Within the utter darkness of the womb the fertilized egg divides. It divides again and yet again, becoming, in three days' time, a dozen or so cells gathered in a tiny ball. Soon an inequality in their size marks the beginning of differentiation, small planets destined to play their own specialized part in the scheme of things. Within seven days the minuscule mass of multiplying cells has lodged itself onto the wall of the uterus, wherein rapid changes transform its expanding shape to reveal the folds of the spinal cord and the nodal hood that will become the brain. The curving embryo seems to gather itself around the core of its being, which pulsates regularly to a life rhythm which is already its very own. Within the third week of its development the foetus possesses a heart which, by the twenty-seventh day, has four chambers, though it is much smaller than the proverbial eye of the needle through which the pure in heart may enter into heaven.
By the eighth week the heart is a tiny replica of that of the adult. Its cells are replete with genetic data which rapidly cross, converge and weave a seamless structure which takes shape long before any other major organ. By two months, coronary circulation has begun and the now pea-sized organ assumes its mantle of tireless sovereign and distributor of the body's vital river of blood, without which life would quickly cease. All depends upon the faithful pumping of the heart and yet no one is able to identify the precise point in foetal development when it begins. The pulsation of the tiny organ is recognizable at four weeks, but the cells clustered together to form the nucleus of what would become a fully shaped heart carry within them the seed of that pulsation which, even in the earliest stages, is the basis for a unique individual rhythm. Just as mysterious is the question of when the beating of the heart ceases. Disembodied hearts, even the separated individual cells of the heart, can continue to beat. Certain separated heart cells commence beating as they multiply in a nutritive liquid and begin to crowd upon one another. The beating cells impart their rhythm to the others until all the cells form a solid sheet of pulsating tissue. Why these certain cells first begin to beat remains a mystery to exoteric science, one which is basic to the question of what makes the heart beat at all.
From whence comes the first pulsation that ripples unobserved through the growing heart? What is the ancestry of that beat which heralds the beginning of a throbbing, to be repeated in an adult more than one hundred thousand times a day? Those who disclaim all but empirical answers leave the question open and focus instead on the marvel that is the heart itself. They see it as a pump, a machine, a wonderful muscular mass whose layers are composed of strands of individual cells which are the labourers of the whole. Linked end to end and side to side in an intricate network, their individual efforts merge to create the vital contractions of what is the largest involuntary muscle in the body. But they are informed by the heart's own electrical commands as well as those of the autonomic nervous system. In this lies the uniqueness of the heart as a muscle and as a connector and sustainer of life.
Forty-five hundred years ago the medical wisdom of the Yellow Emperor was collected in a work called the Nei Ching, which taught that "the heart is the root of life" and the pulse of a healthy heart "flows and connects ... like a string of red jade". Connecting and sustaining life, the heart is necessarily at the centre. If one judges from its encased position in the anatomical scheme of things, Nature does not seem to have intended that it be probed or even easily seen. Unseen, it yet was always believed to be the seat of life and, indeed, the link between lives. The ancient Egyptians believed the heart of one life was linked to that of the next. It was the only organ which the funerary specialists left in mummies or its own canopic jar, the heart being considered indispensable for immortality. Perhaps this was sensed by Cro-Magnon men twenty-five thousand years ago when they painted outsized red ochre hearts in the centre of bison and mammoth figures on the walls of Iberian caves. They wished to possess the life-spirit of so great a beast. They wished to assimilate its power and mystery, not merely ingest its flesh.
From the Aztec sacrifice of the living human heart to the Hindu identification of its essential nature as the Divine Centre, Brahma, symbolized by the lotus flower emanating the whole of creation, the heart reigns as the indispensable connector to the eternal and the sustainer of the temporal. In its pulsation, in its steady, unfailing flux, it has been thought by many peoples to be the seat of man's immortal soul. But some, like the ancient Hindus, conceived of the heart as the sacred symbol of the One Central Living God. The Mayan tradition poetically speaks of such a Deity in the words of the Popul Vuh:
The Quiche Mayan called the Heart of the Sky Hurakan and believed that the lesser gods created the earth through him. Far off in the ancient East theurgists anticipated such inspired notions, referring to the parts of the heart as Brahma's Hall and Vishnu's Chamber. They asserted that each section corresponded to parts of the brain, whilst "the very atoms of the body (as a whole) are the thirty-three crores (in the Hindu pantheon) of gods". The idea that man is a microcosm of the macrocosm lends special significance to the heart, for surely, some have reasoned, the universe itself must have a heart which throbs and gives it life. In this view, it is most meaningful to identify that Great Heart with God and to express the deepest reverence for it, as did the pharaoh Ikhnaton in his Hymn to the Sun written in the fourteenth century before Christ.
Plato spoke of the valve action of the heart and how it was the fiery origin of human passions. Millennia later Matthew Arnold echoed this widely accepted idea, writing that man could not kindle when he would "the fire that in the heart resides". He poetically suggested that the fire in the heart took its flame from the spirit that comes and goes and that, somehow in this mystery, man's soul abides. Aristotle, offering a somewhat more mechanical explanation, asserted that the soul's vital spirit did indeed rest in the heart, contracting and expanding so as to "pull and thrust from one and the same causes". Most tribal peoples of the globe have also believed that the heart is the seat of the soul and have sometimes put this notion to work in alarming ways. Few engaged in massive human sacrifices like those of the Aztecs, but many people have practised acts of ritual cannibalism wherein the heart was consumed as the organ-seat of the victim's immortal soul or of their potency and courage. To such an end has fallen many a brave warrior, whilst some, like the thirteenth century Danish crusader whose heart was eaten by the Sakkala peasants of Finland, simply blundered into the unexpected role of sacrificial offering.
Throughout the ages hearts have been depicted as 'broken', 'heavy', 'turned to stone', 'cold', 'warm', 'kind', 'bleeding', 'singing' and 'true'. Many of these epithets have to do with feelings or dispositions, but a 'true heart' is something unchanging, suggesting that Truth is present in an organ capable of reflecting it. The unswerving dependability of the heart is partly responsible for this association, but behind that rests the notion of what lies at the very core of an individual's life, the Truth that explains itself. We try to demonstrate our sincerity by 'speaking from the bottom of the heart' and we hope that those who hear us will somehow glean from the tone of our voice and the light of our eyes that it is indeed from that hidden cave of Truth that our utterance springs. This ancient idea has ennobled the thought and speech of many people, inspiring the Egyptians to symbolize the judgement at death in terms of weighing the individual's heart against a feather to measure truth.
Not in the busy mind but in the depth of one's heart is sensed the Divine Presence at the centre of one's being. Here, the Buddhists say, is to be found the essential nature of Buddha, which is a reservoir of compassionate wisdom. The purity and indestructibility of this fount gives rise to the term 'Diamond Heart', which flames forth in seven streams of sound and light. This heart truly sings - the music of the solar system singing in the cosmic stream. The breadth and depth of the Heart Doctrine speaks to the uncluttered hearts of those who are capable of being profoundly moved by its compassionate message. Thus the Tibetans came to accept Buddhism after the Doctrine of the Heart had been introduced into earlier Buddhist teachings to which they had been exposed. However imperfectly, they intuitively sensed the completion of a sacred design. They realized that only through the wisdom of the heart would the hidden Jewel in the Lotus reveal itself, the Good Law becoming the Heart's Seal on all that came to pass. Through the glimmerings of their hearts men and women may catch glimpses of their connection with the vastitude of the manifest universe.
The Taoists taught that a realized Sage has seven orifices in his heart and they are all open. Such a heart is 'the seat of Buddha', wherein all past lives are remembered and where the seven streams flow above the field of synchronized time and bear the essence of the compassionate nature that, through infinite sacrifice and renunciation, ever converts them into manifest rivers of life. According to Gupta Vidya, these are the reflections of the "seven Dhyani-Buddhic rays, which are mirrored by the secondary hierarchies in the complex nervous system". The spiritual heart in man is the link between the heart of the cosmos and the beating physical organ within the breast. One must think and feel through the heart to understand the ideas of ancient Sages and their deep insight into human physiology.
The history of the empirical knowledge of the heart and its workings stretches far back and is strewn with metaphysical concepts. Four thousand years ago the Egyptians understood that the pulse 'measured' the heart and used it to diagnose illnesses, as did the Chinese even earlier. With the Aristotelian emphasis on empirical observation, thought moved from the realm of analogy and correspondence to the concrete possibilities of vivisection. In the second century, Galen, from Pergamon, served as physician to the gladiators for the Romans, during which practice his curiosity about the human body led him to dissect hundreds of animals. A skilled doctor, he was also a shrewd advocate of his methods and became court physician to Marcus Aurelius and chief mentor to medical investigators for several centuries. His influence was felt by such as Andreas Vesalius, who, in the sixteenth century, "determined to dissect everything he could get his hands on" and whose De humani corporis fabrica libri septem became the standard reference on human physiology of his time. Even such genius as that possessed by Leonardo da Vinci was inflamed with similar curiosity, causing him to overcome his "fear of living in the night hours in the company of those corpses" (which he had stolen) in his zeal to dissect them and study their innermost parts. He recognized that the heart was a pump with four chambers and believed that the blood in it was warmed through the action of churning in order for the vivifying process to take place - an interesting mixture of alchemical and empirical reasoning.
William Harvey, whose seventeenth century colleagues were responsible for the little Rhyme of Appreciation quoted above, was the first to recognize that the human organism contained a fairly constant supply of blood and that it circulated through the whole body as a result of the "function of the heart which it carries out by virtue of its pulsation, and that in sum it constitutes the sole reason for that heart's pulsatile movement". Thus, with a pragmatic stroke, the heart was categorized as a pump which moves more than two thousand gallons of blood through the human body each day, which weighs about eleven ounces and is about the size of a fist. Lying beneath the breastbone like a hollow pear-shaped pouch, it is composed of two upper atria and two lower ventricles. The right atrium receives the dark carbon dioxide-laden blood and releases it through a valve into the right ventricle, from which it travels to the lungs, where it is cleansed and oxygenated so that it takes on its familiar bright red colouration. From the lungs it enters into the left atrium, from which it flows through the mitral valve into the left ventricle, where powerful contractions push it out through a semilunar valve into the aorta, its first step in the long circuit through the blood vessels of the body.
Even to one who merely observes it as a physical phenomenon, the heart is "the very essence and poetry of fantastic precision, perfected motion and endurance". It is composed of muscle fibre whose cells have an abundance of mitochondria which act as power centres, converting food to energy. Electrical currents passing along from fibre to fibre with ease enable the structural lattice-work of separate cells to function like a group that have merged to act as a single cell. As with the separated cells from the disembodied heart, certain cardiac muscle cells of the living heart generate their own electrical current, commanding the rest of the heart's fibres to contract. The valves of the heart open and close with every heartbeat. They are one-way doors whose perfect function is responsible for keeping the blood moving in a fast and endless stream. Their dysfunction can permit a potentially lethal back-up of blood in the veins and arteries. As each chamber fills and contracts, blood presses against the underside of the valve cusps, closing them as part of an endless rhythm of open and close that takes place more than once a second. Their durability and steady response is one of the great wonders of the heart.
Heart attack has probably struck fear into the minds of human beings for as long as a sedentary way of life has tended to prevail. There is no tradition of death through heart disease among the hunters and gatherers of the world, though some are said to have died of a 'broken' heart, like Chief Joseph, who was forced to spend his last years as a captive exile from his beloved Walla Walla home. The Chinese who were familiar with heart problems believed that by putting bad ideas into practice, humans damaged their hearts (whereas wrong thoughts themselves were believed to cause lung trouble). Owing to the suddenness of heart attack, people have often identified it with some sort of lightning-stroke retribution, but it is actually the result of disease attacking the heart's muscular essence. At least eighty percent of such attacks are caused by diseased coronary arteries often identified as arteriosclerosis. The heart keeps five percent of the blood it pumps for nourishment. The coronary arteries drain the vital fluid from pockets formed by the cusps of the valves and carry it to all parts of the heart. Small branches of these meet in complex junctions where a blood clot or buildup of fat or cholesterol can cut off the flow to crucial areas of the organ, bringing on heart muscle death.
A weakened heart can result in congestive heart failure, where either or both of the ventricles fail to empty themselves fully during systole. Thus, cardiac output would decrease while pressure builds up simultaneously in the atria and blood is forced back into the lungs or veins. Besides the narrowing or blocking of the arteries supplying blood to the heart, certain other factors can contribute to its failure. Rheumatic fever affects the valves so that with each heartbeat blood leaks backward and a short-circuiting of the heart's electrical system can produce cardiac arrhythmia. In this latter case the electrical impulse is blocked or premature and is actually generated from a site other than the sinoatrial node, the heart's pacemaker. Another electrical circuit problem arises in the form of flutters and fibrillations, sometimes called electrical frenzies. In its 'circus movement' the heart's electrical impulses may, as it were, chase and catch themselves. This produces a chain reaction involving the splitting of impulses, and their multiplication can spread out of control, often in the atria.
The systole and diastole of the heart are its contraction and dilation, its great and constant pulsation. In the Greek, συστολη (systole) literally means 'contraction' or 'limitation', whereas the verb διαστελλω (diastello) means to 'put asunder' or 'tear open' and comes from the root στελλειν, meaning 'to set in order', "to dispatch' or 'array'. With each rippling wave of contraction, the heart twists a quarter turn and then relaxes. This wonderfully complex process is managed in fine split-second rhythm through the electricity generated by the heart's natural pacemaker. Situated high on the wall of the right atrium, this electrically self-exciting cluster of cells or sinoatrial node has an inherent rhythm of seventy beats per minute. The beat of the heart, along with all the body's circadian rhythms (governing such things as temperature fluctuation, blood sugar level, adrenal activity, RNA and DNA synthesis and cell division), is innate and persistent. Before birth the human heart rate is constant. This stability or lack of periodicity (relatively speaking) persists even after birth, and it is not until the sixth week after birth that the subtle effects of night and day appear. A clearly defined rhythm takes over only in the latter part of the first year (a similar course being followed by the body temperature, etc.). With growth, the low point of these rhythms moves from the late night hours in the infant to the early morning hours in the adult.
All organisms must adapt to a temporally programmed world. They thus require an endogenous master clock which anticipates external shifts and adapts to them. This process of synchronization or entrainment is carried out by the pineal gland, which translates light into melanin, a substance which has a biochemical impact on the whole regulatory or autonomic nervous system. It maintains the body's rhythms in phase with one another through the hypothalamus. If these rhythms are not coupled to the external environment, dyphasis occurs, causing both biochemical and physiological damage. Dance, music, the noises and actions of machines - all are external rhythms that can become so strong as to 'possess' individuals and actually affect the synchronization of the 'internal clocks'. In more subtle ways the aura of the pineal gland vibrates with every sensation translated into conscious experience. Every perception is registered there. Gupta Vidya teaches that the septenary play of light in the aura of the pineal gland is reflected in the heart's aura, which vibrates and illumines the 'seven brains' of the heart, known in the Buddhist tradition as the Saptaparna Cave of the Buddha.
With these influences from above and from below, the magic of the heart's electrical system asserts itself always towards balance. Holding the heart in a finely poised state, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves cast "their electrochemical spells", slowing and quickening as they compete for the 'loyalty' of the heart. But they themselves are governed by rhythms monitored by the pineal gland and work in conjunction with the heart's own impulse. The balance to which the heart addresses itself is not merely coordinated with the external physical world nor based only upon the unique qualities of the internal microcosmic world of the human body. It responds to the seven rays reflected in its aura which are themselves reflections of the "hebdomadal Heart of the cosmos and the secret, spiritual heart in man". The light which is translated by the pineal gland and which, in its transformed state, has so much to do with the rhythms of the physical human microcosm is a shadow of the spiritual light that emanates from the Heart of the cosmos. It is an echo of the Dhyani-Buddhic light that 'plays' around the pineal gland and fills the cave of man's secret heart.
The pulsation of the physical heart is an echo of that of the Central Spiritual Heart (Sun), and its rate of seventy beats per minute is a precise fractional reflection of an overwhelmingly high rate of vibration which is capable of insinuating its throbbing rhythm into every unseen and seen vessel of the entire universe. Thus planets, stars, species and races all have their rate of pulse which is synchronized with the vaster rhythmic pattern of manifestation. In our solar system there is a regular circulation of vital fluid originating on an invisible plane but percolating through the visible sun to affect the whole of physical Nature. The sun contracts as rhythmically as the human heart, taking "the solar blood ten of its years, and a whole year to pass through its auricles and ventricles before it washes the lungs and passes thence to the great veins and arteries of the system".
The Heart of the Cosmos which is the Central Spiritual Sun self-generates the vital electricity which ever issues forth the regenerating fluid and ever receives back as much as it gives out. During the sandhyas the Spiritual Sun emits creative light only passively. But during active periods of being "it gives rise to streams of ceaseless energy, whose vibrating currents acquire more activity and potency with every rung of the hebdomadic ladder of Being they descend". The sacred electric source of life within the Spiritual Sun is triple and concealed, manifesting as Seven Fires (the Dhyani-Buddhic Rays) which are responsible for the seven states of consciousness and the senses which are the causes of the phenomena from which the Self is emancipated. Within the Spiritual Sun lies the "reservoir within which divine radiance, already differentiated at the beginning of every creation, is focussed". In perfect mirroring of this the tiny pulsating heart within the human foetus is the focal point of the descending human monad as it pulsates forth out of the reservoir of its own ancestral potentiality into the growing confines of an earthly form. Just as the visible sun is only a window cut into the real solar presence which reflects the work within, so the physical heart reflects the work of individuated rays of the Dhyanis which continually recharge the macrocosmic and microcosmic systems, breaking down, refining material and washing it clean in the 'lungs' of Akashic Space. Weighing in the balance, cleansing and purifying: this is the work of the universal and human heart.
Thus the sun is a heart and the heart is a sun from the most ethereal level to the visible and physical. The Spiritual Sun is the father of the human soul and all divine faculties in man expand with the expansion of its light. Surya/Savitri, Creator and Increaser, "Thou art utterly expressed by the rays of the Sun." This is true if one tunes the whole of one's being to the innermost promptings of the heart and enters fully into the vast pattern of purification which is the great work of all manifested life. The human body is kept alive through a circulatory process which ever cleanses and revitalizes. It is precisely this which human beings need to do in their interactions with one another in order to help unite the separately pulsating cells into a continuous, synchronized whole capable of establishing a harmonious rhythm in which love and truth can become the keynote. To do this in whatever degree is to become attuned to the vibrating pulse of the Spiritual Heart of the universe.
The diseases of the heart are produced by fear, selfishness and the cruel acts of omission that drain the world dry of love and leave human minds parched in a desert of dying hopes and cynicism. The fear which continually short-circuits the electrical flow within distorts one's perspective on everything and encourages the cringing forms of self-protection and indulgence. Fear and such a crippling absorption with one's own interests are the basis for heartless actions of appalling proportions affecting individuals, groups and whole nations and dehumanizing all who are connected with them. To go against the heart is to deny one's humanity and to deny the One Heart of everything that lives. All those who are not utterly without soul know this and intuitively revere the Doctrine of the Heart, which is the Path of the Open and Loving Heart. Enlightened Sages of every age are united consubstantially in the Akashic essence which flows through their hearts and informs their minds. Through compassion they are united in One Truth and their hearts are the links that connect the members of this sacred Fraternity and which overflow as a purifying and vitalizing tonic for humanity. Lesser men are bound together by lesser unities. Their hearts filled with pride, desire, exclusive loyalty and love, they set themselves off against others outside their circles. "The passing sneer, the epithet of revulsion, and their psychic correlations: these are failures of the heart to recognize its own."
As we look 'over the head' of the personality of others, into their heart, we can reverse this tendency to draw only contracting circles. One becomes deeply moved by what one sees in another's heart, for the entire history of the human race pulsates there in a unique and ever-poignant cadence. The reality of one's brotherhood with every other human being thus becomes manifest. The open-hearted Sage who does this is as a child among children, a scholar among the learned and a courageous warrior among soldiers. He is at peace with all persons and acts neither in terms of past and future nor loves and aversions, but in terms of the eternal truth which flows freely through his heart.