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.