My words are easy to understand and easy to perform,~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Yet no man under heaven knows them or practices them.
My words have ancient beginnings.
My actions are disciplined.
Because men do not understand, they have no knowledge of me.
Those that know me are few;
Those that abuse me are honored.
Therefore the sage wears rough clothing and holds the jewel in his heart.
The heart represents much more than an organ that pumps blood through your body. Many of the ancient wisdom traditions refer to the heart as the center of spiritual practice and source of understanding. It’s also referenced in many common phrases, such as:
- Listen to your heart
- Follow your heart
- I love you with all my heart
- Have a heart-to-heart
- I know it by heart
People indicate that their heart is the source of feelings such as love, compassion and care. In the Buddhist tradition many follow the path of the Bodhichitta, which is a practice that allows us to open the heart in order to access its wisdom and intelligence.
Unfortunately science, which rules western thinking, has put emphasis on the head-brain as the source for all experiences and often discredits any idea that the heart may play a role in feeling or thinking.
Just as Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching “because men do not understand, they have no knowledge” (Feng, G., 1972) of the” jewel in his heart,” the wisdom of the heart is not understood by western scientific thinking therefore it is unknown. However, recent scientific studies are beginning to credit the heart as more than just a pump.
The Heart is More Than an Organ
Studies in the field of neurocardiology and at the Heartmath Institute are beginning to reveal what people have intuitively known for thousands of years. Research shows that the heart may play a significant role in making decisions and experiencing emotions.
Studies also indicate that they may be communicating not only to our own body and brain, but also to those around us. Numerous ancient traditions, such as the Buddhist teachings of bodhichitta, teach us how to access the wisdom of our hearts and western science is finally validating the benefits of accessing the intelligence of this vital organ.
The Buddha taught that bodhichitta is present in all beings. “Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, this soft spot (bodhichitta) is inherent in you and me”(Chödrön, 1997). Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit word that does not translate simply into English.
“Chitta means ‘mind’ and also ‘heart’ or ‘attitude.’ Bodhi means ‘awake,’ ‘enlightened,’ or ‘completely open.’ Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bodhichitta is called the soft spot, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound.
It is equated, in part, with our ability to love” (Chödrön, P., 2000). Another way to understand bodhichitta is compassion and empathy – our ability to lovingly and gently feel the pain that we share with others (2000). It is better to understand the experience of bodhichitta rather than just know the translation.
Pema Chödrön (1997) a Buddhist teacher from the Shambhala meditation tradition teaches, “in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals. When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time that healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself. This is the time to touch the genuine heart of bodhichitta. In the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things, the genuine heart of sadness.”
The practice of connecting to bodhichitta – our own awakened heart – is to feel the pain we are experiencing and recognize the universality of this experience. Here, the heart is not just a metaphor but as a physical spot where all beings feel love and pain, a place to connect to others and transcend our individual suffering and experience oneness with all beings.
On the path of the Bodhichitta, we experience the “genuine heart of sadness,” which allows us to enter the heart of others. Thich Nhat Hanh a Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist writes that the “Buddha was not a god. He was a human being like you and me, and he suffered just as we do.
If we go to the Buddha with our hearts open, he will look at us, eyes filled with compassion, and say ‘because there is suffering in your heart, it is possible for you to enter my heart’” (1998). Once we open our hearts in this way we can then open and share our hearts with others. “Sharing the heart is a simple practice that can be used at any time and in every situation. It enlarges our view and helps us remember our interconnection.
The essence of this practice is that when we encounter pain in our life we breathe into our heart with the recognition that others also feel this. It is a way of acknowledging when we are closing down and of training to open up” (Chödrön, P., 2001). Being able to transcend our individual suffering and open our heart allows us to heal, serve, and to create peace around us.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that bodhichitta is our “‘mind of love,’ the deep wish to cultivate understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many beings” (1998). Instead of avoiding pain we can use our suffering to connect to all beings and we are free to experience all of life. “When we are in touch with things by means of the mind of love, we do not run away or seek, and that is the basis of freedom” (Hanh, T.N., 1998).
When we realize our bodhichitta nature and connect to the pain in our hearts and sense that all beings experience the same pain it is inevitable that we feel tenderness towards humanity and the world. This tenderness will allow us to speak and act from our hearts, which will create peace and harmony with others.
Jack Kornfield, another Buddhist monk and teacher, writes in his book A Path With heart (1993) that “the longing for love and the movement of love is underneath all of our activities. The happiness we discover in life is not about possessing or owning or even understanding. Instead, it is the discovery of this capacity to love, to have a loving, free, and wise relationship with all of life. Such love is not possessive but arises out of a sense of our own well-being and connection to everything.” The bodhichitta path is the path of the heart. Kornfield says that “we must make certain that our path is connected with our heart,” and suggests we speak with our heart.
“It is possible to speak with our heart directly. Most ancient cultures know this. We can actually converse with our heart as if it were a good friend” (1993). Don Juan a “Yaqui Indian Sorcerer” taught that you should “ask yourself and yourself alone one question… Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use” (1993).
The Buddha taught somewhere between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, that the heart plays a central role in spiritual life and well-being. In this ancient wisdom tradition it is essential to cultivate bodhicitta to access the intelligence of our hearts. Listening to the intelligence of our heart we have an ability to “learn to use our gifts to heal and serve, to create peace around us, to honor the sacred life, to bless whatever we encounter, and to wish all beings well” (Kornfield, J., 1993).
The heart is seen to have wisdom that allows us to make decisions and to feel emotions. Recent scientific research has finally begun to prove that the heart does have its own independent intelligence and plays an important role in health and decision-making.
In the past 20 years, research in the field of neurocardiology is beginning to consider the heart an intelligent organ. Scientists have discovered that the heart contains its own set of neurons and can influence emotions, thoughts and the immune system.
The Heartmath Institute is not only revealing the intelligence of the heart but they are also introducing “methodology to develop the intuitive intelligence” which attributes to a “larger degree of mental and emotional wellbeing, expanded awareness and heightened fulfillment” (Chile, D., & Martin, H., 2014). Even more astounding to me, are the studies that show that activating heart intelligence has a powerful effect on not only the individual’s body but also on those around you.
Pioneer neurocardiologist and researcher, Dr. Armour provides scientific evidence that the nervous system within the heart is sophisticated enough to be considered a “small brain” (McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Tomasino, D. (2001). “The heart’s brain is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells similar to those found in the brain proper. Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, and even feel and sense.
The heart’s nervous system contains around 40,000 neurons, called sensory neuritis. Information from the heart – including feeling sensations – is sent to the brain through several afferents. These afferent nerve pathways enter the brain at the area of the medulla, and cascade up into the higher centers of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes’ ‘ (Salem, M. O., 2007).
The heart’s intrinsic nervous system operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. “This is what allows a heart transplant to work. Normally, the heart communicates with the brain via nerve fibres running through the vagus nerve and the spinal column. In a heart transplant, these nerve connections do not reconnect for an extended period of time; in the meantime, the transplanted heart is able to function in its new host only through the capacity of its intact, intrinsic nervous system” (Salem, M. O., 2007).
Research at the Heartmath Institute not only supports the evidence that the heart has its own brain but also that there is a method to activating heart-intelligence that attributes to the well-being of the individual and of those around them.
Scientific research reveals that by activating the heart’s intelligence “it can lower blood pressure, improve the nervous system and hormone balance, and facilitate brain function. Scientists have found that when subjects focus in the heart area and activate a core heart feeling such as love, appreciation, or care, this focus immediately shifts their heart rhythms. When the rhythms become more coherent, a cascade of neural and biochemical events begins that affects virtually every organ in the body” (Chile, D., & Martin, H., 2014). The heartmath Institute has found that it is heart rate variability, or heart rhythms, that stands out as most dynamic and reflective of inner emotional states and stress” (McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Tomasino, D., 2001).
They found that negative emotions lead to increased disorder in the heart’s rhythms and in the autonomic nervous system, thereby adversely affecting the rest of the body (2001). Conversely, positive emotions create increased harmony and coherence in heart rhythms and improve balance in the nervous system (2001). The effects of positive or negative emotions on health are easy to understand. “Disharmony in the nervous system leads to inefficiency and increased stress on the heart and other organs while harmonious rhythms are more efficient and less stressful to the body’s systems’ ‘ (2001). Coherent heart rhythms not only affect the body’s systems but can also shift perception.
Not only does the heart’s intelligence influence the cranial-brain and the body’s systems, it can also affect the heart rhythms and brainwaves of those around you. “The heart is the most powerful generator of electromagnetic energy in the human body, producing the largest rhythmic electromagnetic field of any of the body’s organs. The heart’s electrical field is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the electrical activity generated by the brain” (McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Tomasino, D., 2001).
It is shown that the electromagnetic signals generated by the heart have the capacity to affect others around us. When people touch or are in proximity, one person’s heartbeat signal is registered in the other person’s brainwaves. Research from the heartmath institute indicates “that one person’s heart signal can affect another’s brainwaves, and that heart-brain synchronization can occur between two people when they interact” (2001). In addition as “individuals increase psychophysiological coherence, they become more sensitive to the subtle electromagnetic signals communicated by those around them. Taken together, these results suggest that cardiac electromagnetic communication may be a little-known source of information exchange between people, and that this exchange is influenced by our emotions” (2001).
The heart has a small but elaborate circuitry which is sophisticated enough to be considered a “small brain.” The heart’s intelligence allows it to communicate with and act independently from the cranial-brain.The heart may influence perception, decision-making and other cognitive processes.
Research at the heartmath Institute found that there are major health benefits of heart coherence and it is possible to engage heart intelligence and shift perception. It has also been shown “when two people are at a conversational distance, the electromagnetic signal generated by one person’s heart can influence the other person’s brain rhythms.
When an individual is generating a coherent heart rhythm, synchronization between that individual’s brainwaves and another person’s heart – beat is more likely to occur”(2001). The belief that the heart has an intelligence of its own that is held by many ancient wisdom traditions is finally being studied and proven by western scientists.
The Mind of Love
The Buddhist teachings of bodhichitta use the heart not just as a metaphor but as a physical spot where everyone feels love and pain, a place to connect to others and to transcend our individual suffering and experience oneness with all beings. The heart is the source of connectedness and wellbeing. His Holiness The Dalai Lama (HHDL) says: “if our minds are ruled by destructive emotions, by self-centeredness, with little regard for others, we won’t be happy… When we’re filled with anger, fear and frustration, our minds are upset and our health declines.” Science is proving evidence that by
altering one’s emotional state through heart focus we are able to modify information from the heart to the brain and improve our psychophysiological well-being. In the practice of bodhichitta you can alter your experience of pain by feeling pain in the heart, which is the path to enter the heart of all beings.
HHDL continues by saying “as social animals we need to work together. With friends around us, we feel secure, happy and our minds are calm. We’re physically well too…Therefore, the ultimate source of happiness is warm-heartedness.” His Holiness is describing the fruition of the path of the bodhichitta. The Buddha taught that the heart is the path to happiness, connectedness and oneness with all beings. Scientific research is now showing that we can communicate to each other through cardio-electromagnetic energy. Bringing love and compassion into our heart we alter our heart’s
rhythm to be in a state of coherence, which can in turn alter the brainwaves of those around us and influence health and well-being of all beings. Research in the field of neurocardiology and at the heartmath Institute parallels the Dharma teachings of Bodhichitta. Science is providing evidence that the heart does have it’s own intelligence and that this intelligence can be engaged to promote health and happiness in the individual and to those around us.