The Mind/Body Connection

In the years following my brother’s death, I investigated anything and everything that might help me snap out of my grief, anger and worry. I read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I took part in residential retreats in which I swung a plastic bat into a pillow, imagining that I was hitting the negative aspects of my parents in order to heal cathartically. I tried all sorts of diets. I became a vegetarian. I fasted. I even had a stint in which I ate nothing but potatoes. My heartache and sense of loss lingered. When a friend invited me to my first yoga class, I found myself attempting to replicate an intricate series of movements that left me completely fatigued. And then the teacher said,

I am going to teach you to meditate. Ready? Sit down. Cross your legs. Sit upright. Close your eyes and focus on your breath: air coming in, air going out. Let go of your thinking. Each time you’re lost in thought, return to the in breath and the out breath.

After a few moments, he whispered,

Notice the sensations within your body? Do you feel all that movement and tingling? That’s your body’s internal pharmacy healing itself. Stay focused on that.

After minutes of sitting there, attempting to notice my “body’s internal pharmacy,” I began to perceive spasms of emotion roiling through my intestines. I could feel those places inside that felt scared, empty and alone in grief and anxiety.

I had learned to talk about my distress with my therapist—where it came from and how I might think about it in a way that made it more tolerable—but I had never had a direct feeling perception of it. As I invited these waves of unpleasant emotion to wash through me, the internal knots of pain slowly begin to unravel.

While we tend to think of intelligence as residing somewhere behind the eyes, in our cranium, many native traditions indicate that intelligence is located throughout the body. While our thinking mind helps us make sense of the world intellectually and provides executive control, the body is the place of transformation. Our intelligence is not just mental. Other parts of our body provide powerful insight and intuition.

The Gut Brain Our gut is known as the second brain. It consists of more than 500 million neurons, about the same amount as in a cat’s brain. In fact, our bowel produces over 95% of our total serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates our feelings of happiness. The gut is quite distinct from the thinking mind in that it speaks in declarative tones via sensations. It says things like, “Yuck,” “Yum,” “Ow!” “Mmm,” “No way!” “Yes!” and “No!” Unlike the thinking mind, the mind in our gut doesn’t second-guess. It simply calls out what it senses.

Complementary medicine advocate Deepak Chopra used to tell the story of an interview he had with the late co-founder of Sony Corporation, Masaru Ibuka, who liked to “swallow” a deal before he signed it. If Ibuka had an important choice to make, he would do his due diligence: consult with key people, review market data and research sales reports. But he didn’t stop there.  

He’d have his assistant prepare a Japanese tea ceremony, which is actually a type of meditation. Once the tea was prepared, he’d hold a “yes” or “no” question” in his mind. He would then take a sip of tea and listen, carefully observing how his body responded to how the tea felt in the stomach. If it felt good, he interpreted that as a “yes;” if it didn’t, it was a “no.” “I trust my gut and I know how it works,” he said. “My mind is not that smart, but my body is.”

The Heart Brain The heart also has its own consciousness and intelligence related to issues of relationship, passion and morality. When people are sincere, we often say they are “speaking from the heart.” When they need an honest conversation, they have a “heart-to-heart.” When they throw themselves into an activity, we say that they are doing it “with all their heart.” Even our gestures indicate the importance we give to the heart; when people point to themselves they generally point to the heart. Modern science is showing us that these figurative expressions actually reflect a physiological truth.

More than a simple pump for blood, the heart is a brain unto itself. It has somewhere between 40,000 and 120,000 neurons. The heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. Like the brain, the heart is neuroplastic; it can grow and change. It continues to create new neuronal connections as our emotional and empathetic capacities continue to expand.

We now have scientific evidence that the anatomical heart sends us emotional and intuitive signals to help govern our lives. It does so through a number of different hormones, the primary one being oxytocin—the hormone associated with labor and maternal bonding, and is also involved in relational bonding, emotion, passion and values. The heart produces equal amounts of this hormone as the brain itself.

Health and Mind/Body Connection While I am a coach and mindfulness teacher, I am also an acupuncturist and herbalist. Most of what I treat is stress-related illnesses, such as chronic pain, digestive disorders, low-grade depression and anxiety. We all know that blood is essential for the body’s healthy functioning. Over the years of doing this work, I have come to realize that tension contracts the body, which obstructs the blood’s flow. In my training as an acupuncturist, I was taught that acupuncture and natural medicines restore it, but I also found out—through trial and error—that unless the underlying tension is dissolved, these modalities only give temporary relief. Despite graduating from a four year Masters Degree program, I initially felt pretty inept at my craft. No matter what acupuncture points or herbal remedies I prescribed, very few of my patients got the help they were looking for.

At some point, I got so fed up with my lackluster results that I started to teach mindfulness to a patient who was trying to give up smoking. I asked him why he smoked. He said he was lonely, that he hadn’t had an intimate relationship for many years. As he learned to feel and welcome the sensations of pain and heartache that smoking numbed, the addiction slowly lost its hold on him.

Once I learned to work with my smoking patient, I began to receive a steady stream of patients with similar heartache. Some had lost loved ones to death. Others were struggling with grief, loneliness or a lack of passion. Some were saying yes to partners, jobs and bosses when their guts were saying no. I’d treat them with acupuncture, but I would also help them uncover and let go of the underlying feeling states by teaching them mindful awareness. I have come to discover that when we dissociate from our hearts and guts, it not only affects us emotionally, it also wears at our health. We tend to put emotions into the category of the mind, but emotions are not just mental phenomena. They’re bodily experiences, too. We feel them in the form of sensations. Some of us feel our hearts racing and shortness of the breath when we are anxious. Some get belly aches when we are nervous. I personally cannot eat when I am about to give a presentation. A friend of mine gets migraines before examinations. As a culture, we have attempted to disconnect the mind and the body, but they are intricately connected. While modern medicine tends to treat them separately, more holistic approaches address both mind and body.

A sore shoulder may be the result of tendonitis, but it can also be caused by stress. When we feel anxious or under pressure, we grip. We can take anti-inflammatories and hope that the pain will go away, but if we don’t give our attention to the pattern of gripping associated with the anxiety, medicine will only have temporary effect.

When we are sleepless, anxious and in pain, our bodies are speaking to us. If we can slow down enough to heed their messages by non-reactively feeling the sensations in our body, we can learn a lot about the circumstances we find ourselves in and the path forward.