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From mindset to heartset

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

Why listening to our hearts is so important for leading systems change

By Charlotte Dufour

“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”

The first time I read these words by President Theodore Roosevelt, I felt goose bumbs. “That is so true!” They made me look back to all the times that I felt successful in my work, that a collective enterprise had gathered momentum, gotten people excited and driven them to give the best of themselves: those were the times when I cared, when all those involved deeply cared. We poured our heart into what we did and the energy, ideas, resources flowed along.

It did not mean it was easy – it seldom is – but this heart energy gave us the courage (which derives from "coeur", i.e. "heart" in French) to overcome obstacles, learn from the challenges, and simply give it our best shot.

I have been following with much interest the frequency with which the word “mindset” is coming up in discourses and articles on the leadership skills and attitudes that are required to foster systems change and help us advance on collective ambitions such as Agenda 2030, food systems transformation and climate action. “We need to change mindsets”. Of course, I fully agree.

I’ve been feeling, however, that something is still missing, and that something is more attention on “HEARTset”.

One could think that speaking of the heart is too “soft” or light for professional conversations on systems change. I would argue that it is in fact indispensable.

Why? For many practical reasons.

The first is, as the great Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda said: “thought follows feeling”. Whether we are aware of it or not, the impressions we have of a given situation, and therefore the attitudes we adopt, are shaped by our feelings and instincts. These are triggered by our senses, our past and current experiences and a variety of factors that operate at a subconscious level. The act of becoming aware of these, formulating thoughts and putting words on them comes in a second step.

If this argument sounds abstract, I invite you to recall a particular situation, for example when you are meeting a new colleague or partner. Even before you have even begin talking in depth with one another, you will be picking up cues – from their body language, the way they are dressed, the energy in their eyes, the tone of their voice – that will form an impression of this person upon you. It is based on these impressions that you will start formulating thoughts such as “I like this person’s energy; I think we can work together.” Or “Gosh, I’m not liking the vibes here; this is going to be a difficult collaboration...” Sound familiar?

Is it possible, therefore, to genuinely change our mindset if we do not address the emotions and feelings that underpin the mindset, i.e. the “heartset”?

Try it for a moment: take a situation you really don’t like. A very difficult relationship with a colleague, for example, or the heavy bureaucracy you have to manage in your work. Try changing your mindset about the situation by working mainly with your mind. You can think, for example, “he’s doing his best; I need to understand he’s still learning and give him time.” Or “the bureaucracy is part of a process of accountability and to reduce corruption; it’s a necessary part of this type of work.” The thoughts are there, you can even repeat them mentally. But how does your heart feel? Closed or open? Tense or relaxed? Right or “off”? Can you really change your attitude if your heart feels closed, tense and dubious?

Another reason why paying attention to the heartset is so important is precisely what Theodore Roosevelt is referring to in the above-mentioned quote: others feel the vibes that are emanating not just from our words and thoughts but from our own feelings.

If a person’s thoughts and emotions are not aligned, we feel it. We sense there is something not genuine; our senses are alerted, trust is difficult. We are instinctively more likely to listen to our gut or heart than to what the person is saying or to what this person thinks they believe. In short, if mindset and heartset are not in tune, something feels not right. If one is in a position of leadership or trying to drive change, it is much more difficult to inspire others to join in, connect and collaborate fully, because they sense an incoherence that puts them on their guard.

There is an even deeper reason why focusing on the heart even more than the mind is so essential. It relates to our life purpose and the dance between our ego and our soul. [1]

The ego works primarily with the rational mind. The soul works more with intuition, it accesses deep truths that transcend space and time. One of its main channels of expression and manifestation is the heart.

Focusing on heartset is therefore an invitation to check: am I aligned with my soul purpose? Am I aligned with my heart’s desire? Forcing a mindset that is not aligned with our soul’s purpose and nature can be very counter-productive. It’s like rowing against the current and usually drains us of our energy. I find, conversely, that when my actions are aligned with my soul purpose and heart’s desire, clarity and flow follow; my heart feels very full and uplifted.

Of course, distinguishing the voice of the soul from that of the ego, finding that alignment and coherence between mind and heart is far from easy. It is an evolving exploration that lasts our entire lifetime. Our guide in this journey is our heart. The 2 questions that help me listen to this guide are: “is my heart open or closed?” and “does it feel full or dry/shriveled?”

In writing all the above, I do not mean that we should not pay attention to mindset. On the contrary, mindset and heartset are connected both ways. Our mindset is influenced by our heartset, and shifting our mindset is the key that opens the door to a heartset shift.

It is the intention to change our mindset that makes us ask:

· Why do I feel this way about this situation?

· What am I afraid about and what are the origins of my fears? Are they justified here?

· Is my opinion grounded or is it shaped by my prejudices?

· I’m being triggered emotionally by this situation/person. Why? What wound is this inviting me to see and potentially heal?

· What is right for me? What do I really love? What brings me joy?

The true answers to these questions do not come from the mind but from the heart. The exploration entails a practice of inner listening, contemplation, “soul scanning”, inner communion, as found through meditation for example[2].

When you listen to your heart, you are listening to your soul.

One of the qualities of the soul is its capacity for deep connection and love. I truly believe that if each one of us strives to act guided by our souls, by our hearts, our actions will be far more impactful. We will be far more creative, and much better able to tackle the challenges of our time. Not only that, this attunement will enable us to act with a full heart, that nourishes us and those around us.

That is what SDG 0, the SDG of love and joy, is all about. That is how it can activate the 17 goals of Agenda 2030. It is also why SDG0 is the ultimate goal: working with a full heart brings us happiness and reminds us that the goal we seek actually lies in the journey itself.

[1] My understanding of these concepts is guided by the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda on Self-Realization: the Soul is what one can call our “deeper” or “higher self”. It is an emanation and expression of the underlying consciousness that underpins and animates all life. It is characterized by wisdom, power, expansiveness, limitless creativity, and deep connection to all expressions of life. The ego is the soul that has forgotten its full, expansive nature and identifies with the limitations of the physical body and material circumstances it finds itself in. It likes to separate things, establish categories. It works with logic and reason but is influenced by many subconscious factors created by one’s upbringing, social environment and past experiences, which generate fears, prejudices and places filters on our perception of reality.

[2] Many meditation techniques are now accessible to us. My personal practice is with the Hong So and Kriya Yoga techniques as taught by Paramhansa Yogananda. Others include: mindfulness, heartfulness, Vipassana, Zen mediation and more. It is worth exploring to find the technique you feel most attuned with, and then go deep in the exploration and refinement of this experience. It is an endless journey of ever deeper connection…

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