Noticing or Analyzing: Your Gut Knows the Difference
How often have you heard or been told that learning to meditate can be good for your gut? My question to you is whether you have ever been offered an explanation for why this might occur and simple guidance on how you are supposed to meditate for improved gut health? I suspect not. Very few of the many hundreds of clients who have come to me with digestive distress have ever been told the why’s of the connection and the how’s of what to do. I intend to correct that with this blog.
Ideally, our brain shifts back and forth between two states of processing information. The first state is designed to process sensory information about our world, including our inner world. It is sensation based – what we see, hear, feel through touch, smell, and taste. This is the “noticing” brain state. Because sensations are present-moment focused, this brain state is a here and now state. Its focus is on what is occurring right now, not preoccupied with what has already happened in the past or thinking and worrying about what might occur in the future. Chemically, it is a brain state dominated by serotonin, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids. The effect of this chemistry is a sense of calm, patience, acceptance, and, as far as the gut is concerned, a state optimally designed for healthy gut functioning.
The companion brain state is designed with a never flinching eye toward the future. This brain state is engaged in constantly comparing what has been with what can be in the future, whether there is a desire to be satisfied, a worry to be attended to, or a goal to be achieved. Most importantly, this brain state, under the influence of dopamine, stimulates us to manufacture a plan for how to get to the future that we picture, regardless of whether that involves successfully avoiding a threat or fulfilling a deep desire. This is the “analyzing” brain state. Dopamine drives our attention and, like a pit bull, will not let go until the goal is achieved. The effect of this chemistry is arousal, intensity of focus, and bodily activation, especially when dopamine works in tandem with epinephrine or adrenalin. The activation of the body includes activation of the gut, but not necessarily in a way that is compatible with healthy digestive functioning. Gut functioning under the influence of excess dopamine is not a happy gut.
Living under Dopamine’s Dominance
The modern world is oriented toward dopamine. The 24/7 flow of information to our phones and computers, the ability to distort our body’s natural rhythms by functioning in ways that ignore the concept of day and night, the pressure of giving into the perceived demand to complete “just one more thing” or the constancy of FOMO (fear of missing out) if we don’t stay vigilant and connected, are all driven by dopamine.
The emotional experience of chronically high dopamine levels is perpetual discomfort and distress. How can we be comfortable if we are not chasing after what dopamine has us focused on attaining? The sad truth is that dopamine does not lead us to be satisfied and to feel pleasure when we achieve what we wanted. Instead, it leaves us feeling empty. After all, once we achieve what we wanted, it is no longer in the future: it is in the here and now, which is not dopamine’s concern. Dopamine does not allow us to stop and smell the roses. Instead, our attention is quickly turned toward what we can chase next. Dopamine forever raises the bar of desire and, at the same time, never gives us time to pause and enjoy what we have.
There is much about dopamine for which we ought to be grateful. Without it, our ability to set and meet goals would not be possible. As with much in life, there can be too much of a good thing, undoubtedly true of dopamine. To achieve a healthy and balanced relationship with dopamine, this potent molecule must be counterbalanced with other brain chemicals we possess. The question is, how do we stimulate the production of serotonin, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids?
While dopamine drives analysis and action - an orientation to the possible and, therefore, a brain state that is not present-focused - the other chemicals enable us to connect with our senses. These chemicals encourage us to “be here, be now, and to be present.” These molecules solidify relationships with others and even a calmer and potentially less judging relationship with ourselves. Rather than experiencing ourselves as in need of constant renovation and repair, a perpetual work in progress, these present-moment molecules allow us to enjoy, at least for a while, who we are and to feel we are sufficient as we are. In short, the present-moment molecules allow us to be content, and that is a state of being in which the gut thrives.
Building a state of contentment, a state of brain and body that is optimally designed for healthy gut functioning, is where meditating comes in. To create the balance between dopamine and our present-moment chemicals is a matter of mind. Meditation strengthens our ability to direct what our mind notices and what our brain and body do in response to that noticing. If when we notice something, such as a feeling of slight pressure in the gut, we dive deeply into analyzing it, attempting to control it and keep it from getting worse, fearing that we might be headed for another bout of diarrhea or hyper-acidity in our esophagus, we have jump-started a flood of future-focused dopamine. Our digestive system will not respond well to that.
On the other hand, if we notice the same sensation of gut pressure but respond to it by noticing what else is happening in our body: whether our skin feels warm or cool, what sounds our ears detect in the room, what scents are floating in the air, how allowing our eyes to gently close has a quieting and calming effect on the body and mind, and the pattern of our breathing, we are orienting to the here and now.
Whenever we notice that our mind races into the future, carried there by worries and concerns in response to a sensation in the body, we can use our minds to bring our attention back to the here and now with gentle intention. Gradually, with this practice of learning to notice without analyzing what we notice, we become able to disconnect our brain from the habit of always rushing pell-mell into the future. We realize that not every sensation has to hold our analytical attention hostage. Bodily sensations come and go. The present moment forever renews itself in the next moment. Pleasant and unpleasant co-exist, and both are replaced by something else if we simply keep noticing what comes next.
Developing a noticing practice (a simple name for a type of meditation) can not only build up a sense of contentment. Our digestive system can sense, though our central brain and the “enteric brain” that runs the gut, our contentment. In turn, it fulfills its primary functions much more effectively. Even if not everything is perfect, the gut’s ability to digest what we eat, distribute the nutrients where they are needed, and comfortably excrete what we no longer need is so much easier to accomplish. So, here’s to happy noticing!