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.