How many times have you been told to “follow your heart?” Or, perhaps you’ve been told that it’s important to develop a clear and peaceful mind. When it comes to making decisions in our lives, communicating with others, or responding to situations, we usually think that we should either make a rational decision from the mind, or a feeling-oriented choice from the heart. But what about the gut?
We’ve heard the phrase “gut-level feelings” before – what’s that all about? Why don’t we consider checking in with that belly before we jump into something? It may seem absurd, but sometimes our gut is the best place from which to make a good decision.
Mind, Heart…and Gut?
If the mind is “mental”, logical, and rational, and the heart is sensitive, feeling, and loving, what part of the self is the belly? The belly connects to the instinctual and intuitive parts of the self. It is the preverbal place of knowing. Because the belly’s intelligence is not limited to language, desires, fears, ambitions, or any other interferences of the thinking and feelings parts of ourselves, the wisdom we can receive from the abdomen can be invaluable, and more direct than what we may be able to discern from the mind or emotions.
Think it’s a nutty idea that the belly has wisdom, its own intelligence? Well, science says otherwise. In a 1996 New York Times article, scientists described the discovery that the body has two brains – one in the skull and the other in the belly.
The enteric nervous system
In the gut, it’s called the enteric nervous system, a sophisticated network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and support cells like those found in the brain. This network permeates the digestive tract from the esophagus to the colon, and “enables it to act independently, learn, remember, and as the saying goes, produce “gut feelings.”
We have all had those gut feelings. A sudden impact in the pit of the stomach, as if we’ve been punched, when we receive bad news. An intuition that manifests as a fluttering feeling, perhaps telling us to wait on a purchase or signing a contract. A warm feeling in the belly that tells us we’re safe. The gut communicates to us in visceral ways that transcend thought or emotion.
Gravitational and energetic center
Yoga recognizes the vital importance of the belly. At the navel center, known as nabhi chakra or the Kandasthana, we find the source of the majority of 72,000 energy channels, known as nadis. The belly is our energetic center of our body. From this place we most effectively move, respond, and access our vital energies.
This is also our gravitational center. You can experience this palpably by experimenting with Tree Pose. First, try standing on one leg while you are centered in your head, then on the other. Then, repeat the pose while bringing your attention and feeling of center into your belly. Most people find that it is significantly easier to balance when centered in the belly – much like it is easier to balance a stick on a stone when placed at its heaviest spot.
Center of intuition
Our belly is generally the most weighted area of the body, and a large amount of that weight is blood. In an article by Lisa Sarasohn about the center of the body being the center of consciousness, she states:
In the bodies of both women and men, the abdominal region is blood-rich and therefore iron-rich as well. Heating or tapping iron…easily magnetizes the material. Certain traditions of movement and dance compress and heat the body’s iron-rich center, thus making the body’s center all the more magnetically active and sensitive to the flux in electromagnetic fields as we interact with each other and our environment. Studies of the human body suggest that our sensitivity to flux in electromagnetic fields constitutes or at least largely contributes to the aspect of awareness which we call intuition. Accordingly, patterns of movement and breath which compress and heat our body’s center may thus enhance our conscious awareness of self, each other, and our environment.
Practices such as yoga and martial arts, which consciously work with the energies in the belly, are likely to have the effect of enhancing our gut-level feelings, or intuition. These effects are even described in yogic texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – intuitive powers developed from years of intense yogic practices, including those which involve physical and energetic actions in the abdominal region, such as Uddiyana Bandha, the belly lock.
Build your belly relationship
To attune ourselves more to the intuitive and energetic gifts of our abdomen, we need to cultivate our relationship with it. Even the basic yoga postures give us an excellent avenue to refine the awareness of our energetic center in the belly, such as simple twists. The tone and vitality of our “core” abdominal area are essential for maintaining a healthy back as well as contributing the necessary strength and support for many of the more advanced poses, such as arm balances.
But the impact of the function of our bellies, even in yoga class, goes far beyond that. There is no pose that is not affected by the abdomen in some way, and accessing the energy available in this area will infuse us with more stamina, lightness, balance, and warmth.
Try spending an entire yoga class focused on the gut. What sensations arise there in different poses? What muscles can you distinguish with different movements? How does awareness of your abdomen affect your stability and balance in each pose? Getting to know this area on a physical level will help you become more attuned to it on the intuitive level.
Being a place of gravitational balance, an energetic center, and an intuitive intelligence apart from our brain, we can discover that the body responds quickly and more effectively when we’re centered in the belly. This has long been known in martials arts; the practice of getting the mind out of the way and responding from the body’s intuition. While the thought processes are the conscious aspect of intelligence, we can think of the belly as the aspect of unconscious intelligence – the precursor to our thoughts.
Using the thinking mind takes too long. An opponent can overpower you long before the conscious mind can sort out the best action to take, or before we can sift through our emotional responses, like embarrassment, to the situation. Development of this instinct that arises from the belly has been essential in all the arts of combat. This skill can be of great benefit to each of us, as we are faced with many of the spontaneous challenges that life has to offer.
Charlie Badenhop, a practitioner of Aikido as well as a self-hypnosis technique based on Aikido known as Seishindo, feels that each human has two centers of control – the cognitive self (conscious intelligence), which resides in the head, and the somatic self (unconscious intelligence), residing in the abdomen. He also discovered that in his self-hypnosis work, the conscious mind actually got in the way of making the changes the client wanted: “…conscious thought processes usually involve unconsciously tensing one’s body, such that we freeze rather than free up the nervous system and muscles… the mind that creates a problem is not the mind to use when looking to change one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. The use of the conscious mind as one’s main source of intelligence is often not enough to get the desired results.”
The belly is better
Simply said, the intuition and instinct that we experience in our body (particularly our belly), rather than our conscious mind, is often better for resolving the problems we face in our lives.
This great source of wisdom and intuition that lies in our body’s center often goes untapped. Instead, many of us struggle with trying to “figure it out” or “make a rational decision”. Sometimes, we get so frustrated that we allow ourselves to react from emotion, which can often be ruled by fear or anger – not good foundations for healthy choices.
Get to know the gut
The wisdom in the belly takes a more subtle and refined awareness than these more familiar avenues of processing experiences. Awareness of the belly is minimal for many people in the American culture – we need to get to know the gut a little better.
It’s common to be blocked from awareness of this part of the body because it’s shunned in our culture. We don’t want our bellies to show. And if we do show them, we want them to be flat, hard, or toned.
The belly, possibly more than any other area of our body, brings up shame. We pull it in and shut it off. It’s no wonder that digestive disorders are among the most common ailments in modern society. Because of our discomfort with and ignorance of this vital aspect of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from our gut and thus from our intuitive self, losing touch with a sense that is intended to be a second-nature response to the world.
Our guts, much more than our rational mind or our loving hearts, are arguably the best “truth-sayers” we have. We feel whether or not someone is being honest with us in our gut. This even includes whether we are really being honest with ourselves. The stomach knows if we’ve pushed too much, said something we’ve regretted, or if we’re trying to talk ourselves into an action we know on a deeper level isn’t the best for us. The gut is never deceived.
Amy Frazier, an artist that deeply respects and explores the human anatomy, describes the instinctual knowing of truth that comes from the gut. She states that our intestines process out and eliminate falsehoods in a similar way to the elimination of waste and toxins through digestion. “The intestines assist us in determining truth and fact from intellectually imposed fictions. Instincts give us a natural intuitive power and a way to directly perceive truth, independent of any rational reasoning process.” No degree of logical explanation will be sufficient if we feel in our gut that something just doesn’t fit. From that instinctual knowledge, we can then set the conscious mind to work to uncover the truth.
Tune into your belly
You can cultivate your intuitive self by practicing more awareness of the feelings that arise from the belly. What happens in the gut when someone yells at you? What are the sensations there when you receive good news? How does the belly respond when you’re around someone you trust, versus when talking to someone that you’re very uncomfortable with? Getting to know these gut-level feelings will then heighten your awareness of them when a situation arises that you need them the most.
The next time you’re sitting down for a meal, you might tune into your belly a bit. While you’re appreciating the marvel of the whole digestive process as well as the vital energetic center located there, you may also want to acknowledge the other gift that our gut gives us; our intuitive sense. Trust your gut – working together with the mind and the heart, the belly becomes an essential partner in awareness and wisdom.
Copyright 2003, by Constance L. Habash