Heart, Head and Hands by Russ Reina
I’ve had a simple concept grip me with such power that I’ve spent almost thirty years of my life exploring its many facets. Oddly enough, I didn’t know how to put words to it until just a few years ago.
The start of this journey took place in the back of an ambulance. I was on the first wave of Mobile Intensive Care Unit Paramedics in the country during the ’70’s and ’80’s. I began my 12 year career as an Emergency Medical Technician (a basic level of emergency care delivery). We used to proudly say that we worked with our “Head, Hands, and Heart.” No truer words were ever spoken! These three, besides a limited array of bandages and splints, a cylinder of oxygen and a converted V-8, Cadillac Hearse, were all we had to use. The goal: Get the patient to the hospital as fast as possible, alive.
Improvisation was a necessity. In serious cases, I’d run through my bag of tricks so quickly that all I had left to give was my self. Sometimes the only thing that seemed to stand between death and my patient was my desire that the patient live. I can’t count the intense moments I spent unassisted in the back of a careening ambulance doing cardiac compressions and giving mouth to mouth resuscitation (there were no face masks in use back then)—essentially breathing for and being the heartbeat of the person—for a breakneck ride to the hospital. Can you imagine a more intimate period of time with a human being than this?
Something strange would happen to me when my sense of compassion was ignited. I would simply know what to do. Something as simple as a gesture by my patient would be so familiar to me, so human, that—just for an instant—the “difference” between my patient and me would dissolve. From that moment until I dropped off the patient at the hospital, I moved from someplace centered inside my chest, and my actions felt spontaneous. At the time, I was aware of the difference between acting from the heart and acting from the head, though not able to articulate it.
Once I started to fill my head with the therapies and procedures, drugs and techniques that are the stock in trade of the paramedic, however, I found myself turning into a superb “Flesh Mechanic.” Focused on the delivery of care, it became easy for me to distance myself from the experience of being a human being with a human being in need. There was an almost imperceptable coldness growing in me. The tradeoff was convenience and comfort—I didn’t have to be affected so deeply, so personally. If the patient died, I could say, “Well, the drugs didn’t work.”
This led me to a choice point, though, because I could feel myself losing my humanity. I was pulling away from the loop of connection that is so vital to the healing process. The more distant I became from my experience, the more my own life force seeped out of me. On the other hand, being invested completely in the moment with a person in need also provided a healing for ME.
I kept getting hints and tips to remind me there were different ways to work than being lost within the mechanistic process that was beginning to feel so empty to me. One call after another would come during a forty-eight hour shift, each more challenging and perhaps “insane” than the one before it. After having no sleep for 36 hours or so I’d find myself in the middle of a complex incident where everything was going wrong. Overwhelmed, and not having a clue as to what to do next, internally, I’d throw my hands up in despair, and “surrender” to Whatever it was that created me, my patients and the situation.
In those moments, something else seemed to take over. Completely. I would literally feel my consciousness shift from my head to my heart. I found myself in the midst of the moment, with all my heart, for that was all I had left. It was as if I could see with all of me, rather than just my eyes. I would move from my “center” rather than in response to a thought process. There appeared to be no brain involved, no lag time, between perceiving something needing to be done and doing it. Miracles would truly come through me.
At the time, I wasn’t really aware of how one piece fit into another. Those experiences, however, prompted me to begin investing more and more of my time being as present as I could, in each moment, with my patients. I found that I could increase the odds of my being effective on a call by taking time to prepare and open myself to just deal with each moment as it unfolded. Rather than thinking about the technical approaches I could use, I began to take the situation in from a deeper place, and then do just what was necessary. I’d spend the rest of my time being with rather than doing to. I discovered so many of my actions became intuitive rather than “logical”.
I recognized something important: preparation, and connection to myself and the moment and the patient really IS the essence of healing, and something in the heart makes it happen.
Fast forward thirteen years. I had shifted away from allopathic orientation into “alternative” and Spiritual forms of healing, as I supported myself in marketing while working on a book and a screenplay seeking to articulate my experiences as a medic. A central question continued to live inside of me: “How could a person experience the heart of healing without having to go through what I’ve gone through?” If I could access this, then anyone could.
Life is a journey of the unexpected and in the next few years I found myself working in improvisational and stand-up comedy, ultimately devoting nearly three years of intensive study to the Meisner Technique, a seminal approach to modern American acting. I was drawn into the class out of respect for my friend and teacher, Jose Angel Santana. He’d studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighbor-hood Playhouse, in New York City.
I never really wanted to be an actor. Rather, I developed an attraction to the discipline in it that helped me be fully present and alive, moment to moment. The course helped me learn to “do truthfully under imaginary circum-stances.” Those moment to moment choices were largely by-products of intuition, developed and strengthened by the sequential exercises of the Meisner Technique.
Next step: I found my way to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, working with a Lakota Medicine Family there and gazing out beyond the edge of the prairie. It was there that I was taught to see the world through the eyes of the heart.
In 1998, I attended an event called Network for a New Culture Summer Camp, a twelve day “Experiment in Intimacy and Community” outside of Portland. There, one of the featured speakers (along with Bruce Lipton, a Cellular Biologist, and Patch Adams, M.D.) was Joseph Chilton Pearce, a well-respected researcher and author of The Magical Child, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, and Evolution’s End. He had been compiling information from scientific studies on the heart.
Here is a Cook’s Tour of some of what he reported over the four days he spent with us: In early embryonic development, a clump of cells (requiring the electromagnetic field of the mother for “activation”) begins pulsating. After time passes, two “streams” of these cells migrate from the central clump to a more peripheral area of the fetus. There, they begin to coalesce into an organel. These cells—both the ones that initially began pulsating, and the ones that stream to the periphery—are called Atrial-Neural cells. That means each one can function as either a heart or brain cell. Further studies have found that the central clump of cells, the one that eventually develops into the heart, also has much to do with “directing” the formation of the rest of the developing embryo.
What this said to me was that the heart is truly the center of our being. Essentially, our brain comes from IT. Beyond that, Dr. Pearce reported that about 65% of the cells of the heart (in the adult!) are neurons. A neuron is the basic cellular unit of the nervous system— both the central (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral (nerve) system.
This relatively small piece of information rocked my world. Here was scientific evidence that my sense experiences as a medic, backed by years in alternative approaches and working with the Lakota Medicine Family, were correct. Indeed, there were times when my actions were the result of utilizing the “brain” in my heart. And it had happened enough for me to suspect that I could enter that state of being at will.
Acting Exercises & Heart Mind I’ve been exploring and experimenting with this concept since 1998. I have tested it against my past experience in the back of an ambulance, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I have used it working in deep “process” work with others in my community, and also in personal counseling sessions using a form of muscle-testing I call Heartjourney.
I realized that some of the acting and improvisation games and exercises, while originally designed to strengthen your ability to choose to be intimately and honestly in the moment, are virtually custom-made to help you access a heart-directed consciousness as well. Indeed, shifting your consciousness to your heart, and perceiving the world through it—at will—is attainable. It just takes practice. When you do so, much more comes in to you and much more moves out through you than occurs under brain power alone.
Here’s a fifteen minute exercise that will help you see for yourself.
Find a quiet space and time. Sit, or lie down. Breathe. Just breathe for a while. If a thought or an image or a word comes in, just let it go. Don’t hold on to it or resist it, just let it pass through you. Breathe. Breathe for a while, and when you feel ready, shift your attention to your heart as you breathe. You may experience this as feeling your heart beating in your chest, feeling your blood pulsing through you, or, perhaps as a feeling of expansiveness in your chest. Once you know you’re there, keep breathing into your heart for a bit longer.
Now, while continuing to breathe and keeping your awareness on your heart, pick up a decent-sized hand mirror. Look at yourself for a while. Don’t forget to spend time with your eyes.
I’d be interested to hear what you’ve learned.
Poets, Saints, Indigeneous Traditions of all continents, Monks and Visionaries have all alluded to this, if not claimed it outright. By all means, cultivate your relationship with the brain that lives in your heart.
Russ Reina appreciates being called Firetender to keep him mindful of his mission to work with the flames of Spirit that live in himself and others. He is a Counselor who offers a five day intensive and fun experiential workshop/retreat for healers. Entitled The heART of Healing, it uses improvisation and acting and theatre games to build the muscles of heart-centered choice that strengthen intuition. His e-mail address is [email protected].