What Does the Course Mean by "Heart"?

by Robert Perry

"Heart" is one of the most revered words in alternative spiritual circles. We speak of journeying into the heart, reconnecting with the heart, coming from the heart, being in our heart. The impression one gets from such usages is that there is this deep place in us that is the seat of emotions, of love, and even of God. In this place, there is no game-playing, no masks, and no being cut off from one's feelings. There is instead the same simple directness of emotion that one finds in a child. There, we are not rationalizing our feelings away, we are just feeling them. Along with these notions often comes the sense that it is our modern, logical, mechanistic civilization that alienated us from this place in us, which is why we have to get back there, why we have to go on that twelve-inch journey from our head to our heart.

How does A Course in Miracles use the word "heart"? Does it use it in the way I just described? That is what I set out to learn when I was writing definitions for our revised Glossary of Terms from 'A Course in Miracles' (which has just come out). I collected the 127 references to "heart" and its cognates ("hearts," "heartbeat," "heart's"), and began to categorize them. The first thing that struck me was the tremendous variety in the Course's usage of the term. It spoke of happy hearts, thankful hearts, quiet hearts, renewed hearts, tired hearts, hard hearts, heavy hearts. It spoke of hearts beating in hope or pounding in fear, of hearts arising, singing and even leaping. It spoke of opening our hearts to God, and of His Love blazing into them. It also spoke of the fear of hell being upon our hearts, or our hearts being held in an iron grip.

Trying to make sense of this dizzying variety, I felt I discerned three levels of heart. Those three levels became the skeleton on which I tried to hang all the details. Here is the definition I came up with:

heart

The inmost center of one's mind or oneself. It does not, in the Course's usage, have connotations of feeling as opposed to thinking. In the Course, "heart" and "mind" are always paralleled and never contrasted (e.g., "Love cannot be far behind a grateful heart and thankful mind"— M-23.4:6).

1. Most references refer to the innermost center of one's separated mind, the place that contains our most central thoughts and feelings. It contains what we really think, feel, desire, and value, as opposed to what we like to believe or say we do; these self-deceptions do not enter into our heart. Thus, the "prayer of the heart" asks for what we really want (even if what we want is things of the world), as opposed to what we claim we want. ("What do you ask for in your heart? Forget the words you use"— W-pI.185.8:2-3.) The heart is also where we carry the real experiential effects of believing in the ego. As a result, our heart tends to be tired, heavy, hard, and uncertain. Our heart holds hatred within it, feels terror striking at it, and feels the mark of death upon it. Yet the goal is for it to be transformed. We need to lay different thoughts on our heart, hold different goals to it. We need to become pure in heart, kind in heart. We need to open our heart to God and let Him come rushing in. Then, our heart can be renewed. It can be glad, thankful, at peace. Peace can shine out from it and onto others. It can be stirred, can sing, and be lifted up, and will finally leap into Heaven.

2. Underneath this changeable heart is what you might call our true heart, which has never changed since God created us. And so the peace of God still abides in this heart. The Word of God is written on this heart. And God Himself dwells within it.

3. Finally, the Heart of God is the inmost center of God. This is what we will enter into and disappear in when we awake. This is where we truly are now. This implies that, rather than being peripheral to God, we are at His very Center, in His very Heart.

The final two meanings are quite beautiful, I think. The second one reminds me of the use of "heart" that one often hears among students of Eastern spirituality—heart as the seat of the divine in us. However, I want to focus on the first one, since that is what the vast majority of Course references to "heart" refer to. The first definition speaks of the heart we experience on the conscious level, the heart that experiences changing emotions.

To begin with, notice that, in the Course, "heart" is not contrasted with "mind." This is a major difference from conventional usage. There are eight Course passages which mention both mind and heart, and in every one of those, the two terms are paralleled. We can see this in these two passages:

My heart is quiet, and my mind at rest. (W-pII.286.1:8)

What, then, can be his solace but what You are offering to his bewildered mind and frightened heart, to give him certainty and bring him peace? (W-pII.334.2:3)

Notice how heart and mind are paralleled, not contrasted. The heart is quiet, the mind is at rest. The mind is bewildered, the heart is frightened. In each case, the two are in a parallel state. The terms, in fact, are so parallel that that they are almost interchangeable. What exactly is the difference between "My heart is quiet, and my mind at rest" and "My mind is quiet, and my heart at rest?" Perhaps there is a difference, but it is not much.

The usual contrast between mind and heart continues to break down when we read the Course talking about thoughts in our heart:

This is how a man must think of himself in his heart. (T-1.III.2:4)

Come unto Me, My children, once again, without such twisted thoughts upon your hearts. (S-3.IV.6:1)

If mind and heart are virtually interchangeable, if our hearts can think and our minds can feel (as the Course also says), then what is the difference between heart and mind? Is there any? Actually, I think there is, even if the difference isn't particularly significant. The main usage of "heart" in the Course is that the heart is the central place in these confused, separated minds, the place that contains what is really going on in these minds, the place where we cannot lie about what we are truly thinking, feeling, and desiring. This is similar to the New Age heart, which is also a place where our feelings do not lie. In the Course, however, it is not a case of heart vs. mind, feeling vs. thought, with the former seen as holy and the latter as suspect. Rather, heart and mind go together, with the heart simply containing what the mind is truly thinking and feeling.

In our prayers, for instance, we may say that we only want forgiveness and love, but underneath that, our actual "prayer of the heart" may be for money, sex, and fame. Those may be the things we "cherish…within [our] heart" (W-pII.288.1:6). Similarly, when we entertain thoughts of the ego, we usually put a nice covering on them, making them appear reasonable and harmless. Yet at the core of each one is a hidden lump of fear and guilt. These lumps, stripped of their coverings, are stored in the heart. Consequently, we feel "terror striking at [our] heart" (W-pI.135.2:5), or feel " the mark of death upon [our] heart" (W-pI.191.6:5).

This is obviously a very different usage than the usual New Age one. For there, "heart" is always a positive word. There, the heart is an unreservedly positive place. Even when the heart is feeling something like grief or anger, it is still seen as a very good thing to be in the heart feeling those things. Here in the Course, however, "heart" is simply central. It is the central place in a mind whose contents can be either positive or negative. The heart, therefore, can be the dwelling place of ego or of the Holy Spirit. You can have "hatred in your heart" (S-3.IV.4:6) or love. And your heart can be tired and heavy, or can arise and sing.

This gives us a hint of where the Course is trying to take us. It wants to lead us to a transformed heart. It is not just about saying different words or entertaining new theories. It is about a genuine change of heart. It wants the thoughts we hold in our hearts to be truly different. It wants the desires we cherish in our hearts to be all about God. It wants us to become pure in heart, " kind in heart" (T-31.VI.6:9). In short, it wants our hearts to become holy. For once they are, they will be filled with joy (T-11.III.3:5) and gratitude (W-pI.190.11:2) and deep tranquility (W-pI.122.8:3). They will be raised "from dust to life" (W-pI.rV.In.5:4). They will "rise up and claim the light as theirs" (W-pI.168.4:3). They will welcome God, and He, in response, "will come rushing into" them (T-10.V.7:7). Finally, "your heart will be so filled with joy that it will leap into Heaven, and into the Presence of God" (T-11.III.3:5). How will this feel, we wonder? Jesus gives this tantalizing answer: "I cannot tell you what this will be like, for your heart is not ready" (T-11.III.3:6).

Interestingly, this usage of "heart" is very close to Jesus' usage in the gospels. The following is from leading Jesus scholar Marcus Borg:

Jesus spoke frequently of the heart—of good hearts and bad hearts, hardened hearts and pure hearts. To us, the heart is primarily a physical organ and sometimes understood metaphorically as the "home" of feelings. But within ancient Jewish psychology, it had a different meaning. The heart was the self at its deepest center….

What matters [in Jesus' teaching] is what kind of heart you have, that is, what kind of tree you are. And you cannot change the kind of tree you are by dealing only with the fruit. That would be like trying to change a thorn bush into a fig tree by hanging figs on it….

According to Jesus, what was needed was an inner transformation of the self at its deepest level. "Blessed are the pure in heart," he said, "for they shall see God." The fruit of an anxious heart, concerned about its own well-being, is bitter. What is needed is a new heart, a pure heart, for such a heart produces good fruit.1

What I find fascinating is that the Course's usage of "heart" is so close to the usage of the historical Jesus and yet so far from the usage we often find in spiritual circles. In both the Course and the gospels, the goal is not to journey to, reconnect with, or "be in" a heart whose virtue is that it directly feels, without the constraints of thinking and social conditioning. Rather, the goal is a transformation of heart, so that the heart goes from hateful, tired, and terrified to loving, joyful, and at peace. In the gospels and in A Course in Miracles, Jesus' goal for us is a new heart.


1. Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), pp. 108-110.

One Comment

  1. Robert J. Hellmann
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Well done Robert! As a Course student, I too have had trouble with the “New Age” contrast between mind and heart. I like the emphasis on “central” as the basic idea referred to by the word “heart”. I appreciate the documentation given in this article as well.

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