Yes, it’s true. You have a second brain. Literally. Type the words ‘second brain’ into the wikipedia search field and it will take you to a page entitled the enteric nervous system. Here you will find something that modern science has only recently rediscovered — the long ignored third branch of the human body’s autonomic nervous system, a great web of neurons lining the gut, second in number only to the amount found in the brain in your head. Remember that whole thing about ‘gut instinct’? Well, it’s real.
Nobody knows this more clearly than Philip Shepherd, a Toronto-based writer, actor and director, author of the 2010 book, New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. Recently interviewed by The Sun Magazine, Philip spoke at length on the topic, outlining the core discoveries of his work therein. They are revelatory. Having clearly identified the female pole of consciousness with the brain in the belly, he traces our historical rise out of these body-centred modes of being — over the course of millennia — and into our heads, citing the mythological corollaries apparent along the way. What he has found is that not only does our neurology tell us that our second brains possess the ability to work independently of the ‘first’ brain, thinking, learning, discerning and acting in a way that is completely unique, they hold the power to reshape our very experience of life itself.
Hard to believe? That’s because you’re coming at it from only one place, and one place alone - your head. Yet the power of the brain in the centre of your body cannot be denied. You already know it. We all do. Every time you stumble across a thought that truly frightens you, it flares up. Every moment of anticipation before a big event, it is there, setting the ‘butterflies’ a-flight, setting your palms to sweating. Any time you’ve been caught doing something you shouldn’t, or had a problem that was your fault come to light, it’s been there, filling you with emotions that you didn’t want, yet were powerless to stop. It was present, overwhelmingly so, every time you fell in love, and every time those love-affairs ended. So too is it still there. Every time you look into the eyes of your children, parents, and the pets you adore; every thrill, every failure, every triumph, every experience that matters to you, it’s there, reminding you, for good or ill, that you are alive, that not only are you a creature of thought, but also one of emotion. There is no denying this. If you are here, breathing the air, you are experiencing it, as are we all. Just as the life of the cranial brain is inescapable, so too is it with the brain in our guts.
Scientifically, there is much that has come to light regarding it in recent years. Your second brain holds the ability to work autonomously — that is, if you sever the vagus nerve, the pathway through which it and the brain in the head communicate, it will continue to function on its own; it uses many of the same neurotransmitters as the cranial brain and, through its delicate and immensely intricate interaction with our gut flora, plays an important role in regulating not only our immune system and our overall physical health, but our mental well-being as well. And, while there are very few neuroscientists who as yet understand the complexity of this system and its links to the brain, there are hints that it could be an integral player in furthering our understanding of everything from Parkinson’s to Autism.
Yet one of the most revealing findings suggests that the enteric brain may actually be the original brain. That the nervous system, and its higher, more ‘complex’ brain in the skull, were formed and informed in large part throughout the process of evolution on the biological back of the primal, life-sustaining nervous-system in the gut. If this is true, then it is from this place that we undoubtedly lived and experienced the world originally — a place of primal instinct and survivalism, obeying only the body and the gut that commanded it, the reasoning abilities of the brain in the head playing only a small, but growing part in our daily activities. Through his work, Shepherd has identified the Neolithic revolution as the point that the balance between the two brains really began to change. Agriculture was born. Domestication dawned. Out of this, the slow climb from our bellies to our brains began. Mythologically, it was a long, belaboured rise out of the feminine, intuitive wholeness of the earth goddess and into the male, analytical mind of the sky-god, where we find ourselves still today. And it is here that the problem lies.
While the second brain is tremendously active, continuously performing a numerous amount of complex and interrelated tasks that science still understands very little of — as is the cranial brain — our experience of it, in terms of consciousness, is indeed ‘secondary’. Evolution has found us at a point so disconnected from the brain in our belly that we fail to notice it unless we are in an extreme emotional state. True ‘gut instinct’ — the holistic, innate, sensitive intelligence of the body itself — is rarely registered by the thinking mind. This has resulted in the experience we are all living out upon the earth at this time — one in which we find ourselves not only separate from each other, but mother nature as well. How can we listen to the earth if we aren’t even connected with our own bodies? Even our experience of love, as described in the beginning of this article, is, I believe, more thought-based than intuitive. Most of us have no idea what an incredible, indescribable experience the feeling of true, unconditional love most likely is. This is what the new world is begging of us, what the earth is calling us to do — to bring ourselves back into alignment with the whole, to surrender ourselves to the experience of true love. In so doing, we would not be leaving the reasoning mind behind, but simply attenuating it within the larger flow of the intuitive brain.
Doing so means not learning to ‘listen’ to the body, as is taught in so many of the westernized versions of the ancient physical disciplines of the east, but, as Shepherd puts it, “learning to listen to the world through the body”, in reconnecting with the innate sensitivity of our pelvic centre and its inherent connection with the present moment. While the rational mind is a child of time, dallying forever in the dreams of the future and past, the body is eternally anchored in the moment. It cannot not be there. Every breath is the only one. Every heartbeat, every sensation, every sense perception resides forever within this place. The body is of the earth. It is an inextricable part of nature, and it is only through our experience of the body, of being the body, that we can come to find the genuine experience of life itself, as it exists in nature.
There are many ways to do this. None are more powerful than meditation and mindfulness. Meditation, through focus on the breath and its movement deep into the ‘pelvic bowl’ — as Shepherd refers to it — takes you out of the incessant stream of thinking that the rational mind is forever accosted with, slowly returning you to your body and igniting the intelligence therein. It reconnects you with feeling, to the aliveness within. It is an ancient doorway into the universal well of consciousness, from which all manner of insight is opened to you. Practice this, and you will find that, over time, it will lead to mindfulness in the rest of your life, helping to bring the experience of the body — and being that body — to bear upon the rational mind as it thinks its thoughts and sets about creating what it does each day. You will find then all manner of unconscious behaviour, in yourself and others, coming to light. This is the wisdom of the second brain, quietly witnessing, as it will, all it comes into contact with.
If you can do this consistently enough, you will find a great warmth beginning to radiate from the centre of your body. An, easy, cozy contentment that will fill your every moment and inform every intention. This is the joy of being, and it is the natural state of the body — a great gratitude for being alive, for every moment as it passes. It is a wordless song of kindness, born of the understanding that each body is the likeness of every other, each life behind every pair of eyes springing from that same well of being from which it too derives. It will only grow stronger with time, harnessing the rational mind and guiding it — along with all the power it holds — under the reins of its intuitive intelligence.
This is what’s been missing. This is the place we need to find ourselves if we have any hope of surviving. We cannot think our way out of the problems we’ve created with the brain in our heads alone. It will lead only to our destruction, as it steadily is. The new consciousness, the consciousness that will save us, is elemental, and it is found through this integration of the rational mind into the intuitive, in coming to rest the head of the troubled male upon the lap of the nurturing female, where it may find a peace, a purpose and an understanding that holds the ability to carry the family of this planet into a future only now coming to be foretold.
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You can find the full Sun Interview with Philip Shepherd here. If you are interested in buying his book, New Self, New World: Recovering our senses in the Twenty-First Century, you can do so here. You can also find him at his website, or visit his or Twitter.