The following post was written by TaraMarie Perri, the Founder/Director of The Perri Institute for Mind and Body. Her professional work is dedicated to yoga education and research, holistic health therapeutics, and the integration of mind/body practices with the arts and sciences. TaraMarie holds an MFA and serves on Faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She maintains private practices in New York City and Brooklyn.
As winter leaves the scene, my heart yearns to re-emerge toward the sun’s nourishing spring rays. As my heart makes the shift from beneath the protective hug of my shoulders, I notice how my posture changes. Similar to how the sun rises in the sky, I relocate more accurately my center point within. Each day I stand taller. I lift my gaze higher.
Meeting my heart again has led me on an investigation into its physiology, a celebration of its symbolism, and an inquiry into widening the circle of compassion. Below are four treasures from my hunt.
I: The Hearthstone
Greek physicist Galen said that the heart was “…the hearthstone and source of innate heat by which the animal is governed.” The use of the word animal led me to look at other forms of nature. Do plants, for instance, have a heart? I had heard that plants had nervous systems. It turns out that they do also have a vascular system--but they do not have a heart pump as animals do. Our heart pump is what makes us distinctly “animal.” It keeps us warm, it keeps the blood flow going, and it co-supports healthy respiration.
II: The Lifeforce Factory
The heart organ sits at the center of our chest cavity, and, through various pathways, carries “lifeforce” into all corners of our anatomical landscape. Veins, arteries, capillaries and miles of blood vessels are highways. The cycle flows in and out, always passing through the heart center. But go even deeper into this center, beyond the smooth muscle layer, and you will find a beautifully intricate landscape of cavities and valves. It feels like gazing into a mini factory of sorts. Because I teach movement, I often focus on the circulatory system’s function in aiding the breath and extremities--but it was through the images of the heart’s inner workings that I gained a new appreciation for its work ethic and energetic support. The heart keeps us going from three weeks after conception until death. It sends us the gift of life over and over again. It gives us the lifeforce required for living.
III: An Emotional Center
Whenever I work with students and clients requiring physical therapeutic care, a natural starting point is to ask the location of the pain or discomfort of concern. Similarly, if there is a physical emotional concern, I ask them where they “feel” its presence in their anatomy. It can be helpful in discovering the network of its cause or the nature of its impact. The heart is often a starting point.
You may have heard about the East Village explosion two weeks ago. Two people were killed, several people were seriously injured, and the lives of all of the residents and business owners in those buildings were changed in an instant. It has been amazing to watch the majority of the NYC community come together to heal and support. My NYU dance students, who occupy a nearby school building and dorm, and several of my East Village friends experienced the unfolding of this tragic event. Because I teach in the NYU building on the opposite corner of the blast, I knew several of my students must have experienced not only the blast’s concussive wave, but also the emotional exposure to the unsettling of the human lives affected around the corner. I heard phrases like “felt it down to my bones” or “into my heart” to describe their experiences of the blast as it interrupted a regular day of rehearsal and class. The surrounding buildings were evacuated for a couple of days, so we were not allowed back into the building right away. I was curious to note in my own body how I would experience the energy of the neighborhood when I entered the space--I knew it would give me a clue as to how to support my students that week in class.
Sure enough, there were unquestionable waves moving directly into my heart space. No doubt, a minor experience compared to the intensity experienced the day of the blast. While there are immediate needs required by the victims of the tragedy such as housing, food, and financial support, the essential emotional health of their hearts will also need precise and supportive care. If the explosion had penetrated the emotional heart of a neighborhood on a macro level, we can only imagine the impact on the individuals who were injured or directly affected by loss.
Undoubtedly, the heart will be the place to begin the healing process.
IV: At the Center
In 2010, Jaron Lanier wrote a manifesto entitled, You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier is the father of virtual reality technology and works on the interface between computer science and medicine, physics, and neuroscience. I encourage you to pick up this excellent book and read it cover to cover. It has countless merits for anyone interested in preserving the human experience while still accessing the benefits of technological modernization. Below is an excerpt:
“The most important thing to ask about any technology is how it changes people. And in order to ask that question I’ve used a mental device called ‘the circle of empathy’ for many years…
An imaginary circle is drawn by each person. It circumscribes the person at some distance, and corresponds to those things in the world that deserve empathy…
If someone falls within your circle of empathy, you wouldn’t want to see him or her killed. Something that is clearly outside of the circle is fair game. For instance, most people would place all other people within the circle, but most of us are willing to see bacteria killed when we brush our teeth, and certainly don’t worry when we see an inanimate rock tossed aside to keep a trail clear.
The tricky part is that some entities reside close to the edge of the circle…
When you change the contents of your circle, you change your conception of yourself. The center of the circle shifts as its perimeter is changed.”
Lanier goes on to discuss how our daily technological experience is directly informing how we define our circle of empathy. Let’s just say it is not good news. How, then, can we widen our circles of compassion when so many forces are acting on us to tighten them? This is a common inquiry for many working for connectivity in a world that seems increasingly detached and divisive. When I read this excerpt, I began to muse about the heart’s role in solving the problem. If we define the heart as an anatomical center for blood, a sacred space for our lifeforce, and an emotional symbol, can the heart also be at the center as we circumscribe our own philosophical “circle of empathy?”
I come back to the example of the East Village tragedy to demonstrate this concept. Our life behind the false community of social media is coupled with the anonymity encouraged in both urban cities and sprawling suburbs. We co-exist but do not “live” together. And yet, in a moment of tragedy, when constructs and boundaries could not be referenced, strangers rushed to help each other without pause, question, or bias. No doubt that impulse came directly from the heart as both a physiological and emotional response. Consequently, the circle of empathy of each witness widened to encircle another person who may not have been standing within its edge before that very afternoon.
What if we all “let in” someone new to our circle each day? What would be the exponential impact on community and humankind (not to mention the immediate benefits to all sentient beings on our planet) by making this simple choice?
My informal heart-inspired research period has demonstrated that anatomically, energetically, therapeutically, and philosophically, the heart holds a cultural place of importance for all of humankind. Despite all of our differences, we might have a chance to connect to each other if we recognize that every single one of us has a heart beating right at our center.
The heart matters.
- TaraMarie Perri