The energies of the head, heart and gut
When Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, asked renowned teacher and author Mary O'Malley to define enlightenment, she answered that it happens when the head, heart and gut align. Here's what she might have meant, and what it implies for us.
The entire body - and indeed all of life - is intelligent, but conventional wisdom has tended to focus on the brain as the seat of intelligence. We actually have three discernible neural centres - the long-accepted one in the skull plus partners in the heart and the gut. Think of the head, heart and gut as a leadership team, deploying our resources of wisdom, love and power. Let's look more closely.
The head is the home of our logical reasoning. It is a dividing and naming engine, conceptually recasting an undivided reality as constituent parts with predictable properties and relations. The head’s labelling role includes judging - applying the ultimate labels of good and bad. It answers 'How' questions that arise in life by theoretically isolating aspects of reality and identifying patterns among them, within and across moments. The head can cast its glance to the past and the future, and much of its busyness looks in these directions. A final important role of the head is as the ultimate storyteller. It observes the world and interprets it, based on its carving, naming and patterning prowess. We spend most of our time in our heads, spellbound in its narration, often mistaking this voice for our self. The gift the head can give us is clarity or wisdom.
The gut is the home of our 'animal' drives of fight, flight, food and f*ck. It is the driver of our moods and is central to both our stress response and our intuition. This nerve centre's function relies on bacteria, so the 'other' is instrumental in 'our' self-regulation even at this most basic level. The belly lives in the present moment. The gift the gut can give us is drive or power.
Finally, the heart is the home of our connection to the world - the whole, undivided world. It accepts without exception. In its holistic spaciousness, the heart knows the reality of Life as a single flow and so surrenders to it. It welcomes what the head calls the 'good' and the 'bad' in equal embrace, valuing the truth of What Is above any preferences the head imposes. Like the gut, the heart lives in the present moment as a holographic shard of What Is. The gift the heart can give us is the greatest, love.
Let's turn to the human predicament. The head creates concepts as it divides its representation of the world into pieces. The most powerful concept, the one that organises every story the head tells, is the separate self. This central image casts each experience in a new light, because the separate self claims to be the author of its own causal process, independent of Life's unitary flow.
Now, we've got to give the head credit. It has balls! That's shouldering hefty responsibility, separating the self from Life and setting out its own stall. The head is not evil. It isolates itself because this makes sense from its limited, disaggregating perspective. With that separation, the head moves from being a member of the self's leadership team to claiming dictatorship. Why is this so?
A young child navigates a confusing world populated by larger and more powerful beings. The child depends on them for life and love. In this immature stage of life, the heart's openness seems dangerous, leaving the child too vulnerable. The head, able to discern apparent threats and chart courses of action, becomes a refuge for the child. Judgmental narratives replace the intense experiences Life brings, experiences welcomed by the heart. And so, this child’s conceptual separate self, in distrusting the heart's holistic knowledge and rejecting its gift of love, further separates itself from Life, turning its back to reality's darker, uncomfortable half and substituting head-bound neuroses for what it rejects in the child's direct experience.
The head continues to enlist the gut, and without the accepting influence of the heart, the gut's dance with the head's myriad threats and worries floods the body regularly with chemicals best reserved for rare moments of primal need. The gut isn’t stupid; it knows things the head cannot. But missing the heart's connection to Life's intelligence, the gut must do its best on a diet of the head’s false news. It misspends its power chasing ghosts and responding to non-existent emergencies. The self lurches raggedly when it should glide with Life.
The human awakening that we sometimes call enlightenment is largely about re-enlisting the heart - opening it, embracing it and inviting it to its proper seat in the leadership team. As the heart assumes its rightful place, balanced regulation returns, and the self surrenders to Life. The sense of separateness, the image and story concocted by the head, evaporates. Love bathes every experience that arises, the head clears and the body's power aligns with the reality's unfolding, of which it is a magical sliver.
The trio of the self's energies - Wisdom, Love and Power – now align with one another and with the flow of reality, with Life. This is the realisation of human potential Mary O'Malley and other teachers refer to, whole human being.
But you can see your desires and aversions in a new, liberating light
If you want an ice cream cone, you can probably get one. The same holds for most material possessions, so long as you can afford them. We score little successes like this most days, feeling a desire and meeting it. Some shortfalls are harder to fill — true love, work with meaning, financial independence. But at least in theory, we can achieve these ends.
You can also escape things you dislike. If a downpour disturbs your afternoon stroll, you can duck into a cafe. We take medicine to alleviate pain, hide behind pillows when the movie gets too scary or diet to lose those few pounds, all with some partial success.
What, then, do I mean when I say that you can’t have what you seek? If we boil these examples down to their essence, we see that they involve getting what we want and avoiding or escaping what we don’t want. And although we can acquire or achieve with impressive frequency, although we can discard or dodge with admirable efficiency, the holes we fill and blights we escape always give way to new ones!
We get the ice cream cone but then want a drink to wash it down with. We find true love but then crave time and space for ourselves. We find work with meaning but then want a bigger salary to support our ice cream and soda spending! Perhaps we get what we seek and then demand assurance that we won’t lose it. At heart, what we think we want is one of two things: for this moment to be different (get something I lack or discard something I dislike) or for this moment to resist change in the next moment (to hold on to what I have).
No, we can’t change the present moment or stop the flow of reality, but we can’t help wanting to. Something in us, the world and life won’t consider the race won. There is no finish line. It’s not just that our seeking may be a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s that we’re on a treadmill, running just to stay in place. Our seeming progress leaves us no closer to breaking the tape and throwing our hands in the air. This isn’t just an anti-materialism declaration. The same applies for experiences, relationships and even spiritual growth.
Although there is no end to satisfying your wants or escaping your dislikes, there is a deeper current to this stream of life. Consider the possibility that success in this race of desire and aversion is not your deepest longing. What if you are not in the event to rack up points but to experience every step of it — unfiltered — with your full self?
Might that be what it’s all about? Then why are we so misguided, thinking we must filter life to collect the good and eliminate the bad? Why do we want less than the whole of life? The thing is, for most of us, life simply has this sense built into it. This unseen assumption colours our experience, which is all part of the race. One view is that our early life suggests that we need to filter reality in this way to stay safe, to survive. Perhaps we must as vulnerable children in awe of life’s chaotic creativity.
One implication is that we needn’t beat ourselves up for labouring on the treadmill. For most of us, it is part of what life — or at least a stage of it — is. But maybe the filtering strategy — the endless drive to pursue one half of reality while fleeing the other — though appropriate for our child selves, is unnecessary and unhelpful once we have developed into adult humans. Maybe we can look another way at the desires and aversions we experience as part of our humanity.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the race felt if we tested an alternative assumption about our purpose or aim, if we trialled whether splitting reality into seeking and fleeing was necessary or worth doing? What if we are meant to experience the bad just as we are the good? If we realised that, how would life change? If we recognised that there was no finish line, no way of winning the race, how would that alter our participation in it, our experience of it?
I’m not sure, but I’ve had glimpses and hints. Perhaps you have too? Sometimes I experience an itch or drive for something — an acquisition or achievement — but I am not captured by it. I see the desire; I see it as a desire. But I see it in a way that doesn’t include an automatic launch into pursuing it. The same sometimes happens with fear or discontent. I hear the inner voice rejecting the moment or resisting change. I note it, even feel the call, but I am not bound by it. Sometimes, I just take interest in it. I’m curious about it. At times, with desires and aversions, I experience them but remain free of them.
Can we cultivate this capability? Can I, can you, get better at this? Might we access untapped capacity for engaging, face forward, with the full spectrum of life? I feel drawn to try. That desire (!) may just be another in the race, but perhaps I’ll check it out. It’s not a finish line, but it is the next stretch of the course for me, so I’m going to take part fully!
From time to time, I verbally remind myself of some uncomfortable truths:
This brief ceasefire - or at least lessening of hostilities - in my battle against reality, against What Is, allows those truths in. I let their day-to-day, real-life, concrete messengers into my experience, unaccompanied by the tension or flight that so often accompanies them. They bring their discomfort, but I don't amplify it.
Without exception, arm-in-arm with these messengers and trailing in their wake come their friends and family. These are the visitors I spend so much time hoping for and clinging to - friendship, intimacy, validation, contentment, success, pleasure.
And with my door open and my defenses down, these visitors bear even more beautiful smiles than normal. In the company of their darker cousins, free from my anxious filtering attempts, they bring warmth unknown in my moments of vigilant judgment. In other words, I experience life more fully. In yet other words, I am more alive!
Then, yes, some 'thing' or a succession of them happens, and my door begins to close. My defenses re-engage. I lose touch with this period - sometimes moments, sometimes days - of aliveness. Then, if I'm lucky, I remind myself of another inescapable truth: the path of opening to life has no finish line. The 'work' of the path is life itself.
I can access life's fulness more frequently and for longer periods by opening my heart to What Is. I can build my capacity to meet discomfort more immediately and lovingly. It is worth the work. But my failures in openness, in meeting discomfort and in accessing aliveness are ultimately just more of life's messengers. My work when these failures come my way is no different than at any other time - to let them in as harbingers of truth, of What Is. They carry the very aliveness I seek, just not in the packaging I requested.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.