A few years ago, I found myself in a skid on an icy bridge. I reacted, turning the wheel in one direction and then another. In that perilous moment I forgot all I knew about how to handle a car.
High emotion can cause reactive states. Neuroscience tells us that when emotions are triggered, our fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system activates and our mind and body lose connection with each other. At those moments the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain and body to its urgent agenda. The hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering a reaction crucial moments before the thinking brain can glimpse what is happening.
In this past year of pandemic, according to clinical psychologist Christine Runyan, we have been in a
constant state of fight-or-flight, our nervous systems continually on alert. In her revelatory interview — What’s Happening in Our Nervous Systems? — on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast, Runyan explains how and why we are feeling exhausted, our emotions on short fuses, and tending toward despair even as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Inclining the Mind
I wish everyone could hear her clear and understandable thoughts, why the very things we need when we’re under emotional stress — tending and befriending, closeness, hugs, and connection — have been the very things we’ve been denied in order to stay virus free.
Runyan is also clear, however, that we can tend and befriend ourselves. One way is by “inclining the mind” toward compassion, curiosity, gratitude and wonder, all of which release oxytocin and activate the parasympathetic system that calms the body so we can reconnect to our thinking brain.
The thing is, we have to practice. Our brains are wired to detect danger. “Inclining the mind” toward compassion and gratitude is optional for physical survival. So we must intentionally look for those moments that will release oxytocin, calm our minds and bodies, and help us be more able and ready for whatever may come.
Benefits of Meditation
One way I build mental and spiritual muscle is through meditation. Meditation trains my mind to choose where it wants to be. Yes, I often have thoughts when I meditate, as well as other distractions. When I do, I notice I’ve been distracted and come back to the breath, to home base. I do this a lot! And I learn.
I learn I can move from stressful to peaceful by noticing and coming back. Coming back again and again is the practice.
Gradually, with practice, I learn that in daily life I can also choose where I put my mind. Another driver cuts me off and scares me. The sympathetic system kicks in, I tighten, hold my breath, and want to shout. I take a breath and release a long slow exhale. I choose to come back to equanimity and centered presence.
This doesn’t happen by itself. If I don’t practice purposefully, the brain will do what it’s wired for and will get better at that — tightening, shutting down, losing control.
Perhaps because of my meditation practice, even though I lost control of the car that night on the icy road I maintained control of myself and managed to stay calm. I’ve written about this ki moment in my first book Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict. It was an amazing moment of discovery, of not knowing, and of pure presence. And I’m grateful that I lived to write about it.
I so hope you’ll take 50 minutes to listen to the podcast What’s Happening in Our Nervous Systems? Learn why we’re behaving as we are right now and how we can take care of ourselves and others as we come through this time together.
And I hope you’ll begin (or rekindle) a meditation/prayer/quiet sitting practice. Can you spare 15 minutes a day to purposefully practice coming back? If you’re not sure how to start, check out an app like Calm or Headspace. Begin to build your centering muscle.