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What Does It Mean to “Follow Your Heart?”

That phrase gets thrown around a lot. "Follow your heart! Do what you love! Pursue your passion! Etc, etc." For a while, such talk irked me. I was never one for the "heart." The idea of a heart had been twisted, glammed up, and perfumed so many times by the Nora Roberts and Nicolas Sparks of the world that it had turned me off to the idea entirely. All while growing up, I hated Valentine's Day, anything pink, anything girly, and definitely anything to do with hearts. I was a "brain" sort of girl. I wanted knowledge, not sweet little somethings wrapped in chocolate. And so anytime I heard an entrepreneur, coach, or teacher tell me anything remotely related to the heart, I shut down entirely. What do you mean, follow my heart? It's an organ pumping blood! What the hell does my heart know? And why would I listen?

As I later discovered, these turns of phrase go way back - and I'm talking way, way, way back - to ancient Egypt. According to their mythology, it was the god Ptah, the god of craftsmen and architects, who conceived the universe in his heart. He then used his tongue to express these thoughts, which brought all that we know into reality. In hieroglyphics, the heart is represented by a vase - a container - with vessels outstretched to connect to all members of the body, such as the liver and lungs, the arms and legs, the eyes and tongue. It was considered to be the center of the human life force, holding the mind and soul of that individual within its chambers. And there, deep within the body, did the ancients believe consciousness existed.

Let's explore this concept, if only out of curiosity.

The Central Source of Life

A heart amulet from the New Kingdom.

A heart amulet from the New Kingdom.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was formed from one drop of blood from a mother's heart, delivered at the time of conception. And once that heart had formed, and began to beat, those contractions and expansions would form the center of a new universe, and a home for the child's soul. Through the pulsation of this personal drum, that individual would then become connected to their emotions: love, affection, delight, desire, fear, vulnerability, and rage. It was here that the unique individual essence of that human being was believed to be created.

The Seat of Power

The heart was also believed to house one's "true voice," which guided you throughout your daily life. It acted as your conscience, performing a version of divine justice at every moment, to determine right from wrong. In addition, the heart was believed to be a storehouse for your memories and truth, as well as the home of your personality, creative imagination, thought and understanding. It represented an inner, invisible Sun, shining through the darkness, as the center of our personal cosmos. And as a living symbol, it was believed to communicate with the body through the heartbeat.

"It speaks in the vessels of all the members."

The heartbeat was believed to be that individual's "true voice" traveling through the vessels to guide the movement of the body. It was how emotions were first awakened, in the form of fear, courage, compassion, sorrow, or joy. The heartbeat was also how wisdom, intelligence, and desire was articulated, with one's pulse revealing your true self's deepest feelings. It was who you were - your consciousness expressed - the spark of life that defined you. More importantly, it was where your true passions could be found.

Which god are you?

The Egyptian god Ptah

The Egyptian god Ptah

While the Egyptians had many gods and goddesses to choose from, they were inherently monotheistic, according to Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge. He argued that, while all gods were extensions of the sun god Ra, each individual had a certain god with which they most aligned, depending on their talents, skills, or passions. For instance, we, as writers, align most with the god Thoth - the god who invented writing, speech, and the alphabet. Therefore, in our hearts, we would hear Thoth, and with our tongues (or in this case, our fingers), we speak the wisdom of Thoth. Similarly, if you were an architect, perhaps your heart would echo the wisdom of Ptah. Whatever the case, your heart was merely the vessel for this god to communicate through you.

As alchemists later put it, when seeking inner peace or balance with our own feelings, we are actually attempting to communicate with the god within our hearts who "deigns to make us his dwelling place." It is through this search within that we ultimately find the light we seek, not in ourselves, but in the spirit which lives within us.

Light as a Feather When Stiff as a Board

A heart is weighted against Ma'at's feather. Thoth, the ibis-headed god, records the results.

A heart is weighted against Ma'at's feather. Thoth, the ibis-headed god, records the results.

In the Book of the Dead, one encounters the scales of Thoth weighing the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma'at (I referenced this once in a poem). According to ancient Egyptian belief, if an individual was pure of spirit, then their heart would be as light as the feather, indicating that they had lived their life in balance. If they had not lived a balanced life, then their heart would sink beneath the feather in the afterlife. If that was the case, then the heart would be fed to Ammit, the monstrous creature waiting beside the scales. Being fed to Ammit would indicate a second and, more importantly, permanent death, meaning that you would be unable to resurrect with the Sun, as Ra did every morning.

But what about my brain?

Wet brains from Ex Machina

Wet brains from Ex Machina

During the mummification process, the heart was often left within the body as a home for the soul to return to. As for the brain, well, it was pulled out through the nose and discarded like a bad microprocessor. The head represented matter, the physical form, which was all but worthless to the Egyptians; whereas the heart was equated with the spirit, elevating this organ to the status of "most important."

Dolores and the maze from HBO's Westworld

Dolores and the maze from HBO's Westworld

Think of it this way: that gorgeous brain developed by Nathan in Ex Machina would be worthless to the Egyptians, and Ava would be unnatural, due to her lack of a heart. This "heartlessness" would also indicate a lack of conscience, morality, empathy, or even passion, making her all the more dangerous and dark. In contrast, you might argue that when Dolores finishes the maze and achieves consciousness in Westworld, she is actually creating her own heart. She does this by storing memory and truth in some secret chamber, hidden from all others, while determining right and wrong for herself. In this case, making the brain was easy, but making the soul took time.

Of course, the implication of this concept is that your brain simply animates everything you do, from speaking, walking, writing, and eating; but you create from the heart. And creation, to the ancients, was the most important task of all. Anybody could walk, talk, or fart - but what passion did you follow and what did you create with it? How did you best serve the god who inspired you? How well did you follow your heart?

The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants

I completely understand the cynicism. All logic points to the brain being our seat of knowledge and power; but what if, to create, you must truly follow your heart? What if you're meant to follow whatever that pull is towards some secret passion or desire? Maybe you want to start a business, or build something new. In that case, perhaps Ptah is speaking to you when your pulse quickens at the thought. Or you feel the itch to write the next great novel because Thoth has called you to do such work. Whatever your dream, perhaps there is more to it than simply thinking you should. And maybe your heart knows something you don't.