According to the Western medicine, core functions of the human body such as digestion, heart rate, blood flow and oxygenation are regulated by the autonomic nervous system that operates mostly outside of our direct conscious control. It consists of two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Activation of the sympathetic nervous system occurs when there is a sense of threat and puts a human being into a state of high alertness: reflexes, thinking and muscular agility are quickened as the organism prepares to effectively respond to a threat or a challenging situation either by facing it head on with full strength or by running away as quickly as possible. The “fight or flight” state is activated.
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system occurs when there is a sense of safety and puts a human being into a state of relaxation: digestive and restorative functions of the body are activated to replenish the energy stores and long-term vitality. The body enters the “rest and digest” state.
These two states are necessary to allow us to respond to life’s challenges effectively and to rest and recharge between challenging situations. Problems occur when there is an imbalance and one state dominates and inhibits the other. Dominance of the sympathetic state is common in today’s busy modern life due to prolonged stress (an almost constant sense of threat). The resulting inability to rest and replenish leads to depletion.
This is where meditation and mindfulness practices can be very helpful. Focusing the attention on the present moment helps us to feel safe and at ease and activates the parasympathetic nervous system that turns on the built-in restorative and healing functions of the body.
The way this works is simple: over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system is caused by high levels of stress, which is often caused by excessive worrying. Most of the things that people worry about either have to do with the past (what has already happened and cannot be changed) or with the future (what has not happened yet and might not even happen at all). When we focus our attention on the present moment we realize that nothing dangerous is actually happening right here and right now – at this moment and in this place. This makes us feel safe and activates the restorative parasympathetic response.
Focusing our attention on the present moment is a skill that can be learned, practiced and improved over time, just like any other skill, including the skill of worrying that some of us have perfected and mastered over the course of our lives!
Meditation is the practice of focusing our attention on the present moment – what is happening right here and right now – and therefore away from the thoughts and worries about the past and the future.
There are many different meditation techniques and I’d like to share one of my favourites with you today. I often teach it in my classes but it can be practiced anywhere, even in noisy environments.
Simply sit down for 5 or 10 minutes and watch your senses: hear the sounds around you, notice what you are sensing in your body, and feel the air moving through your nose as you inhale and exhale.
There are three important keys to this practice:
- Directly feel and experience the physical sensations as opposed to thinking about them.
- Nothing needs to be fixed or improved – simply experience the sensations exactly as they are, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.
- There’s no need to get rid of thoughts. When thoughts come up simply let them be and keep moving your attention back to your senses.
I teach a Tai Chi and Meditation class at my home studio in Laingholm on Wednesday evenings as well as occasional one-off workshops on Saturdays. See the relevant pages of this web site for details.
PUBLISHED IN SEP 2018 ISSUE OF LAINGHOLM ROUNDABOUT.