Educating the Heart

Many people today are thinking and writing about the way technology is changing our brain. At the same time, there is an explosion of research about the brain itself. One of the things that is becoming clear and clearer, at least for me, as I attempt to follow the understanding about the brain research that is coming out, is how connected the brain is to the heart. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, for example, explains the interaction between the heart and brain, and how emotions create hormones that effect our body’s well- being. When people learn to regulate their stress hormones, says Davidson, they experience better physical health, and have less working memory performance problems. Learning calm yourself, can help you improve your emotional well-being and cognition. The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education is one place that is working toward “integration of the mind, body, and spirit.” Their motto is “Educate the Heart”.  People can learn to embody and practice social and emotional skills to help make the world a more compassionate place, as well as one that is fair or that runs efficiently.

One of the books I’m currently reading, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, the Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain, explores the thought-provoking theory that the written alphabet dramatically changed the brain, and that as written literacy increased, so did people’s intolerance for those different from themselves. Laws and civic institutions can benefit us in many ways, but as Shlain describes, they can also “become the instrument of tyranny.” Writing is a wonderful thing. It allows us to carry knowledge from one generation to the next, it gives us the opportunity to explore our thoughts, and express our imagination.  On the other hand, Shlain describes the enormous value of the irrational, “Archaic people considered irrationality coequal with reason…Laughter is irrational. Faith is irrational. Watching a sunset is an irrational act. There is no demonstrable “purpose” involved. The appreciation  of both art and beauty are irrational: logic cannot completely explain why a work of art is compelling; the experience is essentially ineffable…All acts of altruism are inherently irrational. Yet who among us would want to eliminate…(these) from our lives? Like irrationality itself, they contribute to the sumptuous, verrigated texture of the human condition.”

I would say that there is a kind of rationality to altruistic acts in that they bind our hearts to others and create a sense of belonging and community, nevertheless, I believe Shlain has a point. Not everything in our life has to be measured in rational terms, and in fact, those things most meaningful to us in our lives–our relationships to others–are not something we want to go around measuring constantly. It could kill the relationship.

Yesterday, as I was walking across the street, I looked up into the sky and noticed there were what appeared to be thousands of dragonflies swarming the air. Above them enormous clouds billowed up in an Everest height. Dark underneath and whiter on top, the clouds opened in the center into wide vistas and canyons of space. Birds–kites, pigeons, crows, swirled in the sea of sky. The world seemed to be virtually swimming in tremendous pool of energy and life. This kind of experience is rare and raw beauty, given as a gift–unmeasurable, and nearly indescribable. I had merely to look up and absorb it, as it lifted me out of myself into a moment of awe, connecting me with the vastness of the universe. Author, Fredrich Beuchner, tells how “ . . some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen, laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks, waking up to the first snow, being in bed with somebody you love… whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.”

Moments of awe make me feel alive. Everything contains wonder, can become mysterious again–bigger, unknowable, if we have eyes to see it, if we allow ourselves to enter that place of being in our minds? The wide sky and swirling birds, your child sleeping in the room next door, your parents’ love touching you now–reaching from all the way back through the years of your childhood, your breath rhythmically persisting without ever having to be directed– all of these, and a thousand other experiences are examples tinged with wonder where we can allow ourselves to let go into an awareness of life’s great gift.

Encounters with death, too, can be moments to bring us back into an awareness of wonder. Steve Jobs explains in this short video, that knowing he was going to die was the best tool he encountered to enable him to realize what is truly important in life. “All external expectations–pride, fear of embarrassment and failure fall away in the face of death. There is no reason not to follow your heart,” says Jobs.

Dragonflies in many parts of the world are considered a symbol of change whose source is based in a deeper understanding and insight of life that comes from looking beyond the surface. All those dragonflies with their eyes that see 360 degrees swirling beneath the open window of sky, maybe it’s the universe’s way of saying, “Open your heart. Walk out a bit further into the unknown, the irrational, and dare to learn more of what it is you are here on earth for. Buechner in Now and Then, a Memoir of Vocation, says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” This week, I want to consciously take moments in my day to look for wonder, and to open my heart to the world.


Experiencing Awe and Wonder

A couple of evenings ago, my husband and are were sitting in the hot tub in a clearing under the redwoods outside our back door talking, when out of the edge of the trees came a deer. She stood there, ears perked, staring straight at us. Immediately, we went silent, our eyes fixed on the deer, her form subtly outlined somewhere between visible and invisible. We have seen this deer maybe four times in the past week or so. She comes up into the clearing, pauses, looks at us, waits for her fawn to follow, or sends it on ahead, then bounds along the edge of the trees a bit, perhaps pausing to nibble at a branch or two, before disappearing down the embankment and deeper into the trees. When the deer appeared again last night however, she didn’t move on. She continued to look at us for what was probably 15 minutes while we sat very still observing her observing us. Occasionally she moved, looking to the sides of the clearing, and later lowering her head slightly, as if in a bow. Not knowing what this meant, we lowered our heads slight too, bowing in return. Later that night,  I read that deer lower their heads down as if to eat if it senses danger, and then jerk it back up again abruptly when in danger, hoping the predator will give away its position. We weren’t predators, though, so had nothing to give away.

As we continued staring in silence at each other, I couldn’t help but think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels” where Dillard describes looking into the weasel’s eyes and she is “stunned into stillness,” and this is how we, too, felt. Dillard describes how her eyes were locked with the weasel’s. In our case, it was too dark to see the deer’s eyes, but this kind of precise vision of each other wasn’t necessary. Our presence mesmerized each other. I don’t know what the deer was thinking, if she was simply curious about us, afraid, or some other thing. What is the mind of a deer like, I can’t understand. She was free to move on, but didn’t. Dillard explains how her encounter with the weasel helped her realize how she would like to learn how to live totally present in the act of living as a weasel does.  “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you,” she explains. Such encounters in nature as these throw us out of our humdrum expectations about life or about what will happen next, and enable us to become suddenly aware of our connection to the universe of being. We are in awe, aware of our senses, fully present in the moment, conscious we are alive. This, for me, is one of the important reasons I am alive–to experience the wonder of being!

Moments of awe are rare, which makes me curious if awe requires certain conditions for it to appear. Is awe rare because we are so concerned with our schedules and chores that we don’t notice world around us as alive with the potential to fill us with wonder? Is it because we aren’t often out in wild places where we might be more likely to experience the presence of nature’s raw or intense moments? Art, music, and experiences in nature can all be possible ways awe emerges. Though most of us don’t often do we have the opportunity to witness the kind of art that stops us short because of its power to make us see ourselves or life so precisely, maybe we want to do more to cultivate an open awareness of life where awe can surface naturally. Could we, for example, practice noticing things on a particular walk we take every day from and to a particular location and begin to ask questions about what is there?

A couple of examples of things in nature that have the potential to evoke awe are found as video links in Vicki Zakraewski article, “How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose”. Interestingly, Dacher Keltner from the Greater Good, has found in his recent research that experiences of awe have the potential to feel less self-centered and act more empathetically. Empathy could go a long way in helping people gain the insight into each other’s worlds in ways that could help us live together more cooperatively and meaningfully.

Unrelated to power and control, wonder and awe require a stance toward the world that is open and receptive. The deer I observed in hushed scintillated silence in my backyard turned away with a snort when she heard a rustle in the bushes, but those moments in her presence made me aware of the wonder it is to simply be alive. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”