A Peaceful Nervous System


"You are not a boat being tossed in a turbulent ocean. You are not the angry wind and rain stirring up the waves. You are the space of pure aliveness in which it is all unfolding."

Last week, one of my YouTube listeners reached out with a great question. Here is the (condensed) question:

“My nervous system is always on high alert. My body reacts to small triggers as if they were life-or-death situations. I hate that I am like this. Something as minor as an unexpected email can send my whole nervous system into freak-out territory. What can I do to stop overreacting so much?”

And here is what I offered her:

First—let me assure you that your nervous system is responding in perfect alignment with its current programming. Your “freak-out territory” responses –as you call them—make perfect sense given the conditioning, learning, and programming of your nervous system.

But here is where I think most of us get in trouble. We believe our nervous system says something about us…about who we are…about what kind of life we are meant to have…or as you suggested, "endure."

It’s kind of like how we are so mesmerized with the black letters that form words on the page of a book or the white screen of a computer…that we fail to even notice the space that holds the words. As normal humans, we are fixated on what is most obvious…like black letters on a white page or screen. But, for just a moment, see if you can get a sense for the page or screen that is holding the words in this email response. Soften your gaze just enough to see that something other than words and punctuation marks are there. There is a neutral, stable space that is holding the changing, flickering lights and shadows dancing around in the form of sentences and paragraphs. Got it? Can you sense the screen alone without being pulled back to the words? Really pause and get a feel for the screen, for the open, unchanging space that appears to hold my response. Ok, now allow your gaze to be pulled back to the black letters and punctuation marks. Poof, that neutral, stable screen that is holding them—so to speak—seems to have vanished.

Now let’s look at this normal, human tendency to be mesmerized by the obvious in terms of our nervous system.

Right now, your focus is on a system that has been programmed and conditioned since before you were even born. That system is responding, moment to moment, based on this programming and conditioning. So, yours is sending really strong and scary messages that appear to be real and true. Your brilliant body is simply responding to those believed messages. The whole system is remarkably designed, really.

EXCEPT that your mind hates it. Notice I didn’t say that YOU hate it. Your mind…the one that’s sending the scary stories in the first place is the one hating the body’s response.

So let’s see if you can soften your gaze for a moment, like you did with the computer or phone screen. Can you get a sense for what is noticing the nervous system’s ebbs and flows? What is always there whether the system is freaking out or resting? What is the space that holds the fluctuating responses of the nervous system? What is the space that holds the always-changing bodily responses and sensations?

What isn’t changing and shifting with each new stimulus?

See if you can back up just enough to watch your nervous system and all of its predictable, habitual responses the way an anthropologist watches a society of people--simply for the sake of noticing patterns and changes. Just observe it. Be the neutral space that holds the fluctuating nervous system and all of its shenanigans. Watch the mind kick up a fuss. Watch the temper tantrums of the little voice in your head. Watch the body get in on the action with a racing heart or a knot in the stomach. Just watch. Hold space for all of it the way a screen holds space for the words and sentences.

As you begin to notice your nervous system and its tendencies from a place of neutral curiosity, that programmed, conditioned little system finally gets a rest. It gets a break from the constant need to be something different than what it already is. The mind gets to tell all of the same scary stories...but those are noticed, too. They are like the letters and words on the screen. They can be observed and welcomed because YOU are the screen. YOU are the stable, unchanging, neutral witnessing space.

I bet you can guess what happens when the need to control and manage your nervous system diminishes...

Yes. Of course. The body's responses and sensations begin to lose their power.

You are not the victim of your nervous system any more than a page in a book is the victim of the stories written on it.

As you become more grounded in being the space through which the fluctuations are flowing, those fluctuations begin to settle all on their own.

For today, see if you can soften your gaze. Zoom out a bit. And simply notice what your nervous system is up to without identifying with it or attempting to change it. That system is not personal. It’s not about you and your life. So, for a little while...see if you can get a sense for the stable, unchanging space of noticing that you really are.