This weekend, I took a course called Bio/Psycho/ Spiritual Integration. The name is a bit much, I must admit. I wasn’t sure just what to expect. I didn’t want any hokey class about needing to have this spiritual practice with this religion to have the best life possible. But… I needed to take this class for credit and it was only the weekend, so I signed up.
Due to my work schedule, I’m only on campus in the evening, which is fine. It’s convenient and it’s my only option, other than online or weekend courses. Every time I take a weekend course, I fall in love with the Marylhurst University campus all over again. It’s so peaceful, quiet and safe.
The environment couldn’t be more perfect for the Bio/Psycho/ Spiritual Integration to commence. On Friday morning, we all shuffle in and try to find seats. This is one of the largest classes I’ve been in at M.U. There was about 18 people in all. We through the typical first day of class stuff (names, what’s your favorite color/food, syllabus, etc.).
We start by talking about the body at the molecular level, what’s going on in this magical world called the body? Our cells, as you may know, get nutrients and oxygen from the blood that pumps all over our body because of the wonderful heart. This is particularly interesting to me because of my general inclination to find information that relates to eating disorders. If we don’t feed the body the nutrients it needs, it means that the cells that form our tissues, that form our organs, which compose to the body, they can’t do their job properly. Wow! I mean, it may seem obvious to other science-y people, but I’ve never made the connection that way. It was really fascinating to me.
Next, we learned about the central nervous system (CNS), the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Basically, the CNS tells the PNS what to do. The ANS is what controls our fight or flight response (sympathetic response) and our chill out responses (parasympathetic response). It turns out that if we are sympathetic dominant, meaning we react angrily and want to fight or are spooked and want to flee, we are actually causing the body harm. Of course, we want these reactions if we are in an accident, but we don’t want it because your sister took your favorite sweater without permission. Stress causes more sympathetic reactions in the body, releasing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol (if you’ve ever seen a Hydroxy cut commercial) is blamed for weight gain, which is in part true. When we are in a sympathetic state, our bodies are ready for an attack which we must face or flee from. How the body prepares is by dilating out eyes, send blood to our muscles to react and making our heart pump faster. What this does is cause the body to redirect all its energy away from the digestive system and the immune system. If our digestive system isn’t working properly because we are so stressed then weight gain will likely follow and we are more likely to get sick because our immune defenses are down.
The moral of the story here? Don’t be stressed! If you are like me, this is easier said than done. I probably spend 90% of my day worrying and stressing and getting upset over things that don’t go the way I imagined. But we can learn and train our bodies and minds to calm down, to stop automatically stressing and activating the sympathetic body responses.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a man I was introduced to via youtube videos, taught us about mindfulness. One of the things that he states that is going to stick with me is that even in the worst of situations, you always have one thing to be grateful for: that you are still breathing. You are still alive and can get better again by changing your outlook on life. We spend too much time in the past and in the future that we are never here, in this moment. Our reactions to things are so stuck on autopilot that we may not even notice that we are always upset or angry. We have given up control of our bodies and let them stay in a cycle of unhealthy reactions. Kabat-Zinn advises to breathe and meditate. He doesn’t mean that you need to sit down criss-cross-applesauce on the floor and say “ooommmm” but that you can stop anytime you feel the pressure of negative emotions rising within you and take deep breathes. Relax. Find out why you are acting this way and find an appropriate way to act. Heal your body and mind by forming an initmate connection with yourself.
We create our own reality. If we think we are stressed all the time, we will feel as if we are stressed all the time. Kabat-Zinn says that we are all human doings, going about doing things that may not even make us happy and we don’t even take the time to be human beings. Just to be in the moment. We need to live our lives as if they matter to us, which most of the time it does.
Happiness isn’t easy to achieve. We all say we want to be a happy in life. Who doesn’t, right? If we are stuck on repeat, going around and around in a cycle of negativity, we create a hostile environment in which we thwart any kindness, gentleness and connection our heart has. We learn to armor our hearts, blame others for things that happen in our lives and we come to excuse ourselves from our own lives. Fred Luskin, also a man we learned from via youtube videos, tells us we don’t have control. We can’t control the accident on the freeway that makes us late for dinner, we can’t control the neighbor’s cat coming into our yard or that fact that’s it’s pouring down rain. Accepting that we have limited power over people, nature and the world in general is a first step. Making peace with not getting what we want will allow us to forgive and become present.
Forgiveness, Luskin tells us, is about being in peace in the present when you didn’t get what you wanted. Being kind and grateful in life will make you happier. Help others realize this with our assistance and it will spread forgiveness.
Lastly, on Sunday we did passage mediation, taught by Eknath Easwaran. He teaches us that we are able to mediate by repeating beautiful passages of a variety of religious works. We close our eyes and repeat St. Francis’ prayer. It’s a beautiful moment of each individual reaching out with their hearts to catch an understanding of what they are doing here. I was so happy when I was done with my meditation and the fact that my wind wasn’t as stir crazy as I thought it would be.
This course was one of the most priceless I have taken and I’m sure that many others would benefit from it.
Here are some links to what we saw in class. Check them out, going in peace and happiness.
Introduction to the neuroscience of emotions
#CalmingTech: Philippe Goldin – Mindfulness Meditation (Part 1)