Updated: Sep 7, 2020
“But in the whirlwind of competing narratives and the disjoint mythologies beneath them, we can look for action that makes sense no matter which side is right. We can look for truths that the smoke and clamor of the battle obscures. We can question assumptions both sides take for granted, and ask questions neither side is asking. Not identified with either side, we can gather knowledge from both. Generalizing to society, by bringing in all the voices, including the marginalized ones, we can build a broader social consensus and begin to heal the polarization that is rending and paralyzing our society.”
Charles Eisenstein, The Conspiracy Myth
The final paragraph of Charles Eisenstein’s essay as detailed above, reveals I believe, in a practical sense, the wisdom teachings of the heart that I have had the privilege of receiving as the last three decades of my life unfolded. Thirty years ago, my heart began to attract my attention. Firstly, through physical symptoms in the form of a virus that enlarged my heart leaving me balancing precariously on the threshold of death and consequently living with severe physical complications. Secondly, fifteen years later, in audible words. I will clarify the exact nature of the latter event shortly, however, this life-changing event led me to complete a PhD which placed the heart, and the heart’s wisdom, first.
In relation to the last statement, I would be surprised if you did not have some questions, or perhaps even a raised eyebrow. Are you wondering how it is possible to complete a research project by listening to the heart? Isn’t the heart a biological organ? Why would we listen to the heart when it cannot be relied on to make rational decisions? Isn’t the heart just a symbol of sentimentality? How can the ‘wisdom’ of the heart possibly inform a research project?
I am familiar with all these questions, as I encountered them almost daily over the past three years. Whilst the exact phrasing of the questions differed from individual to individual, the overall theme remained the same. That is, what value can the heart offer at the level of academic research in particular, and in our contemporary world, in general?
“Oh my goodness, you have no idea!” is my usual reply.
When I began journeying with my own heart three years ago through transference dialogues (a methodology based on the depth psychological concept of the active imagination), my perspective and understanding of it was reflected in the questions I highlighted above. Like most contemporary Westerners, I was educated to understand, and consequently know and perceive, the heart through a scientific narrative. Indeed, this particular framework of thinking about the world has infiltrated our politics, culture and society since the time of the Scientific Enlightenment. Through this way of thinking about the world, the heart can only be known at the socio-political level as a biological organ. All other ways of knowing the heart, have consequently been rendered subservient to the biological heart.
Over the years, and particularly over the past three years of doctoral research, I have spoken to many people about the heart’s benevolent qualities like love, compassion, kindness, and the idea of bringing the heart’s subtle ways of knowing into important decision making. While most have listened to me kindly, I have experienced a number of people who sincerely thought I had lost my mind!
Indeed, I had. But only in the sense that the heart knows, and makes sense of the world, in a very different way to the discursive intellect (generally associated with the mind/brain). Indeed, it is a way of knowing that deeply honours the intuition and imagination - and not in the contemporary Western understanding of the intuition and imagination as mere fantasy. In my growing relationship with my heart, I have learnt how important the genuine wisdom of the heart is. As a very dear friend said to me recently, “Once you feel the heart; everything changes. A completely different behaviour arises.” He is absolutely right; and as depth psychologist Robert Romanyshyn states in his 1982 book Psychological Life; From Science to Metaphor, there is an important and recognisable difference between an understanding that arises from mind and the understanding of the human heart.
While knowledge arising from the heart is considered invalid/irrelevant at the level at which important decisions are made in today’s society, this does not make the heart’s way of perceiving any less valuable or real. However, as the head/mind is now taken to be the focal point of knowledge production in the contemporary Western world, the subtle heart beyond our understanding of it as a biological pump, is today considered sentimental at best, irrational at worst. In this sense, it is easy to understand why people are sceptical, and ask questions of the kind that I have encountered on numerous occasions during my research.
However, from the point of view of perception and how we make meaning in the world, these questions matter a great deal. Indeed, it is important here to remind ourselves that the heart has a long, rich and complex history; making sense and meaning in the lives of our ancestors. In the ancient world, when engaging and making meaning in daily life, many of the planet’s oldest civilisations including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Hebrews, Greeks and early Christians respected the heart’s wisdom and intellect. However, since the Scientific Enlightenment in Europe in the 1600s, contemporary society moved from a cardio-centric view of the world, to a cranio-centric view (see Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart, 2012). In our modern world, knowledge is generally garnered through the understanding that the head/mind is the point of rationality. In the 21st century, our own hearts beat to the rhythm of a different narrative; one which points us towards seeing in a particular way; through mental activity, linear thinking, rationality, abstraction, reduction.
When my heart cried out to me in the early hours over a decade ago, this way of approaching the world left me with a problem, because the only way I could engage what had happened to me was through a narrative that would have pathologized my experience as a psychotic event, a hallucination. However, the words that my heart spoke, “Please, please stop this! You’re killing me! This conflict is your own creation, yet you also have the power to change it”, stopped me in my tracks. I knew that what happened to me was important and I would not, could not, reduce my heart speaking into what religious studies professor Jeffrey Kripal in his book Comparing Religions calls a “rational re-reading”.
When my heart spoke, my life was in shreds. I was trapped in a never-ending cycle of conflict. My relationship with myself was shattered, as were many relationships with people in my personal sphere. As my heart spoke to me, I was faced with yet another conflict. Specifically, on the one hand, the notion of my heart speaking to me and imparting knowledge was not possible through the framework I had been educated into. However, on the other, I knew on a deep, intuitive level, that I needed to discover what this ‘other’ heart was that was speaking to me. This heart, I knew, was just as real, and carried just as much meaning, as the biological heart that I was so familiar with. Now I just needed a way to comprehend what this other heart was, and consequently, what I needed to learn from it. Indeed, this sense that I had illuminated the fact that there was something missing in my life; a way of knowing that was, at the time, hidden from/unavailable to me.
It is here that I will refer to another section of Eisenstein’s essay:
“What is it that makes the vast majority of humanity comply with a system that drives Earth and humankind to ruin? What power has us in its grip? It isn’t just the conspiracy theorists who are captive to a mythology. Society at large is too. I call it the mythology of Separation: me separate from you, matter separate from spirit, human separate from nature. It holds us as discrete and separate selves in an objective universe of force and mass, atoms and void. Because we are (in this myth) separate from other people and from nature, we must dominate our competitors and master nature. Progress, therefore, consists in increasing our capacity to control the Other. The myth recounts human history as an ascent from one triumph to the next, from fire to domestication to industry to information technology, genetic engineering, and social science, promising a coming paradise of control. That same myth motivates the conquest and ruin of nature, organizing society to turn the entire planet into money -- no conspiracy necessary.”
Over the past three years I have entered into a deep dialogue with my heart; learning to understand the way that the heart presents the world to me, learning its language, and learning the way that it sees the world. I have given my heart a platform, letting my heart lead me; receiving the world through my heart and offering this experience to my discursive intellect to look at in its own way. By committing to see differently, through the eyes of my heart in relation with my rational intellect, my understanding of the world has flipped 180 degrees.
Whereas previously I found myself living in a narrative of separation, the wisdom of my heart has led me towards creative conversations, inviting me towards possibilities and opportunities to create harmony and wholeness in all of my relationships. What seemed impossible before in my old understanding of the world, became possible to hold with deep curiosity in the space of the heart. Indeed, the character traits of the heart mean that it is the place where opening up towards difference, others, opposites, becomes possible; embracing them with wonder. When the benevolent qualities of the heart – kindness, love, respect, compassion – are added into the mix, there arises a recipe for something very different to occur. Where once there was conflict, division and separation, the heart makes possible a genuine commitment to reach towards harmony, wholeness, integration and relationship.
What does all this have to do with Eisenstein’s essay?...Absolutely everything!
Eisenstein speaks about the mythology of separation - a mythology that appears to dominate and drive the modern Western world. In his essay, this myth is given form in the context of conspiracy stories. Stories, which Eisenstein suggests, illuminate what is not being spoken about, what cannot be spoken about because it does not fit the agreed upon worldview. The key here, is not which ‘side’ is truest, but what is happening in the drive towards the truer side. To illustrate this point, in my own world, the mythology of separation was given form as the conflict between my head and my heart. With my head constantly making the decisions, my heart continued to try and gain my attention, but I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t, listen. Now, years later, I can recognise in Eisenstein’s writing the character traits and qualities of the wise heart taking form. In his essay, he is willing to move between narratives; acknowledging all ‘sides’, with a view to move through and beyond into another space that creates the possibility to reach towards different conversations.
For me, this willingness creates the possibility to hold the world together in all of its glorious messiness so that different questions may be given the space to emerge, and consequently different conversations have the chance to arise. This approach I see embodied in the heart’s willingness to hold difference, through its inherent capacity for openness, kindness and respect towards an-other. Beyond polarising narrative, the heart offers a way in - and perhaps, in time, through.
In my own life, I have moved from living in a mythology of separation to a place of seeing through the heart that has shown me that the myth of separation is just that – a myth.
Through my research I have come to know that the heart holds the possibility to connect us to each other and to the world through reciprocal relationships. Whilst this has not been an easy thing to learn (and, I might add, I am still practising and still learning!), through the wisdom the heart has given me, I can now commit to holding the truth of all the different hearts that live within me - the wise heart, the physical heart, the feeling heart, the loving heart, the kind heart, the spiritual heart. Each has a space to speak, be seen and be heard, and each is just as important and valuable; contributing to the life of the whole heart. While in practice this approach towards the world is often deeply challenging and requires constant care, attention and a heart-felt commitment to creating harmony and relationship, thinking through the heart inherently offers the opportunity to move beyond separation towards harmony, into a space where different conversations are given the possibility to take place.
To quote Eisenstein once more:
“…in the whirlwind of competing narratives and the disjoint mythologies beneath them, we can look for action that makes sense no matter which side is right. We can look for truths that the smoke and clamor of the battle obscures. We can question assumptions both sides take for granted, and ask questions neither side is asking. Not identified with either side, we can gather knowledge from both. Generalizing to society, by bringing in all the voices, including the marginalized ones, we can build a broader social consensus and begin to heal the polarization that is rending and paralyzing our society.”
I will end this blog by asking, what if we all committed to work from and through the heart? What then? What possibilities might arise for being in the world differently, and what possibilities might there be for having different, empowering conversations that enable all to have a voice and for different outcomes to arise? (See my blog titled The Field)
References used in this blog:
Bound Alberti, F. (2012) Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kripal, J. (2014) Comparing Religions. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell
Romanyshyn, R. (1982) Psychological Life: From Science to Metaphor. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Romanyshyn, R. (2001) ‘The Backward Glance: Rilke and the Ways of the Heart’, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 20(1), pp. 143–150. doi: 10.24972/ ijts.2001.20.1.143
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