“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”
- James Joyce, Dubliners
Your heart began beating when you were a little embryo inside your mother, just four weeks after you were conceived. It continues even as you read these pages, and will continue for the rest of your life. The heart is obviously a master at commitment! Is it any wonder that it draws us into and assists us in staying in our relationships?
Throughout our lives, our hearts guide us and inspire us. When we listen to our hearts, we deepen into the love that is our essence. When we deny our heart intelligence, we suffer.
We live in a culture dominated by left brain intellectual thinking, analysis and judgment. Too often, our hearts and their wide, holistic perception are left behind to gather cobwebs and unresolved emotional pain.
Our hearts are sensitive. We have more nerve cells from heart to brain than vice versa. Our hearts provide important information for survival. And for humans, survival means relationship.
Have you ever wondered at the intricacy of human interaction and how apparently simple, innocent little infants can learn to communicate with complex language and develop the multitude of skills required to function within society? Things you probably do every day, like walking, driving, dressing, brushing your teeth, buying groceries and having conversations all require an immense amount of learning.
Intelligence used to be measured by how well and fast a person could answer questions involving language, math and other mental skills. In recent years, other areas of intelligence have been revealed as being at least as important in life. These include our emotional and social intelligence.
We now know that little ones learn through relationship. Our brains develop through interactions with primary caregivers. At birth, we are hard wired for relationship. Newborns are designed to be with mom. Little ones recognize and prefer their mother’s smell and face immediately after birth. Their eyes focus well at the exact distance between the mother’s breast and face. They are designed to be there, resting on her heart, her breast available to suck on, her face available to gaze at.
According to Joseph Chilton Pearce, the stress hormones required for the arduous passage of birth, continue until the baby senses mom’s heartbeat. Then, the little one knows the birth is complete and it is time to rest. This heart to heart communication is essential to health and survival from the very beginning. Without it, the baby’s system continues to be on sympathetic drive. If mom is not available, or if she is stressed, baby cannot settle, and bonding is impaired.
Babies feel safe and can relax and grow when they have the social contact they need. Premature babies gain weight faster and are generally healthier and discharged from hospital sooner when they have skin to skin contact, being held close to their parents in what is called “kangaroo care.” Babies deprived of loving contact do not thrive and may even die.
We are designed to be social beings, and our hearts are integral to this interactive state. In the early 90s, Stephen Porges introduced Polyvagal Theory with its associated concept of the social engagement system, or social nervous system, as an essential aspect of our autonomic functioning enabling us to survive, as well as to thrive.
We used to divide the autonomic nervous system into two parts, the sympathetic (mobilization/fight-flight) nervous system and the parasympathetic (rest and rejuvenation or immobilization/freeze/play dead) nervous system. Porges pointed out that, in case of threat, humans do not immediately react with fight-flight or freeze. We first seek to make contact with others. We look to see how others assess the situation to help determine if we are safe. This communication involves a more recently evolved heart-face neural connection, including part of the vagus nerve.
Having relatively small, weak bodies compared to other animals, our survival often depends on our ability to interact and cooperate as groups. While a tiger can easily overtake and devour one of us, a group can scare it away or even attack it with the tools or weapons we have created together. We can also hide in the shelter we have constructed through group process. I may not be able to build a house on my own, but my kin can come together to do this easily. A baby cannot hide or fight or flee alone, but can be carried to safety by an adult.
Babies, like others, respond to threat first with the social engagement system. They look for mom, and cry to communicate their distress and need for her. If mom does not come or their needs are not addressed, their cry changes. It begins to have an angry tone, as sympathetic nervous system is activated. Circulation is diverted away from the non-essential organs toward the large muscles needed for fight or flight. The heart speeds up to meet this effort. Ironically, however, babies cannot fight or flee. If this sympathetic surge doesn’t get their needs met, they eventually retreat into a parasympathetic freeze mode, although the sympathetic impulse remains beneath the ice. These frozen “good” babies are often very quiet and undemanding. No one notices that they are undemanding because they are not really present. They have dissociated, like the deer about to be eaten by the tiger.
Dissociation is a kindness provided by nature that reduces the animal’s suffering if it is caught and hurt or eaten by its pursuer. In dissociative states, we do not feel the pain because we are not connected to it. Unfortunately, our connection with others is also muffled in this state. Our hearts may sense another’s love or caring, but we have disconnected from our hearts because they also feel our pain.
Children developing in this dissociated state may live their lives within a protective shell. They protect themselves from feeling hurt, betrayal, grief, rage, or terror and in the process tend to miss out on love. Their relationships reflect and reinforce their fears. They live within a psychic bubble, represented in the physical body by tight, contracted tissues around the heart.
To varying degrees, this dissociated, disconnected state is epidemic in our modern, western world. We live “a short distance from our bodies,” with a wall around our hearts, longing for love, literally dying for real connection. How can we re-embody recover our hearts? How can we come home?
The journey home can be informed by our early beginnings. When we first arrived, when we first were forming, our hearts initiated our embodiment.
Until the fourth week after conception, when our hearts fold into our center and begin beating, our embryo body is relatively flat and two-dimensional. As the heart folds in, we have a place to be, a place to embody. This fact is reflected in many spiritual traditions holding that our souls do not fully enter our bodies until the fourth week.
In that the heart actually begins its development and function outside of what will become the body of the embryo, it seems natural that the heart would also specialize in relationship. It knows intimately, from its early beginnings as little blood islands forming in the extra-embryonic mesoderm around the embryo, about connecting within the space between.
Mesoderm is our first inner layer, established early in our embryonic development as our midline is forming within an otherwise apparently undifferentiated clump of cells. Embryologist Jaap Van der Waal points out that this third inner layer forming between the endoderm and ectoderm is misnamed. It is not really a derm, or skin. It is an interior. He therefore prefers to call it “meso.” It is like the filling of a sandwich. Some meso finds its way to the exterior mass of cells around the embryo body that will develop into the placenta and umbilical cord. It is within these extra-embryonic (outside embryo) tissues that the blood first forms.
As we begin to take form, the blood finds its way into the body, flowing up to the top or head end of the tiny embryo, where it pauses and then flows back down. It is here, at the head end, that the heart begins to form. In the fourth week after conception, as the nervous system grows up and around it, the heart folds into the more central location we associate as its proper place. It remains a major fulcrum for development and being for the rest of our lives.
In the little embryo, the face grows directly on the heart. The arms start as little buds on either side of the heart, growing around it, as if already in embrace. Throughout our lives, our faces and arms express our hearts, and connect us with other people.
Recovering the Heart
When we have become disconnected from our hearts, our health also suffers. The research of HeartMath Institute (www.heartmath.org) has revealed that heart coherence, associated with positive emotional states like appreciation, gratitude and love enhance our health and general state of well-being. Negative emotional states, like anger and impatience relate to chaotic heart rhythms and issues with mental and physical health. HeartMath has also demonstrated that we can use our minds to support our hearts. We know also that mindfulness practices support our health and release of stress.
It is simple to begin re-connecting with your heart. You might begin (or return) right now by placing a hand over your heart area and listening. What do you sense there? Can you sense your breath moving the tissues under your hand? Can you feel your heart beating? You may find yourself beginning to feel calmer just by listening this way to your heart.
Our understanding of embryology can also inform our relationship with our hearts. Recent research has shown that, at least in frog embryos, physical formation is generated by shifting patterns in the bio-electric field of the embryo. You can watch this on an amazing film easily accessible on You Tube.
We know that our bodies are bio-electric phenomena. Every cell, organ, and tissue generates an electro-magnetic field via its metabolism. Science is learning, however, what healers have known for centuries, that our bodies are constantly being formed within an energetic field. What is true for the tiny embryo is equally true for you as you read this page. You are not fully and finally formed, any more than the embryo is. You are in formation, dissolving and re-forming in relation to the context you find yourself in each moment.
Cell biologist Bruce Lipton in discussing epigenetics, points out that our genes are not capable of turning themselves on and off. Genes respond to the conditions they meet. They are turned on and off in the womb in large part in response to the mother’s perception of her environment as safe or not. Later in life, they respond to our thoughts and beliefs.
We can affect the context our genes interact with in part through where we orient our minds. Take a moment to check in just now. What are you thinking about? How often do you find yourself complaining about the weather, the news, your finances, your health, your looks, your work, whatever it is you complain about? How often do you take time to appreciate what you have, and practice gratitude? What is one thing you can be thankful for in this moment? How does your heart feel as you orient to appreciation and gratitude? This simple act can shift your heart rhythms and health toward coherence.
From my practices of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy and Continuum Movement, I have learned that our thinking, our beliefs, and our bodies seem to shift more easily when we slow down into a relative state of stillness where our old form can dissolve. In speed, we tend to operate on habit. As we deepen into a more fluidic state, we have more options to re-form. We can put ourselves back together as we are accustomed to being, or we can re-construct ourselves within a new and different context.
Within a Biodynamic session, the context includes being held and reflected by a relatively neutral practitioner who is orienting to the original Biodynamic forces that underlie our original embryological formation. While acknowledging the effects of conditional forces, the Biodynamic practitioner holds these old wounds within the wider context of the original blueprint we all on some level seek to return to. This includes the open heart we all long for but also so often fear. How vulnerable are we willing to allow ourselves to be? When openness has at some point in the past become associated with pain, we tend to avoid it. Through resonance with the practitioner intentional state of being, the client’s system can begin to resonate more strongly with its original intent, letting go its hold on fearful trauma patterns.
When old trauma is held within a larger context of health, resource and support, it can melt away in relatively gentle ways. We then have the opportunity to open to our true nature, to whom we are and were prior to the trauma.
In Continuum Movement, we also dissolve and re-form within a different context. This includes our understanding that something else may be possible. We can be supported within the larger energetic field created by our practice within a group. The sounds, breaths and awareness of Continuum, like mindfulness practices, enable us to orient to something deeper than our patterns. As we practice dissolving tissue structures, we enter into a fluid primordial state of being. Like in Biodynamics, we rest in relative stillness, where our history becomes less important. We find ourselves accessing vibrancy and creativity we may not have previously imagined.
Heart to Heart: Being in Resonance
For me, Continuum has been an amazing journey of heart opening. I had practiced and taught various modes of opening and living from the heart for years before coming to Continuum. After living my first twenty or so years from the neck up, I had shifted down in my body and had managed to become much healthier and more embodied.
When I deepened into Continuum practice, I was shocked to discover my sense of my heart dramatically changing. While my heart had seemed to me before this to be a relatively solid mass about the size of my fist in the central area of my chest, it suddenly began to grow and soften. It seemed to extend from my throat down to my pubic bone. Instead of being a clump of emotional pain in my chest, my heart began to sing to me the songs of all I encountered. I began to sense the pain of others across the planet in a bittersweet way. The woman who had lived from the neck up for so many years began to know the sweetness of tears. Tears not just of my old pain, but tears of compassion, tears of tenderness, tears of love, tears of appreciation and gratitude. It seems impossible to experience such tears without an accompanying sense of joy. It is also impossible to feel alone.
Our hearts know our true connectedness. They resonate with so many other hearts. The bio-magenetic field of the heart is the largest in the body, 500 times larger than that of the brain. Our fields overlap with others frequently, but we also sense through our hearts far beyond the physical distance we can measure of the heart field. I heard recently of some research showing that two hearts in resonance with each can respond to each other from across the planet. If one shifts from into coherence, from fear to love, for example, the other will, too. Imagine how powerfully we can affect each other with our sensitive hearts!
Our hearts are such an essential aspect of our humanity. How much longer can we deny them?
Your heart is alive and waiting for you. It beckons. It may wait patiently and compassionately, but it can only wait for so long. How long will you wait?