A close and intimate examination of the meaning of spirituality as experienced through the true heart of man, or what is referred to in this article as the "forgotten heart" of modern man.
God cometh between man and his own heart. (Qur’an 8:24)
“The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of My believing servant does contain Me.”
Nothing captures so effectively the essential character and intrinsic humanity of the human being than does the heart of man. Down through the ages and from time immemorial, the heart of man has always characterized many defining features of man’s persona, an identity that sets forth the parameters of the heart’s limitless potential and its numerous modes of expression.
Within each of us lies an embedded heart. Its presence within the inner sanctum of the breast assures us that there is no secret that the heart withholds from our understanding or experience. We remember and recognize within the depths of our hearts all of the polarities that constitute the “split personality” of the human being. We are hard-hearted and soft-hearted; we are tender-hearted and cold-hearted; we are light-hearted and broken-hearted. We can be all heart and no heart. The heart is timid or brave, open or closed, cruel, kind, black or pure. Each of these heart affinities are tendencies that every person understands, for they are modes of expression that actually identify qualities that lie at the core of one’s being and that portray the essence of a person’s moving self image.
Within the traditional perspective, the heart lies within a borderland between two visions of a single reality. One of these visions gazes outward upon the world in order to witness there an indirect image of the reality through the symbols and signs of nature that amount to a premonition of what lies behind that image. The other vision gazes inward toward the sacred center of man’s personal, inner world in order to experience directly within the heart the universal vision of the one true reality. As such, the heart has a dual role and therefore a dual meaning. As the center of the individual in view of the outer world, it expresses the broad range of the human emotions based on the faith it expresses and the knowledge it chooses to believe in. As the center of the individual in view of the inward dimension, however, it expresses its true centrality as the human microcosm of the transcendent Principle. It becomes the eye that sees and the seat that bears witness to the truth of the one Reality.
Nothing in nature reveals more the symbolic transparency of matter and nothing in man permits him to better perceive the inward reality of things, from the “inverted angle” of spiritual insight as it were, as does the heart of man. If the instrument of the mind relies on the penultimate faculty of the intelligence and its principal well-spring, intuition, then the heart organ, as the “seat” of the intelligence and the “niche” of sacred sentiment, is the quintessential organ of human perception, forming a transcendent faculty that has the capacity to combine the essential knowledge of God with the heart-felt experience of man in order to internalize within the human being the fundamental unity that underlies all of universal reality.
The heart has traditionally been portrayed as a holy sanctuary of reflected light and a hidden cave in which there is sequestered all essential knowledge, all sacred emotion, and all intimate love in a manner that permits the human entity to transcend his fragmented earthly likeness for a complete truth that summarizes the meaning of his being. As such, the heart’s rarefied vision of the world has an inverse application that through the filter of an intuitive knowledge literally changes the phenomenal world from the brute physical matter that it appears to be into a living reality that it is by virtue of its connection to the knowledge of the Universal Reality.
Unlike modern man who attempts to take leave of his being through the labyrinth of his mind, the traditional man believes that the point of departure from the confines of his individual self lay within the heart rather than the cognitive mind, much less the brain, which for modern man is the starting point and ultimately the highest organ that justifies the implicit sapiens within Homo sapiens. Traditional man understood his existence to be the result of the existential manifestation of a Supreme Reality in which he took part on an individual level of experience. This existence was envisaged as having its point of first origin and its ultimate source in a Transcendent Being who was the central point beyond which all existence radiated outwards. This Supreme Being substantiated the mystery of His Spirit through the creation of the universe and came “to be known” through a humanity that populated and animated that universe with a conscious and thinking being. Humanity became invested with the vocation of being the earthly simulacrum of the celestial Being who in return became the “divine spark” that dwells within the human heart and the “holy breath” that infiltrates every cell in his body, since the Quran confirms that Allah breathed into him of His Spirit. The Divine Being as the Center of the macrocosm took up residence within the spiritual center of the individual being, the human microcosm of the heart-center. This powerful, symbolic image of centrality has taken shape and solidified as the organ of man’s heart that in representing man’s individual centrality remembers the universal Center at the heart of all existence.
Within the traditional worldview, the search for the source of existence and for a source of knowledge of that Truth begins with man. The inquiry, the quest and the vision of the ‘intelligent’ person was always directed firstly inwards, toward the center of one’s own particular world, namely the world of the inward being as summarized by essentially three fundamental keys: the human thoughts, desires and emotions that reflect the three key faculties of man’s being, namely his discerning intelligence, his free will and his holy sentiment. His outlook on the world and the value of his worldly experience were tempered by the intensity of his inner aspiration and the knowledge that aspiration was based on. Since he was avowedly seeking the “Kingdom of God”, he went directly to the place where it could initially be found, namely “within you”, in keeping with the well-known saying of Christ in the Gospels.
Within the progressive, scientific worldview of today, the search for the source of existence and of the knowledge that empowers that existence with its principles and pragmatism begins with matter and the universally accepted first principles of mathematics. The ‘intelligent’ person of today turns exclusively outward toward the phenomenal world, not in its capacity to symbolize and contain an inner meaning or reflect a higher reality, but rather for the purposes of breaking down and analyzing its constituent elements in search of the knowledge of an objective reality and a universal theory that could explain the existence of that reality. The primary concern of the scientific establishment lies in proving that things that exist with a pre-established set of criteria rather than existence as such and its possible meaning for man in view of its higher reality transcending the human order.
Within the contemporary scientist mindset, observable facts serve as the criteria of an objective knowledge and man’s reason serves as the discriminating power that sets the inquiry in motion and organizes its findings into a plausible pattern of believability. What lies outside the ability of the human mind to formulate and prove scientifically lies outside the realm of objectivity. The mysteries of the universe, that once man held in awe and that fueled his imagination to transcend his natural limitations, now await man’s scrutiny and final resolution. Accordingly, reason will show the way and progress through time will eventually solve the problem of the true nature of the reality. To this end, scientists hope to discover some kind of fundamental law that governs the interaction of all phenomena and thus arrive at the widely-sought unified “theory of everything” that would explain the true nature of the universe.
The vision outward toward the external world is separative, fragmentary and speculative, searching for a passageway deep down into the inner constituents of matter in the hope of arriving at the materia prima, the first cause and the universal substance, indeed the heart of the matter. This modern-day approach relies precariously (and ironically) on a “faith” in the assumption that man’s mind can negotiate its way through the labyrinthine mysteries of the universe and arrive at the universal basis of matter on its own terms. The vision inward toward the inner world of the spirit is discriminating, unitive and total, searching for a passageway that will lead deep down into the central core of the human being to reveal a knowledge of man and the universe that is one, unitive, and universal. If man were a spool of thread that had assumed the shape of a man, then the end of that thread would lie buried deep within the center of his being as inviolate and sacrosanct. The end of that thread would constitute the origin, source and center of the vital being, the point of departure of the lifeline and the very heart of the human entity. In the “inverted angle” of this perspective, unity (tawheed) becomes the sole reality, while the separativity and relativity of the world becomes the enduring illusion, whereas that which truly endures can only be found at the end of the cosmic thread, at the primordial point and absolute center of Reality.
Every message of the heart, from its outer physiological and cardiac properties to its inward and interiorizing modalities of perception and sentience, proclaims the mystery of centrality in the light of the certitude of existence. It is a mystery of time and place that finds its inception and ultimate resolution within the heart of man, of nature, and of the universe generally. The heart plays this role of centrality in a multitude of venues, from its role as the utter core and essence of the phenomenal world such as when we speak of the heart of the atom or the heart of the earth, to its function as the central pump of the physical body circulating the lifeblood through the arteries and veins of the human corporeal system, to its articulation as the macrocosmic heart of the universe around which flows the magisterial procession of the celestial galaxies. The heart of the matter always proclaims this mystery of centrality. At the center of the atom, of man, of the earth, of the phenomenal world and of the universe lies the Heart of existence from which radiates the pulse of life and that irradiates the universe with its reality and light.
Two popular misconceptions in the accepted contemporary worldview arise from our understanding of the functions of the two primary organs of the body, namely the brain and the heart. The first of these misconceptions lies in the assumption that the human brain performs the highest function of man in its capacity to organize thoughts into a systematic whole and interpret their meaning in view of the contingencies of the outer environment. According to the traditional point of view, however, it is the heart rather than the brain that coordinates the activity of the various faculties and ultimately houses the mystery of the Transcendent. The brain resembles an elaborate and highly sophisticated machine, a computer if you will, that can coordinate millions of neural impulses per second in order to act, react, think through an idea, and come to a decision, but from the point of view of the heart, it is spiritually inert and without that spark of life that can create and revolutionize inner worlds. The second modern misconception lies in the popular attitude of the heart itself that functions primarily on a physiological level as the life-sustaining force of the corporeal system, as if the centrality of man and the vital functions of his inner aspirations could be reduced to the physical and chemical properties of a blood pump. On the contrary, if the brain and the heart were merely the primary and summative constituents of an inert and mindless matter, then we would be hard put as human beings to give a rightful accounting of ourselves as thinking beings with a consciousness that reaches beyond the known, physical world in order to embrace the truth of the metaphysical world.
Beyond the horizon of the brain lie the mind, imagination, active thinking, and the self-reflective consciousness of man. All these faculties represent mysterious intangibles of the human entity that hover just beyond the edges of the physical brain as otherworldly phantoms whose resolution cannot be found within the neurons and protons of quantum physics or molecular matter. Beyond the corporeal heart and in inverse relation to it lies the inner sanctum of man, what we refer to here as the “other heart”, that has virtually been forgotten by humanity during these times by virtue of the importance that has been invested in the brain—what the modern mind considers the faculty of intelligence together with the faculty of reason through which the intelligence can be expressed during these times. This other heart, the forgotten one, serves as the vital center of man’s being, his seat of intelligence and intellection, his niche of holy sentiments, the source of his affection and love, the repository and sanctuary of the inner self, and ultimately the faculty of synthesis, uniting through knowledge and love the totality of what we claim to be the humanity of our being.
The human heart establishes its signature and utters its true st word by being the symbol of man’s spiritual center and the vertical axis upon which his knowledge and affection ascends heavenward. As the symbolic image of man’s true center, the physical heart lends its physiological meaning to the totality of man, but the force of its symbolic presence draws upon far deeper reserves within the vital essence of the human being. As such, the heart is the center not only of the bodily individuality, but also the center of the integral individuality, or the human being known and realized on both physical and spiritual modes of expression. When man becomes all heart, he expresses his inmost knowledge and feelings in such a way that the external world can witness the full range of his intelligence and sensibility.
Ironically in today’s world, the heart that we now identify and remember as the seat of affection and sentimentality is actually the heart that forgets, while the other heart of our title, the forgotten one, is actually the heart that remembers. The “heart that forgets” implies the absence of the knowledge and light that integrates the independent fragments of man into a synthesis of the Whole that is based on the unity and oneness of the Reality and the Supreme Identity projected into the universe by the Divinity. The other heart “that remembers” implies the Presence of the knowledge and the light that illuminates the totality of man with the remembrance of his forgotten primordiality, when he walked with God, spoke with God, and knew God directly with a heart knowledge that knew no barriers or veils.
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Tradition relies on a number of images to qualify the heart’s inner bearing, depending on the point of view envisioned and its role within the framework of man’s particular needs. The cave of the heart is a well-known traditional expression. Within the Hindu tradition, the Sanskrit word guha means a cave, but it is used also as the inner cavity of the heart wherein the unconditional presence of Ātmā resides. The Chhandogya Upanishads call the heart the “seat of Brahma”, a vital center with a small cavity in which the lotus can be discovered: “We must seek that which is in this place, and we shall know it.” As inner sanctum and “sanctuary without doors”, the heart provides the inward, most hidden point in which Ātmā dwells, the crypt in which the inmost secret is preserved as the point of departure and final destination for all spiritual experience.
The Islamic traditions specifically refer to the heart as the “seat” of the intelligence, which may be a startling image for modern man imbued with the idea that man’s intelligence resides in the brain as the vehicle of all conscious reckoning. The kind of intelligence referred to in this instance is an intelligence capable of pure intellection and not the kind of logical and discursive reasoning that modern man envisions when he makes reference to the word “intelligence”. As the seat, ground, and inner crypt (Greek: kruptos) of the intelligence, the heart symbolizes the sanctuary that fittingly provides the ambiance for an intelligence, not as we envision intelligence today in its discursive and reflective mode only, but rather intelligence in view of its far-reaching spiritual significance as a crystalline source of conscious awakening that reaches from the center of man to the Center of the universe and whose connecting golden thread is the acknowledgement of God and surrender to His Supreme Will.
In the traditional view, the heart does not merely serve as the embodiment of human affection and sentiment, a heart that corresponds to what the modern mentality believes to be the “seat” of affectivity that amounts to being a source of heat for the emotions without the corresponding light of knowledge. This concept of the heart corresponds to and complements the prevalent understanding of man’s intelligence as the expression of a modern-day rationalism and nothing more. In spite of its rigid scientific approach to the understanding of a reality that finds its source – or rather proof – in physical matter, the modern mentality exhibits a curiously lopsided form of sentimentalism that considers the sentimental emotions to be the most profound expression of man. A purely sentimental heart, together with the rational intelligence of modern man, has no patience with the view of the “other” heart of traditional man whose broad “intelligence” identifies with and draws its ‘inspiration’ from the human intellect. Its intuitive insight cuts through the duality of this world with direct perception of the reality and transcends the narrow domain of human individuality by focusing on the knowledge of universal principles and higher realities.
Man’s intellect, as the transcending faculty of higher sagacity and the human counterpart of the Universal Intellect, opens the human mind to the essential knowledge of God with its powers of intuitive and direct insight. As such, the intuition of God raises man beyond the level of the purely human to experience the direct insight of the supra-human, permitting the mind a direct perception of the contents of the supreme light of the Universal Intellect through the mirror reflection of the human intellect. Now, according to the traditional view, this kind of intelligence ultimately finds its final abode within the human heart which, as the absolute center of the human being and the axis of his vertical ascent, becomes the definitive point of contact between the human and the Divine. This direct perception of the knowledge of God and the truth of the One Reality is none other than what is sometimes referred to as “heart-knowledge”, a knowledge that is not always communicable, but one that can be experienced directly and fully internalized with man as a love that never dies.
The miracle of man’s intellect lies in the fact that it offers a knowledge of God that is direct and certain, that is to say, a knowledge that is perceived directly without signs, symbols or veils and experienced with a certitude without any hesitancy, indecision or doubt. It is perhaps both paradoxical and somewhat ironic that in spite of the assertive affirmation of this world that has resulted from the advances of modern science and the efficient pragmatism of the new technologies, the only thing that we do know for certain is the reality of our inmost being, our center and our heart, together with all that the heart implies within the framework of the human entity. Apart from the obviousness of birth and the inevitably of death, and despite the onslaught of a multitude of outward impressions, the visibility of “things”, and the purportedly objective presence of the physical and phenomenal world, the consciousness of our existence is the one absolute certainty that we treasure without any doubt.
A traditional irony and an existential paradox highlight the significance of what we wish to set forth. The traditional irony lies in the fact that the world and all its contents cannot contain the Divinity, but the heart of the true believer can contain Him, according to the well-known hadith of the Prophet Mohammed, upon him be peace. As the microcosmic summative point of the universe and the symbolic image of the Divinity, the center of man reflects the Center of the universe whence originates and terminates all manifestation. The existential paradox lies in the fact that the inward reality that we cannot prove according to the criteria of modern science brings with it a feeling of certitude, while the physical body, the outer world of forms, and the entire external reality that we observe, quantify and express through mathematical formulae to our heart’s delight, evoke an air of unreality that is the direct result of their temporality, contingency and ultimate finitude. In comparison with the Infinite and the Eternal, the manifested universe will always remain as good as nothing by way of comparison.
As deep cave and sacred crypt of the knowledge of God and prayer niche of man’s most profound aspirations, the symbolic image of the heart focuses on the idea of a “place” deep within where something preternatural “happens”, where the knowledge of God burns as an inner flame and the presence of God is experienced in the heat of its afterglow. As the seat of man’s intelligence and the locus of his centrality, the heart symbolizes an inner sanctum whose inward space offers a world without limits and a universe of infinite possibility. It is a sanctuary of knowledge tempered by feelings of love, a holy niche where man’s most sacred aspirations can be expressed and where an abiding intimacy with the Divinity can be experienced. As inner abode, the human heart is the place where man’s intelligence finds its home and where human intimacy with the Divinity makes itself felt as the ultimate expression of man’s relationship with the Highest Reality.
Beyond the concept of the heart as a locus of centrality and as a place where something inexplicable “happens” lies the concept of the heart as an inward eye where something “sees” with an inner vision, an organ of perception that has the capacity, indeed the prescience, of a conscious awakening that amounts to a vision of the one Reality. This inner eye of perception views with a lucidity what the external eye of observation and discrimination views with an opacity that recreates in the mind’s eye the world of shadow-making. In its observation of the external, phenomenal world, the outer eye is able to experience a vision of God indirectly as it were through the signs and symbols of nature and through the spirit apparent in all living things. The inner eye of the heart, however, offers an alternative vision of the Divinity which is as direct and immediate as can be approximated within the human sphere of experience. As with the signs and symbols of nature, there is a unique harmony between the outer, opaque remembrance of God through the revelation of the phenomenal world, and the opalescent remembrance of God through the inner world of the heart.
The eye of the heart (‘ayn al-qalb) is the organ of inner vision and intuition of the knowledge of God. As such, it recalls the third eye and the eye of Shiva, the luminous eye of the heart and the eye of certainty (‘ayn al-yaqīn) that knows without any doubt what needs to be known by man and what can be known with certainty. The eye of man’s heart is the reflection of the Eye of the Heart that is the non-manifested abode of the Supreme Being or the Universal Spirit, what Ananda Coomaraswamy calls, ‘a point without extension’ or a ‘moment without duration’, the Center and Axis of all existence, in which according to the Christian saint Bonaventura “God’s center is everywhere; His circumference nowhere.” The eye of the heart has featured in the traditional symbolism down through the ages. Before the Sufis, this same expression (oculus cordis) was used by St. Augustine when he wrote: “Our whole business therefore in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen;” while Plato commented in his writings: “There is an eye of the soul which . . . is more precious by far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen.” In the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount still reminds modern man that the “pure of heart shall see God.”
We have then a case for two visions within the borderland of the heart, the one external in order to view the world, the other internal in order to form the vision of a rarefied universe that intuits the knowledge of God and irradiates His presence throughout the being of man. “The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which he sees me,” wrote the fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart. “My eye and the eye of God are one eye, one vision, one knowledge, and one love.” And let us not forget to quote the American Transcendentalist Emerson who sees himself as an organ of universal vision: “Standing on bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” As organ of man and symbol of the Divinity, the eye passes through various modalities of expression. Man enjoys the capacity of vision, but what he actually sees and how he sees it depends as much on his inner as well as his external “eye”.
In keeping with the locus of vision that we perceive with the senses, man sees the phenomenal world through the eyes of his body, his external vision (basar); he sees himself and his fellow man in interaction with the world through the eye of his mind—what we call the mind’s eye—combined with the forces of memory, imagination and insight (basira); he sees the inner world of the higher realities through the eye of his heart; he perceives God directly as a vision of the Divinity with the eye of his intellect, which in turn reflects the Eye of the Intellect and the Eye of the Heart. Once again, Meister Eckhart: “Up noble soul. Put on your jumping shoes which are intellect and love.” Our intelligence and sacred emotions, in reflecting the eye of the human intellect, creates a condition of knowing and experiencing that counterbalances the state of ignorance we would otherwise have to endure. The vision implicit in the human heart creates a condition of intelligent perception that intermingle with sacred sentiments, a knowing combined with feeling and sensibility that create an internalized knowledge that ultimately reveals itself as the face of wisdom.
The heart is the container, the receptacle, the sacred repository that is ready to receive the light and the heat that accompanies the knowledge and love of God. The alchemy of the heart is a miraculous fusion of spiritual possibility and promise, a container whose contours already contain the capacity of the Presence and are waiting to be filled. Unlike the heavens and the earth whose overwhelming magnitude cannot contain the Divinity, the “heart of My believing servant can contain Me.” In addition, God proclaims ominously in the Quran, I am nearer to you than your jugular vein (50: 16), only to add in another verse on a more intimate level, God cometh between man and his own heart (8: 24). The heart substantiates the promise of transcendence within humanity that perceives and understands that God reserves the prerogative to enter man’s heart because man has the capacity to receive the knowledge and contain the presence of God.
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The central message of the human heart is the knowledge of God and the one Reality that the Divinity encompasses. The central challenge of the human heart is the remembrance of God and its infusion into every thought, word and action in order to create a “living knowledge” that unfolds within the life of an individual through personal behavior and actions. This is a knowledge that concedes nothing to chance and leaves everything to the supreme wisdom of the Divinity, a knowledge that connects the human heart with the Universal Heart so that it is not the human heart but the Universal Heart that beats within the breast (as-sudr) of man.
According to the prevailing worldview, modern man is identified as human primarily because of his brain power including his supreme capacity to think, to reason, to self-reflect and to interact with his surrounding world in a creative, discriminatory and cognitive manner. Similarly, modern man, as a result of the untiring efforts of the modern scientific establishment and a comprehensive secularist worldview that now invades every aspect of life, believes in a process of evolutionism, scientism, materialism and a form of progressivism that suggests that man is on a path that will lead him ultimately to a perfection, a happiness, and a peace of mind and heart here on earth that will verify and ultimately bring to fruition the prevailing scientific concept of the human worldview.
Nothing could be further from the modern perception of man and his future potential than the traditional attitude toward the meaning of man that does in fact promise perfection, happiness, peace of mind and heart brought to fruition through a process, not of progress within the earthly condition but ultimately a process of transcendence of self beyond horizon of the human condition. According to the traditional perspective, man is identified as human primarily because of the true function of his heart as a faculty of synthesis in complement to the analytic faculty of the mind, a heart faculty with the supreme capacity to know intuitively and instinctively, to desire that which is good, and to feel through higher levels of affection and intimacy a sacred emotion that is based on knowledge and that expresses itself as a love that reaches beyond the individual self toward the Universal Self.
Man’s intelligence contains a knowledge of the Divine Being who embodies the Absolute Reality and the Universal Good. Intelligence thus envisioned leads to a profound desire and a deep aspiration to partake of that knowledge and internalize it within his being as his most defining truth. The natural consequence of the knowledge of God is the desire to achieve the promises of that knowledge, to realize the full potential of that reality, and to be good in view of the principial Good. Once arrived at a state of mind and heart that achieves a consciousness of these universal possibilities, then “the kingdom of God” will indeed be within you.
Man is a human being because he is a vertical being. His thoughts, his desires, and his aspirations bespeak of an ascending desire to rise above himself, to transcend his limitations and to connect with the Intelligence, Consciousness and Spirit that is evidenced in everything from the existence even of a grain of sand to the movement of the galaxies. The Divine Being created a heart to serve the human being as his center and core. As center of the human system, the heart contains the knowledge of man’s primordial origin and his final end, a first and ultimate knowledge that is the intuitive inheritance of the primordial heart, adequate to his spiritual needs and perfectly adapted to the vertical ascent. Because of the capacity of his heart, man can both know and communicate with the Divinity.
Heart-knowledge would be as nothing, however, without the higher consciousness that heart-knowledge activates. In approaching the meaning of man’s consciousness, one can envision the cracking open of the universal egg and the spreading out of a subliminal and seminal “spirit of awareness”, a kind of ether of higher consciousness to wash over and permeate the entire concourse of the human mind and all its cognitive endeavors with this ‘esprit’ of presence and higher awareness. Similarly, with the symbolic image of the heart, we can envision a unique vessel whose contours are slowly filled with a replenishment so miraculous and enriching that the heart becomes enlightened with the light of a pure knowledge and the warmth of an enduring love. It fills to brimming with the certitude of a universal knowledge, displays an incandescent clarity, and exudes a lenitive warmth whose afterglow is as intense and satisfying as the heat of a coal fire in a remote winter cabin.
At the inner boundary of the body is the mind, which is the faculty of direct outward perception. At the inner boundary of the mind is the heart, which is the faculty of direct inward perception. To phrase it differently, the heart is the isthmus between worlds, the one horizontal, three-dimensional, dispersed; the other vertical, multi-dimensional, and incisive. As such, one can speak of an outer and inner heart, just as one can speak of the outer and inner religion, this being in conformity with the two names of God in the Qur’an, the Outwardly Manifest (al-Zahir) and the Inwardly Hidden (al-Batin). The heart is the center of the body in its outward capacity and the center of man in its inward capacity. On the outer level, it regulates the life-giving forces of the blood within the corporeal system. On the inner level, the heart is the faculty of direct spiritual awakening at the very threshold of the soul whose horizon implies a transcending arena of “beyond” that arrives ultimately at the very “throne” (al-Arsh) of God.
When God created man, he endowed his body with the rhythmic pulse of the heart and breathed into him the rhythmic breath of His Spirit (ar-Ruh), the drumming of the pulse and the expansion – contraction of the breath being the outward expression of an inner reality. The Divinity thus bestowed upon man two natural manifestations that were to be the major vehicles of knowledge on the one hand and of vitality on the other. The breath vivifies every cell within the corporeal frame and the life functions of the body resound with the pendulous rhythm of the heartbeat. Thus, through the respiration of the breath and the pulse of the heart, man becomes a living being.
What the breath does for the expansion and contraction of the Spirit of God within man, the heart does for the awareness of the Presence, providing the medium and the ambiance in which the Divinity may enter and take up residence. In addition to providing the vital life energy, what in the Hindu tradition is called prana, the breath establishes the rhythm of human respiration in which the expansion and contraction of the human breast reflect the great process of expansion and contraction that takes places on a cosmic scale within the universe and mirrors directly the two names of God, namely, the Expander (al-Basit) and the Contractor (al-Qabidh), symbolizing the cosmic principles of fullness and scarcity, growth and constriction, increase and decrease that manifests in every aspect of the manifested world and that exemplifies the fundamental helplessness that lies at the root of existence without the abiding “Breath of the Compassionate”.
The association of the breath to the heart coincides on a symbolic level with the relation of the breast (sudr) to the heart. The heart is encased within the breast of mankind and like the heart, the breast also conveys a symbolic meaning far beyond its purely physical reality. Is one whose breast God has expanded for surrender (islam), so that he has received enlightenment from God [no better than one hard-hearted] (39: 22)? Knowledge belongs to the fullness of the heart, but man’s surrender to the reality of the one God belongs to the expansion of the breast. If the heart of man is expressive of knowledge and love, then the breast of man is the expression of an expansiveness that rises and subsides with the breath on the physical plane and expands and contracts with the fear and hope of man on the inner plane. Haven't We expanded thy breast and removed a burden from you (94: 1-2) the Qur’an asks? The expansion of the breast opens the human breast/heart for the descent of spiritual insight. When Moses was sent to the court of Pharaoh, his immediate exclamation, according to the Qur’an, was: Expand for me my breast (20: 25).
The breast is to the heart what the face is to the person, namely the face of the heart. In other words, the movement of the breast through the breath remembers the inner aspiration of the heart. The rise and fall of the human breast in response to the breath reports explicitly a process of expansion and contraction that is symbolic of the process of denial of the truth and surrender to God that cuts to the core of the human self-image. Surrender represents an expansion of the heart, while denial of the divine possibility represents a constriction of the heart. Describing those whom God wishes to guide or lead astray, the Quran reveals: He expands their breast to Islam. Those He wishes to lead astray, He constricts and closes their breast (6: 125). Ultimately, the symbolic imagery unites in the realization that the breath breathes the remembrance of the heart to the extent that every breath becomes a remembrance of the heart-knowledge. Both manifestations establish an inner rhythm of conscious vitality, the rhythm of the breath sustaining life and the rhythm of the pulse sending its vibratory drumbeat through the entire human system with the regularity of a metronome.
Modern science ignores the fact that man can conceive of things beyond the horizon of his mind, can desire to reach further than “beyond”, has a consciousness that is “aware of itself” and whose inner domain represents an objectivity and a certainty that leads ultimately to the higher archetypes that find their source and nourishment in the Divinity. Modern science is oblivious to or, even worse, deliberately ignores the fact that man can know himself in ways other than the purely empirical venue of understanding. Modern science ignores the fact that the body without the soul does not constitute man and is no longer what is called a “human person”. It refuses to concede that man is made in reflection of the Divine Prototype, exemplifying as he does all the qualities, attributes and virtues that one usually associates with the Divinity and that within the tradition of Islam are identified through the ninety-nine names of God. Modern science ignores the fact that man has “another heart”, the forgotten one, in which God can dwell as a living presence and a truly felt reality.
At the heart of the human experience lies a fundamental mystery that virtually shapes and defines the way man experiences the world. Similarly, at the heart of the universe lies a profound mystery that characterizes our understanding of the manifested universe and that challenges the human imagination to come to terms with the unknown quality of life. In other words, within the heart of both man and the world lies a veil that needs to be lifted and an isthmus that needs to be crossed, this being the fundamental challenge of the human experience. During the course of an individual life, the mystery (as-sirr) begins to unfold, the formal meets the Formless, the thinking person meets the Universal Intellect and sacred feeling meets the source of all intimacy in the knowledge and love of the Beloved.
The heart is to the man what the Kaaba is to the religion of Islam: the point of departure for the vertical ascent heavenward and the heart pulse that energizes a movement within man that commences the ascension of hearts leading along the path of return whose goal is the transcendence of self as a prelude to union with the Divinity. In his role as human being and earthly entity, man must remain something of a mystery to himself, just as God exists in the eye of his mind and heart as the greater Mystery. Man must first come to know himself before he can know his Lord.
If there is a secret (sirr) to be revealed and if there is an essential knowledge to be unveiled and realized, then there must be an abode within the human being where this secret may lie hidden and where this knowledge may nurture and grow. There must be a faculty of perception that has the power of a mind, the depth of a heart, and the prescience of a spirit penetrating enough to crack open its protective shell in order to pour into the human being its overwhelming revelation with the steadfastness of the breath and the pulse.
That abode, that cave, that “kingdom of God within you” is the human heart, not the corporeal one that beats soundingly within us, but the true heart that lies behind the symbolic image of man, in whose cavernous depths can be found man’s absolute center and the source of his vital being. This is the other heart of which we write, the one that remembers God and preserves Him within our lives as a living Reality and a conscious Presence. His remembrance (dhikr) resolves the mystery of the unknown, leads us across the lost continent of our inner being, and will bring us into the safe harbor of our future selves in the vita venturi saeculi, the life of the world to come.