What is the Heart?

Anita Sullivan

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“In ancient Greece, the epics of Homer did not really have a word for the human body. Not as a whole, only as an assembly of various limbs—and especially the ones that are routinely wounded in war. The ‘chest’ was one of those limbs, and about as close as he came to talking about the heart.”—Anita Sullivan

On The Other Hand

By Anita Sullivan

Sulivan-Today-to allow one small light to appear to its best advantage.

His failing heart; his heartfelt joy . . .

“Enough of Science and of Art;/Close up those barren leaves;/Come forth and bring with you a heart/That watches and receives.”—William Wordsworth

Anita Sullivan

EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2019—Recently I began a study of the spiritual practice known as the Enneagram. As with most spiritual disciplines, each session begins with a series of breathing exercises designed to slow and clear the mind and to focus attention on the immediate moment—what is here right now. This is called Mindfulness. In this particular teaching, it was called “Being Present with your Heart.”

Unfortunately, no matter how much I trust and believe that focused breathing is a good idea, my quirky personal logic always reacts the same way to these exercises. Rather than bringing me, body and mind, into an emotionally neutral, open and relaxed state, the preliminary breathing ritual ramps up my attention once again to the odd fragility and raw uncertainty of this natural process. Breathing is not automatic and smooth: no two breaths are exactly alike. In fact, each breath turns out to be barely certain, open to negotiation, and totally vulnerable to terrorist attacks from the clever part of the brain.

Inhaling and exhaling suddenly seems an almost comically inadequate setup to keep humans alive. The breath is revealed to be a fragile system that some god found at a garage sale where it had been discarded from some other vast and complex mechanism, and now has been adapted to synch with the heart to keep the body moving. Breathing is fine if you want to shout or sing, whisper lovingly, weep, laugh. But to send a fickle breath out every few seconds (give or take a few) to scavenge for air, well you never know for sure it’s even likely to come back. This is clearly a job for the heart.

But which heart? Once the breathing exercise is over and you begin to explore the spiritual world view of your new system, you generally find yourself confronting some version of the physical/spiritual split between realities. With the Enneagram. it’s threefold: body, heart, and mind. The body fills the physical category, as before. But both the heart and brain immediately detach themselves from the body and assume their second, metaphorical identities: “brain” becomes “mind” and shoots off into the stratosphere to keep company with angels, souls, spirits and other traditional spirit beings. “Heart” lingers in-between, hollow, yet heavy with traditional meaning.

Left in the crack between worlds, what exactly is the human heart? What does it mean to “be present with your heart”?

A poem that beautifully and deftly moves back and forth between the physical and metaphorical meanings of “heart” is Linda Bierds’ “The Geographer,” which was inspired by Vermeer’s painting by that name. The man at the center of the painting is slightly hunched over, as if in pain, and Bierds’ poem assumes he is caught between the physical stress of his failing heart, and his overriding (heartfelt) joy at what he is seeing out the window—the annual burning of the flood fields for spring planting.

They are burning the flood fields—such a hissing, hissing,
like a landscape of toads. And is that how blood
circles back in its journey, like water through
the body of the world? And the great, flapping fire, then—
opening, withering—in its single posture
both swelling and fading—is that the human heart?

When I came to Greece for the first time, to the village of Evdilos on the island of Ikaria, after traveling straight through from Oregon for 26 hours, a small white Fiat pulled up at the dock where I had just gotten off the ferry from Athens with a small group of other students. The director of the language school we had signed up to attend, jumped out of the car with an enormous smile. The very first thing he said to us was “How do you FEEL?” And yes, he spoke the word ‘feel’ in capital letters. He obviously meant much more than “are you tired?” or “did you have a good trip?”—which he did not say. What he wanted was a response from the heart, the thesaurus of our vital secret knowledge, our direct experience of being human. I was totally smitten.

In ancient Greece, the epics of Homer did not really have a word for the human body. Not as a whole, only as an assembly of various limbs—and especially the ones that are routinely wounded in war. The “chest” was one of those limbs, and about as close as he came to talking about the heart.

Just as today we don’t really utilize a “spiritual” or metaphorical vocabulary for the body the way we do for the heart and the brain, Homer felt no need for, nor had any verbal means to shift back and forth as fluidly as we do between “heartbroken,” and “heart attack.”  

If humans were overcome by emotion, it did not come from an internal organ, it came from fate, or the gods. The seat of the intellect was not in the head, but in the chest, which presumably they knew as the prime spot to place a lethal wound and let the soul of life escape.

The Homeric word that is often translated as “body” is thymós, but it meant both less and more to the ancients than it does for us. At various times this word meant joy, pleasure, love, sympathy, anger, and all mental agitation—sometimes even knowledge. Thymós is today, in Modern Greek, a word that translates only as anger.

Two hundred years after Homer, but still before Plato and Aristotle, Sappho composed love songs on the island of Lesbos, using the word “thymós” specifically for “heart”—the word that Homer had used to refer to a bodily organ that meant many other things, but not that.

In Anne Carson’s beautiful translation of Sappho’s works (including what are mostly fragments), I counted the word “heart” only nine times, and all but one comes out of the Greek word “thymós,” which for Homer had referred to a variety of feelings and concepts, but only rarely to love.

Sappho conscripted the word to refer to that part of the human body most vulnerable to “eros” (her word for passionate, involuntary love—the kind that can be no more welcome than an attack of the plague, and less curable).

Today the Greek dictionaries all tell me that “thymós” means anger, and especially the kind that causes uncontrollable trembling. What squeezed love out of the body, out of the mind—and so left the heart alone to carry its terrible weight?

How is the fist-sized, hollow muscle that keeps us willing to move through each day—how can this small, asymmetrically-placed organ in our chests—no, WHY did it become so immediately vital for the story we each grope in the dark to read about ourselves? What continues to allow this physical organ that weighs less than a pound to refuse being split into two parts—physical and metaphorical—so that it manages to hold both parts as one unit, without our permission, much less our understanding?

Each day as I sit quietly in my study, slowly inhaling all the nutrients of each oxygen-rich moment into my body, my heart and my brain, I can feel a little “click” at the top of the intake, as the individual breath tips over and spills into the Grid, the huge river of energy that flows gratuitously through the world. Into this river I toss my ragged breathing, for whatever it may be worth, and feel myself standing on the edge of a beautiful chasm, with my hands slightly to the left side of my chest, cradling what I trust to be my heart.

Oh, my heart, how can you
my heart how, my heart how can you endure
in the midst of so much love and so much beauty?

—Mikis Theodorakis (lyric from “My April”)

Note: The author derives some of her thinking on Homer from Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature (Dover Publications, N.Y., 1982).

To order Anita Sullivan’s book, The Bird That Swallowed the Music Box, click on the book cover below.

Anita Sullivan

About Anita Sullivan

Born under the sign of Libra, Anita Sullivan cheerfully admits to a life governed by issues of balance and harmony. This likely led to her 25-year career as a piano tuner, as well as her love of birds (Libra is an air sign), and love of gardening, music and fine literature (beauty). She spent years trying to decide if she was a piano tuner who wrote poetry, or a poet who tuned pianos. She traveled a lot without giving way to a strong urge to become a nomad; taught without becoming a teacher; danced without becoming a dancer; and fell totally in love with the high desert country of the Southwest, and then never managed to stay there. However, Sullivan did firmly settle the writing question–yes, it turns out she is a writer, but not fixed into any one category. She has published two essay collections, a novel, two chapbooks and one full-length book of poetry, and many short pieces in journals. Most recently she published Ever After, a novel that takes place after life but before death, mostly on the Greek island of Ikaria. Every incident in the book happened to her in a slightly different form: she always writes from direct experience. Even more recently (November 2016) Sullivan published a chapbook of poems, And If The Dead Do Dream. True to her Libra roots, it has a theme of parallel worlds.
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5 Responses to What is the Heart?

  1. Avatar Diana says:

    Beautiful, as always, with so much to ponder. Especially as I too try to breathe in my yoga for oldies class and watch that little place where the breath stops altogether, Thymos? weird, that only anger survived of all those other emotions.

  2. Avatar Helen Noakes says:

    What a marvelous essay, Anita! The heart, though physical visible, is as mysterious as the mind. I often wonder where the mind actually resides: in the heart? in the brain? in the spirit? Perhaps all of these. When I was working with Tibetan monks, it struck me that whenever they spoke of “knowing” at the deepest sense of the word, the pointed to the their hearts. To them, this was the seat of knowing, and true knowing resided in the seat of compassion. And breath, that connection we have to all and everything, to that part of the Self that is connected to the universe, ties into that inherent knowledge, if we would just listen to its sound as it enters and exits our bodies, if we would just allow our senses to truly feel its presence within and around us. Thank you for helping me remember this remarkable organ that means more than we might be able to fully understand.

  3. Avatar Anita Sullivan says:

    Yes, Jean, thanks for your delicate understanding! Plato wrote about that deep kind of “knowing” when he distinguished between “particular knowledge” (of the brain) and “essential knowledge” which is the kind your monks were indicating.

  4. Avatar Anita Sullivan says:

    And yes, Diana, I also find it strange that “anger” is the only current translation for what used to mean so much more. I could be wrong about this, maybe you should run the idea past some of your friends. I know that lots of huge abstract words in many languages eventually get whittled away and become more particular.

  5. Avatar Jean says:

    Anita, as always, thank you. This is a delightful ramble through the forests of philosophy, etymology and physiology, and, as is usually true, leaves me with things to chew on as I walk my dogs and cl3an my counters. Also, your first paragraph had me rolling on the floor. I am not very good at seeking neutral, so the breathing discourse slew me. I always end up smiling when I read you!

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