I recently had the pleasure of going to the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California. I really had no idea what to expect from an organization that studies the power and intelligence of the heart, but I imagined something simultaneously clinical and inviting, as paradoxical as that may sound.
My mind was a bit blown when I arrived high on a mountain, after driving along some twisty roads, to trees upon trees and good vibes all around. It was beautiful. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? We’re dealing with matters of the heart. And I would soon discover just how essential those matters are to life. I came to understand what happens when my mind and heart are not aligned. Maybe you can relate.
Our heart is not simply an organ which functions automatically, immune to the joys and stresses of the world. It is intelligent. It prefers some things over others, and it can slip into ‘coherence’ with other functions of our body, pushing us to optimal performance. The beautiful thing is, there is science to back all of this up. Researchers have found:
The heart starts beating in the unborn fetus before the brain has been formed.
There is constant two-way communication between the heart and brain.
The heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.
The heart sends signals to the brain which help inform our choices.
The heart helps synchronize many systems in the body so that they can function in harmony with one another.
The heart signals especially affect the brain centers involved in strategic thinking, reaction times, and self-regulation.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a thinker. I like analyzing everything to death, even to a fault. My mind likes patterns, repetition, and logic. It likes to deduce how things became the way they are, and my mind can sometimes feel like a confusing jumble of thoughts and ideas as I keep asking “why.” My heart (when I finally tune in), on the other hand, is quite simple and direct, almost impossibly easy to understand.
But I learned that’s usually just how the heart is. It doesn’t play games or try to reason for meaning — it just knows. That is sometimes difficult to accept. Yet over the course of this trip I started to let go of the ‘why’ and really focus on the how. How is process. How is moving. How feels empowering.
The stress that comes from disharmony between your mind and heart usually results in feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, fear, and confusion. Sometimes, in extreme cases, this disharmony can manifest as physical illness. Your heart knows the truth even if your brain hasn’t caught on yet; you want out of the relationship, you hate your job, you made a mistake and are too proud to admit it — your heart knows, yet the mind tries to reason its way out of feeling.
It comes up with so many excuses to avoid doing what your heart is asking — “He’s a nice guy,” or ” but I make lots of money,” or “They made me angry” — but doing something that isn’t truly aligned with you will cause you harm. Every time. No matter how small or how large, these misaligned actions wreak havoc on our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical bodies and accumulate into chronic stress.
In one study, HeartMath research found that “negative or stressful emotions put the nervous system out of sync and our heart rhythms became disordered. This in turn placed stress on the physical system and had a negative impact on mental functions.”1
They hooked people up to a device called the emWave to allow them to actually see a monitor with their heart’s rhythm. Interestingly, when emotions like appreciation, love, care, and gratitude were felt it increased balance in the nervous system and produced smooth, harmonious, sine-wave-like “coherence.” When you’re in a coherent state stress levels drop and, surprisingly, you’re able to think more clearly and to self-regulate your emotional responses.
The way I’m understand it, the heart can empathize but it doesn’t know about states of anger or frustration or sadness. I believe these are realms of the mind. I don’t think anger originates from the heart, and I wonder if sadness can come from the authentic heart. So that leads me to ponder, is a ‘broken heart’ really ever a ‘broken heart’? I admit, it’s not easy trying to distinguish between the guidance of the heart and that of the mental/emotional beliefs that quite often shape our thoughts. However, it makes me feel good to know that with practice, knowing your heart’s true desire and distinguishing it from your mental tangles becomes easier.
Also, it makes sense to me that if the heart’s rhythms take on a very distinct pattern of coherence then perhaps we can speed up our learning process by watching the heart’s rhythmic feedback, like with the emWave. Seeing is believing as they say, and seeing the heart’s rhythms change as I align with my heart coherence somehow satisfies both my mind and heart. It almost feels like this is where spirituality and technology come together to help us advance harmoniously.
One more point to mention is that there may be times when you mistake an emotional sensation for a sign of the heart communicating and go with it, then find yourself somewhere you didn’t want to be. Discernment and trial and error are all part of the practice of becoming more heart aligned, leading to less stress and anxiety.
While sayings like “Follow your heart,” “Put your heart into it,” and “Listen to your heart” may all be cliché at this point, they speak to a much more profound truth at the heart of us all.