Activating the Calming System
Session Details - February, 2018 - Mindfulness and self-compassion practices for activating the calming and soothing system.
We started with an open awareness mindfulness practice:
Meditation is, first of all, a tool for surveying our territory so we can know what is going on. With the energy of mindfulness, we can calm things down, understand them, and bring harmony back to the conflicting elements inside us. Like a caring parent holding and guarding the life of her/his only child, so with a boundless heart of loving-kindness hold yourself and all beings as your beloved children.- Thich Nhat Hanh
We then moved on to practices based on some of Paul Gilbert's work: the soothing breathing rythm and finding your place of peace and contentment.
If the ocean can calm itself so can you. We are both salt water mixed with air Your heart is the softest place on earth. Take care of it. - Nayyirah Waheed, from her book - Salt
The last exercise was writing a compassionate letter to self. I will mail these in 3-months time to assist to deepen the compassionate connection. A current issue was noted and then the letter flowed just as you would write to a loved one with the similar issue, words of understanding, support and love.
Sufi prayer (adapted) - When I listen to the voices of animals, the sounds of the trees, the murmuring of water, the singing of birds, the whistling of the wind, the boom of thunder - I feel the evidence of unity. May I understand this unity with equanimity, calmness and doubtlessness.
Ruby Wax: Here’s what’s going on: When you’re knee deep in stress and those thoughts are berating you, it’s because a part of our brain called the amygdala is activated. It blasts out those fight or flight hormones to get you ready to rumble or run. With mindfulness you practice taking your focus to one of your senses; taste, sound, touch, whatever. And as soon as you send your attention to a physical sensation, another region of the brain is activated: the insula. As soon as you focus on that sense, the amygdala automatically calms down, the stress hormones shut off, your heart beat becomes slower and steadier, your blood pressure lowers. You’ve cooled your engine. Basically, you can’t be thinking and sensing at the same time, it’s one or the other. Just like getting in a car and trying to be in two gears, it just won’t drive. It’s the repetition of going from thoughts to a single sense that actually strengthens and thickens the insula. You’re not just sitting there with your eyes shut - you’re actually doing the hardest exercise of all. Each time you go from thinking to sensing, you’re making that insula buff (turning it into a mental six-pack, you might say). Then when those stress storms hit you and you’re drowning in critical thoughts, you have a solid anchor from where you can hold on in the face of the raging mental storm. And that's mindfulness.
Paul Gilbert’s work on Compassion Focussed Therapy:
As a result of many years of evolution we find ourselves with a tricky brain that is primed to keep us alive – so therefore hyper vigilant for potential threats to our survival. Immediate threats to life are not the common place at all any more, yet our nervous system is now on alert for threats to our psyche – our sense of self. Not our fault, but as Paul Gilbert says ‘our responsibility’ to address this imbalance. We can strengthen the ‘attend and befriend’ aspect of our nervous system.
3 important steps to take and practice to strengthen this pathway in the brain:
2. Mindfulness & concentration
3. Cultivating stillness within the body, harnessing the calming effect of the Vagus system
Motivation: – so compassion and mindfulness are important to you, what are you going to do about it, to bring them to life in your world? What is your quick T.I.P – Theory Into Practice?
Mindfulness & concentration: Pausing, noticing what inner voice you are listening to and then choosing what you truly want to strengthen in your life / world. With mindfulness we have a way of harnessing our ‘inner room-mate’ – the observer, using it as our inner ally instead of an inner enemy.
Cultivating stillness within the body, harnessing the calming effect of the Parasympathetic and the Vagus system
∞ Slowing the breathing, even just connecting to the rhythm of the breath;
∞ Facial muscle awareness, experiencing feeling a warm, soft and joyful expression;
∞ Calming physical anchor (the power of touch); ∞ Warm and friendly tone to the inner voice;
∞ Softening in the belly (Vagus nerve is the fastest route to the brain & heart);
∞ Finding your centre in the body (grounded).
Activating your calming system is not just about kindness or 'softness' and it is certainly not a weakness or a question of entitlement or deserving / not deserving. It is our responsibility - perhaps the most important thing we humans can do to bring balance and well-being to our world – from the inside out. Learning these life skills and practising them needs to be as routine as brushing our teeth – mental hygiene.