Out of Our Minds

I spend a lot of time thinking. Thoughts upon thoughts, chasing each other like my grandparents’ crazy border collie used to chase her tail. I think while I’m walking, studying, cooking, resting. Whatever else I’m doing, I’m also planning, deliberating, pondering. I have to constantly remind myself to pay attention to where I am: to the intricate patterns of bare winter branches against the sky; to how my feet feel against the solid ground; to my breath as it sustains me. I have to remind myself that there are other ways of knowing, and other ways of being.

This mode of over-thinking is a common one these days. We live in a world that values intellectual work over manual work, and where survival and success tend to depend on our ability to think and make good choices, rather than to run, or bond with people, or listen carefully to whatever is moving through the undergrowth. In a complex industrial society such as ours, we rely less and less on our bodies, and more and more on our minds.

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Our capacity for thought is immense, and incredible. We can envision. We can imagine things that never existed before, and bring them into being. Our minds are one of our most important resources, but we are not brains in jars, no matter what Descartes thought. When we reduce ourselves to this one aspect of ourselves, we neglect our bodies, our emotions, and our ability to sense. We miss out on how good it feels to be alive.

It’s fairly obvious that this state of thinking all the time wouldn’t be good for our health. Have you ever been so consumed with a project that you forgot to eat? When we’re in our heads, we’re far less likely to pay attention to the messages from our bodies, the messages that tell us that we need to move, need to sleep, need to eat. Before you know it, you’ve been hunched over your computer for hours or days, and your body doesn’t like it.

But these logical consequences of over-thinking aren’t the only ones. If you look at health through the lens of Chinese medicine, as I do, there are other ways that thinking all the time impacts our bodies. Thinking too much damages the digestive system. One of the things I love about this system is that, instead of linear cause and effect, symptoms and experiences are seen as patterns of disharmony, with each factor being both a cause and an effect. It’s a system of correlations, well-observed trends, that build up to form a picture. So while worry is a cause of what Chinese medicine calls Spleen Qi deficiency, it’s also a symptom of it, leading to a downward spiral and causing other symptoms along the way. When someone is a chronic over-thinker, they’re likely to have low energy and bloating after eating, or the kind of insomnia where you lie awake at night with circular thoughts and maybe heart palpitations to boot.

I see these patterns in clinic every day. I see them in myself, whenever I let things get out of hand. If you’re unfamiliar with this paradigm, it’s going to seem like a leap, but it makes sense from a biochemical perspective too. Much of our thinking in the modern world is stress-based thinking, as opposed to contemplative mulling. When we’re worried about something, we switch into the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight mode, which releases a cascade of stress hormones that will help us to survive if we’re under attack. Unfortunately, we’re not under attack – we’re trying to eat dinner while deciding how to deal with a difficult situation at work. And if our sympathetic nervous system is fired up, the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, nervous system is shut down. So excessive worrying and thinking will stop you from sleeping and make you unable to digest your food properly. There’s the science for what seems, at first glance, like an improbably correlation.

Digestion is discernment. We choose what to keep and what to release. Glucose, lipids, proteins, yes please. Cellulose fibres from plants, no thanks. We need to reabsorb the right amount of water from the large intestine to keep enough that we don’t get dehydrated, but leave enough that everything flows smoothly. This kind of discernment in also the action of a healthy mind. Knowing what to keep, and what to throw away. When we lose discernment, we hold onto every thought we have. We get stuck. We get an idea and we keep chewing on it, instead of taking what we need from it and letting go of the rest. An overworked mind that isn’t kept in balance with other modes of being like moving, sensing, and feeling, can no longer know what’s important and what isn’t. That’s how we get stuck in our heads.

So when I notice what’s happening, when I realise that my thoughts are going round in circles, I make a conscious effort to switch. I bring my attention to my breath, that ever-present reminder that I’m far more than a brain in a jar. I get my limbs moving and my heart pumping. I connect with the world outside my skull. It’s a beautiful place, when I notice it.

Moss
Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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