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Heart openings: The experience and cultivation of love in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam

The Heart Openings project inquires into the experience and cultivation of love in religious and contemplative practice. Methodologically, it gathers information through interviews and participant observation conducted in collaboration with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in Denmark, United Kingdom, USA, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, and Egypt. Using audiovisual and micro-phenomenological methods, Heart Openings seeks to examine in detail the sensory and emotional structures of specific experiences of love and other qualities related to the heart. Through participant observation and life story interviews, the project examines and compares how the cultivation and experiences of love impact and emerge from people’s everyday lives across different contemplative and religious traditions.

The Heart Openings project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 950386, 2021-26).

The project is hosted by the Interacting Mind Centre (IMC) and the Department of Anthropology, School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University.


Hanne Bess Boelsbjerg

Postdoctoral researcher

Hanne Bess Boelsbjerg earned her master’s degree at the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University (2008), and her doctorate (2017) at the Institute of Public Health, Faculty of Health, University of Southern Denmark. Bess’ work is informed by an inter-disciplinary research profile, which includes the overlapping fields of religious studies, medical anthropology, the sociology of death and multimodal anthropology exploring spiritual practices. 

She holds a postdoctoral position at Interacting Minds Centre and the Department of Anthropology, AU. Here she is engaged in the ERC project: “Heart Openings: The Experience and Cultivation of Love in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam” with a specific focus on Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity in Denmark. She applies a dialogical approach to co-create filmic material on lived experiences of love in connection to spiritual practices. 

Bess is a trained micro-phenomenologist, co-hosting the MP LAB with Claire Petitmengin, who developed the method. Bess has a strong commitment to explore liminal spaces. This has included people with incurable cancer with a Christian or Muslim belief in an afterlife. Also, the project Borderlands of living which traces uncertainties related to prognosis when unresponsive after a severe brain injury.

Bess has contributed to the podcast “Døden” and public arrangement using aesthetic practices for dissemination, e.g., exploring the academic body through dance, embodying fieldwork, and writing (research) poems.

Renée L. Ford

Postdoctoral researcher

Renée L. Ford is a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark as part of the European Research Council (ERC) Funded project “Heart Openings: The Experience and Cultivation of Love in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam”. She engages in multimodal approaches to her research such as film, texts, interpersonal interviews, and digital humanities. Currently, her work focuses on gathering life stories and interviews that share Tibetan Nepali Buddhists experiences of heart openings. Renée also teaches Asian Religions as a part-time lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Overall, her research focuses on the interplay between Tantra and Dzogchen (rdzogs chen) in the Heart Essence, Vast Expanse (klong chen snying thig) literature in Nyingma (rnying ma) lineages. She has also translated a few texts from Tibetan to English, including the Third Dodrupchen’s The Staircase that Leads to Lotus Light: Essential Instructions on Guru Yoga.

Olivia Barnett-Naghshineh

Postdoctoral researcher

Olivia Barnett-Naghshineh is a social anthropologist specializing in economic anthropology, anthropology of emotions and the anthropology of food. Her research focuses on caring economies, emotional and affective transactions and gender relations in Papua New Guinea. She has also conducted research based on colonial histories and food systems in Jamaica and intersectionality, race and power in UK higher education. Her PhD research involved long-term research in the Goroka market with market women and local agriculturalists and entrepreneurs. She defended her PhD thesis “Gender in a Commodifying World:
Recognition, Emotions and Market Women’s Agency in the Goroka Marketplace, Papua New Guinea” in 2018 at the University of Auckland Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Olivia has published on shame, affect, fashion, climate change and gift exchange in Papua New Guinea and taught post-graduate and undergraduate courses in post-colonial theory, decolonization, anthropology of race and racism at Goldsmiths, University of London and environmental anthropology at the University of Waikato, Aotearoa New Zealand. 

During the Heart Openings project Olivia is working with Sufi Muslims in Norwich (UK) using visual anthropology methods and the innovative interview method of micro-phenomenology to explore how people in Norwich cultivate, experience and think about love in their personal and religious lives. She plans to use these methods to conduct research with interested Christian groups and religious leaders in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 2024 when she will return to Goroka. She has also been documenting the process of knowledge production during the Heart Openings project and is interested in questions of how people teach and how people learn.

In her spare time Olivia enjoys training for triathlons, gardening and cooking, and more recently looking after her baby son. 

Kenni Eilert Hede-Tobiassen

Doctoral researcher

Kenni Eilert Hede-Tobiassen is currently a PhD student at Aarhus University's Department for Anthropology. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology and philosophy, followed by a master's in visual anthropology both from Aarhus University. Trained in microphenomenology by Claire Petitmengin, he's currently pursuing his PhD in multimodal anthropology. He also manages Aarhus University's Multimodal Anthropology Lab at Moesgaard Museum.

His PhD project: 'Ildsjæl: A Multimodal Study of Altruism, Bildung, and Mutable Perceptions of Democracy in Danish Welfare Work,' explores the individual and institutional quest for recognition, understood as a necessary condition in fostering initiatives that promote love and community dynamics. The project endeavours to anthropologically understand the appearances and significance of intersubjective recognition, by exploring how 'ildsjæle' – individuals characterized by deep passion and dedication – and love, perceived as forms or degrees of recognition, are experienced and articulated within Gellerup, a district situated on the western fringes of Aarhus, Denmark. This PhD project examines how personal engagement forms, contests, and encourage connections between diverse faiths, such as Islam and Christianity, particularly within the context of Gellerup. Furthermore, it explores the potential significance of such personal engagements as specific channels between civil society and the Danish welfare state. Consequently, the project integrates the concept of recognition to elucidate how impassioned individuals, often referred to as 'ildsjæle,' contribute to shaping, reinforcing or ending partnerships, community bonds, and experiences of recognition, acting as a means of motivation among representatives from local Muslim, Christian and secular institutions in Gellerup and how they come together in a joint effort to develop their neighbourhood in a socially sustainable urban planning effort. In summary, his research explores subjective experiences, particularly spiritual ones, within the Danish secular sphere.

Rooted in social anthropology, Kenni's methodology combines classical methods with multimodal approaches involving photography, ethnographic film, and sound recordings. 

Kenni contributes to the ERC research group “Heart Openings,” aiming to understand experiences of love across cultural and religious contexts through anthropological methods, ethnographic films, life story interviews, and microphenomenology. Kenni's academic journey invites us to explore human experiences from altruism to spirituality with a critical scrutiny and an open heart.

Katrine Pahuus

Doctoral researcher

Katrine Pahuus is a doctoral student of multimodal anthropology at Aarhus University, who works on questions of intimate connectivity, devotional communities, and Christian notions of love across geographies. She has conducted fieldwork for the past 3 years in churches and in affiliated organizations in Denmark and Tanzania, where she explores these questions in the context of personal life-worlds, community spaces and mission-driven projects. 

Katrine holds a master’s degree in visual anthropology from Aarhus University, and she is the creator behind the student community website at the Department of Anthropology, http://communitas.dk/, where she has also published a series of podcasts.

As part of Heart Openings, Katrine is doing a sub-project connected to her doctoral research, which explores experiences of God’s love as they appear in people’s devotional and everyday lives in Denmark and Tanzania. Her project asks how these experiences are connected to communal practice and other types of love, as it is experienced and narrated by people within this international Pentecostal community.

Morten Bo Larsen

Affiliated researcher and filmmaker

Morten Bo Larsen is an affiliated researcher and filmmaker in the Heart Openings project. He holds a master’s degree in Educational Anthropology and has produced films on pedagogy and social life in contemplative communities. Previously, Morten Bo Larsen worked as a pedagogue and as the head of an institution for youth placed outside the family. He also holds diplomas in family therapy and couples therapy.

For his MA fieldwork and thesis he explored Danish priests' experiences of the sacred. Building upon this work in the context of the Heart Openings project he now works with Hanne Bess Boelsbjerg exploring experiences of and the cultivation of love among priests. We combine life story and microphenomenological interviews with filmmaking and participant observation in religious practices such intercessory prayer, meditation, and pilgrimages.

Peter Musaeus

Associate professor

Peter Musaeus is developing a project in the framework of “Heart Openings” with a focus on significant educational moments in higher education. What characterizes educational moments where you as a student learned something that made a significant difference; academically, intellectually, personally, emotionally or in other ways? What are deeply meaningful moments of learning or knowledge communication for a university teacher? Looking back, what precisely happens in such moments? Methodology: Virtual Video Interviews with a small number of university participants either reminiscing learning (n=6) or teaching moments (n=6). Inspired by Micro phenomenology. Start: Spring 2024

Martijn van Beek

Associate professor

Christian Suhr


Christian Suhr is a filmmaker and professor of visual and multimodal anthropology at Aarhus University. He is the PI of the ERC project: “Heart Openings: The Experience and Cultivation of Love in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam” (2021-26). His previous research has focused on invisible spirits, psychiatric illnesses, demonic and divine forces, and how film can be used to approach unseen dimensions of human life. He has explored these topics during fieldwork projects in Egypt, Papua New Guinea, and Denmark. 

He is the author of the award-winning film and book Descending with Angels: Islamic exorcism and psychiatry, a film monograph (Manchester University Press 2019). In addition, he is the director of the award-winning films Light upon Light (with Hala Lotfy, Muhammad Mustapha, and Amira Mortada, Hasala Films 2022), Unity through culture (with Ton Otto, DER 2011), and Ngat is dead (with Ton Otto and Steffen Dalsgaard, DER 2009). He is also the director of Want a camel, yes? (with Mette Bahnsen, Persona Film 2005) and the forthcoming film Epoche (with Claire Petitmengin, Mind & Life Europe). 

Suhr’s most recent film, On behalf of the Living (with Ton Otto and Gary Kildea, 2023), was described as “the best film of any kind about religion I have seen in a long time, capturing with great force the importance and fluidity of both religious belief and practice – a major piece of work” (Joel Robbins, Cambridge). 

Suhr’s edited work includes the books Transcultural montage (Berghahn 2013) and When the media sets the agenda (DJØF 2021) as well as three special journal issues: "Al-Ghayb: The poetics and politics of the unseen in Islam" (Contemporary Islam 13.1, 2019); "Anthropology and media" (Jordens Folk 54, 2019); "Camera as cultural critique" (Journal of Visual Anthropology 31.4, 2018).

In 2014, Suhr founded the Visual and Multimodal Anthropology Lab at Moesgaard. He was the coordinator of the MSc programme in Visual Anthropology at AU between 2014-23 until he took on a full time research position in the Heart Openings project.

From 2018-23, Suhr served as elected member of the Young Academy under the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. 


We are grateful to the scholars and practitioners at Aarhus University and from abroad who have assisted us in the development of the project and contributed with methodological, thematic, artistic, and regional expertise.


  • Prof. Claire Petitmengin, ENS Paris: dynamics of lived experience, microphenomenology 
  • Prof. Robert Orsi, Northwestern University: religious studies, religious history, Christianity 
  • Prof. James Morley, Ramapo College of New Jersey: psychological phenomenology 
  • Prof. Birgit Meyer, Universiteit Utrecht: religion and media, anthropology of the senses, Pentecostalism 
  • Prof. Amira Mittermaier, University of Toronto: anthropology of Islam, Sufism, Egypt 
  • Prof. Cheryl Mattingly, University of Southern California: Life story interviews, imagistic anthropology
  • Arne Bro, filmmaker and theoretician, former head of the Documentary Programme at the Danish Film School: filmmaking, audiovisual language, love and perception
  • Prof. Jennifer Deger, Charles Darwin University: Research ethics and data protection, visual and multimodal anthropology (ETHICS ADVISOR)


  • Prof. Lene Kühle, Aarhus University: religious movements in contemporary Denmark, Muslims in Europe 
  • Prof. Ton Otto, Aarhus University: religious traditions on Baluan, Papua New Guinea, visual and multimodal anthropology 
  • Prof. Mark Sedgwick, Aarhus University: history of Islam, Sufism, perennialism, traditionalism, Egypt 
  • Assoc. Prof. Cameron Warner, Aarhus University: religious materiality, Nepal, Tibetan Buddhism 
  • Assoc. Prof. Martijn van Beek, Aarhus University: microphenomenology, meditation, Tibetan Buddhism 
  • Assoc. Prof. Katrin Heimann, Aarhus University: microphenomenological interviews and analysis
  • Anne Marie Kragh Pahuus, Vice-Dean, Aarhus University: philosophical perspectives on love
  • Assoc. Prof. Noa Vaisman, Aarhus University: Life story approaches in anthropology
  • Prof. Line Dalsgård, Aarhus University: Creative writing, life story approaches



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