THE BLOG
04/20/2013 09:07 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2013

Spiritual Nutrition for the Heart

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There are so many articles written every single day about health and nutrition. There is this diet and that diet and one philosophy after another about what to eat and when to eat it and how far apart to space meals and good fats and bad fats -- and the list goes on. We can Google almost anything today and find an answer for what to eat for better eyesight, or which omega supplements facilitate better brain function, or even what combinations of food we should eat to increase our sex drive or our sleep -- or any other number of things that we cant to improve. But what about if we stopped for a second and played with a new idea. What if what we need isn't just about the healthy food we are putting in our bodies? What happens when our heart is hurting (emotionally speaking) or we're having a bad day, and no amount of kale salad or raw almonds is going to help us? It's only then when we may realize that there is something we might be missing. It's no secret that many of is have chocolate stashes in our freezer or cookies hiding out in the pantry for those "just in case" moments such as a breakup, a stressful day at work, or even a conflict with a family or friend. But what if we could also feed our hearts? What if we had an entire backup plan for those days when our hearts ache for just a little more comfort or nurturing? Or what if we nourished our hearts enough every single day so that we didn't actually need a stash of anything, anywhere?

Spiritual nutrition for the heart is something I talk a lot about in my health counseling practice. I do spend lots of time talking about leafy greens and healthy fats and exercise and water intake. I even talk a lot about cravings and sugar and the importance of indulging in chocolate sometimes. But really, my main focus is on the deeper level, which is the heart level. Many of us spend so much time focusing on the physical aspect of our heart, such as adequate exercise, lower amounts of sodium, limited caffeine, etc. But what about the other parts of our heart that can't be seen on an X-ray or evaluated during a stress test, but can be felt just as deeply as a physical issue?

About nine months ago, I began a pretty rigorous exercise routine. I went from not doing any exercise for most of my life (29 years) to working out with a personal trainer three times a week and adding in two days of yoga. I have been an extremely healthy eater for the past nine or so years, so that wasn't a challenge for me. And oddly enough, the physical exercise wasn't all that challenging for me, either. I began to get into a nice little rhythm with working out, eating my kale, making my green smoothies, and lowering my sodium and sugar intake. In no time at all, I began to feel great! I even started looking forward to my exercise days, and even exercising on my own in between my sessions with my trainer. In lots of ways, I felt energized, in touch with myself, healthier than I ever have been, and proud of myself for keeping my commitment. And it was even amazing to watch my body tone and become leaner and stronger and build endurance. I did this consistently for about four months. And then one day, I woke up feeling a little funny. I made a green smoothie and waited for it to "kick in," but nothing happened. So I put my workout clothes on and went to meet with my trainer and had a great workout. But I walked away from the session feeling different than I usually did. I couldn't quite figure out what was going on, because I did the two things that normally "make" everything feel better, yet there was a feeling deep inside me that I couldn't seem to shake.

I went through my day feeling strange. I kept trying things that usually helped me -- even taking a few omega and vitamin-B supplements to "boost" my energy level and mood. I met with clients, talked to friends on the phone, ran errands, and did my best to force myself to feel good. And then at around 5 p.m., while sitting at a traffic light, the tears began to flow. I cried softly at first, and then when the all-out sobbing began, I pulled off onto a quiet side street and just let it all go. I had images and memories flying through my mind, which seemed to trigger more and more tears. I cried like I did when I was 3 years old and my mother dropped me off at preschool for the first time. I cried as hard as I did when I was 7 and my sister moved across the country to go to college. And I cried almost as hard as I did the day when I put my dog to sleep when I was 27. And for some reason, all of these memories flooded my mind as I cried harder and harder until there was nothing left and it was 45 minutes later and the sun had set and my tear-stained face was red and puffy.

Though I felt tired and pretty disoriented from crying so much and feeling so much intense emotion, that "weird" feeling I had all day had released. I instinctively placed my hand over my heart and pictured myself actually holding my heart -- and not just my physical heart, but the emotions and feelings and everything inside that I felt I had been neglecting for so long. I visioned my life for the past few months and how much "work" I had been doing with healthy eating and exercise and yoga and doing my best to do everything "right." But in that time, what I "failed" to do, was to nourish and nurture my heart while making all of those changes. In all that time, I didn't realize that I had sadness and anger and despair and unworthiness all trying to surface and be expressed and released. I didn't know at the time that as my body was undergoing all of the physical changes, my emotions were as well. And since my heart is the house of most of my emotions and feelings, I felt a little like I had neglected myself because clearly there was some serious self-care that needed to be happening. But instead of beating myself up (let's face it, I had done quite a bit of crying by this point!), I covered my heart with my right hand and just allowed myself to listen. What did I need in that moment? What did I want to do for myself that would help me feel safe, supported, and comforted? I closed my eyes and just connected with myself in a way I hadn't ever before. My heart needed dinner, a sweet treat, and to go home and snuggle in bed with a movie. I looked at the clock in my car to see that it wasn't even 6 p.m. yet and I was never one to get in bed before 10 p.m. But instead of fighting it, I picked up dinner and a treat, drove home, rented a movie on my laptop, and hopped in bed, where I spent the rest of the night truly giving myself what I needed.

The lesson I learned in all of this is that my heart has needs that cannot be reached on a physical level. I live a busy life -- with clients and exercise routines and deadlines and emails -- just like everyone else. But somewhere in there, my heart needs to be fed. And not by someone else, but by me. I need to take the time out, every single day, and ask my heart what it needs. Do I need to cry? Do I need to talk to a friend? Do I need to take a nap or get in bed early or go watch the sunset or go snuggle with my dog? I am learning to listen to myself because I have found that only tending to the physical needs of my heart isn't enough. I need the nurturing. I long for the love I can give to myself, just through listening to myself. If we have heartburn, we can go to our doctor and get a prescription that will make it go away in two hours or less! But what about when we need something that medicine, or a doctor, or even a good five-mile run can't fulfill? Where are all the articles that tell us what to reach for when we are having a moment of feeling unworthy or lonely? The last time I checked, there wasn't a type of Girl Scout cookie called "Peanut Butter Self-Nurturing Bars."

So the next time you go to reach for something, whether it be healthy food or a sweet treat that reminds you of childhood or even a protein shake, remember that your heart may actually be needing something else. Even after the most intense yoga or Pilates class, sometimes an energy bar just doesn't cut it because there's a deeper underlying issue going on. The truth is, we all have the skills and capability of taking a minute in our cars on the side of a quiet street in Los Angeles, and asking ourselves what we really need, emotionally. Because one way or another it's all going to come spilling out -- and what a beautiful thing it would be to be able to maintain the emotional state of our heart instead of playing damage control when we go too long without listening. Our heart deserves our undivided attention, because our hearts are one of the deepest parts of who we truly are.

For more by Robin Hoffman, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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