The Heart of the Matter

The following is an excerpt from Transforming the Nature of Health: A Holistic Vision of Healing That Honors Our Connection to the Earth, Others, and Ourselves, by Marcey Shapiro, M.D., released in physical and electronic form by North Atlantic Books.

The heart of a human embryo is one of the first recognizable structures formed. The embryo is initially a flat pancake-like grouping of three layers of cells: endoderm, ectoderm, and mesoderm. These layers give rise to all the tissues of the body.

The cardiovascular system begins to develop early on, while the embryo is still flat. The heart arises from the center of these layers, the mesoderm. The area that will become the heart is called the cardiogenic region. It begins to form in the third week of fetal development. By day 22 the heart is “spontaneously” beating.

The scientific answer that this occurs “spontaneously” is not very satisfying, because it is clearly not happenstance. The timing is exact. Nature clearly sees the establishment of a beating heart as an essential initial step that occurs as part of an exquisitely ordered sequence in the generation of life. It is important to note that the heart is not necessary to provide biochemical nutrients for the tiny embryo. In its first two weeks the embryo receives its nourishment from the yolk sac. After implantation in the uterine wall, the placenta forms, and fetal circulation and nutrient delivery, especially early on, is entirely dependent upon the mother. And when the heart begins to beat, at day 22, it does not yet have chambers or a circulatory system into which it could pump blood. So why is the tiny beating heart of the three-week-old embryo so important to the project of life? Could it be that the beating heart provides a different, but still essential, type of nourishment?

By acknowledging an underlying spiritual non-physical reality, it is easier to see what is happening during early fetal development. The heart is physically and metaphorically the direct pathway to and from the inner being. Most of us already understand or trust that there is a sacred magic in this primary process. Perhaps what actually happens is the heart begins to beat in response to an impulse originating from the infinite reservoir of life-force. The beating heart is a link, at our core, between the physical and the non-physical, resonating to the rhythms of both. The heartbeat arises in a minute flat cluster of cells to resound in tune with great cosmic forces that organize physical life.

The heart begins to beat so early on because it is central to the project of physical life. The heart exists to bathe each of us, throughout our lives—-each tiny developing human, each child, and each full-grown adult-—in our own unique electromagnetic field. Each heart beats its particular vibrational tune in resonance with the drum of a greater non-physical rhythm. What does this mean? It is well known that if you pluck one stringed instrument in a room or tap a drum, others nearby will vibrate as well. If there are several instruments in the vicinity, each reverberates in resonant harmony to the original tone. Yet none of the sounds produced by differing instruments are identical, though they technically play the same tone. The “body” of each instrument determines the depth, richness, and complexity of the note each sounds. The type of wood and the age and skill of the crafter who created it are among the many factors that conjoin to create each instrument’s unique sound.

It is the same with us. We are each unique instruments of the divine. We each produce a symphony of vibrational tones. One’s heart, mediating between physical and non-physical, is the pivotal instrument upon which the concert of each physical life is played. It translates and transmits the transcendent into each person’s life path. Our hearts reverberate the voice of the divine because they are always connected to it.

Our heart creates the strongest electromagnetic field of our body. It is up to sixty times as strong as the field the brain generates and can be detected up to fifteen feet from the body. This means that it plays the loudest and clearest tones of any tissue. Our cells, organs, and mind can clearly resonate. The personal heart field affects not only oneself but others as well. The more harmoniously our heart resonates with our inner divinity, as demonstrated by peacefulness and coherence, the greater the amplitude of field it generates. This effect has been measured in laboratories.

There are rhythms of life all around us, suffusing material reality, observable in great and small tidal forces. Perhaps “modern” scientists have not discovered them because none were seeking that type of information. However, osteopaths, craniosacral practitioners, acupuncturists, Qi nei tsang practitioners, and others involved with bioenergetic healing modalities attune themselves with ease to various broader pulsations. Some of these are electromagnetic, but others, while easily perceived, are sensed in the bio-energetic field, and we currently have no tools or instruments to measure them.

Remember the old adage, “If your only tool is a hammer, you will always be looking only for nails.” Science not rooted in any broader context does not seek knowledge of the link between our bodies and our inner being, or evidence of continuity between physical and non-physical reality. In fact, it studiously avoids looking at those particular elephants in the living room. Even if scientists stumble upon such information, results are usually discounted, explained away, or ignored. This is not an accident, and in Chapter Seven, “Maps of the Worlds,” I’ll explain more about how the separation of science and spirit happened.

At the heart of us, a physiologic connection exists between our divinity and our physical existence. I propose that life force itself animates the heart, and that is why the heart must beat so early on. It is also why the heart is intuitively so sacred to us. Notice how many Catholic churches called “Sacred Heart” are scattered around the Earth.

Could science find this connection? Of course it could, if it were a type of science that was pursuing this information. It is not especially difficult to learn to feel the pulsations of life force with one’s hands. Anyone who has the desire to develop the sensitivity can do so, with practice. Acupuncturists feel it in the flow of Qi. Cranial osteopaths and craniosacral practitioners learn to feel the breath of life in the tissues. Even materialistic science is aware that our human hands are sensitive to motion measured in microns. Think of how easy it is to feel the slightest breeze on your skin.

Let’s look further into embryological development and consider what it might indicate if we know ourselves as spiritual beings in physical form. The drama of embryologic life continues with the development of the head and the brain. The formation of the brain gives more credence to a comprehension that the heart is the “heart of the matter,” rather than the brain.

Brain development begins in the fifth week after conception, and early brain activity is noted in the sixth week. When the embryo becomes a three-dimensional being rather than a flat collection of tissues, the area around the heart folds. The nucleus of the cellular material that eventually becomes our brain is contained in the folded area, just above the heart. So when we are tiny embryos, our heart and brain are essentially connected structures. In early brain development, these tissues separate, and the portion of tissue that will become the brain begins to unfold and lift upward. The heart moves downward (caudally), settling in the neck region for a while before finally locating itself in the chest.

It is amazing that the cells that shape and comprise our brain literally form from the tissue closest to the beating heart! Because the brain arises with the heart, the two are intimately connected through various nerve pathways and remain so throughout a person’s life. There are more neuronal connections leading from the heart to the brain than neurons leading from the brain to the heart. This indicates to me, as well as to some researchers, that while nature intended a rich transfer of information between the heart and the brain, she believed the heart would have quite a bit more to say to the brain than vice-versa.

The sequence of brain region formation is also of symbolic interest. The most primitive areas develop first, those responsible for instinct and possibly intuition—the reptilian brain and the brainstem. The next area of the brain to form is the emotional brain. The parts of the brain that we think of as giving us “higher functioning” like reasoning, logic, and math ability actually develop last, from the emotional brain. At seven weeks, the embryo is less than one inch long and looks like a tadpole. The heart has been beating for weeks, and the brain is still forming. There is a scaffolding of cells, called radial glial cells, that directs the formation of brain cells from a central zone out toward the peripheral regions of the brain. The brain itself forms from the inside out. This “hard” science is riddled with symbolism. The heart is the center. The heart is first. The brain, the “thinker,” comes afterwards, arising from tissue lying alongside the heart, and is forever linked to it. The instinctual brain is first to develop, and the emotional brain is next. The reasoning brain comes last, out of the emotional brain. The entire development of the brain is a movement from interior to exterior, and interior always remains connected to the exterior.

Nature has priorities. She tells us secrets, hidden in plain sight, about the order upon which the human template functions. The brain is always linked to the heart, and information constantly passes between the two. The heart has much more to say to the brain than the brain has to the heart. If things are going well, the heart speaks and the brain listens and interprets. This is the essence of alignment. At the opposite end of life, when the heart dies, the person dies. An individual can be “brain dead” and go on living for many years, connected to life force through the beating heart. But when the heart is gone, life is over. A person can be maintained on an artificial heart for only a few hours. Perhaps this is because each person’s heart supplies her unique electromagnetic (EM) field. This field of vibration bathes all the cells of our body. Perhaps our individual electromagnetic field provides information about us, as spiritual beings, to our cells and organs. Each human EM field is as distinctive as a fingerprint or retinal pattern. No two are identical.

Mechanical hearts, on the other hand, do not beat in tune with the greater rhythm of life. They are not unique to each individual. Mechanical hearts do not mediate between inner divinity and physical existence. The cells and tissues of the body recognize this. Without a living heart, without their center, they perish. The animating force organizing and linking them to broader, non-physical reality is no more.

Interestingly, further evidence for this notion can be seen in the curious cases of people who have had heart transplants. Transplant patients are frequently emotionally changed from who they were prior to their surgery. Differences in both minor and major aspects of personality have been observed: food preferences, color choices, introversion and extroversion, and language acquisition skill. The transplant recipient becomes a blended being, one in whom the donor heart reverberates in its own unique way in response to the animating force of life.

Our hearts also connect us to one another, and especially to the hearts of others. Scientific studies on touch demonstrate that electromagnetic impulses of your heart affect the brain waves and heart rhythms of people around you. I suspect that the electromagnetic impulses of the heart also provide a path of interconnectivity between humans and all living beings. Animals are often even more sensitive to these field effects than humans.

Why then, in our society, do we give such primacy to the intelligence of the brain while ignoring the intelligence of the heart? The answer is simply this: as we acknowledge the wisdom of the heart and learn to live a heart-directed life, the internal evidence of our spiritual nature becomes overwhelming. Science, until now, has not been willing to acknowledge or address this unity. In diverse spiritual traditions it is the heart, not the brain, that guides the enlightened soul. Those things that fill the heart—joy, passion, awe, and harmony—are the ambrosia that nourishes life force.

The German Christian mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), founder of the Anthroposophy movement, understood that one of the great transformations of science would come in the twenty-first century as people learned to comprehend the central role of the heart and began to examine life from this heart-centered perspective. Steiner wrote about this almost a hundred years ago, so the time he spoke of is upon us now.

We are ready for heart-centered understanding. We are ready for a new science born of the union of heart, mind, and spirit. These are exciting times, and there is already a lot of great science being done in this arena. One epicenter of this new research in the United States is the Northern California-based Institute of HeartMath. Over the last twenty years, they have examined aspects of the intelligence of the heart and the heart brain. One study looked at the precognition of the heart and brain in more than twenty-three hundred trials. The researchers showed selections from one hundred randomly displayed images to volunteers. Of these hundred images, twenty were negative or upsetting and eighty were neutral. The researchers measured heart rate activity of the research subjects via EKG (electrocardiogram) and brain wave activity via EEG (electro-encephalogram) throughout the testing process: before, during, and after the display of each image. Typically, in daily life, when people experience something upsetting their heart rate quickens in response. In this landmark HeartMath Institute study, the researchers were fascinated to observe that participants registered changes in their heart rates several seconds before a randomly generated negative image appeared on the monitors. The random generator had not yet selected the image, but the heart already knew what was coming and responded!

This stunning piece of evidence points to a truth that spiritual teachers have been sharing for thousands of years. The heart can guide us, letting us know what is coming and helping us to steer our course in life. As we learn to listen to our heart, we can live life in a more intuitive, more prepared present moment.

For many years I have taught and modeled for patients how to cultivate the relationship between the heart and the mind. I regularly encourage people to listen to their heart when making everyday decisions, including decisions about health and health care choices. The heart can give us important information necessary to run our lives. A life lived in concert with the heart is full of meaning. With the heart fully engaged, the soul’s purpose is able to clearly and directly express itself to us.

There are many simple yet profound practices I have cultivated to learn to listen to “the still, small voice” within. The frontier of human expansion lies in this cultivation of a conscious and lively communication between inner and outer being. Contemporary strategies for enhancing the dialogue between heart and mind involve deconstructing culturally derived stereotypes and limiting beliefs. Then we can arrive gently at intuitive wisdom present in the Now moment.

Most great breakthroughs, even in "science," arrive through intuition or flashes of insight. We have all marveled at stories of great clarity that led to transformational discoveries. Tales of "eureka" moments are a consistent theme in scientific exploration, told again and again. These stories always have a common thesis. Epiphanies arrive in stillness, in relaxation, in reverie. The groundwork has been done for the receptivity, the questions have been asked, but the answer does not arrive during striving and grinding. The "aha" comes in peaceful moments.

Friedrich August Kekulé, who discovered the structure of the atom, received a vision of it all at once in a moment of reverie. Robert Louis Stevenson received the entire storyline of his masterwork, Treasure Island, in a sequential series of dreams. Minister and beekeeper Lorenzo Langstroth revolutionized ten thousand years of beekeeping in his living room one evening in 1851 when he all at once saw "suspended movable frames, kept a suitable distance from each other and a case containing them," and continued remarking, "Seeing by intuition, as it were, the end from the beginning, I could scarcely refrain from shouting out my 'Eureka!' in the open streets…." Tesla, Einstein, and most of the greats of modern scientific thought acknowledged that their most sweeping insights came not during plodding and study but at times of relaxation and calm, when, guided by the heart, everything came together.

The science that emanates from awareness of our inner divinity is majestic. Science will flower in the coming era as we embark on exploration of real wisdom rather than continued accumulation of a conglomeration of disjointed "facts." But this new territory requires a science born of love, a science acknowledging spirit. This science recognizes the heart at the heart of the matter, and listens to it. Guided by the heart we create a worldview of wholeness, unity, and love. Love is the beginning and end of everything. It is at the center of our being, suffusing every moment of life. This simple yet radical truth has been observed and shared by mystics and spiritual teachers of every tradition. A new paradigm is emerging; it is the underlying understanding resulting from a maturation of humanity that now is beginning to accept its divinity and interconnectedness. The resulting science, born of love, is and will be so much fun!

Tools for Transformation

1. Since the heart is the metaphorical and spiritual center of our physical existence, you might enjoy doing some exercises to center you in the heart as you read and ponder the ideas in this book. There are many ways to strengthen our connection with divine intelligence.

Your heart sends out electromagnetic waves in all directions, beaming EM energy like the sun beams light. Our individual electromagnetic heart waves can be measured from a distance of about fifteen feet in any direction. One easy technique for centering in the heart is merely to listen to your heartbeat. Sit or lie in relaxation and feel for the quiet rhythm of your heart. You may want to put your hand on your heart or let a few fingers rest on the carotid artery in the front of your neck.

2. Then, while focusing on the beating of your heart, let yourself experience the waves emanating from it. You could enhance this experience by imagining your heart beaming out love, peace, or the best of what you have to offer. You might also play with tracking individual rays like following the twinkling of a star. Remember to just stay in the present—you do not need to judge or analyze this experience while you are engaged in it.

3. Breathing techniques are some of the best tools for centering in the heart. They have been used in spiritual practice throughout human history, with good reason. Breathing techniques assist us in centering our consciousness in the here and now, allowing us to engage in exploration of the life force nourishing us in the present moment. They also help us connect with the rhythms and tides of the physical and spiritual realms.

At any time, but especially when you are agitated, you can visualize your breath flowing to and from your heart. Breathe in to the heart and out from it. Most people find this quite calming. You can also breathe a soothing word such as peace, calm, ease, freedom, or love into and out from your heart. Ease in, ease out, love in, love out, calm in, calm out, etc. Notice how this steadies and slows your heart rhythm when you are anxious, and how this strengthens your feelings of well-being when you are happy.


For more information regarding Transforming the Nature of Health, visit its page on the publisher's website.


image by mozzercork courtesy of flickr via creative commons