Does authenticity and living from the heart always mean happiness? My spiritual calling compels me to work with larger problems including racism, misogyny, abuse, environmental destruction, and others. The truth is, this kind of activism can be difficult and depressing, and it’s a factor in my own anxiety.
Sometimes when people talk about authenticity, presence and balance, there’s a subtle blame placed on anyone who experiences negative thoughts, pain or depression.
When we’re told over and over that we’re supposed to release negativity, sometimes that can create a shadow. A shadow is any time we deny a feeling or need because we’re told it’s “bad.” We all have needs like love, touch and respect, but we’re taught that sex is “bad,” and then we feel guilty for wanting it.
The pressure to always be positive can create a burden of guilt. I’m not saying we should live in negativity, but fear, sadness and loneliness are all part of being human. I have felt that pressure to feel positive, which leads me to feel guilt for my darker thoughts. I think, “If I were really spiritual, I wouldn’t feel that.” And guilt and shame don’t help the process.
In the past years I’ve made some significant improvements in my life, particularly around dealing with the negative thought spirals leading to depression. Growing up, I was bullied, and that left me with issues of body shame and poor self-esteem, and my life has been a long road to self-acceptance. But there are times when I think about the mistakes I’ve made, or when a project fails, and the fear and anxiety grip me.
What has helped me is a combination of mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I feel the anxiety response, the heart palpitations, the dizziness, the tightness of my skin…and I breathe. I know I’m overreacting, and that in a few minutes it’ll be better, and that in a few hours the adrenaline will ease off and I’ll be okay. What has not helped with that process is the additional guilt spiral that, if I were spiritually evolved, I wouldn’t feel those things. That guilt is just going to double down my stress.
My work as a social justice and environmental activist, and my work teaching leadership and working with struggling community leaders, is often difficult work. I hear horrific stories of how people are being treated. If authenticity and living from the heart just meant happiness, I wouldn’t be doing this work.
Instead, I think my despair, sadness, anger and moments of hopelessness are part of what motivate me to do the work. For me, part of heart-centered living is feeling. It’s feeling compassion for those going through pain and working to make their lives better. Heart-centered living isn’t just about my own selfishness and happiness. Being heart-centered doesn’t mean I never feel anything negative again. And dealing with negative emotions doesn’t mean I’m less evolved.
What has helped me to reach some balance is to heal a lot of my past wounds, grow a healthier sense of self-esteem and healthier boundaries. What has helped me is to know that my heart is open to the pain of the world and that I’m working to help people in need. The past years have taught me that feeling pain is part of the calling that I follow, and I don’t have to feel guilty for feeling it.
This coming year, I am working on opening to more joy. While I have experienced moments of spiritual connection where grief and sorrow and rage and joy and bliss are all one feeling — and that has transformed me — but I am also looking to bring more love, joy and happiness into my life, as well. I know that as an activist, my life isn’t sustainable without that.
A heart-centered life isn’t just about feeling good…taken too far, that’s delusion and avoidance. It’s not ignoring the pain of the world, and it certainly isn’t judging those who feel pain. A heart-centered life is about finding that calling in your life, that thing that you cannot not do, and opening your heart to it.