Shifting Guidance From Head to Heart
Nina Simons’ opening talk from the 2015 Bioneers Conference
By Nina Simons /

While I am inspired each year by all the brilliant, innovative and effective solutions and strategies at this gathering, they won’t be enough to shift our collective course without an accompanying — and radical — change of heart.

For me, what’s central to humanity’s strife and the devastation we are wreaking upon our mother Earth, is an imbalance of the masculine and feminine. As some Indigenous peoples of the South have said “the bird of humanity has been trying to fly with only one wing.”

Reclaiming the value of the feminine within each of us to bring our human wholeness to this time of revolutionary reinvention is essential.We all are needed to transform our systems to bring health, peace and justice so that all may thrive, across gender, race, orientation, class, and among the entire web of life.

We have to re-awaken and exercise the feeling parts of ourselves: our intuition, our body wisdom, our dreams and our deep listening. As we re-enliven the parts of our hearts that know that relationships are far more important than accomplishments, goals or tasks, we’ll become better partners to ourselves, each other and the Earth.

If we practice our capacity to be comfortable with vulnerability, with uncertainty, and with attending to the cues and clues that surround us, it will help us to become resilient, flexible and adaptive to change.This is not about devaluing the masculine side of ourselves, it’s about reclaiming the whole of our humanity.

As Charles Eisenstein says: “the way forward isn’t to erase gender differences, but to restore them to health and reclaim them in service to life,” and to do that in a way that honors the blurry zones (the queer, the trans, the gender-fluid that invariably arise along with this (or any) binary distinction.”

For me, I find I must begin with my inner self, since what’s out there likely reflects what’s within me, as it’s far too easy (and not ultimately effective) to blame others without cleaning, updating and re-orienting my own house, first.

My journey this year has been about learning to listen more closely to my heart, to shift my primary guidance system, my compass, my source of navigation from my head to my heart.

I am practicing re-sequencing my inner voices so that my heart’s instruction can lead, and be supported by the plans, analysis and structures my mind creates. When I listen with my heart, I am pierced with an empathic awareness that calls me into action beyond what any amount of learning, reading or mental understanding can prompt.

I agreed last spring to host a panel at the UN Commission on the Status of Women focused on Women, Health and Extractive Industries. I already knew that women were often on the frontlines, but I had no idea of the systemic way that corporations have targeted women in their efforts to plunder the Earth, nor of its staggering global extent.

Whether mining for coal, gems or metal ores, drilling or fracking for oil, multinationals move into mostly indigenous communities first with “Man Camps.” The women in these often remote regions are the first to be impacted, with escalating Rape, Sex Trafficking, Prostitution and Domestic Abuse.

Next the men receive the fall-out, with rises in alcoholism, drug abuse, disease, poverty and joblessness. This not only decimates families, it destroys entire traditional life ways, landscapes and languages.

At the UN panel, women from many nations rose and spoke. Listening, I felt my stomach recoil in anger, my empathy cringed in recognition of their pain. I recognized how systemic, entrenched and brutal the global war on women really is.

When I got still enough to listen to my heart, I was enlivened by their courage, and inspired by the outrage in their voices. I recalled that anger is our body’s way of telling us a boundary has been trespassed.

I remembered and felt in a deeper way how interconnected their lives and mine and ours really are. Indigenous communities worldwide have been especially hard hit with intergenerational histories of forced relocations, broken treaties, systemic racism and land theft, decimating cultures, knowledge systems and ecosystems.

When my heart takes this in, I am stunned by the rot at the foundation of this nation, by the profound and largely still invisible legacy of theft, deceit and violent destruction that this country was built upon.

While Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made a great case for reparations — in recounting how the US economy was built principally upon the institution of slavery — I wonder how huge and deep the case for reparations might be to begin to attempt healing with the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island?

A woman leader I know of huge heart and spirit, a single mother of three, told me of leaving her home in Oakland one morning. As she left, there was yellow police tape across her neighbor’s door, a woman she knew had been shot while trying to protect her kids. Arriving to her workplace at Bayview Hunter’s Point, where she works to save the lives of young brown and black girls, she found the same tape there.

As I learn to listen increasingly to my heart’s guidance, I am as often led to experience places that are painful and uncomfortable as I am to recalling my gratitude, my native optimism and sense of celebration. And, though my culturally-entrenched habits incline me to shy away from those shadowy realms, and the patterns of white privilege within me would have me smooth over the ruptures that sometimes arise in cross-cultural settings, my heart is strengthened each time, by choosing to lean in and engage with others’ whole truths, fully.

At a Cultivating Women’s Leadership intensive, most women there had been raped or abused. I wondered about the effects of so much violation. But as our days unfold, I am struck by their strength, stunned by their resilience and humbled by their commitments, their vision and resolve.

Meeting women from Serbia,I see the light shining from their eyes, and feel the power of their playful and buoyant hearts. I learn their ancient Kolo dance, a circled restorative ritual that’s been practiced since mezolithic times. They share how their dancing and singing together has healed thousands who’ve been traumatized by their wars.

I am stunned by the power of women, and their capacity to heal. Wise elders, friends and mutual mentors among the women I am honored to work with remind me to listen deeply to all my sources of guidance — to seek assistance from nature, from my dreams and intuition, to inquire of my ancestors, before determining a course of action.

This requires me to peel away layers of patterning, to question old habits. As I try to compost layers of acculturated learning that I absorbed unknowingly through the invisible water of culture we swim in, I wonder whether I will ever be free of it.

To change my internal wiring means having to slow down, even in this wildly sped-up world. One pattern I’m trying to shift is my relation to time. I see how I’ve been chronically hyper-active, mimicking a multi-armed goddess, though I have only two, and always feeling unfinished and behind. Nothing I could do was ever enough, my ‘To-do” list could never be completed. I’d heard myself offer the same apology far too often, for damaging a relationship or disrespecting a friend.

“I’m so sorry,” I’d say, “I was just moving too fast, and have too much on my plate.” I saw I had come to equate busy-ness with being important. I realize I need to decolonize my mind, to shed layers of bias and beliefs I didn’t know I had, and practice reclaiming and remembering other ways of knowing.

My heart told me to listen, this year. With my father who died early from heart failure, my blood pressure cuff and practitioner cautioned me that my heart’s numbers were unsustainable. I ruefully began medication, which barely changed anything.

One morning I awoke from a dream, knowing “I have to meditate.” I stayed in bed, breathing deeply and slowly and emptied my mind. When I arose and checked, my blood pressure had returned to normal, immediately, for the first time in months.

I’m learning now that caring for the world requires that I care first for myself, and that they are inseparable and interdependent. I see how I had unconsciously polarized rest and self-care as self-indulgent, and service to others as being the greatest virtue.

My acupuncturist tells me that I am chronically yin-deficient. That the yin energy in our bodies needs rest to replenish, repair and regenerate. The irony is not lost on me, as a woman whose life work involves women’s leadership. But then I remember that we teach what we most need to learn. I’m practicing shifting from clock time to nature-time, remembering to re-enter stillness between events, and not acting just because my head tells me to.

Along the way, I’ve discovered something about the feminine. I’m learning that listening is not a passive act. Life’s teaching me that it doesn’t just require my ears. I’m learning to listen with my belly, my dreams and my intuition.

Not only does it require actively attending to receive guidance, I’ve discovered I also have to ask, in order to receive. And then wait — patiently if possible — for a response to come. As I practice this — with my inner self, with nature, with my body, with ancestors, and dreamtime and intuition — I find I have many more sources of insight than I’d previously imagined or remembered.

Janine Benyus recently shared a biologist’s view of Climate Change, in a way that helped my heart wrap round it more than ever before. It’s all about context, about relatedness, she said. As the world is getting hotter, species are migrating, at an average rate of 6 kilometers every ten years.

Now, that may not seem very fast to all of us, but in nature, she reminded us, everything is connected, everything is hitched to everything else. If you’re a flower whose pollinator has moved north faster than you can, this may be your last year. If you’re a predator whose prey has headed on, you too may be heading for extinction.

My heart keens with the sense of life’s very fabric unraveling. But imagine, instead of people being the instruments of Earth’s destruction, if we re-enter a sacred partnership with all of Life on behalf of her healing.

May we remember how to bring the wholeness of our humanity — our deep listening, our patient observation, our loving, powerful and tender hearts and our humble hands — and our prayers — to co-creating the conditions for thriving life.

Nina Simons is a social entrepreneur, activist, speaker and writer/producer who is the co-founder of Bioneers and founder of Everywoman’s Leadership. A nonprofit organization, Bioneers identifies, features and promotes innovative leaders with solutions to many of our most pressing environmental and social challenges. Bioneers hosts an annual headwaters conference in California, partner events across the US, as well as a plethora of inspiring media online. Over the past 15 years, she’s increasingly focused on how leadership itself is being reinvented, and on the leadership of women (and us all) from the heart and feminine. She is the editor of Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart, which features essays from diverse women and men that model new forms of leadership from the inside, out. She co-facilitates Cultivating Women’s Leadership intensives each year, and is working to develop a framework to help connect women in leadership across siloes and divides. Previously, in the for-profit sector, she was a Strategic Marketing Director for Odwalla and President of Seeds of Change.

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Shifting Guidance From Head to Heart