“Wherever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, an ecological habitat is protected.”Elizabeth Johnson (feminist theologian, educator, author)
“When all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way to escape beyond the present order.”Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, author)
“The entire self-generative process is supported by compassionate acceptance extended through the relational field. This requires the felt experience of the heart, as distinct from compassion as an idea or an ethical imperative.”Doug Silsbee (author, founder of Presence-Based Coaching)
“To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”Rebecca Solnit (writer, activist)
“The longest journey you will ever take is from your head to your heart.”Attributed to various sources, including the Sioux people
About five years ago, my dear friend and colleague Melinda Weekes-Laidlow turned me on to the writings of Father Richard Rohr, and in particular his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As Melinda and I are of a similar age and stage, I think we were both contemplating in our own ways what life held for us during what felt like a time of significant transition. The timing of this gift ended up being quite auspicious, as I would then spend the next number of years (up until now) going through something of an unraveling, precipitated by work burnout that revealed unaddressed patterns in my psyche and body that were begging for attention. It was not a complete breakdown, but something of a slow crash. Control freak that I have often tended to be in my life, I spent a fair amount of time trying to direct the descent.
All my efforts to manipulate and steer really did was make a bit more gradual what has been at times an excruciating experience. That said, it has also been very rich, putting me more deeply in touch with my feelings, my body, and (as hard as it is for me to use this word sometimes), my soul. Interestingly enough, about a year after starting the book, Melinda and I (along with Jen Willsea) found ourselves working directly with Father Rohr and his staff at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico, guiding an internal equity learning and change process. If you know anything about the nature of this work, and especially in these times, you will not be surprised that this only added more fuel to what was at best a “cool burn,” not because of CAC in particular, but because it is a fractal of the hurting whole that is the broader culture, and because that process dared to approach this work from a deeper contemplative place.
This was a blessing in many ways. Melinda and I, and other IISC colleagues, discovered that there is a crucial need to put in place certain structures and supports for the organizations with which we work, as well as for ourselves, as we undertake this kind of learning and change facilitation process (see this post “An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work”). During one of our early trips to New Mexico, Father Richard gave us a copy of his book Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, which I received gratefully and with intention to put straight to use as a part of our support ecosystem. During the plane ride home, after completing a silent meditation, I was skimming through the last half of the book, when I came across what might otherwise have been a throw away line. It mentioned that doing contemplative work was not meant to be heady, and really needed to be centered on the heart. Heart-focused. “Heartfulness practice.”
I tucked this away and then a few months later found myself in a situation that I would say is the closest I have come to a “mystical” experience (another word that does not come very easily to me). I will spare the details here, but essentially what happened was that for the first time in my life I understood what my heart is, to have a direct experience and view of the world through it. I don’t remember ever having that feeling of being so unconditionally held, enveloped in love. Not to say that I was instantly transformed. The experience passed and my body memory faded. But not completely. It has been rekindled by a few other experiences, not quite as intense, and also through my own ongoing practice.
What I’ve found in doing heart work is that it brings me warmth in varying degrees, an actual physical feeling, as well as something emotional. This often leads to a subtle smile, if not an outright grin. And with that comes a sense of softening, letting go, loosening my grip. I’m reminded of what Barbara Fredrickson, who runs a research lab dedicated to the power of emotions (including love), once wrote, that love constitutes “moments of warmth, connection and openness to others.” Fredrickson and her colleagues have discovered that when love is in effect:
“Your outlook quite literally expands as you come under the influence of any of several positive emotions. With this momentarily broadened, more encompassing mindset, you become more flexible, attuned to others, creative, and wise. Over time, you also become more resourceful.”
While I cannot claim wisdom (another one of those words), I can vouch for the others when I am tuned into my heart – a sense of being renewed, that has implications not simply for how I feel personally, but how I see others and interact with them. It feels, in many ways, like a more right way of relating. See, in this vein, the short video below for some thoughts about how support for the regeneration of our oceans might link to the heart, and love.
It turns out that this is all very much in alignment with longstanding wisdom traditions and what those who are dedicated to contemplative practice experience. Father Rohr has defined contemplation as “a long loving look at what is real.” That long look is not simply about time, but also depth. It is about sinking below the neck, into the heart and other regions of our bodies. Without that sinking, Father Rohr says, we can simply fall into “stinking thinking,” addictive repetitive thought that is more circular than anything and often leaves us more disconnected and unreconciled – split, at the mercy of overly analytical and fractured thinking. When we come from the heart, we come from more of a place of wholeness or natural inclusion (to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner).
“Facing the sorrows of the world requires that we remain intimate with the world.”Francis Weller (psychotherapist, author, specialist in grief work)
And the heart is not all. It turns out there are other seats of intelligence and wisdom in our bodies that can also be easily neglected, including our guts. Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with the power of tuning into my lower abdomen through practices taught by Joe Weston and The Weston Network. Just before the pandemic locked things down in March of 2020, I attended an in-person Respectful Confrontation workshop with Joe in New York City. It was a profound experience. Through the use of different techniques, including the “core exercise” which centers our attention and breathing on the Taoist energy core in our bodies – three inches below our bellybuttons and a third of the way into the body – I was able to ground myself in ways that feel, well, very grounding. From that place, and breathing into that part of the body, we were then invited to explore our selves (sensations, emotions, thoughts), our relationship to our surroundings, and our relationship to others. Even on Zoom, I have experienced how re-charging this is, that my energetic batteries fill up, and I am able to engage with a fuller sense of self and of boundaried presence.
In a particularly powerful moment during the in-person training, Joe invited us to face some of our articulated fears, represented by other people in the workshop physically approaching us. We experimented with standing in our “strength pillar” by concentrating on our abdomens, stamping our feet and saying out loud, “No!” This was initially a bit awkward, and slowly I got the hang of it. That said I did not expect the visceral shaking that then happened and took over my whole body. It sent wave after wave through my esophagus and solar plexus, each time I spoke more solidly from the gut. While initially a bit unsettling, I realized that it was actually a long overdue release and reclaiming of what Joe would call our authentic personal power.
As outlandish as this all may sound to some, those more familiar with the intelligence of our amazing bodies will not be surprised. As one of Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma book title states, our bodies know and keep the score, and are incredibly intelligent at protection and expression. Science is showing us that a stable and solid sense of self is in fact rooted in our hearts, our lungs and our bellies. A recent article in the Psyche Newsletter points out:
“An important limitation of contemporary psychology and neuroscience is that scholars replaced the old Cartesian dualism – mind versus body – with a new dualism: brain versus body. The new dichotomy was even cruder than the old one, and certainly no less rigid. Experimenters refused to take note of whatever happened south of the neck because the scientific picture of the day dismissed what previous ages had carefully noted – the wisdom of the heart the power of breathing, and the intelligence of the gut. Now, thanks to a wave of new research findings, with more to come, we know that these intuitions can be fully reconciled with a scientific outlook on the self. Your consciousness really does have deep, rich roots in your bodily feelings.”
Of course, this is validating what many spiritual traditions and indigenous peoples have honored for a long time. I continue to be very influenced by my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which I finished about 18 months ago, during the first pandemic summer in the US. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the aboriginal Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. Towards the end of this book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging and being in right relationship with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. Interestingly, he offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures tend to reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct/hands) and intellect (reflect/head), and only perhaps later capitulating (connect/heart, respect/gut), if at all. More rooted cultures suggest that right relationship begins in our guts, not our heads!
Renewal, revival, restoration; spiritual transformation; an aspect of living systems without which there would be no life; a process through which whole new organisms may be created from fractions of organisms; an adaptive and evolutionary trait that plays out at different systemic levels.
All of this to say, that in many places people may be approaching the work of regenerating and renewing ourselves, one another, and the larger living systems of which human beings are a part in the wrong (or certainly an incomplete) manner, if they are trying to at all. Case in point, I was once in a weekend workshop with a long-time teacher of so-called “regenerative development” and was joined by my wife. During one of the exercises, my wife began to cry, and this made the workshop leader very uncomfortable. Em (my wife) was essentially told to get herself under control, as this was not in the spirit of the disciplined approach we were learning. Now if you knew my wife (a therapist who does a lot of work around trauma), you would know how amazingly embodied she is and attuned to her environment and to other people. This regenerative “guru” was in essence asking her not to be herself, not to access a crucial part of her wisdom and intelligence, which is a wisdom and intelligence our species shares. That did not sit well with either of us.
Flash forward a few years … During the March 2020 Respectful Confrontation workshop with the Weston Network that I mentioned earlier, we engaged in deep somatic/embodied work, individually, in pairs and in the group as a whole. This was done with great care, consideration and skillfulness by the facilitators, and also with a spirit of encouraging us to push on the edges of our physical, psychological and emotional resistance. There were moments of great energetic release throughout those few days. I remarked at how rare this is in a group setting, how uncomfortable it felt to many, and also how liberating it seemed to be to everyone- tapping into fuller and more resilient sources of power, connection and expression. What is more regenerative than that?!
A quote I am known for by some of my colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change is “we are not simply brains on sticks.” And yet for many, this image seems to be the dominant vision and sense of who human beings are. As a result, many people are disconnected from a fuller sense of belonging to themselves, others, and the rest of Life. Social and cultural dissociation. In her book How to Be Animal, Melanie Challenger chalks this kind of dissociation up to a false belief in “human exceptionalism” that attempts to separate us from our basic animal nature. Having a category of “non-human” allows animals to be objects for disgust and victims of mistreatment and control. The same goes for parts of our selves (our “disgusting bodies”) and humanity (“the unclean”, “bad others”). This is literally and figuratively rejecting our roots and appendages.
All of this considered, questions I lean into in some form each day, at times with others, include …
What do I/we need to reclaim and repair?
How can I/we practice re-spect (looking again) for who I am and others are?
How can I/we ground in our guts, orient to our hearts, and align our brains with that more ancient foundation?
What might I/we re-member that has otherwise been forgotten?
Today, how can I/we practice right relationship?