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What does it mean to follow your heart?

Pop culture and pop psychology propagate the advice to “follow your heart.” You’ll encounter countless inspirational or motivational quotes about following the heart in social memes, promising magic and destiny, praising the courage it takes to follow the heart, and even warning that if you don’t follow your heart you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.

Some say if we follow our heart, we may lose our comforts, the life we know, and even friends, but in the end, it’s worth it.

Even the great Sufi mystic poet Rumi wrote about the strong pull of the heartstrings as ultimately reliable guidance: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”

And another favorite line often quoted from the controversial 20th century author Anaïs Nin conveys the stirrings of the heart that may lead one on a life journey: “I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.” It seems that following her heart led Nin into a life of extreme complication–a “bicoastal” life divided between two marriages, with a husband in New York and another in Los Angeles, and a personal assistant devoted to helping Nin keep each husband unaware of the other, a secret she kept from them until she was on her deathbed 30 years later.

If “following the heart” can lead to the life of your dreams and fulfillment of your passions, or to complications that follow you to your deathbed, how do we know if we are on the right path? What does it actually mean to follow one’s heart?

I can speak from experience–following the heart is not for the faint-of-heart, and, I believe, requires a true connection to the spiritual heart, not just the emotional heart. But the rewards of journeying into the heartspace and learning to live from the heart and its guidance can truly be “beyond your wildest dreams.”

I certainly would never have imagined for myself the life I’m now living when I began to feel the tugs from my heart leading me into new directions about ten years ago. Though my journey began by the simple act of beginning to pay attention to what was pulling at my heartstrings, and what desires and longings were emerging, I have learned that true, reliable guidance from the heart requires a greater understanding of what the spiritual heart offers, and experience in cultivating connection to this center of awareness. If I had that awareness and deep relationship with my heart center ten years ago, I may have been able to avoid a lot of the heartbreak I caused and experienced in my attempts to be true to myself and my heart’s callings.

Indeed, it may be true that “the longest journey you will make in your life is from your head to your heart” (attributed to the Sioux people of the Great Plains). It may also be the most important journey to take in this beautiful and messy human experience–and, I think, the sooner the better.

The Sacred Temple Within

Mystics in wisdom traditions across cultures teach that the heart is a sacred space within. The spiritual heart is an energetic space that can be felt buzzing at the center of the chest. Most are familiar with the emotional heart–we can feel the surge of love and affection and even pride welling up within the center of our chest. Other emotions, such as fear or anger, may be felt more in the stomach.