…in which the author continues to ponder what the heart holds.
Seven-year old Mia’s response to the question “what does the heart do?” was simple and straightforward.
“It holds love,” she said.
My ears twitched. It does?
A Vastly Oversimplified, Sweeping, Stone-Skipping-Over-Water History of the Heart and its Holdings
Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the most important organ of the body: not only was our essential personality and character contained within the heart; so was wisdom, emotion, memory, and a part of the soul. The heart was responsible for physical and the spiritual well being: good health came from clear heart channels and the gods spoke to their intermediaries directly through the heart.
The heart was key to accessing the afterlife. It was left in the body so that it could be weighed against the feather of truth and justice. The heart was required to be lighter than the feather in order for the person to move onto the afterlife. If not, well, there were hungry demons to feed. Bad deeds, told by the heart = you eaten by a demon. Ergo, no afterlife for you. Safe to say that the actual physiological workings of the heart, blood and stuff, was not really clear back then.
In ancient Greece, bearded men in togas pondered the heart and what it held. Aristotle thought the heart the most important organ of the body, responsible for intelligence, motion and sensation, holding as it did all of the body’s nerves and the body’s innate heat.
Hippocrates, founder of modern medicine, disagreed: he argued that the brain managed these things and was therefore more important. Thusly the debate, which continues to this very day, was born.
Throughout Classical Greece and Rome, in spite of odd experiments showing that the brain had an important role in such things as sensation and intelligence, the prevailing view remained that the heart held all that makes us human; mainly emotions, beliefs, feelings. And so the Greeks, recognizing that there was some growing evidence that the brain in fact DID have a function, and being the creative people that they were, came up with the notion of an airy spirit in the body that worked its magic to mediate between the mind and heart, between thought and emotions. The Romans, pragmatic lot, renamed all the Greek stuff, claimed it as their own, and did not bother too much with spirit stuff.
As history tripped along, Europe saw knights, crusades, courtly love, wandering minstrels. Hearts quietly on fire with faith, political and religious intrigue, damsels in distress or pining for the nearest barmaid.
In time people; well, men-type people, became legally able to delve into the physical workings of the heart. Blood and stuff. Even so, the primacy of the heart as the holder (or seat) of things spiritual and emotional wasn’t questioned all that much.
Then came what Western history refers to as the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment (roughly a 300-year time period between the mid-1400s through to later 1700s) with lots of new thinkers and ponderers. This time also saw the beginnings of the scientific method positioned to be a path to truth and knowledge in the Western world. The net impact was a bunch of new beliefs about most everything, including the heart.
One of those thinkers was rationalist Rene Descartes. Rationalists believe that all knowledge can be gained by the power of our reasoning alone. While others toyed with the idea of mind and brain and body, Descartes, obviously channeling a meme, heralded to the listening world that mind is a different thing than a brain and is in fact distinct from body. The mind-body split. He thought they might interact but wasn’t sure how.
Descartes also believed that love was an emotion of the soul and he did not believe that the soul was in held in the heart. Nope. The heart, to him, was a mechanical pump with different chambers and neither the soul nor its emotions would hide out in something so crude. He thought at first it hid in a gland, but decided later that wasn’t right. For all the living creatures he dissected and all the pondering he did, he never figured out where the location of the soul.
The idea of the soul’s involvement with love did not displace any popular notion of the heart as the place that holds emotions. That’s because as much as the scientists and thinkers were blowing up long held world views, artists were doing their part too: writers, painters, poets, alchemists, witches. And while images of the heart became a bit more realistic, the heart as a central icon necessary for faith, love, or feeling of any sort, became a celebrity of sorts, recognized in song, poetry, plays, paintings and sculpture. So much so that by the 1800s art began to be less about the glory of any faith and more about the stuff of the world, including love. The Victorian era, for all its stiff upper lipness, made the heart an icon of love that could be marketed on something called greeting cards.
And since then we’ve bought it hook, line and sinker.
China didn’t quite have the same issues with the heart. In traditional Chinese medicine the heart’s role in blood and stuff is fully acknowledged right alongside its role as the home of mind, spirit, innate wisdom, contentment, emotional and mental balance and curiously, the ability to speak.
Fast Forward to Today
If you read peer-reviewed science journals you might catch mention in passing that a heart which once held love, but somehow loses it, can lead to to true physical, emotional and mental health issues. If you read Karen Armstrong, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Ghandi, Stephen Lewis, you will read of faith — not necessarily of the religious kind — from the heart.
If you read unscientific magazines, or any of the new age stuff, heart, heart energy, feelings, absolutely dominate the conversation. Tattoo artists, songwriters, yoga teachers, and business leader wannabees draw, sing, talk and breath about need for heart-centred everything.
The battle between head and heart, body and mind is unresolved. Why it ever was a battle is beyond me. Peaceful co-existence and balance IS possible in our lifetime. I believe that with all my heart although if you listen to songs, or read poetry, or look at art, or watch cooking shows you might think otherwise.
It doesn’t matter about the truth or the facts. The heart is a muscle and can stretch to hold bursting love and joy and tears and compassion and hope. It can be torn and ripped apart, leaving you gasping. But it heals. The heart holds love.
In time, the fossil record will show that the emotionally ossified heart, closed down as it is to feeling love, full of cold and fury and fear, belonged to a species no longer found on the planet.
What does the heart hold? Us. All of us. All that we are. All that we can be.
What does the heart hold? Imagination.
According to Martin Luther King, “occasionally in life, there are those moment of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.”
Confucious said, Wherever you go, go with all your heart.