Two different Nervous Systems
During our evolution, humans survived who were best able to adapt to the given circumstances and to remember, avoid, and survive dangers.
We are the descendants of thousands of generations of ancestors who fought, fled, and played dead in order to survive and thrive. In a relatively short span of time, our life circumstances have changed radically since those who had to survive in nature. These days we navigate fast-paced traffic, sleep in locked houses, sit for hours on chairs, and tend to go to our refrigerator instead of to our garden for lunch.
Nevertheless our biology and our nervous systems are basically the same as they ever were. Within our body many biological functions, hormones, and other chemical reactions are at work all the time. And there are always two modes that are regulating our main activities. Most of the time they are working as antagonists. They balance and regulate each other like a gas pedal and a brake.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) initiates fight and flight functions. This helps us in scary, dangerous, or simply stressful situations. For example the blood flows especially into those regions that need to work in fight or flight situations, such as the large muscles in the legs and arms. The heart and respiration rate rises higher than normal to meet these needs.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) regulates “rest and digest” functions. It stimulates digestion and relaxation — which we can do when we are out of danger. At those times blood needs to be sent to the inner organs and the heart and respiration rates can be slow. (If you’d like to read more about the nervous system, you can find a nice and simple overview here.)
When we try to relax or meditate while being stressed out, we can feel that it’s much more difficult than if we are calm. We might have heard that meditation can help us to relax. While this may be true for experienced meditators, starting out on the journey we might find it difficult and meet imbalances in our nervous system.
Knowing what activates the parasympathetic nervous system and applying this first will make the experience much more satisfying. Conscious breathing and relaxing, being aware of the body, yawning, positive emotions, and funnily enough, fiddling the upper lip (!) all activate the PNS.
Seeing them in this context, the first three exercises of this course touch upon powerful circuits in our own bodies and so are our allies in relaxing into meditation.