An Education for the Heart

A paper by Peter Young, given at a Teacher’s Forum for Faith and Philosophy in Edinburgh.

The human heart is the physical and subtle centre by virtue of which man is distinguishable from all other creatures. It is each person’s ‘connection’ to their divine, essential reality, which alone can comprehend deep meanings and ‘see’ the underlying unity of all existence. It is the birthright of all humanity, innate in each of us.
An education for man is that which accords the heart its central position and allows it to be the real ‘organ’ of intelligence, and to govern all other faculties. With this, education returns to its original meaning of “drawing forth’ from within.
We cannot teach the heart, but it can teach us.
It can teach us how to teach, by being taught by it. It can teach us how to become truly ourselves, and thereby help others also to become themselves. At a time of unprecedented levels of despair, alienation and exclusion we must put the heart back into education by acknowledging its true place. We must encourage children’s innate sense of spirituality and self-discovery, and to recognise this as the ultimate and the closest goal of all education.

Many school children come from such abusive and disturbed backgrounds that it is difficult to see how they could ever emerge from such conditioning into the light. Here it is absolutely necessary for them and for us to know that there is a level of our being which is completely free from conditioning of any kind. At this level we are completely unsullied, in our original state of innocence and intrinsically valuable, not because of what we have done or not done, but because of who we are. This is where we really are ourselves, both intrinsically loveable, and loving in return. The heart always remains in its state of original purity, and there is nothing that anyone could do to change this essential fact about oneself.

What is it about the human being that makes us human? What distinguishes us from all other animals? The general consensus since the 'Age of Reason' is that the human is the animal that thinks. Humanity thinks and therefore is; it reasons, observes, calculates and invents, and by this speciality our kind has gained mastery over the entire world. While its achievements and productions since Newton’s time are undeniably impressive, this advance has been made by turning a blind eye to certain aspects of our humanity, and to the possibility of their cultivation through the educational process.

We generally regard education as the cultivation of the mental faculty, either simply for its own sake, or for some further application such as the job market. Education thus conceived is based upon the premise that the human being is the thinking animal; what we do stems from the basis of our thinking, what we do earns our living and at this point the political goal of education has been achieved. We have become self-supporting contributors to the greater economy. Naturally, an education that is solely based upon such a premise leaves a great deal out. It does not allow for the cultivation of our humanity beyond the mental and physical. It is an education that is based upon the fact that we think, but it does not acknowledge the question 'Who is thinking?'It does not reach the stratum of our being, that is far deeper than our mental processes, and which is the source of certain qualities that are completely integral to our humanity.

This word, humanity has another meaning in common speech; it signifies that quality of our species that is exemplified in compassion and understanding, sympathy, friendship, service and self-sacrifice. This meaning of the word points deeper than simply to our species; it is pointing to our core identity, to what we really are underneath it all. The question of who we are, whether we mean by this who we are as an individual, or as the human species, is directed far deeper than to our thought. It points to our essential being. Anyone, from whatever culture anywhere in the world, if asked to point to themselves will point not to their head but to the centre of the chest. “Who, me?” Intuitively we know that our real sense of who we are resides in the heart, not in the head.

So to return to the question: what is it that makes us human? We can perhaps now say that while thought thinks that thought holds this honour, my heart knows who I am and knows that the knowledge of who I am is located here. In short the human being is the creature that has a heart. Therefore an education for a human being will accord the heart its rightful place at the heart of this education.

This heart of which we are speaking is not the blood-pump that is slightly left of centre and which, though vital for the maintenance of the organism, is merely a muscle. We are speaking of our physical and subtle centre. Of this we can say where it is, we can feel it if we are fortunate, but ultimately it eludes definition. Everyone who can say “Who, me?” knows of it, but only the greatest spiritual masters know its reality, its vastness and scope. By the heart we are not referring to a physical organ at all but to a centre of consciousness. We refer to the head in a similar way, as the centre of a different but related kind of consciousness. The difference though is that the consciousness of the head does depend upon the physical organ of the brain, while the consciousness of the heart has no organ, and does not depend upon the body. Now, in speaking of something which has a location but is not an organ we have entered the realm of metaphysics. We should also note that we have defined our humanity by our having this centre of consciousness at the centre of our being, and that this does not depend upon our body. Clearly then whether the heart is a metaphor for our essential nature or whether it is the actual presence in us of our essential nature, this essential nature is a reality which is in this world but is not of this world; it is not created, it is not a thing. Consequently it is not subject to the law of generation and decay, and it does not get tarnished or damaged in any way. We will return to this fundamental point later.

Some people may doubt the existence of the heart beyond its being a metaphor for love. We may dismiss it with distaste as being a sort of pouch for sentimentality. Others may see the heart as being in opposition to the reason of the head, a dangerous and seditious influence that throws caution to the wind and leads astray. Some among us may doubt the reality of the heart on the grounds that, because it is not an organ like the brain, its existence cannot be proved. I will answer to this that the need for tangible proof is itself a product of the kind of empiricism that has been developing in the West over the past two thousand years. We have come to believe that universal realities, such as life, knowledge, power and things of this nature, only have existence in the human mind, which abstracts them from concrete things. So most people in the Western world believe that such universals as service and compassion are not realities in themselves, but concepts in the mind, which then go on to determine our behaviour. Many have attempted to abandon these 'mental conditionings' by pronouncing them as outdated and irrelevant ideas, or even lies, used by society to govern itself. This is an extreme Marxist position admittedly, but we must acknowledge that Marxism is but an extreme form of Western empiricism. However, there is a Western tradition that pre-dates this argument that stems from Aristotle. It is epitomised by Plato, his teacher, and taken up by Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists. It runs through the entire Christian and Judaic contemplative tradition, culminating perhaps in St. Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart, and within Islam in the Greatest Sheikh, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi from Andalusia, and Jelaluddin Rumi of Konya. This teaching is that our world is nothing but the furthest exteriorisation of One, Absolute and Infinite Existence. This being so, the Divine Presence permeates everything and is actually the real being of everything. According to this there is no separation of God and the world. We, and the world are nothing but God’s own Self-expression. There is then according to this cross-cultural tradition One Absolute Existence, the One Real Universal upon which all existences depend for their material existence. Ibn Arabi says this; “Were it not for the permeation of God by means of His form in all existents the world would have no existence”. According to such spiritual masters, the universals such as life and knowledge are Divine qualities or aspects, which because they are universal realities are perceptible to the human mind. But while the mind sees only an idea of life and knowledge, the heart experiences these realities directly. The knowledge of the heart then is certain, incontrovertible knowledge, whereas that of the mind is reflected knowledge, like a mirror image of the real thing.

Jelaluddin Rumi says this of the difference between the two:

There are two kinds of intellect; the first is acquired-
Thanks to it you learn like a schoolboy
Books, teachers, reflection, concepts, all kinds of sciences…
You learn and your intellect grows superior.
But conserving this knowledge is always a burden.
The other intellect is God’s pure gift;
Its heart is in the breast of the soul.
When the water of divine gnosis jets from the heart
It never becomes stagnant or old or dirty.
And if it can’t flow outside, what does it matter?
It keeps foaming up from within the heart.

Of course when Rumi speaks of the heart here he is speaking of his own heart’s direct experience, and not many of us know what he knows. So why don’t we all know? Why is it obvious to him, while the majority of humankind is unaware of the heart and of its spirituality and knowledge? Here is what he says;

“Love for the Creator is latent in all human beings and in everything in the world, in fact in all things that have being. How could anyone not love the One who gave him or her being? Love is latent in every human being, but obstructions veil that love; when those obstructions are taken away, love flashes out and becomes real.”

Our love for our Origin is latent in all of us, but there are obstructions that must be removed. It is because of the presence of these obstructions that we are unaware of our hearts and our essential, divine reality. This is why an education for the heart is necessary. This is the arena of the personal search. This is a spiritual education, and one that needs distinguishing carefully from a religious education. Of course it is good to receive an education about one’s own religion, if one has one, and to learn about other religions, particularly in a multicultural society. But a spiritual education is for all people whether they adhere to a religion or not, because this is an education about what it means to be human, not how to follow a religion. This is an education about how we work as people, how we function at a deep level. We need to know that we have spiritual obstructions that veil us, but that these can be removed. We should also know that what we do, how we proceed in life will either add to these obstructions or take them away. We should know that permanent happiness is only to be found in the removal of the obstructions, not in the betterment of our external conditions, laudable and necessary though this may be.

We are brought up to believe in the reality of things, and we dedicate our lives to the pursuit of these things. While for some these are material things like wealth, a car or home or perhaps a better complexion, for others the things are more abstract, such as fulfilment, happiness, or excitement. Actually these are only different degrees of the same desire, and are all based upon a belief that these things are out there somewhere; we have an idea where they are and work towards them, or we believe they are not obtainable by someone like me, and grow resentful. Now the truth is that things, even supposing that like a car they exist, do not provide happiness. Happiness is not out there at all. What is out there is only 'bread and circuses', things to divert us from what we are really here for, that is, the exploration of the fathomless ocean of our own interiors. Education if it really is education must provide the means to uncovering the truth about ourselves. A truthful education must expose the fact that happiness is not obtainable, because it is not a thing. Happiness is me as I approach the truth of my own being. Happiness is in us all in latency and is to be found by those who do the work.

I have no doubt that the drafters of the American Constitution, in mentioning the pursuit of happiness, had in mind the spiritual quest, rather than the blind and prevalent pursuit of things, material and immaterial. As well as it being a constitutional right it must surely be a goal of our education to open up the way for the pursuit of a happiness that is independent of changes in circumstance, impervious to success or failure, and of which no-one can deprive me. An education of this nature returns to its root meaning of drawing forth from within, from the treasury of the heart that we all contain. Young children have very little difficulty in making a start with this process, and this is because they have not yet acquired some of the obstructions that Rumi tells us about. This is why their natural condition is happiness. Babies are not born with the idea of a vulnerable and separate self; they acquire it later. And since there is no separate self to be threatened, they are free from fear. The thought processes have not developed, and negative thought patterns have not yet been installed. Thus the young child is still close to the state of unconditioned being, a quality that we adults recognise as innocence, and which exerts an influence on us beneath our crust of obstructions. Of course children have to grow. They have to grow up and become a whole person and part of that growth is in the exercise and development of the mental faculties. But in this process of growth there is no reason why the child’s purity of being should be covered up by thinking, or its happiness made sombre by growing up, or innocence made cynical by cleverness. Indeed the heart is not in opposition to the head, and there is the possibility of an education that takes both heart and head into account in a balanced way.

For this we must recognise that there is a big difference between them. The head is a tool and we have to learn to use it well; as we use it its strength and accuracy develop. It requires to be taught. The heart cannot be taught, but it can teach us. It can inform us of things from the interior of which we had no knowledge previously. So the relationship between heart and head is not equal. This is why Ibn Arabi calls the heart 'the prince of all the faculties' because it receives directly from God. The head in turn receives from the heart, but only when the head learns that it is not in command. The head must learn that there are areas of which it has no understanding and no direct access. The mental faculties of intellect and reason are no more than parts of the whole, and to be of service to that whole they must recognise their place as a part. The head must willingly subordinate itself to the heart, and be brought into alignment with it, so that it may be adapted by the heart for its own purposes. When this happens the One Reality that shows Itself to the heart also appears in thought in such a way that there is no opposition.

It is time to see what the masters of spiritual wisdom have to say about the heart and its true place in humankind. In brief, we are here, human beings in this relative existence, because the One Absolute Being loves to be known. We human beings are places in which the One may be known, when we come to know ourselves, who we really are; in other words we are in potential Reality’s way of seeing Itself. And the human heart is none other than the eye by which It may be seen. This is why the heart is commonly known as the centre for Love, because this is where God is known as Love by those happy few whose hearts are cleared from obstructions. But we should not limit the heart only to Love, unless we have an unlimited understanding of Love. In the verse above, Rumi described the heart as the place of the intellect that is God’s pure gift. Ibn Arabi says “the perfected intelligence is the heart that has been freed from erroneous beliefs”. In short the heart is the place within us which knows the Knowledge, loves Love, and is the Being.

Ibn Arabi gives us this verse on the heart;

“The heart is a pearl that looks at God.
The heart is the place of manifestation of the Name and the Named.
The heart is a falcon, or a bird of marvel.
The heart is the being of the Ipseity of God.”

The heart described here has no coverings over it, and thus it sees Existence as it really is. The coverings come about through our giving reality to things that really have no existence. What results in us is an erroneous belief which overlays and oppresses the heart. This is where an education for the heart provides very important information about living and gives us crucial skills, without which societies, families and individuals inevitably disintegrate and collapse.

Very few of us derive our sense of ourselves solely from who we really are, as God knows us to be. Instead we learn to rely on what others project back to us either positively or negatively, and from what we see ourselves do and hear ourselves say. From this we build a composite image of who and what we are. This is a picture that needs to be continually updated, improved and aggrandised, because having no real substance it does not give any lasting satisfaction. On the contrary it requires for its maintenance all our energy, and life-long dedication and attention. We are terrified of stopping this process because the moment we stop, the illusion will fall down and we fear that there will be nothing left. We are terrified that we might discover that there is nothing there beneath the self-construct. This is why we are so obsessed with exterior things, so that we can continue to keep this ball in the air. Whatever way, good or bad, whatever it takes to reinforce the illusion of the ego, even if we are killing ourselves with negative thinking, stress, violence, alcohol and drugs, or even more directly, by suicide.

But let us take a step back. What we do with our lives stems from our beliefs about who and what we are. But where does that belief come from? Does it derive from what my heart knows myself to be, or does it come from my conditioning and circumstances, how my parents brought me up, how well I did at school or socially, my clothes, culture and level of affluence? The only difference between the spiritual masters and everyone else is that they only give attention to the reality of their selves and hence to the One Reality Itself. They are scrupulous in not giving existence to the illusion of self. Their work is simply to keep the heart clear of any covering so that they can perfectly reflect everything and everyone exactly as it is. Whoever we are, whatever age we may be, all of us are involved directly in this same lifetime’s work, that is, either uncovering the reality of the self in the heart, or covering it up with our own self-creation. This is where choice really lies.

Perhaps inevitably we make the wrong choices at some point and inflict damage on ourselves or upon others. Many school children come from such abusive and disturbed backgrounds that it is difficult to see how they could ever emerge from such conditioning into the light. Here it is absolutely necessary for them and for us to know that there is a level of our being which is completely free from conditioning of any kind. At this level we are completely unsullied, in our original state of innocence and intrinsically valuable, not because of what we have done or not done, but because of who we are. This is where we really are ourselves, both intrinsically loveable, and loving in return. The heart always remains in its state of original purity, and there is nothing that anyone could do to change this essential fact about oneself. One of Ibn Arabi’s favourite metaphors for the heart is that of a mirror that has been polished, so that it reflects perfectly. One should remember here that he is speaking of a 12thC metal mirror, rather than a modern glass one.

“You should know that the heart is a polished mirror, that all of it is a face and that it never rusts. For if it has been said to ‘rust’, that expression only refers to when the heart becomes preoccupied with (seeking) knowledge of worldly matters, and thereby distracted from its knowing of-and-through God … Because the Divine Presence is continually manifesting Itself, and one could not imagine any ‘veil’ for that Self-manifestation. But when this heart fails to receive that Manifestation … because it has received something other than God instead, then that receiving something else is what is referred to as the ‘rust’ and ‘veils’ and ‘locks’ and ‘blindness’ and the like … although the Knowers of-and-through God know that in reality (that distracted heart) too is actually knowing of-and-through God.”

This is an extremely important piece of information, because this is a complete and absolute answer to the feelings of despair, alienation and exclusion that are so prevalent today. If this fact is kept a secret it is as if we withhold from an orphan the information of his inheritance, with the result that he believes himself condemned to poverty and despair. We all have that in us which knows the truth. This is our birthright. We are never severed from it. We do however forget we have it, and this is the situation most of us find ourselves in. When the reality of the heart is covered over, denied, scorned then it is almost as if we are cut off from who we are, and we have forgotten that we are all spiritual beings with a spiritual purpose in this life. This is for everyone, whatever their appearance, whether following a religious creed or in complete denial of everything other than the material existence, no-one can escape their spiritual reality. We are all involved either in hiding the truth of ourselves from ourselves, or we are in the business of uncovering it, exposing it to ourselves and to others. This is spiritual work and it has spiritual consequences for all of us, individually and collectively.

The heart of education must surely be that we come to the truth of ourselves. What remains is the question whether children have the ability and inclination to be involved in such questions. Our own experience has been that children and young people are spiritually orientated by nature, and very much engaged in such questions as “Who am I?” “Where was I before I was born?” and so on. One of the greatest saints of the 20thC, Sri Ramana Maharshi attained enlightenment at the age of 17 simply by staying with the question “Who am I?” These are spiritual questions that many adults feel unequipped to respond to, and perhaps do not appreciate the level from which they are coming. And yet these questions, if supported, can lead directly to profound spiritual truths, which children naturally love to consider and to savour the mystery. Many of us who are parents, or who work with children, have been awestruck by the wisdom that pops out from time to time. One little child, when her mother told her that when we die we go back to God, rounded on her with a mixture of indulgence and incredulity, with “But Mummy, don’t you see, He’s with you now! You can only speak because of Him!”

At the Beshara School of Intensive Esoteric Education, at which I work, our students are any age from late-teens onwards. Over the Six-month Intensive Course they investigate in depth many of the matters raised in this short paper, and more. They take part in a balanced programme of work, study, meditation and spiritual exercises, designed for a serious adult student. In addition we have also had very good experiences of short courses for children and teenagers. It is important to note that the children themselves requested these courses. They were not inflicted upon them. Some of these children have now grown up and are coming back as students of the six-month courses. Our experience has been that children love wisdom, and love to experience it flowing in them when given the opportunity.

In conclusion, I have endeavoured to show that the element of personal search that at present constitutes one third of one subject of the school curriculum, is actually the heart of the whole matter of education. I believe ways can be found to strengthen the connection to the heart that children already have, and which is their birthright, so that they do not lose touch with it as they mature; rather that the connection matures with them. We must put the heart back into education by acknowledging its true place at the centre. We must encourage children’s innate sense of spirituality and self-discovery, and to recognise this as the ultimate and the closest goal of all education.