Disregard the Body at the Mind’s Peril

Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so.

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts.

It should not be surprising to anyone that people in Western societies generally do not fully inhabit their bodies. It is a culture that lives more in the mind and, in fact, eschews the body for the perceived ”rewards” of the mind: money, power, success, and one-upsmanship. Embracing the mind as the ultimate in human experience has become the greatest goal of Western society and it has precipitated the decline of the very instrument that houses the mind – the physical body. This way of thinking can be traced back to The Age of Reason which is defined by as:

any period in history, especially the 18th century in France, England, etc., characterized by a critical approach to religious, social, and philosophical matters that seeks to repudiate beliefs or systems not based on or justifiable by reason.

Reason is the rationalization, through logic, that is behind a course of action. At least that is how it is defined in Western societies. It is considered a purely mental exercise and solely utilizes the intellect of the brain. Clearly there have been many innovations that have benefitted the world through the hard clear logic of the brain, however, there is much that has been lost in the belief that all that matters is the workings of the mind.

By Filosofias filosoficas (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Witness the near epidemic of obesity, the increase of cancer and other immune deficiency diseases, and the loneliness and alienation found in “modern” communities. Our physical instruments are bearing the brunt of our belief that reason is the fundamental and decisive element in creating a utopian world. However, sitting at a desk in front of a computer for 8 plus hours a day without a break will wreak havoc on the body and, not coincidentally, eventually on our highly vaunted minds. Headaches; carpal tunnel syndrome; increased stress on the joints, muscles, skeleton, and fascia; high blood pressure; and heart disease all result from ignoring our bodies and disregarding the intelligence found in the heart and the gut.

We are an integrated system whereby the mind, housed in the brain, is nurtured and kept healthy by the body. The body’s messages are sent to inform the brain to help the mind determine what is in the best interests of the whole organism. When the mind ignores these messages, disaster can strike – namely the breakdown of the body which the mind cannot function without. If the body ceases to exist, then the mind does as well.

Interestingly enough, scientists have determined that both the heart and the stomach are strong centers of electrical functioning. In fact, the heart has a higher electrical output than the brain. HeartMath Institute Director of Research Rollin McCraty authored a paper entitled, The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Communication Within and Between People, in which he states that “The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. The electrical field as measured in an electrocardiogram (ECG) is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain waves recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG).”

In Science of the Heart, HeartMath Institute’s ebook, the new discipline now called Neurocardiology has found that the “heart has a complex neural network that is sufficiently extensive to be characterized as a brain on the heart. The heart-brain, as it is commonly called, or intrinsic cardiac nervous system, is an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the brain in the head. The heart-brain’s neural circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions, and even feel and sense.”

If the heart has the ability to ‘learn, remember, make decisions, and even feel and sense’, then clearly it has much to contribute towards the functioning of our lives. The heart regulates the flow and rhythm of life-giving blood and distributes nourishing oxygen throughout the cells, muscles, and brain of the body. Thus the heart has direct access to the physical body through its bloodstream and can easily absorb messages that the body is providing. In some situations we may find that our hearts know better than our reasoning minds about how to proceed in the most optimum way. To ignore the intelligence of the heart, and therefore the body, means we function at half our ability to negotiate throughout the myriad challenges and joys that this world offers.

Fortunately, western psychiatrists are learning what many cultures have known for centuries – that mental trauma is more easily dispersed if a physical practice accompanies therapy. The mind is not the only place that trauma is stored. It is also stored in the cells of the physical body. Talk therapy can help a client to consciously understand the triggers and cause and effect of events through the reasoning of the mind but the body most likely holds onto the emotional ordeal. The body must be given an opportunity to discharge the distress as well the mind before full healing can occur.

This release can be accomplished through many of the alternative healing methodologies that have been introduced into western culture in the last century or so: yoga, chiropractic, qigong, acupuncture, cranial sacral work, and energy medicine. What these alternative healing methodologies understand is that the body has its own wisdom that may not seem logical or reasonable to the mind. Simple breathing techniques can help calm the body and begin to integrate the learnings of the mind with the cellular memories of the body. Regular movement of the body through exercise can allow the bio-chemicals released through traumatic and stressful experiences to dissipate in a healthy way and allow the parasympathetic system a chance to calm down the flight, flight, or freeze response of the sympathetic system response. Even long term PTSD can be repaired through attention to the body’s physical needs, signals, and responses to find ways to release blockages, chronically held emotions, and Pavlovian type reactions.

We, in the western cultures, ignore our bodies at our minds’ peril. Awareness and care of the body enhances and is essential to the mind’s health. Recognition of the wisdom and intelligence of the heart and the physical body allows us to function optimally – synchronizing heart, body, and mind.