I would wholeheartedly agree with this article. Of course, following your heart is going to be an amazing experience…………but what if following your heart means heartbreak for others? How should you measure your happiness against the happiness of others? I write these lines from the perspective of a women who is divorcing next week, after my husband of 40 years has found a new life and a new love. My happiness and my children’s happiness have not been part of the equation. I don’t think he realised that he would damage his relationship with his adult children, he didn’t mean to do that. But in following his heart he has lost his children’s respect and possibly their love. I would respectively suggest that when we follow our hearts we should ensure that we don’t damage the hearts of others.

  21. Debra Lee says

    I agree, every time that I get to that mystical place and am in the “jungle” I feel that Martha is the guide that is always “spot on”. Bless you for listening and sharing your wisdom and truth with the world, your courage inspires our own…Many blessings..

  22. Heather says

    This is the journey of wholeness. Thank you for giving your gift to the world, Martha. What you write with so much understanding and wit, clearly describes my path and sense of purpose in the world.

  23. Blueberry Raker says

    Martha,

    T S Elliot said it elegantly in The Waste Land, but his instructions weren’t as clear as yours:

    The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
    Which an age of prudence can never retract
    By this, and this only, we have existed.

  24. Nicky says

    Martha, thank you the four steps, you are amazing. By allowing myself to feel my pain and acknowledge how my body was feeling, I was able to break free. I discovered the wound in my heart, the BIG BLACK HOLE, THE VOID was actually the Universe, filled with stars and galaxies, and within that space, there was a tiny star and that star is me, and by allowing myself to be the centre of my world, by letting myself shine, my heart is freed.

  25. Miss M says

    Martha, this was exactly what I needed to read this morning. I have struggled for over 20 years with fibro/chronic fatigue, depression, etc. The one period where I felt truly healthy was when I was doing work that supported other healers. I’m currently in a job where I’ve been bullied by a narcissistic boss, and now I’m being shunned by some of his colleagues. I’m looking for another job, but I haven’t been looking with/listening to my heart. I will now begin to focus on the clues my body is giving me, and listen to what my heart is telling me. Thank you so very much for sharing your wisdom!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Here is a wonderful piece of writing, which will help you along the way to reconnecting with your true self, your core, or as Martha puts it, your heart. She encourages you to listen to your heart – and if you can’t make out what it’s saying, just listen to your body, your aches, pains and bloating first, and the message will come clearer. I thought that was a fantastic piece of advice, and that was just the first step. Do have a look at what else she’s suggesting. [...]

  2. [...] Here is a wonderful piece of writing, which will help you along the way to reconnecting with your true self, your core, or as Martha puts it, your heart. She encourages you to listen to your heart – and if you can’t make out what it’s saying, just listen to your body, your aches, pains and bloating first, and the message will come clearer. I thought that was a fantastic piece of advice, and that was just the first step. Do have a look at what else she’s suggesting. [...]

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