Skip to main content

EXTRACT: The Self-Love Habit by Fiona Brennan

Our extract this week is The Self-Love Habit from bestselling author Fiona Brennan. Transform fear and self-doubt into liberation, peace and power…


One day, while practising a heartfulness meditation led by the eminent psychiatrist Ivor Browne, I had a pro- found experience. It felt as though my heart had left my chest and I was holding it in my hands. Since that moment and with continued heartfulness meditation practice I have felt a deeper connection to my heart and ultimately to myself. Now I listen to my heart and do my best to listen to others from my heart, especially when they are upset. Browne and thousands of people from all over the world practise ‘heartfulness meditation’, an Indian spiritual practice that puts the relationship with the heart as its central focus. Kamlesh D. Patel, also known as Daaji among his followers, is an Indian spiritual leader, author and the fourth in the line of Rāja yoga masters in the Sahaj Marg system of spiritual practice. He believes, ‘We can master our life by listening to the heart again and again.’

The ‘heart-brain’45 has 40,000 neurons that can sense, feel and offer a world of intuition. Interestingly, the heart sends more information to the brain than the other way around. These signals are sent directly to the amygdala, the alarm system of the brain, and also to the thalamus, which is responsible for transmitting signals from the spinal cord to the cerebral cortex, which plays a critical role in attention, perception, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. The quality of these signals has a direct impact on your brain’s ability to function and focus as well as on your mood.

In the relatively new field of neurocardiology (which studies the interaction between heart and brain), science is catching up with what many ancient sages taught: that the heart is not just a mechanical pump, but a crucial organ that communicates with your brain directly. The heart is an infinite source of wisdom, spiritual insight and emotional intelligence. Alison Canavan, the fourth LOVE interviewee in this book, introduced me to the HeartMath technique, a science- and evidence-based technique that helps people to reduce stress and anxiety. The technique trains us to self-generate heart and brain coherence, which is an optimal state for our body and mind. When our heart, mind and body are in sync, all our systems (respiratory, digestive, hormonal and immune) work coherently together. The HeartMath Institute, a non-profit organisation, has conducted over 300 peer-reviewed or independent studies using HeartMath techniques, such as breathing deeply and focusing on the warmth of a loved one, over the last 25 years.

Out of a total of 11,903 people it has seen a 24 per cent improvement in the ability to focus, a 30 per cent improvement in sleep, a 38 per cent improvement in calm- ness, a 46 per cent drop in anxiety, a 48 per cent drop in fatigue and an impressive 56 per cent drop in depression. What seems clear is that emotions have a direct impact on heart rhythm. The two graphs in Figure 4 show the impact of negative and positive emotions on heart rhythm. The first graph (frustration) illustrates an incoherent heart rhythm, while the second (appreciation) shows a more coherent heart rhythm.
In order to create heart and brain coherence, you can self-generate heart quality emotions such as happiness, joy, gratitude, compassion and, above all, love. You can do this by breathing deep and focusing on the warmth of a loved one. Each time you listen to your audios or practise the exercises contained in this book, you are also doing this.

Scientists and doctors now know that our resting heart rate is not a monotonous beat, but it changes and shifts. When you activate your parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve, you slow down your heart rate and reserve energy for when you truly need it. According to James Nestor in his book Breath, the most effective way to do this is slow, deep breaths – it has been shown that specifically breathing in and out of your left nostril activates the parasympathetic nervous system. A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute.47 Generally, a lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. Some athletes have a normal resting heart rate of only 40 beats per minute.

A 2013 study in the journal Heart tracked the heart health of about 3,000 men for 16 years and found that a high resting heart rate was linked with lower physical fitness and higher blood pressure.48 The higher a person’s resting heart rate is, the greater their risk of early death. A resting heart rate of between 81 and 90 doubled the chance of death, while a resting heart rate higher than 90 tripled it. If, like many of us, you are not an athlete but consider yourself to be reasonably fit, you would hope to be in the region of the upper 50s to 60 beats per minute. If you would like to reduce your resting heart rate, then exercise more and manage stress with deep breathing and relaxation. The audios will help you to do this. It should be noted that smoking and excess weight are detrimental to heart rate, so you might also want to consider those if they are a factor for you. Like many things in life, it comes down to common sense and when you love yourself, you have the impulse to apply it.

In 1959, Albert Camus, the French-Algerian philosopher, tragically died in a car crash at the age of just 46. Two years previously he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the second youngest recipient ever to win this prestigious award. In his moving acceptance speech, he stated, Every man, and for stronger reasons, every artist, wants to be recognised. So do I. But I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress Camus’s speech reveals a man who had been bestowed with one of the greatest honours in the world, yet he was consumed with self- doubt. Failing to listen and understand yourself keeps you stuck in what Camus refers to as the ‘self-imposed prison’.

In his most famous novel, L’Étranger (known as The Outsider or The Stranger in English), the protagonist, a laconic, young Algerian man, Meursault, is so disconnected from his emotions that at the funeral of his mother, he displays no sadness. The opening line of the book, ‘Today mother died, or maybe yesterday. I don’t know,’ captures the essence of anomie, a state of mental isolation where one feels completely disconnected from both the self and other people. L’Étranger is regarded as an existentialist classic and a comment on the meaningless of existence. Yet Camus himself lived life to the full. He dressed and ate well, socialised a lot and had many lovers.

His life was a bit like the script of a Hollywood film – it had drama, romance and a tragic ending. Therefore, on a personal level Camus accepted that while life might be a struggle, it is certainly worth living and we must be open to the joys it can offer. Camus certainly understood and experienced love. In a letter to his lover, the actress María Casares, in February 1950 he wrote, ‘Tied to one another by the bonds of the earth, by intelligence, heart and flesh, nothing, I know, can surprise or separate us. By listening from your heart and seeking first of all to understand that you are practising love both to the self and to others, you will illuminate negative thoughts and behaviours that are rooted in love but that need to change. Tune into your heart’s wisdom when you need to make a decision and simply listen for it to guide you. If the conditioned mind is a prison, then your heart holds the key.

The Self-Love Habit
by Fiona Brennan
published by Gill Books
available here.