Dr. Michael Thomas
When I was a boy, I swam competitively. My coach taught me a way to improve my performance by using my mind on the night before a big event. He told me to imagine that I was standing on the blocks, calm and strong. Then I would hear the starter tell us to Take your marks! I would bend down for the start. The gun would fire and my body would surge forward like a spring uncoiling and I would slip into the water like a knife through warm butter. I imagined each and every stroke, each and every breath, how many strokes to the end of the pool, the turn; and all the while I would see in my minds eye that I was leading the pack. Over and over, I would go through this process until I knew it intimately. And, when the real event occurred, sometimes it would proceed very much like my vision of the event.
I tried to extend this idea into the rest of my life. I would lie awake in my bed at night and imagine what would happen the next day. Who would talk to me and what they would say, and what I would say. I spent endless hours at this task, night after night. The trouble with using this technique in my general life was that life isn’t circumscribed like a race. It doesn’t have defined beginnings and endings and there aren’t definite rules that prescribe specific behavior for all the participants. So instead of being prepared for all the things that would happen to me, I found myself constantly unsettled and unprepared for the events of the day. Instead of feeling calm and confidant, I felt surprised and out of step. When my prepared words were inappropriate for the actual events unfolding in my day, I became confused and unable to respond to simple social interactions. Instead of helping me, my preparation actually impeded my ability to be present in the moment. It took me a long time to realize that while my coach’s exercise was quite helpful in preparing for a race, it was a disaster when applied to the rest of my life.
This eventual realization was a bombshell for me. It may not have been a good strategy but it was my strategy. Its loss in my life left a huge void. What could I hold onto? How could I make sense of my teenage years? Life was sort of scary and there were increasing numbers of decisions to be made. The older I got, the more responsibility was coming my way. I felt rudderless in uncharted waters. I knew I was a pretty smart kid but my mind wasn’t able to build a construct big enough to contain the events of my life. I was so unsure. I felt great doubts about my abilities and how to make my way in the world. I wanted something to hold onto, something to give me some stability as I began to make my journey into adulthood. I soon realized that my creative brain could make up zillions of stories. I could make rational constructs all day and all night and they still weren’t matching up with the immensity of the life in front of me. It finally struck me with the force of a brick to the head. I couldn’t trust my mind to guide me through life. Oh sure, it is a very valuable asset. If all the variables were uncovered in a situation, my mind could rapidly put them into order and I could make decisions based on an intellectual analysis of the facts. But so often, maybe the majority of the time, all the facts weren’t so obvious. In fact, most of the time, it was very difficult to discern ˜facts at all.
I had begun the search for meaning in my life. The ˜yardstick that I had assumed would be most valuable, my mind, was proving to be an unreliable ally. It led me astray, again and again. I saw that others who used their minds to construct meanings in their lives had to make their lives rigid and circumscribed in order to make them work. That wasn’t what I was searching for. I saw the world spreading out in all directions in front of me, immense and unknown. I wanted to explore it. I wanted to dive in to life.
It was at this time that I began to understand more about fear and love. When I felt fear, I felt small and hard. I contracted into myself and felt cut off from the world around me. I had to make sense of events with my limited experiences and ability to reason. When I felt love, I could feel the world expanding, softening. I felt a vulnerability to people and events and yet I wasn’t harmed. Instead, I realized this vulnerability was in fact, a connection to everything and everyone. I couldn’t exactly define it, but it was real. I began to realize that my heart could guide me.
Where my mind had cut me off from the moment, always keeping me out of step with unfolding events, scrambling to make meaning and then setting off alarms of fear when meaning couldn’t be immediately derived, my heart was an oasis of peace. My heart could immediately discern the essence of events. It could somehow peer into others and tell me what I needed to know. I realized that when I listened to my heart, some things made me feel heavy and closed, and some took the weight away, making me feel light and peaceful. I began to trust my heart and to let it guide me.
This isn’t a simple task. We aren’t really taught to trust our hearts in this culture. We are supposed to be hardheaded, and we are actually warned against being too softhearted. It takes practice to listen to ones heart. What is interesting to me is that consistent practice in listening to my heart has taught me that I can trust it. It isn’t that I don’t use my mind. I use it as much as ever, but instead of being my master, it is becoming my servant. (More and more, anyway!)
Some people associate all their feelings of emotion with their heart. Certainly there are heartfelt emotions, but many emotions and emotional states are not grounded in Love. The reason that we are cautioned to live from our minds is precisely because we have used rationality to help us escape from the tyranny of run amok emotionalism. The place in the heart that I am writing about is perhaps more difficult to find. It requires consistent efforts of prayer and meditation to be able to hear the still, small voice within. While difficult, the effort is essential.
Our hearts connect us to the infinite wisdom and love that is at the center of us all. By abiding in our hearts, our words and actions can begin to reflect the wisdom that our intimate connection to the Creator engenders. Regularly returning to scripture can help us to remember our deepest connection and bring it back alive for us. At the same time, life isn’t just about reading a book, even the Bible. It is about being alive to the present moment and letting Love guide our way in thought and action.
Expectations can blind us to the life that is right in front of us. Allowing Love to guide our way requires courage (literally heart-strength) and a deep trust in God. Instead of constructing rigid boundaries, Love expands our awareness and understanding. Our minds will tell us what seems best for each of us as individuals, but our hearts tell us the highest good for all. To live in love and not fear, we must first begin to trust our hearts. The potential God has for each of us is greater than any expectations we can invent from our thoughts. We are more than our minds know. An open heart has no boundaries. Let Love flow through your life, God knows, the world needs it!