The Human Heart is a Supersensible Organ of Perception
By Douglas Gabriel
Chapter Seven: Historical Review of the Centrality of the Heart
Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.Gautama Buddha
Heart knowledge has evolved over time rather slowly and often has forgotten what the ancients already understood about the function and nature of the human heart. Modern science is only slightly further along in a comprehensive understanding of the cosmic significance of the human heart and its nature as a supersensible organ of perception. The ancients had the advantage of being clairvoyant and could “see” what was actually happening in the heart. They used archaic images and descriptions of heart functions and pointed at mysteries concerning the ultimate nature of the heart.
They placed the heart above all else in the grand picture of human evolution. Following this path through history is quite instructive and demonstrates that the ancients may have used poetic language to describe the heart, but their insights were just as useful now as they were then. We can learn a great deal about the evolution of the understanding of the heart by hearing historical descriptions, in their own words, concerning the truth about the heart.
In the Vedas and Upanishads, the central core of divinity possessed its true center of incarnation within the human heart. The organ itself then takes on a creating, transforming, and sculpting character. There, in the “ether of the heart”, the divine lives in “deepest slumber” in a “hollow space” sheltering the universe. It is there that the human being and the world become one. The spiritual power of the divine is divided into infinitely tiny pieces within our individual bodies and throughout the world generating the warmth of the heart. Out of this arises the breath, and from the breath the Om-sound is created in the heart as the word of creation. It rises up to the throat and the lungs, becoming the “sound of the heart” and “matrix” of the world; the voice at the center of everything, the womb of creation.
The Para-pravesika by Ksemaraja
“That self-referential capacity of the heart is given many names in the agamas: spirit, consciousness, the ever-arising supreme word, freedom, the Supreme Self, the preeminent, sovereignty, agency, flashing vibratory throb, essence, subtle vibration – and because of this, its real nature is that of the original natural egoity.”
Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.1-4)
“Now, what is here in the city of brahman, is an abode, a small lotus flower. Within that is a small space. What is within that should be searched out; that, assuredly, is what one should desire to understand. As far as this world-space extends, so far extends the space within the heart. Within it, indeed, are contained both heaven and earth, both fire and wind, both sun and moon, lightning and the stars, both what one possesses here and what one does not possess; everything here is contained within it that does not grow old with one’s old age; it is not slain with one’s murder. That is the real city of Brahman. In it, desires are contained. That is the soul (atman), free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, thirstless, whose desire is the real, whose conception is the real.”
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.1.7)
“Brahman is the heart . . . . the heart is the seat of all things. The heart is the support of all things, for on the heart alone all things are established. The highest Brahman is the heart. The heart does not leave him who, knowing this, worships it as such.”
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (5.6.1)
“This person (purusha) here in the heart is made of mind, is of the nature of light, is like a little grain of rice, is a grain of barley. This very one is ruler of everything, is lord of everything, governs this whole universe, whatsoever there is.”
Svetasvatara Upanishad (4.17)
“That god, the all-worker, the great soul (Mahatman) ever seated in the heart of creatures, is framed by the heart, by the thought, by the mind. They who know that become immortal.”
Katha Upanishad (6.16-17)
“There are a hundred and one channels of the heart. One of these passes up to the crown of the head. Going up by it, one goes to immortality. The others are for departing in various directions. A person of the measure of a thumb is the inner soul (antaratman) ever seated in the heart of creatures.”
Taittiriya Upanishad (1.6.1)
“This space that is within the heart – therein is the person, consisting of mind, immortal, resplendent.”
Maitri Upanishad (6.22)
“By closing the ears with the thumbs, they hear the sound of the space within the heart. Of it there is this sevenfold comparison: like rivers, a bell, a brazen vessel, a wheel, the croaking of frogs, rain, as when one speaks in a sheltered place. Passing beyond this variously characterized (sound-brahman), men disappear in the supreme, the non-sound, the unmanifested Brahman. The ether-storehouse of the heart is bliss, is the supreme abode. This is our self, our yoga too; and this, the heat of fire and sun.”
Mahanarayanopanisad Upanishad (13.6-12)
“In the middle of that (narrow space of the heart or sushumna) remains the undecaying, all-knowing, omni-faced, great fire, which has flames on every side, which enjoys the food presented before it, which remains assimilating the food consumed, (the rays of which spread scattering themselves vertically and horizontally) and which warms its own body from the insole to the crown. In the center of that fire which permeates the whole body, there abides a tongue of fire, of the color of shining gold, which is the topmost among the subtle.”
Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (4.2.3)
“Indra by name is this person here in the right eye. Now that which has the form of a person in the left eye is his wife, Viraj. Their meeting-place is the space within the heart. Their food is the red lump in the heart. Their covering is the net-like work in the heart. The path that they go is that channel which goes upward from the heart. Like a hair divided a thousand-fold, so are the channels called hita, which are established within the heart. The person here who among the senses is made of knowledge, who is the light in the heart.”
“There is this city of Brahman (the body) and in it the palace, the small lotus (the heart) and in it that small ether. Now what exists within that small ether, that is to be sought for, that is to be understood. As large as the ether of space is, so large is that ether within the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained within it, both fire and air, both sun and moon, both lightning and stars, and whatever is not, all that is contained within it. Ether does not age, and at the death of the body this ether is not spilled. It is this ether, or Brahman, that is the true Self, free from ignorance and change and partaking of the qualities of reality. The Lord of the past and of the future, should be meditated upon as a light (flame) the size of the thumb in the cavity of the heart. The spot in the heart which is the last of all to die is the seat of life, the center of all, Brahma, the first spot that lives in the fetus, and the last that dies. This spot contains potential mind, life, energy, and will. During life it radiates prismatic colors, fiery and opalescent. When the time of death arrives, the spirit withdraws its radiations from the parts and extremities of the body in the heart. The heart becomes luminous; from it the soul departs. There are a hundred and one arteries of the heart; one of them penetrates the crown of the head; moving upward; by it a human reaches the immortal. He is going to the Sun, for the Sun is the door of the world, the little door in the wall of heaven.”
The Rig Veda
In the Rig Veda, the terms for heart (hrd and hrdaya) occur close to a hundred times. Here are some of the descriptions of the heart:
- able to see what is denied to the physical eye
- by which one comes into touch with the Gods
- enables a human being to penetrate into deep secrets and mysteries
- it is in or by the heart that visions are fashioned into words
- visions undergone in the heart are explicitly described as a purification or clarification
- the soma juices which are drunk by the officiants are believed to be in their hearts
- through the heart, the light of higher insight and contact with the transcendent one arises through the heart, one becomes all-seeing
- inspired seers pay heed to the god who is not subject to decay within their heart
- clarified butter of the word flows from the ocean in the heart
- words of the poets come to and touch the heart of a god
- the poet bears the soma in his heart
- the spiritual heart is the soul and its psychic activity
- the heart is considered the seat of feelings
- Atman, the spiritual heart, has no physical or mental dimensions
- the heart chakra is a level or dimension of our being and of the entire manifestation
- the spiritual heart is a spark of God
- Atman (the spiritual heart) and Brahman (the absolute) are one
- our heart – our eternal, undying self – is identical with Brahman
- the spiritual heart is a reflection of everything, the supreme consciousness
- the heart is the essence of everything, the background of existence
- we are all revealing the same heart, the same divine self, the same ultimate reality
- the heart of man and the heart of the world are a single heart
- we should surrender into the heart, into the supreme reality, into God
- the godly atom of the self is to be found in the right chamber of the heart
- the self is in the cave of this heart, here lies the dynamic, radiant spiritual heart
- the spiritual heart, is the intuition of who we are
- the limitlessness of the spiritual heart is absolute because it has no form – it can contain totality
- we should lower the mind to the heart
- the heart is the object, means, and subject of meditation
- the spiritual heart is the witness of consciousness, the profound and intimate self
- the heart becomes the knower, the instrument of knowledge, and the object of knowledge
- meditation starts from the heart and returns to the heart
- the divine reality of existence, the present, the “I am,” resides in the heart
- when we withdraw the senses and center ourselves in the heart, we can search “the interior”
- we pass from the usual “conquering” attitude of the mind to a receptive, contemplative disposition using surrender to attain lucidity
- the spiritual heart has a radiance of pure presence, not action of the ego
- the heart has a plenitude of the wholeness
- the attention of the heart-mind has an attitude of waiting, peace, and sacredness
- attention emanates from the heart and ends up in the heart
- real knowledge resides in the heart, in the wisdom that illuminates us with brightness
- the best way of keeping the awareness of the spiritual heart is to love
- the spiritual heart generates love, devotion, zeal, fervor, heartiness, ardor, adoration, ecstasy
- our spiritual heart (as the organ of perception) needs to be cultivated
- art and contemplation are some of the ways to cultivate our spiritual heart
- we should meditate for the revelation of the spiritual heart and love
- we should teach the sacred principles of the kingdom of the heart
- the heart produces pure love, yearning, fervor, the sacred tremor, and the aspiration for God
- complete silence of the mind is necessary before entering the secret sanctuary of the heart
- initiates of the spiritual heart are able to rise above their egos toward the supreme essence
- the heart is a subtle organ of wisdom, or transcendental intellect
- the rational mind cannot understand the reasoning of the heart
- spiritual intuition comes from the heart
- rational thinking is the reflection of the energy of the heart – reflected knowledge
- the mind knows through information – the heart knows through surrender, trust, and joy
- the knowledge of the heart is instantaneous and undivided, revelation, whole, non-dual
- the heart is named “The circle of the Sun”
- intuition comes from the heart, is divine, and participates in universal spiritual wisdom
- the heart is the spiritual Sun, the place of revelation, the vital center of being, and intuition
- the heart is a visible manifestation of God to humanity – a sacred symbol
- the primordial subtle energy ascends from the heart to the mind
- the mind is seen as a Moon which simply reflects the light of the heart’s Sun
- in the heart, all the vain noise of the world is quieted – a sanctuary of silence
- in the “cave of the Heart”, the consciousness of unity is revealed – the world and man are one
- the Heart should be trained to increase its purity and capacity to love, witness, and surrender
- the spiritual heart is a gateway to infinity, where the supreme self, Atman, is revealed
The Triadic Heart of Siva, by Abhinavagupta
“The heart (hrdaya), the resting place of all, is mantra, which, in its essence, is nothing but free-consciousness, which also is simply the power of transcendental speech.
The power which resides in the heart of consciousness is freedom itself. The purpose of its creative activity is the immortal group, the entire range of perceiving subject, perceived object, and process of perception.
The heart is, above all, formed of an undivided self-referential consciousness.
My heart, which is composed of the emission of the quivering flashing condition of the union of the Mother and Father, whose body is full, which generates that concealed light which has five faces, producing the great and quite new manifestation, which is the abode of the stainless manifesting energies, because of its quivering and throbbing, is the supreme immortal group.
Within whom all this universe appears, appearing as the external luminous projection during the process of manifestation. Situated in the supreme, which is trembling, which is immovable, to Her I bow down, the one Goddess who is the perception of one’s own self.
The heart is called the place where there is a repose in the pure light and pure consciousness, which is not different from the parts of the body. Only the light of the heart truly exists; in creative activity it is the active agent, and this activity, when it reposes in itself, is the self-referential capacity of consciousness, whereas when it begins to spread outwards it causes the manifestation of the universe.
The nature of such a consciousness is its capacity for self-referral, and because of that, there always arises a spontaneous sound which is termed the supreme, the great heart. That self-consciousness in the heart in which the entire universe without remainder is dissolved, present at the beginning and at the end of perception of objects, is called in the authoritative texts “the
Vibration”, and more precisely, “the universal vibration”, and its nature is an overflowing in the self. For that vibration, which is a slight motion of a special kind, a unique vibrating light, is the wave of the ocean of consciousness, without which there is no consciousness at all. For the character of the ocean is that it is sometimes filled with waves and sometimes waveless. This consciousness is the essence of all. The insentient universe has consciousness as its essence, because its very foundation is dependent on that, and its essence is the “great heart.”
When the heart is in a state of contraction, the awakened awareness of the individual self is in fact a state of ignorance. But when this contraction ceases to function, then the true nature of the self shines forth.
In the two conditions, the inner and the outer, there exists a vibration of consciousness whose nature is the three powers, a vibration which is both universal and particular, which is always in the process of expanding and contracting because it so wishes to appear even though in reality it is beyond all expansion and contraction.
It is the heart whose nature is a vibration which constitutes the supreme method for achieving the highest non-duality which consists of a universal grace. For the nature of the self-referential character of the consciousness which composes the awakening in the heart is that it is an astonishment brought about by the total fullness of consciousness.
That reality which is higher than the highest and the lowest, is called the Goddess, that reality is the essence, the heart, the supreme emissional power of the Lord.
In order that a sacrifice be successful, one must properly honor the Goddess with fragrant flowers which effortlessly allow for an entrance into the heart; and by flowers are meant all substances – external and internal which nourish the heart because they bestow their own nature within the heart.
Now as for the supreme, as it is called here, there is a meditation on it. The light, the freedom, whose essential nature is consciousness contains within it all principles, realities, things. This light abides in the heart.
The knower of truth sees that reality within the heart like a flower within which are all external and internal things, a flower shaped like a plantain bloom. He should meditate with undistracted mind on the union there in the heart of the sun, moon, and fire. This union expands and flames violently in the great firepit known as the heart.
Just as the large tree is to be found potentially in the banyan tree seed, so this world, both inanimate and animate abides in the seed of the heart.
This heart which moves in the midst of the lunar stations made up of time – of the all – is present in everything in the form of an undifferentiated self-referential consciousness; one should continually meditate on this seed of the heart as having penetrated into one’s own heart, into one’s consciousness, which is in the form of the lotus-flower because it plays at expanding and contracting.
This heart is the abode, the dwelling place, the resting place of all beings. That which is mine, belongs to the perceiving subject. For of all existing appearances beginning with blue and extending as far as the worm, there is nothing whatsoever which may be termed blue, and so on unless it be penetrated by a portion of consciousness. So my consciousness attains a portion of the uninterrupted astonishment and then, when it encounters blue, it experiences, ‘Blue appears to me.’
That which is the space of the Heart which belongs to me, in which are found all beings within the infinite, there the entire universe, whose nature is represented by the sound Mama (mine), has gone, and is completely held. But when it abandons its differentiated nature the space becomes empty. Then my heart takes on a double nature, which is both differentiated and non-differentiated, supreme consciousness and non-supreme consciousness, and becomes the place of repose, the dwelling place of limits, that is, the ‘I.’
That which is the stream of manifestation, that is the supreme, which is situated in the space of my heart.
The tantric practitioner who has penetrated into the heart whose essence is pure existence and potency, who because of the particular efficacy of the practice of the ritual of adoration is capable of remembering perfectly the mantra, thus attains to a very high degree the potency of the mantra which is the reality known as the heart. By the peculiar efficacy of the ritual of
adoration he crosses over completely, either by himself or as a result of the clear and pristine lotus-word of the teacher, and obtains the power of the mantra, whose essential characteristic is the heart, and in this way he attains liberation in this very life.
The essence of consciousness is freedom, and the essence of that is a mass of bliss. It is for this reason that ritual actions directed toward an attainment of a state of identity and absorption should be carried out employing elements that bring joy to the heart.
When the absorption into the heart is maintained for four periods of forty-eight minutes, then the totality, whose nature is essentially light, attains the condition of day, and the contraction of the night of Maya (illusion) is destroyed. Then the practitioner with this very body becomes omniscient.”
Vimarsini, by Abhinavagupta
“I adore the supreme with the priceless goblet of the heart which is full of the ambrosia of bliss.
This supreme wheel goes out from the heart through the spaces of the eyes, and so forth, and ranges over the various objects of the senses. Because of the wheel’s (chakra’s) rays of light, a form whose nature is of the light of the moon, sun, and fire is established in those objects by regular degrees in conjunction with manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution. In this way, as this wheel falls on the various objects of the senses by way of the sense-capacity openings, one should recognize that sensory object as identical with the wheel. Thus, wherever the universal wheel falls, by this methodical practice it falls in its entirety like the universal monarch. In this way, the whole multitude of paths is effortlessly dissolved in the great wheel which is contained
in consciousness. Then, even when all this has come to an end and all that is left are latent impressions, one should meditate on the great wheel which revolves and is the overflowing of the true self.
He whose heart is completely fulfilled and who does not desire any specific fruit, because of the absence of all limitations, before him the Goddess in her universal form appears.
At first abiding in the heart, due to a repose in the mere emptiness, in the portion of the knower alone, in the innate bliss, he experiences a state known as ‘devoid of bliss.’ Then, when the vital breath rises, he experiences in the ‘knowable object’ the bliss that arises from another. In this condition of the bliss that arises from another, he abides at ease in the apana, which is filled with the infinite portions of the knowable, and he is embellished with the moon of the apana. Having attained the level of the samana, he abides wholly absorbed in the unification of the infinite rays of the knowable objects.
He becomes one who is composed of the bliss of Brahman. He is totally dedicated to devouring the limiting forces of the streams of the knowable objects and the means of knowing; he reposes in the fire of the udana and comes to know the great bliss. Then, having entered this repose, and when the great flames begin to abate, the great pervasion which is beyond all qualifications ensues, and this is called the vyana, the unlimited. Then, indeed, the bliss of consciousness occurs which is not strengthened by what is inert. For here indeed there is no possibility whatsoever of a difference which would be formed of the insentient.
That is a state where there is no distinction, where everything appears shining on all sides, where consciousness is unstruck and fed by the supreme nectar. There, one does not meet with any realizations in the proper sense of the word at all. This condition taught to me by Sambhunatha is known as the universal bliss. The repose in this state may be obtained by employing the pronunciation of the heart. The complete repose in this state corresponds to the attainment of the condition of the supreme. These are the six states which arise from the ascension of the vital breath into our different internal abodes, even if in essence our essential nature, flowing out of the heart, is always one.”
Heart Research in Egypt
Knowledge about the cardiovascular system, which led Harvey to the discovery of blood circulation, was achieved only gradually through the ages. It started in Egypt around 3500 BC, was elaborated by ancient Greeks, was better defined in Alexandria, and, in the West, ceased after the fall of the Roman Empire. This knowledge was preserved in the Islamic world and in European monasteries, and it later advanced with the revival of the anatomical dissection in European universities, paving the way to Harvey’s discovery. This review provides an overview about how knowledge about the cardiovascular system developed through the ages.
In ancient Egypt (3500 BC), the heart was considered the central element of a system of channels distributed throughout the body, transporting blood, feces, semen, benign and malignant spirits, and even the soul. There was a clear notion that the peripheral pulse originated from the heartbeat.
The Heart According to the Greeks
In the Pre-Aristotelian Period, Thales from Miletus, paved the way for questions regarding the human anatomy. Medical schools came into existence along with philosophers in the 5th century BC. Alcmaeon believed that the venous system was distinct from the arterial system, although he did not make an anatomical distinction between them. The function of the vessels was associated with wakefulness: withdrawal of blood from veins induced sleeping, but arteries, which brought blood to the brain, promoted wakefulness. According to him, all vessels originated in the head, and their function was to distribute the pneuma (spirit) to the brain.
Empedocles from Agrigento (492-432 BC) had a different view. For him, the heart was the seat of the soul and the center of the cardiovascular system; blood vessels distributed the pneuma, which was internalized by pulmonary respiration. Nonetheless, Empedocles also believed in the existence of fleshy tubes that contained blood and the terminal portions of which externalized in the skin, absorbing and expelling air.
The school of Kos, the main exponent of which was Hippocrates (460-375 BC), with regard to the cardiovascular system in the book On the Heart, reported for the first time the anatomical details of the heart, ascribing to the cardiovascular system the transportation of life throughout the body. According to the authors of the book, the lungs surrounded the heart, in the thorax, in order to cool the excess heat produced by incessant cardiac activity. The heart had a pyramidal shape, red color, and intrinsic electric activity. In contrast to the rest of the body, which was nourished with blood delivered through veins, the heart nourished itself from the pure substance created during blood dialysis. The heart housed the mind and the spirit, which predominated over the rest of the soul.
The Sicilian branch of the school of Cnidus, probably with works by Philistion of Locri around 370 BC, also contributed to the anatomical knowledge about the cardiovascular system: the presence of two ventricles was well known, the left being more hypertrophied than the right; the presence of two atria, whose beats were discordant in time with those of the ventricles, was also observed; moreover, the author noted the presence of a vessel connected to one ventricle only, along with semilunar valves.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) believed that the heart was the most important organ of the body and was the seat of the soul. The breath contained only air, the main function of which was to cool the heart. In the same manner, he conceived the brain as a mechanism for cardiac cooling.
Aristotle believed that the pulmonary artery and superior vena cava were subdivisions of another great vessel, which he called the “great vein.” In addition, he described another vessel connected to the medial ventricle, which he named the aorta. Further, he believed that the heart was the origin of all nerves and vessels. According to Aristotle, in comparison with the left ventricle, which had air and more pure blood, the right ventricle contained blood that was warmer and more abundant.
From: Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals
“We are justified in seeing the heart as the source of the being’s life, shape, and organization.”
“Blood and its blood vessels are the original source of life.”
“The actual nourishment process of each living thing is involved intrinsically with the entire process of forming the blood. The formation of the blood constitutes ‘the final step’ of internalizing and transforming nourishment.”
“All other parts of the body depend on the heart and have their source, or origin, in the heart.”
“Warmth enables digestion and brings about the overcoming, surmounting, and internalization of outside, foreign qualities and find its origin and center in the heart.”
“The particular prerequisites for human thought activity are grounded in the polar opposite and painstakingly balanced processes of warmth and cold in the human heart and brain.”
“The heart is the center of the perception process of the soul and the sensory environment of the human being. In the heart, these sense impressions are perceived, detected, bound together, and thus first truly felt and understood. The heart is the starting point for all sensory impression.”
From: De Anima, Aristotle
“The heart is not just the physiological source of life, warmth, nourishment, and growth, but also the center of sensory perception and closely connected with conscious life. It is also the source of sensations. The heart enables, shapes, and manifests the actual soul life in the present moment, while the corresponding processes of sensation and feeling are accompanied by warmth processes. Warmth offers the greatest assistance for the bodily work done to activate the soul. We are dealing with changing, reactive warmth process, focusing on the blood as it moves in and around the heart.”
“Memory is seated in the heart. The blood assists with current sense impressions, the associated powers of thinking and imagination, and our processes of sensing, feeling, and sentiment. The heart is also the source of the human capacity for movement.”
“Every stirring of joy, pain, and other sensation originates and ends in the heart.”
“According to our theory, life itself, every movement and every perception, depends on the heart.”
Better anatomical knowledge about the cardiovascular system appeared later in the works of Herophilus of Chalcedon (325-255 BC) and Erasistratus of Chios (310-250 BC) in the school of Alexandria in Egypt. In the famous school of Alexandria, dissections of the human body were routinely performed. Herophilus’s main contribution to the knowledge about the cardiovascular system was his differentiation of the thickness of arteries relative to veins, suggesting that the former were six times thicker than the latter. He termed the vessel connected to the right ventricle “the arterial vein,” and he observed that arteries were less thick than veins in the lungs. He also believed that only arteries were associated with the heartbeat because the contraction and relaxation movements depended on the heart.
Erasistratus recognized the heart’s activity as an impeller pump that contracted due to its so-called intrinsic force. To the contrary to what Herophilus believed, Erasistratus emphasized that arteries did not have active movements of contraction and relaxation, but they were passively filled due to heart contraction. Some authors believe that Erasistratus was the first to describe the valves in veins. With the conquest of Egypt by the Roman Empire, the scientific activity in Alexandria progressively declined, and dissection of human bodies was no longer performed.
In the 2nd century AD, Galen (130-200 AD), a gladiators’ physician in the temple of Asclepius in Pergamun, demonstrated that arteries contained blood, not air, as was the belief until that time. Further, Galen stated that the heart was a muscle with different orientation planes, which permitted its strong and incessant activity. Galen recognized that the left ventricle was more hypertrophied than the right ventricle; he attributed these differences to the presence of air in the left ventricle, and he emphasized the function of the right ventricle in handling blood. Two vessels originated in the right ventricle; one transported blood to the lungs (pulmonary artery), whereas the other transported peripheral blood back to the heart (vena cava). The left ventricle was the source of the great artery (aorta) as well as of other venous structures (pulmonary veins) that transported blood from the lungs to the heart.
Following Galen’s period, dissections were performed less often, and anatomic studies were left behind. Galen considered the human body to be the temple of the soul, and his teleological explanations for all phenomena were in concert with the dominant force that had settled in Rome in the 4th century AD. Because knowledge was supposed to be derived from faith, anatomical knowledge was not considered important. This explains why Galen’s erroneous beliefs lasted until the Renaissance, and the functioning of the cardiovascular system was understood only in the 17th century.
Oribasius’ work (325-403 AD) in Byzantium used magnifying lenses to confirm the anastomosis between veins and arteries in the kidneys capillaries. He discovered renal circulation: perfusion through the renal artery branch of the aorta and venous return through the renal vein branch of the inferior vena cava.
When the school of Edessa was closed in 489 AD, the Nestorians took refuge in the city of Gondishapur in Persia, founded in 271 AD, taking with them the works by Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen translated to Syriac. Greek doctors experienced a similar displacement after the school of Athens was closed in 529 AD. These intellectuals also became part of the School of Gondishapur, which served as a model for subsequent Persian medical schools. A teaching hospital was constructed and inspired the creation of other hospitals not only in the Islamic world but also in Spain and Portugal. In this manner, medical knowledge acquired in the previous centuries, but forgotten in the Middle Ages in Europe, was preserved in the schools of the Islamic world. When important medical works were translated into Latin, from the 11th century onward, medical knowledge finally returned to Europe..
Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas
“The heart is related to the higher cognitive activities, which take place after sensory perception and the development of imaginative images.”
“Something takes place in people whenever they perform an act of perception. This is the act of receiving and conceiving the perceived object. This concept designates the sound, and the concept itself is called a ‘word of the heart.’”
“This thought process takes place in the individual penetration and unification of the act of perceiving with what is being perceived.”
“Sense perception is the tool for the spiritual and intellectual activity of thought.”
“The human heart is an organ of knowledge and love, mediating between heaven and earth, thinking and willing, human being and environment.”
Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas
“The bodily life of the sense beings exists because of the living breath that streams through the limbs from the foundation of life, that is, from the heart.”
“The pure of heart shall look upon God.”
“None of the senses perceives itself or its activity. The eye neither sees itself, nor perceives the fact that it is seeing. The knowing spirit, however, recognizes itself; and recognizes that it recognizes itself.”
Rhazis (865-925 AD) disagreed with Galen regarding the presence of bone in the cardiac base. Haly Abbas (930-994 AD) advanced the morphological characterization of the pulmonary artery in two muscle layers, in describing the aorta more precisely, and in describing the coronary arteries in 965 AD. He also suggested a functional communication between the endings of veins and arteries. In the 10th century, Al-Akhawayni Bukhari (983 AD) stated that the heart had four cavities, the pulmonary vessels, and the aorta, all of them with valves that impeded blood reflux. He described the pericardium with anatomic precision. He emphasized that most of the blood received by the right ventricle was transported to the lungs. From the lungs, blood was transported to the left ventricle, from there to the aorta, and from the aorta throughout the body. Thus, Bukhari described a rudimentary lung circulation, emphasizing that the function of the heart was to pump blood and that blood vessels transported only blood, not the pneuma. He also described the coronary arteries with precision.
Avicenna (980-1037 AD) recognized the cardiac systole and diastole and adopted the cardio-centric model of Aristotle and accepted the presence of pores in the interventricular septum. In his view, the left ventricle was the cardiac chamber that housed the pneuma, and it was the seat of emotions.
The “Eye of the Heart” in Sufi Tradition
The expression “the eye of the heart” appears also in the Sufi tradition. Here it represents the opening toward the divine, the eye through which the depth of the heart can be seen and through which the heart can know the supreme divine reality. According to the Sufi description, we can imagine this eye of the heart having two faces: one is oriented toward “interior,” through which the meditator can “see” the infinite depths of the heart; the other is oriented toward “exterior.” This is the eye through which the supreme subject, the inner knower, God, or the witness consciousness is witnessing the world. For Sufis, this place, deep in the Heart, is the symbol of the point of contact with God.
Cultivating the Heart is a fundamental spiritual need that the great Sufi mystic and poet Rumi affirmed:
“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?
You feel the separation from the Beloved.
Invite Him to fill you up, embrace the fire.
Remind those who tell you otherwise,
that Love comes to you of its own accord,
and the yearning for it cannot be learned in any school.”.
Berengario da Carpi (1470-1550 AD) showed the existence of only two ventricles, two atria, and semilunar and atrioventricular valves, thus recovering the knowledge acquired by the ancient Greeks and the Alexandria school and adding to that the existence of papillary muscles as components of the subvalvar apparatus.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1518 AD) ascribed a functional significance to the atria, showing that the atria contracted when the ventricles dilated. He emphasized that the heart is a muscle, not a seat of spirits or air (pneuma) and presented a detailed picture of the mitral apparatus and described the moderator band of the right ventricle.
Michel Servetus (1511-1553 AD) a theologian trained in anatomy, described pulmonary circulation in a few pages of his Christianismi Restitutio (1553), which led to his death at the stake. He believed that the blood in the right ventricle passed through the left side of the heart through the pulmonary capillaries; there were no pores in the interventricular septum. Further, blood mingled with air in the lungs, but not in the left ventricle. He believed that blood passed from the pulmonary artery to pulmonary veins via blood capillaries.
Andrea Vesalius (1514-1564 AD) gave the name mitral to the atrioventricular valve, which separates the left atrium from the left ventricle.
Matteo Realdo Colombo (1559) correctly described the anatomical position of the kidneys and demonstrated pulmonary circulation. He believed that blood was transported from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery and from there to the lungs, where it was attenuated; thence, it moved from the lungs, along with air, through the pulmonary vein and to the left ventricle drawing attention to the width of the pulmonary artery. He also described cardiac abnormalities such as the hydrothorax probably secondary to decompensate chronic heart failure, bacterial endocarditis, myocardial infarction, and chronic pericarditis.
William Harvey (1628) perceived the functions of vein valves to contain blood and direct blood flow. His discovery of blood circulation began the modern age of heart research.
The Christian Desert Fathers
The Desert Father St. Isaac believed in the “The intellect of the Heart.” For him, the heart is not simply a physical organ, but is the spiritual center of the human’s being, his deepest and truest self, or the inner shrine, to be entered only through the sacrifice of individuality, in which the mystery of the union between the divine and the human is consummated. “The eye of the heart” or “the intellect of the heart,” (called nous), dwells “in the depths of the soul,” representing the innermost aspect of the heart. Nous is the highest faculty of humanity through which he knows God or the inner essences by means of spiritual perception or direct apprehension. “The intellect of the Heart” understands Divine Truth by means of immediate experience or intuition.
To protect this sacred ground, the Desert Fathers believed in the “guardian of the heart”
who embodies watchfulness and represents spiritual sobriety, alertness, vigilance and an attitude of attentiveness in which we are almost continuously aware of the heart. This shows how central they held the awareness of the spiritual heart.
Microcosm Heart, Paracelsus
“The heart is the seed of the microcosm and the sacred island, the first of the seven continents, and within it dwell the ‘children of the fire mists’ whose reflections are set up in the organs and functions of the outer body. The heart is the Garden of Eden – a place of beauty and felicity. Within it are the springs which, becoming rivers (arteries), pour forth the living waters (blood) for the preservation of the land (body). The ‘kingdom of heaven within’ refers to the mysteries of the heart. Man is the living temple of God and the heart is the Holy of Holies of that Mystery Temple. It is the inner room, the sanctuary, the adytum, the very oracular vent in which moves the Deity. It is the cave of initiation, the urn of the spirit. There are seven brains in the heart and also seven hearts in the brain. The seven heart brains are the intelligences of the vital organs, the ‘Seven Spirits before the throne.’”
The Perfect Way, by Anna Bonus Kingsford
“Paracelsus knew the mysteries of blood; he knew why the priests of Baal made incisions with knives in their flesh, and then brought down fire from heaven; he knew why Orientals poured out their blood before a woman to inspire her with physical love; he knew how spilt blood cries for vengeance or mercy and fills the air with angels or demons. Blood is the instrument of dreams and multiplies images in the brain during sleep, because it is full of the Astral Light. Its globules are bisexual, magnetized and metalled, sympathetic and repelling. All forms and images in the world can be evoked from the physical soul of blood. The blood then becomes a true elixir of life, wherein ruby and magnetic globules of vital light float in a slightly gilded fluid.”
G. R. S. Mead’s Theosophical View
“In the human body are at least two ‘Trees’, the nerve and vascular systems. The former has its roots above in the cerebrum, the latter has its roots in the heart. Among the trunks and branches run currents of ‘nerve ether’ and ‘life’ respectively. The one is the reflection of the other and both are within the human being. Blood has its life and motion from within itself – that is, from the Nephesh, which is the breath of the Elohim. The history of blood is the history of humanity.”
Isis Unveiled, Helena P. Blavatsky
“Blood begets phantoms, and its emanations furnish certain spirits with the materials required to fashion their temporary appearances. ‘Blood’, says Levi, is the first incarnation of the universal fluid; it is the materialized vital light. Its birth is the most marvelous of all nature’s marvels; it lives only by perpetually transforming itself, for it is the universal Proteus. The blood issues from principles where there was none of it before, and it becomes flesh, bones, har, nails, tears, and perspiration. It can be all neither to corruption nor death; when life is gone, it begins decomposing; if you know how to reanimate it, to infuse into it life, by a new magnetization of its globules, life will return to it again. The universal substance, with its double motion, is the great arcanum of being; blood is the great arcanum of life.”
A Sleep of Prisoners, by Christopher Fry
The human heart can go to the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we humans ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity sake?
Douglas Gabriel has written a book about the heart, entitled The Human Heart is a Supersensible Organ of Perception, and is being released section by section until complete. You can also access the chapters by typing “The Human Heart” in our search bar and all of the posts will be displayed.
Chapter One: The World Changes When Our Hearts Do
Chapter Two: Physiological Aspects of the Human Heart
. . . . . Secrets of the Heart
. . . . .Chambers of the Heart
. . . . .A Thumb of Fire
Chapter Three: Three Fields of Force
Chapter Four: Great Thoughts About the Heart
Chapter Five: Rudolf Steiner on the Human Heart
Chapter Six: Dodecahedron Universe
Chapter Seven: Historical Review of the Centrality of the Heart (you are here)