Learn the One Way to Learn Ten-thousand Ways: What does ISIS and IBS have in common?

Miyamoto Musashi's, "A Book of Five Rings," is a book about strategy, both military and individual. 

Over hundreds of years, many have applied Musashi's work to their disciplines.

Musashi writes, "From one thing, know ten-thousand things."

And, "if you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything."

Musashi urges us to look at knowledge and apply it across the board; he urges us to look for connections. 

"When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realized the wisdom of strategy." Because, the wisdom of strategy is the strategy of all things.

Good knowledge and wisdom is applicable across disciplines.

So, we must always be thinking, "How can I apply this knowledge in my field, in my life, and in my worldview?"

One such situation for me was learning about Steven Porges' Polyvagal theory, which "serves to identify the relationship between visceral experiences and the vagus nerve's parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract."

Okay, let me try to break this down in a way that makes sense. 

You ever get a funny feeling in your tummy? You know, like when you are watching a gory movie and Freddy Kruger just ripped someone's spine out of their head?

Okay, that feeling you get in your tummy is your gut "thinking." (and it's thinking, get me the f**k out of here).

Or, how about that feeling you get in your heart when you get the blues?

You know, that sinking feeling in your chest? Well, your heart is part of your viscera, and it is sending a signal to your brain, too.

"There’s an entire ecosystem of bacteria and a vast neural network operating in our guts. This ecosystem is our second brain, and comprises some 100 million neurons, more than the spinal cord.

"It’s not just that a stomach ache can sour your day. It’s more than that. The enteric nervous system is a mesh-like network of neurons that lines the entire digestive track. It causes the sensation of nervous butterflies or a pit in your stomach that are innate parts of our psychological stress responses."

That's the polyvagal theory at play. Your viscera (guts), sends signals to your brain through the enteric nervous system (ENS) and triggers either a fight/flight, rest and digest, or freeze response.

We're jumping some steps here, but this theory serves as a premise for what I believe to be a human behavioral tautology:

"The prerequisite to all things beautiful in life is safety."

If you are in a chronic fight-or-flight state, how might that affect your behavior? Digestion? Outlook? Learning? Love?

The answer is, all of the above is negatively affected—no mystery there.

Several studies have shown that chronic stress leads to aggression and deficits in sociability. Chronic stress is bad (though acute stress may actually be good, and not all stress is created equal). 

With chronic and acute stress, digestion is impaired, which may explain certain cases of IBS. Stress and/or past trauma can lead to gastric upset. That's why, for optimal digestion, it's best to eat with no distractions. In severe cases, past traumas may reset your ENS, so that small stressors may have a disproportionate impact on digestion, leading to chronic IBS symptoms.

IBS is serious, but let's take this a step further: what happens to children who grow up in war zones? What happens to children who grow up in extreme poverty? What happens to folks who experience life-changing trauma on a daily basis?

As a whole, they grow up to be aggressive, and are more susceptible to fundamentalism and tribalism, because tribalism and fundamentalism can provide safety in a world replete with life-threatening danger. Whether it's Iraq, or Long Beach, California, when safety is scarce, we will look for it in the tribe and its hierarchies..

Though we always have a choice in the matter as individuals, as a whole, the reaction of a mass of people is totally predictable: violence begets war and aggression. Love begets safety, learning, empathy, and growth.

One of my favorite debates of all time was between Chris Hedges and Christopher Hitchens. The prompt was, "Is God great?"

In it, Hitchens says, "Go love your own enemies, by the way, don't be loving mine. I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten, and killed, and defeated, and I don't make any apologies for it. And I think it's sickly, and stupid, and suicidal, to say, that we should love those who hate us, and wish to kill us....this is nonsense and I have no patience with this nonsense"

Is it, though? Is loving your enemy nonsense?

Here, Hitchens parts from scientific literature and enters the realm of bigotry he professes to despise. The above statement could have come just as easily from the lips of an ISIS militant. 

If we understand rudimentary human behavior, if we can see where it all connects (safety), we know that violence begets violence, and safety begets love and good digestion.

IBS and ISIS are both a natural response to extreme and chronic stress.

So, knowing this, when we are trying to rid the world of ISIS, violent gangs, and IBS, what is the best course? The answer lies in this: how can we make people feel safe? How can we foster and grow safety within a society? Only when we have increased safety, can we increase love, learning, empathy, understanding, and enjoy favorable bowel movements.

Miyamoto Musashi would be proud; I have learned the one way to learn ten-thousand ways, and not even an intellectual like Hitchens can deceive me. It turns out that the scientific literature backs a strategy more along the lines of the beatitudes than of militarism, after all.

Safety is the true Way. And, I think Musashi would agree. He did not write "A Book of Five Rings," in battle. He wrote it in a secluded cave as an old man, safe from the ravages of war.