The Brain in our Belly

One of the biggest obstacles to developing an effective meditation practice is our tendency to live totally 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 also the main reason we have such a hard time stopping our onrushing thoughts when trying to meditate.

I recently read an interview with Philip Shepherd that is particularly enlightening on this subject, and one of the influences that has helped me to re-establish my Vipassana practice – after the rocky period I mentioned in my previous post – by giving me a new perspective on its 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.

Shepherd’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. His work originated in efforts to help actors be more authentic on stage.

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, and seems to me to point to the great value meditation – especially Vipassana meditation – could have for our culture in general as well as for individuals.

It also provides at least a basic theoretical structure for understanding, from the scientific point of view, exactly why Vipassana works so well.

Shepherd 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.

Listen to this with the ears of any experience with a 10-day course:

“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.

I think he may be describing sankaras.

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, again, especially Vipassana, 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 with its basis in the body and its sensations, seems to be the ideal corrective for this heady-ness he identifies as problematic.

Perhaps this is one reason I, and so many others, have found it such a helpful practice.



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