There was a great story on Radiolab about Summer Ash, whose heartbeat became really loud and powerful after her heart surgery.
So loud that it could be heard by a microphone a few feet away. So powerful that if she rests her chest on a table, a glass of water will ripple like the scene from Jurassic Park.
She would feel every single beat of her heart during the day, and sometimes it was so loud at night it would wake her up. And this continual awareness of her heartbeat made her feel really anxious.
This is actually a common problem during meditation, especially for young people. (It seems that as you age, your awareness of your heartbeat diminishes.)
You’ve probably developed negative associations with feeling your heartbeat, because it’s probably been a part of many intense experiences, like recovering from exertion, feeling strong fear or anxiety or feeling intense pressure.
The advice typically offered by meditation teachers is to ignore it. Let your heartbeat be one sensation of many, and give it no particular energy or attention, they say.
Meditation is about paying close attention to your inner-world, as a way of discovering your true nature. There is a lot to discover about the nature of your body, your thinking process, your memory, your self-image, your feelings and your attitude. It’s good to approach meditation with the idea that everything that happens within you, happens for a reason. Everything in you has a meaning and a purpose. The purpose is probably not what you think it is initially, because everything has layers.
What then is the meaning of your heartbeat producing a feeling of anxiety?
There is an important message in the beating of your heart. There is a reason why the heart has a more prominent tactile and auditory signal than any other vital organ—you need a liver, too, but my guess is that you haven’t ever really felt your liver. The reason is that the heartbeat rhythm is an incredibly important driver of your entire nervous system, having a wide variety of physiological effects from the endocrine system to your brainwaves.
Your heart has a complex set of neural cells within it (yes, actual brain cells—about 40,000 of them), whose job is to determine if your heart should speed up or slow down. Your heart is exquisitely sensitive to outside stimuli, but also to inner stimuli. A thought or feeling has a big impact on your heart rate, but the effect tends to be brief, so you don’t notice it. You’ve probably heard the expression, “My heart skipped a beat.” That’s a real thing, and it describes a rapid change in your heart rate very accurately.
The changes in your heart rate are called Heart Rate Variability, and it’s a positive thing. If your heart rate doesn’t change, your HRV is totally flat, and this is very unhealthy—in fact, flat HRV is highly-correlated with heart disease and mortality, so much so that doctors use it as an early-warning sign.
The pattern of your HRV is associated with the activation of your vagus nerve, which is a vital part of your parasympathetic nervous system—which helps you recover from stress and feel relaxed and revitalized.
Given that your physical heart beat is such an important driver of your physiological state, maybe there is a good reason to listen to it. But there are other good reasons, too.
For thousands of years, the heart organ has been seen as a spiritual and energetic center, or chakra. The heart is the center of your emotions. Since meditation is about understanding yourself, meditation should help you to deeply explore your emotions, which have many layers; you are only aware of a tiny portion of your feelings, yet they drive most of your decisions.
By focusing on your heartbeat, you stay focused on your emotions. So my advice to you is to embrace the feeling of anxiety and discomfort. Try to enhance it. Dive into the feeling. Yes, it’s an unpleasant experience, right now, but by embracing it, you make it more intense, but that intensity will be short-lived, and the feeling will change.
Neuroscience teaches us that the strongest emotional waves appear in the brain for only 60 to 90 seconds.
You will need to make your breath strong, deep, and rhythmic to give you the strength to go deeply within. This way of breathing is an art-form, and takes time to develop, but it will give you tremendous energy and vitality. Breathing rhythmically creates a coherent, wave-like pattern of HRV, which is associated with a healthy vagus nerve—which again, is central to your ability to deal with stress.
When we stop resisting and embrace the feeling of our heartbeat, we will come to feel the same way as Ms. Ash, with her booming heartbeat. She came to feel that her heartbeat is her friend, and the rhythm became soothing and comforting rather than fearful.
Author: Dr. Asatar Bair
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Deviant Art