Gut Wringing: The Neurogastroenterological Side of Prayer

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Disclaimer: Though biological processes are discussed in this piece, I can’t guarantee that these techniques will work for everyone. It may be life-changing for some and others may feel nothing. We’re all unique creations.

Inhibitions To Prayer

I’ve battled Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) all of my life. Due to a chemical imbalance in my brain, it is much more difficult for me to control my concentration. The sensation is like attempting to film a blade of grass, but the camera’s auto-focus feature keeps locking in on the airplane at 30,000 feet. Most grow out of this condition. I’ve only grown out of feeling the need to treat my condition with narcotics. I’ve tried both successfully and unsuccessfully to manually strengthen control of my focus in other ways. My ADHD has been one of my greatest challenges to my prayer life.

I’ve found that truly meaningful prayer is a three-step process.

  1. Connecting to what is being prayed
  2. Transmission of prayer
  3. The sensation of your prayer being heard

In Jewish thought, the internal sensation that your prayer is being heard is called having “kavanah.” This word literally means “alignment” in Hebrew, but is more of the deep spiritual focus in which one has the sensation that the Holy One has picked up the other telephone line. When I am unable to achieve the sensation of kavanah due to an inability to focus, it feels as though I’m expressing my innermost heartbreak to a dear friend and they’re preoccupied with a game of Candy Crush. The problem isn’t that the Holy One isn’t listening, but that my brain’s spiritual auto-focus is busted. Frustrated by this, I looked to my own biology for a fix.   

My solution for alignment? To bypass my brain.

The Passage Way For Kavanah/Alignment

Many make the mistake in thinking that powerful prayer requires intellect. It most certainly does not. In many ways, the ultimate champions of prayer are little children. Because many children’s minds have not developed to the point of rationally conceiving of an All-Powerful Creator that simply is the fabric of existence itself, their prayers are nothing more than elevated admiration for a parent-figure that exists within. This does not mean that prayer is by any means foolish, but rather that an intellectual may struggle more to overcome their own thoughts in order to connect to the Creator in prayer. Meanwhile, the child’s natural state is full-bodied prayerful pleading. What is an intellectual to do in order to attain prayerful alignment — true kavanah? Bypass the mind and tap into the heart  — or, as I have found, the gut.

Gut Check

Just like clinical heartburn has nothing to do with the cardiovascular system and is actually reflux of stomach acid into one’s esophagus, so too is your emotional and spiritual “heart” not so much the blood-pumping organ in the chest. Rather, your spiritual “heart” could also be in the seat of your second brain: your gut. Your digestive system is frequently the canary in the coal mine of your emotional state. Anxiety, stress, and depression frequently take their toll on your digestion. For example, when I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2017, the news sent me running for a bathroom stall. The expressions “go with your gut”, “gut feeling”, “butterflies in your stomach” are not without an anatomical basis. Yes, you are actually able to process information not only from your digestive system but also with it. This is what is referred to as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).

Your Second Brain in Your Stomach

Your body’s Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is literally a second brain of sorts throughout your digestive system. Actual neurons exist within the human gastrointestinal system. Biological research has shown that one’s ENS actually carries out functions independent of one’s brain. This area of study is known as neurogastroenterology. This form of neurological activity is responsible for many bodily functions ranging from the esophagus’ ability to pull substances into the stomach (why you can drink water while upside down) to your gag reflex.

Neurogastroenterology is also closely tied to one’s deepest emotions. Has sadness ever put a lump in your throat? Have you ever had your heart broken to the point of feeling it in the pit of your stomach? Do instincts ever first manifest as a physical gut feeling? This is the reason why extreme stress can cause one to vomit. But how does this connect to prayer?

Praying With Your Guts

Just as referenced before, the basics of prayer can be broken down into a few simple parts. For prayers of thanks or worship, the feeling of gratitude is processed in your brain before it is transmitted spiritually. The same goes for prayers of request, whether for your own needs or for the wellbeing of another. In many instances, these styles of prayer have a much more complex “signal” to convey and details to transmit. Still, these prayers are processed. Where the neurogastroenterological system comes into play is to process heartfelt prayer through the guts. Usually, an event causes you to feel an emotion that may be processed by the gut, but rarely do you consciously utilize your guts (or “kishkes”, in Yiddish) as the cosmic telephone microphone. But how can you utilize your guts in prayer?

Even beyond your five senses, you can be more conscious of a certain area of the body at a given time. For example, during a guided meditation, one way the leader of a guided meditation gets the group to relax is to get them to close their eyes and consciously relax each section of the body — part by part. It may go something like,

“Now, I want you to imagine your shoulders becoming more relaxed. No longer tense, your shoulders are soft and loose. This loose sensation now travels down your back…” The leader does this until those meditating have consciously envisioned each section of the body, to relax it, which in turn has a biological sensation of relaxation. This level of focus allows us to pinpoint areas of the body to stimulate or relax. A similar method was utilized by the U.S. Navy in order to help pilots fall asleep faster — under two minutes in most cases.

Praying with one’s guts is very similar. In prayer, more complex thoughts will still be processed by the brain, but the sensation of kavanah, of spiritual connection, is greatly enhanced when one prays through your guts.

While I’ve provided some of the science behind why it may be that “praying with your kishkes” may ultimately enhance your kavanah, or your spiritual connective focus during prayer, I can’t make the claim that it will work for everyone. I can only share my own experiences on what works for me.

The Silent Scream

One exercise to quickly access the pathway of the guts is through a scream or a yell. Because you probably live in a fairly developed area, you may engage what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov called the “Silent Scream.” Trying screaming, only without connecting your vocal cords that would produce the sound. Use the same abdominal muscles, breath, and possibly even facial expression you would if you were to let out a loud wail. When engaging these wailing muscles in prayer, you will find it very difficult to focus on anything else but your silent wailing to God.

When you speak to God, you should arouse your heart to the point where your soul all but flies out of you. This is true prayer…You must cry out to God from the very depths of your heart.

The biological act of sobbing is not just a facial expression, a release of tears, or a vocal eruption, but also a tightened release of emotion from one’s guts.

I have personally found that the same pit of my stomach that is engaged during a laugh, sob, or scream is my seat of kavanah. When I feel as though I am at the height of spiritual focus, my stomach is in the same state if I’m getting choked up from a beautiful piece of music. While my brain attempts to process the details of the greatness of the Creator, my messages gratitude, admiration, or even distress are processed through my kishkes like an umbilical telephone line to another place — a place beyond.

True prayer isn’t only processing your emotions with your mind but also wringing the tears — both of sadness and ecstasy — from your guts before your Creator.