The Heart As Electromagnetic Field
I’ve long appreciated the work of Gregg Braden – particularly the aspect of it that relates to the electromagnetic field of the heart. Apparently the heart (qua physical organ) emits an electrical field that is 100 times more powerful that the electrical field of the brain. And the heart emits a magnetic field that is 5,000 times more powerful than the magnetic field associated with the brain.
Mr. Braden uses this information as a means of explaining the power of what he refers to as “coherent” emotional states — e.g. appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness, care and compassion — to alter the electromagnetic field of the surrounding environment: viz. the atoms of the body and world. In this model, the electromagnetic field is posited as being something like a bridge between mind and matter.
The Heart v. The Mind
Anyway, Mr. Braden’s work came to mind recently as I was listening to an interview with Buddhist practitioner/translator Alan Wallace. At the 1:48:00 mark of this video recording (also below) a woman in attendance at the talk asks Mr. Wallace to address the role of “the heart.” In her question, she clearly references the work of Gregg Braden, viz. the “heart’s electrical field is 100 times as powerful as the brain’s.” The unspoken assumption, however, is that somehow Buddhist practice is mostly about “mind” and not so much about “heart.”
Mr. Wallace begins his answer by reminding us that the Aristotelian distinction between “mind” and “heart” (i.e. intellect vs. emotion) is simply not present within Buddhism. What follows is an interesting etymological exploration of several Sanskrit and Tibetan terms: citta (Sanskrit) and sem (Tibetan) – both of which are often translated into English as “mind” – and then also prajna (Sanskrit) which – according to Mr. Wallace — is best translated as “intelligence” though can be cultivated into the greatest wisdom (as in: prajna-paramita); and yeshe (Tibetan) which is best translated as “primordial consciousness” though also has much in common with what we often refer to as “intuition.”
Then there’s an exploration of the English word “attention” – from the Latin root meaning to tend to – which (according to Mr. Wallace) includes watching over, caring for and looking after: like a flight attendant who employs heart/emotion as well as mind/intelligence when “attending to” his or her passengers.
The basic point, once again, is that any talk of “bringing the heart and mind together” presupposes a separation that simply does not exist in Indian, Tibetan or (as we’ll see below) Chinese iterations of Buddhism.
The Chinese Word Xin
American sinologist Victor Mair here offers a nice overview of scholarly thoughts and opinions regarding the meaning of xin – which is variously translated as “heart” or “mind” or “heart-mind.” In certain contexts, the word xin can also refer to the physical heart – but it’s much more common for it to designate the entirely of one’s “inner life,” and in its broadest sense includes: mood, center, core, breath, life, soul and spirit.
Similar to Sanskrit or Tibetan words that gets translated into English as “mind,” the Chinese xin straddles the dichotomy between emotion and cognition: It refers to an organ of both thought and feeling – reflecting the ancient Chinese worldview in which heart and mind are one and the same.
No-Self & Compassion
Once we let go of the assumption that “mind” and “heart” are separate entities, it becomes fairly easy to see how compassion and no-self (in the sense of “emptiness of a separate-self”) are two sides of the same coin.
The realization of no-self is typically associated with “mind” – and the cultivation of compassion typically associated with “heart.” But to realize no-self is also to realize no-other. To see clearly that it is the belief in a separate-self that is the source of one’s “own” psychological suffering, is simultaneously to see clearly that the psychological suffering experienced by “others” is also the result of this mistaken belief. This is great compassion. So realizing no-self is simultaneously to awaken great compassion. How could it be otherwise?
And so-called “great compassion” is “great” only in virtue of it being grounded in the realization of no-self. If it’s not so-grounded, then it might be empathy, might be kindness, might be friendliness – but it’s not great compassion. So awakening great compassion is simultaneously to realize no-self. How could it be otherwise?
The Jnani & The Bhakta — Having Tea
Whether I enter a house through the front door, or enter through the back door – I still find myself sitting inside the house, enjoying a cup of tea. And so it is with great compassion and the realization of no-self (or, if you prefer, the awakening to our True Self as Pure Awareness).
Positing a causal relationship between the two (and hence prioritizing one or the other) is a provisional teaching that may be skillful in certain circumstances, but ultimately must give way to acknowledging that the two are dependently arisen: two sides of the same coin. The true Jnani is necessarily also a Bhakta, and vice versa.