"Landscape fo the Heart" (excerpt) The Seekers by Elizabeth Lesser
---Study of the Heart Tree by Palmarin Merges
In the Landscape of the Heart we meet up with parts of the self that we both desire and fear. The heart longs to feel fully alive; it craves connection and happiness. If allowed to follow its cravings, the heart feels everything: love and loneliness, contentment and gloom, passion and apathy. Like waves on the shore, our hearts normally rush toward joy, then pull back, afraid of pain and loss. Heartfulness is the willingness and the ability not to pull back. If we want to "feel the rapture of being alive," as Joseph Campbell describes the object of the spiritual search, we have to experience the whole ocean of emotions.
Heartfulness work is like swimming lessons: it teaches a skill that very few people seem to naturally possess. But unlike swimming lessons, which can be easily obtained at any YMCA pool or local beach, heartfulness skills are not usually taught in our culture. Most of us didn't learn as children that sadness is sister to happiness and that to deny one is to suppress the other. We weren't given specific tools to handle grief, to deal with crisis, to welcome loss as a natural part of being alive. It was not suggested that in order to understand ourselves we should look to the ways in which our parents cared for us and for each other. No one said, "Here is the best way to communicate when you are angry so that your relationships can flourish in honesty and love." Instead, the whole subject of emotions and psychological development was ignored at best and usually was sentimentalized, or ridiculed, or corked.
"Emotional intelligence," as psychologist Daniel Goleman calls the wisdom of the heart, needs to be nurtured and developed, just like any kind of intelligence. We've put more emphasis on math and history and language than on the skills needed to love our lives and to interact well with each other as mates, families, friends, and communities. Elementary schools don't include honest communication or compassionate listening in the curriculum. High schools don't require students to know how to develop healthy emotional boundaries, how to be strong and gentle at the same time, how to make wise decisions based on what we really want—or how to know what we want in the first place.
Society devises laws to keep domestic and public order, but rules for moral behavior are different from tools for heartful living. They may point us in the same direction—toward kindness, compassion, and decency—but heartfulness is not about being told what to do. Heartfulness warns us not to "grin and bear it," not just to settle for what religions talk about, not to follow rules for the sake of obedience—but to find out for ourselves what we love and what we want. If values don't come from what we love, they become doctrine. Heartfulness leads us away from a rote doctrine of love to loving behavior through self-love, to forgiveness of others through self-forgiveness, to understanding human nature through self-understanding.
By the time most of us have reached adulthood we find ourselves in a curious situation: we have an emotional life but we don't really know how to manage it. The luckiest among us have happy marriages and loving families, deal gracefully with loss and pain, and feel deeply into the pleasures of daily life. The most unfortunate are crippled by depression, unable to make lasting bonds with others, and dulled to the ordinary magic of being alive. In the middle are the rest of us, bobbing in our own emotional oceans, sometimes on top of the water, and often under waves of depression or anger or confusion. You may recognize in yourself the most common emotional coping strategy: in order not to feel the darker emotions—sadness, or pain, or hatred—we turn off the heart's capacity to feel at all. And then we are puzzled by why it is so hard to love, to enjoy, and even to know what we feel or want.
It makes sense that if we don't want to feel unhappy, and we don't know how to cultivate happiness, that we would just turn off the part of ourselves that feels. This is something that we learn to do early on. If our childhood pain was great, we learn all too well how to shut down feelings. The heart then becomes the locked repository for childhood wounds and confusion. The lessons of repression and avoidance learned long ago become trusted habits.
If the purpose of life is to "feel the rapture of being alive," and if our capacity to feel is crippled by old wounds and a lack of emotional education, then it follows that an important part of the spiritual path is to heal the heart and to become emotionally intelligent. Then why is it that the territory of the heart is so rarely explored on the classical spiritual journey? One answer is that the heart's contradictory, messy, and passionate nature seems at odds with some religions. Sin-based religions especially have made it their mission to control the world, not to love it for what it is. The less controllable aspects of our humanness—erotic love, rage and anger, beauty and sadness—have been labeled too passionate or irrational to be trusted. Better to leave passion out of a "spiritual" person's life altogether.
To bring the heart along on the spiritual path is to open Pandora's box. Once opened, the heart wants to feel the rapture of being alive. It longs to know love; it remembers pain; it feels rage; it demands change. It wants to knowjoy in the here and now, in the body, with other people, through the senses. No wonder our culture—with its Puritanical roots and its patriarchal power structure—has made sure the box has stayed locked. But the lack of heartfulness in life is a tragedy, because an enlightened heart delivers what we expect from the spiritual search: wisdom, peace, and a life of miracles.