listening: three brains (or more) instead of one — Susan Raffo

A reading of this blog post that supports the practice below is on my website which is listed at the bottom.


I am going to share a teaching with you, something I learned from I had started to disappear before she had her stroke. My mind made up all kinds of perfectly reasonable explanations for why I left. They weren’t wrong — but they weren’t the whole story. What I didn’t do was sit down with her and let myself shake and be afraid and angry and confused and just say to her: I don’t like you when you are like this or like that. This hurts me. I didn’t do those things and instead, I disappeared. When she had her stroke, most of her other students, including those who struggled with her in similar ways, went to her. I did not. Again, my mind made up a lot of justifiable reasons; how she had treated a beloved trans friend, how she was around race and indigeneity, how she was around power. They were, of course, all justifiable based upon my politics and various belief systems. I would like to say that somewhere I felt guilt or unsettled, that some place deep within me was raising its eyebrows when I wasn’t showing up, but that wasn’t true. I mostly felt nothing except when, for some reason, I needed to remind myself of why I wasn’t going to her side, why I had left. When that happened, I just felt hard. Belly-hard. Heart-hard. But brain-fluid. My brain could spin and dance, explaining in ever greater complexity so that I fully convinced myself that my leaving was justified. When she passed, shared beloveds asked if I needed a ride to the funeral. If I was going to her ceremony. I stayed hard inside. Unforgiving. I felt justified in withholding my love. I think it was three years ago when that hard place in me started to soften. It was slow, not a quick spring but a seep. There are so many mind-words I could share here, understanding about why I did what I did, stories about how the past became tangled with the present, but those stories don’t really matter. Because no matter what, I left. I disappeared while she was dying. It doesn’t matter if she missed me (I know she did, even if in the smallest of ways). It doesn’t matter if she was angry at me or understanding. What matters is this: I behaved in ways that contradict my deepest sense of what it is to be human. This softening continued until one day, two years ago, my partner and I came home and our dog had taken one of Suzanne’s gifts to me and torn it to shreds. A wooden rattle, chewed into pieces on our bedroom floor. I went into shock, grabbing this gift, and finally, at that moment, the grief came. All of it, altogether. Hot and cold, fast and slow, too much for my brain to create stories that would take the edge off, it just came through and I sobbed and sobbed. Afterwards, I felt sad but I felt connected to her again. Grateful. I prayed to her. I told her a version of what I am writing here, of my deep regret at not being there, my sorrow at the things I had experienced in the past that made me so terrified in her present, and again, my regret. And then I put a photo of her on my altar and when I see it, there is sweetness. This piece about three brains instead of one has been moving through me these past weeks. I have wanted to write it. Then, as I sat down to start it, I noticed that it was the week of the anniversary of her passing. And I giggled, wondering, knowing that this is a hand-off, a blessing, and an invitation. It is not a small thing to directly share a teacher’s teachings. There has to be a relationship there, something that we connect to that says this, I learned this, this person shaped me this way and now I am sharing it with you. The paragraphs I just wrote flowed out of me without plan, without thinking. And as I felt them move through, I thought: of course this is the story that has to be at the front of this piece. It isn’t enough to name that this is written in her honor. She deserves and I deserve more than that. And so, this piece is written with deep gratitude for Suzanne River and who she was in my life. I write it without forgetting the ways that I was angry at her and hurt. I write it without forgetting the ways that I disappeared and got hard. I write it while feeling my thankfulness at how she shaped me. This is the whole story of a relationship and it is also the story of getting lost in one brain instead of living in all three.
through her program, Global Somatics. The program no longer exists. And Suzanne is no longer here. She passed six years ago. I started writing this piece a few days after February 17th, the anniversary of her passing. Suzanne had a stroke and almost moved on, but then she came back for a final year, or maybe it was close to two. She came back and finished working with her last cohort of students, teaching from her bed and moving them to graduation and past. I understand that she moved on not that long after. I say that I understand because I wasn’t there.

Western medicine didn’t always believe that the brain in our skull is the center of all ways of knowing. Up until Galen showed up in the 500s, the medical systems that eventually became western medicine saw treating the body as a practice of balancing the humors . What was originally an elemental approach to care in which the humors were as much about the land and context around the body as what was happening within an individual self, slowly became more diagnostic and focused on body separateness.

Western medicine and western culture evolved together and as knowing things became more important than experiencing things, as individual knowledge was centered over collective knowing, so did western understanding of anatomy respond. After all, it was the rational mind that found rational justifications for the institution of slavery and the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples and lands. To in any way uncenter the rational mind is to allow space for the contradictions that the heart or belly might hold. I remember this every time I think of the process that children go through when they begin from that place of deep-knowing the necessary truth of sharing things and become economically-safe adults who are somehow able to feel ok while poverty continues to exist.

What we call a brain is nothing more than a place where a lot of information comes together and then responses are determined. It’s the connecting place of many different relationships. If you are western-trained, then you are trained in school and elsewhere to pay specific attention to how the brain in your skull assesses information and creates responses. Bodies are schooled to sit in chairs, direct their eyes to the one who teaches and receive information for keeps. Even with the focus on social and emotional learning, the educational standards of each state focus more on the content of information than the experience of it. Shout out to every single teacher who is working to bring movement and experiential learning into their classrooms.

I love the brain in my skull. I couldn’t live without it. It has a specific role, bringing information in through all sorts of body-listenings and especially the nervous system and then determining actions or inactions. It is worth listening to all of its voices and to all of the different ways it works. There is no brain-normal way of receiving and assessing information, although the overculture tries to train us into a single brain way of being. Hello neurodivergent loves, I see you.

For many generations, western ways of knowing, like other cultural ways of knowing, centered the heart-brain more than the head-brain. It matters, embryologically, that the heart- and head-brain were physically connected at the start of our emergence, before separating and spiraling away from each other. The heart-brain which is not just the heart-organ but includes the thymus, the pericardium and really, as a minor note, probably the lungs as well, is one of the places where information from many aspects of the body comes together and choices are made. If the head-brain is about making sense of things, a kind of executive function in relation to our survival and to our sense of the future and to our capacity for pleasure, then the heart-brain does the same but with the ways in which we connect and nourish and are nourished.

Actually, the head-brain and the heart-brain do the same things, but they are not the same. In the way that we can communicate the same concept in four different languages and we are essentially saying the same thing except that it isn’t the same thing because what is held culturally and experientially in the words is, well, different. Emotion and thought are not that different, except that they are.

And then there is the gut-brain, this universe of microbiota and cells, of human and nonhuman species who have sorted out how to live together in harmony — or not. The gut-brain is the oldest brain in our bodies — it started learning how to be alive generations before the heart-brain and head-brain became complex systems. It is so old and so important that, even when the head-brain and the heart-brain need machines to keep them moving, the gut-brain will keep extracting nourishment from food to keep the whole body alive. I remember when I first learned that. I was gobsmacked. Like how had I never thought of this?

One of the things that Suzanne also taught us was that, in reality, every cellular membrane is a brain. After all, each cellular membrane responds to information coming in from outside and then discerns actions. It is, as far as we know, the most granulated part of the decision-making process. If we turn this part of anatomy into poetry rather than mechanistic science, then we are a community of trillions of cells, 30 trillion or more like 52 trillion when we are including all of the immune and microbial cells. Each cell is receiving and responding to information like a dance, like movement that operates across dimensions. They do this linearly — receive information and then act — and they do this instantaneously, where the receiving and responding is largely the same thing. Our bodies are always time-traveling.

So why does any of this matter, other than as interesting information (hello head-brain)? Because we can practice listening through all of our brains rather than primarily through one or two. We can connect with the world in a conscious and intentional way, experiencing the sometimes contradictory information that comes in through our head, heart, and gut. We can listen with intention as well as deepen our ability to feel our gut instinct and our heart’s longing.

This is a practice that Suzanne taught us. I am going to write it out here but, of course, I am also recording it so that you can listen to this without having to have or rely on your eyes-on-the-screen.

Before moving forward, think of a question or a wondering you have. It can be general — how am I? What is happening in my life right now? Or it can be specific — a relationship tangle, a decision you need to make, an action you are considering. Hold in your awareness whatever it is that you would like to bring attention to.

Now, make yourself comfortable. Drop into yourself. Notice your aliveness, the physical and energetic state of your being. How is your life right now? What does it feel like, what do you feel, what do you sense? Spend some time with this. In the recording, I will take more time supporting this drop-in to sensing. In the writing, I am just going to invite you to take a moment, to notice your weight, to notice the feeling of space around your body and the feeling of space within your body. Let yourself relax. Settle. Come into whatever stillness it is possible to feel in this moment.

Bring awareness to the brain in your head. There is an organ within this bone and it is surrounded by fluid. Literally floating. Sense into this specific relationship of cells, this head-brain. You might bring a hand to your head to help or you might just sense inward, knowing that it is there, even greeting it. Bring your question, your wondering, to this head-brain. Ask it, invite it to respond. Then notice the thoughts that come. Notice what you physically feel while you are keeping your attention with your head-brain. Let what comes be poetic and disorganized, if they are, rather than definitional or orderly. Don’t try to put something on them, some kind of structure or meaning. For now, just notice them. Listen to them. When it feels like they have finished, thank this part of yourself. And then release.

Now you bring your awareness to your heart. You might put a hand on your chest or just sense your heart by feeling within. Bring the same question or inquiry. And then listen. Notice what emerges, what feelings, sensations, and thoughts. Keep your attention with your heart-brain, appreciating this part of you. Again, let it be poetic and disorganized and different if it is. Also, if it is silent, just notice that as true. Keep listening. Let yourself be a witness to whatever floats up, whatever feelings and insights. When it feels like they have finished, thank your heart, your self. And then release.

Now bring your awareness to your gut. You might put a hand on your belly or just sense your gut by feeling within. What we call your gut-brain is this many-feet length of intestine and colon as well as, in a connected role, your stomach and pancreas, and liver and gall bladder and probably spleen. Bring your awareness IN to your belly, if you can. You are meeting a part of yourself, saying hello to a place of wisdom and awareness. Now again, bring your question or inquiry. And then notice what floats up. You might hear words, you might sense physical movements, you might get images or emotions or any number of forms of communication. Just listen to what comes without trying to make sense of it right now. Just let it come and, when it feels as though it has finished, thank your guts, your self. And then release.

As a final moment, you might sense into your cellular membranes which is really your whole self. You can feel into it by imagining a kind of fluid containment, this meeting of fluid and membrane, that is happening all throughout the density of your physical body. Don’t strain or try too hard. Think of this as what happens when someone walks into a room and you see them and start thinking about them and suddenly, without you making a sound, they turn and look directly at you. They heard you, even if they couldn’t see or, well, hear you. It’s just like that. Felt or not, just the invitation you make, the intention you bring, will make a connection. And then bring your question, your inquiry, and again, listen. Notice anything you get, listen like poetry, meaning listen even if what comes makes no rational sense to your watching mind. And when you are complete, thank this in-knowing that is everywhere, your self. And then release.

After this is complete, write or draw or just remember what each of the questions or inquiries brought. Notice how they are the same. Notice how they are different. Feel them in the same way that you feel any community who, when asked what they would like, shares a range of opinions that are based on each of their experiences and locations. You are listening to your own internal community.

When they pretty much all agree, well then you can smile. Those are the easy times. And they are rare. Even if you are asking something like “should I get more rest,” which, for most of us, is a pretty quick yes, you will probably get some contradictions. You might get a kind of survival/primal slow yes from your gut and a feeling of sadness from your heart and thought from your brain that tells you how much work you still have to do.

Listening to all of our brains is a practice for not assuming that single answers exist for anything. It is about practicing living with contradictions. It is about practicing feeling, internally, how we are impacted by life and the many ways in which we respond. It’s about seeing/sensing our own layers which then helps us to hold and respond to other people’s complexities and contradictions as well. It is about deeply honoring our lives, which is its own thing, and which also enables us to deeply honor the lives of those, human and not, around us. Remember, we are not the only beings with multiple brains. I mean, photosynthesis, right?

Everything is practice. So then we practice taking actions or not taking actions based on what we hear from these different aspects of self and we listen again. As time goes on maybe you, like me, notice that you listen more to your head-brain and gut-brain than your heart-brain. And so then turn to strengthen that relationship, in the same way that, when interacting with a community, we are in right-relationship when we notice who we are NOT hearing as much as we listen to those who are speaking. If we are in right-relationship, we then create the conditions to support someone to speak who has not yet been heard, knowing that we can’t force words out of a body unless that body feels safe enough and seen enough to share.

Hello your heart. Hello your gut. Hello your cerebellum. Hello the membrane of the cells on the skin of your finger.

These practices are some of the ways we live our way towards revolution. How we become, all together, the breath that is liberation. The question-prayer that rises inside me as I read those two sentences is this: what gets in the way of being that liberation right now?

Most of the time, the things we call reform and even, sometimes, movement strategies are head-brain rational responses to something that needs to change. So the head-brain, which is all about taking what is already known and rearranging them in new patterns, comes up with new strategies and ideas for, as an example, shifting how the police system operates. It all makes rational sense to say body cameras and someone’s actions being witnessed will then change how someone acts. It makes logical sense. And it changes some things, but it doesn’t change other things. The head-brain might say this is enough, but the other brains might say other things.

The heart-brain will communicate differently. Possibly it will expand and grieve over every act of state-sanctioned violence, feeling/remembering someone who has died. Maybe it will feel the heat of rage, the scream of never again, the setting of a boundary that says no, no, no, I will not allow this. No. Or maybe it will be feeling/remembering a beloved who is a police officer and who has changed by working within the system or is confused or is just someone you love that makes you feel contradictory in this moment and not sure how to bring all the pieces together…………. or the heart-brain might feel nothing when you ask it about abolition and that is information as well.

And the gut-brain will communicate differently again, maybe bringing up your fear of violence, your hunger for safety, or your deep belly belief that all life is sacred or, again, maybe your gut-brain will say nothing and that is information as well.

And the membranes, maybe they just remind you that all life is connected, always. Or they just vibrate quickly in a way that is uncomfortable, or they are quiet and still.

Liberation, shared collective long term liberation, means listening to all of this: the longing and grief and rage and confusion, the rational and concrete strategies, the fear of survival and violence, the sense that all life is sacred, the fast vibrating, the stillness……and whatever else comes up. All of it.

We can’t do that if we don’t practice it with ourselves. Because there will always be contradictions and difference. There will rarely be a single answer. But these differences are not about separation, they are just different forms of connection. And out of these connections, feeling all of them, the contradictions and alignment, out of this comes, sometimes, the clarity of decision and action.

Thank you, Suzanne.

And then, on the other side, listening to all of the brains again as they experience the impact of those actions and inactions. More vibrating. More rational thought. More grief and then sometimes giggles. And then action or inaction and then listening…….Again and again and again….. Because what we know of a community, all communities, whether the community of cells that are our life, or the community that is a neighborhood or an identity or a generation or the community of life that is a planet, all communities are made up of single elements that are never alone or separate from each other, constantly impacting and being impacted, and the best actions or inactions are the ones that emerge from attuning, listening, to what is chaotic as well as what is clear.

What do your brains say, right now, as you listen to all of this?

Originally published at on February 27, 2021.

Thinking about the healing in justice and the justice in healing.

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