The connection between Heart-centredness, burnout and colonization

The problem with Heart-centredness

Heart-centred has become quite a popular word, especially embraced by communities devoted to social change. No doubt, having empathy allows us to relate to people we don’t share the similar life experiences with. Its especially important to be able to relate to those who we have more privilege than.

Yet, we are also starting to notice problems associated with the empathic nature of Heart-centrednes. One of the most pressing issues that face us helping professionals involved in social justice work is burnout from vicarious trauma, a special kind of traumatization that happens from being sensitized to the suffering of others.

It is being recognized more and more that the emotional collapse of those in supporting roles is a major blow to communal resilience. I believe the time is ripe for re-examining Heart-centredness in order to move us towards more sustainable strategies for social change.

In this post I would like to address two major problems I see with Heart-centredness from the perspective of body-centred therapy and energy anatomy:

  1. Heart-centred self-concept is destabilizing to our nervous system.
  2. Related to the above, Heart-centred self-concept is a part of our colonial legacy

The Heart and our nervous system

Empathy as a natural human function is simply the tendency of our nervous systems to resonate with one another. This phenomenon is also called emotional contagion. While some of us are more sensitive to this internal process than others, we all experience it.

In energy anatomy, the Heart (not just the literal organ but the entire chest area, also called the Middle Dan Tien) is responsible for our empathic function. It maybe helpful to visualize the Heart as a big speaker AND microphone for the music of our nervous system. When we are open-hearted, we feel the emotions of others in a deeper way. When our hearts are closed, we become less aware of the emotional resonance we are experiencing.

(Below: The magnetic field of the heart | Source: Heartmath Institute)

(If you are interested in reading more about the emotional intelligence of the Heart, I recommend following the work of the Heart Math institute.)

While feeling the emotions of others can be a beautiful and sensitive quality, it can also be challenging to manage. Stimulation to the Heart also engages our sympathetic nervous system, responsible for excitement and activation. When the Heart becomes hyper-stimulated, our heart-rate goes up, breathing becomes shallow and higher, and we become more easily triggered into fight or flight reactions. Unchecked empathy can ‘fry’ our nervous system and burn us out.

It is also important to consider that feeling strong empathy can be a survival reaction in it of itself. This is especially for those who grew up in emotionally unstable homes and learned to tune into the needs of caregivers to avoid abuse and abandonment. In fact, the energy state of ‘Fuse’ I describe in this article about allyship and co-dependence, where we become completely fused with another and disconnect from our own needs, is energetically an over-activation of the heart.

Promoting Heart-centredness as an ideal amplifies the above issues by encouraging us to develop more sensitivity than our nervous systems can handle. It leads us to over-identify with our emotions, become dysregulated, and even end up disconnecting us from our true selves.

In fact, too much kindness is a quick path to cruelty.

Colonization and Heart-centredness

Up till now, we have discussed the impact of Heart-centredness on our individual well being and the connection of that to the sustainability of social justice work. In this next section I would like to pull out to the bigger picture of human history and look at how our emphasis on the Heart as an energetic centre has its origins in European colonialism.

As I discussed in an article about white-ness as an energetic imbalance, I understand colonization as a propagation of a self-concept that is heavily skewed towards the activating qualities of the sympathetic nervous system. In terms of embodiment, this means a higher concentration of emotional energies in the upper body – the modern idealized modern body image of a wide chest and flat stomach exemplifies this.

(Below: American soldiers practice calisthenics | Source: Unknown)

(Below: Ballet posture guide | Source” unknown)

On the other hand, when you look at the history of different cultures through out the world, you would quickly notice that pre-colonization, most peoples lived much closer to the ground and had a higher awareness of their lower bodies. You can see this from the simple fact that many cultures, before the influence of European culture, sat on the ground or squatted, and wore robes, skirts, and loose fitting pants.

You can see this grounded quality when you look at traditional movement practices such as dance and martial arts.

(Below: Horse stance in kungfu | Source: Unknown)

(Below: Ghanian traditional dance | Source: CNN)

(Below: Indigenous grass dance | Source: The Plains Indians Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West)

Related to the embodiment shifts described above, one thing we cannot ignore when we look at the history of Heart-centredness, is the role of colonial Christianity. The proliferation of Christian doctrine through the work of missionaries was a fundamental mechanism of colonization. And if there is a spiritual system that draws its inspiration from the empathic power of the Heart, it is the one of Christ. European Christian thought underlies our cultural emphasis on the Heart and equation of empathy to love.

(Source: Unknown)

Please note that my thoughts around Christianity come from my personal and ancestral experience of it as a part of a colonialist agenda. This doesn’t lead me to think I have a full understanding of Christian spiritual practice itself.

Matters around religion are nuanced and complex. For example, I identify as having Buddhist and Shinto ancestry but it is also true that Buddhism was introduced to Japan as a part of political power play in the imperial court. If anything, I believe that the Heart-driven qualities reflected in Christ to be important to individual and collective well-being.

What is violent is when white Christian biases go unchecked and become the socialized default without a consideration for other ways of being. Within social justice communities this shows up as the normalization of self-sacrifice and burnout. And as I always say, we cannot decolonize from a colonized state of mind.

Compassion as empathy, grounded and decolonized

I believe that pro-actively learning to ground our emotional energies and untangling our confusion of empathy with ‘love’ can bring us into a healthier relationship to the Heart. We can do this through embracing compassion, which I define as: ‘Empathy + Self-responsibility’.

In terms of our bodies this means:

1. Having the ability to recognize our emotional resonance with another
2. Being able to separate our nervous system from another and regulate it.

I understand compassion as a love that is rooted in a detached understanding of the sources of human suffering: feelings and thoughts. At first, this can sound like a cold approach. Yet, the self-regulation and separation compassion is founded on allows us to be more wholehearted and connected because we are at less risk of being triggered.

Compassion promotes healthy empathic function, communal resilience and decolonization of relationship.

Where compassion comes from

If empathy comes from the Heart, compassion is grown from the lower belly, a body part that has been ridiculed and suppressed by colonialist chest-out and tummy-tucked posture.

Within many spiritual practices, including Zen, Qigong and Sufism, the place located a few inches underneath our navel and inside our stomach, is understood to hold our essential being, which is neither our thoughts (brain) or feelings (heart). For this post I will be using the Japanese term, Hara, to refer to it.

(Below: The Hara / Lower Dan Tien | Source: Unknown)

In physical anatomy the Hara is our small intestines. Recent research has shown that our gut is also a ‘brain’: the enteric nervous system (ENS). Operating independently from our the brain on the top of our head, the function of the ENS is strongly connected to our ability to handle stress. Breathing into our Hara engages our parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us into a state of rest-and-digest. This helps us ground the passionate and empathetic functions of the Heart and transform empathy into compassion – separated, regulated and wholehearted.

(If you would like to learn more about nervous system regulation and embodiment, I recommend reading more about Poly Vagal Theory.)

Exercise

Below is a breathing exercise to help you develop your Hara. If there is one meditative practice I would encourage social justice communities to embrace, it would be this one.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no need to rush. Hara is a powerful place with many unseen emotions and memories. It is best to contact it gently and slowly.

  1. Come into a relaxed sitting, standing, or lying position. If you are sitting or standing, try to keep your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Lay your hands softly on your stomach, a few finger-widths below your belly button.
  3. Imagine a glowing ball behind your hands, inside your belly.
  4. Breathe gently into this ball, in through your nose and out through your mouth or nose. (If the ball image doesn’t work for you, you can use any other kind of loving image or word.)

While breathing exercises can get advanced quickly, this simple exercise is a great place to start.

A note on Christianity and Hara

One thing that has come up for me in my exploration around colonization and energetic anatomy is Christianity’s relationship to Hara. This is an edge of my research, especially because I try to be careful about not determining the depth of a culture from the position of an outsider.

I understand that some European scholars, such as Karlfried Graf Durckheim, have spoken to Hara as necessary to spiritual cultivation, even within Christian mysticism. To learn more, you can read his seminal work: “Hara: The Vital Center of Man“.


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.