Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The knowing heart?

The other day I had a brief conversation with a doctor who specializes in neuro-feedback. He said Western folks live out their heads, while Eastern folks live out of their hearts. When we try too hard to do something, he said, we usually don’t do it so well. In a zen-like fashion, corresponding with neuro-feedback therapy (or at least theory), when we’re not straining to do something, we usually have more success doing it.

It occurred to me later that, even in the West, we have a thread of understanding that places the heart at the center of our essential nature. Historically, the West has not been completely wedded to the left hemisphere of the brain.

Several years ago, I found a passage from Thomas de Quincey that tried to describe the heart’s role. In The Poetry of Pope, de Quincey wrote, “The scriptures themselves never condescended to deal by suggestion or co-operation with the mere discursive understanding; when speaking of man in his intellectual capacity, the Scriptures speak not of the understanding, but of ‘the understanding heart’ – making the heart, i.e., the great intuitive (or non-discursive) organ, to be the interchangeable formula for man in his highest state of capacity for the infinite.”

Can we know with our hearts? I’ve been trying to define “heart” in the sense that de Quincey uses it, and so far I haven’t been able to construct an adequate definition from my research of theological and philosophical ideas. In the meantime, it’s interesting to see how some thinkers didn’t believe the left-hemisphere empiricism could say everything important to being human.

Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher living in the 1600s, looked out into the darkness beyond the outposts of his rational faculties and said, “It is reason’s last step to realize that there are millions of things beyond reason.”

Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian chemist-turned-philosopher, wrote in his book The Tacit Dimension, “We know more than we can tell and we can know nothing without relying upon those things which we may not be able to tell.”

Something is going on in us that is valuable yet not centered in the left hemisphere of our brains. This opens a whole can of worms regarding intuition, mind-brain issues, spirituality, and the nature of the “heart” as de Quincey uses it.

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