THE HEART OF THE MATTER
As we awaken and slowly enter the world that awaits us, do we ever become aware of the gift that carries us through the day, the instrument with which we engage and move through our environment? For most of us, the answer is no. Our human body is the gift that provides us with a way of engaging and connecting with the world around us. We tend to take for granted the very purpose of our bodies which is to make connections. We make connections to the people around us; to the life energy within us; and to the sights and sounds that surround us every moment of the day. Many of us have a daily practice of silent meditation which can serve to bring us inward and to connect with our source. Some of us may even practice mindfulness to bring a heightened sense of connectedness to the “now” into each moment or situation we encounter. There are so many ways to be still to connect and so many ways to engage outwardly to connect. It is how we connect that creates our human experience on Earth and what makes us unique individuals. Whatever way we choose to interact---either deep within or outwardly---there is one common element that makes connection possible: the gift of our human body.
What a miracle this flesh and bones body in which we live and breathe truly is! Our intricately designed, complexly integrated bodies move us through the world, allowing us to walk, reach, jump, make love, sing, dance, and to perform the most basic of needs like bringing food to our mouths and brushing our teeth. It’s true that it takes the entire body--its physiology, kinesthetic sense, the skeleton that give us form, the muscles, both intricate and grand, and organs—to perform these and every other action we produce. But how often do we recognize the role of the individual working parts of our design that make all this happen? Do we even really know how to acknowledge and appreciate our feet, for example? After all, they have taken us everywhere we’ve ever been in our lives! What a reason for gratitude and appreciation! And how about our hands for all they allow us to do? Or our articulating knees and elbows? Oh, and our eyes—what a gift! And then there are the parts we can’t even see that contribute to our ability to live and breathe, feel and touch, think and do, grow and love. There’s the brain, that collection of soft curvy flesh and nervous tissue, that houses our memories, creates our thoughts, instructs our bodies to move (or not), and interacts with our bodies through electrical and hormonal signals that keep us functioning in ways we never even consider. We have the liver, spleen, kidneys and pancreas that serve to filter and process for essential bodily functions; and, the part that serves to maintain our very life energy: the heart.
Let’s consider the heart. At its most basic, the heart is a muscle that is about the size of your fist that functions mechanically as a master pump. But there is much more to our hearts than circulating blood into our bodies. Science is showing there is a vast communication between the heart, the brain and the body. The heart produces electrical signals that can be found within the walls of itself and throughout our bodies. These signals can also be registered in the space around our bodies and may be what gives us our sense of personal space.
We can gather from history that the Greeks believed the heart was the seat of our spirit; the Chinese believed the heart was the center for happiness. Egyptians are said to have believed the heart was home for emotions and intellect, while Plato believed reason came from the brain and passion from the heart. Could it be they were all on to something? We know that the brain sends orders to the heart through neural signals, but what we are beginning to better understand is that the heart sends signals that affect the functions of the brain as well. Through scientific research, we now know that signals sent from the heart prompt emotional processing as well as influence attention, perception, memory and problem-solving within the brain.
How our hearts function can be used as an important indicator of our health, level of physical fitness, and can provide a marker of biological aging through heart rate variability. Many factors can affect our heart rate and rhythm pattern, including the emotions we experience in our daily lives. Prolonged negative emotions such as anger, resentment and anxiety can lead to disorganized, inefficient functioning of systems, depleting precious energy and creating damaging wear and tear on our bodies. On the flip side, experiencing positive emotions such as joy, love, compassion and gratitude creates harmony within the body systems, coordinating physiological functions for efficient performance. Since positive emotions create such optimal functioning throughout the body, it’s no wonder we feel so good when we experience them!
So then, back to this idea of appreciating our parts. Just how does one care for and appreciate the heart? Allowing positive emotions like gratitude and compassion to be present in our daily experiences is one way we can appreciate and care for our hearts. Letting yourself deeply feel positive emotions will serve your heart well and impact the overall function of your human body as well as enhance your human experience. For some of us, this may come naturally; but others of us may have fallen prey to the clutches of negative emotions. Actually, it happens to most of us from time to time. When this happens, how can we make the transition from living in negative emotions to engaging with the positive? Begin without judgment and with self-compassion to consciously choose one positive emotion to engage with and develop. Many studies indicate that gratefulness can significantly impact our lives. If you choose to start with gratefulness, seek out what you are grateful for and attend to this emotion daily. Sit with it; get to know it. Begin to recognize gratefulness in yourself and others as it grows deeper into your consciousness. Gratitude can be the ground in which seeds of other positive emotions can be planted and grown to then nourish your experiences and your life.
Other ways of caring for our hearts include engaging in healthy relationships; participating in exercise, movement and activity; getting adequate rest; practicing strategies to manage stress; nourishing our hearts through proper nutrition and hydration; and balancing work and play. Then, there is simply acknowledging the significance we place on the heart, as evidenced through our language. We speak to and want to get to “the heart of the matter” and seek our “heart’s desire” with passion. We speak of being “heartbroken” and of having an “aching heart” over the loss of someone or something we love. People can be “heartless” or “close to our heart” and we can intend to have our “heart in the right place.” We may even have a “heart to heart” conversation with a best friend and “pour our heart out.”
One final and powerful example of caring for our hearts is through the act of meditation--specifically, of meditating on your heart. During your meditation, as you bring your awareness inward, guide your focus to your heart. Just notice the space where it is held within your body and simply begin to increase this awareness. Maybe you notice a softness in the space or perhaps a hardness that was unexpected. Whatever you notice, be present with non-judgement and compassion. Don’t try to change it; simply notice it. As you sit with this awareness, place your hands lovingly over your heart space and take an easeful breath. As you breathe in, allow a sense of gratitude to stir in and around your heart. Stay with that full sense of gratitude and allow it to expand into the rest of your body and all around you. Continue to explore your heart in whatever way presents itself while you sit in sacred, quite meditation. Be still and listen for the wisdom your heart holds for you and know that this practice of heart awareness is a resource that is always there for you!
The practice of expanding awareness of your heart can create new experiences and inspired beliefs. As you begin to engage with your heart and other parts of your body, sensations and awarenesses will arise that have the power to transform your life. I hope you will join me as I continue to explore the value and contribution of other parts of our bodies through a series of articles and workshops. Next, the journey will take us to body parts that likely gets the least recognition for their essential role: our feet. One step at a time, we will explore, appreciate and learn to value the contributions our feet have given to our life experiences and how they navigate the path we take to follow the true beat of our heart.
Patti Iwer works as an occupational therapist in Johns Island, South Carolina, and holds additional certifications in somatic therapy, LSVT and Reiki. She is the owner of Wellness Rising Integrative Healthcare and co-owner of Island Pediatric Therapy. Patti specializes in dementia care, pain management, rehabilitation and normal development throughout the lifespan.