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The Real Heart

Dr. Oakley E. Gordon

"The Western scientist relies on theories and Aristotelian logic, to him the beliefs of the Andes are a fantasy. To the people of the Andes, their connection to the Cosmos is real, and the theories and Aristotelian logic are illusions." Andean paq'o, personal communication, 1995.

In 1994 I became involved in a project to create a psychological model of how healers from indigenous cultures are able to cure people without the use of medicines or drugs. In this context a 'psychological model' is a flow-chart of the essential verbal and nonverbal interactions between the healer and the patient that create the type of relationship where healing can occur. The healer brought in for the project was a paq'o (roughly translatable as 'healer/mystic/shaman') from the Andes of Peru who agreed to demonstrate his approach to healing for the purposes of our project. As I listened carefully to what he said he was doing, however, and compared that to the model being created by my fellow psychologists, I became increasingly concerned about the validity of our approach, for I detected a deep, fundamental difference in how we psychologists and the paq'o understood reality, and that difference was not appearing in the model we were creating. I became intrigued with the idea of understanding the world the way he did, rather than understanding what he did through the filters and perspectives of my own culture and discipline. He offered me the opportunity to work with him.

For the past nine years I have explored the way Andean paq'os understand reality. As I have moved back and forth between two worlds--traveling to Peru to work with paq'os in the high Andes and then returning to my family, my society, and my position as a professor of psychology--I have sought ways to achieve clarity on how a culture with a completely different philosophical heritage understands reality and I have struggled to integrate the two different culturally-based understandings of reality within myself. From this endeavor I have come to better understand the nature of understanding itself as well as the role that differentiating truth from illusion has in the search for clarity. These issues are, I believe, of relevance whenever we attempt to understand how another culture, particularly an indigenous culture, experiences reality, and as will be seen they are of particular relevance regarding how they experience the sacred.

Let us begin at the very fundamental level of what we mean when we say we 'understand' or 'know' something. My Western culture usually defines 'understanding' and 'knowledge' in terms of the intellect. Intellectual knowledge involves using symbols--such as words or numbers--to represent reality. By this definition both science and Western religion are primarily intellectual in nature for they both define themselves in terms of their representations of reality; science has it theories and models (expressed in words and formulas) and Western religions have their dogma (scriptures and beliefs expressed in words). The appropriate way to evaluate the validity of intellectual knowledge is by determining just how well the representations actually do represent reality. If the words or formulas accurately represent reality then they are 'true, if they don't accurate represent reality then they are 'false', and if they appear to represent reality but actually don't then they are 'illusions'. Science and Western religion have different ideas about how to go about arriving at and validating knowledge (e.g. the scientific method versus faith), and they at times differ in their stance about whether or not absolute truth may be obtained, but they have similar ideas concerning the nature of knowledge itself, that it involves symbolic representations of reality.

In my Western culture we do recognize that there are other types of knowledge, but they are usually seen as being not as important as intellectual knowledge, or are viewed as being a stretch of the meaning of the term 'knowledge'. For example, a single, fertilized, human egg 'knows' how to grow into a system of billions of interacting cells. It is an impressive feat, but we don't award a PhD. in biology for accomplishing it, for we draw a distinction between being able to do something and being able to use words or formulas to describe or explain how it is done. Theories of physiological development, and statements about the role of evolution versus God in determining the process, are intellectual in nature and can be evaluated as being relatively true or false. Your body itself, however, seems outside of the issue of true or false, it is 'real' but it doesn't quite make sense to say that your body is 'true'.

The Andean culture also recognizes and values other types of knowledge in addition to intellectual knowledge. In particular, that culture supports a type of knowledge and understanding this is accessible through the area of the the heart (the 'munay' in Quechua, the language of the Andes). This knowledge is non-intellectual in nature, and rather than involving words and numbers, it involves love.

My Western scientific culture has long abandoned the idea that love is located in the heart. We know that the heart is simply a biological pump and that emotional responses are orchestrated by the brain. The concept of a heart knowledge that evokes love seems a quaint metaphor of a bygone era. As true as the modern, intellectual, representation of physiology may be, it completely misses the point that the heart knowledge of the Andes resides outside of the intellect, and thus is of a realm where truth and falsity have no meaning or relevance.

Heart knowledge is an understanding of reality that is available when consciousness is moved from our head to our heart. The idea that consciousness can reside anywhere but in the head is hard for someone in my culture (a psychologist at least) to comprehend for we so identify with our intellect, and when we are being intellectual our experience is that our consciousness is located in the area behind our eyes. The movement of consciousness from the head to the heart is the best description I can give of the effect of the various meditative processes I have learned in the Andes, and of the effect of the ceremonies I have attended with the paq'os (it is my understanding that other cultures offer this experience as well). When consciousness moves from the head to the heart a different understanding of reality emerges. Like all ways of understanding--whether it be intellectual, athletic, artistic, or something else--the way of the heart leads into a realm where new distinctions may be learned and new skills developed and where over time the experience becomes richer and deeper. The foundation of this experience is love.

The use of the term 'love' associated with heart knowledge needs to be defined, for in this context it does not refer to romanticism, or sentimentality, or affection, in fact the term does not refer to an emotion at all. It refers instead to the experience of being interconnected with the rest of the Cosmos, an experience that is available when consciousness is in the heart. From this sense of interconnectedness the Andean paq'os interact with Nature in a way that is intimate, mutually-supportive, and therapeutic.(1) They interact with the Pachamama (the great spiritual mother who is the planet Earth), with the Apus (the great beings who are the tall mountain peaks), and with other elements of Nature such as the stars and the wind and the rivers and the trees. It is a relationship that intertwines the sacred into their daily life in a way that is hard for us, the children of Descartes, to understand. The Andean paq'os appear to be as developed in heart knowledge as my culture is in intellectual knowledge.

My focus here, however, is not so much on describing the nature of Andean heart knowledge as it is on discussing what happens when a person from my culture attempts to make sense of it by turning the experiences of the heart into words in order to form theories, or descriptions, or beliefs. This predilection to translate the heart into something the intellect can understand is not just found in acamedicians, but in general in people from my culture, for this is how we have been taught to 'understand' the world. The first thing the intellect wants to know is whether or not all of this--the idea that consciousness can be moved to the heart, the existence of the Pachamama and the Apus, the ability to interact with them in love--is actually true. The answer is that there is something wrong with the question, for to evaluate it as true or false is to move out of the heart and into the realm of the intellect, and then the heart and its experience of the sacred is gone.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell addressed this issue of the relationship between the intellect and the sacred in a discussion of the use of masks in sacred ceremonies. Within the ceremony the mask is said to transform the wearer into the deity that the mask represents. But is that true, does the mask really transform Uncle Charlie into a god? Campbell warns that the positivist, the skeptical scientist, the spoil sport for whom the mask can only represent a deity must be kept out of the ceremony. But, he adds, those who take the mythology as being literally true are also not invited. The experience of the sacred flees out the door when faced with a skeptical scientist, and flees out the other door when faced with a true believer.(2)

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson made a similar point when discussing how the Protestants and Catholics were willing to kill each other, and be killed, in the 1500's over beliefs concerning the nature of the sacrament. The Catholic view was that the bread of the sacrament actually was the body of Christ and the wine was the blood of Christ, while the Protestant view was that the bread stood for the body and the wine stood for the blood in a metaphorical sort of way. Bateson's conclusion was that both views were somehow anti-sacred, and that the sacred could be approached in a way that brought the two, logically-incompatible, views together.(3)

The problem is simply this, the heart and the intellect are two different ways of understanding reality and they are incomprehensible to each other. Bateson warns to not try to translate the sacred into terms the intellect will understand (e.g. into prose), it can't be done, and worse, it might lead to the creation of a monster.(4) To experience the understanding of the heart the intellect is not invited.

We have contexts in our own culture where we know that the intellect is not invited yet we also recognize that something important is going on. Attending a ballet is such a context. When a dancer appears on the stage dressed as a swan, the scientist does not leap up and claim 'wait a minute, that is not really a swan' nor does the true believer leap up and exclaim 'where did that giant swan come from', nor does the dancer stop upon entering and announce 'it is important that you believe that I am a swan', nor does he or she say 'do not be alarmed for I am not really a swan'. The ballet is real, it may or may not evoke an aesthetic experience, but the question of true versus false seems irrelevant, and to over-analyze the experience is to lose it. An appropriate strategy, then, for seeking clarity on nonintellectual approaches to understanding is to temporarily and gently set the intellect aside. This requires being neither skeptical nor gullible but simply open to the experience without analyzing it as it occurs. The intellect and its propensity to analyze can be given its turn when the experience is over.

But what then? As a professor and scientist I am a 'professional intellectual', my intellect is important to me and it is the venue within which I communicate with my discipline. I don't seem to be able to help trying to make sense intellectually out of the experiences I've had in Peru, or trying to establish that there is some 'truth' in them. But translation, even after the fact, from one way of understanding to the other cannot be done. Translating heart knowledge into prose kills it (poetry is better suited), and searching for proof of its truth leaves one grasping at the wind. My intellect, however, recognizes that there is some level of my existence that is above both the heart and the intellect, for whom the two are simply different ways of understanding the world, and it is there that my heart knowledge has established its credibility (after years of hard work, confusion, pain, joy, and profound experiences). Recognizing the preeminence of that greater aspect of myself that values both the intellect and the heart, my intellect is willing to acknowledge that heart knowledge is 'real', whether or not it is 'true'.

The challenges I have faced in my own explorations are mirrored by many others who seek clarity in their understanding of indigenous cultures, particularly in attempting to understand how these cultures experience the sacred. We have been taught, both by our science and by our religions, that the most important task we have in such an endeavor is to differentiate what is true from what is just an illusion, when really the most important task we have is to open our hearts.


  1. Oakley Gordon, “A Therapeutic Relationship Between People and Their Geography in the Andes,” Clio's Psyche (Vol. 7, 2001); pp. 184-185.
  2. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Viking, 1950), p. 25.
  3. Gregory Bateson, “Ecology of Mind: The sacred,” in A Sacred unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, edited by Rodney Donaldson (New York: HarperCollin,1991), p. 266.
  4. Gregory Bateson, “The Case Against the Case for Mind/Body Dualism,” in A Sacred unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, edited by Rodney Donaldson (New York: HarperCollin,1991), p. 292.

© 2003 Dr. Oakley E. Gordon. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with permission.

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Last updated 21 March 2008   |  © 2003 Dr. Oakley E. Gordon