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!
I once read that one way to undertake life is to act so as to minimize the regret you will feel on your death bed.
Is this a legitimate mechanism for sifting the important from the unimportant? I don’t mean the theoretically important, the universally important or any sort of externally important. I mean what really matters to you, what makes you deeply happy. Might this Death Bed Test provide a useful perspective onto what constitutes a good life?
Why should it matter what you would think on your death bed? The vast majority of your life is not spent on your death bed. What makes that perspective especially legitimate? Might it be an intuitive test for what our unmet human needs are?
Indulge me for a moment on a little stroll through a ‘what if’ scenario. I think that it could be enlightening. What if we were really made in a certain way – whether by evolution, by design or by design executed through evolution? What if our make-up was such that certain activities or states of affairs were inherently rewarding, fulfilling – made us happy, while others did not? What if some activities and states did quite the opposite?
What if the happiness-producing activities included the ones that satisfied one of the 'Four Fs' when they were called for? Eating when hungry, successfully escaping a predator and retiring to a safe location, successfully fighting off a predator or competitor for your hunting territory, mating.
What if they also included those activities that defined a purpose or meaning for us in the face of our own mortality, the ones through which we experienced agency, the ones by which we authentically presented ourselves to the world, the ones through which we found belonging?
What if our minds were more adept at pursuing the basic activities than those that met the younger, higher-order needs? What if we were lucky enough to live in an environment in which those most basic needs were routinely and reliably met?
What if the mind detected a shortfall in the higher-order needs but misattributed the longing to a non-existent shortfall in one of the basic ones? What if, despite continued pursuit and over-fulfillment of basic needs , the mind continued to sense some longing that was obviously not being met?
Would the mind go into overdrive? Would it obsessively and counterproductively adopt a competitive posture, flushing the body with hormones to prepare it for a Four F-type encounter? Would it keep reminding itself of its own inescapable dissatisfaction? Would it ‘pull up’ the drawbridge, focusing relentlessly on its apparently urgent, basic needs?
In short, would it, in the face of unmet needs of the younger, higher-order kind, still accidentally neglect those needs while counterproductively pursuing activities to meet basic needs that in truth are already met? I think you see the point I’m making.
Now, fast forward. What if the patient is on his death bed. Despite all attempts to deny it, he now faces the inescapable truth that his time on Earth is ending. He knows that no food, no money, no sexual partners, no Stuff will pass with him from this world.
What if, in this extraordinary state, the mind finally calls a halt to the churning pursuit of those ancient, animal needs? What if, in those moments of clarity, the smoke of spinning mental activity cleared, the veils of primordial obsession dissolved, he is able to see, with a simplicity that surprises him, what the unmet needs were all along? What if he sees what his unique human needs were? What if he sees with shining clarity the happy, fulfilled life he might have led?
Would this constitute a privileged perspective? Would being able to fast-forward to that perspective sooner rather than later be of value to the (hopefully) long life yet to be lived before the death bed? I think so.
So what do most people, on their death bed, say they would change? What are the things they now realise were the unmet needs? The needs that sprang from their being a human but were clouded, hidden and confused by their being an animal. Writer and pastor John Ortberg has most often heard, ‘I would have loved more deeply.’ ‘ I would have laughed more often.’ ‘I would have given more generously.’ ‘I would have lived more boldly.’ Palliative care worker, Bronnie Ware, whose patients were home for the final weeks of their lives, identifies five themes:
Really though, my point is less about what people do actually say when asked such questions than about what your own calm contemplation suggests you might say. As I’ve discussed this with a number of friends and colleagues, themes emerge around self-understanding, being true to one’s self, pursuing one’s real ambitions and nurturing and appreciating one’s most treasured relationships.
I suggest that you reflect on this hypothetical look back on life. Rather than simply doing from this negative perspective of life regrets, flip things around to pen your ideal eulogy. What is the short passage by which you would like to be remembered? What elements of your life does it draw on?
While I think it is important to work out what matters, I suggest pursuing your answers in the form of pragmatic wisdom rather than certain knowledge. I would warn against subscribing to ‘systems of thought’ that claim to deduce logical certainties and irrefutable truths. Instead, I suggest carefully considering and testing the assumptions at the foundation of your beliefs, the ultimately unprovable axioms from which we all must start.
I think that some useful rules of thumb for this reflection are to: keep an open mind, judge pragmatically, favour (among pragmatically successful alternatives) simplicity and beauty.
...[T]hrough habituation and social comparison, we find ourselves in a no-win situation in which no level of income or consumption remains satisfying for long — the hedonic treadmill. The more people seek to boost consumption, the more income they require and the harder and longer they must work, undermining those activities that are actually fulfilling and satisfying…
On our hedonic treadmill, like the Red Queen in Alice’s adventures, we seemingly have to run at full steam just to stay still. Might our real mistake be that we’re chasing the wrong things? Is there a mass misdiagnosis of our needs?
Technological and other cultural evolution have supplanted biological evolution as the prime drivers of change for humans and for Earth. The culturally-dominated modern environment is profoundly different from the evolutionary environment that shaped us, and life for most in developed western countries (despite a growing class of the left-behind) is characterized by abundance rather than scarcity of material resources. Why can’t we just relax in comfort? Might our evolutionary programming now be leading us astray?
Because our antennae sense relative rather than absolute need, unquenchable human longing follows a seemingly endless trail of desires and aversions. Constant comparison and competition drive an undercurrent of discontent – the wish for more, different, better things. The hyper-capitalist economies of English-speaking countries feed and amplify this discontent to a fever pitch while enticing the individual to invest ever more exclusively in an all-consuming work life to finance material acquisition and social status.
Work life crowds out the relationships and diverse activities that would otherwise enrich life. The individual’s overreliance on his work for so much of his sense of well-being and self-worth leaves him in a precarious position, in thrall to others who are under intense pressure to optimize his contribution as a resource rather than his well-being as a complex person.
Our human longing is telling us something, but we are misunderstanding the ache we feel. Beyond a quite basic level of material need, our satisfaction, happiness and well-being aren’t to be found in an increasing reliance on material wealth, a narrowing focus on extrinsic success and a shrinking sphere of concern limited to our most basic drives. As with all addictions, satisfying one desire brings a brief sense of bliss followed by the rapid arousal of yet more subjective ‘needs’. Desires, like cancerous cells, multiply and refuse to die.
Our true satisfaction is best served by freeing ourselves from the shackles of our multiplying desires. Our lives become richer when we place proper value on our own time and energy, when we nurture the most durable and important external ‘assets’ we have, our relationships with others.
All the harder, I know, when our ‘communication’ technologies (like where you are reading this) are in truth finely-tuned mechanisms for stoking exactly the covetousness that keeps the hedonic treadmill turning.
I read an unfortunate story in the news some years ago. An elderly man, suffering from dementia and obviously not fit to be behind the wheel of a car, accidentally turned into Third Street Promenade, a pedestrianised street in Santa Monica, California. Realising that something was wrong, he pressed down his foot to brake, but his foot was on the accelerator. The car sped forward. The man could tell something was wrong, as people leapt out of his way or bounced off his bumper. He just didn’t realize he needed to shift his foot to stomp on a different pedal. He pressed harder and harder on the accelerator in his efforts to stop, and the car sped down the crowded plaza, killing a number of people before crashing to a stop.
The man didn’t understand what was going on. First of all, these people shouldn’t be in the middle of a road. He was in a car, and cars travel where people are not. He found himself in an environment that didn’t fit with his (deteriorating) understanding of driving. Second, he failed in his corrective actions. He knew he should slow down. He knew that he needed to press down his foot to brake. But his automatic muscle memory that should have shifted his foot to the brake pedal from the accelerator wasn’t functioning properly. From his perspective, he was braking, but inexplicably, the car was rocketing forward. All he could do in his confused state was continue pushing his foot down, because that was supposed to work.
While this is not a perfect analogy for our mind in the modern environment, I think that there may be some illuminating parallels. We’re not seeing the world clearly. Our evolutionary and historically-programmed short-cuts are unreliable in a much-changed world. We’re pushing on the wrong pedals in our efforts to improve our situations.