“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from from the Soul of the World and it will one day return there.” -Paulo Coelho
When I was eighteen years old I took my parents out to dinner and shared that I wanted to take a gap year between high school and college.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college at all. Structure and institutions disinterested me, and I felt confident my success and happiness were separate of a college degree.
I wanted to be a photojournalist. Maybe a writer, too. I mostly wanted to be a student of the world, and my classroom was not at a desk.
I left dinner that night feeling the heat of my parents’ frustration. I also left having made the decision I would forgo a gap year and begin college that fall.
Even though I had spent days assembling my plan, it took an hour for my parents’ disapproval to break it because they had more experience in the world than I did.
I trusted their reactions.
At age eighteen it was hard to trust myself, especially when what I envisioned was vastly different than what others advised. And to their credit, they only wanted what they perceived was best for me.
The day I made the decision to go to college was a significant moment in my life. Not because it drastically changed it for the better, but because it set me on a course that greatly increased my anxiety over the next several years.
When I look back now, almost three years after having completed my bachelor’s degree, it’s clear to me that at age eighteen I felt pulled toward a calling.
My heart beckoned me in one direction and societal pressure pulled me in another. Now that I have the gifts of hindsight and maturity, I’m able to reflect and understand that anxiety, though painful and uncomfortable, is sometimes a friend that arrives to signal that something is awry.
Two years after deciding to attend college my desires hadn’t changed. I felt torn between completing my schooling or dropping out and traveling.
I had an older friend who lived in India and taught yoga. More than anything, she was like a spiritual mentor for me. She always encouraged me to lead with my heart and was the only person at the time who genuinely understood my need to travel.
One night she messaged me out of the blue. “Hey, you good sister? I feel you!”
I was blown away by her senses. “I’ve been really struggling over a decision. I want to finish this year of school then head off to travel. Part of me doesn’t feel like I’m where I should be,” I told her.
As always, she was understanding and encouraging.
“I knew this was in your heart when I first met you and we spoke of traveling,” she said.
Speaking with her was like connecting directly to my intuition. I told her I would finish my associate’s degree that fall and then the upcoming January move to India where she was.
Maybe I’d even train as a yogi under her supervision, I thought. But still, in the back of my mind I heard voices telling me my plans were unrealistic, irresponsible, and in some absurd way… embarrassing.
As though I was so far removed that I couldn’t even recognize the impracticality of my own dreams.
Not long after that conversation, I was trying to sleep one night when I was engulfed by my thoughts and felt a sense of anxiety that seemed inescapable. I messaged her and told her I was suffering from an anxiety disorder.
“You are not suffering from anxiety,” she reassured me.
“You are only allowing yourself to feel like you are your thoughts. But since we are separate from our thoughts, we allow them to pass. We are not able to become anxious as our natural state is peace. You may ‘feel’ anxious love, but YOU are not anxious!”
Her words were like water to my thirsty heart. I experienced anxiety before but not so intensely. It typically showed in more subtle ways, like the kind that either increase or decrease depending on the amount of caffeine I had that day.
Anxiety runs in my family and certainly isn’t a stranger to me. But that night was one of the first moments I felt victimized by it, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Just a few months later, on the first day of the fall semester, I found myself experiencing that same level of anxiety.
It was a beautiful autumn day. I was sitting against a tree on the college campus, bawling on the phone with my mom.
“I hate college,” I told her. “I don’t want to be here.”
She suggested I see a school counselor, and I agreed.
The counselor referred me to a free meditation course being offered at the counseling center. I wasn’t new to the idea of meditation. I loved the idea of it, but practicing it was a different story.
We met a few times a week for several months, and through that experience I redefined a tool I’d always had available to me: my breath.
It was a tool that helped me to endure future moments of anxiety, although they thankfully decreased over the next several years.
That January I didn’t move to India like I said I would. I instead enrolled for the following semester of college classes.
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to continue to go to school, I think it just kind of happened that way. I was already on a particular course and changing the plan altogether seemed daunting.
My voice began to merge with the voices around me. You can travel when you graduate, I told myself. And with only a couple years left until I received my bachelor’s degree, it felt like a realistic goal.
Although graduating college felt like a goal I’d be checking off a list that others had written for me. Then, I could start pursuing my own list of goals.
But graduation came around and I was immediately swept into a job. It was a temporary one that lasted only six months, so it made sense to save money and then pursue what was in my heart.
When that job ended I did travel for a few weeks, but then I was back in the same place.
In my mind, travel had always encompassed so much more than a brief trip. I imagined it as more of a lifestyle – one where my career goals and desire for freedom and exploration didn’t have to exist separate from one another. I wanted that for myself.
But then I found myself in another job, and then another one, although it wasn’t the working itself that was an issue. Being unemployed wasn’t an option for me.
The problem was that I struggled to move myself toward a path more in line with my genuine, intuitive desires.
I had spent much of my life walking the line that separated following my heart and doing what I felt I needed to do. I always remained on the other side of my heart, too fearful to step over the divide.
I’d experiment with the other side or spend time admiring it from a distance. But each time I considered crossing it I’d think, I’m just going to stay here for a bit, save some money, then I’ll step over.
In my most recent job, I finally realized I needed to move a different direction. I worked for a great organization, and I was making more money than ever before.
But my anxiety was surfacing in troubling ways. I sometimes felt so anxious that I forgot what I was saying mid-sentence in a room of only two others. I had dreams that I was being chased by something, as though the life I wasn’t pursuing was catching up to me.
I knew I’d leave eventually, but the consequences for leaving sooner than later felt steep: debt that wasn’t getting paid anytime soon, disappointment from my coworkers, and most importantly a strong disapproval from people I loved.
I’ll stay here for three years, then I can wander, I told myself. That’s when I stopped.
Three years? To me, that was an eternity.
Time was slipping quickly from my hands, and I was choosing over and over again not to invest my heart into the days, months, and years passing by.
I knew that if I waited three years, I would wait another three, and then another, until my dreams eventually became distant thoughts.
At age twenty-four, when I caught myself having thoughts of quitting my job, I considered for the first time to use medication for my anxiety.
But I remembered an important lesson I learned in the meditation course I took a few years before: I could live alongside anxiety without silencing it.
At that point, it was so disruptive to my daily life that I wondered if it was trying to communicate something. I needed to listen to it and find its root.
I spent the majority of my time outside work in a state of introspection, and I journaled almost every day.
Journaling isn’t new to me, but this time it felt more raw. I was honest about what I felt, even if it was uncomfortable – and trust me, it was – to move through the process of reflection and, especially, to take accountability for my own actions.
It had been so easy to blame those around me for the path I was on. And to be honest, I was in a great place professionally, but it wasn’t my path.
The more I wrote and searched for the root of my anxiety, the more I was able to focus on the word “my.” This is my life, my path, my decisions, I thought.
The process wasn’t smooth. In fact it was quite messy.
I went back and forth, then back and forth again, then again, and again once more about whether or not I was going to stay in my job. I was stuck between logic and intuition.
I wrote a list of what made the most sense and the answer was always clear: to stay in my job. There were so many benefits that came with staying.
If I left, I’d be choosing uncertainty over stability. But intuition isn’t easily conquered by logic. I couldn’t seem to escape the feeling – no matter how little sense it made – that my path was not the one I was standing on.
Recently, I made the final decision to leave my job and pursue a life that is more in line with my aspirations.
I want to explore and write, which are the same two things that have been part of my psyche since a young age. I didn’t need to lose myself, go to school, or spend years trying to decide what I wanted.
The answer was always there, laid out in front of me long before I could understand it.
Since making the decision, I feel less anxious. I’m no longer being chased in my dreams. I don’t wake in a panic while trying to fall asleep. I don’t lose my words while talking with others.
There is a sense of calmness in my conscious because for the first time, I trust the vision that I have and always did have for my life.
Through the journey I’ve come to ask myself this: what if anxiety is beneficial? What if it’s a symptom, like physical pain, that appears when something is off?
Without pain, we wouldn’t be attentive to our physical needs. Broken bones would be more difficult to notice, and internal injuries would be nearly impossible to recognize. Maybe anxiety serves the same purpose as physical pain: to signal that something is in need of attention.
Like my friend told me so many years ago, we are not our anxiety. It’s not a condition that’s embedded in our being. It doesn’t control us, like I felt that night lying in bed. It’s not punishment, nor is it malicious.
Rather, anxiety is a message that’s asking to be listened to.
Open the message, ponder it, and ask questions if you wish. But please, do not ignore it.
Maybe somewhere hidden in it is a key to free you from whatever has been holding you back. Just maybe, the thing that feels most restrictive is actually the one thing trying to release you.
I’ll leave you with some words I wrote in my journal two years after starting college:
I hope to someday be able to say this through my own experience, that if we take a risk of following our dreams – because the risks that come with dreams can be far more than what we’re willing to accept – the universe will not neglect our desires and will conspire to make things work in our favor.
When we open our hearts and accept fear, the result is often far more rewarding than we could have ever imagined. Whatever it is that you’re aching to do with your life, even if it means risking it all, give in to the fear and be open to the opportunities that wait. See what happens.