By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Excerpt from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Learning to Listen to Our Hearts
The ability to find wisdom and happiness may depend to a large degree on how successful we are at finding and prioritizing love. Love is not just something to randomly feel and enjoy; it can also offer a source of direction in life if we are able and willing to nurture it and listen to what it wants from us. If we are fortunate, we can say at the end of our lives that we have been “shaped and fashioned by what we love,” as Goethe says. But this requires that we have really allowed love to shape and direct us.
When the poet David Whyte recites the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese” he keeps repeating one line, with an emphasis on the word only: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The emphasis is to help us see the word “only” as facetious–as if it were natural to do something so seemingly simple as letting the soft animal of our body love what it loves. It sounds so easy, but allowing this to happen can feel dangerous and ultimately counterintuitive, maybe because it means that we must be in touch with our deepest longings and feelings of vulnerability.
How compelling to think that some soft place in our bodies is craving to love what we love, yet we often do not listen but instead let it atrophy. The obstacle may not be our capacity to feel love, but rather our willingness to access it and nurture it sufficiently to allow it to even begin to reach its seemingly limitless potential as a guiding and comforting force in our lives. We always have the choice to follow our hearts; our hearts are probably our best spiritual guide, more reliable than any prescribed doctrine that would presume to show us the way.
Navigating From the Heart in Psychotherapy
“Listening with my heart, I will find meaning. For just as the eye perceives
light and the ear sound, the heart is the organ of meaning.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast from A Listening Heart
Knowing that love is something that we can access within ourselves and use to guide our behavior has tremendous implications for psychotherapists, although therapists might not think of it this way. Most of us have learned over the years to evoke, recognize, lift out, encourage, celebrate and otherwise prioritize meaningful or heartfelt moments in the therapy process. This may sometimes be a conscious choice, but much of this prioritizing happens at a visceral level. I call this source of guidance for therapists “navigating from the heart.” Our hearts, the place of love and compassion, listen and respond in a totally different way than if we are listening just with our minds.
Navigating from the heart would certainly include a sensitivity to relational moments, especially feelings of love or belonging between the therapist and client. Most therapists know instinctively to watch the quality and texture of the psychotherapy relationship and to let our hearts respond to the “I-Thou” opportunities or to any other special moments between therapist and client. But navigating from the heart is not limited to relational moments.
Brother David claims that the heart is the organ of meaning, something that may at first seem strange, since we often think of the heart as ruling the interpersonal domain and the mind as ruling the domain of ideas and meaning. And yet when something becomes meaningful to us there is an obvious visceral component, a sense of release and rightness, like we have found what we were looking for. Our heart represents the place of restlessness—this is where we long for meaning and where we recognize and register meaning when it occurs. As Brother David describes in “The God Problem,” meaning is the place “where our hearts find rest.”
When the client is exploring their inner world and we are listening wholeheartedly, we use our hearts to help guide the client to find the words, images or feelings that create meaning for them. The search for meaning is something that therapist and client undertake together and feel together. And our ability to experience this comes from the heart, the part of ourselves that we associate with love. So, if we think about it, love plays a role in all aspects of therapy, not just in moments where we are explicitly focused on the psychotherapy relationship. Where there are moments of meaning, the heart is also present and responding. One could say about psychotherapy that there is always love in meaning and always meaning in love.