Heartsight Meditation Blog: A reprint of a post about the vagal brake and meditation. Thought you might find this interesting and useful.
The Vagal Brake and Meditation: Activating the Vagal Brake to Bring Calm
According to Ken Wilbur, the two purposes of meditation include quieting the chatter of the monkey mind and allowing the subtle and higher dimensions of awareness to emerge…in order that we may continue evolving, growing, and developing. Patanjali, whose teachings are known as the Yoga Sutras, taught that meditation is about self awareness. The more aware of who we are and what we need to create, heal, release, or grow, the better able we will be able to fulfill our life purpose and find meaning and share our life’s purpose for the good of ourselves and others. We each approach meditation with our own expectations, desires, and perspectives, and as in all spiritual practices, one size does not fit all. As we change throughout our lives, so too do our needs and preferences. One thing that meditation can provide, at any stage of life or for anyone, is a greater ability to be more aware and connected to how our body, mind, emotions, and spirit work together to make signal different needs. Recognizing the interconnections both within ourselves and with others and the world around us, is in itself a gift to be used to improve our lives and the world in which we live.
As there are many paths to enlightenment, so too are there many tools and ways we have to meditate. For me, swimming is one of the greatest forms of meditation, for others running, rowing, or walking provide that perfect place to meditate. Meditation can be done by being mindful in the midst of daily tasks. Washing the dishes centers and soothes me when I do it mindfully. Whatever you are doing, can become a part of your meditation practice.
Developing a meditation practice however, is about intentionally setting aside a certain portion of your time, energy, and space to deepen your meditation experience. When we meet as a group to meditate, my role is to introduce some ideas, information, and practices to those with whom I sit. We practice pranayana (moving with our breath), guided meditation (focusing our attention and awareness), mindfulness (paying attention to our body, mind, emotions, spiritual being), energization exercises (psychophysical exercises to prepare one for meditation), concentration and focus, Kundalini/Chakra energy awareness and energization (also called Kriya yoga), use of chants and mantras (sacred words and vibratory synchronization), and simple stress reduction practices. Through developing a regular, intentional practice (in addition to the other meditative and prayer practices you use), we discover a variety of ways to enhance our meditation practice.
This week’s meditation focus is on learning how to cope with different kinds of stress. Stress is a part of life for everyone. Sometimes we experience stress we bring on ourselves, and can learn to manage it by changing the way we live. For example, if we are over-extended, we learn that we have to cut back or moderate our activities, we learn to find time for ourselves, or we change our perspective about how we are living. Other times stress happens as a result of conditons or outside forces–things beyond our control. Stress comes in all shapes and sizes, and we each deal with stressors differently. Sometimes we are more capable of coping than we are at others. Stress is a natural part of life. How we cope with stress is something we can do something about. We may not be able to stop a storm, or control another person’s behavior, but we can have an impact on our responses.
The body’s autonomic nervous system is composed of three parts. The sympathetic nervous system, the enteric nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls most of the body’s organs, and in particular operates our fight or flight response and the stress hormones and reactions. The parasympathetic system is basically the system that helps us restore, regnerate, and it operates when we are at rest. Meditation helps us at the restorative stage and during times of stress, provides us with tools for coping with stress, trauma, and other types of stress to the body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
The 10th cranial nerve or Vegus nerve, runs up the right side of the neck in a cluster of nerves that cross the spinal column. The Vegus nerve is what is referred to as a mixed nerve because it serves more than one function. The Vegus nerve provides two-way communication between the brain, the pharnyx,larynx, esophagus, stomach and associated abdominal viscera. Simply put, your throat, windpipe, all the organs in your stomach and digestive region, the heart, lungs and several more complex but less significant body organs or functions.
The Vagal brake, part of the Vegus nerve function, comes from the 10th cranial nerve, and it is responsible for quieting the heart. When we quiet our voice, speak tenderly, and really listen to another person, we activate the Vegal brake, thereby quieting the heart. By using our voice like a musical instrument, softly and tenderly speaking in calming, quieting tones, expressing compassion and leaning in toward the person we’re with, we activate the Vegal brake. We can use the Vegal brake for situations where we might feel challenged, threatened, or just on the edge of expressing anger or frustration. By softening your voice, your heart quiets, and you are releasing compassion from your heart. The Vagal brake releases Dopamine, the chemical that locks in a new circuit strengthening the synaptic connections. Last night at the end of our meditation group, one woman said meditation seemed reset her circuits. She was describing, in part, the effect of the release of dopamine into our system. We can get the same recharge by singing and dancing. The release of the chemical dopamine is positive way to reconnect synapses that have been disorganized by stress, tension, and anxiety.
The Vagus nerve (10th cranial nerve) provides us with a neruocadio system that naturally regulates nearly all forms of pleasure. Pleasures like eye contact, kissing, hugging, eating, speaking, singing, caring for, making love—anything that involves heart to heart contact, is affected by the Vagus nerve. The 3rs, 7th, 9th, and 10th cranial nerves, are part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and the complement one another in their functions. They are also subject to effect from our levels of stress, behavior, thoughts, and emotions. The vagal brake or cruising brake, allows our heart rate to remain low so as to use our energy in a prompt and precise way when we need to. The vagal brake keeps us calmer and more in balance. If we responded every time we engaged in greater activity or each time we focused on goal-oriented behavior, our sympathetic adrenal system would fire up sending adrenaline throughout our bodies in a continuous manner. The adrenal system that once was useful for our ancient ancestors, warming of danger and providing a necessary protection, now gives some of us the sense that we are always in danger, in crisis, or ready for battle. The overactive functin of the adrenal system, requires that we learn how to depend more on our ability to regulate our energy system through using the bagal brake more efficiently. You may notice that when you have been under a great deal of stress, it takes a while for you to calm down. The more we gocus on the crisis, the more our adrenal systems and other aspects of our central nervous system, react. The increase in adrenaline and others stress hormones and chemicals including cortisol, take a long time to work their way out of our system. This is one of the reasons it takes us so long to get over some experiences. What happens is our body and all aspects of our being is flooded with the adrenaline and cortisol, and it is not easily or quickly reduced. When we focus on the negative and keep our system in crisis mode, it just worsens across the board. Meditation is one tool that can help us learn to activate the vegal brake and learn to calm oourselves and refocus our minds on less stressful situations, reactions, fears, frustrations, and other outcomes. Learning, through meditation, to do what our mothers and grandmothers might have instructed us to do, “Count to 10” allows us to help put on the Vegal brake.
Meditation can also help us learn to enjoy life more fully. The Ventral Vegal system and the Central Nervous system control our social engagement system. For some of us, being around other people can be such a stressful experience, that we rarely are able to enjoy life, play, or relax. Getting out and engaging in life requires a sense of adventure and an ability to be active. Through meditation, we can learn to get into touch with our urge to move and to discover the world around us. Sometimes we get into such a state of lethargy (not moving, not being moved to act or move outside ourselves) that we become emotionally, physically, and socially paralyzed. We create a trap or cage defined by the limitations we put on ourselves. We get stuck in a rut, into patterns of behavior and thought that limit everything we do or perceive. For example, we get used to not moving much, staying at our desks, on the couch, or even in bed. We avoid activities, and we limit the depth and breadth of our activities to smaller and smaller areas or to the same, repetitive behavior, fearing and avoiding changing our patterns of thinking, behavior, and movement. We may drive to work the same way day after day, without changing our routines at all. Notice the patterns that your life follows, and see if you have stopped yourself from having more fun, playing, or stretching your mind, imagination, and perceptions outside the routine. When we meditate, we notice how our body, our emotions, our thoughts, our heart and feelings, and our spirit is connected or disconnnected. We notice what kinds of memories, thoughts, pain and pleasure, fears and frustrations, and dreams and sorrows are affecting our well being. We notice pains or constrictions, we notice sadness and ambiguity, and we learn to recognize desires, dreams, blocks, and challenges that tie up our energy and occupy our minds and bodies.
Meditation invites us to pay attention to how we view the world, how we understand the world within and around us, and how our senses help us express ourselves and communicate our true feelings and desires. The ventral vegal system activates and energizes our eyes, our ears, and our voices, our lungs and our bellies. Our ability to find a point of calm and centeredness, brought about through the ventral vegal system, helps us attune or reboot our system so we are able to hear, to listen, and to pay attention through the web of emotions, fears, or negative thoughts, fantasies, memories, or visions that are formed when we are under a great deal of stress or emotional turmoil. Meditation can also help by allowing us who have become hyper-vigilant from trauma, stress or fear, to become more relaxed. When we are in a state of hyper vigilance, we respond as if we were coming out of our caves and are looking for the tiger that we know is hiding in the bush. For the most part, there are no tigers, but we depend on our vision to keep us feeling safe. Consequently, we may have trouble shutting our eyes. Mediation provides a safe space to close our eyes, and to explore the dangers or threats we may feel, with no fear of being attacked or hurt.
Our muscles have also been responding and reacting throughout our lives to perceived or imagined threats and fears. Much of the pain and stress we hold in our bodies, is experienced as muscle pain. Meditation allows us to learn to release, lengthen, and relax our muscles more. When our sympatheic nervous system automatically responds each time we feel afraid, fearful, or threatened, the result can be felt and is stored in our muscle memory.
These are just some of the ways the vagal brake and the Ventral Vagal system work and affect our health. We can activate our ventral vagal brake by using a calming voice, which in turn quiets the heart, and warms the body making us feel more warm, more comforted, and safer. Listen to how a mother coos to her new baby when the baby is distressed. A calming, warm and loving affect signals the calming effect controlled by the ventral vagal system.
As you consider whether or not meditation is something you want or need, consider how important the skills are for your sense of safety, well being, and harmony. When we arrive at certain points in our lives, or experience certain sensations, either intentionally or unintentionally, we recognize those that calm, relax, and make us feel safer, better about ourselves, and more connected to ourselves, the world in which we live, and one another. Meditation is a gift you deserve to give yourself. And I find myself, that sitting in meditation with others is such a calming and peaceful experience that to consider not being able to meditate with others would be akin to considering not praying, eating or breathing. Through our breath and through our movement, through the skills we learn and practice to find a greater sense of inner peace, calmness, and self awareness, we grow, develop, and discover even deeper connections and meaning in our lives. Namaste (The Spirit in me acknowledges and honors the Spirit in you); Salaam alaykoom (Peace be with all of you). Go in peace to love and serve the Divine Creator.