Don’t you find it a bit odd that we say the heart houses our capacity for relationships, feelings, self-image and all manner of ego-related theatrics (among other things 😉), when clearly, most or all animals have hearts? After all, a crocodile — famously devoid of emotions and compassion — still has a heart. So, what gives?
For a long time, this puzzled me. It didn’t really change much from a practical perspective; we could talk about the heart centre and be in a fair amount of agreement around what that meant. Of course, I understood that there was a difference between the heart as in the physical organ and the heart centre — but still, we were also taught, and teaching, that the heart centre had something to do with the physical heart, or the region around it. So what was the connection, and how come all hearts didn’t generate the same qualities? To excavate this conundrum a bit, I first need to make some comments about teaching.
The “appropriate level” of teaching
Teaching different aspects of the Enneagram, there are always levels to the teaching. Talking to a newcomer from the deepest level of understanding will generally not go over too well, as the finer points won’t have anywhere to attach to, as it were; neither the grasp of the model nor, perhaps, the experiential understanding will be sufficient to hold and integrate them.
Just like we teach young children that counting begins at 1, and only much later introduce the possibility of negative numbers, with the Enneagram, we start in the shallow, simple, coarse end and then work to deepen the understanding of theories and descriptions at a speed that matches the inner developments and experiential insight of our student. Or, at least in Utopia, this is how it’s done. With classes of many students — or even online, where there is no mutual student/teacher interface — there’s really no way of pacing the teaching this way.
Seeming contradictions are often just different levels of truth
As students, we might sometimes listen to a teacher that makes sense to us talk about a particular teaching at a level we aren’t personally yet quite ready to integrate. We get that they are right dismissing the coarser teaching (or, most often, some misunderstanding that this coarser teaching tends to give rise to), but we can’t yet grasp the finer points of why the clumsier “beginners’ version” is still true, nor how the deeper truth fits in.
Then we might dismiss the “clumsier” beginners’ version, thinking that as our teacher taught it before but left it now, it is no longer “the truth”. We trust this teacher, after all, so now we “know” stuff — maybe that the directions of the arrows don’t really matter, or that this aspect or that goes with a certain centre — without realising that what we previously thought we knew is still true. These different truths just aren’t relevant at the same level of teaching.
The topic I’m about to open up here absolutely belongs in this “multiple levels of truths” category. It would — because, as we saw, it’s about the heart. And the heart (whether it be as a centre of intelligence, as a societal metaphor for compassion and emotion, or any other take we might have on it outside its purely physiological function) is an interesting thing in that humans are both very fond of it and, as a collective, surprisingly confused about so much of it.
The heart and the instinctual drive for social adaptation
When teaching about the instincts, when we reach the social instinct, the first thing that happens is that people realise the common denominators of its various components don’t revolve around groups and networking so much, but rather around something much subtler: the nature of reciprocity and the awareness that “you” is in fact another “me”, with equally valid experiences, feelings,and ideas. We look at how the first zone of social adaptation is actually about the capacity to read and interpret things like other people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, overall appearance and energy — that kind of thing. So to a large extent, the social instinct is about our inner response to those things, our emphatic qualities, and our willingness to behave in response to what we read.
When we get this far, the ingredients going into it start sounding suspiciously like heart matters, don’t they? “Caring about others”, basically — what could be more “heart” than that, you might ask. And it’d be a very relevant question.
Centres have their place in the body — but they aren’t confined to them
When we teach the centres, we usually say explain that the gut centre is located in, well, the gut, or our belly, and houses our instinctual selves. The next centre is the heart centre, which obviously is located around the physical heart and which handles things like emotions, self-image, love, compassion, values, and that kind of human flavours. And the head centre, equally obviously, is located in the head and concerned with things like thinking, planning, studying, reasoning, concluding, imagining, sorting information, and all such activities, as well as the capacity for reflection and being in stillness.
These descriptions, hopefully more richly decked-out, are what we’d offer at an introduction of the three centres, alongside some information about what “centres” even mean in the first place, and roughly how they are connected: via the vagus nerve, or the 10th cranial nerve, where the overwhelming amount of information goes upwards, to the head, from the two lower centres. And this teaching would not be a lie. It would just not be the whole story — but as we’ve already established, teaching the whole story from day one on any subject doesn’t really work very well. So this is what we teach.
[Say it with me:] “HOWEVER.”
There’s quite a few “howevers” here, actually. When we drill a little further down into this topic,. we might notice that the vagus nerve is not really “one nerve”. Firstly, to be clear, all the cranial nerves come in pairs, so technically, none of them are. But secondly, and more interestingly, the vagus nerve consists of a whole bunch or nerves, winding this way and that on their way around the body. (Vagus is Latin for “wanderer”, which goes some way to describe the situation.)
So far, this doesn’t contradict anything we just said. But the thing is, the three main flavours of the autonomic nervous system — connect/co-regulate, fight/flight, and freeze/collapse — are all quite instinctual. In other words, they are hard-wired into our bodies from the get-go.
Some people (like Stephen Porges, the father of Polyvagal theory — and if this stuff tickles you and you haven’t yet looked into that, you might like to) claim that the capacity for connecting and co-regulating with other members of your species is a distinctly mammalian thing, although for the record, personally, I don’t believe it is. (Neither do a bunch of other, better-informed people, and this is one of the aspects of Polyvagal theory that have been called into question. However, again in my opinion, please don’t throw the whole thing out on account of this; it really deserves better. ) I think what we’re finding out about crows, for instance — that they hold personal grudges even across species, that they form social bonds (again, sometimes across species), that in some cases they seem to mourn their dead , even though they’re clearly not mammals — shows that this capacity is not exclusively mammalian. What is does point to, however, is that the heart is already somewhat engaged in our social instinct.
The multi-faceted heart
I already mentioned that humanity has a funny relationship to our idea of “the heart”. We use it to describe lofty notions such as compassion and even our — uniquely human, as far as we know today — position, perched as we are on the cusp of higher awareness, although still, in so many ways, just a mammal among other mammals. But then, we also use it to describe our whole, messy experience of our broad range of egoic issues where we find emotional reactivity, prestige, self-image matters, inadequate mirroring, ego investments that we believe are going to increase our value, and all those kinds of things. And lastly, looking at the autonomous nervous system and the vagal pathways, we can see that it does indeed have a place in our relationships and social, instinctual responses.
Clusters of experience, rather than schematic models
In my Keys to Understanding the Instincts, (the link leads to an expanded youtube talk, although there’s also a cheat-sheet for the Keys if you want it), Key #4 is that the centres rarely operate in isolation. This means that however neatly we separate different capacities and inner features of our system, and even how clearly separable they in fact are, it’s rare that we experience them one at a time. We have all of it going on pretty much simultaneously — all the drives, and all the centres. We use them in ways that are often physiologically hierarchic, and we might even practice our awareness to the point where we experience these hierarchies. But none of this means we won’t often feel multiple capacities and responses operating in parallel.
We operate as clusters of experience, rather than models composed of different hermetically sealed-off quarters. It helps to remember that. When we do, we can still find tremendous clarification, insight, and help from understanding about the different parts. But when this is forgotten, the result misguided instincts students who claims that the sexual instinct does indeed include the longing for long-term relationships and deep, resonant, emotional intimacy. Obviously that’s the case, or so they will argue, as they can feel it so clearly in connection with sexual attraction and other features that do belong in the instinctual drive to attract and expand . But that’s a mix-up — you don’t experience that because those things are a part of the sexual instinct. You experience them because you’re a human being and because, as such, you also have a heart centre that will readily co-engage in many of the situations where the sexual instinct is active. That’s completely normal, and completely understandable. However, it also illustrates why learning the basics is a good idea.
Animals have hearts —
what’s so special about ours?
So, anyway. While we can dissect the sexual instinct at length (and I’ve done so in a few other blog articles), let’s now turn back to our topic for this one: the heart. As I said in the introduction, I always found it puzzling that the heart centre would be home of things like self-image, values, and emotional reactivity, as most animals, after all, possess a physical heart, yet they don’t seem to bother with these things as humans do? I never heard a satisfying explanation for this; in fact, I don’t think I even heard anyone ask the question.
The obvious variation between species in head centre capacities didn’t seem as surprising. Sure, all animals have a head, too, but very few of them can compete with humans when it comes to its more advanced features. With hearts, though, it’s a different story. Going back to our friend the crocodile, crocodiles not only have a heart, but on top of that they’re the only reptile whose heart has four chambers, like a mammals’. On top of that, it boasts not one but two aortas, exiting the heart on each side to distribute oxygenated blood throughout the body. So if the physical organ itself is even more advanced in some animals than ours, why would the human heart centre be concerned with this potentially more problematic stuff? After all, from what we can tell, animals do not sport ego-induced emotional reactivity, self-identify with their emotional baggage, or question their worthiness. Those things seem to be uniquely human.
There’s heart stuff, and then there’s heart stuff
What became obvious to me was that the same distinctly human features that provide access to our spiritual home and a connection to something greater than ourselves (more on this below) are also those that provide the biggest challenges and greatest sources of suffering in our lives on Earth — and they are all in some way connected to the heart.
To explain what I mean, it comes in handy to separate some aspects of the heart from others. When I take a step back to get some perspective, four categories quickly emerge. I’m not saying that these are absolute or fully scientifically discernible (if nothing else, the fourth in particular isn’t really a matter of science in the first place), but in my work and my understanding, they make a lot of sense.
Aspects of the social instinct
As we have seen, there seem to be aspects of social adaptation — our most “civilised” instinctual feature — that are in fact sourced from the physical connection to our anatomical heart. This is where we find the capacity for co-regulation of which Polyvagal theory speaks, the forming of personal relationships and a lot of things that go with them: connection, belonging, playing, giving an cashing in favours, asking for help, empathizing, going out of your way to help other members of your species without any obvious personal reward … those things. These all go into instinctual, social adaptation, which is a gut feature, even though it’s making use of the vagal connection with the heart.
As far as the purely instinctual drive to connect, it seems to be present in an overwhelming majority of animal species, from fish and birds to mammals of all shapes and sizes. And, yes — today, there’s evidence that even those infamous crocs do on occasion establish certain kinds of social bonds.
To make matters more confusing, this is not to say that these instinctual features don’t often coincide with the use of the heart centre aspects in humans (and quite possibly some animals) — but again, the different areas have different qualities to them.
The nuances of emotion
(basic heart centre)
One of these different qualities is the vast array of different emotions that the heart centre may harbour. This can be anything from quite “pure” and clearly distinguishable emotions such as joy or shame, or all the subtle nuances of irritation, expectation, boredom, exuberance, happiness, grief, exhilaration, disappointment, hope, loneliness, frustration, longing, excitement … well, the list is pretty extensive, and we can divide these into finer flavours and notes.
It’s clear that we share this basic heart capacity with many animals, although as yet we know quite little about the extent to which this is the case and about what range of emotion each species is capable of. This overall capacity for emotion, I’d say, is very much a heart centre feature. To have access to it in a balanced way, we need to be grounded — that is, firmly anchored to our instinctual nature. (This is usually the case for animals and small children, which is the reason their emotions usually come out as quite unadulterated, compared to what might be the case for many adults.)
Egoic reactivity and self-image investments
(wider-area heart centre)
In this third category, we are stepping into what seems to be more exclusively human territory. This is the realm of phenomena such as sentimentality, patterns of emotional reactivity, the use of prestige and self-image boosting to build up our sense of self-worth, and so on. Here, the ego emerges more clearly — and even a hint of the “me-who” that is so very prominent in the fourth category.
It seems to me that the reason that humans get into these emotional ego-traps is because of our capacity for self-reflection. Without this capacity, we’d never get into such tussles trying to look good, achieving, sticking out, hiding, acquiring, and whatever else we do to feed our ego. But neither would we be able to explore our spirituality. This gift is in many ways like fire — another exclusively human resource that can be as destructive as it can be a helpful, depending on how it’s used.
While in instinctual social adaptation we relate to others with an instinctive understanding that they, too, have an inner sense of reality and their own experiences, just like ourselves, it’s not quite self-reflection yet. In the instinctual realm, we can grasp that we need to be or behave a certain way to be accepted or to get whatever it is that we need from a situation, but we’re not going to sit down and ponder what that means for our self-worth. Neither would we try to fake it; we wouldn’t know how. Here, though, in the very-human-indeed aspect of the heart centre, we can — and, frequently, will do those things.
Now, depending on many other personal aspects like personality type and psychological maturity, our capacity for self-reflection might not yet mean that we actually sit down and take an objective, soul-searching look at ourselves. Or we might, but chances are we’d end up “reflecting’ from something that was still mostly ego. For example, we might identify strongly with things like our credentials, social standing, our possessions or level of riches, and other such things — but the point is that it is this theoretical capacity to self-reflect (regardless of what we take our “self” to be) that makes it possible for us to dig ourselves into such deep holes of despair, expectations, ego-inflation, or self-obsession. It is in this range of the heart centre that much of our human heart-related interactions play out.
Now, even if this description sounds a bit depressing, this is not a useless category. Again, it’s only about the “fire” that is the capacity for self-reflection. We could reflect in a much less ego-identified way, but still consider things like self-image and ego. In fact, looking at the levels of balance that Don Riso mapped out (using the term “Levels of Development”), we can see that level 3, which is still in the healthy range, is called “The level of social value”. In the healthy levels, it’s not that are devoid of a self-image (or an ego); it’s just that we don’t take that to be out identity, so we aren’t as enslaved by it. Self-image, emotional reactivity, and the ego are all examples of things that are par for the course in our life as human beings. Our job isn’t to escape them, but rather to experience ourselves unfettered by our beliefs about them.
To come out in a predictably balanced, healthy way rather than as various types of ego-antics, this category, just like the last one, requires a solid anchor in and integration of the instinctual centre. Also, we need to have befriended and be able to tolerate the basic heart centre aspects of the 2nd category.
The “me-who” and the essential embrace
(heart centre informed by wholeness)
And lastly, there’s the fully developed “me-who” and what I called “the essential embrace”. While the capacity for this is there already present in the last category, here in the fourth category, it blossoms. Here, though, it’s no longer enough that we’re connected to the ground of being through our instinctual centre and that we can navigate the two previous categories of the heart centre with a healthy balance. Rather, even while we‘re still very much talking about the heart centre, sometimes I like to describe this category as the fourth station on our journey through the centres: Gut, heart, head, and then circling back to the heart again. Let’s unwrap this a little bit.
I’ve written before about how the heart seems to play a special role in the context of deeper inner growth. This is what that’s been about: this fourth category. Because this aspect of the heart also requires a connection with and integration of the qualities and features of the head centre. This includes both the simple, constructive function of various cognitive capacities, and the higher, open function of deeper reflection and stillness. It’s only from there that we can then come back to the heart again, truly complete human beings, to explore the deeper qualities of what is sometimes called “the deeper heart”.
You know when people say things like “the heart forgives everything”, or “spiritual development is a journey of the heart”? When people say this, at least if they’re saying it from their own experience, they don’t mean that we should compromise our value as human beings (“forgiving everything” and allowing ourselves to be abused) or that it’s more spiritual to be emotional than to sit in silent meditation (since the silent sitting would be more of a head centre way, whereas emotions would be of the heart). This kind of statements aren’t referring to the previous categories of heart matters, but to this one.
The capacity of the heart centre that I called the me-who in the book Aspects of You is the ability to look at myself more objectively, as if from the outside — but having it come from the inside. I realise this is an nonsensical description if you don’t have the experience of doing this, or rather more likely, if you aren’t aware of having this experience. But it’s just referring to self-reflection in the truest sense: to be aware of “me” as a kind of “who” in the world, but not a personality- or history-based identity, but rather something else. (Don’t worry if you haven’t ever been able to get a good grasp on this “something else”; if you have, it will still have been only a personality- or history-based aspects of your “who”, however objectively true. When it comes to reflecting on me-who, the willingness to reflect is the point, not the conclusion.) Maybe the easiest way to describe this quality is to say it’s about self-reflection, but since we‘d still have to agree on which level of “self” we are talking about, unfortunately, it’s going to get us in trouble no matter how much of a pretzel we twist ourselves into.
The Essential Embrace
So maybe it’s more productive to use the second concept I chose: “the essential embrace”. This idea isn’t necessarily easier to put into words, but as its grammatical format talks about “something outside of me” embracing “me”, it might be easier to digest. (This, by the way, is where the simple constructive function of the mind starts to sweat, and it’s good to allow the higher, open function to come online 😉.)
The fundamental job of our heart as humans on this earthly adventure is simply this: to hold us in the loving embrace of essence. And since, still as humans, we have a hard time taking in the multitudes of our existence without our heads exploding, this essential embrace works a bit like Mary Poppins’ medicine. Do you remember her? She had the children take a spoonful of medicine, each from the same bottle, although they tasted different for everyone, catering to the recipient’s tastes.
If we study the essential qualities of the Enneagram types, we might notice that they are given slightly different names depending on the source. And as usual, it’s not about the words, but on what the words are pointing to. For a more expended overview, there’s this article, but in a kind of shorthand, from type Eight onwards the essential qualities are Aliveness, Being, Goodness, Generosity, Value, Depth, Clarity, Direct Knowing, and Joy.
Usually, our personalities — and our egos — absolutely adore the experience of anything resembling this one essential flavour that we seem to have brought with us into the world — our “personal element of the Divine”, to use the words from The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Riso and Russ Hudson. Granted, though — and just as advertised — what we are usually in pursuit of and experiencing are indeed states and sensations that resemble these essential qualities, rather than the pure qualities themselves. And no wonder, since our ego has spent our life trying to emulate them as best it could. Now, given that ego and essence don’t really mix, these qualities in their pure expression aren’t only hard but actually quite impossible for the ego to produce for us (although, again, not for lack of trying). The only way for us to be able to experience them, with the possible exception of chance occurrences caused by fleeting outer circumstances, is through balancing our centres and getting there through our connection with this deeper, “fourth-station” aspect of the heart centre.
“Angelic animals” — or, well, something like that
So there are multiple layers of the heart for us to explore. And even though their description above happened in a certain hierarchic format where one layer sort of springs out of its predecessor, it’s not like we need to finish our work with one layer before we can start on the next. However, to the extent that the former layer is left unprocessed, with wounds, scars, shame, fears, or other unpalatable aspects left unseen, disowned, and unhealed, we will not be able to fully inhabit the one after it. What this means for the overwhelming majority of people is just that “inner growth” is a life-long journey and that there’s always more do discover.
Two seemingly opposing but not exclusive identities — that’s us
When talking about the centres with intermediate students and getting to where the heart centre does indeed hold a special place in humanity’s collective, psycho-spiritual journey, I sometimes refer to us as being equally animal and angelic, or divine. It’s not my intention to put an overly religious touch upon it (or, in fairness, any religious touch whatsoever); it’s just that this metaphor is one that most of my students are able to relate to.
What it means is this: On the one hand, we are a mammal living on planet Earth, with trials and tribulations as befall all animals. This is not only partially true, mind, but completely true. On the other hand, and at the same time, we are in this world but not actually of it; derived from and connected to a higher plane that is essentially different from our animal reality. (Obviously, this is a logical fallacy. But then, on these topics, all the best explanations are.)
We are each, as it were, a glimmer on the surface of existence itself. And just like the Sun’s light breaks up into thousands of little glitters when reflected off a live water surface, we all emanate from the same source — the same Life, or fundamental reality — and could be said to manifest in this earthly dimension as separate “life glimmers”. It’s easy to see how, on our journey back to this realisation, the deeper heart has a major role to play.
The heart: balance, reconciliation, and reunion
As far as the centres of intelligence go, it’s no coincidence that the heart centre sits right in the middle, as if put there to reconcile our animal instincts with our higher mind (and, frequently, our not-so-high mind). One without the other (or even both, but without the heart) creates havoc. I’d even go so far as to say that most, if not all, of the problems humankind faces as a collective at this point are down to various centre imbalances. I trust this is pretty clear by now how this is the case — and it becomes clear, too, what magnificent gifts the Enneagram, its teachings and not least our own deeper, inner growth work bring to the table. It’s quite awe-inspiring, if we allow it to sink in.
So maybe, if you feel so inclined, take a few moments to consider this: How close and at-your-disposal this all is, and how from one perspective, all we have to do is to allow ourselves to fall right into this deeper heart. From another perspective, after just our first few breaths of such falling, we might start encountering bits and pieces of all the stuff that we held off, shut out, projected onto others, or otherwise rejected. That’s fine. It’s to be expected. Just meet whatever you feel ready to hold for a while, and allow yourself the space to be exactly as you are ❤️.
If this area of work and explorations is something that you feel drawn to, you might want to get The Enneagram Way if you haven’t already. And if any of it raises questions, reflections, or other things that need to be shared, please just reach out and do so. I’m so glad that you’re here.
PS — This article itself, just like all of these psycho-spiritual teachings, is not exactly The Truth; it’s a finger pointing towards the moon, rather than the moon. This means that it’s a work in progress — still, after more than 20 years. But for what it’s worth, it’s also at a stage where it felt solid enough to meaningfully share. I hope it serves to clarify some things, and if it doesn’t really, again, your possible questions or reflections are helpful in the continued exploration 😉