The Qualitative Science of the Heart

By Kabir Helminski

There’s something beautiful about being together with a group of people whose main interest is understanding the spiritual nature of reality in an objective, non-dogmatic, and heart-full way. We have been exploring the possibilities of human knowing: what is it possible for us to know, and how do we know it?

There is a “science” of the heart founded upon the experience of those who have made their own consciousness their instrument of research and experimentation—and which has a highly developed understanding and practice related to the awakening and development of the Heart.

Many people have speculated on the spiritual implications of cutting edge physics. This has given a lot of fuel to the belief that we create our own reality. Another inference is that all of these energies are not only interdependent but are actually a unified field of Oneness. So, from the perspective of quantum and relativity theories, reality would seem to be an energetic whole, more mind than matter.

Some years ago listening to one of the great quantum scientists, it suddenly occurred to me that in all the talk of science’s spiritual implications, we were still talking about a quantitative science developed from physical measurements and mathematical models. The deeper we go into the quantum realm the more we are dealing with pure mathematics far removed from sense perception. Our physicists are compelled to use metaphoric language to attempt to talk about what their equations imply. As charming as the poetics of sub-atomic physics may be, let us remember that it is something like poetry. A simple definition of poetry is: to say one thing and mean another.

Furthermore, let us also remember that even the talk of the mind’s influence on reality (i.e. thought’s influence on reality) was neglecting an essential aspect of human experience, i.e. the human heart through which we experience our most precious moments and relationships, and through which life itself is valued. It was as if I suddenly had a glimpse of a parallel reality: side my side with the material universe of measurements was a dimension of qualities experienced by human consciousness.

It was starting to seem to me that this magnificent science based in quantitative measurement and mathematics is observing reality from the outside. For instance, we can measure and observe that the patterns of electrical activity in the brain of a spiritually developed human being are different from the average human being, but this tells us little about the experience of that human being.

Mere thought is incapable of experiencing reality in its fullness; it is limited to thinking: thinking about thoughts, thinking about physical experience, and even thinking about the heart. However, the heart itself is a cognitive power that experiences a universe of relationships and values, and has a vocabulary of its own for a myriad of heart experiences such as awe, wonder, tenderness, affection, humility, courage, generosity, gratitude. The qualitative science of the human heart has more to do with the experience of being inside, with how that experience can be transformed and deepened, and what that transformation does to the sense of self.

We can become more consciously aware of a dimension of experience known and verified through our own inner experience through a range of subtle, subconscious, and supra-conscious faculties. The totality of these subtle faculties for sensing relationships, qualities, and values are described by the mystics of the great traditions as The Heart.

It is through the heart that we experience existence qualitatively, that we are motivated to do what we do, that we are touched and moved by events and situations. All experiences of value and meaning are through the heart. In other words, the heart has a profoundly cognitive function allowing us to experience a dimension of values and qualities side-by-side with the material universe that is described by the physical sciences.

This observation may seem elementary to our common sense, and yet it seems to have been generally overlooked in discussions of the spiritual significance of quantum science. It is as if a fundamental attribute of consciousness has been overlooked, unaccounted for. The experiences of the heart are not just epiphenomena, the flimsy byproducts of the human electro-chemical organism. So let’s for a moment imagine a “science” that could explore the qualitative dimension of experience, the universe in which compassion, love, and awe are as real as the laws of physical science, a dimension of experience inherent in existence itself.

This is what is meant by the qualitative science of the heart—a science known to some of the great mystical traditions. In philosophical terms, I’m calling for a phenomenology of the heart, the recognition of the cognitive functions of the heart and the possibility that these functions of heart perception can be developed and refined.

Science is encompassing the vast distances of the cosmos, the structures of biological life, and the subatomic realms. As much as we may know about matter and energy through the quantitative measurements of physical science, where will we find an equivalent knowledge of our own inner experience—that qualitative dimension which causes us to seek knowledge, and to share it with others, and at the end of the day is the dimension where everything we value resides.

As we know, conventional science still has not solved the mystery of what consciousness is, how it arises, and what its purpose is. Some neuroscientists even question whether it truly exists, believing it is a mere illusion created by the brain. Others are curious about the interface between consciousness and the so-called physical world. In a non-dual universe, how can we have two distinct realms: one of quantitative scientific measurement and another of human values?

I believe this is the implicit question behind the whole undertaking of “science and non-duality.” The accomplishments of physical science and mathematics bring us to a threshold in which matter, energy, and time are interwoven. Matter, energy, and time are like a list of ingredients for cooking the great bagel of the universe.

If the whole universe is just a bagel, who is going to taste it?

Joking aside, along with the great scientists of history, there have also been equally great men and women of taste, of inner knowing, of moral and spiritual greatness. Such people have moved us, inspired us in that highly subjective inner world where, in fact, we experience the ultimate mysteries of human consciousness: peace, intimacy, love, enlightenment.

In the language of Sufism, the divine Oneness addresses the primordial human being saying: “But for thee I would not have created the universes.”

All great spiritual traditions concerned themselves with this inner dimension of quality and value. In the fourteen-centuries-old Sufi tradition, the central issue is the awakening and purification of the human heart, the central organ of knowing. Broadly speaking, a human being knows through three primary modes: the bodily senses, which includes human feelings; the brain, which includes thinking, analysis, reason; and the heart, not to be confused with mere feelings, or even egoistic emotions. The spiritual heart can be understood as a complex of subconscious and supra-conscious subtle faculties of cognition which collectively inform us of the universe of qualities and values. It is as if, side-by-side, we have two simultaneous realities: the material world of time and space, and this universe of qualities and values.

Experiencing the world of qualities

Consciousness is commonly defined as the mind aware of itself and the world. However, the consciousness we’re talking about here is more than mental awareness. It is also the subjective, personal experience of qualities within the self such as affection, amazement, awe, compassion, contentment, courage, curiosity, devotion, empathy, forgiveness, generosity, humbleness, jubilation, love. I purposely selected these qualities in more or less alphabetical order to get some idea of the scope of the vocabulary of qualities of the heart and we’re less than halfway through the alphabet. These qualities and their permutations are continually arising in us and make up the rich interior life of human beings.

Well, of course, you might say, these are ordinary human emotions. Yes, and we can also say that human beings differ greatly in the qualities of their inner experience, and that the work of not only religion or spirituality, but psychology, literature, music, and all the arts is to harmonize, deepen, and transform the inner life. Any human being can take an inventory of their inner states and arrive at an assessment of their inner life, which is in fact their true life, compared to which our possessions, status, authority, and personal looks are mere externals, of little significance if our inner lives are lacking in experiences of well-being, beauty, and positive relationships.

Now, you might say, this is all quite obvious to any reflective person. Yes, but isn’t it true, and should we confirm that the most important work the human being can undertake is the work that awakens and purifies this heart?

Not only is the inner life of the heart the richest aspect of human experience, but it should also be acknowledged that many people do not live from the heart at all. For a variety of reasons, many of us have become so confined to mere thinking or sensory experience that we experience life only partially. We may recognize when another is “only in their head.” Or we may recognize others who are totally preoccupied with the state of their bodies, their appetites, their physical pleasures. But we may also recognize another category of people whose hearts, for various reasons, including trauma, abuse, or chemistry, have been hardened or numbed.

A healthy, awakened heart finds satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness in relationships, in qualitative experience, in the animate nature of existence. The hardened or numbed heart perceives only objects—even other human beings are mere objects to be used and discarded. The more awakened the faculty of the heart is, the more life takes on animate qualities. Not only is such a person deeply sensitive to other human beings, but that sensitivity can extend to the inanimate world, as well, when even things come alive with “soul.” Consider the worn-out, peasant shoes painted by Rembrandt, so filled with qualities we might name as poignancy, tenderness, dignity. Consider the indigenous people of coastal California who lived peacefully undisturbed for thousands of years and for whom every rock, crevice, grove of redwoods, and stream were like familiar relatives. Obviously, a different consciousness is operating in those who live close to the land compared to those who are hastily transported in self driving vehicles on ribbons of asphalt and concrete overpasses from one glass enclosed cubicle to another.

Matters of the heart are the most fundamental matters of human value. It could perhaps be stated that there is no experience more valued, more essential to our human well-being, than to be recognized by another human being in a state of conscious presence. And yet it is this kind of experience that we are more and more deprived of in the depersonalized, technological environment we are creating for ourselves.

What are the implications as humanity moves deeper into an era of technologies that do our thinking for us, and virtual realities that facilitate our escape from the actual world in which we live? How does our humanness suffer from this confusion between the virtual and the real, the synthetic and the natural, the cyborg and the human? Will human cleverness ever be clever enough to satisfy the needs of the human heart, or will we be led step by step away from our humanness down a path of increasing reliance on technological satisfactions that further and further obscure the capacities of the heart?

This brings us back to the reality of these two realms, the realm of quantitative measurements and the realm of qualitative perception, the realm of things and the realm of conscious being. This is a discussion about the content and nature of consciousness itself. To conceive of consciousness as a kind of abstract mental phenomena is to ignore the most salient or significant aspects of the human experience.

Recently, in conversation with a younger friend, she said, “I’m getting older, and I guess I’m starting to ask myself the question ‘What are you doing with your life?’”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Forty,” she said. I’m a bit older than that, but I found myself asking a day or two later, “Kabir, what are you doing with your life?”

How does such a question arise, and why? And from where does it arise? From deep in the heart common sense might answer.

Pythagoras, a philosopher and scientist, who searched for harmony in the universe and invested his life investigating and proving mathematical theories, said, “The highest of duties is honor to self.” This is the heart speaking.

Rumi, whom we all love so much, said, “You may know the specifications of everything in existence, but if you haven’t known the value of yourself, what good is it?”

And by the way, one of the most important Buddhist texts of all time is The Heart Sutra, not The Brain Sutra.

How can heart consciousness and perception be developed? Let me share with you some of the practical wisdom of a centuries-old tradition of the heart. I will be associating selections from Rumi’s poetry to augment the principles I’m offering, and I should mention that whenever Rumi uses a word that might be translated as “God,” I have substituted in my translations “Reality.” This is entirely justifiable from the non-dual (tawhidic) perspective of Islamic Sufi metaphysics in which God is synonymous with Reality.

1. Bring your mind down into your heart. Begin to sense your own identity, your own I-ness, primarily through the heart. Let your thinking mind be a servant of your heart. Do not give to your thinking mind total authority to analyze, evaluate, and critique. The thinking mind is very good at negating and critiquing, but it is the heart that can synthesize and affirm. The Prophet Muhammad said,

There is something in the human being which if it is sound and whole, then the whole person is sound and whole. And that something is the heart.”

2. Be an objective witness. As much as possible discount and discard your personal desires and the demands of your ego in order to become a truly objective witness.

When the heart becomes whole, it will know the flavors of falsehood and truth. When Adam’s greed for the forbidden fruit increased, it robbed his heart of health. Discernment flies from one who is drunken with desire. He who puts down that cup lightens the inner eye, and the secret is revealed.

[Rumi, Mathnawi II, 2738-43]

The difference between truth and falsehood becomes visible the moment the eye-salve of grace clears the eye; otherwise, dung and musk seem the same to one whose nose is clogged…. Either pure water or urine would work to put out the fire. But if you really come to know this pure water, the Word of Reality which is of the spirit, all distress will vanish from your soul, and your heart will find its way to the rose garden for everyone who catches a scent of the mystery of revelation discovers a spiritual orchard with a running brook.

[Rumi, Mathnawi IV, 3464-3472]

3. Practice patience. Patience is to be free of the coercion of time, and to accept the unfolding of life as it is. What benefit can there possibly be in rushing through some moments to get to others?

The bird, patience, flies faster than all the others. What is easy will be made difficult by your impatience.

[Rumi, Mathnawi III, 1847]

4. Clear the mirror of the heart of all idols, the false gods that the ego creates: money, power, status. Negate the unreal, and as much as possible affirm the Real.

The idol of your self is the mother of all idols. The material idol is only a snake; while this inner idol is a dragon. It is easy to break an idol, but to regard the self as easy to subdue is a mistake.

[Rumi, Mathnawi I, 772; 778]

5. Trust, but trust nothing that arises out of negativity, fear, or excessive desire. Trust in the mind and heart that has become still and receptive to Reality.

Trust in Reality is the best livelihood. Everyone needs to trust in Reality and ask, “O God, bring this work of mine to success.” Prayer involves trust in Reality, and trust in Reality is the only means of livelihood that is independent of all others In these two worlds I don’t know of any means of livelihood better than trust in our Sustainer. I know nothing better than gratitude which brings in its wake the daily bread and its increase.

[Rumi, Mathnawi V, 2425-2426]

6. Strive in non-striving. The true work arises from within the heart not from a feeling of insufficiency, from negative attitudes about ourselves, from the need to feel superior to others, and from selfish desires.

To exalt oneself is to compete with Reality. Unless you have died and become living through Reality, you are an enemy seeking power. But when you have come to live through Reality, what you have in truth become is That: it is no longer competition, but absolute Unity.

[Rumi, Mathnawi IV, 2765-2767]

7. Practice conscious acceptance and consent to reality.Begin with acceptance; then follow the heart. There is nowhere else to begin than with acceptance of where we are, seeing ourselves and our circumstances accurately, seeing things as they actually are in the present. With conscious consent to what is at this moment we can know that this is the center of true beginning where the infinite intelligence of the heart meets our finite self.

I desire nothing from created beings: through contentment there is a world within my heart.

[Rumi, Mathnawi I, 2362]

8. Learn and speak the language of the purified heart. Communication can be used for conveying more than facts and information. The soul’s language is metaphor and poetry. Abstract principles are useful to categorize, highlight, and summarize our experience, but what most compels the heart are images, metaphors, and human stories.

The smell of pride and greed and lust will betray you when you speak as much as the onions you have eaten. Many prayers are rejected because of their smell; the corrupt heart reveals itself in the tongue. But if your meaning is pure, Reality will welcome even your clumsy expression.

[Rumi, Mathnawi III, 166-171]

9. Value the emptiness that allows receptivity. Rumi once summarized the essential practices of spirituality in these few words. Eat less, speak less, sleep less.

The empty heart, filled with remembrance, floats on the stormy Ocean of life.

The most advanced science of today is accomplished through an almost miraculous power of measurement and mathematical computation. Its conclusions are often expressed in a language of metaphor, a poetry of physics, in order to make it comprehensible to specialist and non-specialist alike. The poetry of physics often seems to correspond to what has been described by great explorers of consciousness—the shamans, yogis, contemplatives, and Sufis who were themselves the instrument of their exploration and experimentation, and their words were describing a lived experience. They entered deeply into this parallel dimension of qualitative experience, a dimension which is to some degree available to every human being. This invisible dimension of the heart is not only a realm of qualities like compassion, patience, contentment, joy, humility, and love; it is also the dimension of the lived experience of relationship. The need for relationship is—for anyone with a sound, healthy, and awakened heart—the most fundamental need. To be met and recognized by another in conscious relationship is one of the greatest and most precious experiences of life. The most highly developed human beings also describe an encounter with Being Itself, which is the ultimate experience of conscious relationship within the oneness of existence. But let us not stop here.

The human being who has lived that experience of oneness, that non-dual Reality, does not merely disappear in a flash of light, but continues to exist as a super ordinary human being who can chop wood and carry water in full consciousness, being the summation of all those beautiful qualities that are inherent to Reality, while simultaneously being a finite entity living out this paradox of humanness and spirit.

The speaker of the word and the hearer of the word and the words themselves— all three become spirit in the end.

[Rumi, Mathnawi VI, 72]


Kabir Helminski is a translator of the works of Rumi and others, a Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, co-director of The Threshold Society (Sufism.org), and a Director of the Baraka Institute (Barakainstitute.org). His books have been published in at least eight languages. Among his recent publications are The Book of Language: Exploring the Spiritual Vocabulary of the Qur’an and Love’s Ripening: Rumi on the Heart’s Journey. In 2009 Kabir was named as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world.

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