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The Heart’s Well of Memory

Take a deep breath and bring your attention a little to the left of your chest, and feel for the beating of your heart.

Let its rhythm be your focus.

Before you were born, in the moments when it was first formed, across an ocean of amniotic fluid, your heart felt your mother’s heart beating, and it stirred in response.

Just as her mother’s heart stirred in response to her mother’s heart.

And her mother’s heart stirred in response to her mother’s heart.

And her mother’s heart stirred in response to her mother’s heart.

All the way back through the generations.

And no matter how painful, how confusing, how complex your relationship is to mother or grandmother or great-grandmother, somewhere in that line of hearts is a heart that beats in perfect love and perfect trust, calling yours into resonance.

A heart untouched by trauma.   A heart untouched by guilt and shame and fear.

Feel for it. Feel back through the lineage of heartbeats. Through the generations.   And let your heart meet and match its rhythm . . . .

 

When I ask my patients about their relationship with their ancestors, they often say that they don’t have one.

When I think about their lives, its easy to see why.   If family and home are connected with violence, cold indifference, or deep shame, then how and why would someone connect with their ancestors, the people they come from?

The answer is that somewhere on the other end of that line of hearts, there are ancestors who want to work with us to heal the generations between us.

As magic workers, we know that time is not what it seems. I have seen skilled practitioners needle the right acupuncture points or administer the right herbs at precisely the right moment and not only shift the symptoms someone is experiencing but rewrite the patterns inscribed in their bodies by the original trauma that gave rise to the illness.   I have seen a ritual – bringing loving presence to the lonely moment of death of someone centuries ago – shift the life of someone here and now.   There are ancestors deep in all of our family histories willing to work with us across time and space to rectify the pain and injustice playing out in our world today.

The resonance of heartbeats draws them closer.

 

The belief that the heart is an insensate pump arose at the same time as capitalism’s belief that the world was a collection of inert resources here to fuel production.   The famous vivisector, William Harvey, a liberal physician who favored reasoned investigations of accused witches over outright torture, emphasized the heart’s role as a mover of blood over any other understanding of the organ’s role, and his observations became part of the foundation of a new medicine that was interested exclusively in the body’s mechanical function – ie., its role as an engine of production.   And he and his contemporaries sought to drive the ghosts of vitalism and animism – the respective beliefs in the living intelligence of the body and of the world that it inhabits – out of science.

A corollary to the idea that the body was a machine was the idea that the individual body was the sole locus of health and disease. Prior understandings of health and disease saw the individual as embedded in webs of connection to family, community, ancestors, descendants, the land, and the gods. Understanding imbalances in these relationships was essential to healing the person.

If the body is a machine and the heart’s sole function is the pneumatic movement of fluid through that machine, then we need only understand the plumbing at work, and the body’s relationships are irrelevant to cardiac health.

 

Like many traditions around the world, Classical Chinese medicine takes another view of the heart – that the heart is the seat of awareness.   Ross Rosen, Brandt Stickley, and Hamilton Rott write that “The Heart Yin is creative inspiration; the Heart yang is the organized and useful expression.”   Thus it is relational in nature.   The health of the microcosm depends on its connection to the macrocosm.   The harmony of the internal world is dependent on the inflow of inspiration and the outflow of expression.

The heart works closely with the kidneys, which, from the Chinese perspective, are, among other things, the storehouse of our ancestral inheritance.   Who we are and how we see the world is fed by where we come from.

The flow of the ocean inside us is governed by the kidneys and the heart. The yin contracts our blood vessels. The yang expands them.   So we orient to the world.

 

Driving the ghost from the machine drives out these sources of animating intelligence, rendering our internal lives incoherent, just as the massive violence and displacement that accompanied the rise of capitalism – the forced privatization of communal land under the enclosures in Europe and the routing of rural communities from that land, the witch persecutions that served to further the severing of that connection with the land, the genocide carried out across the Americas, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, and the devastation of ecosystems across all these continents – rendered the world outside us incoherent.

Disconnected from land, from ancestry, we lose our sense of who we are, and in a world robbed of meaning it becomes harder and harder to contextualize our experience, rendering us more vulnerable to trauma – states of complete overwhelm that we are unable to make sense of and thus feel powerless to change.

Chinese medicine tells us that trauma disrupts the ability of the yin and the yang of the heart to contract and expand the blood vessels according to their proper balance, disrupting the flow of blood to the rest of our organs.   Neurobiology is beginning to tell us the same thing.

The vagus nerve, which runs between the brain, the heart, and the gut, regulates the autonomic nervous system which governs our bodies’ most fundamental functions.

When we are safe in the world, the autonomic nervous system operates with a strong degree of coherence, and we seek to keep our world safe by making and deepening connections with each other.   The vagus nerve conveys a strong signal to the heart that lets us know we are well, and the heart maintains a variable rhythm, responding fluidly to changes in our experience and our environment.

When we perceive danger, we go into emergency mode, cutting off connection, and preparing to fight or to flee.   Our adrenals release adrenaline, that courses through our arteries, preparing our bodies to expend all available energy in an effort to survive. Our brains release its sister compound, norepinephrine, which narrows our focus to the source of the threat, and increases feelings of fear and aggression.

In the wake of the emergency cortisol, the slower acting compound,that the adrenals also released in that moment of overwhelm, moves through our bodies, encouraging us to stop building new tissue and instead store what energy we have in case we suddenly have to use it again.   It also exerts a psychotropic influence, encouraging us to remain alert to possible threats while discouraging us from expending energy on trying to render our situation meaningful.

Usually, we eventually recognize that the threat is gone and then return to a coherent, connected state.

But with trauma, the initial overwhelm of our senses creates a rupture in our sense of the world and we don’t experience the resolution of the crisis, so we remain in a state of emergency.

And our bodies’ perceptions are not wrong.

Structural violence, economic violence, ecological violence, direct and threatened military and police violence all shape the realities of our daily lives, and also give rise to physical and emotional violence between people.

As the Marxist mystic, Walter Benjamin wrote:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.”

And a fundamental aspect of that emergency situation is our lack of access to the means to resolve the threats we face.

 

Our nervous systems and endocrine systems evolved in worlds rich with meaning, shaped subtle ecological conversations carried out through pheromones and phytochemicals. Neuroendocrine regulation was never supposed to be a strictly inside job.

Breathing in, we inhaled inspiration. Breathing out, we exhaled the metabolites of our experience.

Contemporary science tells us that breathing aromatic plant compounds improves heart rate variability in humans.   In Japan, people suffering from stress-related illnesses (given the role of stress and trauma in disrupting our neurological, endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, and digestive processes, nearly all chronic contemporary illnesses as are stress-related) are prescribed walks on forest paths to breathe in the exhalations of trees.  Studies and clinical reports show marked improvement in the mental, emotional, and physical health of patients who take part in this practice of “forest bathing.”

On the one hand, the practice is beautiful and profound. On the other hand, it feels sad and absurd to think that we ration out this kind of experience of connectedness a half hour at a time, injecting titrated doses into lives battered by immense disruptive forces.

 

Hearts are electromagnetic oscillators. And as such they can pull each other into entrainment.

But how can we pull each other into entrainment when all of us and everyone we all know have always lived in a world shaped by massive violence and the trauma that results from it?

When our first heart beats were responses to the beating of hearts disrupted by trauma?

 

In the Feri tradition we speak of the “Black Heart of Innocence.”   The place deep inside us that is untouched by guilt, shame, and fear.   The place the holds the knowledge of who we are.

I have always thought of the Black Heart of Innocence as a well of memory so deep that it extends to the memory of the original darkness that glimmered and shone until it perceived its own reflection and fell in love and in lust with itself giving rise to the ecstasy that would birth the universe.

The echo of that stillness is found in the space between heartbeats.

And the old, old, old ancestors whose hearts beat fluidly in response to the beating of the heart of the living world around them can teach us to shape the beats around the space in ways that allow the wild innocence at the center of the heart to sound through in the silence.

The only tool we need to receive their guidance lies in our chests.

 

Take a deep breath and bring your attention a little to the left of your chest, and feel for the beating of your heart.

Let its rhythm be your focus.

Before you were born, in the moments when it was first formed, across an ocean of amniotic fluid, your heart felt your mother’s heart beating, and it stirred in response.

Just as her mother’s heart stirred in response to her mother’s heart.

And her mother’s heart stirred in response to her mother’s heart.

And her mother’s heart stirred in response to her mother’s heart.

All the way back through the generations.

And no matter how painful, how confusing, how complex your relationship is to mother or grandmother or great-grandmother, somewhere in that line of hearts is a heart that beats in perfect love and perfect trust, calling yours into resonance.

A heart untouched by trauma.   A heart untouched by guilt and shame and fear.

Feel for it. Feel back through the lineage of heartbeats. Through the generations.   And let your heart meet and match its rhythm.

Let that rhythm guide you to coherence.

From that place of coherence, begin the work of remaking the world.


Sean Donahue

10535621_10152596515807556_2932732314398523292_oSean Donahue is an herbalist, poet, witch, and feral creature living on unceded WSANEC territory on the southern tip of what colonial cartographers now call Vancouver Island.  He worked as a political organizer for a decade or so before realizing an introvert with a decidedly non-linear approach to the world was better suited to talking with plants and gods than to managing organizations, and  also had a brief career as a journalist reporting on repression and resistance in Latin America.  He is Priest and a keeper of the Green Wand in the BlackHeart Line of the Anderson Feri Tradition of Witchcraft.  He blogs at http://greenmanramblings.blogspot.com/

13 Comments »

  1. Good to see you back on here (as it’s been a while, yes?)! It’s interesting how much of what you’ve written here coincides with a number of things I’ve been thinking about, or have heard others talking about, in the last few months. I only learned about the vagus nerve earlier this year, when my older brother–who is a dentist, and has also been having heart problems for the last two years–was on some digression where he was showcasing his medical knowledge. Hmm…

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  2. What an amazingly beautiful piece! It reads to me like the start of a book…and one I’d VERY much like to read!

    “Structural violence, economic violence, ecological violence, direct and threatened military and police violence all shape the realities of our daily lives, and also give rise to physical and emotional violence between people.”

    Yes. Painful but true. Yet structural violence is still imperceptible to so many people. Thank you for writing this!

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  3. Being equipped with a highly sensitive nervous system I found much truth in your words. Years ago I chose to meditate and find techniques of breathing that allowed me to calm my nerves (quite literally). In this hectic world walking and breathing my path in beauty and tranqulity seems to be a good way not onlyto survive but to spread that calm. Thank you for this piece it felt both reassuring and enlightening. Reading about the feri tradition was especially interesting. I’m in contact with my ancestors, but I never really tried listening for their heartbeats through time.

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  4. In my exploration of the structure of this reality – the very physics that under girds our living – is that love persists after the entropy of fear and anger has burnt itself out. It’s terribly important to affirm the love that is brought forward to us from the past – including our human ancestors, but (as I know you have experienced) all the way back even to the star that surrendered itself to create the materials that made this experience of living possible.

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  5. “Neuroendocrine regulation was never supposed to be a strictly inside job.” This sentence brings so much into focus. Thank you as always for your generous sharing of truth and beauty Sean.

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  6. Webs of connection indeed…. Thank you for your role in connecting the web. As SophiaRose commented on neuroendocrine regulation – I add a thanks to the plants for their dance with us

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