As a cardiologist, my main job is to see people with heart disease and to counsel them on treatment and prevention. What many people don't realize, however, is that there's an intimate connection between emotional health and heart disease. Most patients of cardiovascular illness have deep-seated psychosocial issues that have never been addressed.
Despite these data however, while almost every cardiologist understands the importance of lifestyle changes (exercising, quitting smoking, and following a heart-healthy diet), very few of us address an essential component for heart health, which entails healing the emotional heart.
The physical heart lies in the vicinity of the heart chakra (also called the anahata, which means "unstuck sound"), an important area worked on in yoga and most spiritual traditions. Chakras are energy centers that are said to resemble wheels; there are innumerable chakras throughout the body, of which seven are best known.
Each of these chakras corresponds loosely to a nerve network that supplies vital organs. The heart chakra, corresponding to the cardiac network, is considered to be the seat of emotions. The accumulation of guilt, shame, resentment, hatred, anger, hostility, anxiety and similar qualities results in "closing off" of the anahata, a constriction of energy flow and resulting in heartache—both emotionally as well as in the form of heart disease.
An extreme example of this intimate heart-anahata connection is the "broken heart syndrome," caused by sudden, extreme stress in the form of shock, grief or sadness that results in a sick heart. These patients present with symptoms and signs of a typical heart attack, but have no "physical" cause (say, blocked coronary arteries) to explain them.
Not only do these negative qualities distort our perception of life events, but they also make us incapable of living fully in the moment. Although most of us would agree that hanging on to nonserving emotional patterns is undesirable, we have never learned how to effectively let go of them, which must occur at the heart level and not the mind. It's not enough to reason away these patterns, since they reside at deeper energetic levels.
As with all other lifestyle changes, this process takes willingness, commitment, consistent effort, and practice, and broadly involves the following:
1. Cultivate silence.
In order to notice our behavioral and emotional patterns, it is essential to "step out" of the mind. Inner silence provides this much-needed space and distance, and is cultivated via a regular meditation practice.
2. Get curious.
Inquiry into the nature of our psyche throws much-needed light upon our deeply embedded issues. We can begin the process of inquiry by asking, Where in my body is this feeling? In the response, we can begin to notice that there are three parts:
- The actual feeling
- The mind story about it (for example, “How could she do this?” or “Wish I had never met him!”)
- The label of the feeling as anger, sadness, grief, etc.
Once this ability to notice is developed through practice, we can then ignore the stories and labels and focus entirely on the felt-sense.
3. Let go.
This all-important step is developed simultaneously with inquiry. Without cultivating effective ways to let go, inquiry can remain incomplete, resulting in further confusion and pain. With further cultivation of inner silence, we can ease into the next phase of inquiry by asking, Where in time is this event that causes this?
In the response, we will be transported back to the time of the original event. The next step is crucial, and involves asking, Where is it now?
In the response, it becomes clear that the past does not exist any “where.”
We then ask, How does it exist now? In this response, we see that it exists merely as a thought/memory.
When this is clearly seen through, the issue, along with the physical feeling, the story and the label dissolves. Once we're no longer caught up in the mind as the thought, the thought loses its enslaving power over us.
As non-serving emotional patterns drop away, the anahata finally begins to “open.” Rushing to replace the dissolving negativity are qualities of love, peace, harmony and equanimity. The past is forgiven and we become joyfully rooted in the present, with no anxiety about the future. Healing of the heart finally begins in earnest—from the inside out.
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