We are living in a world that appears to grow in complexity by the day. The challenges we face are multi-layered, continually evolving and ambiguous. It is increasingly recognised that when facing complex challenges, we cannot rely solely on rational problem-solving tools and technical fixes (though these have their place). Systemic and participatory approaches are often presented as more effective ways of proceeding in uncertain and complex contexts. However, even these can often focus heavily on processes, techniques and methods rather than on the subjectivity of the facilitator. The assumption being that the change-agent is acting on a system rather than being a part of it. But we need to be more than process experts if we are to facilitate wisely in complexity. The depth of our intention and attention really matter. So, what form of sensing and being is required of us? What guidance system can we trust to help us navigate wisely in these transformational times?
Throughout history, people have referred to their heart as their source of being, intuition and wisdom. In most languages, we use terms such as, “listen to your heart,” or “put your heart into it”. Far from being only a metaphor, researchers over the last twenty years have been exploring and revealing the fascinating ways in which our heart communicates with us. It is now known that there are at least 40 thousand neurons in the heart and that 80% of signals between the brain and heart are from the heart to the brain rather than the other way around (HeartMath Institute 2015). Neuro-cardiologists have found that the activity of the heart particularly influences brain centres involved in perception, cognitive performance and emotional experience.
How to access our heart intelligence
Our heart is constantly sending information to our brain about ourselves, others and our environment, but are we listening? It turns out that whilst our heart is always communicating with us, quite often the signal can be fuzzy; like a bad Zoom call that keeps freezing and cutting people off mid-sentence. In contrast, a clear signal occurs in a state of ‘cardiac coherence’, which is measured by Heart Rate Variability (HRV). When we are coherent, we have an optimal variance between heart beats. Not only does the intelligence of the heart reveal itself in a state of coherence, but this state is increasingly being recognised as a key indicator of our levels of resilience, adaptability and behavioural flexibility (Watkins 2013). Unlike relaxation, coherence is more of an ‘active calm’. We all naturally shift from coherence to incoherence many times throughout the day, however we can also train ourselves to achieve and sustain heart coherence. My own personal practice, which I now coach and train others in, is HeartMath’s simple but powerful heart-focused, attitudinal breathing techniques. Of course, you may have your own ways to reconnect to your heart and quickly regain calm in the heat of the moment.
We cannot pour from an empty cup
Many of us today are suffering from over-stimulated nervous systems and low energy levels. For years, I would ignore my need for rest and renewal and would rely on my strong sense of purpose to get me through tiring times which would invariably lead to burnout and depletion. It was like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and another on the brake – it’s not a very efficient way to get to your destination. Operating in this way means the amount of energy we have available for growth, healing and development dramatically decreases. By contrast, when we are in a state of heart-coherence our mental, emotional and physical systems become synchronised. It is a state of flow and ease whereby we conserve and renew energy levels (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual). Unlike relaxation, heart-coherence is more like an ‘active calm’ that enables us to adapt and flex to what comes up in the moment and bring more of ourselves to our life, work and facilitation practice and remain responsive to what is arising in each moment.
Connecting to the future
When we facilitate from the heart, we invite the group into a truly safe and supportive space from which to co-create and tap into collective intelligence. New ways of approaching old problems can be revealed that have never been considered before (Barret 2014). When we access our heart’s intelligence, we move beyond reactivity and habitual thought patterns. As Viktor Frankl says, ‘between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’. My coaching supervisor describes this space as a moment of neutrality or still-point, where all possibilities exist simultaneously. A space of quantum potential. When I really let myself realise the profundity of Frankl’s words, I am filled with a sense of awe, wonder, privilege and possibility for what may unfold through our work together.
Connecting to the hearts of others
When we facilitate from an inner place of heart coherence, we become ‘compassionate catalysts, continuously creating openings for the light to shine in’ (Lasley 2010 p.1). We not only tune into our own heart’s intelligence but that of others. In doing so, we are listening for the very best in people – their deepest longings, their life energy and what is stirring and awakening within them. In that sense, our facilitation becomes supportive of human evolution rather than simply the achievement of a particular workshop aim or objective. Of course, it might be easier to experience a heartfelt connection to those who share our sense of passion and purpose, but what about those who trigger our sense of injustice, anger, fear or righteousness? In this age of increased polarity, the ability to connect beyond opinion and ego, especially to those who personally challenge us feels more important than ever. Facilitation from the heart is not for the faint-hearted. It is an act of courage that enables us to meet others in what Rumi poetically describes as the field that lies beyond our ideas of right or wrong.