Heart Mind Body
Map of the Heart:
An East-West Understanding of Heart Intelligence
and its application in Counseling Psychology
by Alexandra Whitney, PhD, SEP
This qualitative study involved the creation and assessment of a seven-week heart-focused psycho-spiritual inquiry program, Map of the Heart. The program’s curriculum was comprised of heart-based practices and theories designed to develop heart-centered awareness. The purpose of this investigation was to reveal and understand the personal experience and expression of heart intelligence and to define it and its personal meaning while illuminating the clinical relevance of Map of the Heart curriculum in the field of counseling psychology.
The curriculum was organized into six weekly themes based upon core heart feelings associated with the Four Immeasurable Truths, Buddhist virtues, and practices for cultivating the heart. Informed by East-West psychology, the curriculum highlighted perennial philosophy from both Eastern and Western religions and indigenous and psychological traditions, integrating spiritual discipline with Western neuroscience research and psychotherapy practices.
The research design used heuristic phenomenology and co-operative inquiry to explicate the individual and group experience of heart intelligence. Data analysis was primarily derived from a series of one-on-one semi-structured interviews and group dialogue sessions with nine state-registered psychotherapists.
Research findings indicated that Map of the Heart may support psycho-spiritual and clinical skills development and may encourage personal and interpersonal conflict resolution. Co-researchers reported increased experiential awareness of their own heart center and a defined ability to connect internally, reinforcing therapeutic intuition, perception, and sensitivity, subsequently strengthening the therapeutic alliance. Increases in therapeutic presence, empathic listening, attunement, and accurate mirroring were also reported. Co-researchers reported a greater ability to work more effectively with difficult clients and complex mental health issues. As a result, transformative changes in the client were observed. Co-researchers indicated that they were able to effectively use aspects of the curriculum for therapeutic intervention and clinical directives, where the heart became a focal point of the session. For example, the client focused on their own heart center by implementing heart breathing and other heart-related exercises to facilitate self-inquiry and emotional self-regulation.
Map of the Heart offers the beginnings of a theoretical template and experiential basis upon which psychotherapists, psychologists, and mental health care and other professionals can access and integrate the spiritual, psychological, and physiological terrain of the heart for therapeutic process and intervention. Further investigation is necessary to determine a more comprehensive psychology and theoretical orientation of the heart.