Updated: Mar 19, 2021
In August 1990, I contracted a virus which led to myocarditis; a severe inflammation of the outer wall of my heart muscle. I was eighteen. I had completed my A levels several months earlier and was waiting for the results. I was filled with anxiety; unsure whether I would attain the grades I needed to secure my place at university. In the early hours of results day, I underwent three cardiac arrests. Miraculously I pulled through, but recovery was slow. I was confined to bed rest in the Coronary Care Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. In October 1990, I left hospital fitted with a pacemaker to ensure that my heart did not stop beating, and I was prescribed high doses of the drug amiodarone to counter my heartbeat turning in the opposite direction and racing off too fast.
Fifteen years later I developed heart rhythm problems, rendering me incapacitated and unable to breathe. These episodes were incredibly frightening, as I never knew when they were going to happen. In my personal and professional life at the time I was struggling through the days. Challenges and conflict seemed to penetrate every part of my life. I was working in a stressful, high pressure job that I did not like, I was scarcely making ends meet financially, I had just gone through a divorce, and deep division/conflict troubled my immediate family unit. I was broken and exhausted; living in a world that made no sense to me. I felt disconnected from life. Panic attacks and severe anxiety filled every waking moment.
I was utterly and completely, mentally and physically exhausted. Surely life was about more than this?
One night in the mid 2000s, following two laser ablations on the electrical pathways in my heart that were causing the arrhythmias, I was at my lowest ebb and could not see any way to proceed with my life. At this point, I heard a voice. And it came from my heart:
“Please, please stop this! You’re killing me! This conflict is your own creation yet you also have the power to change it.”
In this moment, I saw my heart – as if for the first time. And, most importantly, I felt my heart – as if for the first time.
Perhaps this sounds strange. Certainly, when my heart was caught in a cycle of arrhythmias, I could feel it physically. My breathing would become difficult, I could feel uncomfortable fluttering in my chest, and eventually, I would collapse.
However, when my heart actually spoke to me, this was different experience, a different feeling entirely. A dear friend of mine (my MSc tutor, Philip Franses) recently said something that captured exactly what changed for me that night – “Once you feel the heart; everything changes. A completely different behaviour arises”. In that moment, when my heart spoke to me, I was moved to tears as I witnessed the agony of my heart’s suffering in relation to the way that I was living my life. This heart was real, and needed my help.
On that night, something deep inside me had fundamentally changed, and the way that I saw the world would never be the same again. However, now I was faced with a new problem in the sense that I was lost at sea in a different version of reality within which I had no point of reference. Specifically, in the sense that I had absolutely no way of engaging with whatever this heart was that had just spoken to me. Certainly witnessing my heart in this way was a new experience, and for the first time in my life my attention was drawn to the notion that the heart is not just a biological organ; it is a place where thought arises, a place of intelligence.
Of course, this idea is nothing new. For millennia, our ancient ancestors honoured the heart as the place of the soul. The ancient Egyptians revered the heart as the central organ of the body, the seat of conscience, the site of mind or intelligence, as well as the place associated with their spiritual destiny. In the Mayan culture, the heart was the source of life. Moving forward in time, ideas of the heart in Europe began to change significantly in 1628 when English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) published his findings on pulmonary circulation. With philosophers and scholars of the day increasingly conceptualising the world in dualistic and mechanistic terms as part of the Scientific Enlightenment, new ideas for the nature of reality were introduced into society and culture forming the basis of our modern worldview. Indeed, this dominant narrative has created the organic, pumping heart that we know today, as we have moved from a cardio-centric (heart-centred) worldview, to a cranio-centric (brain/mind-centred) worldview at the level of medical theory (Bound Alberti, 2012, p. 7).
It was into this empirically-based perspective that I was educated. I came to know the heart as a biological organ; cemented into my awareness through a dissection carried out in a biology class at secondary school. As I only knew the heart in this manner, I had no way of engaging meaningfully with the heart that spoke to me in the early hours of that morning, sometime during 2005. While I could have submitted to a more rational explanation that would have reduced this dynamic and meaningful experience with my heart to a hallucination or a psychotic episode, I knew instinctively, deep within the core of my own body, that what had happened was important, and that my heart was begging me to listen. I also knew that I was on a self-destruct pathway in relation to the way that I was living my life up to that point. Either I started to listen to my heart, or I would have to live (or die) with the consequences.
I committed to follow my heart.
In the last fifteen years, I quit my job, sold my house, and undertook postgraduate study. Firstly, an MSc in Holistic Science at the Schumacher College, Devon, UK, and secondly a PhD at Canterbury Christ Church University. My PhD title is: How can the thought of the heart offer effective ways of engaging with conflict – an imaginal and reflexive study. Through this journey, my heart has led the way and my world has been turned upside down, transformed.
Undertaking a deep enquiry into the heart, I discovered how the knowing, wise heart that moved in symbiotic relationship with life across millennia prior to the Scientific Enlightenment, has been re-framed in a contemporary Western context as simply a mechanical, biological pump. In this sense, the kind, loving, wise, intelligent heart that responds to the world’s invitation is only able to live in our awareness today as a sentimental add-on at worst, or an insignificant metaphor at best. My own research has shown, that while multitudes of people call for the heart’s wisdom and qualities in their work, the place that this heart holds in the world at the level at which important decisions (at the socio-political level) are made, is seen as irrational or sentimental.
It is in this perspective of the world that the loving, wise and kind heart must live. But is this vision enough today, given the great challenges that we are facing as a global humanity?
I suggest that it is not.
Naturalist and biologist Craig Holdrege states that “the kind of picture of the heart…we carry within us has consequences” (2002, p. 19), for while mechanical models are helpful to partially explain the world, there is a very real danger that when taken as the whole and literal truth of the nature of reality, phenomena become much less than they really are (Holdrege, 2002, p. 19). Specifically, a physical, mechanical model of reality is helpful only partially. Objective, analytical knowing (usually identified with the mind/brain) is helpful only partially.
As depth psychologist Robert Romanyshyn states, there is an important and recognisable difference between an understanding that arises from mind and the understanding of the human heart (1982, p. 101). Kindness, openness, respect, compassion, empathy, are all gestures that one generally associates with the heart; gestures that move towards creating relatedness. Within these heart-felt gestures is an inbuilt willingness to see the ‘other’, to value the ‘other’ and to hear the ‘other’ – whatever that ‘other’ is. The imaginal qualities of the heart offer the possibility to approach the world in a different way. Indeed, religious philosopher Henry Corbin (1903-1978), expanding on the work of twelfth century mystic Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), suggested that the heart is an organ of perception mediating between our everyday experience of life and the divine (1997). Indeed, Corbin's work inspired depth psychologist James Hillman (1926-2011) to write his essay 'The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World' (1997). In essence, for both these scholars, it is the heart that receives the images of the world, and enables us to communicate in greater depth with the dynamic process of life through the faculty of the imagination. The imagination here is taken seriously as a mode of knowing, offering us the possibility to have a deeper experience of the world within which we live.
With this understanding of the imagination in place, my own research enabled me to enter into a deep conversation with my heart. In the process I learnt to balance the ways of knowing within myself, and reacquaint myself with the way that my heart develops knowledge about the world. Arising out of my heart came a way of being in the world that l call Heart Sense. This way of approaching the world gives value to both objective and more intuitive/imaginal ways of knowing - helping to develop a deeper, more meaningful, way of being in relationship with the world. By transforming my ways of knowing and listening deeply to my heart, I found that my world became more peaceful and calm - both internally and externally.
Fifteen years ago, my heart willed me to risk myself and venture into unfamiliar territory, into a way of knowing that begins in a turning where depth psychologist Robert Romanyshyn states, “you lose your mind for the sake of the heart” (2001, p. 146). This heart, I have discovered, is infinitely wise, unfathomably mysterious, and, the greatest teacher that I have ever had, transforming my entire outlook and approach to the world as a result. This heart offers each one of us an invitation to loosen the rational ties that bind us, risk ourselves, imagine bravely, and step openly into the dance of life with all of its beauty and pain, love and hate, harmony and conflict. Our hearts are always speaking to us, and now, more than ever, we are being called to re-learn how to listen. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
 All references used in this piece are provided below  This means giving equal value to both the heart, and the mind’s, way of developing knowledge about the world. Loosening the firm grip of the mind creates space for the heart to speak, in dialogue with the mind.
Bound Alberti, F. (2012) Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Corbin, H. (1997) Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Hillman, J. (2007) The Thought of the Heart and The Soul of the World. 5th reprint. New York: Spring Publications.
Holdrege, C. (2002) ‘The Heart: A Pulsing and Perceptive Center’, in Holdrege, C. (ed.) The Dynamic Heart and Circulation. Fair Oaks: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, pp. 1-21.
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
Bio: Louise Livingstone has recently completed her PhD at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her thesis title is: How can the thought of the heart offer effective ways of engaging with conflict? An imaginal and reflexive study. She is the founder of the Heart Sense Research Institute – www.heartsenseresearch.co.uk. Her work aims to re-imagine the long-forgotten wise and intelligent heart for contemporary times; illuminating through research, contemplative action and nourishing dialogue how the heart as a focal point of compassion, love and kindness, and as an organ of perception and wisdom, is a valuable and vital ally in our world of increasing global challenges, injustice and inequality.