Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Skip to the heart beat and it’s all the more rosy
Circumcise your heart? It sounds, when you’re done wincing, like some snippet of Eastern mysticism, some off-cut – if you’ll pardon the pun – of the mantras, kabbalas or kama sutras we presume to be more poetic than what-I-suppose-we-might-still-call our own spiritual tradition.
Yet there it stands, the cardio-peel imperative, in good old Deuteronomy, 10-16. The un-Christian testament but still family, right? “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your hearts and be no more stiffnecked,” is the full King James quote, sanitised into the new Testament as the less razorish – and way less evocative – God is love.
Poetry has long agreed with Baruch, or Moses, or whoever really wrote Deuteronomy. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is redeemed only when, unthinking, he loosens his neck, opens his heart and blesses the midnight sea-serpents.
“Bring it home? All right,” sighs Sam Phillips, mean-eyed music man in the recent Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. “Let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lyin’ out in that gutter dyin’ and you had time to sing one song – one song people would remember you by before you’re dirt – one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on Earth, one song that would sum you up … Because … that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”
Phillips goes on. “It ain’t got nuthin’ to do with believin’ in God, Mr Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.”
This sounds like those tacky “follow your dreams” exhortations tacked up at your local bank or dole office. But listen again and you’ll find Phillips’s speech has its own music, that unmistakeable Luther King rhythm and repetition that persuades Cash back down through his ring of fire to sing from his scarred, blown-open heart.
Neither man is talking of personal love, the man-woman mother-child stuff of poems and love songs. They are talking of the creative source, the dreaming. This makes for a spine-tingling screen moment but, as artistic ground, it’s hardly untrod.
More surprisingly perhaps, science, too, is clambering on the love-wagon. And not just with the pheromone and serotonin studies that see us all as shakers of chemical (if somewhat Molotov) cocktails.
Professor Stephen Post is the president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, Case Western University Medical School, Cleveland, Ohio. Google it, if you don’t believe me.
Admittedly, Post is a philosopher by background and an Episcopal lay preacher by, what – habit? His latest book is Why Good Things Happen To Good People, which we all know can be horribly not the case. Plus, the Unlimited Love gig arose through a gargantuan endowment from Sir John Templeton, the 95-year-old Tennessee-born businessman who renounced United States citizenship as a tax dodge.
But there is a serious scientific mission here, too: “To study the benefits of benevolent love for those who give it and for those who receive it.” Projects so far include the health effects of altruism in adolescents (this I like); physiological correlatives of compassion and the wellbeing effects of gratitude on the relatives of those with Alzheimer’s.
The science, you’ll notice, is epidemiological, rather than lab-coat and microscope stuff. But there is more. And it centres on that important love-organ, the heart.
The Institute of HeartMath, Silicon Valley, is spun from the discovery of the heart’s own neural ganglion, or mini-brain, that generates a measurable electromagnetic field. All the main bodily organs have these ganglia but the heart’s is dominant, and emits a synchronising signal within the body. It’s also a modifier of the body’s input to the brain in emotion generation and a determinant of how one mind-body entity (aka, human) interacts with others.
The theory goes thus: heart rate variability, or HRV, is widely recognised as a predictor of foetal and general morbidity. A high, chaotic variability is associated with high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, increased stress emotions and increased mortality.
By contrast, a regular, coherent heart rate variability allows entrainment of your various organs, most importantly the heart and brain (much as Christian Huygens noted in the 17th century that pendulums in proximity often start to swing together). This is associated with improved longevity, enhanced creativity and performance, and a sense of being “in the zone”.
This goes some way to explaining the 1990s concept of “emotional intelligence”, as well as ancient mystical traditions such as physical mindfulness. Being “in the zone” is not being relaxed, which we usually see as the opposite of stress. It is more a sense of sublime focus, of centredness and connectivity; the “in the groove-ness” familiar to all performers, from athletes to teachers to comedians. It is also very like love.
Plus, it is measurable. Large corporates, from Motorola and the US military to Fairfield City Council, use coherence techniques to improve performance and decrease stress, and there are many studies examining their use in treating disease, from cancer to sleeplessness. But to me the most moving implication is that you can, literally, die of a broken heart.