Guest blog by Louise Livingstone, PhD Researcher, Canterbury Christ Church University
“The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not of” Blaise Pascal
Why does there appear to be so much conflict in the world? This question has dominated my whole life. Growing up in a conflicted home environment, from a young age I was highly sensitised to all forms of conflict and my career to date has predominantly been based within the counselling and therapeutic professions. While these fields offered excellent methods and tools to support the management of inner and outer conflict both for myself and my clients, I still felt that there was more to be discovered. With modern day experience seemingly fixed upon the scientific method of fragmentation of knowledge and empirical evidence – an approach which subsequently dominates the thought processes of our society and culture, often with devastating results (1) – for the past fifteen years I have been exploring other ways of engaging with the world, beyond the purely analytical, which might help us to engage with each other and the world, differently; more harmoniously.
Inspired by neuroscientist and English literature specialist Iain McGilchrist, who in his pioneering book The Master and his Emissary (2009) points to the danger we currently face as our imaginative and intuitive abilities are increasingly becoming divorced from dominant rationality, my own research explores the idea of the heart as a dynamic symbol of harmony and of reconnection. Interestingly, it is only as recently as the 1800’s that the heart has been understood in contemporary culture as just a mechanical pump; a physical organ of the body that keeps us alive. While the heart can of course be conceived of this way, with an expanded, imaginative, symbolic attitude (2), it can be so much more – and, I suggest, could provide valuable guidance for how we interact with life as a whole. Indeed, across millennia, the heart has been conceived of as both a physical and non-physical phenomenon (Hoystad, 2007; Alberti, 2010), with an innate ability to mediate between different realms of human experience. Indeed, when engaging in daily life and making meaning in the world, many ancient civilisations including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus and Greeks respected the heart’s wisdom and intellect (Arguelles, McCraty, & Rees, 2003; Childre & Martin, 2000, pp.7-8; Perloff, 2010). As archetypal psychologist James Hillman points out, the heart’s way of perceiving is both “sensing” and “imagining” (2007, p.108), and, I suggest, offers a way of awakening and developing a more expanded approach towards the world beyond our contemporary analytical range.
As mediator between different modes of human experience throughout history, might it be possible for us today to reconsider the heart as a symbol of connection to deeper realms of the human experience, beyond the analytical, helping us to interact with each other, and world, differently – and more harmoniously? This is what my research aims to explore, and I look forward to sharing more with you as my work unfolds.
(1) Here I am referring to the effects of a dualistic, analytical approach to the world; a way of conceiving reality which has its roots in Ancient Greece (McGilchrist, 2009). Playing a pivotal role in the scientific revolution during the seventeenth century, the growing idea of a “mechanical nature” (Descola, 2013, p.31) which can be measured and objectified has helped to place humanity into the role of ‘spectator.’ This idea has supported contemporary society to become increasingly disconnected from the world, affecting our relationships and creating a “them” and “us” culture. Within this conceptual framework it is often difficult to see beyond our differences to consider the deeper relationships we share with all of life. Indeed, “The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation”. (McGilchrist, 2009, p.5). When we see only difference, then this is what we create.
(2) A symbolic attitude towards the world as a whole allows for an expansion of what we know to be ‘true’, beyond the purely analytical into the imaginative and intuitive realms of human experience – into what may lie underneath presenting issues. In his work exploring the dual nature of human experience, psychologist Carl Jung suggested that a symbolic attitude can help us to consider a word or an image as possessing “something more than its obvious and immediate meaning” (1988, p.20), continuing to state that as the mind explores the symbol, “it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”
Arguelles, L., McCraty, R., & Rees, R. (2003). The Heart in Holistic Education. ENCOUNTER: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 16(3).
Bound Alberti, F. (2010). Matters of the Heart. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Childre, D. & Martin, H. (2000). The HeartMath Solution. HarperSanFransisco.
Descola, P. (2013). The Ecology of Others: Anthropology and the Question of Nature. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Hillman, J. (2007). The Thought of the Heart and The Soul of the World. Spring Publications, New York.
Hoystad, O. (2007). A History of the Heart. Reaktion Books. London.
Jung, C. (1988). Man and His Symbols. Anchor Press, New York.
McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. Yale University Press. London
Perloff, J. (2010). The Metaphoric and Morphologic Heart: Symbol and Substance. The American Journal of Cardiology, 105(10), 1502-1503.