What if we lived through our bellies rather than our brains? What if our bodies, in their fullness, were no longer burdens but blessings, holding wells of wisdom and beauty for our stories? Here, Jen Oyama Murphy reflects on her own story with a sensitive belly. She shares of her arrival at rest as she was able to sit at the center of who she was meant to be.
I look at myself in the mirror, turn sideways, and vehemently suck in my stomach. My frustration is growing into fury as I cannot seem to find an outfit that will camouflage the roundness of my belly. Finally, I exhale and, despite myself, my breath drops into my body. In a moment of repentance, I place my hands on the pliable vulnerability of my stomach—not to mold it into a flat hardness, but to embrace its soft sensitivity. And I feel it beat like a heart.
My belly has always felt like a burden.
I have what is referred to as a “sensitive stomach.” From childhood, my stomach has flipped and churned. I learned very early to scope out the location of the nearest bathroom, and I collect motion sickness bags from airplanes to carry with me at all times because I am never quite sure when my belly will betray me. I have been tested for IBS, Crohns, allergies and ulcers. Apparently, there is nothing medically amiss. But, my stomach bloats and groans as though burdened. It twists and shrieks and drops and rolls, and spills over into my life.
I’ve tried to toughen up my stomach, to flatten my belly. But hardness has not brought healing.
I have some 500 million nerve cells that make up the enteric nervous system operating in my gut. My efforts to shrink and hone this sensitive area have not been kind, but contemptuous and controlling. This web of neurons is often called the “second brain” because it can think, learn, sense, choose, act, and remember all on its own. But, I have disdain for this “second brain.” I mostly just want it to shut up and go away. I value the brain in my head. I’ve fed it, nurtured it, wanted it to grow and expand. Contained in the bony cranium, my “first brain” feels protected, resilient, and helpful. It is where I will hunker down to figure stuff out and fix things. The cranial brain has helped me navigate and survive my life. It’s why I’ve been affirmed. It is what I honor.
My belly not so much.
But, as I cradle the softness of my stomach, I feel the Spirit call me into the fullness that resides there. This feels like more than an access to embodied insight; it feels like an invitation to return from exile and come home.
I’ve self-contemptuously disconnected from my body for a lot of reasons, but the mockery of my Asian eyes and skin has been a constant barrier between who I feel like I have to be and who I might really be. In an attempt to escape humiliation and degradation, I’ve left my body behind a wall of curses and have gone out into the world relying on my head to gain favor. With hypervigilance, I’ve tried to use intelligence, reason, analysis, and information to protect me from shame. But, my head cannot think me into meaning, or beauty, or love, or rest. I need the strength and tenderness of my body. I need the wisdom of my belly.
Hara is an important concept in Japanese culture. The word hara refers to the lower abdomen and can be translated to mean “center of being” or “seat of wisdom.” The Japanese believe we need to live through the belly. Counter to Western culture that says the head has the answers and should be in charge, the Eastern concept of hara rests on the belief that the belly is the hub from which our story can be understood and lived. I struggle to listen to my body at all. Listening through my belly feels impossible. I’ve been at war with my body. I don’t like it. I don’t trust it. My body has absorbed curses because it has been Asian, so to honor my hara feels like a bind which ties my stomach into knots.
I’m tired, though. I am tired of trying to analyze and think my way back to myself. I am tired of living outside the home of my true self where I hold my breath and suck in my stomach. So, I close my eyes, gently lay my hands on my tummy, and breathe in the Spirit’s invitation to take a seat at the center of who I was meant to be. Miraculously, my body begins to rest. I begin to rest. And in that softness and sensitivity, I begin to listen through my belly to a story I can finally bless.