This is an excerpt from a class I taught on the nature of feelings and how crucial it is to be connected to our emotions, especially those that we've come to refer to as "gut feelings."
How do we make the big decisions in life? Whether or not to accept a new job offer, whether or not to go back to school, whether or not to move to a new place to live, whether or not to marry, to have a child, to see a therapist…? How do we make decisions that can’t wait, that have to be decided in the moment? Whether or not to respond to a romantic overture, to return a first kiss, whether to throw the fast ball or the curveball, whether or not to order tonight’s special in a restaurant?
Using our minds through deductive reasoning and checklists of criteria is laborious, time consuming, and finally, when the pros and cons of a situation are about equal, ineffectual. These decisions can only be made by feeling.
"It just feels right."
When we make a decision from our feelings, from our "gut", that’s the accompanying thought, and we are much less likely to second guess ourselves afterwards, and indeed, much less likely to end up regretting our choices. Even major decisions can be made in just a moment, without hesitation. On the other hand, how often have we found ourselves regretting having not followed our gut and said things like, "I should have gone with my first impulse?"
So, what are "gut feelings?" Are they "real?" What are they based on? Superstition? Random, irrational impulses? Or something more definable, even measurable? Science began making some remarkable advances during the end of the 20th Century in understanding and charting some of the very essential purposes of emotions in human beings and how feelings operate within us.
In a science article entitled, "Gut Feelings", in the New York Times a few years ago, Sandra Blakeslee wrote about our "second brain", otherwise known as the "enteric nervous system" located in sheaths of tissue lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. "Considered a single entity", Blakeslee wrote, "it is packed with neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that zap messages between neurons, support cells like those found in the brain proper and a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn, remember and, as the saying goes, produce 'gut feelings." She also wrote: "The brain in the gut plays a major role in human happiness and misery… Ever wonder why people get ‘butterflies’ in the stomach before going on stage? Or why an impending job interview can cause an attack of intestinal cramps? The reason for these common experiences, scientists say, is because each of us literally has two brains - the familiar one encased in our skulls and a lesser known but vitally important one found in the human gut."
Candace Pert, best-selling author and professor of biophysics, corroborates these findings in her book, Molecules of Emotion: "Recent technological innovations have allowed us to examine the molecular basis of the emotions, and to begin to understand how the molecules of our emotions share intimate connections with, and are indeed inseparable from, our physiology. It is the emotions that link mind and body. Repressed emotions are stored in the body - the unconscious mind - via the release of neuropeptide ligands, and memories are held in their receptors. The entire lining of the intestines is lined with nerve cells that contain neuropeptides and receptors…and may be why we feel our emotions in that part of the anatomy, often referring to them as ‘gut feelings."
Various scientists explain that when the mind perceives that a situation is critical to the well-being of an individual, chemicals are released that stimulate the gut’s brain into action triggering instantaneous hormonal releases. A whole lifetime of accumulated relevant experiences can be accessed without thought. We are compelled to action by an irrepressible feeling, and as anyone knows who has ever been "in the zone", in athletics or any creative moment, there is a clarity and single-mindedness that goes beyond thinking.
Here’s an illuminating passage from the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman: "Sociobiologists point to the preeminence of heart over head at crucial moments when they conjecture about why evolution has given emotion such a central role in the human psyche. Our emotions guide us in facing predicaments too important to leave to the intellect alone - danger, painful loss, bonding with a mate, persisting in a goal. Each emotion offers a distinctive readiness to act."
Goleman continues, "The intuitive signals that guide us in crucial decision-making moments come in the form of limbic-driven surges from the viscera that Antonio Domasio (in the book, Descartes Error) calls ‘somatic markers’ - literally ‘gut feelings.’ Feeling is crucial in navigating the endless stream of life’s personal decisions. While strong feelings can create havoc in reasoning, the lack of awareness of feeling can also be ruinous, especially in weighing the decisions upon which our destiny largely depends: what career to pursue, who to date or marry, where to live…Such decisions cannot be made through sheer rationality; they require gut feeling and the emotional wisdom garnered through past experiences. We usually do not, in the moment, recall what specific experiences formed the feeling, but when the signal of a gut feeling rises up, we can immediately drop or pursue a course of action with greater confidence, and so pare down our array of choices to a more manageable decision matrix. The key to sounder personal decision-making, in short: being attuned to our feelings."
I would extend the scope of Goleman’s statement about the importance of weighing decisions by accessing feelings. I would say that not only our personal destiny but the destiny of humankind as a whole rides on this capacity. This type of understanding and appreciation of the value of our emotions is critical in our world right now, in this time of high technology and super-destructive weaponry. With such instruments at our disposal, making choices only from the calculating mind without the involvement of our heart and gut, without feelings, is frightening indeed. Without compassion, empathy and the wisdom of the heart, how can we run a country, a business or a family without creating a disaster? Indeed, the calculating numbness to feelings which permits all kinds of cruelty and deceit is one of the hallmarks of the psychopathic character structure.
Another factor that is critical in decision-making is self-honesty. If we are feeling one thing, but trying do another, trying to overrule or deny our gut feelings about a situation, in a sense, trying to deny our inner truth, our bodies will tell us. When a person is being honest, aware of their true intentions or purposes, and following them consciously, the body enters into a state of balance at the biochemical level that we experience viscerally as a state of harmony and confidence.
Candice Pert writes: "There is a profound physiological reason why honesty is stress-reducing…emotions bring the whole body into a single purpose, integrating systems and coordinating mental processes and biology to create behavior."
Pert found that the body "gets behind the intention [of an emotion] and does what needs to be done" by mobilizing systems, and enzymes, etc. However, if we are not internally and externally aligned in truth, if we are at "cross purposes…going through the motions…saying one thing and doing another, then…emotions are confused" and the lack of integrity is expressed physiologically as well.
In other words, the body is preparing for one kind of action, while being forced into a different one. A common example would be smiling when we’re really angry. Biochemically, the body is preparing to assert itself in an aggressive way, perhaps pumping adrenaline, tensing muscles for a fight or flight action in response to the anger, yet the face is being forced into an expression of pleasantness, welcome, maybe even delight. This is, of course, the typical "frozen smile" one encounters throughout the rounds of our daily lives, a look that is usually betrayed by blazing eyes or arched shoulders or other aspects of body language which we will be looking at later in this lecture.
"The result", Pert states, "can be a weakened, disturbed psychosomatic network, leading to stress and eventually to illness." She concludes, "Honesty, it seems, is supported by our biochemicals, and it only slows us down to choose otherwise."
Many people in therapy have also experienced the relief and grounded feeling that comes from facing a truth about oneself, even about something they had been quite ashamed of for years. A person will frequently laugh out loud with revealed pleasure when confronted with a previously denied truth about their inner life. For example, after insisting over and over - "But I do want to have a successful career", or "I do want to be in an intimate relationship", if one finally admits the hidden negative intentions that also reside in the subconscious - "Well, actually, I really don’t want to work at all. I just want to stay home and eat and watch TV all day", or "Yeah, relationships are too much pressure, having to listen to someone else’s problems or share my space. Who needs it?!" - immediately comes alignment and relief.