by Elizabeth Rovere
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Rovere is a longstanding member of our faculty and board who has devoted her career to exploring the fertile intersection between the collective dimension of psychic healing and the spirituality of self-transcendent experience. Find out about Elizabeth’s contemplative reading group, Everyday Epiphanies: When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary running May 4, 11, 18.
When I was in graduate school for clinical psychology in the late 1990’s, I worked with refugees and wrote my dissertation on betrayal trauma. Initially, I was in awe of the resilience, perseverance, humility, as well as the gallows humor, of the people I met — Bosnians, Croatians, Serbians, as well as Azerbaijanis and Armenians — the latter two groups, displaced by war wound up together at a make-shift refugee camp
in Moscow’s Red Square. Despite the different nationalities, cultures and religions, and, of course, the war, they got on together, not perfectly, but like they were stuck with each other, as they had been neighbors for years. These people I happened upon in Red Square, in the worst of times, found their common humanity and reestablished a shared trust in order to survive and even thrive after losing their homes and livelihoods. Their deep shared sense of common humanity proved more powerful than all their differences.
While I was there I grew very curious about what seemed to “break” people. The recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS) has been around now for decades. Though before its more formal recognition, it was identified as “Achilles’ rage,” “shell shock” and “the human catastrophe.” Suffering is not new. Refugees lose their homes, their land, family members, their jobs, and communities, their dignity, and often feel no sense of future. The word trauma barely does justice to these tragic losses.
What struck me was that people seemed to be able to rebound from a lot of this but what ultimately gutted them and laid them flat was betrayal. Betrayal broke their hearts. Something broke essential human connection. Something put a blade through love. Family members and neighbors had turned on one another. Dante places those who commit acts of betrayal into the ninth and lowest Circle of Hell, where you find Judas and Satan. “The treacheries of these souls were denials of love and of all human warmth” (Dante, Inferno (trans.)). In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar gets stabbed 23 times but only succumbs on the last blow when his best friend and most trusted compatriot, Brutus, puts in the dagger. Losing his friend breaks his heart, and he dies. We all know the betrayal meme, “E tu, Brute?”
What struck me was that people seemed to be able to rebound from a lot of this but what ultimately gutted them and laid them flat was betrayal. Betrayal broke their hearts.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, is a medical condition well-known by cardiologists. This is a physical manifestation of an emotionally broken heart that occurs in response to intense emotional experiences. There is no physiological cause, and while it is often a temporary condition, it can be deadly. One of the heart chambers enlarges and collapses into a kind of big sigh and just doesn’t function. People go into failure, and it often happens to a person when someone in a long-term relationship dies and their partner’s heart breaks.
Robert Waldinger, who presently heads the notable ongoing 75-year-old Harvard study on what makes humans thrive, finds that we are at our best when we are socially and familially connected. Isolation is toxic. It is not fame, wealth, or high achievement, but rather, connection with family, friends, and community that enables thriving—not that these things have to be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, our culture tends to overvalue the former, placing too great a value on fame and monetary wealth. There is a lot of pressure to keep up appearances, have nice things, and look your best. Envy is rampant and the grass is always greener where you water it. We strive for external accolades no matter the cost, yet the things that truly make us whole come from within. Brené Brown, in her TED Talk, focuses on the value of shared vulnerability. That very strength is a part of resilience often shown by refugees. You get a group together, and in spite of their numerous differences, they share something authentic from the heart, and it can heal the unspeakable. People have described this process as “awakening” and “transformative.“ Shared stories lessen shame and revive us. Compassion can be found underneath all the surface obscurations. Mother Teresa says, “When we are not at peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”
Within my psychology training and experience, the importance of the heart has received little or no recognition, arguably due to the reference frame of scientific materialism. Where is the psychology of the heart? It’s as if it has been eclipsed by neuroscience, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive therapy, and all the many forms of mainstream psychotherapy?
Safety and trust restore through social connection, that very thing that had felt devastatingly broken. Healing connection can take us to a place where we feel whole and a part of the whole- both intrinsically and extrinsically. Mystics throughout the ages and in diverse cultures all seem to say that we are most ourselves when we are connected to that which is greater because we are a part of it, and it, us. This experience is at least as old as humanity, hundreds of thousands of years old. Sometimes this experience is described as “numinous“ or as an “oceanic feeling.“ I like how William James calls it, “that something more.” Blaise Pascal states, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…” In the words of Vivekananda, “God is a power that resides in the human heart.” Lastly, Václav Havel asserts, “The salvation of the world lies nowhere but the human heart. There is no ego in the heart.”
Within my psychology training and experience, the importance of the heart has received little or no recognition, arguably due to the reference frame of scientific materialism. Where is the psychology of the heart? It’s as if it has been eclipsed by neuroscience, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive therapy, and all the many forms of mainstream psychotherapy? These are all wonderful healing practices, but notice they are centered on mind, brain, cognition, and behavior. And, while I applaud the growing focus on body-centered and gut-centered therapies, and embrace the unconscious of Freud, Lacan, and Jung, mainstream psychology still has little to say about the heart. This despite the fact that the human heart has just as many neurons as a cat brain. Recently, medical research discovered the importance of heart-rate variability (HRV) in the mid 1990’s, including its role in stress resilience. HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which also regulates our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. HRV is a great marker for resilience to emotional and physical stressors, and for overall health. But what about the spiritual? How do you honor the realm of the spiritual from the materialist perspective of modern science and psychology? While on one hand, scientists tell us our heart is basically the brain of a cat; on the other hand, the mystics tell us our heart is the temple of God. How can two such divergent perspectives even enter into debate?
“The salvation of the world lies nowhere but the human heart. There is no ego in the heart.”
What would it mean to look at something material as also essentially spiritual? The “spiritual matter” of the heart is prominent in poetry and mysticism, and in Tantric Buddhism. Plotinus, Rumi, Ramakrishna, Shakespeare, Emerson, James, Blake, Madame Blavatsky, and Paul Muller-Ortega, are merely a few of many across time who come to mind. Within philosophy, literature, religion and spirituality, self-help, and new age, the heart is more center stage. Day to day, it’s everywhere as evidenced in our daily lexicon: “Hey, have a heart, broken hearted, lonely hearts club, whole-hearted, loss of heart, big-hearted, learn by heart, etc.” Literally, figuratively, emotionally, and spiritually, the heart embodies and references intimacy, although this also makes it scary and could likely be part of why it stays hidden in plain view. I am not talking about romantic love, per se, but rather, an internal connection with one’s own self, thereby allowing for genuine connection outwardly to whomever or whatever. It regards that awe-struck experience at a beautiful sunset, or it’s the dance of a dervish; it’s a sense of one’s smallness and yet one’s largeness in connection with something eternal or all-encompassing. This cake tastes just as sweet no matter which slice of it you take, and the spiritual is vital even if your way into it is not religious or theistic.
Robert Thurman, Professor Emeritus of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, says that the word “Mindfulness,” now so predominant and popular in our culture, is actually not such a great translation of the original Pali word, Sati; he prefers the term “Awakefulness.” Others say Sati means expansive awareness. Both of these later translations recognize more of a wholeness to being awake, aware, and interconnected. I wonder if we translated Sati as Mindfulness to fit our Western mind-brain centrism. Vajrayana Buddhism or Tibetan Tantra, which in all its permutations is a compassionate, heart-based doctrine. Buddhist and Hindu Tantra (Shaivism and Shaktism) and Kundalini yoga not only see the kingdom of heaven as being within but claim that each one of us has the capacity to become enlightened. Joe Loizzo has described enlightenment as the feeling of being connected to everyone and everything. You can think of that enlightenment as an embodied Nirvana, or as the realization of Christ Consciousness. This may be blasphemy to dualistic traditions, which make an absolute separation between humanity and the divine, or earth and heaven, but bridging that distance is exactly the aim of the radical non-dualism of Tantra.
I practice and teach BodyAwake Yoga (BAY), which is not explicitly Tantric doctrine, but one could say it is implicitly Tantric. It is a yoga about waking up to who you authentically are as a human here on the planet, while also simultaneously waking up to the part of you that is transcendent. BAY is arguably a practice of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Carl Jung’s path of individuation. BAY, in essence, resembles the esoteric practices of the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Indo-European mystery schools, which also appear to have evolved into the Tantric practices of India and Tibet. BAY parallels psychotherapy’s path of peeling back the onion. Simply put, it is about going into the heart of your self and becoming the truth of who you are.
I became a clinical psychologist because of what I witnessed in refugee camps: refugee betrayal trauma, which I see as heartbreak, and resilience due to shared vulnerability within community, which I read as restoring heart connection. I did not find enough of an answer to explain this healing power in my professional field, and this is what drove me to look further into the consciousness of the heart, including the power of love and compassion as transformational.
Within yoga and religious studies, it is not surprising that I have been drawn, without even knowing it, to Tibetan Buddhism and to BodyAwake Yoga. And it’s not surprising that I’ve been drawn to helping produce a documentary film in the making, The Heart Revolution. What I value in these traditions and am trying to highlight with the film is the vital importance of heart-based wisdom and its ability to connect us to something greater, to help us embody an awakened consciousness. That consciousness is what gives us a unified sense of being at one with all, or in terms of psychology, what Freud called “the oceanic feeling,” and James described as, “that something more.”