For as long as I can remember, people around me have believed that there were essentially two ways of being, one—which was associated with the brain or mind, had to do with analysis, thinking and concepts, the other—considered to be about the body and heart, had to do with instinct, gut feelings, emotions and being in the moment as opposed to the remove of mental analysis.
Of course this distinction still makes a certain amount of sense, and my work everyday with people in my yoga and bodywork practice encourages embodied awareness and emotional open-ness. To develop these qualities, one does indeed have to tune in to the flow of experience that is possible beneath the often over active analytic, planning, controlling mind, but the more we learn about the brain, the more it appears that there is more to the word “mind” than the bad rap it often gets as a hindrance to spirituality.
Let’s start with Dan Siegel’s definition of the brain and then some fun facts. Dr. Siegel is a practicing psychologist with a focus on brain research, parenting, trauma, and mindfulness meditation. We’ll talk more about him later, but for now I want to invoke his idea of the word “brain” as referring to the “extended nervous system throughout the body.”
Think about it: is the brain a solitary organ in the head, a lighthouse operator in a lonely tower signaling with a flashing light how the ships of the body are to steer their course? Or is the brain continuous with the rest of the body, a concentration of neural tissue for sure, a massively complex and sophisticated command central, no doubt—but inseparable from a network humming with intelligence, brimming with feeling and meaning, a feedback loop of biochemistry and electricity that includes the entire nervous and endocrine system,which are themselves woven into the blood and guts, the muscle and bone, the very viscera of what we are? Perhaps what we mean by “mind” is simply the interior (or first person) experience of the body.
In addition, we now know that there are more than forty thousand neurons concentrated around the heart. A mini-brain in your chest communicates with your head intelligence, confirming what cultures across time and geographical location have expressed in song, poetry and spiritual emphasis: that feelings like love, compassion, courage and empathy can be located in a range of emotion-laden sensations in the region of the heart, and that being attuned to this aspect of our intelligence is an essential part of being an awake, alive human being.
There is also a “gut-brain,” a concentration of neuronal tissue around the intestines that contain receptor sites for neurotransmitters like serotonin. This is one of the reasons both for why people who take anti-depressants often have digestion-based side effects, and for why stress, anxiety and depression can literally hit us in the gut. The mini-brain in the gut communicates with parts of the head-brain that have to do with our more primal instincts, sensory awareness and preconscious intuitive knowing.
So not only does it appear to be erroneous to talk about a mind separate from the brain, but to talk of a brain separate from the nervous system, a nervous system separate from the endocrine system and any of those structures separate from the flesh-and-bone body appears to be at best an anatomical abstraction and at worst the vivisection of the human soul.
I have an idea that what we think of as being the soul, or as being soulful has to do with a heightened state of consciousness in which the somatosensory cortex, limbic system and neocortex—which is what we also mean when referring to “body, heart and mind,” and their extended networks re: gut-brain, heart-brain and head-brain (a designation which correlates nicely with what yogis traditionally think of as the “chakras”) are in an open and fluid feedback loop such that the orchestra of holy hormones, mighty neurotransmitters and ecstatic endorphins are expressing their pulsating and meaning-laden symphony.
Walt Whitman understood something like this in the 19th Century when he wrote at the end of his famous poem I Sing The Body Electric:
The circling rivers of the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward
toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the
marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!