Through in-depth interviews, Dr. Brown seeks to answer the question: how can we all live more wholehearted lives?
It seems that yogis fall disproportionately in this ‘wholehearted’ camp, or at least deeply aspire to it. But what exactly is the connection between yoga and wholeheartedness? Can yoga teach us how to become more wholehearted? Conversely, can Dr. Brown’s work on vulnerability guide us towards the goal of yoga practice, which is to wake up to our true nature?
The answer to both questions is yes. Wholeheartedness is actually our base nature, which yoga practice helps reveal. As we become more ‘awake’ to this base nature, we feel the world is peaceful and safe, we feel whole, and we feel connected to everything. This allows us to remove our body armor and to be vulnerable. As Dr. Brown explains, vulnerability is the birthplace of courage, connection, and compassion. It is the key to wholehearted living.
This is why Dr. Brown’s work on both vulnerability and the practice of yoga and meditation ask us to embrace vulnerability, to completely accept ourselves and others as we are, and to let our true nature shine through. In a virtuous cycle, as we access our wholehearted nature more and more, we are increasingly able to make ourselves vulnerable and open to all the possibilities life throws our way.
Under Dr. Brown’s guidance, we can learn to see through our numbing behaviors and the stories our egos create, ostensibly to keep us ‘safe’. We can instead embrace our vulnerability, and through this live more wholehearted lives. Under the guidance of our yoga and meditation teachers, we can do the same and perhaps go even further.
What is wholehearted living?
According to Dr. Brown, in order to be wholehearted, we must believe in our own inherent ‘enough-ness’. Many things flow from this feeling of wholeness, but the most important is that it enables us to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen and live and love with our whole hearts, ‘showing up’ in the present moment, authentic and alive.
Dr. Brown has said her greatest life-lesson is:
“When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible. Keep worthiness off the table. Your raise can be on the table, your promotion can be on the table, your title can be on the table, your grades can be on the table. But keep your worthiness for love and belonging off the table. And then ironically everything else just takes care of itself.”
How can we all be worthy of love and belonging, when love and belonging are things given to us by others, not things that simply exist? A parent loves a child; a child belongs to a group that claims her as its own. In other words, love and belonging seem to be contingent on others. Surely this means worthiness can be taken away at any time? How could a person be worthy of love and belonging regardless of what anyone else thinks?
Selves create separateness; beings create belonging
Yoga and meditation practices ultimately reveal that when we see through our egos as ‘stories we make up’, we understand our separateness to be an illusion. From here we see that the question involves a false premise: that we are separate to begin with.
In our more ‘awakened’ awareness, we realize that we are born into an inseparable web of connection, and can dissolve back into it at any time. When we know in our bodies that we are one ecosystem, one planetary system, one galaxy system etc., we see there is no separate self to beg for love or belonging. There is no ‘other’ in this state of being.
We are worthy of love because, at our core, we are love. We are worthy of belonging because we were never separate. We can be worthy of love and belonging even if nobody says we are, even if the whole world shuts us out. If we can realize our connection to this ‘bigger something’, when you feel love for someone, or when you feel they belong, you are registering a deep connection that already exists. In this sense our worthiness is less an individual ‘right’ to be claimed, and more a deep truth to be understood.
Deep self-study through yoga and meditation can awaken us to this larger awareness, where the constructs of ‘self’ and ‘other’ collapse and converge. Yogis sometimes call this ‘non-duality’ or ‘unbounded consciousness’. It is here that we discover our inherent wholeness. In the present moment we see we are already ‘enough.’
How do we become wholehearted?
Dr. Brown has compiled a list of ’10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living’, gleaned from her many interviewees:
1. Cultivate Authenticity – Let go of what people think about you
2. Cultivate Self-Compassion – Let go of perfectionism
3. Cultivate a Resilient Spirit – Let go of numbing and powerlessness
4. Cultivate Gratitude and Joy – Let go of scarcity
5. Cultivate Intuition and Trusting Faith – Let go of the need for certainty
6. Cultivate Creativity – Let go of comparison
7. Cultivate Play and Rest – Let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth
8. Cultivate Calm and Stillness – Let go of anxiety as a lifestyle
9. Cultivate Meaningful Work – Let go of self-doubt and “supposed to”
10. Cultivate Laughter, Song, and Dance – Let go of being cool and “always in control”
In general we could say the qualities on the left all spring from a state of connection and presence, whereas those on the right spring from egoistic separation. Perfectionism, comparison, competitiveness, and insecurity, are all traits designed to protect the ego. The egoistical mind is preoccupied with how others see it, projecting itself against the ‘other’.
By contrast, in a true state of being, there is no ‘other’ to define ourselves against, to feel inferior or superior to. We are entirely in the present moment, without future-oriented worries or past-oriented ruminations. We are free of longing for the missing elements that will ‘complete’ us, such as a better pair of shoes or a better-paying job. We discover our wholehearted nature, right under our noses.
So where does yoga fit in?
The physical practice of asana creates space for a kind of ‘life-play’, where we can observe and let go of our habitual negative responses (such as perfectionism, comparison and self-doubt) and through this cultivate more positive traits (such as self-compassion, calm and intuition). But most fundamentally, yoga and other meditative practices give us a tool to combat these unhelpful qualities at their source: the mind.
The key purpose of yoga is to ‘still the fluctuations of the mind’, after which ‘the seer abides in itself, resting in its own true nature’. Stilling the mind is what allows us to become aware of our underlying being. And our being, contrary to our ego, is not separate from everything that surrounds us.
To awaken to our wholehearted nature, we must see ourselves not as separate, but as connected to the whole. To do this, we must become less attached to all the ‘stories we make up’ about our separate selves. This is very hard for most of us to do, because without our egos to ‘protect’ us and provide us with the feeling that we are in control of our lives, we feel very vulnerable.
But once we learn to embrace vulnerability, we are free to ‘dare greatly’ in our lives. We may venture into the arena of life in all sorts of beautiful and creative ways that may or may not succeed – safe in the knowledge that the many faces we present to the world are not what we really are. What we are, most deeply, is love itself. We are the whole. This is the essence of the non-attachment that yoga teaches. It is also the essence of wholehearted living.
Dr. Brown would have us unearth and ‘own’ our individual and collective stories, no matter how painful, so that we can write a ‘brave new ending’. Many of us who practice yoga and meditation naturally go through a process of ‘purification’ like this, as we learn to face ourselves fully, accepting and releasing all that rises up from the depths of our conditioning.
But through yoga and meditation practices we are invited to take a further step: to let go of compulsive storytelling about the past and future altogether; to let all our buried emotions rise up and dissolve instead of perpetuating them with thought. To simply be in the moment.
To do so takes great vulnerability, and great courage. Indeed it may be the bravest new ending we could write. But when we clear away the dust of ego-fueled separation, our wholehearted nature can shine through and illuminate the love, joy and peace that waits in all of us.