The Internet, the mind-stomach connection, and why Instagram is giving me the poops.
A few years ago, too much Internet just meant I got a manageable stomachache scrolling through a relationship-exhibitionist friend’s yucky trip to Puerto Vallarta. But my tolerance has dropped, and its effects are hitting me harder — now, too much Internet means I get explosive diarrhea from a single, all-caps HuffPost headline.
One reason for this is obviously the accelerating existential terror of our world. But another cause is something that many people may not know: that the Mind is housed in the stomach, and the way we take in information is not great for our digestive systems.
Part of the central philosophy of the medicine that I practice as an acupuncturist is the assignment of unique components of a person’s spirit to anatomical organs. According to the Huang di Neijing, which is the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine, the stomach contains a spirit called Yi, which translates to “Mind” or “intellect” — our ability to process information and organize thought.
Now, it makes sense that the Yi is in the stomach when you think about what digestion really is: swallowing what the world gives us; processing it; breaking it down; sorting it out in terms of what is nutritious and what is waste; and integrating the good parts and disposing of the rest. The goal of digestion is to foster nourishment. This is the same job as that of the mind.
To the mind, information and experiences are the “food” that we consume. We read; we do; we learn; we comprehend. We absorb some of it to improve our lives, then forget the rest. When the Yi is healthy, this digestion process nurtures us and strengthens us with the virtues of clarity, honesty, empathy, and equanimity. But when we overload ourselves — when we eat too much — we shut down the stomach/mind’s capacity to process.
This is the problem. The amount of digital information we are now consuming is greater than our ability to digest. Up-to-the minute minutiae on Russia, health care, Beyoncé’s twins, my weird aunt’s endless gratitude memes — in the bathroom, on the treadmill, in the Lyft. Emmy snubs. The Bold Type season-two spoilers. “Which Pasta Are You?” quizzes. (I’m rigatoni.) Senators you must call, updated and revised and then updated again. Our systems simply cannot sort it all. God forbid I should sit quietly not reading something on my phone for the two minutes I wait for my friend to go the bathroom at brunch.
The way we take in information is not great for our digestive systems.
We are processing so much, so rapidly: The Yi is becoming totally overtaxed and can no longer figure out what is nourishment and what is waste. (And I have no shame in fully admitting: For me, a lot is waste. My boyfriend once looked at my phone and saw that I had recently Google-searched “Tyra Banks news,” which I assure you, in the moment, felt incredibly wholesome. While writing this, I am on my phone reading two articles on the latest with the Flip or Flop divorce while concurrently watching an episode of Flip or Flop. It’s a flop.)
We become literally bloated with news, images, and opinions, with no sense of what is nutritious. Without proper digestion, the stomach/mind either unhealthily attaches to information (obsession, fixating, over-rumination) or dumps it (forgetfulness, confusion, lack of focus), which is why my memory seems worse than ever, as I forget much of what I read on the Internet almost immediately, if I remember that I read it at all. It’s constipation or diarrhea.
The addictive consumption of information has entirely twisted the Yi’s virtues of nourishment and clarity into obsession, regret, self-doubt, dread, and the ultimate disease of the stomach: worry. It is chewing on thoughts till it makes you sick. It is the poisoned, misused imagination causing illness. And its physiological symptoms are familiar to all of us: stomachache, flatulence, the aforementioned constipation or diarrhea, acid reflux, distention after eating, and most of all fatigue. Like, for real fatigue, the kind that a nap or a good night’s sleep can’t fix.
Curing the Yi is hard. There are a lot of things we can do to help the stomach digest better. Paul Pitchford’s Healing With Whole Foods, the modern authority on Asian nutrition, suggests eating only warm or well-cooked foods, chewing more, eating smaller and more frequent meals at the same time every day, and avoiding sugars, dairy, and raw foods. But worry is insidious, and our culture encourages and celebrates it. Particularly in this political climate, we are made to believe we need to know more, that our current information fill will not equip us to cope.
So be kind to your mind. Don’t ask too much of it. It shouldn’t be working endlessly. It needs rest, too. Stop feeding it. I take care of myself by processing the world at my own rate, not at the rate that the media or Facebook or 24-hour news cycles or “new expanded formats” want me to. I turn off my ringers, my vibrations, and all push notifications: my phone does not need to tell me when it wants my attention. My laptop rarely comes home with me, and when it does, it isn’t allowed in my bedroom. I don’t read when I eat. I breathe into my belly when I sit in traffic. I let air be all that I am swallowing.
And most important, I reevaluate my relationship with how much information I really need on a daily basis. More isn’t necessarily better. I leave a few fries on my plate. I tell myself I am already full … and I know everything I need to know right now. Ten times a day, I practice my new mantra: I need no new information, for right now. I need no new information.
My mind hates this. The baby cries when you take away the lollipop.
But we can’t live on candy. Only a child thinks she can suck down sweet, gooey sugar treats all day long and not expect to be nauseated and hungover all night. We are adults. I am responsible for what I swallow, for what I digest. No one else has been assigned to my case: No one has my file. I say when I am full.
I need no new information. I have everything I need.
**** This article was originally published in Lenny Letter on September 15, 2017 (when Flip or Flop was a significantly more relevant reference.)