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Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life

Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life

by Gail Godwin

What is the heart? We know it as not only the beating thing in our chests that sustains life, but as the wellspring of all faith, hope, and love. In this remarkable book, critically acclaimed author Gail Godwin takes us on a breathtaking journey that spans the history of human civilization, combining myth, art and religion to understand how humans have conceived of


What is the heart? We know it as not only the beating thing in our chests that sustains life, but as the wellspring of all faith, hope, and love. In this remarkable book, critically acclaimed author Gail Godwin takes us on a breathtaking journey that spans the history of human civilization, combining myth, art and religion to understand how humans have conceived of the heart through time. From the first valentine to the first stethoscope, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Buddha, from the heart of darkness to heart-to-heart talks, Godwin weaves her own stories of heartbreak and hope through it all.

Inspired by the richest of lore, Godwin ultimately arrives at what every culture must discover anew: we cannot let the head alone rule our lives. In this colorful history of the organ of life itself, she discovers a template for a more heart-filled life.

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HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the chronicle of our species, ever since we acquired speech and symbols, the imaginative place accorded to the heart can tell you a great deal about how a people defines itself and what it holds sacred.

When the Aztecs cut open captive enemy warriors and offered their bloody hearts to the sun god, they believed the heart was the body's sun and the more hearts they sacrificed the more power they were returning to the sun. Before the enemy warrior was killed, they painted him with stripes, tied him to a rope, and gave him a blunt wooden sword; Aztec warriors, armed with real swords and shields, fought him. The longer "the stripe" held out, the braver and more "nutritious" was deemed the meal offered to the sun.

When primitive peoples ate the hearts of particularly brave enemies or animals they had killed, they believed they were ingesting the strength and courage of the owner of that heart.

For the alchemists in the Middle Ages, the heart represented the image of the sun within a human being, just as gold was the image of the sun on earth. Later they understood that their undertaking was also an outward and visible sign for purifying the heart.

For the disciplined practitioner of Buddhist Tantric yoga, the "heart level" represents that advanced achievement of consciousness in an individual where, for the first time, "a light is lit in the heart."

From this point on, one is no longer dependent on reflected light, but can at last see directly for oneself.

For Aztecs, alchemists, and Tantrics alike, the heart-sun-enlightenment connection is paramount in value, though the means of expressing that value evolves fromvisceral to chemical to symbolic. As our consciousness becomes more differentiated, "what is outside" becomes known as "also inside."

It has been said by many thoughtful people that our era, or the era we are just completing, has represented the nadir of the heart. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, we have lived in a culture that increasingly worships decisions of the head alone. The head without the heart is much better equipped to make empirical, technical, product-oriented decisions.

In his unusual and extremely readable autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, dictated and written when he was eighty-one, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung describes his encounter with the Native American chief of the Taos pueblos in New Mexico in 1932.

"I was able to talk with him as I have rarely been able to talk with a European," Jung recalls. "To be sure, he was caught up in his world just as much as a European is in his, but what a world it was! In talk with a European, one is constantly running up on the sand bars of things long known but never understood; with this Indian, the vessel floated freely on deep alien seas. At the same time, one never knows which is more enjoyable: catching sight of new shores, or discovering new approaches to age old knowledge that has been almost forgotten" (Vintage, p. 247).

Chief Ochwiay Biano, which means Mountain Lake, must have sensed a kindred spirit in the Swiss doctor, because he was devastatingly candid with him.

Chief Mountain Lake: "See how cruel the whites look, their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad."

When Jung asks why he thinks they are all mad, Mountain Lake replies, "They say they think with their heads."

"Why of course," says Jung. "What do you think with?"

"We think here," says Chief Mountain Lake, indicating his heart.

After this exchange, Jung fell into a deep meditation. The Pueblo chief had struck a vulnerable spot. Jung saw image upon image of cruelties wreaked by his forebears: the Roman eagle on the North Sea and the White Nile, "the keenly incised features of Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, and Pompey...Charlemagne's most glorious forced conversions of the heathen...the pillaging, murdering bands of the Crusading armies...the peoples of the Pacific islands decimated by firewater, syphilis and scarlet fever carried in the clothes the missionaries forced on them."

Chief Mountain Lake had shown Jung the other face of his own civilization: it was "the face of a bird of prey seeking with cruel intentness for distant quarry...."

What makes this dialogue reported by Jung so relevant is that it is a living encounter between a representative of the unconscious "heart thinking" of the ancients and a modern man of science and pioneer of consciousness who understood that the wisdom of the heart must catch up with our overdeveloped "thinking heads" if we are to survive. We have to preserve the gold in the age-old "knowledge of the heart" and keep making it ever more conscious if we are to protect our growing human possibilities from the keen-featured bird-of-prey mentality that circles above. We must develop a new consciousness of the heart.

In our contemporary bottom-line society, heart-knowledge -- based on feeling values, relationship, personal courage, intimations of the ineffable, a passion for transcendence -- tends to be mistrusted as impractical, profitless, or nonexistent. Where is "the heart," anyway, scoffs the bird-of-prey executive, trudging joylessly on his treadmill, except under your breastbone?

The heart has been reduced once again to the visceral, but this time without any sacred connection to the powers of life and light. No longer do we literally cut our enemies' hearts out and feed them to an out-of-date sun god: we do it the bloodless, sophisticated way, without a flint knife, and feed them to the contemporary god of "market value function," which leads to money and power. Already, back in the 1950's...

Heart. Copyright � by Gail Godwin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Gail Godwin is the author of ten novels, three of which were nominated for National Book Awards. A Southern Family and Father Melancholy's Daughter were both NYT bestsellers and Main Selections of the Book of the Month Club. She has been translated into 12 languages. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and letters. She holds a doctorate in Modern Letters from the University of Iowa and has taught in the Iowa writers Workshop, Vassar and Columbia. A native of Asheville, N.C., she now lives in Woodstock, N.Y.

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