There is a new trend these days, a positive one in the direction of wholeness, toward becoming more heart-centered. Begging the question, what is meant by "heart-centeredness"?
Actually, the term "heart-centered" may be a bit misleading, as it might indicate a move from the head to the heart. I prefer, instead, to look at this phenomenon as opening up the heart, and to call it "heart-openness." (As we shall soon find out, current scientific research shows that we may already be more heart-centered than we know.)
As a believer in wholism and being whole, I feel that we are healthier and more whole when we develop and use more of our faculties and abilities. In the present context, this means that we want to use our heads and hearts (as well as our guts, intuition, etc.)--and have them all work together in a seamless whole. In order to become more heart-centered, we don't want to stop thinking! We just want to open up our feeling center more and feel while we think and think while we feel. We may not need open-heart surgery, as much as we may need heart-opening surgery!
The move toward heart-centeredness in Western industrialized societies is truly a step toward wholeness. Yet it is not just Western societies that are starting to inch toward wholeness: interestingly, there is also a move in less industrialized, "third-world" societies (that have traditionally been more heart-centered) toward further developing their rational, head-oriented faculties (technical, analytical, etc.)--thus embracing their wholeness.
So, why aren't we in the West already "heart-open"?
The Age of Reason propelled our Western society increasingly into our heads, and our contemporary materialistic focus has served to cement us there. As we have become more "rational," we have tended to discount and dismiss the "non-rational" (i.e., heart-centered) faculties as beneath us or as lesser attributes not to be relied upon. The rational, empirical and pragmatic alone are to be trusted. Interestingly, even if we tend to see ourselves as "left-brain" or "right-brain," we're still viewing ourselves as being in our heads. If we truly wished to be head-centered, we could at least be whole-brain, rather than half-brain!
Thus, our excessive rationalism has led us to disown our feelings and live in our (divided) heads. And if we do get into our feelings, we tend just to talk about them, rather than genuinely feel them. Certainly, our age of specialization has led us to be more one-dimensional, relying on only one facet of ourselves and leading us to be less than we can really be.
When we layer in on top of these factors another influence that we have seen in our society in the last thirty years--that of hiding our feelings--, it is easy to see why we are not more heart-open. There has been increasing pressure in our society not to show emotions (or "wear our hearts on our sleeves") and thus be vulnerable. We must protect ourselves by appearing "cool." This tendency has been further aided and abetted by our advertising and popular media that have encouraged us to be image-conscious. In addition, increasing urbanization and crowding, to say nothing of an escalating crime rate, have led many of us to protect ourselves by putting our emotional armor on and erecting walls between ourselves and others.
On the flip side, if we're not image-conscious or acting cool, this may indicate that we have closed down emotionally. The extreme emotional sensitivity and past pains of some of us may have led us to feel pain more easily than pleasure or happiness. Our hearts may have become figuratively scarred (because, perhaps, we're scared) and closed off. It's no wonder, then, that some of us shut our hearts, live in our heads, or fall into habits of negative thinking such cynicism or fearfulness.
Given all of the above, why should we even want to become more heart-centered? What is so special about the heart?
Physically seated in the chest, protected by the ribs, and actually fairly tough, the heart is pear-shaped and consists of four chambers. It is composed of muscle and is a little bigger than a fist. Health-wise, the heart can be affected by hypertension, clogged arteries, etc. A healthy flow in the heart is vital to its health, just as a healthy flow is desirable in our overall energy.
Figuratively, according to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, we know the heart as the "seat of emotion," the place where "our inmost thoughts and feelings" reside. The heart is also seen as "the vital or most essential part; the real meaning; the core."
We have always accorded the heart a special place in our world, almost as if we have an innate sense of its complex importance. We use phrases such as "to set one's heart on" and "with all one's heart" on a daily basis. While we have apparently always had an intuitive awareness of the key role of the heart in our emotional wellbeing, scientists may have tended to dispute the validity or empirical value of these idioms and have therefore discounted such folksy wisdom.
It is fascinating that we have traditionally viewed the heart in two ways, both as a physical organ and, figuratively, as vital and involved with emotion--because recent scientific research has yielded some provocative findings that show a basis for such a wedding of viewpoints.
Last summer I was fortunate enough to attend the annual IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) conference, where I was introduced to the work of the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) in California. Aside from research into phantom DNA and subtle energy (they've also invented an instrument that measures subtle energy), they have done extensive research into the heart, which sheds light on the subject of heart-centeredness. I'll share some of their research here. Should you want more detail, you can visit their web site and read the research for yourself.
The IHM's research points out that the heart is the largest wave generator in the body, with an electrical field that has been detected and measured five feet away from the body. The waves the heart generates (as measured by an EKG) can actually entrain the brain's waves (as measured by an EEG). Entrainment involves synchronizing two wave or energy systems. In a very wholistic way, the heart's waves can actually entrain our whole physical system (brain, immune system, etc.). Writes Joseph Sundram of the IHM, "The heart generates an electrical information field that not only permeates every cell in the body, including the cells of the brain, but also radiates out into space." In addition, one person's heart waves can affect another person's brain-wave patterns!
There is also an intelligence and consciousness in the heart. Writes Doc Lew Childre of the IHM, the "heart has unusual perceptual and intuitive information-processing capabilities ... and has its own frequency range of intelligence that is not controlled by the brain or the autonomic nervous system. The heart is autorhythmic, which means that it beats on its own without requiring input from the brain or nervous system." The heart and brain communicate with each other via nerves and hormones, and the heart's communication to the brain "directly affects perception, reaction speeds, balance, intuition, and decision-making ability." The "feeling and emotional perceptions of the heart," when communicated to the brain, trigger "chemical changes in neurotransmitters and hormones throughout the body."
Simplified, this research indicates that the heart affects our consciousness to such an extent that, in order truly to understand anything, we need to have our hearts open while we are thinking. Thinking with the mind alone (extreme intellectualism), or divorcing the heart while in the act of cogitation, leads to sterile thoughts devoid of true understanding.
The heart also impacts the health of the immune system, hormonal balance (including the production of DHEA), thinking ability and creativity, DNA, entrainment, and healthy cell growth--and can even inhibit the growth of tumor cells!
What makes the difference in whether the heart's effects are positive or negative? Importantly, it is the type of emotions we have that affect our heart function--and how, in turn, this entrains our whole physical system. Dan Winter, a psychophysiologist, has mapped emotions in the heart. Twice he has spoken at SFF (Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship) meetings, and I was serendipitously fortunate enough to hear him both times. He has shown how coherent emotions--ones, such as love and appreciation, that create wave patterns in phase with each other--affect the braiding (patterning) of DNA.
Similarly, the IHM has researched how coherent emotions affect the heart and health. Coherent emotions produce a heart-wave pattern that is smooth and symmetrical; noncoherent emotions (anger, frustration, resentment, caustic humor, etc.), by contrast, produce a jagged wave pattern. Coherent emotions produce heart rate variability, vital for life and health, whereas negative emotions do not. Noncoherent, or negative, emotions close the heart down and cause constriction.
In addition to the way they feel, negative emotions are also potentially accompanied by the following ill effects: suppression of the immune system; hormonal imbalance; inability to think clearly; cardiovascular strain; a tendency to negatively impact others; tumor growth; and a negative impact on DNA. Indeed, recalling an angry memory for just five minutes can suppress the immune system for up to five hours. (On the other hand, let it be noted, suppressing anger can also have ill health effects.)
It is through feeling--not thinking about, but really feeling--coherent emotions that we optimize health, reduce stress, promote longevity, optimize our thinking and creative faculties, access intuitive intelligence, gain true understanding, entrain our physical system (for wholeness), experience a healthy flow of energy, and positively affect others. And if this weren't enough, again to cite Doc Lew Childre, IHM research further indicates that "the quantum electrical field of the heart is where love, or Spirit, enters the human system ... where Spirit meets matter."
So how do we start to feel coherent emotions more in our stressful contemporary lives?
At present, there are two techniques I am aware of that can help. One is the "Freeze Frame" technique devised by IHM (and delineated in the book Freeze Frame: One Minute Stress Management by Doc Lew Childre), which incorporates recognizing the stressful feeling by becoming consciously aware of it (conscious living), shifting your focus to your heart for ten seconds, recalling a "positive, fun feeling" and re-experiencing it, asking your heart what would be a more efficient response to the stressful situation, listening to your heart's answer, and then writing down your response. (Please note that this is a bare outline of the technique and does not do it full justice. IHM conducts workshops in Freeze Frame.)
The second technique is called The Natural Process. It, too, is a meditative method--but contains more elements of what I would call spirituality. Information on The Natural Process technique was received by Margaret Keen in a near-death experience (NDE) she had in 1978. She was told in her NDE not to release the technique until 1993. I was fortunate enough to learn it in 1994 and I currently offer workshops on the technique and incorporate it into my healing practice.
The Natural Process simulates a near-death experience through which one experiences love, peace, knowing, light, perfection, and oneness. It is truly a method that enables one to move towards heart-centeredness (and heart-openness) in a positive way, facilitating the feeling of coherent emotions and the resultant positive benefits in one's body. One can receive transformative and lasting effects from The Natural Process as well.
I'm confident, as time goes on, that we'll see more techniques facilitating the opening of our heart and allowing us to move forward toward wholeness. What an exciting time we're living in, in which science continues to validate many of the world's venerable spiritual teachings!