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Posted: September 29, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

The Heart as an Organ of Perception - Part 1

(Editor’s Note: It turns out that the heart does much more than simply keep beating to keep us alive, It is a most "intelligent" body organ that sways moods, motivates, and even acts as a life compass. Take a wonderful journey through the heart of our hearts in this 3-part series from the editors of Spirituality & Health magazine.)


Remember what it's like to see a puppy walking slowly along, sniffing the ground, tail wagging, small body slightly askew? Something pulls you toward the puppy, so you say, "Here, boy, over here," and the puppy looks up, sees you, and bounds over. In that moment, it's as if something leaves the puppy and enters you and something in you leaves your body and touches the puppy. You want nothing more than to hold each other and enjoy the warmth of your closeness.

We have this experience almost daily, with our dear friends, our children, our elders, and our mates. If we're lucky, we may feel it with a special piece of land, an old-growth tree, or a great ancient stone. It is one of the most real experiences we have, a particular kind of intimacy, yet we have no word for it in our language.

It is this moment of intangible touch that I've been exploring for the past 36 years as a psychotherapist, herbalist, and teacher. What would it be like to feel this every day, with everything, I wondered? What exactly is it and how could I create and sustain it?

It took me decades to find the answers to these questions. The ancient Greeks knew it well. They called it aesthesis, which means "to breathe in." They recognized that the moment of touch was accompanied by a gasp, a particular kind of inspiration. They considered it the moment when the soul essence inside us, and the soul essence from something outside us, met and mingled. It is the root of our word "aesthetic."

Years into my studies, I also began to connect something else to this experience. Indigenous peoples who still live close to the earth experience life very differently than we do in the West; they seem to perceive things that we cannot see, things that they are surprised we do not perceive. The explanation for this is simple, but profound: when you ask them where in the body they live, they gesture to the region of their hearts, while modern Westerners typically point to their heads.

Perhaps the great lyrical writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had some insight into this phenomenon when he wrote, "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Meaning Is in the Molecules

Consciousness studies in the late sixties focused almost entirely on the brain, in part because conventional wisdom held that it is our brain that distinguishes us from Earth's other inhabitants. In the decades that followed, however, a few researchers worked without this preconception. Rollin McCraty at the HeartMath Institute is one; he began to look at the heart and its role in cognition and awareness. He and others suspected that consciousness might be mobile and that it might inhabit different locations in the body other than the brain.

One of the most important findings that emerged from these studies was the concept that our organs and bodies are highly complex "nonlinear" organisms in which the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. As Dr. Ary L. Goldberger, director of the Rey Laboratory and professor of medicine at Harvard University, put it: "The body is a complicated symphonic system, much like nature itself . . . onlinear systems composed of multiple subunits (such as the body) cannot be understood by analyzing these components individually."

To understand such nonlinear systems, it's helpful to look at the behavior of molecules. Researchers have found that when billions of molecules are enclosed in a container, their movements are at first random. But at some moment that can never be predicted, all the molecules spontaneously synchronize and begin to move and vibrate together as one coordinated whole, or system. In that moment of synchronicity, something comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts. And that something -- call it the soul of the thing -- cannot be found in any of the parts.

At that moment of synchronicity, the new system also begins to display what are called emergent behaviors as it acts on the parts, or subunits, to stimulate further, more complex synchronizations. A continuous stream of very rapid information -- in the form of temperature fluctuations, velocity, pressure, chemical, electric, magnetic -- begins to flow from the parts to the whole and from the whole back to the parts in order to stabilize the system, according to Stanford University biologist Jan Walleczek.

The meanings within the molecules, called the electromagnetic (EM) signature, tell the receiving organisms how these inputs affect its state of being. These meanings are analyzed and integrated into the organism, and a response is initiated.

All living systems work this way, retaining an exquisite sensitivity to disturbances of their equilibrium. They remember this equilibrium because they are highly intelligent and possess a soul force, this thing that comes into being that is more than the sum of the parts.

The heart is such a nonlinear, self-balancing system. It possesses self-organization and emergent behaviors. It functions not only as a powerful endocrine gland, but also as a unique kind of brain -- a cognitive and perceptual organ, and a powerful electromagnetic generator and receiver.


(Be sure to read Part 2 in next week’s Spiritual Caregiving column)


Stephen Harrod Buhner is an herbalist, psychotherapist, and teacher. He is the author of many books, including The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature and Sacred Plant Medicine.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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