Our Heart as a Bridge
We often talk about the heart as the seat of emotions and feelings. We say things like follow your heart not your head and many of us know that the agony of heartbreak is as much a physical feeling in the chest as it is emotional torment. The heart has been associated with love since at least the Ancient Greeks. The poet Sappho, who lived in the 7th Century BC, once wrote, ‘Love shook my heart, Like the wind on the mountain Troubling the oak-trees’ and modern science can now back this up. Recent studies have shown that the heart and the brain are in constant dialogue. When we have negative emotions, our heart rhythm patterns become erratic and these patterns are sent to emotion centres in the brain, which then experiences them as stressful, negative feelings.
The same studies show that the reverse is true; when we experience positive, calm emotions, our hearts have a different rhythm, communicating to the brain that we feel at ease and peaceful.
In Ayurvedic traditions, the heart chakra, or the Anahata chakra, is associated with unconditional love, joy, compassion and acceptance. Because it is the fourth chakra, it is the bridge between the lower chakras and the upper chakras, or between body, mind and spirit, just as the studies above demonstrated. How then can we access our hearts to bring about a more positive emotional state?
The heart chakra can be blocked when we feel a lot of grief or anger or pain and we may find it hard to muster feelings of compassion or empathy. The word Anahata itself means ‘unstruck’, ‘unhurt’ or ‘unbeaten’ in Sanskrit. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has written that profound suffering and heartbreak can teach us to be more compassionate and more connected to the world around us, that it doesn’t have to make us angry or bitter or resentful. Talking about her own experience of heartbreak, she says:
The natural warmth that emerges when we experience pain includes all the heart qualities: love, compassion, gratitude, tenderness in any form. It also includes loneliness, sorrow, and the shakiness of fear. Before these vulnerable feelings harden, before the storylines kick in, these generally unwanted feelings are pregnant with kindness, with openness and caring. These feelings that we’ve become so accomplished at avoiding can soften us, can transform us.
What we can do, she says, is remember that these difficult feelings unite us all, that everyone experiences sorrow, pain and anger. When we think about this, we can truly empathise with people around us and what they are going through. When we go through something difficult, Chodron says that we have a choice: ‘we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us.’
In Yiddish there is a saying - Di klainer hartz nemt arum di groisseh velt – which translates as ‘the heart is small and embraces the whole wide world.’ Next time you feel a difficult emotion, try and go somewhere quiet, calm your breathing for a few minutes and then imagine sending love to everyone in the world experiencing the same thing you are.
Particularly in today’s climate, and in the wake of the horrifying attacks in New Zealand last week, we need more than ever to find ways to transform our suffering into compassion and empathy. Instead of allowing fear and anger to cause further rifts in our communities, we need to find ways to open our hearts to what unites us all. Just as our heart chakra is the bridge between our physical, emotional and spiritual bodies, we can allow our hearts to be the bridge between ourselves and the wider world.