The Autonomic Nervous System as Healer
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is your internal lifesaver. It’s what keeps you alive when awake, asleep, unconscious or even when you’re in a coma. Its main purpose is to keep all of your body’s systems functioning, whether you’re conscious or not. In this sense, it has a lot in common with what has been referred to as the sub-conscious mind.
Consider this: when you were just a zygote developing into a more complex living form such as an embryo and then a foetus, the process of development was driven by an automated sequence which followed a blueprint embedded in your DNA. This process is not unlike an “autorun” function that many CD-ROMs have. The autorun function activates as soon as a disk is inserted in a computer’s CD drive. It’s sole purpose is to run a program contained on the CD, which means that the user doesn’t have to take any action to get the program up and running other than to insert the disk. Likewise, the act of embedding a sperm cell in an ovary automatically initiates a development cycle that results in a fully grown baby human, nine months later. But this event is not the end of the process by a long shot. The ANS continues to initiate growth patterns in the developing child, keeps the heart beating and the lungs expanding and contracting, and replaces all of the cells of the body at regular intervals. In summary, the ANS has a single over-riding purpose: to keep you alive and developing as a normal, healthy human being.
So how do we call on the help of the ANS when things start to go wrong? The short answer is that we need to tap into the sub-conscious mind. But, I hear you asking, if it’s “sub-conscious” then it’s out of reach of our conscious mind, isn’t it? Well, yes and no … The sub-conscious mind can direct many of the ANS’ functions. Studies of the body’s bio-feedback mechanisms have shown that basic functions such as heart rates, breathing rates and body temperature can be controlled by the conscious mind, i.e. by “willing” the function to change in some way. This level of control is usually only possible when a subject has entered a mental state that the sub-conscious mind is receptive to, such as the “alpha” state of consciousness.
The key thing to understand about the subconscious mind is that it is a pure receptor, incapable of making judgments about what it’s made aware of. That is, it takes whatever comes in at face value and acts on it, regardless of whether the information has a negative or positive quality to it. So, in practical terms, if you have a habit of telling yourself that you’re a failure, or that you “knew” things would turn out badly, then your subconscious mind will (at some stage) take in this information, treat it as a command, and act on it – it will try to ensure that you fail every time you attempt something.
Fortunately, the converse of this idea is also true. If the information you make available to your subconscious is about a desired outcome such as restoring you to health, becoming happy, or even becoming rich, your subconscious mind will, once again, treat this as a command and begin to act on it, doing its best to make you well, happy and rich. But don’t just take my word for it, you probably want to see this process in action, right? OK, here’s a simple way you can tap into your subconscious mind and get it to make the ANS do something for your benefit:
If you’re the kind of person that needs an alarm clock to wake you up in the morning, try tapping into your body’s “internal alarm clock”.
– just before sleeping, take 5 slow breaths in and out until you feel relaxed and focussed.
– tell yourself “I’m going to wake up at [choose a time – say 7am]
– make a fist(either side) bring your hand up to you forehead, and rap lightly on it the number of times corresponding to the time you chose (7 raps for 7am)
– now just stop thinking about it and go to sleep naturally.
That’s all there is to it. Barring unforeseen events such as a smoke alarm going off unexpectedly at 3am, your autonomic nervous system will bring you back to consciousness at precisely the time you chose. And the really weird thing about it is that you don’t need to know what time it is when you’re rapping on your forehead, as your body refers to its own internal clock when working out exactly when to wake you up.
Once you’ve confirmed that it really IS possible to control how your body works, you can start to send appropriate signals to your subconscious mind. As mentioned above, this occurs most effectively when the mind and body are in a receptive state. This can be achieved with some meditation practices, but can also be as simple as choosing a regular time when you can empty your mind of thoughts about what’s happening in your life and concentrate on passing commands to your subconscious mind. Some people can do this early in the morning, or the last thing at night. You need to choose your own time. If you can clearly visualise a goal you want to achieve and pass it on to the subconscious mind when in a suitably receptive state, your subconscious mind will act on it, in precisely the way you specify.
Trust: A Cornerstone of Life
Trust is usually something we apply to others, or our view of others. We choose to trust people we consider to be our friends, or at least to give them the benefit of the doubt when we’re not totally convinced that they’re being honest with us. We generally trust most people to interact with us in a truthful and ethical way. In a broader sense, most people trust that bridges won’t fall down when they cross them, that the plane they are traveling in will land safely, or that an ATM will dispense cash from their account to them, and only them. Ultimately, each of these examples involves trusting that someone else has built or operated an object safely or honestly, and that this will continue to be the case in the future.
But what about trust that is just about you? “I can’t trust myself to wake up at 6am tomorrow, so I’m setting the alarm” might be a phrase, or something like it, that some of us have used to describe (in a rather trivial-sounding way) how we see ourselves. “Myself” sounds like someone else that the speaker is offering an opinion about.
Let’s take the idea of trusting oneself a little further: Do you “trust your instincts”? Popular conceptions of a “woman’s intuition” suggest that a woman is more likely to trust her feelings about a situation than a man. How about trusting that your body will let you know when it’s time to eat or sleep, or that some part of it needs urgent medical attention? The first two are easy: we all get hungry or sleepy in a regular daily cycle and relieve these somatic feelings by eating or sleeping (unless we’ve deliberately chosen to fast, or to resist the desire to sleep as long as possible). In both cases the level of trust required of us is fairly low. The third example is more problematic, however. Women are more likely to seek medical attention when they feel sick or get injured than men are. They’re not constrained by a need to show others that they can handle it all by themselves, and, in general, society doesn’t expect them to. Men, on the other hand, are often encouraged from an early age to ignore (distrust) their body’s frantic signals that something is not right, even to the point of ignoring an injury so that they can complete a marathon or a grand final.
There is a graphic scene in Oliver Stone‘s epic film Platoon where the platoon’s NCO, Sargent Barnes, played by Tom Berenger, gets in the face of a wounded soldier who’s guts have just been blown out by a grenade. He violently orders the grimacing man to “Take the pain!” Most people see this as a demand that the soldier die with dignity, but I choose to see it another way – as a means of assisting his survival. The sergeant knows that if the soldier succumbs to the hopelessness of his situation his body will follow his own mind’s orders and he’ll die then and there. On one level, the sergeant is reinforcing a potential concept in the soldier’s mind – that the situation is survivable. In effect, he’s (forcefully) asking the soldier to trust an assertion that if he can take control of the pain signals that his body is sending out by accepting them, then he can regain control of his life at that point and influence the final outcome in a positive way – by surviving.
We sometimes need this two-stage level of trust in order to take control of our own health. First, a trusted friend might suggest that we stop ignoring that pain that we regularly mention in passing but never do anything about and confront it face-on, or they might say that our lifestyle/smoking habit/diet isn’t doing us any favours. We need to trust that they are acting in our best interests and take the advice at face value. The onus of trust then shifts to us, usually in a series of steps .
Paying attention to what your body is telling you is the first step along a path that leads to a healthy life. The next step is to trust what your body is saying and act on it.
- If you feel absolutely lousy the day after you smoked a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes because you needed to finish writing that film script by the deadline, your body is telling you that using tobacco to feed your creative muse is not the best choice for your health – even if it did result in a film deal.
- If you hated the first painful 30 minutes of that new exercise class but survived it anyway and actually started to feel vaguely OK after 45 minutes, your body is telling you that exercise is really doing you some good. Even if you felt sore for the next four days you need to trust that there is “good” and “bad” pain and that you can distinguish one from the other.
The third step is to trust that acting on your body or mind’s advice will result in a desired outcome, such as a healthy life. If your starting point here is “what have I got to lose?” you’re definitely on the right track. Visualising a successful result is a whole other discussion, but it all begins with trusting the information at hand and that it will really give you a means to achieving that desired outcome.
Trusting yourself is not too dissimilar to trusting someone else. We expect people to “repay” our trust in them in some way – usually by trusting us in return, or by doing something that ultimately justifies our trust in them, such as paying back a loan, or sticking it out and graduating from a difficult course that we “just knew” they could get through. If we trust our own minds to come up with a solution to a difficult problem, the result is very often just that – our mind rewards our trust by paying us back – but sometimes in a form or at a time that we didn’t quite expect. Anyone who does cryptic crosswords will have experienced the “subconscious computer” effect: If you’re stumped for an answer the best strategy is to put the crossword aside for several hours. When you come back to it, the formerly cryptic clues suddenly appear to make sense and the correct answers “just pop into your head” as if by magic. You’ve effectively trusted that your mind will do the right thing and give you the answers – so that’s exactly what it does. Of course, there’s a lot of information processing going on at the subconscious level during the “break”. Neuroscience can’t yet tell us exactly what is going on in the cortex at this time, so we’re stuck with just trusting the mind to do it all for us secretly, then let us know the final result.
When someone says “It’s on the tip of my tongue – it’ll come to me in a minute!” they may not get a result within the time specified, but their positive assertion inevitably results in a result, sometimes hours later. On the other hand, pushing the mind to recall a forgotten fact rarely works because at that point we’ve stopped trusting that our mind will be successful, and the mind complies accordingly by refusing to release the information.
You’re all you’ve got, so the sooner you start trusting yourself, the sooner your life is going to change for the better. A good place to start is to begin trusting your own judgment. If a flower arrangement “looks like” it’s nicely balanced, it probably is. If a painting “feels like” it’s finally finished, it’s time to put the brushes down and to step back and enjoy it for what it actually is. If it “just feels like the right thing to do” then it really is. Your body or mind won’t deliberately lie to you. It’s what you do with the trusted information that’s on offer that really influences your life. Trust me, I know.
A State of Grace
Attaining a state of grace is a high calling. Seekers of existential truth are often described as having achieved a state of grace on their path to enlightenment. There is a connection here with the concept of attaining beauty.
In Greek mythology, a Charis is one of three goddesses who were the givers of beauty, charm, creativity, nature and fertility (the English words “charity” and “charisma” are obvious descendants). The word “grace” derives from the Latin word “gratus” – beloved or pleasing, and from the Latin name for the “Three Graces”, the Gratiae. When a Spanish-speaker thanks you, he or she uses the word ‘gracias”, a contraction of the longer phrase “gracias a diós” – thanks be to god. Similarly, other Latin-based languages such as French and Italian use the root form of “grace” to express gratitude or ascribe causation, such as the French phrase “grâce á …” – thanks to or due to. English-speaking Christians often “say grace” before a meal. The common thread here seems to be a strong connection between beauty or charm and its thankful acknowledgment.
So why is gratitude, as a general concept, so important? I think it’s because expressing it anchors us in the “now”. Being thankful for what you have requires you to be aware of exactly what you have in the first place. It makes you stop and take stock of what your life right now consists of. This “count your blessings” routine probably sounds rather motherhoodish but it’s a pretty good reflection on how most human minds work when given a choice between thinking about the worst aspects of existence or considering the best. Most people avoid dwelling on their problems and opt for a distraction. As a near-professional procrastinator I can assert that when something in my life is seen as an insoluble problem the strategy I’m most likely to adopt is to choose something (anything) else to think about instead of confronting it head on.
In financial terms, gratitude comes down to a form of asset management. While weighing the pros and cons of a particular plan of action, one has to take an inventory of the accrued assets and balance them against any perceived deficits. A realistic approach, once you know what your assets are, is to “work with what you’ve got” – a form of dynamic pragmatism that seems to go hand in hand with success.
An example: The proprietor of a small café, who is having trouble attracting new clients due to the café’s location – on the wrong side of a busy highway with little or no parking for customers – does a survey of the assets at hand; great coffee and cakes, good atmosphere, some regular customers (who happen to work on the same side of the street), and a genuine love of being in service. The only real deficit is the bad location.
Having expressed gratitude for the assets at hand, the proprietor realizes that the only thing that has to change is the location. She then reasons that locations don’t have to be fixed and invests in setting up a mobile café van that provides on-the-spot coffee and cake to all her regular customers as well as a large number of new ones. Only one of the assets suffers with this change; the good ambience that existed in the former café, but she soon attempts to remedy this by extending the van to provide a café bar with fold-out seats.
The point to the example above is that the crucial step of expressing thanks for the assets already in hand brought the café’s problem (and its solution) into sharp focus. Achieving a state of grace in daily life can follow much the same trajectory. At its best, it’s a habit that is enacted first thing in the morning, and is a great way to start the day.
Image Source: Wall frieze of The Three Graces at Pompeii (c. 60AD) is here.