What is our relationship to nature?
Our nervous system is an ancient technology that has existed across generations of our ancestry, for millions of years. We share many similarities in this technology with the animal kingdom, because in fact we evolved out of the animal kingdom, that’s easy to forget. Many mammals have a nervous system of this type.
A good example of this is the gazelle, an example that Peter Levine uses in his exploration of the states that the human body exists in, during and after trauma. Levine’s book: In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness explores how the nervous system naturally reacts to threat.
When the gazelle is being chased by a cheetah, it floods it’s system with adrenaline and can operate at 100% energy for a certain period of time. By the way, coffee stimulates the adrenal system. If this doesn’t shake the cheetah off quickly it may resort to a fight reaction, turning to face the cheetah to try to protect itself with it’s horns. If neither of these operations work then it will resort to a third mode of freeze. Freeze is a mode of the nervous system that quietens almost all of our functional systems apart from the gut. Hence the noises that often come from the gut and intestinal system in moments of discomfort.
It’s essentially a tool to fool the cheetah into thinking that the gazelle is dead, or exhausted, whilst replenishing the energy of the animal. And, in the worst case, if the cheetah wounds the animal then the animal won’t feel it. If it is dragged to another place, leaving it alone to go fetch it’s cubs, the gazelle might then have the opportunity to make an escape.
Levine notes that we have all of these technologies within us too, and they worked for us in much the same way as for the gazelle. Except now we’re not running away from wild animals, it’s the rent, our partner, or our family that triggers these behaviors. Aspects that we need to cultivate a lasting relationship with and this is the importance in returning to a resting state of nervous system operation quickly, so that we can do that.
Vagus means wandering in Latin and the Vagus nerve is known as the wandering nerve because it literally wanders through the body. It connects the lowest viscera of your abdomen up to the brain stem, touching the heart and most major organs along the way. Basically it translates the electrical signals of the brainstem to the different regulatory glands and the different organs of the body. The nervous system is the highway of our body; it transports the information, and it does so in a couple of different ways.
I’m interested in the connective force and the nature of the experience of wandering. As people are more limited in this time of quarantine; lockdown, sheltering in place (however you choose to frame it), we have all been finding more solace in wandering around our local green spaces than perhaps we usually do. Hopefully, this has produced an unexpected appreciation for the greenery that exists around your local area: The vast array of fauna, flora, and animal life that co-exist with us in our environments.
The two states that the nervous system functions in are parasympathetic and sympathetic. Sympathetic stands for the state of ‘fight, flight, & freeze’ that I mentioned with the gazelle at the start of the article. What we’re more interested in is the parasympathetic state of relaxation; “Rest & digest”, or “Tend & befriend”.
It is possible for a section of the nervous system to be existing in parasympathetic whilst another is not, with varying degrees of intensity. Trauma survivors often experience heightened reactions of physical readiness based around particular areas of their body; for example, tight or clenched fists. However, for the sake of this article, let’s just assume that the state is near enough a complete experience of one or the other.
We cannot be inviting, curious, or co-operative if we are existing predominantly in sympathetic states. We block out sensual information and focus on survival in this state, we cannot experience bliss or connection in their most profound aspects because our perception of our environment is one of assessing threats, and procuring safety, rather than curiosity to understand how we can better develop systems of co-habitation with the world.
I would argue that it’s essential for us to face this challenge, considering humanity is causing the 6th mass extinction on planet Earth with our human-centric societal goals. What’s the sense of living on a planet if we’re not aware of the planet’s resource limits? We are living dangerously close to the edge and since we are a part of the ecosystem on Earth, we are basically self-destructing.
Western culture would have us believe that the nervous system is a one-lane highway, from the brain to the body and that we are in full control of our environment at all times, however, the very nature of sensory information means that there must be a multi-dimensional communication both from the body to the brain, and from the brain to the body.
The heart and the gut have bundles of neurons which process sensory information and send it to the brain to process and turn around in it’s own signals.
This dynamic and multi-dimensional relationship is explored in many of the world’s ancient cultures: India, China, Indigenous people in Australia, Amazonia, Native Americans. A significant proportion of humanity, all throughout history, has seen existence as a constant fluid communication with environment.
As well as our sensory environment we have our emotional environment, which in effect, is our inner sensory environment. Heart Math Institute have done some excellent and ground breaking research into the heart as one aspect of this. They have discovered that the heart produces a very strong bio-magnetic field and that it’s neural network sends the brain more information than it receives from the brain. The implications of this are quite extraordinary.
In essence, our feelings are remembered states of being that we inhabit around certain behavioral patterns and habits that we have formed over our lifetimes. They carry information, and energetic states. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, states that the body holds tension and energy in certain areas around certain experiences. That’s why my chest constricts when I’m scared, or my lower back aches when I’m sad, or my throat constricts when i’m angry. These are also associated states of being.
An article in Psychology Today explores the idea of how the gut conveys ‘instincts’ to the brain via the Vagus nerve. There is already a significant conversation around gut health being connected to mental health. It makes sense if we consider that the things that we put in our body, give it nutrients, and allow it to work in certain ways. If the body is deprived of certain nutrients then it will operate in certain ways, these things are processes as much as they are naturally occurring. It’s important to know the reality of your own body, because everyone is uniquely constituted.
Another article published in Psychology Today, ‘A Vagus Nerve Survival Guide to Combat Fight-or-Flight Urge’, explores ways to understand the Vagus nerve, and our relationship to it.
All too often, the readily accessible power of the vagus nerve to lower anxiety and reduce inflammation is overlooked and underestimated. I’ve written posts here that highlight practical ways to tap into the ability of your vagus nerve to combat the cortisol-producing stress response of fight-or-flight.
The more we can cultivate an understanding of how the survival mode works, the quicker we can allow it to communicate what it needs to communicate to us and return to the ‘tend & befriend’ state. The fact that our brains are wired to avoid discomfort is convenient in many instances, however, it works against us in the process of change. This is where we need to cultivate a relationship with discomfort; anxiety, stress, depression, melancholy, in order to become more familiar with them and to understand the communications that these feeling states want to express to us. Avoidance in it’s extremity is active repression of feelings and that is known to cause a whole disarray of complex dis-ease to the human being.
There is growing evidence that our technological advances, and the amount that we use them, are causing our bodies stress as well.
“Recent studies show that all too often, social media and other modern-day factors exacerbate perceived social isolation and feelings of being unworthy of love and belonging.” ~ Psychology Today ~
This causes many of us to live our lives in heightened states of threat; fight, flight, and freeze.
Reaching for the distractions of which their are so many: coffee, TV, sex, alcohol, drugs, recreational drugs, porn, shopping, arguments.
The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., sets out this distraction tendency.
The challenge here is to find balance. All of these can be aspects of a healthy and fulfilling life, it’s only in extreme habit that things can become unhealthy. It’s overuse and addiction that causes the body to go into stress. Stress is operating in the sympathetic nervous system.
I say many of us because there’s a certain level of choice that we can exhibit in these matters; the work that I do in psychotherapy helps me to understand the attachments I developed in childhood. These circumstances and expectations govern my ability to feel like I have integrity and stability in my life, and therefore I’m able to face life, more often, in a relaxed state. It’s really difficult, rewarding, and serious work and I’m immensely grateful. Most of all, for the lowering of the instances where I exist in the sympathetic response.
The brain is wired to avoid change, and so we stick to patterns of behavior, that’s our relationship to our environment. If you’re interested there’s an excellent podcast episode of Man Talks, with Connor Beaton, that involves Beau Lotto’s research on the brain around change.
The Survival Guide To The Vagus Nerve article states some of the ways that promote a return to the sympathetic nervous system state:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises
- Tonic Levels of Daily Physical Activity
- Face-to-Face Social Connectedness
- Narrative Expressive Journaling
- Gutsy Third Person Self-Talk
- Sense of Awe to Promote Small Self
- Upward Spiral via Loving-Kindness Meditation
- Superfluidity and Secular Transcendent Ecstasy
- Volunteering and Generating Altruism
There are a number of things on this list that can quite easily be found in natural environments. A sense of awe to promote the small self jumps out, the sense that we are part of something larger seems to promote a peaceful and restful state. Others on the list are promoted when we find ourselves in activity in nature: hiking, biking, or just relaxing at the beach.
It’s clear during this time of lockdown that we need these social interactions to thrive. We might even be feeling withdrawal symptoms from this, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. However it is possible to promote these connections with yourself — introverts are a very good example of this, with the natural world around you, as well as in close relationships. We are socially orientated creatures, we need these things.
So if I were considering the existing culture of knowledge around the body process, I might think up a systems flow diagram that might look something like this:
Source stimulus — sensual experience — nerve signal to brain — brain signal to regulate the systems of the body — Vagus nerve takes the signal to the organs.
Except this is happening multiple times a second in all of the different areas of the body. For this reason, we have a kind of importance filter in the brain that regulates which areas to focus on. Our perception of pain, threat, and pleasure is based partially on the responses of the sympathetic, and parasympathetic respectively.
Another consideration to this is the inner body and it’s a little more subtle, as lives are built around emotional and behavioral patterns that the body is comfortable with feeling, plus we have a whole host of systems that work automatically, we don’t have to tell our heart’s to beat. Notice how I didn’t say enjoy, because many lives are built around painful things that feel familiar. This might well be a genetic thing to allow us to exist in our tribes that include some inconvenient behaviors. For the good of the tribe, we continue with that behavior so as not to rupture that dynamic. This brings up an interesting conversation with shame, which I won’t explore in this article, but I have in my other work.
How much of this shall we accept in our modern culture?
All of this science is really interesting and I feel that it validates my experience of life, it assures me that there is experimentation based around truths of reality, critical thinking, and reasoning to explain what is behind what I feel, and believe. That’s very important. However we need more, we need to consider our attachments, our feelings, and what aspects of our environments we have normalized. That’s why I love philosophy so much, because it includes the combination of critical thinking, reason, and the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.
Philosophy literally means love of wisdom, I’ve recently been reading The Consolations Of Philosophy by Alain De Botton.
In this book, he explains that the pursuit of reason comes from the philosophical lineage of Socrates. Socrates lived in the time of war and dictatorship in Greece. It’s strange, when I think of Greece, I tend to idolize its culture and it seems so peaceful and rational. It’s obscure to me to recognize that there were political upheavals, wars, and dictatorships in Ancient Greece. Socrates was so committed and inspired to follow reason in this conflicted and tumultuous time that they trialed him for “corrupting the youth of Athens” and sentenced him to death. He’d been accused by three young men who were so deeply attached to the traditional values of the culture that they hated him for the profound impact that he was having. He died by drinking a cup of hemlock in a calm and rational way; as his philosophy had served him in life, so it did in death. His friends wept for him, many people of the city who he had interacted with on the streets, wept for him. Popular opinion began to turn, and the three men were ostracised from the community.
They would eventually redeem Socrates by making a beautiful bronze statue of him and realizing the importance of his message. The other men hung themselves in shame.
It’s easy to forget what founding principles our society is built upon; that we’ve taken the convenient and discarded the inconvenient from history where possible and in forgetting that we face the possibility of losing the society that we have built so carefully. Democracy is this to me: The collective and careful consideration of what a society, for the benefit of all, will include. Everyone has their own unique mission within that, their unique talents and abilities. Some love to work with their hands, some love to lead and question, some love to be present — they are the artists. We need them all.
Epicurus was a philosopher in Asia Minor and he was dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. His one wish was to understand the ways in which human beings can feel pleasure. He became very popular, as you’d imagine, and there was all sorts of reasons why, however, through all his questing for pleasure he eventually came to the realization that pleasure does not come from external things, rather our interpretation of our environment. Epicurus said:
“Send me a pot of cheese, so I may have a feast whenever I like,”
Lucretius, who was a poet and followed Epicurus, observed: ‘A sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady’.
Perhaps it is our own affliction to our own inner workings that ails us?
Epicurus named these things being important for our pleasure:
- Food, shelter, clothes.
He lived in a place with his five other friends called “The Garden.” And he spoke:
“Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural and unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural or necessary.”
I mention philosophy because of the importance of living our lives free from the fear that puts us into a competitive and scarce disposition. From this space, we cannot cultivate, cooperate, or co-create a relationship with ourselves, our community, or our environment. The single biggest change in my own search for fulfillment is the change in my philosophy: The way I see life, the language I use consistently, and how I approach my relationship to my environment. It’s not possible to be peaceful at all times, yet, it is possible to train yourself to be curious, to form a relationship to discomfort, and to be grateful for all things that occur in life.
I’ve been interested in patterns for many years now and I find it curious that there are a number of synergies between the patterning of the human body and the world around us.
The cochlea has the same formation as a spiraled shell, or a young fern leaf, in fact, this spiral pattern can be found in so many natural occurences.
Our fascia — a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs, under a microscope looks remarkably like the mycelial networks which mushrooms are produced from. Even the neural networks, the nervous system itself, has a form of synergy between both the ways that trees share nutrients with the mycelial network and the way that lightning moves through the air.
This may seem whimsical, but there’s a more profound understanding of life that can be gained from these similarities. For much of our recent history, humanity has been aiming to dominate our environment in the search for security; we’ve made huge advances in science, technology, and understanding because we’ve had the relative security to do so. That’s great until that trajectory goes too far, starts to undermine the very nature of that environment, and frankly, starts to collapse it.
We need to build a new connection to our part in the natural world, combining critical thinking, logic, and reason with passion, pleasure, love, understanding, curiosity, gratitude, and connection. That’s how we can form a deeper personal relationship to our environment and start to cooperate, in a coordinated way, around the biggest issues of our time.
Nature is our mirror, metaphorically speaking. It can be used to understand our own inner workings, and therefore it can be harnessed to promote a sense of understanding and peace in life.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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