Following on from here: https://www.customfolkestone.co.uk/post/the-vagaries-of-the-vagus
CUSTOM'S CHERRY TRULUCK IN CONVERSATION WITH YOGIC PRACTITIONER RENATA BYRNE:
I was really intrigued by the role you describe of the vagus nerve as not just a passive network linking the primary organs, but as itself having a role in heightening or settling emotions, connecting our physical wellbeing to our mental state. It seems to me that our relationship with ‘the environment’ is a sort of mirror of this body/mind connectivity. The artist Vivien Sansour visited us at Custom last year and she described the use of the very word ‘environment’ as a sort of violence because it suggested a separation of us from nature, just as we too often talk of body and mind as separate entities. In your yogic and therapeutic practices and also in mine as an artist working with food, I think we both explore the conceptual separation and necessary/actual fusion of these things and how they connect out more widely in the world in many ways and the Vagus nerve seems to have a really important role in this. Could you talk about that from your point of view (i.e. the body/mind connection as well as how the Vagus relates to this)?
My considerations towards this question have set me off on many tangents. Whether to:
(i) compare the easily perceptible physical body with the non-organic intangible workings of the mind and how understanding the vagus nerve is changing the face of modern approaches to health and wellbeing;
(ii) outline some of the ways one can work with the body-mind and tone the vagus to attain an optimal experience of life;
(iii) tackle the implications of humanity’s self-appointed superiority and dualistic exploitation of the natural world.
Indeed, all of the above are valid areas into which one can delve deeper and I will try to touch upon each in my reply. In answer to the analogy of environment as violence, I see it more as a by-product of man’s hostility towards nature. Certainly this hostility is mutually reflected inwards and outwards. One only has to look at how our ever-evolving technological advancements have changed the shape of the planet as we strip away natural habitats, rainforests and ecosystems for unnatural intensive (and inhumane) agriculture and the implementation of controversial power and communication systems. Is it any surprise we are now facing ecological, biological, political and social crises? We need our technologies but it is becoming ever more apparent that there will be no life here in the future if we do not protect and foster the living form.
The way we think and operate has also changed. In my lifetime alone the advent of devices and behaviours upon which we have become so dependent, addicted even, is changing the footprint of the human being. New and unhealthy neural pathways are being forged into the mind, changing our relationship to the body, diverting our attention away from wellbeing and towards destruction. Instead of listening to the body we tune into an app, an artificial tracking system that collates our personal data. Nothing is sacred anymore! A great disconnect or forgetting of who and what we are in essence has embedded itself into the human psyche and is spreading like a virus.
The so-called civilised world is practically bereft of our once inherent connection to the spiritual dimensions of life and an understanding of Divine intelligence. For ancient and current indigenous societies survival has always been based upon mutual cooperation, a reverence for Mother Nature and Father Sky. On the contrary, developed society functions from a perspective of the individual as an independent force. The notion of abundance has been replaced with a scarcity mindset that spawns greed and separation. Collaboration for the benefit of all has become a war where our brothers and sisters are no longer family but enemy. Racial, sexual, and cultural discrimination is rife. The planet is no longer treated as home but a resource to be raped and pillaged.
Just as the body and mind are modulated by vagal response, planetary survival is governed by natural law. When we fail to listen and act accordingly upon the warning signs, harmony is disrupted and chaos ensues. From a yogic standpoint, inner harmony is integral to global harmony; from the personal mind-body-spirit to the global man-as-nature and the all-encompassing as-one-with-source. Western mind has long departed from the simple truths, instead becoming embroiled in distractions, obsessed with mind-numbing exploits and propagandas. Our subtle radars are dumbed down and the unreal hailed as the omnipotent. The further away we move from nature the more disruptive we become as a species - a devastating prospect for future generations. We have reached a desperate tipping point, flagging the need for desperate measures. That which has been shrouded is now revealed and an opportunity for transformation is at hand. But change requires active participation.
We can begin by turning to the elders of ancient wisdom, the keepers of the earth; the shamans, yogis and light workers of all creeds. They can guide us back to the sacred to re-establish a connection with the natural forces we have long forsaken. The imbalances we now face have become so jarring that the old ways are seeing a revival and are accessible anew. The spiritual practitioner endeavours to live a mindful existence in harmony with nature. We understand ‘vital life force’, prana/chi, to permeate reality on all levels, from the blade of grass to the great mountain. There is no separation. The Tantric myth of the deities Shiva and Shakti illustrates this fundamental principle of Sacred Union or Oneness. Shiva represents the masculine force as container or space. He is pure consciousness, purusha. Shakti is the feminine active force of creation. She is pure energy, prakriti. The two are irrevocably entwined forming a unified whole.
The word yoga itself means to yoke or join. Indeed, yoga and Buddhism teach union as the antithesis to suffering or dukkha, which arises from separation. Conscious awareness is the roadmap to unity and peace. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a seminal yogic text, outlines an eight-limbed path of which the first two, yamas and niyamas, set out universal and personal moral and ethical codes. The yamas inform how we relate to the outside world and the niyamas give us personal codes of conduct. They are not dogmatic commandments but prompts for investigation so that we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. We then go on to practise the physical poses, asana, and breath control, pranayama to prepare us for the deeper work of yoga leading to higher states of consciousness. Ultimately (with much practice, and if it is your karma) you might even reach samadhi, the state of bliss or enlightenment like the Buddha!
Many reach for yoga as a fix because life is difficult, often due to physical ailments, burnout, anxiety and a sense of incompleteness. Yoga brings us back into contact with ourselves, inviting a reacquaintance with both the physical and subtle aspects of being. The vagus nerve is our inner sensor to the outside world. The next time your phone rings, notice the physical response in your body. Do you feel good, energised, open, relaxed? Or do the hairs on your arms stand up and your body constrict? Right there you have a simple example of vagal response. The body never lies. The mind, as we know, can run us around in rings, and as such is a less reliable advisor. Now, you are aware, what can you do? Put your phone on silent. Of course, we can’t switch off life but there are many methods we can implement to nurture and nourish ourselves and become more respectful inhabitants of planet Earth.
Though not specifically devised with any scientific knowledge of the nervous system, yogic methodology perfectly responds to the bodymind’s needs. Flowing movement, breathing techniques, meditation and deep rest or yoga nidra are excellent practices for toning the vagus nerve and thus calming the mind and bringing us back into communion with the subtler layers of our being, known as the koshas. The more one practices, the more one discovers! A commitment to self study, svadyaya, has lead me to foreign lands and altered states of consciousness otherwise attained through years of meditation in solitude. My most recent learnings came from plant medicine journeys in Peru, where Ayahuasca and Huachuma/San Pedro have been imbibed from time immemorial to heal the ills of the psyche and the body. It was a profound and humbling experience which revealed insights into the mystical nature of the very cosmic or universal fusion we are discussing. The quote springs to mind,
“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul” Hermes Trismegistus
I believe that we have now reached a time of critical need for everyone to do the inner work in order to evolve, whether that be through yoga, plant medicine or other forms of self awareness study. Can you imagine the legacy we would leave behind for our children? Can you imagine how different their lives would be having the necessary tools, if we set about redressing the precarity of our current existence. How might we shape a more compassionate world? ‘Everyone’ might be a tall order but consider ‘the butterfly effect’, where even one small action has an impact. We have to begin somewhere. Could it be you, here, now? One more radiant soul illuminating the way for another? This is the call to spiritual activism. It is a calling close to my heart and one which I strive to impart in my work, prayers and intentions that peace be restored for all, everywhere. I’d like to conclude by sharing a quote from the book, Spiritual Ecology; The Cry of the Earth by Sufi scholar, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, which I feel captures my thoughts,
“If we are to restore the balance in our world, we need to go beneath the surface to heal the spilt between spirit and matter and help bring the sacred back into life.”
Samadhi Yoga Renata Byrne