How to Show Up With Your Whole Heart

Living wholeheartedly means unapologetically embracing who we are, accepting our imperfections, and celebrating our strengths and uniqueness, writes cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Fisher in this excerpt from his new book, Just One Heart.

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Dr. Suzie Brown knows about broken hearts. She knows what makes hearts fail and what helps them heal. As a cardiologist at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dr. Brown specializes in advanced heart failure and transplantation. Beyond the anatomy and physiology, she embodies the power of living wholeheartedly. Her patients and colleagues know her for her passion, purpose, and presence.

At one point during her training, she faced the challenge of caring for patients during long nights on call while also dealing with the demands of a teething infant at home. These situations were physically and emotionally draining. Nevertheless, she remained steadfast in her commitment to her patients, driven by her unwavering sense of purpose as a healthcare professional.

The pressures and expectations of her profession often forced her to sideline her feelings and needs, pushing her to put on a mask of invulnerability. The emotional toll of constantly caring for others, often at the expense of her well-being, began to wear on her.

She felt drained after completing her cardiology training. During her last year of cardiology fellowship in 2006, she penned her first song to process a personal breakup. Music quickly became more than a hobby. It became a source of restoration and renewal.

Dr. Brown’s journey toward living wholeheartedly illustrates her evolution in handling the emotional challenges of her demanding profession. Initially suppressing her emotions to meet professional expectations, she realized the importance of embracing her vulnerabilities and passions beyond medicine—a profound affirmation of wholeness. This transformation made music her emotional outlet and a solace in her life.

Living From a Place of Wholeness

Author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer emphasizes in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life that living wholeheartedly is about embracing the natural wholeness we are born with. For me, it means living with authenticity, vulnerability, purpose, passion, and presence while fully engaging in our lives and doing what we love with all our hearts. Wholehearted people live intentionally and embrace it all, not wishing away any parts or moments of their lives.

Wholehearted people live intentionally and embrace it all, not wishing away any parts or moments of their lives.

Living wholeheartedly also means embracing our whole selves unapologetically, accepting our flaws and weaknesses, and celebrating our strengths and uniqueness. It means being true to ourselves, even when difficult, and being proud of ourselves.

Embracing our wholeness means living and leading with presence, authenticity, purpose, and passion. But obstacles often block our path to living wholeheartedly. Let’s explore and overcome them together.

Embracing our wholeness means living and leading with presence, authenticity, purpose, and passion. But obstacles often block our path to living wholeheartedly.

Be Present in an Age of Distraction

Presence, the foundation of wholehearted living, is a necessary first step in this journey. It allows us to connect deeply with ourselves and our surroundings, creating a solid base from which authenticity, purpose, and passion can flourish. In our digital age, where attention is scarce, the challenge to stay present is ever-present. 

Professor of Psychology and Director of Contemplative Neuroscience at the University of Miami, Amishi Jha, provides insights on distraction and practices to strengthen our attention in her book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. She explains that distraction arises from both external and internal sources. Externally, we grapple with digital distractions from our devices and the curated realities of social media, environmental distractions from noisy and busy surroundings, and the pressures of time that rush and stress us. Internally, thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations compete for our attention. Fatigue, stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts often keep us “stuck in our heads” and disconnected from the present moment.

These distractions often plunge us into an “autopilot mode,” where we lose touch with the richness of our immediate experiences, leading to feelings of emptiness and unfulfillment. While sometimes valuable for routine tasks, this mode can be detrimental when it numbs us from fully engaging with life. Research by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert underscores the importance of attention to our overall happiness, indicating that less distraction correlates with higher happiness levels. However, this relationship is complex. Mindfulness and presence are part of a broader spectrum of factors that contribute to well-being.

Several strategies, including mindfulness practices, boundary setting with our devices, self-care through adequate rest, nutrition, and exercise, and cultivating strong social relationships and self-kindness, help us take steps toward improving our focus and reducing reliance on autopilot.

Living with Authenticity, Purpose, and Passion

In tandem with the struggle to remain present is the quest for living authentically, with purpose and passion. Bronnie Ware’s insights from palliative care patients, as shared in her 2012 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, illuminate the joy and belonging that stem from authenticity. Ware’s work caring for patients in their final weeks of life reveals the most common regrets of the dying, with one prevailing lament being, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” This sentiment underscores the importance of authenticity and serves as a poignant reminder of the value of living in alignment with our true selves rather than conforming to the expectations set by others.

In our quest for authenticity, vulnerability plays a pivotal role. It involves the courage to show our true selves, embrace our imperfections, and risk exposing our flaws and vulnerabilities to others for genuine connection and belonging. Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability highlights its importance for authenticity, connection, and wholehearted living. However, it’s important to note that risking exposure should be a