A Psychology of Unlearning RacismDecember 20, 2014
SOMATIC LESSONS FROM A YOUNG PARROTJanuary 19, 2015
Many of us start the new year with new resolutions and intentions. Meanwhile, social and environmental crises continue to emerge. We have ample reasons for our bodies to get “revved up.”
As we load up on too many activities, respond to a dizzying array of injustices, responses to injustices, and commentaries on those responses, our reptile brains (our fight-or-flight hind brains) inevitably become activated.
The reptile brain’s knee-jerk reactions have been essential for humans to survive as a species.
Whether in the distant past when predators leapt at us humans, or in the present when armored police throw teargas at protesters, there are times when we must act instantly to protect ourselves.
These are not times to think. These are times to duck, run, hide, fight, struggle or freeze. Whatever survival requires. If our actions are successful, we will have plenty of time to think later! Reptile brains are pragmatic that way.
Let’s celebrate the beauty and efficiency of our animal bodies, which know how to—on a dime, without our conscious choice–freeze like a rabbit, run like a deer, fight like a rooster, blend like a chameleon, pretend-die like a possum, placate like a dog, or daydream like a child.
Such ingenious, wondrous bodies!
Yet, in a world full of trauma, oppression, and too much information processed too fast, it is easy to get stuck in constant crisis mode, where we react and “rev up” over and over again.
We may add to this by over-caffeine-ating and over-working ourselves to match the unrelenting pace. We can burn out our adrenals this way.
“Revved Up” Body; Relaxed Body
If we would rather cultivate a more sustainable, relaxed way of being, it is helpful to learn from our bodies.
First, we can notice what our bodies do when they “rev up.”
What I have noticed so far is that “revved up” is indeed “up.” The body’s energy moves up and forward, becoming extremely focused.
We can also observe specific areas of the body and notice how they change.
For example, if I observe my eyes in “revved up” mode, I notice they are tight. My field of vision narrows, and I see only what is in front of me. Or my eyes tense up and scan my surroundings. All of this is efficient for running, fighting or spotting danger.
What are your body cues that let you know that you are “revved up?”
Second, we can notice what our bodies do when they relax.
For me and many people, the energy of “relaxed” moves back and down. Slowly.
When I observe my eyes in “back and down” mode, I notice they feel softer. The gaze is restful, and I am able to take in more nuances in my environment.
What are your body cues that let you know that you are relaxed?
You might also notice that the “revved up” mode activates your body quickly.
By contrast, the “back and down” mode unfolds slowly, layer by layer. Body contractions melt gradually, like ice.
We cannot rush this process by telling ourselves, “Hurry up and calm down!!” or “Stop being so reactive!” or “Why am I still not relaxed!?!” If you find yourself thinking this way, it means you are still in “revved up” mode.
Contraction and Expansion
Another way of looking at it is that “up and forward” is contraction, while “back and down” is expansion. This holds true mentally as well as physically.
The contracted bodily state is accompanied by a contracted mental state. In this mode, nuances are lost. We think in absolutes, make snap decisions, speak without thinking, and jump to conclusions.
The expanded body is accompanied by an expansive mental state. In this mode our thinking is nuanced, creative, and receptive to options and other perspectives.
Biologically we need to access both modes: rapid, hyper-alert, energized contraction/action, and slow, reflective restfulness.
But most of us could use alot more “back and down.”
What does the movement from “revved up” to relaxed feel like?
Imagine that your body is a spiral that suddenly tightens inward and shoots upward—that is the feeling of contraction.
Now imagine that intensely alert spiral starts to uncoil and soften. This is a much slower process; we won’t experience the results right away.
Nothing about “back and down” has anything to do with “right away.” If you feeling impatient, you are not there yet.
Most of us could use more practice at slowly, softly, unfurling, unwinding, expanding, and dropping into deep restfulness.
Restoring ourselves regularly keeps us resilient during times of intense action.
You can find some “back and down” promoting practices here:
Remember, you can speak your truth and take care of yourself. Wishing everyone a restful, resourceful month.