Heart Transplant Surgery as a Spiritual Discipline
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles, BCC, DNGH
Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
May 24, 2015
Heart Transplant Surgery
When I was growing up my hometown newspaper was the now defunct Bridgeport Post. It was a conservative rag that the School of Journalism at the University of Connecticut called, “The Worst Newspaper in the History of the State.”
They were being kind.
Several times during the Watergate Investigations, the paper went to press with huge headlines announcing that Nixon had been exonerated, which was a surprise to everyone including the late President. Often the paper took strange editorial positions about weird conspiracy theories, along that lines of the current hysteria in Texas about governmental invasion tunnels under Wal-Mart Stores.
But that was nothing compared to what they printed when South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant operation on December 3, 1967. You’d have thought the Martians had landed.
Quoting Romans 2:15 in the New Testament, “Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness…” the newspaper editor announced that if you transplanted the heart from one patient into another you would also be transplanting the personality.
“Surgeon’s playing God!” the editorial announced, and predicted the end of civilization as hordes of demon-like creatures would walk the darkened streets not sure of who they actually were.
Speculating that a supply of hearts would come from executed criminals, the paper worried that we would be transforming law abiding citizens into unwitting disciples of Charles Manson, who would rise from their hospital beds and wander the streets seeking to slay us all, helter-skelter.
The editors of that paper were seriously messed up.
But they were right about at least one thing. Hearts are important.
Heart Intelligence: The Mind Is Not The Brain
When most of us think about what we call “our mind” we mostly think of it as the activity of the brain. Historically, not all people have assumed that—the Ancient Egyptians threw away the brain when they made a mummy believing it to be unimportant.
But in modern times we understand that our brain is an amazing creation for the processing and categorizing of information. But the brain is not the mind.
Physiologists have come to understand that the mind is more than the activity of the brain. The mind is actually what IT professionals call a “distributed processing network.” That is, our minds process information in different ways using different parts of our body. The brain pulls all of that together into the thoughts and feelings that we have.
This is why people who are “brain dead” can still maintain biological life. There is enough nerve tissue functioning elsewhere to keep the body going even when the brain as ceased function, or in the tragic case of Terri Schiavo in 2005 when the brain had turned to liquid.
The mind is more then the brain. We think and feel with numerous parts of our body and the brain just pulls that information together like the hub of a computer network.
For example, in addition to our brain, we also process information in our spinal column and in our gut. Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners call the bowel the “lower brain.” And it does sort of look like it with the same kind of crenelations in the intestines as you see in the neural tissue in the brain.
The fact is you have more nerve cells in your gut than anywhere else except your brain. As we all know, when we feel emotionally upset often our gut is the first place with feel it, which is why there are so many laxatives (and remedies that do the opposite of laxatives, like Pepto Bismol) on drugstore shelves.
You also process information, a lot of it, using your heart.
Since about 1990 physiologists have come to understand it is a mistake to think of the heart as only a biological pump for blood. It actually turns out to be an important part of the information processing system of the mind. The heart has nerve cells, just like the brain, and in fact sends more information to the brain than any other organ.
The heart communicates with the brain and the rest of the body neurologically through nerve impulses, biochemically by hormones and neurotransmitters, biophysically through pressure waves and energetically through electromagnetic pulses. Through these forces the heart has a lot of influence over what your mind thinks, believes and does.
It is also medically privileged in a number of fascinating ways. The heart is one of the easiest organs to transplant because all you have to do is connect the plumbing. Unlike other organs where the surgeon also has to try to hook up the nerves, the heart will send out new nerve tissue on its own and literally install itself in the body of its new host. Your personality doesn't change as my hometown newspaper claimed, but no other organ installs itself during transplant in that way.
While science has now confirmed all this, I feel that people have always known it. Often we find there is a wisdom in language, even poetic language. People have always talked about their hearts “breaking,” or feeling “heavy” when they are melancholy or sad. We refer to some people as being “light hearted” or “hard hearted” when we describe their personality. We’ve always intuitively known that a person’s heart has something to do with their personality.
As many of you know my community ministry is one of spiritual healing and I am a well-known practitioner of the hypnotic arts and sciences. I quite literally “wrote the book” used by the National Guild of Hypnotists to train practitioners to do healing and medical work, and doing that work is my calling.
The philosophy behind my work originally came from the work of Bernie Siegel, MD, a surgeon at Yale New Haven Medical Center who wrote the first well-received book on Mind-Body Medicine in 1978. It was called Love, Medicine and Miracles and it had a huge impact on me.
Dr. Siegel argued that feelings were more important than thoughts in understanding how the body maintained health.
Even if a person was very ill, by adjusting their interior feeling lives, they could make almost miraculous changes in their physical health. He used imagery, drawing and dream interpretation to help people figure out what they needed to be able to get in touch with their own healing power.
As I read scripture, and scripture is important to me, I believe the miraculous healings of Jesus found in the New Testament were caused more by a change of heart in the people healed than by any spiritual power.
I would ultimately to to Yale and took the training programs offered by the center that Dr. Siegel founded and studied with him directly. His heart-centered approach to healing became the basis of my work, and it turned out to work especially well with people who were living with cancer.
Over the decades others have built on this model. The group doing the most research in this area these days is the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, and I am a member. I use their technology and support their research.
What we do is to assume that the heart is a kind of second brain in the human body.
As far as current technology discloses, the neurological activity of your heart controls how you integrate the other systems of your body: your nervous system, your circulatory system, your endocrine system, etc.
When everything works together well we call it “coherence” and it correlates to good emotional, spiritual and physical health. You feel good, you are healthier, happier and more resilient on every measure.
Coherence means that the biological, emotional and energetic systems in your body are working together well. That’s a good thing. Incoherence is when they are not working together well, and that’s a bad thing and nothing but trouble results.
When I talk about “putting people in touch with their own healing power” what I mean by that is as psychophysiological coherence increases, people become healthier and happier. It’s not actually something I am doing to them, I’m just teaching them how to listen and respond to the intelligence that resides in their own heart. We have computerized technology that actually measures this, and it’s really cool.
But I’m not here today to talk about the technology. What I want to talk about today how you can find your own Heart Intelligence and why you should pay attention to it. And you don’t need any gadgets (although I think they are really cool).
As Dr. Siegel taught me so many years ago, listening to your heart is one of the most important things you can do.
Our Western civilization has accomplished wonderful things but I believe we've allowed a lop-sided development. We prize the work of science and cognitive intelligence, but tend to overlook emotional and intuitive intelligence. That is what William Wordsworth decried in his poem “The World Is Too Much With Us.” While we've accomplished much we've also lost something.
From the time we are children most of us are socialized not to pay attention to our intuitions, our feelings, or our own deeper self. By neglecting these things we neglect the very tools God gave us to manage the stress of our lives. We strive to live up to the demands made on us, we tolerate negative situations even though our stress builds.
Herbert Benson, MD, the founder of the Mind-Body Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston calls stress “the hidden plague” because so many walk around inflected with it. The incidence of diseases with a stress-related component are soaring. Relationships go on the rocks because the partners are so stressed they can't relate to each other. Business ventures crash and burn because distressed employees can’t find the energy to do their jobs well.
The people who taught me believed there was a solution located right in our own chests. They called it our Heart Intelligence. It is the intelligence encoded, not in the brain, but in the physical organ of our heart.
When you are stressed your heart begins to respond to that stress before your brain does. The heart increases blood pressure, it begins to pour stress hormones such as adrenaline into your body as a way to get the brain’s attention. It is your early warning system.
But your heart can also do the opposite. It can slow its function so your blood pressure drops, it can produce dopamine and oxytocin (sometimes called the happiness and love hormones) because they reduce fear, increase your eye contact with others and boosts your ability to experience trust and generosity. It can swing your brain into a more positive and healthy mode of processing.
And it’s really easy to do.
To listen to your Heart Intelligence all you have to do it focus your attention on your heart. That’s it. It’s not a new discovery. Yoga instructors and meditation teachers have been saying this for thousands of years.
Stop thinking about yourself as if you were a spirit inhabiting your skull and instead let your attention drop to your heart. There’s an ancient yoga technique of imagining that you are breathing through your heart rather than your lungs. Do this for just a 10-15 seconds. Then, find a happy thought, good memory or feeling of appreciation. That’s all. Then, make your decisions, rethink your conclusions and plans, and you will find that your thoughts have changed for the better.
It’s possible to actually measure this. As people do this simple technique brain scans alter, skin conductivity decreases, respiration and body temperature drop. It’s amazing. We just don’t notice it because it is so simple.
One of my own colleagues believes that when people talk about feeling the power of God within them what they are actually feeling is the intelligence of their own beating heart as it responds to events, alters biochemistry and changes what the mind is doing.
Focus on your heart. Imagine yourself breathing through your heart and summon a positive and happy thought or feeling into your mind for a moment and you change yourself for the better. It’s the ultimate heart transplant because you remove stressful feelings and replace them with better.
I believe this is spiritually important. To explain that I need to talk about clocks. Not just any sort of clocks. I want to talk about clocks with big, swinging pendulums.
In the 17th century a mathematician, astronomer and inventor named Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock. He had quite a collection of these and in 1666 he noticed something weird. If he had two or more pendulum clocks on a single shelf or board, after a time all of their pendulums would be swinging together at the same time.
If you separated the clocks, they didn't do this. He wrote about this calling it an “odd sympathy.” We now call it entrainment or “mode locking” and it is something known to every physicist. If you have two or more things oscillating and they begin out of phase, within a short period of time they will synchronize and be in phase. And the one that sets the pace for this will be the largest oscillator in the system.
So if you have a shelf full of pendulum clocks, and start them all up with their pendulums in different positions, within a short time all the pendulums will swing back-and-forth together in exact rhythm. And the rhythm will be set by the clock that has the largest pendulum. Look it up if you want to know more, but many medical devices (including cardiac pacemakers) work using this principle.
The really cool thing is that both your brain and heart project an electromagnetic field beyond your body. The field projected by your brain is not very strong and to measure it we have to glue electrodes directly to the outside of your skull. The field projected by your heart is much stronger, and it can be detected by sensors positioned even five or six feet away.
Because your heart is the strongest biological oscillator in your body, it is just like the biggest pendulum clock on a shelf full of clocks. The rest of your bodily systems will be drawn into entrainment with the activity of your heart.
By tracking the activity of your heart we can infer how the other systems in your body are working. And if your heart is relaxed the other organs are drawn into relaxation as well.
The really amazing thing, and one I consider to have spiritual implications, is that the electromagnetic field projected by your heart actually can influence other people in your immediate environment.
Research at HeartMath has shown that if we have three people in a room who are functioning with good coherence between their mental, emotional, physical and energetic systems (you know, people who really “have their stuff together”), and a fourth person enters the room who has no idea what is going on and just stands there, his or her body will go into coherence too. His or her mental, physical, emotional and energetic body systems will start to work better.
You’ve had this experience. You know you are at your best when you are with certain people. You feel better in certain places where certain kinds of people hang out. That’s because those people “have it together” and just being with them helps you get it together too. Those people are in touch with their Heart Intelligence and just being with them helps you do the same.
“…(and Jesus said)…For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20.
We Can Share Our Heart Intelligence
When I look at the mess our world is in. When I look at the problems our denomination is having (I’m about to head off to a denominational summit where we will try to figure out how a better financial future for the Unitarian Universalist Association can be achieved) I get really sad.
When I was a younger man I believed that somehow everything would work out. The values of liberal enlightenment and the light of science would ultimately move everyone toward a better future. There are days when I don't believe that anymore.
Fundamentalisms of all sort abound. Science and logic seem to be a dirty words that lawmakers purposefully ignore. It’s disheartening.
But then I remember what I just said. If people can actually influence each other just by getting themselves into a healthier place mentally and energetically, that may be how we bring the New World.
I think the task before all of us is to take personal responsibility, not just for our own economic prosperity, our health and safety, but also for our energetic and inner lives, we can accomplish great things.
If we get in touch with our own Heart Intelligence, and if there are even a few of us, we can draw other people along and help them become their better selves.
This weekend is Memorial Day and we remember all who have gone before us, especially our veterans. But we know that wars are not the way to lasting peace. What will bring peace is if we all take responsibility for our own spiritual growth and thereby encourage others to do the same. If there is hope for this planet it will be because we all use what I’ve called Heart Intelligence to become the very best we can be. And it’s actually easy.
And that’s my sermon.
HeartMath is a registered trademark of the Institute of HeartMath.