I’ve recently started a course led by two friends about medicinal herbs and plants. We study anatomy, drink teas, meditate and listen to trees. That might sound like a holiday (and it is pleasurable enough to make it seem so). But the truth is that it’s changing my life.
Yesterday’s focus was on the heart and lungs. After a huge download on the anatomy of these organs and the way they work, the subtler aspects of the heart were discussed – in a way I had never heard before. The word ‘heart’ has become a signifier for all that is mawkish and silly in our society. Spanish songs aren’t complete without a few corazones, but in English, just mentioning the word, especially with ‘my’ before it, usually triggers a wave of cynical responses even before the sentence is complete.
And yet the subtle action of the heart is quite tangible and even documentable. Western science was only discovered in the 1980s that the heart is also an endocrinal gland: it produces and secretes hormones and neurotransmitters, particularly noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as oxytocin – the love hormone or bonding hormone, released in large quantities at orgasm, when in love, and during and after a natural labour.
Even more fascinating is the electromagnetic function of the heart. There are known to be 40,000 neurones in the heart; together with the intestines it forms one of the largest ‘brains’ in the body, after the brain itself. The heart of a foetus actually begins beating before the brain is sufficiently developed to send it the message to do so; one of the first functions of the brain in the womb is to regulate the heartbeat.
The heart sends messages to the brain by many means, hormonal, chemical, electrical and so on, not just about blood pressure but also about our feelings, sadness, joy, love, pain.
There is an electromagnetic field generated by any organ with neuronal activity. This is what women with flowers in their hair and crystals in their pockets (just check out my prejudices!) might call an aura. Every living entity has one of these fields. With greater awareness of what is happening in this field, it can be expanded to overlap with the field surrounding another living entity, whether it be a person or animal or plant. This is when communication takes place. The words are after-effects.
One of the ways to effect this greater awareness is through the breathing practice pranayama, while visualising the air coming in and out of the heart. This is really powerful. Suddenly it seems that the heart has a mouth and can breathe and therefore talk. It is a living entity its own right.
To complete this sense of expansion and warmth, it is necessary only to remember a time when you felt very thankful, and a time when you felt great love and tenderness. It is like watching a plant grow rapidly before your eyes and open its petals, like in a David Attenborough documentary on your own being.
This pool of warmth and tenderness, when it notices another pool that is in pain, immediately rushes to make contact with it. There’s no sense of ‘ooh look at me, all compassionate like’. The heart pools are compassion in action, without the brain to stick price tags on it.
All of this is probably making a lot of sense to you, dear readers. Everyone who has ever been in love or created a work of art or lost a dear friend or family member knows there is a capacity for feeling in the heart that cannot compare to the cold, tickety calculations happening in the brain – no matter how useful these might also be.
But whether you decide to keep the seat of your sense of being up there among the mechanisms of thought and analysis, or down here in the centre of your body, makes a huge difference to the way you approach the world.
Remaining in the head enables us to make justifications for behaviour that destroys other people’s worlds or harms the environment. There is always seemingly good reason. Remaining in the heart, however, makes it impossible to witness any suffering without wanting to do something to alleviate it – especially when the cause of the suffering is ourselves.
This is where we come back to these split opinions about the heart.
I get a strong sense that there are two ‘Wests’: the corporate West, and the human West. The corporate West has no heart. It exists entirely in the sphere of analysis and justification. We can make more money doing something a particular way, and thus make life easier and more comfortable and apparently happier doing it, so we can justify the suffering of sweatshop labourers, child miners, displaced indigenous peoples, and invaded oil-rich countries, or the plunder and poisoning of natural resources in order to do it.
Then there is the human West. (That’s you, and me.) If we were to see this suffering first-hand, there’s no way we would accept it. Our hearts would break. Yet the distance between us and them, combined with the primping effect of the corporate West, make the justifications seem worthwhile. Of course you’d say yes to a gadget or product that made your life easier, prettier, nicer-smelling, or more comfortable, if you didn’t know what kind of chaos its production entailed.
The problem is that swaddling our hearts against the horror of what our actions as a society end up doing to the rest of the world is also suffocating. It feels unnatural not to witness any pain or discomfort. When the aged or disabled are sent to care homes, we forget they exist and expect everyone to be young and fit and gorgeous. When beggars are rounded up by police and moved on, we forget what poverty looks like. When doctors can reassure you that disease is not the end of the world, we forget that any one of us could die at any moment, forgetting also to treat every drop of life as a gift. All of this allows us to get on with our lives more comfortably, and yet our hearts are being numbed in the process.
To react to this slow, icy death, we come up with all sorts of hairbrained methods to reactivate our hearts. We go in for wildy passionate, toxic love affairs that end up hurting us. We flirt with danger in the form of tobacco, drugs, alcohol. We jump out of airplanes with backpacks and goggles on. Anything to make us feel alive again, to feel that leap in our chests, the thud of adrenaline or the buzz of dopamine.
And then love itself is marketed in so many ways. Films posit love as the ultimate trophy, the happy ending that won’t dissolve into acrimony a few years later. Love as a commodity is mawkish and icky. The internet is rife with photos of kittens, in baskets, with bows on, looking perplexedly at the camera in sailor suits…in the absence of an orphaned child living in a train station, the most extraordinarily silly things pass as heart-rending.
There is an ultimate sense to things. Sometimes it takes age or experience or distance covered to have any perspective on them, but there is a sense there, overall. Even disease could be seen as an expression of our underlying need to know what death is in order to be able to get back to the present moment, to get back to the centre of our being, to feel the jolt of life pumping away inside our bodies and remember to appreciate it instead of getting swamped with worry and the frantic accumulation of things.
Am I just getting old?
If getting old means seeing the small in the large and the large in the small, then perhaps I won’t mind the discomforts.