Have you ever heard anyone tell you, “Follow your heart,” or “Use your head a little more next time?” The opposing forces—the head and the heart—are muscles many of us wrestle with.
It seems as if my journey in life has either had me making choices that favor my intellect (my head) or my emotions (my heart). With the practice of meditation, I began to become more aware of what my heart may be communicating to me. But as a University Professor, there were certain circumstances where I thought it would be unwise to fully listen and act with my heart, so I ignored its messages. I really didn’t know how to balance the two and I had no idea how to access the wisdom center that would allow such balance to occur.
Recently, I was given another option to consider. As opposed to balancing the head and heart as if there are two equal weights to consider, I was advised by my Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute colleagues to focus on the “and.” The secret sauce for happy head and heart connection is not in balancing head and heart—it’s about integrating them.
For our personal health and well-being and for the health and well-being of our planet, we need to train ourselves and our leaders to integrate emotion with evidence in order to make more fully informed decisions. Lucky for us, we can use meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices to train the integration of our intellect with our emotion, reaping the benefits of decisions that arise from wisdom. How does it work?
Scientifically Speaking: Integrating Head and Heart
From what we understand from neuroscience, the basal ganglia is associated with control of voluntary motor movements and routine behaviors such as habits, cognition, and emotion. Yes, the basal ganglia seems to have it all going on … and there’s more. A portion of the basal ganglia is responsible for producing dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with reward-motivated behavior. Another part of the basal ganglia is responsible for the production of the “peace-making” neurotransmitter called GABA. This part of the brain can stimulate our motivation for behavior and regulate how we act upon it. In essence, this part of our brain may help to determine which action to take, particularly when there are several possibilities from which to choose.
Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence guru, calls the basal ganglia the wisdom center. Goleman believes the basal ganglia assists our decision-making process by observing the consequences of decisions made in the past and storing them as our life’s wisdom rules. Because the basal ganglia is closely associated with the limbic system—the emotional center of the brain—it may have a strong relationship with emotions and the formation of memories. Thus, it is believed that the basal ganglia may communicate these life wisdom rules as feelings or sensations or even motor actions (voluntary or habitual). Furthermore, the basal ganglia, appears to have a strong connection to the cerebral cortex, where our analytical reasoning is carried out, as well as the thalamus, where consciousness (awareness) and alertness (attention/focus/awareness) may be regulated.
It is possible that this wisdom center—with its connection to the thalamus, where we believe consciousness or alertness is regulated, helps us choose actions that are either informed by awareness or habit. Or it is possible that our alertness to our experience allows us to access the wisdom center. Which comes first?
What seems to be true is that if we don’t consciously access this base brain processor when we’re making decisions, we lose out on a lot of information that could be really helpful. How do you access this base brain processor?
Meditation as a Tool for Integration
Meditation has been shown to increase the production of GABA; the neurotransmitter that reduces dopamine (reward-motivated behavior that may become habitual), adrenaline (causes the heart to beat faster), and noradrenaline (increases blood pressure, widening of pupils, widening of air passages in the lungs and narrowing of blood vessels in non-essential organs). In essence, GABA mediates the fight and flight response caused by stress and allows the body to return to restful awareness. When we are debating whether a decision should be made with our heart or our mind, we are causing stress, and we may be cutting off access to the wisdom center.
When we practice Primordial Sound Meditation, we invite ourselves to ask the questions, “Who am I? What do I want? How can I serve? What is my life’s purpose?” These simple, yet profound questions asked just in the moment that we invite restful awareness into ourselves may be exactly how we are beginning to integrate the intellectual self with the emotional self.
While the science in this area is still emerging and the research on the basal ganglia remains controversial at best, there is no mistaking that something other than logic can influence our decision-making processes. Our awareness of what that is and our ability to integrate it in with our analytical selves may be just what we need to create the conditions for world peace one moment at a time.
So, the next time you feel emotion arising and you are unsure how to balance the emotion with your logical reasoning side, let go of the need to balance. Instead, invite in restful awareness with your breathe and ask the questions, “Who am I? What do I want? How can I serve? What is my life’s purpose?” and then inquire into what arises. Choose the “and” over the “or.” Allow the wisdom center to do its work of communicating with your consciousness and your analytical self. And then just get out of your own way to see what wisdom arises.