“Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart or in the head?” asked Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. A good question to ask about love–or truth, or spiritual understanding, or the source of ethical action. When we go astray, when we aren’t fully present and integrated in our responses to one another, does the problem lie in the head (alienation from our feelings) or the heart (mindless emotional reactivity)?
Framed that way, it seems likely that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. We can deviate from the Golden Rule in either direction. Sensitivity to feelings can comfortably coexist with self-centeredness, while the dominance of reason over subjective impulses can just as easily become an excuse for lack of compassion, especially toward people whose narratives challenge your mental picture of the world.
American pop culture generally votes for heart over head, all the way, as in this Sheryl Crow song that I’ve been replaying a lot lately, from her album Detours. It’s catchy, it’s upbeat, and it sounds so simple. “If we could only get out of our heads, out of our heads and into our hearts…Children of Abraham, lay down your fears, swallow your tears and look to your heart…” (Read the whole thing at AZlyrics.com.)
When I was a teenager, I would still have loved this music but been angry about the lyrics. The problems that I faced, bullying and family instability, looked to me like the result of naively following the heart without the head. Not only children, but the adults who were supposed to protect us, acted on impulse and idolized self-expression regardless of the consequences to others. Though many people make fun of Ayn Rand, I found her work to be a helpful anchor in those years, because she insisted that everyone should be mindful about the values they wanted to live by, instead of being tossed around by unprocessed feelings.
As an adult, I’ve found that rationalism is no safe harbor, however. Bullying can also take the form of doctrinal rigidity that dismisses the human costs as merely rebellious feelings that must be subjected to God’s Word. Sin, like fancy, is bred in the heart and in the head.
Last week I attended a Unity Church spiritual retreat with my best friend who is a prayer chaplain in that denomination. In language that mirrored Sheryl Crow’s, one of the workshop leaders kept saying that in order to hear God’s voice when we pray for one another, we should move our awareness from head to heart. In this formulation, being “in our head” meant thinking and judging instead of listening. It meant remaining separate, holding ourselves back from communion with God.
During the discussion period, though, her co-leader noted that we also don’t want to be responding “from our gut”, enmeshing in the other person’s emotions or reacting against them, instead of allowing the person to have their own feelings and their own relationship to the divine.
Heart, then, could be considered the center where head and gut come together to produce a response that comes from our whole person. This is where language shows its inadequacy. “Heart” in popular parlance has been so identified with emotion that the word potentially misleads us into privileging spontaneous feelings over critical thought and self-mastery, as we are already prone to do in this culture. But what’s the alternative? “Soul” leads us into mind-body opposition, a worse problem for religion, in my opinion, than the reason-emotion issue. Heart is at least a part of the body. It’s also a word that the Old Testament writers used to express the whole nature of a person, the seat of his character, where today we might pick the more anemic “mind” or “soul”.
I’ll close these meandering reflections with a quote from Rabbi Laibl Wolf, a Lubavitcher Orthodox rabbi in Australia, whose writing melds Jewish mysticism and psychology. In his recent e-newsletter article “Living Consciously”, he writes:
How often do we catch ourselves speaking or doing something, only to discover that both mind and heart have gone AWOL? The behaviour is less than conscious. One merely ‘goes through the motions’.
Kabbalah defines varying states of consciousness, each determined by the degree of Kavvannah. Although Kavvanah literally means ‘intention’, in the deeper teachings of Chabad Hassidism, the Alter Rebbe relates it to degrees of consciousness.
In the west, ‘consciousness’ is an inexact term defined variously in psychology and science. Some analyze it in terms of brain and its component parts. Some define it holistically in terms of the total body and its neuro-transmission systems. And others claim it doesn’t exist – a mere mirage of the imagination, the product of some Darwinian joke.
The Alter Rebbe’s ‘text book’ of practical Kabbalah, The Book of Tanya, takes a pragmatic approach. A high order of consciousness employs a level of Kavvanah that arouses profound mind and emotional energy to animate one’s words or behaviours. Middle-order consciousness is purely cerebral in nature, lacking emotional charge – the heart is uninvolved. The action is focused, but lacks feeling. Low-order consciousness results in mechanical non-thinking and emotionless behaviour – the stuff of mechanical habit.
In Kabbalah, consciousness is more than a mere state. It is also ‘value-laden’. Kavvanah may be misguided or downright evil e.g. an act of murder may evoke a highly focused state of mind coupled with a strong emotional thrust – high-order consciousness, yet degrade the holy act of creation. On the other hand, positive Kavvanah elevates the ‘creation sparks’ (Nitzutzot) that are scattered throughout the Cosmos and creates a ‘tikkun’ (repair) for the imperfect world. Even low-order-Kavvanah-consciousness, barely facilitating words or behaviour, can nevertheless elevate the world – retro-actively. This can be achieved by repeating the same words or behaviour with higher Kavvanah on a future occasion, imbuing the new moment with higher consciousness.
To live a conscious life requires training, focus, practice, and profound awareness. Kavvanah has to be ever-present. There are no limits to profundity of consciousness, including higher states of ‘meta-consciousness’, ‘supra consciousness’, and ‘sub-consciousness’. (I haven’t raised these phenomena in this short blog). These higher spiritual states allow soul-consciousness to bypass mind and heart altogether, engaging the cosmos more directly.
The more profound the Kavvanah, the higher the flow of consciousness, and the higher the quality of life.