I’m writing today from Wakayama City in Japan where I am currently doing some research for my Japanese course at university. It’s going well and I am inspired by the glorious autumn foliage putting on a fabulous show in the temple gardens and mountains. But let’s get back to the one minute meditation… now where was I – oh yes, I said I’d talk about the relationship between meditation and the autonomic nervous system. Say what? Don’t tune out just yet – you’ll know what I mean…
Okay, it’s the middle of the night and you suddenly hear an unfamiliar noise – what do you do? If you are like me, you’ll suddenly freeze with all your senses suddenly on high alert as all those scary thoughts rush through your mind – a burglar? Did I lock the door? Am I safe? And just before those thoughts flood in, you will probably take a sharp intake of breath and hold your breath for a moment while you listen intently. Then you realise that it’s just a branch scratching the window or the cat coming in or some other innocuous reason. Whew! You let out a sigh of relief and your body relaxes and after a bit of a chuckle to yourself for being so jumpy, you’ll hopefully drift off back to sleep. Does that sound familiar?
Well that’s your autonomic nervous system kicking in: when your body senses danger it goes into flight-or-fight mode – adrenalin gets released to get you ready to flee quickly, the blood rushes to your vital organs, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, all actions that will help you escape the perceived danger. All this action is triggered by your fearful thinking which switches on all the flight-fight reactions. But when your thoughts register safety and you realise that you are actually not in danger, it is that deep sighing breath that is your body’s signal to switch it all off again and allow your body to return normal. Not only that, but the sighing signals to your body that it needs to repair and heal from the trauma of the sudden changes experienced by your en
docrine system (adrenalin), blood flow and blood pressure, so at this point your body will begin to heal itself, which is most effective when you are resting or asleep.
The body’s response to perceived danger in this case is natural and if you’re able to go back to sleep then your body has again quite naturally dealt with the stress caused by the possibility of harm, and naturally continues to heal and replenish. But the problem these days is that we keep flipping that switch on and keeping it on, so that our bodies don’t have time to recover. For example, every time you think about whether you can pay all your bills this month, it switches on to alert mode, and every time you’re late for something, and every time you get a red traffic light, and every time you are rushing to get dinner prepared, and every time you think about all the things you didn’t get done today, and so on and on and on. The problem is made worse because we tend to keep our bodies in a constant state of tense alert, and eventually our bodies forget to take that deep healing breath that switches off the flight-fight mode, leaving the body perpetually with the ready-to-flee-danger switch ON, even when there is actually no danger. Until in the end you feel exhausted and stressed out and unable to relax because the autonomic nervous system is on hyperdrive! And that’s when your health becomes compromised and you can easily get sick. It is well-known that stress is certainly the root of many of the diseases in modern times.
If you are able to help your body to switch off it’s flight-fight fixation, then you will be able to help it to heal naturally and you’ll find life in general a whole lot less stressful. And it all starts with, and centres upon, the breath. I’m sure you will have noticed that all yoga and meditation exercises work with the breath in some way or other, and this simple physical explanation about how your nervous system works is the reason why. There isn’t anything particularly mystical about all this – it comes down to simple scientific facts… yet the yogis and yoginis and wise men and women throughout the ages knew that already, didn’t they! I think we are just a bit slow on the uptake! So, next time I’ll move on with the nuts and bolts of the one minute meditation and you’ll see how your body, your thought processes and your breath can be used together to strengthen your body’s natural healing powers. Until then… don’t forget to BREATHE!