(Originally published for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Humans have long regarded the heart as the center of emotion, a portal of love, and even the abode of the soul. Our literature is full of references to the ideas that the heart is susceptible to intense emotion, and that being “open-hearted” is good and “closed-hearted” is bad. We have many expressions that convey traditional beliefs about this organ, such as wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve (the heart being the source of feelings), after one’s own heart (being in agreement with one’s feelings), following one’s heart, having a change of heart, having a heart-to-heart, being cold hearted, broken hearted, heavy hearted, and so on. Such ideas also gave rise to the use of the heart shape <3 – a stylized picture of the organ – as the symbol of love, and the red color of the blood it pumps as the hue of passion.
As modern science has become increasingly authoritative in all matters, these notions have been widely abandoned as folksy silliness. But, recently, researchers have investigated whether there’s any scientific validity to our centuries of empirical wisdom on the subject, and they’ve concluded that there is indeed.
Studies have shown that positive emotions (independent of the healthy behaviors they might inspire) are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, and negative emotions are associated with a higher risk. Other research has demonstrated that the heart registers stress in a moment-to-moment way as an expression of “heart rate variability.” Furthermore, although the idea of “dying of a broken heart,” has been pooh-poohed, we now have an emerging understanding of how such stresses disturb the heart’s rhythm, elevate blood pressure, cause subtle damage and inflammation to the lining of blood vessels, and result in hardening and clogging of these vessels.
Honestly, though, despite my being a scientist by training and having spent several years doing field and lab work, I don’t put a lot of stock in what scientists think about such things. It’s like scientists reporting on art or music. Have scientists discovered the secret to happiness? Are they widely regarded as masters of love? Since neither is the case, I find I’m best served by whatever makes me feel a greater presence of love, ease, and connectedness in my life – whether it’s scientific or not.
Several older medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, see the heart, rather than the brain, as the center of our consciousness. When I say consciousness, I’m talking about our pure unconditioned, unmanipulated awareness, as opposed to the myriad thoughts we have about what we’re aware of. The former is the dominion of the heart, and the latter the dominion of the brain.
The brain is split into two hemispheres with different jobs and often conflicting missions. It’s a relay station that’s often saturated with sensory data and prone to confusion. It has both an old, reactive, “animal” portion, and a newer, evolved, “human” portion. Yet the heart is a more unified organ with a singular task, and in my opinion it’s this part of us that presides over the experience of Love.
As I mentioned in Love, the Verb, I believe loving is an effortless thing. If anything, it takes effort to restrain Love. In actuality, it is Love itself that does the loving – we just have to allow it to happen. Loving is the natural state of an open heart, like an open flower. If we just allow our heart to be open, we find an inexhaustible capacity to Love. We will never tire ourselves by doing too much loving. In fact, as we Love more, we find a greater capacity to Love and put fewer and fewer restrictions on our Love. We Love ourselves, we Love our enemies, we Love our problems.
Living with an open heart is a vastly different experience than living with a closed one. To open the heart means allowing the total experience of life to flow through us, willing to feel all of it, even though we have been hurt in the past. It means not denying any part of our experience or anyone else’s. We are drawn, like moths to a light, to those in whom the heart is open, who speak and live from the heart, and who have nothing to hide. And the more open we are, the more powerful and effective we become.
Unfortunately, it is epidemic for humans to close our hearts. We clench around the heart, making the chest a closed fist, trying to protect it and restrain it, and to stop feeling, in order to avoid pain. It’s instinctive, yet useless. Men have a somewhat greater tendency to do this than women, but women do it too. When we close the heart, we keep ourselves in a state of darkness about the real truth: that life can be light, that it’s okay to Love ourselves and others, that it’s safe to feel.
As a culture with so much fear and restriction around Love, it seems to make sense that most people die from cardiovascular disease. It’s as if, having done this for most of our lives, it spreads from the mind to the body, and the heart and its vessels become hard and closed.
Try this exercise. Read it first, then close your eyes and do it. It will only take a minute. Imagine there’s a tiny light (Love) in the center of your chest. The more you relax and open your chest, the larger and brighter the light is allowed to grow. As you take a few long, deep breaths, repeat silently, “I Love you” or “Thank you,” and imagine the light growing so bright that it illuminates your whole body. Then it illuminates the whole room. Then it illuminates the whole neighborhood, then your whole country, then the whole planet, and finally the whole universe. The light doesn’t exclude anything at all. When you have imagined that the light of your heart has filled the universe, take a few more breaths, imagining that you’re “breathing the universe.” With your inhale, drawing it into your heart, cleaning it, illuminating it, purifying it, and with your exhale, setting it free.
Dr. Peter Borten