Hand on chest
How is your heart?
The physical heart is an amazing muscle - and unique - cardiac muscle isn’t found anywhere else in our bodies, it has its own electrical system which tells it when to contract and when to relax. Awe inspiring doesn't come close.
But humans don’t just have a physical heart - we also have our emotional heart. And this emotional heart is also awe inspiring...and it is ever present in our vernacular...
...because isn't it marvellous when something speaks to our hearts? And also when we are moved to speak from the heart. This abstract notion of the heart is used to describe all manner of emotions and characteristics; kindness (good hearted), sadness and grief (broken hearted/down hearted/heavy hearted), apathy (half hearted), sincerity (from the bottom of my heart), courage (strong/brave hearted), honesty (open hearted), forgiveness (can you find it in your heart), we try not to loose heart and we exercise judiciousness with what we take to heart.
Sometimes our speech relating to the the emotional heart directly narrates our physical experience of the emotion, for example, when we feel our heart palpate with fear or the heart flutters of excitement, but hopefully we have never had cause to experience something that is actually heart stoppingly beautiful or horrific - though it is a sad truth that shock and trauma can cause heart attacks. We also appoint colours to our hearts - from the altruistic heart of gold to the green heart of jealousy and give them texture - hearts can be at times numb, soft, open and even made of stone.
There is no way to separate the emotional heart from the physical organ - what we feel is a maelstrom of subjective experience, physiological and expressive response - we have 'thought' feelings and we also have feeling 'thoughts'. These entwined hearts work as hard as each other. One beating 100,000 times a day to keep our bodies alive, the other feeling and experiencing the world without and within.
That our physical and emotional hearts stay healthy is important part of life. In order to keep our physical hearts healthy we use a combination of exercise and diet, but what nourishes our emotional hearts is trickier as it is so subjective.
In yoga it is suggested that 'cultivating the qualities of the heart' ie keep the heart healthy is conducive to peace of mind and in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra we find this...
"The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness toward joyful, compassion toward suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice" Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1:33
The heart qualities are the aspects of our emotional response that influence how we interact with each other. This sutra proposes that there are 4 hypothetical scenarios we might encounter and how we can act optimally in each case for the best possible outcome. This sutra (1:33) is often called the Four Locks and Four Keys as in each case the lock (person we encounter) will be unlocked by the right key...we what might find when that situation is unlocked is a resulting harmonious interaction that brings about a peaceful state. The four locks - kinds of people/encounters (subjective experiences): sukha - ease, happiness, pleasure dukha - suffering, pain, sorrow punya - virtue, meritorious apunya - evil, vicious, mean, unlawful The four keys - our reactions (expressive response): maitri - friendliness karuna - compassion, mercy mudita - gladness, delight, joy upeksha - equanimity, impartiality These four ways of being require us to be deeply empathetic to the person we are facing, this means we have to try to dial down our ego that might otherwise influence our minds and cause us to act differently. It sounds easy (actually it doesn't sound easy at all) but as we know the reality can feel far from it. We might assume it's easy to feel friendly (maitri) when someone is joyous - yet sometimes when confronted with other's joy we feel jealous or resentful. Or how about compassion (karuna) for suffering - what else might we experience in the face of suffering? Fear that it might be us next? Relief that its not? Overwhelm? And of course we could feel delight (mudita) towards someone who is virtuous - but we might also be cynical, or maybe their virtue holds a mirror up to our own perceived inadequacies and we feel inferior. As for equanimity (upeksha) in the face of vice - this is hardest. It is a rare person who can say that they have never felt inflamed when they have been wronged or witnessed wrongdoing. One of the techniques offered to cultivate these qualities of the heart is that we should meditate upon them:
"From samyama (mediation) on friendliness, compassion and happiness, these qualities blossom." Patanjali Yoga Sutra 3:23
You might notice that Upeksha, equanimity to vice isn't mentioned. Being the hardest of the four to achieve it is said that equanimity will arise as a result of being firmly established in the first three; friendliness, compassion and joy. The word used in this sutra, samyama, is a collective term for the three inner limbs of yoga; dharana (concentration), dhyana (absorption) and samadhi (meditative state). Samyama is the whole inner experience and its purpose is to allow the profound state of meditation to arise from within. This practice of samyama aims to take us to a place within ourselves that is beyond (below?) our analytical thinking minds - that place is the heart. We contemplate friendliness until we become absorbed in the friendliness and friendliness arises from deep within our Soul and takes root in the heart. We contemplate compassion until we become absorbed in compassion and compassion arises from deep within our Soul and takes root in the heart. We contemplate joy until we become absorbed in joy and joy arises from deep within our Soul and takes root in the heart. What the Sutras are trying to teach us is that, through practice, we can consciously keep our emotional heart healthy, and that this healthy emotional heart with have a positive influence over our lives. What ensues is an upward spiral toward equanimity - something worth working hard to gain and maintain. Because when our emotional heart is healthy life, and the world, opens up to us... we become less avoidant and more enabled ...we feel less afraid to put ourselves out there, to experience situations wherein complex feelings might arise. We might find we have more capacity to hold these complex feelings, to allow them in, we also might notice that when they pass they leave less of an icky residue. But I don't want to come across as idealistic. And I most certainly didn't write this because I am happily out the other side of tumult, living a perfect life, reacting faultlessly and with a serene mind. Quite the opposite - this (long) email was instead triggered by what I have been experiencing lately - which is that it feels increasingly challenging to hold space in my heart for the all the myriad emotions I am experiencing daily. The world is suffering crisis after crisis...so much so that even the word crisis seems to have lost its impact. Life is hard, and often so, but it is also beautiful...very beautiful. And I want to be able to feel it all. I don't want to have to shut one part of my heart down in order to avoid feeling something hard. Because when I do that (and I do do that) I also risk shutting down the rest ergo I feel that I need to up my game with regards to keeping a healthy heart. In our bodies a healthy muscle is one that has the strength and flexibility to move a joint through its full range of motion - as it is for our body so it is for our emotional hearts and developing strength and flexibility at my hearts full range of (e)motion is something I am working on.