Four noble truths of connectedness.
When I was 15, a church sermon left its mark on me. The priest began with the question, “Where should we seek God?” Years later, I found my own answer. I believe what for centuries has been called “finding God” means finding meaning in our lives. A new perspective has emerged from neuroscience in the past 20 years. What gives life its richness does not come from reason and intellect.
It comes instead from a well-balanced emotional brain, that deepest and most archaic part of the nervous system. And what does a balanced emotional brain need? Above all, strong connections, full relationships. These can be found in four areas of our lives.
- our physical existence: If we don’t allow ourselves to taste, smell, touch, listen and look while concentrating on the present moment, we are not connected to our bodies. Yoga, an ancient source of wisdom, is first and foremost an education in connecting to our physical beings. Exercise, too—which engages our attention, our agility, our strength and builds endurance in our cells—is another means of connecting. As we grow aware of our bodies’ reactions to the world, we are connected to the roots of our emotions.
- Intimacy: The emotional brain is connected to the body, but it is also designed to regulate our emotional relationships. Naturally, love is an effective way of giving us meaning. When we look each other in the eyes and feel our hearts beating faster, we stop asking existential questions. All that involves us in intimate relationships anchors us firmly in our existence. We don’t question the meaning of life when we take a child by the hand on his first day at school, or when we watch our daughter singing in a choir. All those to whom we feel close connect us to life and give it meaning.
- The community: I had a 30-year-old patient whose life expectancy was limited to a few months by cancer. He was no longer working as an electrician and spent his time moping in front of the television, in anguish at his approaching death. I saw him once a week and we talked about his fear and what his life had been like. He ended up volunteering his time to repair the air-conditioning system in his local church. He spent several hours at the church almost every day. People greeted him by name when they met him in the corridors. When he was working on the roof, they waved to him, and brought him food and drink. In a few weeks, even though his health was getting worse, his anxiety abated. All it took, in the end, was to feel useful and appreciated.
- Spirituality: It is possible to feel connected to a dimension beyond the body. For some, the greatest source of meaning is the sense of being in the presence of something much greater. We often feel this simply when we are face to face with nature, or in certain places that remind us how insignificant we are in the universe. Strangely, it is at the precise moments when we experience how small we are that life itself seems to fill with meaning—and so do we.
David Servan-Schreiber is a psychiatry professor in France and the U.S., and author of Healing without Freud or Prozac.