Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Axial State of the Human Heart

Photo by Jenny Yeung (Getty Images)
Most of us have some general understanding of that somewhat nebulous concept of heart when we speak of “matters of the heart.” We understand that the reference is not to the physical organ that pumps blood throughout the body, but rather it is a more emotional/spiritual concept. Often such language about “the heart” refers to a realm where meaning is found in the life one leads. Our language is full of heart phrases such as, He really put his heart into it; I know in my heart...;” “Our hearts are glad,” etc. 

We seem to have a common understanding of what we mean when we speak of “matters of the heart.” We may use that terminology to speak of love, family and caring as well as spirituality. Most of us are comfortable with that loosely defined category of the heart, seeing no need to be more specific. The heart is an immensely vibrant realm where we make meaning and find connection.

Early Seekers of the Heart

In a talk given to the novices at Gethsemani Abbey, Thomas Merton mentioned that the Desert Fathers saw the heart as an "axial organ" which provided an opening between the physical and spiritual worlds.[1] The Desert Fathers (actually there were some women among them as well as men) were part of an early Christian spiritual movement which had become frustrated by what was seen as the superficial encumbrance of the social structures of their day. They sought to remove themselves from the many and varied distractions of society by going to the desert, where they spent time in meditation and prayer. Those early spiritual pioneers saw the importance of attuning themselves to the heart. To them the heart was that aspect of our being that allows us a connection to another dimension of reality – that spiritual dimension that is different from the ordinary physical world.

Christine Valters Paintner, in her book, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, writes, “For desert elders the heart was the source of words and actions. It was considered to be an axial organ that centers the physical and spiritual dimensions of human life. The desert elders saw the heart as the center of our being, the place where we encounter God most intimately.”

Paintner goes on to quote another author, Cynthia Bourgeault who wrote The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart. “Cynthia Bourgeault writes that the heart in biblical understanding is not ‘the seat of your personal emotional life. It is not the opposite of the head. Rather it is a sensitive mulitspectrum instrument of awareness: a huge realm of mind that includes both mental and affective operations (that is, both the ability both to think and feel) and both conscious and subconscious dimensions.’”[2]

Physical Benefits to Spiritual Practice

It seems that the early Desert Fathers who were focusing on the heart as “an axial organ” were involved in meditative practices not unlike what we see in Eastern religions as well. There was a physical discipline involved and a spiritual insight to be gained.

I have had an inclination toward spirituality and “matters of the heart” for most of my life, but it took many years of seeking for me to settle down into a specific practice of meditation. After I had become accustomed to meditation, I learned one day of the physical impact it can have.

I had volunteered to give blood at my work site during a blood drive. During the process, rather than get anxious about needle sticks and blood draws, I decided to assume what I call an inward meditative posture. By that I mean that I did dome conscious breathing and inward focusing – imagining myself looking at that “third eye” in the forehead region.

As the nurse was taking my vital signs prior to taking me back to the blood donation area, she became somewhat concerned when she found that my heart rate was 50. She asked if I were an athlete, since normally one would not otherwise have a resting heart rate of 50. While not an athlete, I was involved in a daily walking program at the time. I assured her that it was okay, I was just doing a “relaxation thing” before giving blood.

Since that day, I have checked my own pulse while beginning breathing exercises prior to meditation, and have noted a drop in heart rate along with the physical relaxation.

Finding a Spiritual Practice

I like the concept of the heart as an axial organ, something of a metaphysical “space” within our being where we can tap into a more meaningful reality. Most faith traditions have meditative practices that allow an individual to still himself or herself in order to find access to what some call the spiritual realm. Others are content to see meditative practice as a way to get in touch with their inner being where “soul work” can be done to move toward psychological wholeness.

Those of us in the United States who find our cultural inheritance in “Western Civilization” often find ourselves at a loss in terms of spiritual connectedness. We live in a culture that values material acquisition, money, and business acumen. Much of what we value and strive for is material gain, so we find ourselves ill-prepared for spiritual practice.  

In many ways, we are like those early desert fathers (and mothers) who were the precursors to later monastic movements. Just as they saw a need to get away from the distractions of society, many today see a need to get away from the noisy materialism of our day. 

The good news is that there are more and more avenues for spiritual practice that are coming available to the serious seeker. Moreover, we do not have to flee to the desert or to a monastery to find a spiritual practice.
  • Jack Kornfield has been teaching westerners for years about how to integrate spirituality into everyday life. A skillful teacher of Buddhist meditation, his wonderful book, A Path with Heart is a warm, accessible introduction to meditative practices that can calm the spirit, clear the mind, and help one to gain meaningful insight into the life he/she is living out in the world. Check out Jack Kornfield’s website here
  • Father Thomas Keating has been a leading proponent and teacher of centering prayer, which is a meditative spiritual practice that many Christians are more comfortable with in their tradition. Cynthia Bourgeault, quoted earlier, is also a teacher and practitioner of centering prayer. You can see Father Keating’s website here.
  • The Abbey of the Arts is an online monastery” offering resources, pilgrimages and retreats which seek to integrate contemplative practice and creative expression while drawing upon monastic spirituality. We support you in becoming a monk in the world and an artist in everyday life. We believe in nourishing an earth-cherishing consciousness.  We are an open and affirming community and strive to be radically inclusive. Poetry is our nourishment.  Art inspires our souls.  We dance for the joy of it.”  Christine Valters Paintner, whose book is quoted above, is the online abbess for the Abbey of the Arts. You can view their website here.
There are many other resources available to assist the spiritual traveler in matters of the heart. The main thing is to understand that we all have the capacity to enter into that “axial state” of the heart where we can gain insight from the spiritual dimension which will heighten the beauty and meaning of our everyday reality.

For more of my musings on the topic of spirituality, check out the following: 


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References:
[1] Seeing the World in A Grain of Sand: Thomas Merton on Poetry (conferences given to novice monks at Gethsemani Abbey, 1964-1965), Now You Know Media

[2] Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, by Christine Valters Paintner(Skylight paths, 2012) p. 26 (For a review of Paintner's book, go here)



Spiritual Fusion - East meets West
(iStock photo by Getty Images)

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