Brain Mind: Logic, rational, outcome, control
Heart Mind: intuition, systems, process, collective
The Heart as an Organ of Perception
Stephen Harrod Buhner
Remember what it's like to see a puppy walking slowly along, sniffing the ground, tail wagging, small body slightly askew? Something pulls you toward the puppy, so you say, "Here, boy, over here," and the puppy looks up, sees you, and bounds over. In that moment, it's as if something leaves the puppy and enters you and something in you leaves your body and touches the puppy. You want nothing more than to hold each other and enjoy the warmth of your closeness.
We have this experience almost daily, with our dear friends, our children, and our mates. If we're lucky, we may feel it with a special piece of land, an old-growth tree, or a great ancient stone. It is one of the most real experiences we have, a particular kind of intimacy, yet we have no word for it in our language.
It is this moment of intangible touch that I've been exploring for the past 36 years as a psychotherapist, herbalist, and teacher. What would it be like to feel this every day, with everything, I wondered? What exactly is it and how could I create and sustain it?
It took me decades to find the answers to these questions. The ancient Greeks knew it well. They called it aesthesis, which means "to breathe in." They recognized that the moment of touch was accompanied by a gasp, a particular kind of inspiration. They considered it the moment when the soul essence inside us, and the soul essence from something outside us, met and mingled. It is the root of our word "aesthetic."
Years into my studies, I also began to connect something else to this experience. Indigenous peoples who still live close to the earth experience life very differently than we do in the West; they seem to perceive things that we cannot see, things that they are surprised we do not perceive. The explanation for this is simple, but profound: when you ask them where in the body they live, they gesture to the region of their hearts, while modern Westerners typically point to their heads. Perhaps the great lyrical writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had some insight into this phenomenon when he wrote, "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
Meaning Is in the Molecules
Consciousness studies in the late sixties focused almost entirely on the brain, in part because conventional wisdom held that it is our brain that distinguishes us from Earth's other inhabitants. In the decades that followed, however, a few researchers worked without this preconception. Rollin McCraty at the HeartMath Institute is one; he began to look at the heart and its role in cognition and awareness. He and others suspected that consciousness might be mobile and that it might inhabit different locations in the body other than the brain.
One of the most important findings that emerged from these studies was the concept that our organs and bodies are highly complex "nonlinear" organisms in which the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. As Ary L. Goldberger, M.D., director of the Rey Laboratory and professor of medicine at Harvard University, put it: "The body is a complicated symphonic system, much like nature itself . . . onlinear systems composed of multiple subunits [such as the body] cannot be understood by analyzing these components individually."
To understand such nonlinear systems, it's helpful to look at the behavior of molecules. Researchers have found that when billions of molecules are enclosed in a container, their movements are at first random. But at some moment that can never be predicted, all the molecules spontaneously synchronize and begin to move and vibrate together as one coordinated whole, or system. In that moment of synchronicity, something comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts. And that something — call it the soul of the thing — cannot be found in any of the parts.
At that moment of synchronicity, the new system also begins to display what are called emergent behaviors as it acts on the parts, or subunits, to stimulate further, more complex synchronizations. A continuous stream of very rapid information — in the form of temperature fluctuations, velocity, pressure, chemical, electric, magnetic — begins to flow from the parts to whole and from the whole back to the parts in order to stabilize the system, according to Stanford University biologist Jan Walleczek. The meanings within the molecules, called the electromagnetic (EM) signature, tell the receiving organisms how these inputs affect its state of being. These meanings are analyzed and integrated into the organism, and a response is initiated.
All living systems work this way, retaining an exquisite sensitivity to disturbances of their equilibrium. They remember this equilibrium because they are highly intelligent and possess a soul force, this thing that comes into being that is more than the sum of the parts.
The heart is such a nonlinear, self-balancing system. It possesses self-organization and emergent behaviors. It functions not only as a powerful endocrine gland, but also as a unique kind of brain — a cognitive and perceptual organ, and a powerful electromagnetic generator and receiver.
The Field of the Heart
The heart contains pacemaker cells that set its beat. At the moment of self-organization, the first pacemaker cell begins pulsating and oscillating at a regular rhythm. Every new cell "hooks" itself to this one and begins beating in time with the first. This is called entrainment. As individual pacemaker cells couple by the millions, new and unique perceptual capacities come into being. As Goldberger notes, "Nonlinear coupling generates behaviors that defy explanation using traditional (linear) models."
When the heart is fully online, it produces an electromagnetic field much larger than that which is created by the aggregate of the individual cells. The field is 5,000 times stronger than the brain's and can be detected by sensitive scientific instruments up to 10 feet away. It is strongest from the body's surface to 18 inches away, but continues indefinitely into space, like radio waves, according to biologists like Mae-Wan Ho at the Institute of Science in Society.
Not only do heart cells entrain with each other; the heart also entrains with other electromagnetic fields it encounters. When two heart fields oscillate in unison, there is a rapid exchange of information, resulting in alterations in heart function, hormonal cascade, and physiology generally. A kind of dialogue begins.
When the heart field of a healer and a patient meet, for example, the electrocardiograph (ECG) or heart pattern of the healer can be found in both the ECG and electroencephalograph or brain patterns of the patient, according to research by Rollin McCraty. The heart field of the healer literally paces the patient into new patterns of health.
Heart entrainment is natural to us, occurring at the earliest stage of life. In the womb, the infant's heart entrains with the mother's and continues to do so after birth, writes Joseph Chilton Pearce in his book The Biology of Transcendence. The mother's electromagnetic field is filled with information and meaning, including how she feels about her infant. In fact, our feelings always affect the information encoded in our hearts' wave patterns. Babies, like all living systems, take in and decode this information. We remain sensitive to these fields after birth because we have gestated in the midst of this kind of language. Once born we routinely, often unconsciously, scan encountered fields for information. The way we as humans encounter these fields is unique: we experience them as emotions.
In essence, the heart is an extremely sensitive organ whose domain, we instinctively know, is feeling. Recent research reveals why: our heart processes a particular and unique EM bandwidth with complex signals that we experience as unique emotional complexes. These EM signals, taken in through the heart, are processed in the brain in the same manner as our conventional senses such as sight and smell. Unfortunately, this kind of emotional perception of the world starts to atrophy in most of us when we begin locating consciousness in the brain, rather than in the heart.
The Heart-Mind Information Superhighway
Living organisms possess extremely complex electromagnetic fields that encode everything about the organism: its health, history, potential, and more. When the EM field passes into and through the heart, the information is then routed to the brain, which analyzes the information and extracts the meaning from the EM signature.
The heart can act as a "mind" or an organ of perception because approximately 60 percent of heart cells are neural cells, which function similarly to those in the brain. They cluster in ganglia and connect to the neural network of the body through axon-dendrites. This is not an accident. The heart has direct connections to specific centers of the brain and these connections create a direct, unmediated flow of information from the heart, according to research by Gary Schwartz, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, and Linda Russek of the Heart Science Foundation. The heart, in fact, is hard-wired into the amygdala, thalamus, hippocampus, and cortex — brain centers involved with emotional memories, sensory experience, the extraction of meaning from sensory inputs, problem solving, reasoning, and learning. To enhance communication with the brain and central nervous system, the heart also makes and releases its own neurotransmitters as it needs them.
The mind-heart connection is further enhanced by a state called "heart coherence," according to McCraty. During coherence, the heart's rhythm sets the beat for the entire body and the heart waves increase in amplitude, giving the heart field greater depth and power. Coherence also brings an immediate change in brain function. Large populations of cells in the forebrain begin to oscillate to the heart's rhythm, and the brain waves ride on top of the heart waves. The perception of those brain cells — the kinds of information they process — is very different than when consciousness is located in the heart.
As brain function changes, so does what we see and learn. What people perceive when they live from the heart is quite different from what they perceive when they live in the head. In coherence, a whole new world opens, and things not normally perceived become commonplace.
When someone in a state of heart coherence allows his or her heart field to entrain or merge with another EM field, the rapid download of information between the organisms happens naturally. While this information download occurs in a language of its own, it rarely happens in words. In one sense, it can be thought of as a direct conveyance of meaning without language. Information flows through the heart first and is then routed to the brain where it is translated, much as radio receivers convert radio waves into music. But in humans, the process is more complex, as the brain translates sensory data, memories, experiences, and knowledge into sound, image, touch, taste, odor.
From these translations of sensory forms, which are shaped by the culture in which we are raised, come meaning.
The Shape of the Heart Field
We all live immersed in meaning-filled fields of information. These fields flow into us from the moment of our birth. We experience these fields not as a stream of words on a page but as emotions, the touch of life upon us. This interchange, rooted in our hearts, alters our lives, shapes its quality, reminds us that we are never alone. It reconnects us to the ground of being from which we come and nurtures in us a natural empathy with the world around us. We are one intelligent organism among many, one ensouled form amid a multitude.
Heart cognition moves us from a rational orientation in a dead, mechanized universe to one in which the unique perceptions and emotions are noticed and strengthened. It allows us to deeply experience the living soulfulness of the world, constantly reweaving us back into the fabric of life. We may be out of practice, but our capacity to perceive from the heart comes naturally to us, and it never disappears. As I've explained, we are made for the unique nature of each thing to pass into us through our hearts, which store memories of this thing, and engage it in dialogue.
With practice, it is possible to learn the shape of your heart field as well as you know your own hands, and use your heart as you do your hands to touch the world around you. It is also possible to entrain with other EM fields intentionally, allowing the information in these fields to pass into you in the form of information you can use. It is, after all, as natural to us as the beating of our hearts. Ancient and indigenous peoples, locating consciousness in the heart, commonly experience aesthesis as a regular part of life. They know those moments when there is a blending in the soul essence of two living things, when the human begins to know the nonhuman directly from itself.
Why We Can Talk to Plants
This ancient knowing explains how these people learn direct depth healing of human disease and the use of medicinal plants: a blending of the EM fields between human and plant occurs of its own accord, a moment of synchronicity when information is directly exchanged. Often, this blending is experienced as a visionary or dream state. Manuel Cordova-Rios, the great Amazonian healer from Peru, describes one such moment: "In infinite detail her internal organs appeared on the screen of my vision. As the liver came into my sight, it was obvious from its black color that it had ceased to function and I knew that it was no longer serving to purify the blood. As this became clear to me I turned my attention to the remedy and the appropriate plants appeared in my vision — flowers from the retama tree and roots from the retamilla shrub. As the visions faded off into more general dreams, I knew it was possible for her to recover."
This direct exchange is how the German poet and botanist Goethe discovered the "pregnant point" and, cultivating it, came to his understanding of plant metamorphosis: that all parts of a plant — pistils, stamens, stems — are merely leaf morphed into different shapes. "He who sees into the secret inner life of the plant, into the stirring of its powers, and observes how the flower gradually unfolds itself, sees the matter with quite different eyes — he knows what he sees," wrote Goethe.
This is how the great agriculturalist Luther Burbank was able to coax new food plants into existence in two or three years and, trotting down rows of 20,000 seedlings, could pick the seven that would breed true. From him came many of the domesticated plants that we take for granted as food. It was sensitivity, he explained, that "partly accounts for my unusual success in selecting between two apparently identical plants or flowers or trees or fruits."
This is how Masanobu Fukuoka, the great Japanese farmer, equals the yields of technological farming without fertilizers, weeding, or tilling the soil. He taught himself to understand the true nature of barley from within itself, to grow it under the unique conditions of his own field, and to see the human from the barley's point of view. "Only to him who stands where the barley stands and listens well, will it speak and tell, for his sake, what man is," said Fukuoka.
Reductionist approaches are like concrete sidewalks. They suppress the wild, but the power of the green — veriditas as Hildegard of Bingen called it — always breaks through. When we locate consciousness in the brain, we reduce the breadth of full perception and thought to a narrow band. Everything else is relegated to the realm of superstition or heresy. But when we reclaim the heart as an organ of perception and cognition, we feel first and then know — the oldest way of being human.
Sensing Your Heart Field
Have a friend stand six feet away. Walk up to him or her slowly. When you're 12 to 18 inches away, you will suddenly experience being in this person's "space." Your two heart fields are touching. Once you get to know the feel of your field, you can learn to extend it out from yourself and use it like sensitive fingers to touch the world around you.
Learning to Think with Your Heart in Four Steps
1. Focus on a natural object, such as a plant or a flower or a piece of fruit. Notice its appearance, its colors and shadings. Immerse yourself in its sensory aspects (or, put another way, come to your senses). This is the first step in getting out of your head. 2. Continue to look at the object before you and ask yourself, "What does it feel like?" This activates the heart as an organ of perception and helps naturally to shift your attention to the object's electromagnetic field. You will then experience a unique feeling complex, which you probably can't name, as the object's electromagnetic signature moves through your heart. 3. Allow the feeling to fill you. Breathe through and with the feeling while continuing to focus on the object in front of you. Notice how your breathing has slowed, your vision slips into softer focus, colors seem to brighten, and your body relaxes. These physiological shifts always accompany the movement into heart-centered perception. 4. Reach out with your heart field and hold the thing in front of you. Allow yourself to feel a sense of caring for it (this creates specific alterations in the EM field of the heart). As you do this, the two fields will entrain, and you will feel a flow of energy between you and it. If you do this with a plant, you might at this point ask it to tell you about itself. George Washington Carver used this process to deepen his understanding of food plants such as the peanut. "Anything will give up its secrets," he said, "if you love it enough."
Stephen Harrod Buhner is an herbalist, psychotherapist, and teacher. He is the author of many books, including The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature and Sacred Plant Medicine.