The brain in our belly

One of the biggest obstacles to developing an effective meditation practice is the cultural bias towards living in our heads. Most modern cultures, and especially Western culture, inculcate the value of reason and rationality above all else, creating the dominance of the cranial brain.

While this may have given us certain distinct advantages in the evolutionary spiral, it has also created a number of problems, one of which is that we are unable to feel in a meaningful way our connections with others and with the rest of the material world. It’s mainly why we have such a hard time stopping our onrushing thoughts when trying to meditate.

I have been reading and digesting an interview with Philip Shepherd that is particularly enlightening on this subject, and is in fact helping me to re-establish my vipassana practice by giving me a new insight into its true helpfulness for me.

Shepherd, who published the book New Self, New World in 2010, discusses in the interview – which I read in The Sun magazine April issue – the implications of the fact that we actually have two brains. The second brain is in the belly, a web of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract and viscera and functioning as an independent brain. There is even a new field of medicine studying it: neurogastroenterology.

He’s a very interesting guy. At 18, he rode a bicycle from England to Japan to study Noh theatre. Along the way he experienced a lot of different cultures and ways of understanding the world.

He says the effect of ignoring our gut’s brain is a wrong understanding of what it means to be human. This misguided cultural story dates back to the Paleolithic, was enshrined in our philosophical orientation by the Greeks, according to Shepherd, and leads us into no end of difficulties. Although he doesn’t mention meditation, it’s clear that what he’s saying has great implications for a meditation practice.

He says the cultural story keeps us stuck in our heads, not recognizing or trusting the belly’s intelligence and not willing to come to rest there, unable to join the body’s thinking. “But the body is not outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.”

“The precondition for sensitivity is stillness…. our ability to feel the whole is directly proportional to our ability to become still within ourselves. … you cannot reason your way into stillness. You cannot just decide to be still. Our bodies typically carry so much habitual and residual tension within them that our intelligence is confused by all that white noise. The tension is a result of emotions and ideas that haven’t been integrated. You get a certain abstract idea that seems right to you, but if you hold on to it too tightly, it will stand between you and your responsiveness to the world, disrupting information coming to you through the body. It’s the same with emotions. To survive, we sometimes put our emotions on hold for decades before we’re strong enough to integrate them. But they remain in the body, preventing stillness.”

Wow. I have experienced this through much of my life and meditation practice.

Much of Shepherd’s concern is for the social and cultural maladies that this disconnect between the two brains has created, the lack of harmony in our world. He conducts workshops designed to help people find a way to integrate the two poles. It seems clear to me that meditation is the best way to go about re-integrating ourselves.

Much of what he says suggests that he would agree. He says his work is about “listening to the world through the body. Once you come to rest in the body, you come to rest in the wholeness that is the trembling world itself.” He also suggests staying in touch with your breath. “Allow it to drop to the pelvic floor. Remain in touch with that still point at the core of your being.”

The Vipassana practice, which I haven’t gotten to yet in my narrative, is very much centered in the body and its sensations, so seems to be the ideal corrective for our heady-ness. Perhaps this is one reason I and many others have found it such a helpful practice.

As I have mentioned earlier, things in my life have somewhat bumped me off the path, at least in terms of a good strong consistent daily practice. This very odd and very unexpected source of inspiration has gotten me back on my cushion with a much better attitude.

Maybe it will be the breakthrough I needed.

4 thoughts on “The brain in our belly

  1. Thanks for this really interesting post. I expect its no coincidence you said you have been reading and ‘digesting’ the interview with Shepherd. The english language has a number of expressions like gut feelings, gut reaction which would seem to support these ideas. I wonder if other languages do too?
    There are also gut related illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome which would seem to indicate we ignore the body’s messages at our peril.
    Good to see you back posting again. Best wishes Rosemary

    • John Eden says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rosemary! I think you’re right – no coincidence!
      Your blog is looking great! I’ll be back there as well, try to catch up with you! I like your new (?) title… fits me too!

  2. […] And here’s another interesting article: ‘The brain in our belly’ […]

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