The Unifying Thread

Everyone has problems. People everywhere, and for all time, have been searching for an answer to the great mystery of human folly and self-inflicted suffering. As a psychotherapist, people come to me to provide them with some wisdom, knowledge, expertise and direction on how to find their way out of the darkness and into the light of peace, confidence, success and fulfillment.

In an effort to help myself, my clients, and to do my part in what the Hebrew tradition calls tikkun olam, or fixing the broken world, I have devoted my life to trying to find what Confucius called “the unifying thread” or the psychological theory of everything. Is there a common, underlying, root cause to the unnecessary human pain that plagues us individually and as a society?

After decades of research I have found the answer. The reason for our struggles is that we have a lost heart. In order to understand this defining psychological syndrome and how to fix it, we need to answer four questions: What does it mean to have a lost heart? What is the heart? How did we lose the heart in the first place? And most importantly, how do we find the heart again?

In the next several posts I will answer these questions. In this post  we begin with the first:

Part One: Life With a Lost Heart

We know we have a lost heart when we find ourselves suffering with problems that we cannot solve. We might wake in the middle of the night gripped with terror, or find ourselves smoking pot every day rather than achieving our aims. Maybe we eat too much or do not know the purpose of our lives. Perhaps we can’t get out of bed in the morning or we are lonely and can’t seem to forge loving relationships. We may face a reversal of fortune; a setback in our lives. Our partner asks for a divorce or we’re stuck in work we hate. Where once we found success we now fail.

Whatever the symptom, we may avoid the reality of our situation for a long time. We wander in a somnolent state, as if lost in a dream, stumbling in confusion. Sometimes we make excuses and play the victim, finding the cause of our distress in others. This is the most dangerous phase of the crisis: we don’t yet know the trouble we are in and what we are to face when we try to escape our difficulties.

Whether we suffer a vague sense of dissatisfaction or a total anguish of being—we ignore these signs at our peril. The bells ring. We hear the clanking of chains. The sound gets closer and closer. Despite the danger foretold when things go wrong in our lives, we try to minimize the experience, saying the problem will pass, or it’s just a matter of luck or chance. Yet even as we deny impending doom, the ghost of dreadful consequence looms before us, demanding our attention. The universe, working its mysterious ways, always finds the means to awaken us to our lost condition. Until we recognize that the maze we find ourselves in is a call to confront the truth of our lives, living will continue to bring us pain.

“What do you want with me?” we ask when the ghost enters our room.

“Much!” the voice answers.

When first we confront such conundrums in our lives, we usually discover that the answers are not easily found. Opening our eyes from slumber, our vision remains obscured by sleep. We find ourselves caught in magical binds, ensnared in seemingly insoluble dilemmas.  Trapped in depression, lost without love, riven by anxiety, we want to know why we are being tormented by the universe but we can find no apparent cause. Our mind’s limitations stop us from fully grasping the true nature of our condition. Nothing makes sense. We are bewildered.

The code of life’s problems is inscrutable. What is the secret message they are trying to reveal? The great wisdom of the ages tells us that there is a hidden purpose to our life’s difficulties. It is the universe’s way of saying, “Wake up! Pay attention!” Our suffering points to a deep loss, a loss we may not initially recognize.

What we have lost is the most precious gift given to us by a bountiful and generous universe: our heart. This loss of heart as the source of human travails has been known for thousands of years. 2300 years ago the greatest Chinese Sage to have ever walked the Earth, a man we know as Mencius, said,

“Pity the man who has lost his path and does not follow it and has lost his heart and does not go out and recover it. When people dogs and chicks are lost they go out and look for them, but when people’s hearts  — or original nature – are lost, they do not go out and look for them. The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.”

That which we seek is nothing outside of us. It is within. We who have lost our hearts have become, as theologian/philosopher Paul Tillich said, “estranged from our essential nature.”

Our essential, or original, nature is to be wise, strong, passionate, creative, and loving. The heart is the home of our best potentials, that which we are meant to be. We all have everything we need within us to have all we desire. Like the acorn is meant to be the mighty oak, we are meant to be happy and fulfilled. To get all we want in life and to heal the world, we need to find our hearts.

The problems in our lives are symptomatic of the loss of the center of our existence — our polestar, our reason for being, around which the rest of our life revolves. This innermost purpose is the core vision out of which all of our actions emanate. Without this orienting point, we are left directionless.

Having a lost heart means we are unable to live according to the principles of nature, our own human nature. When we go against our human nature we are living out of harmony with the laws of the universe. The risk of such a condition is never living the life we are meant to live.

When we do not live in harmony with these laws, our lives end up reflecting this unfortunate fact. We may ignore the symptoms, or cover them over with surface success, but our inner emptiness will usually make itself known in the end in spiritual suffering and in particular forms of failure in our lives. Whether the event is some catastrophe that appears to happen to us from the outside, or an inner angst, events will conspire to bring our attention to this reality through our pain.

For some of us, our heart is so lost, and our apparatus for awareness so benumbed, we don’t even realize we have a barren center. What is most precious about us has slipped from our grasp. This so escapes our notice that we don’t even search for what is missing.

“When people’s dogs and chicks are lost they go out and look for them, but when people’s hearts, or original nature, are lost, they do not go out and look for them.”

When we have a lost heart we are spellbound. Like in a fairy tale, it is as if we have fallen into a dreamless sleep for a hundred years.

To be bewitched in this way can mean that we lack an awareness of what we are feeling in our bodies, and so we lose access to a significant source of understanding about ourselves and the world around us. In this trance we cannot assess our experiences. We may feel a lack of connection to the very Earth we walk on. When we search inside for a secure sense of knowing, we come up empty. We feel helpless, at the mercy of forces we don’t understand.

When we are under such a curse, we are rendered immobile. Life makes one great demand on us: that we choose. But when we are weakened without our heart, we fret and avoid. We make the wrong choices. We choose not to choose. And we are left with the saddened voice of the heart, which tells us we are guilty of never having fulfilled our potential to fully be.

An inability to sustain intimate relationships can be another symptom of being under the spell of the lost heart. Like in ancient myth, we metamorphose into animals and can no longer touch; we turn into plants and are unable to cry; or we become cold like stone. We feel apart, alienated from others, unable to relate to the world, incapable of connecting.
When we are estranged from our essential being, we cannot show our true self to another person. As a result, we are left lonely, needy, and frightened by the depth of our neediness.

We may notice we are spellbound through a lack of passion, enthusiasm, or motivation. When we run from Apollo’s famous command to “know thyself,” we lose connection to what gives us free-flowing energy and life. We become stuck in the ground, unable to move. We refuse the call of the divine from within, the voice of the lost heart.

Without this source and its power we may feel anxious, unmoored, afraid. We may not know our aim in life. We may not even recognize our own needs, or be able to say what is important to us.

Without a sense of inner knowing, we are voiceless. We open our mouths, with beauty in our hearts, but like in a nightmare, no sound comes out. We have lost our tongue, our voice, our song.

With a spellbound heart, we may find ourselves unable to identify or act on our essential values. This is because we cannot discern between good and bad. Unable to trust our own experience to help us decide what to do, we lose touch with the inner moral compass that should be our sure guide to action. As a result, we may act in opposition to our most deeply held beliefs.

When we do not live up to our ideals, we feel a lack of worth. This triggers a self-defeating cycle: when we don’t value ourselves, our behavior often ends up being self-destructive. We find ourselves living in shame, feeling broken, powerless. We hate ourselves.

In this state, we may not even recognize the right choice. Entranced by instant gratification, we live by impulse. Though we may sense prudence somewhere within us, we cannot access this virtue to guide our lives. We live without the developed capacity to live according to the laws of the heart, laws that—though they exact sacrifice—provide us with the only true path to lifelong happiness and fulfillment.

This distance from our essential core leads us to forsake the singular moment in endless eternity to be a self. Instead, we choose, with or without our knowing it, not to live.

To be under the spell of the lost heart means we lose the ability to be: to live out our knowing, our intellect, our emotions, our passion, our creativity, our ambition, our beliefs, our sense of justice, our outrage, our sexuality, our sensitivity, our care, our spirituality, our love.

When we have a lost heart, we pay an extreme price for treating our life as if it is insignificant, a plaything, a toy. Then we live in fear of the consequences of having ignored and demeaned life itself. We fear the guilt we will feel if we recognize the harm we have done to ourselves and the remorse we will feel for wasted years. We avoid at all costs the emptiness and loneliness that lurks within, which is the natural result of being cut off from our spiritual connectedness to the All.

When we are bewitched in this way we cannot clearly think, feel, or act. Without clear thinking, we believe we know what we don’t, and we don’t trust the knowledge we do have. Without connection to our emotional self, we fear ghosts, yet we trust things that are dangerous for us. Without the ability to access our aggression, we impulsively harm ourselves, but hesitate to act for our good.

Having a lost heart means that we have lost access to our eternal wealth: the best within us, our divine purpose, our ideal self. It is a spiritual impoverishment that diminishes our vital energies. This loss of harmony with the ruling principles of the universe leads to an inability to manifest, to be fruitful, to succeed. Our losses on the outside reflect an internal lack, a loss of connection to our heart, our great wellspring of wisdom, passion, strength, genius and love.

Many of us have achieved enormous material comfort, and yet multitudes suffer from a lack of self-respect and a sense of alienation from the community, living frightened, narrow, and unhappy lives. Just like individuals are in a time of crisis, the world around us, too, is lost, and our culture bewitched.

We not only battle personally with our addictions, fears, failures, and loneliness, but we watch in confusion as our economic leaders steal billions and bring ruin on themselves and society, politicians end stellar futures with meaningless sexual escapades, and the most creative among us destroy their talents before their time.

Our inability to act with prudence has consequences for all of society. While we drown in debt, our economy is bipolar, manic one moment and depressed the next. With substance abuse rampant and obesity out of control, our health care system is at a breaking point. Chronic planet-wide issues like global warming and the energy crisis are denied or avoided. More than 3 billion people around the world are malnourished when we could feed every person on this planet for a fraction of the cost of our last war.

We live in a time of muffled protest, of drugged complacency, of lockstep conformism. Frightened of bugaboos like economic calamity, terror brought by the veiled enemy, calumny for an original thought, we remain passive as we are force-fed lies, manipulations, misrepresentations, and diversions.

Hypnotized, we are afraid of opening our mouths, fearing that we’ll lose that job, bring on the derision of our drunken friends, get yelled at by our spouses, be rejected by those we wish would love us. We don’t protest. We don’t even notice what is happening around us. We tweet and text, watch “American Idol,” surrender to Internet porn. Bamboozled by the noise, we don’t recognize those that oppress us.

Our world is scarred by intolerance, violence, poverty, and fear. Overcoming the world’s problems seems insurmountable. We know what we should do to fix things, but the whole system is under a spell.

Our sense of helplessness, purposeless, and lack of power fuel our depression, anxiety, obsessions, compulsions, addictions, phobias, and self-destructive behavior. Child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and divorce are woefully prevalent in our families. Children are failing to learn, and are increasingly diagnosed with emotional disorders. Our jails are filled to overflowing. Doctors prescribe psychotropic pharmaceuticals like candy. People are searching—but few among us even know what to search for.

We see “lost-heartedness” wherever we look. The problems we face throughout our lives—whether in our relationships, in our families, in our culture, in our economy, in our work, in our politics, or in our environment—are all rooted in the same barren ground.

Having neglected our true being for so long, we watch in horror as our dreams slip from our grasp. When we realize that we cannot find the key to enter the beautiful land that is the home of the self, our first response is likely to be shock.

After the sting of the first blow fades, we feel a dull ache, a tormenting longing. Barely aware of what is truly gone, yet sensing an infinite void within, we are convinced we cannot live without recovering what has disappeared. This sets us on a search for what has flown away.

All stories of the quest—whether the search is for the magic brocade, the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, or the vital god who has been lost in the dark underworld—can be likened to the search for the heavenly palace that lives within us.
It is as if we come from, and belong in, paradise, but have been exiled from our place of origin. We live in longing and frustration, knowing that all that is best and true about us somehow eludes our grasp. Our lives become ones of perpetual seeking.

We may only realize something is missing when we find ourselves in a place of dread, trapped in a nightmare from which there is no waking, our life the realization of our greatest fears. Like Dante in The Inferno, we are lost in the dark wood, with no idea how we got there:

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

Lost in the forest, we find ourselves in the realm of the lost heart. Drawn to search for our place of connection to the invigorating mead of life, we hope against hope that the way out will be clear. Yet we soon discover we are blocked at every pass.

Jolted to find ourselves caught in a web with no end, we discover that underneath the surface manifestations of our problems we are troubled by what philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called “a deeper unsoundness.” Only then do we begin to grasp how lost we are, and how difficult the journey home will be.

Our first unprepared attempts to recover what has been lost often lead us deeper into trouble. After immeasurable time away from our infinite source, the path back to the center within the center is obscured by darkness, entangled with musty roots, choked with thorns. The howling winds, the bitter cold, the dark and pathless wood, are all the places we find ourselves in when we begin the search for the lost heart.

The inability to return to our core casts a pall over our existence. The world may appear to provide no satisfaction. We suffer pain, fear, and bitterness. We see only what is wrong with everything. The sunlit world and the beauty of the stars have no impact on us when we find ourselves in this place. Without a connection to our source, we lack the ability to find the sacred in our world. Even truth, beauty, and goodness can leave us cold, confused, empty. We believe that no matter what we do, it will all be useless, pathetic. Being itself cannot be approached with strength and power.

The distance between what we imagine that our life could be and the reality of our existence makes life a torment. We are consumed with the dread that we will never be able to get what we truly want: to be what we are intrinsically meant to become.

Searching for the light, we find darkness. We hear a voice from the realm of emptiness, and come to know what it is we have lost: our essence, our core, our heart.

Having watched our magic brocade fly away, our golden ball fall into the well, we hope for something to ground us, something to believe in, something from which we can decide, choose, act. We grasp at straw after straw, only to discover that each thing we try leaves us wanting, no matter how deep or profound. Because the thing we search for cannot be found outside us, no external solution cures our ills: the disease is within.

Our needs feel insatiable, because we are looking in the wrong place to satisfy them. The further we travel, the more lost we become. As the way becomes more tangled, dark, and blocked, and we face the blackness of the empty void, our hope of finding a way out gives way to terror.

We discover that exile is now our fate; we are left longing for what has been taken away, wondering how to recover it. The search for home haunts our dreams and songs.

Driven from the garden, having lost our most valuable possession, we sense that we are cursed from the earth, a fugitive and vagabond. We fear that this is more than we can bear.

Not knowing how to recover our light, our hope, our self, our heart, our secret dread is that we will be cursed forever.

As in the quest for the Holy Grail, the land waits near death for the healing words of the hero. Like in the fairy tale of Briar Rose, the whole world has gone asleep, and waits for a kiss to bring it back to life. The danger of having a lost heart is grave. But if we listen closely, we can hear the heart’s distant echo, its plaintive call.

Despite the difficulty the search goes on.

“Yet for all that,” said the Princess, “it would be such a pleasure to know where your heart really lies.”
Then the poor Giant could hold out no longer, but said,
“Far, far away in a lake lies an island; on that island stands a church; in that church is a well; in that well swims a duck; in that duck there is an egg, and in that egg there lies my heart.”
In the morning early, while it was still gray dawn, the Giant strode off to the wood.
“Now I must set off too,” said Boots; “if I only knew how to find the way.”

Look out for Part Two: What is the Heart?

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