Evoking the quality and tone of the modern era, Ernest Hemingway coined the phrase “grace under pressure.” In his major works of fiction, he created protagonists who face defeat without panic, much as he did in his own life. Today, personal and societal pressures have never been greater, which can take a massive toll on our health and well-being, and keeping one’s cool under pressure may never have been harder. When pressures arise, we need to learn how to engage our three brains — head, heart and gut — to help us realize our true self and access the grace to meet life with a resilient spirit.
I’ve often been curious about the word grace, as it has a variety of meanings. It derives from the Latin gratia, meaning favor or kindness. Some definitions include quality of simple elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action; goodwill or forgiveness; and divine assistance. The Russian playwright and master of the short story Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter to fellow Russian writer Maxim Gorky: “When a person expends the least amount of motion on one action, that is grace.” That description resonates strongly with me. I’ve personally come to view grace as the ability to bring full consciousness to meet any circumstance while simultaneously accessing a quality of harmony that is always present beneath the turmoil of life.
As noted above, we have three brains. The one we know best is in our head. But neuroscientific findings have uncovered complex neural networks—or “brains”—in our heart and gut as well.
The thinking brain in our head is the observer. It’s logical and rational and shapes our perceptions, actions, and experiences. In our culture, it’s believed that the head is in charge because it knows everything and the body is just a vehicle or servant for getting us through life. But the mind separates us from sensations of the body and feeling our connection with the world. You cannot reason your way into love or fulfillment—or into a state of grace. And the head’s brain is slower to respond than the other two brains.
The heart’s “brain” deals with emotions. It has its own intelligence that is sensitive, feeling, and loving. Half the cells in the heart are neurons, or nerve cells—the same type of cells that are in our head brain. Research has shown that the heart is an information processing center with the capacity to learn, remember, and act on its own as well as connect with and send signals to key brain areas that play a part in the regulation of our perceptions and emotions. Recent research further suggests that consciousness, or conscious awareness, once thought to arise entirely from the head’s brain, actually emerges in large part from the heart. Negative emotions like fear and anger are associated with erratic heart rhythms, and the signals sent from the heart to the brain can inhibit higher cognitive function including our ability to reason and make wise decisions. In contrast, positive emotions like love or joy are associated with a smooth heart rhythm pattern, and the heart’s input to the brain facilitates higher cognitive function.
The third brain, sometimes known as the enteric nervous system, is in the pelvic region or the “gut.” It has a sophisticated network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and support cells like those found in the brain. According to Dr. Michael Gershon, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University, this brain deals with those instinctive reflex actions generated by the limbic area of the brain. It “feels” the world around us and is the first responder before the head brain senses environmental threats. It’s the center of unconscious intelligence—precursor to our thoughts and emotions. It informs in visceral ways as the instinctual and intuitive side of our self, for example “butterflies in the stomach.” The wisdom we receive from the gut can be more direct than what we discern from the head’s brain or the emotions associated with the heart’s brain.
Connecting the three brains
The body’s nervous system plays a huge role in how our bodies react to stresses in life. This amazing system coordinates all our voluntary and involuntary actions and transmits signals to and from different parts of the body. It acts like an autopilot for much of the thinking brain. The autonomic nervous system is the division that regulates bodily functions; it has two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares us to meet challenges we face; it activates our “fight or flight” response. It is in sync with the doing side of life. The parasympathetic nervous system activates our “rest and digest” response and is in sync with the being side of life.
The vagus nerve, sometimes known as the “wandering” nerve, extends from the stem to the. It’s the main conduit connecting the brains in the head, heart, and gut. Along the way it connects with the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver, and kidneys, as well as nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, and facial expressions. It constantly reports back to the brain in your head what is going on in your organs. The vagus nerve carries a wide assortment of signals to and from the brain, and they are responsible for a number of instinctive responses in the body. The vagus nerve has many roles, such as stimulating digestion and regulating the heartbeat. But it also helps calm organs after a stressful experience. When we experience stress regularly or for extended periods, the vagus nerve loses its tone and the body can’t bounce back to its natural relaxed state, or it may take a long time to do so. This eventually takes a toll on the health of the body—which in turn affects the prime functioning of our three brains.
Our culture places a higher value on doing and accomplishing than on being and relaxation. In New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century, author Philip Shepherd challenges us to move out of our heads and unite with the innate intelligence of the body, particularly with the pelvic region. He writes that the habitual and residual tensions we hold in our body are a result of emotions and ideas that haven’t been integrated. We often put our emotions on hold, sometimes for decades, but they remain in the body preventing us from experiencing grace.
Shepherd offers simple practices for opening the connection between the brains in the head and the gut that in turn help open the heart and enable us become more grounded and fluid in our body. One practice is called the elevator shaft. Imagine a shaft running through the center of your body from the head to the pelvic region. Bring your awareness to the pelvic floor, imagining it as the center of your seat of consciousness. Then shift your attention to the top of the shaft in the head. Paying attention to your breath, imagine a little ball of energy slowly descending through the heart to rest in the pelvic bowl. Remain in touch with that still point at this core of your being. If you encounter any blocked or stuck energy along the way, welcome it with love, and ease your way through it.
Since the vagus nerve intersects most of our organs, including our three brains, it’s important to find ways to keep it toned and flexible. The higher your vagal tone, the more easily your body can switch from fight or flight to rest and digest mode and vice versa. One of the best ways to do this is with meditation and yoga—especially practices that incorporate breathwork and relaxation. When we take an in-breath, we activate the sympathetic nervous system that brings in the life force, while the out-breath activates the parasympathetic system. A longer inhalation is needed for action activities like sports, while an extended exhalation, especially with a focus on the belly, helps produce a relaxation response. Have you ever noticed when you are in a tense situation how your breathing becomes shallower and more focused in the upper chest?
Special breathing techniques like ujjayi breath, also known as “ocean breath,” are very effective in helping tone the vagus nerve. Another technique that resonates with many of my clients is “pursed lip breathing.” Following a moderately deep inhalation through the nose, slowly exhale through the lips as if you are blowing through a straw. This exhalation tends to be longer and more efficient than exhaling only through the nose.
Practices like these help us access a deep stillness and intelligence. Additionally, rather than operating with only one of our brains, it helps us bring our head, heart, and gut into alignment to enable us to meet the pressures in our lives—with grace. May grace be with you!