Opening Up to the Heart and Embracing the Social Animal

“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.” – Dalai Lama

Core Teachings of the Worlds Spiritual Traditions 

If we explore the core teaching of most of the world’s wisdom traditions, religions, and spiritual gospels, certain archetypal patterns can be seen emerging from this broad diversity of perspectives. The focus of this article will be on just one of these, and arguably the most important: the heart as the core of the spiritual self. Time and time again, from the principles of compassion in Buddhism, to the golden rule in Christianity of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, the heart plays a central role.

This central role is also a reality in the body, as pretty much every system in the body is dependent on blood flow in some form or fashion. The thing is, the heart is not just delivering blood, but at a mechanical level, is producing a pressure wave with every single beat.

Like primordial drum in our chest, each of us is attuned to this continuous rhythm. One of the most powerful ways to affect this rhythm, is by altering our emotions.  

Beyond the purely mechanical, there is an immense amount of electromagnetic information conferred to every single cell as well. The heart produces the strongest electromagnetic field in the body, and can with current instruments, be sensed at least 10 FT outside the body, as verified by the Heartmath Institute.

The Heart in Human Culture  

Many of us think of the nervous system as the brain, spinal cord and periphery nerves, without the realization that the heart is part of the nervous system in its own way. Beyond the idea of the heart as just some sort of pump, the field of “Neurocardiology” has demonstrated that the heart is in many ways an organ of perception, able to override the cranial brain and make autonomous decisions. It should come as no surprise considering the amount of lore, poetry, philosophy and art that has come forth about the hearts passion, courage, desire, purpose and primary role in human life.

The origins of love are beyond my comprehension and the broader aspects of how our heart influences our lives is way beyond the scope of an article, truly requiring volumes to flesh out. So touching upon the title of this article, I want to bring my focus to a particular element  in this vast arena of the cosmic implications of the heart: being a social animal. The emotions of the heart, such as love, gratitude, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness are connecting forces. They pacify social tension and bond us to other people.

 As a strategy of evolution, love (some form of it) makes a lot of sense, especially for social animals because it allows groups to form, that can as a unit, deal with the many variables involved in survival. 

Homo sapiens are deeply social creatures and the need for social bonding runs deep in our biology. From the moment we are born, there is an innate drive to clutch to another human being; there is primal need to be touched, nurtured and cared for.

It won’t take much searching around to find study after study illuminating the health and longevity benefits of community and loving relationships.  They seem to be more important at determining mortality than smoking, exercise or good food. If we want to be truly healthy, we need to foster good high quality relationships and support structures. Here is an awesome TED talk on the topic.


The Closed Heart 

Much to the unconscious dismay of many of us in the modern world, our hearts are closed to this most fundamental of realities: 

that we are inherently social animals

Individualism is practically the new religion of the modern world, which sets the stage for the most common killer in western society: heart disease. We need one another and deep down, most of us crave the intimacy and human connection of the tribe. Something inside of us beckons outward, to touch, be touched and be understood. 

The desire to be with other humans is hardwired into us by the radical molding powers of evolution and is ultimately, fundamental to our survival.

Without each other we would parish. There is currently a host of traumas, perspectives and attitudes that block us off from this, by building a wall around this vulnerable part of us. Many defend this wall with statements like “I hate people” or “people suck” and my favorite:

“I hate people but I love animals”

It is likely that the “animals” fill a deep desire to connect with something, without the pain illuminated to us by interacting with our own species. It is easy to blame others for our own pain in relationships, because it takes the focus away from our own wounding.

        Enriching and awesome......but not a substitute for human relationships

       Enriching and awesome......but not a substitute for human relationships

If we look at the evolution of our species, and observe hunter gather cultures, the reality of the tribe is an all-consuming one. In fact many individual tribal people seldom think of themselves purely, as they instinctually know, that they are like an organ in a body and that their actions affect the whole.

The human genome evolved to expect this tightly knit unity and beyond eating and training like a wild human, opening up our hearts to a community is an integral part of rewilding. It is civilization that teaches us not to connect, it is not something innate. 

My own process in this arena of existence has been a challenging one, with endless demands for growth, opening up to vulnerability and learning to love. Abandonment from both my biological parents, multiple best friends setting me aside for “better” people, my first couple of child “puppy loves” rejecting me and life threatening betrayal in high school, left me closed off to say the least.

Other humans became a source of danger instead of one of nourishment.

With that belief held deeply in my heart; I only reinforced it more and more in a self-fulling prophecy. I unconsciously taught others not to love me. It is my darling wife, who was able to slowly nurture me out of my walled off isolation. She saw past that encrusted layer of self-protection and taught me how to love again, allowing me to open back up to other people. Doing so has been immensely rewarding. Ironically, one of the biggest challenges was allowing myself to receive love and accept it.

The main pain here, which I have been all too familiar with in the past, is that we simply are not good enough to be loved. If we believe this, and feel this in our hearts, the likelihood is that we will get this. Being a social animal starts with self-love. When we truly love ourselves, then we can extend this outward to others. 

Often we pull away because we do not feel as if we are good enough, as if exposing ourselves to those around us, to really allow ourselves to be unguarded, will only reinforce what we already know: that we are not wanted.

So instead of exposing ourselves to this pain, which instinctually threatens our ability to survive, we prefer to close off and not expose. The “other” is like a mirror for our own self-hate.

The technical details of how to approach the issue of “opening up” will come in other future resources. However, I want to bring it up, that it is not just a metaphorical notion; it can be seen quite literally in how we carry ourselves through the world. The slumped forward posture that is archetypal of today’s culture, is an expression of this walled off closed heart dynamic.

The front line of the body closes in order to protect the vital organs and sexual organs; this is a primal response, seen readily in the fetal position and in self defense/protective situations.

With healthy alignment, the heart and solar plexus often “lead” and this exposes are most vulnerable areas: our vital organs and genitalia. We are the only animal with this structural alignment, as most other animals lead with their head.  To lead with the heart is to literally be opened up and willing to engage with the outside.

We need to open up on many levels. The willingness to engage, bond and build community is essential to healthy wild life. If we open up our alignment and structure we can shave away the armor that rigidly holds us in a protective posture, which can in a downstream fashion, allow us to love and connect more.

We can also develop social skills, awaken the intelligence of the heart through heart based meditation and work on the emotional wounds that hold us back, which will in all likelihood affect our alignment.  My preferred method is to approach it from multiple ends and to move forward with a relentless courage that seeks the capacity to be vulnerable.