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Train Your Brain: Filling Your Body’s Cupboard

Part One

written by Rick Hanson October 2, 2020
Train Your Brain: Filling Your Body’s Cupboard

Train your brain and fill your body’s cupboard. Taking charge of the biochemistry – in your own body – that is the physical basis of your well-being and your capacity for contemplative practice.

In contrast to most of the classes in my course, which are about using your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being – using mind to change matter to benefit mind – this class is about using matter (i.e., molecules) to change matter to benefit the mind.

So, after we present an experiential exercise, the bulk of this article will be pretty data intensive. Take care of yourself both with the exercise and with all the information – and if you just want to cut to the chase and learn the specific things you can do for yourself, just zip to the end and read the two boxes: Your Biochemical Foundation and Targeted Nutritional Interventions.

What Happens When You Regard Your Body as Your Beloved?

Introduction

Building on the previous class (#3) on your precious life, we suggested an exercise that course participants might do as we approached this class (#4) on optimizing your biochemistry. Here it is:

Any time you like, imagine that your own body is a beloved pet, a precious loved one, or a sacred temple. After taking a moment to settle into that attitude toward it, then ask yourself, “How do I feel moved, now, to treat my body?” Let answers come to mind – and to heart.

If the answers to this question are different from how you normally treat your body, perhaps follow the guidance in those answers for a single day – or even a single meal – and see how that feels.

Exercise

So, whether you did the exercise or not, let’s go through an expanded version of it right here. Just read the instructions to yourself, or tape them and listen to them, or listen to the talk for this class on www.WiseBrain.org, or have someone read them to you.

As with all the exercises we do in this course, you can keep your eyes open or closed, write in your notebook or not, and go as deep as you want. You can follow our suggestions or you can do whatever you like.

Get comfortable. Find a posture that is both comfortable and alert.

Relaxing. Settling into your breath. Aware of your body as a whole . . . the body breathing . . . breathing the body.

Take a minute to imagine the history of your body. Starting when it was first conceived, just an ovum and sperm fused together, and then pregnancy, birth, infancy, being a young child, adolescence, adulthood . . . all the way to the present time.

Take a minute to consider some of the many parts of your body . . . outer skin and inner organs . . . bones and muscles . . . nervous system and brain . . . hormones, nutrients, immune system components . . . saliva, hair, sweat, urine . . . toenails and everything else. Your body includes your brain and thus the physical machinery of your thoughts and feelings and wants and sense of being yourself . . . .

Take a minute to be aware of your body’s growth over the years.

Of so many things it learned to do . . . Be aware of some of the many ways it has carried you along, and taken care of you. Of what it has gotten good at, from latching onto a nipple to driving a car or navigating a job interview. Be aware of challenges it may have faced . . . and what it has overcome . . .

See if you can step back from your body and regard it as a dear friend or precious child, maybe even a sweet pet, a revered teacher, or a sacred temple.

Now, appreciating all that your body has done for you over the years, can you wish it well? Can you extend a feeling of loving-kindness? Perhaps loving-kindness expressed through words such as: “May you, dear body, be safe from internal and external harm. May you, dear body, be happy. Dear body, may you be healthy, strong, and vital. May you, dear body, live with ease.”

Take a couple of minutes to explore what it might be like to appreciate your body…to wish it well…to cherish it as a dear and valued organism.

OK, now if you like, gently float this question in your awareness, and see what answers come, though they may often not be in words, but in feelings or images: “How would my body like to be treated?”

Take a pause.

For example, “How does my body like to move? How does my body like to be fed? In what ways does my body like to be touched? How does my body like to be active? What does my body want for its health? For its longevity?”

OK. If you like, tell your body that you got it. You got its communications. Tell it you appreciate it letting you know what it needs. See what this feels like, truly respecting and listening to your body.

Start coming back into the room. Get a sense of it, and perhaps rub your hands on your thighs and your feet on the floor.

Perhaps take a couple of minutes in silence to reflect upon that exercise. You might like to consider any ways that your body would like to be treated differently from now on. See if you feel moved to treat your body any differently in the future.

See if it feels true to you to commit to treating your body any differently in the future.

Discussion of the Exercise

You might like to consider these questions, in reference to whatever you experienced or realized during the exercise.

  • What was that exercise like for you?
  • What sorts of things did your body ask for? How did it ask to be treated?
  • Did you experience any feeling of being let down by your body? Any sense of being embarrassed by it? Any sense of being critical of it; anger at it?
  • Did you experience any resistance to appreciating your body? To be nice to it? To cherishing it?
  • Did you have a sense of your body being one of the most intimate and all-pervading relationships of your life? (Though perhaps in second place to your mind!)
  • Did you have a sense of your power over your body, your influence over it? Through what it gets fed, how it’s exercised, the toxins you expose it to, and so on?
  • If moral responsibility is based on power – with the more power someone has over someone else, the greater the duty of care to that person – then what is your moral responsibility to your own body?
  • Imagine treating your body the way it wants to be treated for the rest of its life – the rest of your life. What sort of life would that be?

Right Molecular Effort

Introduction

To have the best possible foundation for psychological well-being and spiritual growth, we all need to nurture the physical substrate of our body. And that means good nutrition since that is how you get the building blocks of that substrate into your body. There is simply no other way.

Nutrition is Molecules

At the physical level, when we talk about nutrition, we are talking about molecules. For example, take a look at the serotonin molecule. We picked serotonin since it’s in the Molecule Hall of Fame for its central role in your well-being and contemplative depth. But in order to have lots of these marvelous molecules rolling around in your brain – and in your digestive tract and other important sites in your body – you need to ingest lots of the amino acid, tryptophan, plus iron and vitamin B6 and other co-factors that help convert tryptophan to serotonin.

In other words, we need to eat the right molecules to have the right molecules. We also need to avoid foods that supply molecules that interfere with the body’s effectiveness.

By the way, it’s interesting that this is the biochemical equivalent of Right Effort in Buddhism – which of course shows up in other wisdom traditions: increase the causes of the wholesome and decrease the causes of the unwholesome.

So, to tend to those good causes for our own body, we need to think about the interactions among important molecules in our body. Making the right thing happen in the body requires many, many things to be available and go right.

The Big Picture

So, what’s the overall strategy for improving your biochemical balance sheet? So you have more assets in your body and fewer liabilities?

It’s actually very straightforward and simple:

  • Eat good food.
  • Take foundational nutritional supplements.
  • Take targeted nutritional supplements.
  • Develop a healthy gastrointestinal system.
  • Come to terms with your nature as an “orchid” or as “crabgrass.” Orchids: You must take good care of yourself – even if you don’t want to – or you won’t feel good. Crabgrass: You can get away with a lot and still feel good, but beware of the big problem (heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancer) that strikes after a lifetime of ignoring your health; and don’t look down your nose at those more sensitive orchids: it’s not in their heads, it’s biochemical and real.

Okay – with that in mind, let’s review food, foundational supplements, targeted supplements, and healthy GI for a calm, happy, focused mind.

You will have heard much of this before. But you’ve also heard how your body wants to be treated – even before you did the exercise above – and had you acted on what you heard?

The lesson here is that the key is action.

So please regard the information to come here as a kind of pre-flight checklist – actually a kind of pre-life checklist for what stretches out ahead of you for hopefully many, many years to come. Just check off what you are already doing, and give yourself a pat on the back for that.

Then, when you come to something that you are not already doing and which makes sense to you, how about putting that on your action list from here on out?

This is Part One of a two-part series. Find Part Two here.

© Rick Hanson, PhD

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