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!