Heart and Conscience
Our heart yearns for harmonious and loving relationships. To create such relationships requires learning to let go of selfishness, focusing on what is best for our partner, observing the proper standards of relationship, and living up to our commitments. Through loving others we find our true self.
Heart is the irresistible impulse to find joy through loving and being loved (why we live). Joy is the purpose of life (what we live for). Love is the way heart can reach its goal (how we live). Ethical norms guide the focus of our love (for whom we live).
The ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius, regarded the center of morality as the heart of concern for others:
What is the foundation of natural human feelings for others? - The heart that sympathizes with pain. What is the foundation of a commitment to righteousness? - The heart that is repelled by vice. What is the foundation of respect for social and religious forms? - The heart that is willing to defer. And what is the foundation for a liberal education? - The heart that can tell true from false. People have these four foundations like they have four limbs.[i]
Mencius gave the example of a child who is about to fall into a well. A passerby cannot help but be moved by anxiety over the child's safety and rush to the rescue, whether or not the child is a relative. This is because we have the kind of heart that feels pain when they see another person suffering or in danger.
Cultivation of Heart
We are using heart in a particular sense here, meaning the center of our being, our point of equilibrium, and our chief executive:
~ The center means the core. The life with heart first implies a life with deep internal content, as opposed to a superficial life. Heart is the core of our personality. It is the place within us that animates our identity and shapes our awareness of who we are. Our experience is not limited to what we are thinking (our intellect), feeling (our emotion), or doing (our will). Heart is the holistic force that integrates our intellectual and emotional landscape. Deeper than emotion, intellect or will, heart is the most profound motivation for all human endeavor. When impulses for material things overwhelm the core desires of our heart, we act irresponsibly and unjustly. We close off the depths of our heart, experience confusion, and eventually despair.
~ The center refers to the midpoint (as in geometry) or the point of equilibrium (as in physics). The center of a circle is equidistant from each point on the perimeter. In the circular movement around an axis, an object finds balance between centripetal and centrifugal forces. The life with heart means a balanced life. We strive for a well-rounded personality and a spherical existence, without being driven in extreme directions. The mature heart has a sense of equidistance and of equilibrium. The noble ideals of right thinking, right feeling, and right action can be achieved through the life of heart.
~ The center is the decisional and responsible agent. Heart represents the chief executive officer within our life. The heart finds joy in being with others, working together, eating together, and sharing life's experiences. However, if we do not act responsibly, we cannot create harmonious relationships with those around us. Therefore, leadership should be exercised by those who show the deepest and the most balanced heart. Heroic leaders such as Abraham Lincoln in the United States, Winston Churchill in the United Kingdom, Charles de Gaulle in France, Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, Sun Yat Sen in China, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa are admired for embodying such a heart. They tried to think, feel and act as teachers, parents, and leaders for their nations.
When we have a mature, cultivated heart, our desires focus more on the well-being of others than on our own comfort. When we have been educated in heart, we experience great joy through expressing love; vices have no appeal to us. However, when our body's desires are undisciplined and self-centered, our heart remains uncultivated.
The highest focus of education and the core of culture is the development, or cultivation, of heart. The cultivation of heart is set in motion by early experiences with parents and caregivers. Numerous studies have shown that the warm, responsible love of parents nurtures the child's moral center.[ii]
Parents cultivate their child's heart through feeding and caring for the child's physical needs. With their eyes, voice, hands, and entire body, parents reach out in love to their child and stimulate the child's response. Individuals whose childhood was lacking in love and trust may express themselves in immature and selfish ways. Their self-centered desires may be destructive to themselves and society.
Cultivation of Conscience
We all have an inner mechanism that aligns our heart with the standard of goodness. This is the guidance of our conscience that acts as our moral compass by guiding us in the direction of true love.
Like heart, the conscience is innate. It is naturally responsive to truth. It is also cultivated and shaped through education, first by parents and then by teachers and other people in a position of influence.
Our conscience urges us to place priority on our commitments and responsibilities to others rather than focusing on our selfish desires. It points us towards the highest good. It is the conscience that issues this call to a higher duty and responsibility and urges us to use our talents and energies for the benefit of all.
When we think, speak and act for the benefit of ourselves at the expense of others, our conscience sounds a warning. If we repeatedly ignore our conscience, we become less sensitive to its voice. Those who never experienced nurturing and guidance may pursue desires that are destructive both to themselves and society. Social norms, community standards, and laws set boundaries in an attempt to limit such destructiveness.
Relationship of Heart and Conscience
Heart and conscience are intimately related to each other, and they join forces in the pursuit of true love. Heart is like an emotional and intuitive propeller, while conscience is like a rational and instinctive rudder. Heart motivates us to relate to others with true love, while conscience steers a safe course through expanding circles of connections with others.
When parents look upon their children's actions with love, they tend to see truth, goodness, and beauty in them because of their love, even when the children's actions may not have been intended to demonstrate those values. The true love experienced in the family will generate what some have called the “habits of the heart.” These habits of the heart serve as the basis for relating to others.
Good habits rooted in early experiences of true love cultivate virtue. When loving parents care for their children, a natural pathway for the development of the child's conscience and heart emerges. Individuals raised in an atmosphere of true love know that they exist for the community, for the nation, for the world. A study of people who rescued Jews from death in Nazi Europe found that they were motivated by strong values of caring and inclusiveness. These values were mainly transmitted to them through early childhood experiences of bonding with their parents.[iii]
Coming up on the next blog: Exploring True Love
[i] Mencius II.A.6 [ii] Berkowitz, M., “Fostering Goodness: Teaching Parents to Facilitate Children's Moral Development,” Journal of Moral Education, 27:3, 1998, pp. 371-391; D. Solomon, D., Watson, M., & Battistich, V., “Teaching and Schooling Effects on Moral/Prosocial Development.” Virginia Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, 4th edition, Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association, 2002. pp. 566 -603. [iii] Oliner, S.P. & Oliner, P.M. , The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, New York: Free Press, 1988.