Listening To Your Gut
Some practices for tending the gut have scant basis in anatomical reality… The gut has a mind of its own.
This 'From the Archives' article first appeared in our September/October 2008 issue. Join S&H's Subscription Program and access 20 years of archives instantly!
I can say from my direct experience as an anatomist that the human gut is a marvel to behold. Among the many aspects of our multilayered, multitextured bodies, our gut, that luminous alimentary path from mouth to anus, is one with which we presume to have a relatively intimate familiarity From it arise audible growls; its contents eject violently when we are sick; gasses erupt from either end, sometimes most inconveniently; and it drives us toward the potty on (it’s hoped) a regular basis. Unlike the more subtle longings of our heart, our gut seems harder to ignore. The riches of the gut, however, extend well beyond these basic functions. The movement, sensitivities, and intelligence inherent within us there are fine teachers. By listening to our gut, we can learn much in the pursuit of a more mature and integrated experience o f our embodied selves.
The movements o f the gut are slow. Our hectic lives can often be out of harmony with the inches-per-hour pace of the gut motion. Although we may shovel food in without a thought, the gut will receive it slowly nonetheless, and we do ourselves a favor when we meet the gut on its own terms — by eating slowly. When we do so, the harmony created between the external and internal movements creates a coherent consciousness between our gut intelligence and our thinking brain. You see, our gut literally has a mind o f its own, and operates on its own terms with quiet independence.
THE GUT BRAIN AND INNER SPACE
The enteric nervous system, aka “the second brain” in the gut, with more neurons than the spinal cord, is exceedingly capable and astonishingly autonomous. Thanks to the research of Michael D. Gershon, M.D., and his colleagues at Columbia University’s Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, we know that the mastery of the incredible life-or-death complexities of digestive timing and function are not under the control (thank goodness) of the brain in our skull. Yet our conscious brain-in-our-skull choices regarding how we eat certainly have bearing on the quality of our experience with our gut and the ease with which it functions. A lack of vibrational coherence between the external motions of eating and the internal ones might manifest in an otherwise avoidable hypertension in the multilayered gut musculature.
Anatomically speaking, the gut is basically an elongated muscular pathway surrounding a space that opens at our lips and exits through the anal sphincter. If you swallow some indigestible morsel, it will literally go in one end and come out the other, without ever having been in your body It will have merely passed through the space around which your body is organized — your body being an elongated donut. A marble dropped through the hole of a donut was never in the donut. Based on this analogy, the Greek word enteros, meaning “within,” might be considered a misnomer for all things “enteric”; that is, pertaining to the gut.
A bit fancier than an elongated donut, the gut has straightaways (the esophagus and rectum), outpouchings (the stomach and cecum), lengths of looping meanders (the small intestines), and great arching paths (the large intestines). Each feature represents a specialized region along a single route, the space off which is populated by trillions of friendly flora and fauna. In fact, mammalian cells are outnumbered by these symbiotic non-mammalian cells by a factor of ten to one! Bacteria are the company we keep, and as the consciousness of the community, we bear some responsibility for maintaining a hospitable internal milieu. When the internal terrain is friendly, digestion proceeds accordingly When the terrain is rendered hostile to our little friends within (by the overuse of antibiotics with no compensatory ingestion of probiotics), digestive difficulties can often ensue.
(You might be interested to know that while writing, I munched on salty pretzel sticks, ate a leftover sausage, downed a handful of grapes and blueberries, scooped out some fresh watermelon, and finished off with an ice-cold Guinness. I must admit, I feel fabulous! [Did I mention my coffee?] In addition, I’m now 15 pounds heavier than when I published “How I Fell in Love with Fat” [S&H, Nov/Dec. 2007], and I am eminently more huggable!)
Perhaps because o f its incontrovertibly “earthen” nature, the gut has endured a checkered history in spiritual circles. Endless lists of rules and rituals are employed to rein in and tame this unruly beast. Yet perfect control of the mouth and the anus with the commands of the thinking brain will forever elude us, as does control of “the whole nine yards” in between. While mental mastery of the lips and anus is conducive to well-mannered social interaction, overdone regulation of these faculties is the root of neuroses.
Even in the most current “spiritual but not religious” conversation and practice, we struggle with our relationship with food and its moral implications and pursue the covert spiritual quest of “detoxification” through fasts, dieting, and colonics. All of these strategies may reflect the same thing: an attempt to dominate our gut with our thinking brain. But this pattern of domination — and the hierarchy it implies — is not rooted in the realities of our anatomy The gut will always “travel to the beat of a different drummer,” and we would probably do well to practice that great principle o f “subsidiarity” that is promulgated in Catholic ethical teachings: local authorities should rule over local matters.
Less judgment and fewer attempts to dominate and control the needs and abilities of our gut represents an anatomically informed moral orientation toward our inner, enteric selves. When we five in sharp judgment of virtually everything that we put in our mouths, we underestimate our capacity to desire what is good for us. We literally poison ourselves emotionally and then blame the consequences on the food/gut/appetite.
This is often followed by a concomitant mistrust o f the gut’s capacity to eliminate said “impurities” effectively The ghosts of religious purity/pollution rituals take form today in the thinkingbrain-inspired strategies of detoxification and cleansing, which represent an industry in themselves, so perfectly spoofed in the movie/farce, The Road to Wellville. In my anatomy classes, I often field the question, rooted in this basic mistrust o f our gut, “Do we all have, like, 10 pounds of impacted fecal matter in our colon?” Answer: no! Yet folks are busy scrubbing out their colons as if they could somehow polish away the stains of original sin by doing so.
Now, in saying this, I do not mean to demean the positive effects of excellent dietary choice or these sometimes helpful healing strategies. My point is to proceed with caution when second guessing gut intelligence. A few months back, I had the urge to purchase a jar of spicy kimchee and a jar of pickles. I had never eaten kimchee, a fermented Korean condiment, but I simply had to have it! For the next couple of months, I ate jar after jar of garlic and hot-pepper-soaked kimchee and pickles, much to the dismay of my wife and children. Then the urge passed, and the last jar of kimchee my wife purchased remains unopened in the fridge (although I just snarfed down a pickle). As I’ve learned to respect rather than ignore these urgings from within, I’ve begun to assume that they are not something to be ashamed of or controlled; rather, they represent an inner intelligence, the wisdom o f which I am willing to follow. (One more kosher dill. Ah, now I’m perfect!)
TAPPING OUR UNUSED INTELLIGENCE
As surely as the powers o f the brain in our skull are underused and underestimated, there are capacities beyond the digestive that lie dormant or squelched in our gut. The enteric nervous system lies like mesh, sandwiched between the thin, muscular layers of the intestinal walls. It not only represents a store of intelligence in terms o f physical processes, but the energetics o f the gut represent another kind of intelligence as well. When something feels good at an emotional level, there is a certain signature “lightness” that can be felt in the solar plexus.
Try this: Lying down, place your hands over your solar plexus, just below the bony edge of your ribs, front and center. Focus your attention on some great joy that you’ve experienced. The feeling in your belly is a “yes” from your gut. Over the course o f the next day or two, check with your gut with respect to situations that come up. Is it giving you that “yes” feeling, or is it offering you a knotty and emphatic “no!”? Are you willing to go with that — or at least test the results of following your gut as an experiment?
Our enteric wisdom speaks to us constantly, whether or not we are listening. If we ignore its whispers, it will shout! I vividly recall a business meeting that turned out to be an interview for a job that I believed was already mine. The man with whom I ate (who would have become my boss) was anxious to establish his dominance, and by the time I got home, my gut was roiling so badly that I had to lie down. There was no conceivable way I could have ignored that “no.” I bowed out of the project. The business I passed on never got off the ground, but not without the principals first enduring a lot of pain and betrayal.
So following our gut requires at least three things:
- A willingness to consider a different kind of intelligence
- Slowing our thinking so we can hear from our gut
- Trusting, without second-guessing, its information
To verify your information, you can make a chart of the events you considered, then the responses your gut offered and the outcomes. Or just go for it.
What does your gut say?
When our gut is feeling off or ornery, it often responds nicely to a very gentle type of touch. Lying down or seated comfortably, see your hands for what they are: fantastic instruments for the conduction of healing energy, radiant-like suns with beams of light flying from your fingertips. Place your right hand over your navel, with your broad open palm centered there comfortably upon your tummy. Feel the warm, soothing heat coming from your hand, and in your mind see its light shining in upon the gut, like the sun drenching a plant with its energy food.
Now begin making a slow (gut-paced!), small circle around your navel with your hand, going clockwise as you look down at your tummy from above (i.e., your pubic bone is 12 o’clock: the lower part of your sternum is six o’clock). Slowly increase the breadth of the circle each time around, until you are gently caressing the whole soft abdominal region along the bony margins of your ribs and pelvis. See the light, feel the warmth. Once you’ve spiraled to that outer circle, pause for a moment, and then reverse the spiral from the broad outer circle, counterclockwise, slowly spiraling your way inward to your naval, at which point you may pause and repeat the process as you please.
This may be a pleasant addition to your normal selfcare. The clockwise spiral is the "eliminative" one, and the counterclockwise might be considered "retentive." If you are hoping to encourage elimination or retention in your gut, do that specific spiral and skip the other.
Adapted from The Complete System of Self-Healing by Dr. Stephen T Chang, Tao Publishing, 1986. Not intended to replace normal medical care.