The communication system between our bodies and our brains is a two-way job. We are basically superbly evolved threat-detecting machines. Affect is the emotional data that travels upwards from body to brain, informing the brain via the vagus nerve of any perceived danger or threat. Effect is the data travelling the other way, from brain to body. We might think that there would be more effect than affect, but this is not the case: in fact there is around 70% more affect than effect. The body is like three-headed Cerberus, guarding the underworld, and without its continual vigilance our survival could be compromised. So the vagus nerve wanders – as its name suggests – like a vagabond through the body, channelling sensory communication between the brain and organs in the neck, chest and abdomen. And one of its principal jobs is balancing the nervous system. When the affect coming up to the brain from the gut suggests danger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and floods us with the necessary hormones to deal with it: to run, to freeze, to fight. Then the parasympathetic side, which also relies heavily on the vagus nerve, sends signals from brain to body to calm, soothe and relax. We are all at the mercy of this sophisticated, marvellously intricate dance of stimulation and soothing. Our survival literally depends on it.
Two weeks before Easter in 2017, I was standing in the kitchen when the phone rang. It was the first day of the school holidays, and I was happy. It was a gentle, warm morning; the children were still in pyjamas and pottering contentedly around the house. We were all enjoying the sense of freedom and rest that the break from routine brings. But then the phone rang. It was the doctor. Odd. The doctor never calls me. But I had seen him a week previously for what I had thought a minor symptom. And he was now calling to say that he had referred me to the hospital for this, and they had informed him that I had been fast-tracked into the two-week system for cancer investigations. He said he had to say the word ‘cancer’ to me, because that was explicitly what they were looking for, and I should be aware of it, and I should expect to hear from the hospital very soon. I stood in my dressing-gown in the kitchen and felt myself start to shake. The sun was still shining, and the children were still playing, but for me it was the end of all peace; instead I found myself plunged into a maelstrom of intense fear and panic, and physical pain, for the next three weeks. I realised that my worst fear, my very worst fear, could perhaps be about to be realised: that of dying while the children were still young. This was so terrifying to me, and cut so deep, that I could not rationalise it in any way, or diminish it to any degree. My body could not deal with it either, and for those three weeks I experienced acute stomach pains – a symptom I have never had before or since. So I lived with this night and day for that time, and it became for me a trauma that set in motion the period of ill-health I have described elsewhere. It was enormous, all-consuming. Then when I was eventually seen by the hospital, it came suddenly, almost anticlimactically, to nothing: I was fine. Bullet dodged. Crisis over. I sat numbly in the carpark looking around at the people, the trees. There was an abrupt and deathly quietness in my mind, but strangely no relief – only exhaustion in the empty space that fear had occupied. And my body, faithful guardian, was still rigid, holding me safe in hypervigilance. The aftershocks of this trauma continued to reverberate through me for many months.
We live, most of us, with an abiding sense of apprehension. Things could go pearshaped at any point. And the trouble is that we are right. This body will break down, my mind won’t work. It’s going to happen to others we love. We’re going to have losses. This apprehension seems built into the fact of living in a human body and experiencing reality through thoughts and feelings. We are offered this life only on terms of complete physical insecurity. It can feel like we are a bunch of tense muscles contracting against existence itself. Braced. One family member often starts a telephone conversation with the words ‘News of fresh disasters?’ It is humorous and bleak at the same time. We contract, we brace – the blow could come from any corner at any moment.
So how do we soften into this life, knowing that any minute it could all be taken away? Given that we will lose everything, how do we live at all? This question is, it seems to me, one of the most important questions we can ask, and impacts absolutely everything. How do we achieve a sense of fundamental wellbeing in the face of certain loss? It is an anxiety that underpins all other anxiety, backgrounded initially (if we are fortunate) by youth and inexperience perhaps, but foregrounded as we move through the chapters of this life. I certainly felt it strongly during my time of illness and re-evaluation last year, as death is not something that happens once but comes in many different forms and guises. There are deaths in our lives of many different things – jobs, relationships, contexts. That chapter, those people, that place and that shared experience will never come again. Then there are rebirths, which we cannot know during the deaths because they are hidden from view, round the bend of life. “Death is but a horizon, and a horizon is but a limitation of our view.” (Bishop Brent) In this way we are continually rehearsing loss, experiencing the natural order of rise and fall built into our world, and every loss in some way foreshadows the great loss. When asked in a recent interview "what do you think happens after death?", actor Keanu Reeves said "the people who love us will miss us very much". I read this and had to sit with it for a while. It is deceptively profound. It leans – unusually in these times – into uncertainty.
I don’t know, but I have a feeling that tolerating uncertainty might be important for us on many levels of our being. And being able to relax and to soften into life is one of them. When I was experiencing a period of anxiety last year, my body was in a more or less permanent brace position, as if I was a passenger on a plane with their head down between their knees ready for the worst. My body was totally certain that all the bad stuff was coming. Part of my healing, and my ongoing journey, has been this continual process of deliberately relaxing the body so that it becomes less certain and sends different signals to the mind. This allows for – initially – moments of space between thoughts, that become gradually wider and broader with time, until the mind is no longer a frenzied cauldron of fear and panic. If the body is consistently not sending those fight or flight signals up the vagus nerve, eventually the snowstorm of the mind will settle into stillness. And when the snowglobe is still again, the wisdom and peace that is in us all is revealed. It is only a thought away at all times.
Looking back, could I have applied this to my three weeks of waiting during the cancer scare? Or are there some times in our lives when we simply can’t relax and soften? I think, in humility, and in the knowledge that people go through absolutely terrifying and terrible things, which are infinitely difficult to bear, that – if we can, and there are no ‘shoulds’ here, just what we are capable of at the time – softening into the experience, into the moment, is the most direct way through it to the other side. As in the Bear Hunt, we can’t go over it, or under it, or round it: we have to go through it. Richard Rohr, priest and mystic, says that we meditate every day until we reach an inner ‘yes’ towards the moment, towards our lives. This ‘yes’ is not an anaesthetising, numbing resignation, either (and it is definitely not a moral condoning of a harmful experience), but it is a willingness to feel fully and to experience deeply what is happening. It is radical surrender. Certainly, at the heart of my terror and panic was a huge, screaming ‘no’. The ‘no’ was the foundation of my suffering. You might say, how could it be otherwise? Can we ever really say ‘yes’ to the darkest moments of our lives? But given that the moment is what it is, and there is no way of making it otherwise, perhaps the paradox of softening into it – no matter how terrible – is that we find through that inner ‘yes’ the strength to live it and the space to transmute it into the gold of our growth. Perhaps.
And I haven’t even mentioned Sophrology yet… which begins exactly in this place of reconnecting to and relaxing the body. It is the first step of the journey, and in many ways the cornerstone: we always circle back to it. If you were to come for Sophrology treatment for anxiety - or anything else - we would begin with the body. Because the body may "keep the score" (Bessel van der Kolk), but it is also the gatekeeper to the present moment. Like a computer programme, it continually overwrites all previous versions of itself as it progresses linearly through time. It exists only now: I cannot be in it a year ago. And the present moment is the point of power and the fulcrum of change.
So we soften, we relax. Let's start right now. Pause right now and place your attention inside your body. Feel first your head and face, from the inside. Relax the muscles around your eyes. Unclench your jaw. Then your neck, shoulders, arms and hands. Let your shoulders drop. Then your chest and upper back. Then your abdomen and lower back. Then your lower body from hips down to your toes. And finally your whole body, head to foot.
Then connect with your breathing. Nothing to fix or change, just notice how the body is breathing. Stay with yourself for a few breaths.
This is the start of the way home to yourself.
Wishing you peace.