“The freedom question, then, is not whether we can do whatever we want, but whether we can do what we most deeply want.” Gerald May, The Awakened Heart
I heard Gerald May make this point at a retreat for spiritual leaders. He encouraged the participants to listen for what we most deeply wanted by asking, “What do you want in your life and ministry?” He invited us to pair up and respond to our peer’s answer with: “What is your heart’s deepest longing beneath that?” We were then invited to ponder our heart’s deepest longing for several minutes of silence, and when we were ready we answered as best we could. Then the question was asked again, until we were sure that we were at the bottom.
The exercise was intended to help us see that we are often only aware of surface wants and not really in touch with our heart’s deepest longing. Seeing the discrepancy between how we are now living and what we deeply want can be confusing, painful, disorienting, and discouraging. But finishing the exercise can also bring clarity of vision, a path to ease our suffering, a new orientation, and a rise of courage.
I have walked through transitions from the life I was living to stepping onto the new path of my heart’s desire several times. The journey was always hard. The period of not knowing was always hard to bear. Admitting my lack of clarity, while still voicing my longing, was always a challenge because it felt so vulnerable. But when I was being listened to by a wise spiritual director, or a clearness committee, or a supportive men’s group, with no agendas on their part except to help me find my clarity, the result was a new vision of the unfolding path before me.
Last summer I almost gave up the life I love, guiding our School for Contemplative Living, because I thought I was supposed to move out of state and begin pastoring a small country church. The move would have brought us closer to our family, and allowed us to spend much more time with our son and grandson. But it turned out that the church would have also been soul-killing. Thanks be to God, the out-of-state church learned about my habit of welcoming all people before I moved there, and decided to reject my appointment without even meeting me.
At the time, I sure didn’t think their rejection was a gift. Soon I learned differently. After the smoke cleared, I had given up the service of a beloved church community in New Orleans, and that was a source of grief. But I did not end up in a church where people are only welcome if they are white and straight. That would have been impossible to bear. So I lost the chance to serve a prejudiced church, and I lost the chance to serve my beloved church in New Orleans. But I gained the chance to focus on one main thing: creating contemplative communities.
We were hosting a contemplative retreat at our home Saturday, and in the middle of it all the clarity hit me again: I am right where I am supposed to be, and I am so blessed to be living the life I love. I can truly say, “Yes, I am answering my heart’s deepest longing.”
I tell this story because I want you to know, without a doubt, it is possible to live the life you love, to follow your heart’s deepest longing. My thing is gathering people into a community who practice the presence of God, who seek direct experience of the sacred in each other’s good company. But that is my thing.
My question for you is: “What is your thing, your heart’s deepest longing beneath all the other wants?”
Exercise: Stop what you are doing. Take several deep, cleansing breaths. Ask yourself: “What do I want for my life?” Listen for the initial responses. You can even jot them down. Keep asking yourself, “What is beneath that? What is my heart’s deepest longing?” When you finally hear the response at the bottom of your soul, write it down. Keep it simple. Say it in one sentence: “I want….”
Then begin to meditate on the phrase that comes to you. Do not try to figure it out. Do not get caught in the mind’s resistances, the many reasons why that life is impossible. Do not waste time wondering what people will think. Do not try to figure out how that life can work practically. The soul is not practical. The soul simply wants what it wants. Life will dance with the soul to find a way.
How can this be true? The Creator made you with a unique being, an essence, a way that is yours’ alone. The mistake we make is asking what God wants for our lives, as though that is something completely different from what I most deeply want. The challenge is to awaken to our heart’s deepest longing, and to realize that is what God wants.
Don’t sabotage your life by settling for a surface level want as your true life. No, your heart’s deepest desire is not to drive a Mercedes. And don’t sabotage your life by believing the lie that your heart’s deepest longing is impossible, so you might as well forget this silliness.
If the answer at the bottom does not arrive immediately, which it rarely does, do not sabotage your life by giving up. Just keep exercising with the questions: “What do I want?” and “What’s beneath that?” I tell you, your soul knows what it wants most deeply, and when you are able to really listen without judgment, your soul is hoping to whisper your own deep longing in your ear. As Rumi says:
“Submit to a daily practice. Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who’s there.
Keep knocking/meditating with the question, and watch for the joy to answer. If you are feeling especially clear, respond to this blog by letting me know what you are hearing of your heart’s deepest longing.