How Are We Affected By Our Nervous System
So I want to have a little look at how we might approach our practice from the point of view of our energetic organization and the balance of the nervous system. So this famous saying: “When the chi rises up hundreds of sicknesses start to appear. When the chi sinks, hundreds of diseases start to disappear.” Why might this be the case?
Well, you have two aspects to your autonomic nervous system, which is the regulatory function of your body. The nervous system has a capacity to ramp itself up when needed, to get a little extra out of you. This what is called a sympathetic state. When our system needs to really ramp up because we need to really dig deep it goes into what you could call a hyper-sympathetic state. In effect it’s your fight or flight response, it’s what gives you your capacity to deal with being challenged. The other aspect to the nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the body’s adaptive, re-organising mechanism. If we’re not challenged, you hopefully enter into this parasympathetic state and the body’s innate intelligence starts to put it all back together again, or starts to heal.
The problem arises when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated so much that we get used to using it in this way and this sympathetic state becomes our default setting. So we’re asking a little bit more of ourselves on one level or another than we can comfortably give, so the body locks itself into this sympathetic state and never gives itself a chance to calm down. At that point there is a predominantly upward current of chi through the body, and the energy accumulates in the upper part of the body, stimulating the heart, lungs and brain. That’s why we feel wired, can’t sleep and we can’t shut the mind up – there’s just too much energy there.
Most of your energy should really accumulate below the diaphragm. You don’t need much chi in the upper part of your body. You certainly don’t need much chi in your head. As soon as you start to get too much energy in your head, it cooks itself. Too much thinking, you can’t relax. So when all the energy is swirling around in the upper part of the body we have effectively a very unstable energetic arrangement. When the energy is centered we have a much more stable, mountain-like arrangement. This is why I suggest when you start meditating to rest within yourself like a mountain. You actually don’t need that much energy to run your brain. The brain is really only just the top part of an information system that moves through every cell of your body. You aren’t able to think about how to metabolise fats in your liver or regulate your heartbeat, your body just knows how to do it, it has this intelligence innate, within it so you can perhaps now see why there’s not much point holding your energy in the thinking part of your body, in your head, when you are not needing to use your brain to think about some task. As I said your body has the intelligence – it just needs the energy. Your liver and heart will regulate themselves, they just need energy.
Your body does not heal while it’s in this hyper-sympathetic coping state, when you are overstimulated, all it can do is just cope. And it can be very good at coping when inordinately stressed. But that is an emergency response, reserved for extraordinary situations, it’s not the state our nervous system should be in when we are living our lives day-to-day. If you do not have within you a well-habituated tendency to reverse back into that adaptive reorganizing, parasympathetic state eventually you will wear your system out gradually over time, and this is when all kinds of degenerative sickness start to emerge. It’s because you’re running your nervous system on too high a gearing. It’s like driving a car at 70 miles an hour on the motorway in second gear, it’s not going to last you very long. You’re revving too hard.
So, instead of getting the most out of yourself by driving yourself at the edge, what we do as yogis is reverse that over-exerted tendency back to a parasympathetic standing state. We see what we’ve got in an ordinary state and we build the capacity to apply ourselves in an organised way. So we might find that we’re able to get far more out of ourselves eventually than we could when were at our most fired up, in an over-charged state. We can now from a settled state get loads more out of ourselves without wearing ourselves out. There is a vast difference between what you can get out of yourself when you are hyper vigilant and what you can get out of yourself when you’re relaxed right now. Our goal effectively, if we really want to fulfil our potential, is to see how much we can get out of life without breaking the system that we are using. It doesn’t necessarily mean taking as much out of life. I’m talking about getting the most out of the experience that we’re actually having by strengthening our system so it can handle more.
Now, anyone who’s been extremely stressed will know that you can get through the whole day and cope admirably and get to the end and think; “gosh, what on earth just happened?” It’s almost as if you hardly turned up for it. And yet at another level you’re intensely there. This is not the way to run our lives. That’s taking out more than you’ve got to give, and it puts you in overdraft. If we’ve got demands on us we want to make sure that our capacity to meet those demands is in line with what we’re asking of ourselves and that we’re not overreaching.
So the healing process starts when you bring yourself out of that stressed and hyper state into a settled state, so you can really assess – how does it actually feel? How has it been feeling to be operating the way I’m operating, and from there how might I get more out of myself and my life without running myself ragged and wearing myself out?
It’s very simple but we can so easily not spot that it’s happened to us. It could have happened years ago and you’ve been in that state probably since you were a child. It’s unbelievable how many people have lived their entire life in a state of alert when there’s actually nothing around that they need to be anxious about. It’s so easy that it becomes our default setting and from there we run the show like this. And of course this means we’re always in something of a muddle.
This life, it’s not a cerebral experience you’re having, it’s a deeply embodied one. That’s what it is to be a human being. It’s not just a mental thing going on. This is an extraordinary thing. So you bring what we call your shen, your spirit, back into yourself so it’s not scattered to the four winds all over the place all the time. And you settle within yourself and then watch, watch this amazing process of reorganising arise, this amazing process that happens naturally just from doing that. Our meditation, chi kung and the exercises we do is just a way to let go the charge that we just don’t need and hadn’t noticed we were holding to, so that life, awareness, consciousness can flow through us in a more coherent way.
If you build the system up and it’s still already compressed because there’s too much charge in it, you’re just going to pack that and more charge into the system and you will end up feeling awful. We learn to decompress first and then we learn to build our energy up from an organised state that is settled within itself. That way your balanced capacity builds, and one day it will be your standing state.
From that standing state you will be far more capable than when you are hugely stressed, maxed out, at your very limit, that once upon a time was your default setting. Then there’ll come a time when you’re able to get far more out of yourself in a balanced way than you ever could by ramping yourself up and getting stressed out. And then you eventually you will be able to ask things of yourself that aren’t going to exhaust you, wear you out or break the system. So be realistic. When you practice, remember, give yourself a break, put yourself back together nicely and then start to build it up.