For about 20 years of my adult life, I cared not a whit, about the heart. Part of my Ph.D. training was in neuroscience, so I cared almost entirely about the brain. It’s easy to care about the brain. It’s a fascinating organ, made even more captivating by new research on drugs, neuronal plasticity, and mechanisms of learning and language. For almost two decades, I taught a variety of courses related to the brain, while facetiously reminding my undergraduate students that I cared “only about things above the neck.”
Now I’m in the religion field, and I have yet to find a reference to the brain in any ancient sacred text. There are references to the mind, of course, but not to the brain. I suspect that’s largely because, historically-speaking, the brain was not widely regarded as the seat of emotion, physical health, spiritual awareness, or intelligence. Those functions were generally relegated to the heart. The Bible suggests that the heart can be gentle, humble, glad, and generous.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)
Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts…. (Acts 2:46)
But the heart referred to in the Bible can also be troubled.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
And then there are the famous lines, occurring repeatedly in Exodus, about the Pharaoh’s heart being hardened toward the Israelites and their God.
But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:32)
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the heart is the central role it plays in moral decision-making. The heart is the seat of choices – between good and evil, between mortal and immortal, between happiness and suffering. The heart is the place where intentions are determined. The heart is the center of the soul and the key to the self.
From the Bible:
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Bible, Luke 6:43-45)
From the Upanishads:
When all desires that surge in the heart are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal. When all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal. This sums up the teaching of the scriptures.
From the heart there radiate a hundred and one vital attacks. One of them rises to the crown on the head. This way leads to immortality, the others to death. (Katha Upanishad, part 3, verses 14-16)
From one translation of the Buddhist suttras:
Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you – as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.
Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves. (Dhammapada, Yamakavagga: Pairs, Verses 1-2)
From the Qur’an:
Allah will not take you to task for that which is unintentional in your oaths. But He will take you to task for that which your hearts have garnered. Allah is Forgiving, Clement. (Qur’an, Surah 2:225)
My personal favorite comes from Hafiz, who sees the heart as either the seat of God, full of immeasurable love, or as an empty vessel, full of immense loneliness.
It is unanimous where I come from.
Everyone agrees on one thing:
It’s no fun
When God is not near….
The wise man learns what draws God Near.
It is the beauty and compassion
In your heart.
(Hafiz, “It is Unanimous,”p. 170)
Heart is right to cry
Even when the smallest drop of light
Is taken away.
Perhaps you may kick, moan, scream
In a dignified
But you are so right
To do so in any fashion
Until God returns
(Hafiz, “The Heart is Right,” p. 153)
Modern-day neuroscientists, who traditionally cared only about the brain, are now making fascinating discoveries about the heart — which just goes to show, once again, that those ancient sages may have been on to something.
[The Bible Unbound is a regular column connecting Biblical themes, passages, and stories with ancient texts from other religions. It is representative of our middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, our upper elementary Sunday School curriculum.]
Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Dhammapada, Yamakavagga: Pairs. Trans. (1997). Access to Insight. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.than.html>.
Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads. Trans. CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007. Print.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Ladinsky, Daniel. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master. New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 1999. Print.
Pickthall, Mohammed Marmaduke. The Qur’an. Trans. NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 2000. Print.
Views on the Brain and the Heart
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]