Yesterday we traveled forty-five miles north to the local Chevy dealer to get snow tires installed on our Equinox. (Our usual local tire guy/mechanic couldn’t fit us in until mid-November and snow’s on its way.)
We departed the car, handed over the keys, and watched it drive out-of-sight toward the tire-changing stall. Then we lounged on chairs in the dealership room with our masks on talking of this-and-that.
Suddenly I looked down. “Oh NO, where did my purse go?” I wailed (quietly, so no one else might hear of this sudden horror.)
Some of you purse-carriers might recognize the way the stomach drops, the heart pounds, sweat threatens. Money, credit cards, personal goods: all missing in action! In your mind you’re picturing a thief traveling to Hawaii on your card number. You’re imagining hours upon hours dealing with credit card companies. It’s already a terrible nightmare of possibility.
“It’s in the car,” I finally stuttered. “On the floor of the car. How could I have forgotten it? Can you go find it?”
“The car is gone, Kathy,” said stalwart husband. “Your purse will be fine. Just relax.”
Because I am on a committed seventy-five day journey to reconnect with Heart, Spirit, God, Holy–I remembered to turn to the Holy.
“Help,” I whispered silently and became aware of the jangling contracted tightened-down nervous system.
What is the connection between the nervous system and spirituality?
Here is my personal theory after studying Polyvagal Theory with Deb Dana for a month or two this fall. Her podcast: Befriending Your Nervous System provides a short introduction.
Our nervous system helps regulate our energy. When we rest in the ventril vagal nerve path, we often feel calm, connected, peaceful and engaged. When life throws hardballs our way–like potentially losing a purse, fear of coronavirus, challenges at work, a deer runs out in front of the car–our nervous system often ramps up into fight or flight response.
When we’re in fight/flight excessive energy runs through our system. Perhaps we react with anger and defensiveness and projection. Or we run to the refrigerator and gobble ice cream attempting to calm down. Another possibility is that we retreat to dorsal and energy disappears as we freeze and shut down. Think binging on Netflix or feeling hopeless and depressed.
Our nervous system’s pathways change multiple times a day as our biology tries to keep us safe and regulated.
I have discovered that I usually cannot feel the Holy when the nervous system accelerates. The creature of the body takes over, scared, confused, attempting to find safety. Those of us who have experienced trauma in our lives (and who hasn’t to some degree?) can find the nervous system easily triggered.
When the nervous system goes on over- or under-drive, polyvagal theory suggests we can return to the rest and digest state by learning to soothe and turn toward our stressed-out emotions and sensations.
When stress happens it’s almost as if the Holy is saying: this is where your attention can bless now. Instead of denying the pain running through the system a possibility exists of turning toward it.
Saying–hello, pain, hello jangled nervous system–you, too, are welcome here.
Finding ways to soothe and bring the nervous system back into calm and balance. One of the best techniques that seems to be working lately for me is deep breathing. Breathing in to the count of one, deep breathing out. Breathing in to two, breathing out. All the way up to twenty-five. (On Tuesday stressed out due to work-challenges–yes, this retiree is helping out at work again–and breathed into the nervous system to a count of 100.)
Focused conscious slow breath soothes the nervous system so fully, quicker than almost every other technique. Sitting in silence works really well for me, as well, but sometimes energy jangles too intensely through the nervous system and it’s impossible. Yoga sometimes works. A walk outside in nature. Reading, watching movies, puzzles can also calm the system as well–but for me there reaches a point where these become distractions and do not melt deeply enough into the nervous system. They become crutches instead of soothing.
So what does the Holy have to do with the nervous system? We can’t really feel and connect to what’s-larger-than-us if our system is activated. If we’re desiring, truly desiring, to connect more deeply with the Heart we must first lovingly tend to our fight/flight/freeze responses.
Sometimes I think the entire trajectory of the spiritual journey is to learn how to relax more deeply.
The good news is this–we can’t blame ourselves for the reactions of our autonomic nervous systems. We can’t judge ourselves for the way our body reacts to stress, for the responses of our biology. It happens automatically, and much of it has been informed by the trauma of just learning to live in an imperfect world.
But there are ways we can learn to lovingly and regularly keep turning back to our bodies and nervous system. To recognize when the human creature is flipping out. To breathe, to welcome, to perhaps even learn to love and appreciate our stressed-out humanity. By mothering it, witnessing it, saying hello, allowing it, soothing it, softening it…
P.S. We found the purse sitting in the car just where I left it. So far no credit card numbers filched. The $40 still intact in wallet. Thank you, Universe!
This is so true and it speaks to me on so many levels. When anxiety takes over, I am often not exactly sure where everything is going to go. Great post and even better advice.
Thank you so much for your empathy! Writing this felt like writing the leading edge of where spirituality has been for me lately. It seems like regulating our nervous systems can lead to a deeper connection with the Holy.
No worries! I have a lot to give.
I have discovered that I usually cannot feel the Holy when the nervous system accelerates.
You and me both. I realize why what happens happens, but I don’t like it. I’m sorry you lost [misplaced?] your purse and am glad all ended well, but that feeling of anxiety/panic is an icky one.
Sigh, Ally Bean. I have been so delighted to find these nervous system teachings because they seem the crux of why we’re unable to feel the Holy more steadily. Thanks for your kind words about my misplaced purse. Phew, it ended well.
Purse found intact, good things do happen.
When I breath I like to imagine each breath is coving me inside and out with a crystal clear cleaning water, relaxing just thinking about it. 🙂
It was such a relief to discover the purse was OK–and a bigger relief that I was able to calm the nervous system through the deep breathing. Your method sounds so relaxing, Tilly. Thank you.
Oh, the losing the purse scenario sends me into the same kind of tizzy. It’s funny after all is well .. I remember things like patting myself down, as if the purse somehow stuck itself to my clothing. Sigh .. thank you for walking us through what restores calmness and balance, and thank you for the wonderful reassurance that we can’t blame ourselves for our autonomic nervous systems. I’m so glad the purse and its contents were still intact.
Thank you, Susan. Isn’t it the worst feeling when our purses are suddenly missing and our hearts go pitty pat? I have been hoping to write about the autonomic nervous system and the purse incident seemed the perfect storytelling introduction. It is the most fascinating study! And no, so much our judgement and blame toward ourselves is just so unnecessary. ❤
Yes! One shot of adrenaline or anger and the reptilian brain wants to take over. It is a practice to return to the a calm of being aligned with the Divine.
You get this, Sarah–thank you. Yes, the continual practice of relaxing that reptilian brain and returning to our alignment. I appreciate you sharing.
This has been a major part of my pandemic learning of connecting to/staying connected with Spirit when things are tough. I’m finally starting to understand purpose is who you are and the concept of not seeing everything as happening to me. It is nice to know that I am not the only one having an awakening during this time.
I guess Spirit can (and will) use everything to help us awaken–if that’s what is meant to be. Thank you, Sarah. ❤
“If we’re desiring, truly desiring, to connect more deeply with the Heart we must first lovingly tend to our fight/flight/freeze responses.” Amen. Deep breathing works well for me, too. It’s handy and available immediately in a crisis. I’m happy to hear your purse was found safe and undisturbed.
You know, Barbara, I swear the Universe planned the whole purse episode just so I had a story to tell with this nervous system blog. All was well that ended well. ❤
Oh gosh, yes. I know that immediate sense of panic when the purse is not where the purse should be. I’m so glad you found it where you left it, everything where it should be. 🙂
“Saying–hello, pain, hello jangled nervous system–you, too, are welcome here.” Yes, invite it in for tea, as they say. Or a smoothie. Or whatever you would want to serve a guest. It’s amazing how calming it can be to just acknowledge the pain, the anxiety, the sadness. I’ve been doing similar breath exercises from a yogic perspective, but it’s all the same (or at least that’s how it seems to me).
I noticed yesterday when I was about to spin out over what is essentially a trifling thing that there is a choice. To spin out and allow things to spiral downwards, or breathe, take a walk, dance, whatever it is that suits the moment so that I can handle what needs to be handled or wait if I need to wait or do (or don’t do) whatever needs to be done (or not done). It’s so difficult to see that choice, that turn towards the Holy, when the lizard brain takes over.
Robin, it sounds like we’re learning, slowly by slowly, bit by bit, step by step. I can’t always stop the nervous system from freaking out (if it’s not caught early enough) but have noticed that my mind won’t spin out in self-judgment and shame as much. Last night that started and something inside just chose to stop it. Immediately. Not going there anymore. I am so glad you understand all this, my friend.
I believe that reconnecting with the Holy Heart is a moment-by-moment quest. It’s easy to forget, but it’s a rope hanging down in that well of nerves (i.e., life) if we learn to recognize it. XOXO
Moment by moment by moment by moment. A thousand moments already today, right Stacy? Of remembering and forgetting and remembering again…
Oh, Kathy, I’ve been in that state of ‘where’s my purse?!?!” panic too – it is awful! You are extraordinary in being able to turn this into a spiritual practice… Thank you for the guidance.
* smiling, dear Reggie! I think we’ve all had that panic–those of us who have misplaced our purses. I do try, sometimes quite unsuccessfully!, to turn most ordinary events into spiritual practice. You are so welcome.
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