By Hwaa Irfan
In general, we do not think much about the heart except when it comes to two situations: disease, and the limited conditional concept of love.
Yet, new research offers us the opportunity to look at the heart anew. A study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reveals that the right side of our hearts is not as standard as we think it is, in fact age, gender, and ethnicity has a lot to do with the size, and strength of one’s heart. Looking at magnetic resonance images of 4,204 men and women in a Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) that has been tracking the development of cardiovascular disease in 6,814 Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics and Chinese the study found that the right side of the heart is:
- Smaller but pumps harder in older adults.
- Larger in men than women.
- Smaller in African-Americans and larger in Hispanics, compared with Caucasians, but the left ventricle increases in mass with age and is larger in African-Americans than Caucasians
Study author Steven Kawut explains:
“The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen, so all types of lung diseases — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, and sleep apnea — can affect the right side of the heart,”
“These results show underlying differences in people without clinical heart disease and could explain the variability of the right ventricular response in people with cardiopulmonary disease.”
We know that the physical heart sits between the two lungs leaning towards the left, and is held in place by blood vessels. Down the centre of the heart is solid muscular wall called the septum which prevents blood from going where it should not go. Another wall separates the top from the bottom creating four chambers (2 atria = the top chambers and 2 ventricles = the bottom chambers); thus each side is a system unto itself with blood flowing from the top atrium to the bottom ventricle, but not from left to right. However from our feelings we know that there is much more to the physical heart than this.
“The actual physical heart in our breast beats about 100,000 times a day, pumping two gallons of blood per minute, 100 gallons per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for an entire lifetime! The vascular system that sends this life-giving blood is over 60,000 miles long: it is more than two times the circumference of the earth. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the heart starts beating before the brain is formed; the heart begins to beat without any central nervous system. The dominant theory was that the central nervous system is what is controlling the entire human being from the brain, yet we know now that in fact the nervous system does not initiate the heartbeat. It is actually self-initiated; we would say, it is initiated by Allah subhanahu wa t’ala”. – Sheikh Muhammad Maulad
In The Intelligent Heart we explored further through the work of HeartMath that the physical heart received information intuitively as a foetus before the brain is even formed. Neurocardiologist researcher, Dr. J. Andrew first described the heart brain in 1991 as containing 40,000 neurons with a complex circuitry, which is able to sense, regulate and remember, i.e. not a mechanical organ, but a sensory organ that is able to process, encode information, and facilitate decisions about its activity over the central nervous system. Through the work of Chernigovskiy the medical profession knows that neural data from the heart influences the function if other organs and biological systems, like the nervous, respiratory, lymphatic, skeletal, and endocrine systems, the digestive tract, the urinary bladder, the spleen.
In fact, the heart was reclassified as part of the hormonal system in 1983, in line with the Chinese human energy field of the chakras, which aligns the thymus (part of the hormonal system) with the heart chakra.
In 2009, HeartMath found that the heart with its own neurological network of 40,000 neurons (referred to as the heart-brain) governs the brain, and that the brain does not govern the whole body as mainstream medicine and education has led us to believe.
This amazing organ that we put through so much stress emotionally, psychologically, and from the processed unhealthy foods we eat!
From the physical action of the heart, we can see that its place in our lives is much more than an engine supplying blood to all parts of the body. It works in conjunction with the brain, and in fact processes much of the information before it is even passed onto the brain which is second-in-command. But what of the condition of the heart if it processes the information that we are to interpret or does it interpret before we interpret!
In esoteric tradition the heart is the seat of spiritual consciousness whereas in exoteric tradition the heart is the seat of the emotions, with the brain representing the superior part of man – so one can see where modern thinking arises from thus excluding the spiritual nature of man and spinning mankind out of balance.
The physiological relationship between the heart and the brain teaches us that one cannot do without the other, we need both working together otherwise not only our physical health is much reduced, but so is our spiritual health.
The struggle of the soul/jihad an nafs) is that battle between the heart and the mind that has been brought about by the dualistic nature of modernity preventing the heart from thinking, and the mind from feeling; therefore losing our true selves in the process!
The Right Side of the Heart
In certain Eastern traditions the right side of the heart is the causal dimension that precedes the dimension of effect – the school of life we have entered into under a prior agreement. It is where we learn to confront our egos, filter that which hinders our true selves, so that we may recognize our true selves and enter through the body-mind portal. In Islamic terms it is sometimes referred to as Matharatul Qulub/Alchemy of the Heart.
In Matharatul Qulub Sheikh Muhammad Maulad explains:
The heart is the centre of the human being. Many people think the brain is the centre of consciousness, yet the Qur’an clearly states, “They have hearts that they are not able to understand with.”
Yet what is it we do not understand?
In the mechanical approach to looking at the heart in Western medicine, the interest is one of dysfunction, just as it is one of dysfunction in the spiritual sense, but in Western medicine it is limited to the malfunction of the heart the symptoms of which are swollen ankles, shortness of breath, and a tendency to lean forward to catch one’s breath. In Chinese traditional medicine, the right side of the heart pertains to the lungs. One of things we do instinctually when we are born is to inhale from the nose, and exhale through the mouth, but as we grow older, and become accustomed to behaviours that prevent us from being honest with ourselves and others we stop breathing in through our noses and instead breathe in through our mouths. When we do this, we begin to lose connection with ourselves, because when we breathe in through the nose we breathe more deeply, and what we inhale is filtered, oxygenating our entire bodies, relaxing our senses, and calming the nerves, but when we develop the habit of breathing in through the mouth, we breathe less deeply, deoxygenating our bodies, and inhale more impurities, and as such our intake of breath is shorter thus shortening our life force/reducing the quality of our life force.
Another dimension of traditional Chinese medicine is the system of meridians that relates to the vital force/life force of man that animates us. One of the location points for the Heart Meridian are the wrists, which we know from experience in terms of touching the pulse. In traditional Chinese medicine, the Heart Meridian concerns absent mindedness, and what do we become when we are in need of oxygen. The Heart Meridian also pertains to mental health, insomnia, disturbed dreams, hysteria, depression, fatigue, heart disease and agitation.
We shut down our hearts when we are hurt, or abused in a world that is abusive on many levels subtly and overtly. In this way the world censors us, and then we censor ourselves, thus creating a separation of our hearts from our minds, and our souls from our egos. The heart cannot be tested if has shutdown, and neither can it be exercised either physically or spiritually, yet this is demanded of us by nature itself. An example of guidance to this goal is in the following tradition/ahadith of Prophet Muhammed (SAW):
Wabisa ibn Ma’bad related:
“I came to the Messenger of Allah and he said: You have come to ask about righteousness? I said: Yes. He said: Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil…” (An Nawawi #27)
Again Abu Sa’id al-Khudri related what Prophet Muhammed (SAW) said:
“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is able to do. Then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.” (An Nawawi #34)
And from Aristotle:
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”
If the right side of our hearts pertains to the lungs, let us learn to breathe again as nature intended, and in that breath give breath to life, and the lives of others. We are here in this Life School for a short time, and yet if we do not recognize the way in which we harm ourselves, our bodies will, and in so doing others will.
The first simple act we can do is to learn to inhale deeply from the nose, one will be surprised how much can arise from that one simple act we have forgotten to do!
Kawut, S. Et al Randomized Clinical Trial of Aspirin and Simvastatin for Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension: ASA-STAT. Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, 2011; DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.015693
Maulad, M. “Alchemy of the Heart.” http://muslim-canada.org/alchofheart2.html