The great Chinese Sage Mencius tells us that “Self-Cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” The first question that this text invites us to ask is: what is the heart?

Around the time that the Sage, Mencius, lived, a great stirring was occurring in the hearts of humankind. German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) referred to this time as the Axial Age, where axial means pivotal.  Masters of wisdom appeared in India and Greece, as well as his home land, China. It was the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, the Indian writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and Isaiah of the Old Testament, among others. It was also the time of Confucius and his disciples, the writers of the Chinese Classics, The Four Books. Civilization was flowering. Some of the world’s greatest thinking emerged on the nature of the ultimate realities, all contributing to the liberation of the human spirit.

A central contribution of Mencius to this understanding was his notion of heart. But Mencius was not alone in this conception. When we explore the writings of other cultures, we discover an amazing fact. The symbol of the heart spans the globe. It has been of monumental significance since man could contemplate the ineffable and the existence of the immaterial in virtually every culture, religion and philosophy. From the beginning of conscious man recording his experiences, beliefs, thoughts and feelings in a sophisticated and organized way, he has attempted to convey something essential about himself and the cosmos through the metaphor of the heart.  As it appeared virtually simultaneously with writing itself, we can surmise that this symbolic image emerged with the dawn of thought.

Before reviewing the teachings of our Sage, his forbears and his disciples on the heart, we will illuminate the meaning of this symbol through the use of wisdom texts from this world-history of heart-ideas. (more…)