What Happens in Vagus...
Imagine all the brilliant flashing lights displaying words like compassion, altruism, gratitude, love, and happiness. Imagine all the money moving through slot machines and gaming tables going toward education, healthcare, and the impoverished. Imagine all the shows having a theme about loving-kindness, compassion, enthusiastic joy, and equanimity. Well, if we are talking about Vagus as in the vagus nerve, then it’s for certain we’re talking about the same thing. Guess Vegas has a long way to go and probably why what happens in Vegas, will stay in Vegas.
Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley, has devoted many years to research on the vagal nerve and what is now called the nerve of compassion. The vagal nerve is a nerve that originates in the brainstem (lower brain, unconscious area) and runs through many visceral organs including the heart. Studies find that the stronger the vagal tone, the more compassionate one is. It is suggested that high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, promotes altruism, compassion, gratitude, love, and happiness.
This helps explain that during compassion meditation one feels the ever expansive and warmth in the chest region. This nerve, known as the rest and digest or tend and befriend nerve, is responsible for that activation. This part of the nervous system is our relaxation response and not only reduces heart rate, but also reduces inflammation. Inflammation is the beginning process of any disease, be it depression, insomnia to heart disease and cancer.
Studies show that meditating on compassion shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, specifically pre-frontal cortex, which is the seat of happiness, biologically speaking. Oxytocin, coined as the trust hormone, also activates this nerve as if priming for compassion and helping relaxation.
As we practice mindfully with compassion meditations, we are showering our bodies with great benefit, which is a kind and loving act of self-care. As we send compassion out for the wish to alleviate others afflictions, we are still receiving great benefit. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides this reminder, “In Asian languages, the word for 'mind' and the word for 'heart' are the same. So if you’re not feeling mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you are not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness toward oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”
The Pursuit of Happiness
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
- HH Dalai Lama
Have you noticed how mainstream media is espousing mindfulness, compassion, empathy, and happiness suggesting that these qualities are good for your overall health and well-being? Unfortunately, such news doesn’t seem to seep much further than being a good read or news program. The fact is, Americans when compared to other countries on happiness, rank about 20th. In my work in health care and sexuality, it’s very rare to encounter true well-being and happiness within the walls of my office. I am optimistic (because I’m an optimist), because this culture is very thirsty for authentic happiness.
The reason I write, teach, and counsel patients about cultivating qualities such as compassion, empathy, insight, relationship attunement, exercise, and healthy nutrition, is because these qualities are the path toward happiness. Notice I didn’t mention more money, more vacation, more golf, more shopping, another home, because materialism has failed as a path. And yes, you can guess that not even more orgasms will be the ultimate happiness path. Studies suggest that once you earn an income of $60,000 year, anything over doesn’t necessarily make you happier. In fact, as incomes increase, happiness indexes show a decrease in happiness.
Our capacity to be fully present and recognize another’s suffering, generates happiness. Compassion, meaning our ability to hold another’s suffering and a desire to alleviate their suffering, is a very active process. Many of my patients hold a position of why does their partner have to feel a certain way, why can’t they just get over their “problem” and get on with it. Despite their insistence for their partner to "get over it", neither person is happy and they stay stuck in a holding position of “rightness” at the expense of a loving partner. I must admit having been in that situation at a time in my life when my partner stated that I should take the emotions out of it when I was in great duress. After all, as he said, he was more logical than me, and I was more emotional. Interesting conclusion.
When we are skillful in the ability to be compassionate, empathy springs forth, which provides the “relating to” the emotion the person is feeling. When we relate to their feelings of sadness, insecurity, jealousy, fearfulness, or shame, we are in resonance and attunement, which let’s the person in despair know, I’m here for you, it’s all okay. Within this space, intimacy is borne and a genuine and authentic acceptance experienced. Ultimately, compassion provides the gateway to deeper love and happiness. A very active and generous process that welcomes life as it shows up, just as it is, without judgment. An interesting side note, research concludes that this active process is a very felt sense, meaning, it can't be faked. Either it's genuine or contrived. As I say to patients, check up on your life for the evidence. If your life is reflecting intimate relations with your partner, rejoice, and keep cultivating this genuine attitude. If your life is or has reflected conflicted relations and resulting breakups, well, practice the exercise listed below as these qualities can be developed. It's living a more skillful life, rather than choosing insanity of doing the same thing over and over and wondering why the results are the same.
The unfortunate news to these underdeveloped states of mind such as compassion, it leads to poorer health, increases in blood pressure, anxiety, stress, inflammatory processes, and relationship breakdown. I’m certain the reason our divorce rates are so much higher in the U.S. as compared to other countries, is skillful attitudes of compassion have not been developed or even encouraged. As a culture we place greater value on human “doing” rather than human “being”. And it is within the space of "being" where whatever arises moment to moment just as it is, brings well-being of body and mind.
Here's the good news, there is very compelling data that continues to emerge on how to cultivate positive states of well-being that lead to healthier and happier people. It requires a good dose of daily discipline to master the skillful life of happiness, but I know it’s truly possibly for you. Below is a helpful method that when practiced daily for 20 minutes (with hopes of at least 30), you will begin to experience a more peaceful and spacious life. Give yourself a 30-day challenge and you can check up on yourself. See if you experience greater well-being and ask those around you if they are experiencing you in a new way.
May you all have happiness and may your health and sexual well being prosper.
Sit. Stay. Heal.
"The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not traveling at the same velocity as we are. We see only those moving in the same whirling orbit and only those moving with the same urgency. Soon we begin to suffer a form of amnesia, caused by the blurred vision of velocity itself, where those germane to our humanity are dropped from our minds one by one."
- David Whyte
Over the years of study and contemplative wisdom practices, the pace of hurriedness that encircled my own life underwent what I call a forced-transformation. That’s when the visitors from beyond wave their wand and magically life stops being constructed on the sandy mound we think is a safe foundation. When this constructed house falls, shock sets in, followed by utter quietness. So silent that the pain once pushed away and ignored, begins to surface and is felt. The pain scale charts used in medicine do not have this level of pain as a choice, it’s off the chart.
When I came upon this writing from David Whyte, I understood to my bones what the essence of this velocity can mean and how it related to my own life. The difficulty to just drop into the gap between thoughts, feelings, and sensations of my mind within this type of speediness seems frightening and as if things would fall apart if not kept at that pace. But as the universe within me would have it, I had to face the dropping away of my self-constructed velocity and stay put. Pema Chodron calls this taking your seat and suggests a slogan to address this as: Sit. Stay. Heal.
Last year, I experienced this proverbial “seat.” Over and over I returned to my breath and brought to life all the study and teaching I have been very fortunate to have encountered. Taking my seat and welcoming the silent whispers that had always been gently speaking, I realized that without taking genuine interest in the quiet solitude within me, that Socrates might be right, the unexamined life is not worth living. What a tragedy that would mean and not an option I would want to consider. Living has no meaning in speed, acquiring more money in a bank account, another degree or promotion, getting a “perfect” mate, and so on. However, has everything to do with the cultivation of deep attention to awareness moment to moment.
Imagine a world where we stop and rest within a space of stillness unencumbered by constant activity. Imagine your day as you go from one task to the next and that if between each task, you stop and relax with a few breaths and feel into your body and with intention go to the next. Actually intending with attention just how precious your life is and the life of those who choose to be with you. All to often, my patients reflect the annoyances, critics, and judgments of their partner and completely loose sight of the gift of being partnered. The relationship seems trivial and inconvenient as if life owes them something more impressive and perfect.
The sudden stopping my life took last year that put me firmly on my “seat," created the conditions for me to sit, stay, and heal. Velocity may have its place for Olympians and racecar drivers, but most of us live our lives with this sort of inward velocity. If your life reflects repeated issues, well, just call that velocity. The antidote I recommend is: Sit. Stay. Heal. Then, and maybe then, the quiet whispers once ignored will be the lens you see with, as a guide sent from the beyond.
Kundalini, Beyond Your Bones
"A trembling in the bones may carry a more convincing testimony than the dry documented deductions of the brain."
Let’s dive into the system of Kundalini energy and how it circulates helping to increase our awareness of sexual energy. Keep in mind, although Kundalini is often analogous to sexual energy, let me be clear that it is not ultimately intended to be an egoic self-serving, craving based system. The highest intention of this powerful energy is to become more aware and be of benefit beyond any conceptual idea of one’s sexual needs.
When finally we slow ourselves down enough, we can sense into something beyond our sense perceptions and a thinking brain that chatters away about this and that. Contemplating what that particular feel within the bones may be, is something the East has had woven into their traditions throughout time. Our more Socratic views discount any possibility that something not perceived by the senses is unfounded. Yet despite such dispute, we only have to quiet ourselves enough to tap into this subtle energy.
Many of you may have heard the word chakras and channels. In the East, it is said, chakras are energetic wheel-like vortexes located from the base of the spine to the top of the head. In Vedic tradition there are seven, in Buddhist tradition there are four main ones and three secret chakras. From the chakras, it is said there are 84,000 channels distributing this vital subtle energy throughout the body. If you’ve ever experienced Acupuncture, this energy, or Chi, is what the practitioner is accessing.
So how does this relate to Kundalini? When we settle our mind-body into a calm state (the physical body is gross form of energy, think Physics), we can directly access this often very dormant energy, called fierce woman. As we cultivate awareness at this level, we can then learn techniques to stoke this inner fire and awaken more deeply to vitality and satisfaction. It is often referred to as Great Bliss.
When kundalini begins to move through the chakras it then circulates into the channels, which is a fortifying vital energy that interacts with the more gross energy of our physical bodies. So when you get that sense of something deeper within you, it is this source you’ve tapped into which then informs your gross physical energy body. We can all relate to the gut instinct; however, even that needs refining. Read more by Dr. Rick Hanson.
With this basic level of knowledge, it is from here that one can begin to imagine this system and begin a process of deeper awakening. I hope each of you will take only 5 minutes a day to quiet your mind and imagine such a fantastic, organized current that can help you come alive.
Rick Hanson: How to Change Your Brain
A typical science quote for neuroplasticity: "Neurons that wire together, fire together." So mindfulness helps guide us to wire healthy networks that will fire together and over time creating a healthy well-being.
The Science of Mindfulness
Mindfulness might sound simple – just be aware of what you're thinking, right? Mindfulness is more than that, but unfortunately there's no clear definition of "mind" in conventional medicine or western psychology to help us understand what we are trying to keep in our awareness. Brilliant people have tried to describe just exactly what the mind encompasses, but the subject is still up for grabs. What I know is that understanding the mind gives my clients a guide to where their own processes have developed problems and what they can do about it.
The author of Mindsight, Dan Siegel, MD, suggest that the mind "...can be defined as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information." In other words, our minds have a physical reality located in our brains (actually there is no location of mind), but they are something more than just that grey matter upstairs. The mind, according to Dr. Siegel, controls the ins and outs of our energy, our reactions and the vast amount of information that we process daily.
One scientist, Richard Davidson, PhD, researched exactly how negative qualities of the mind (fear, anger, shame) can actually change the neural pathways of the brain. He showed clearly that through practice, focus and attention we are capable of changing our brains, a process called neuroplasticity. Fortunately for us, the Dalai Lama suggested that Dr. Davidson turn his attention toward the positive qualities of mindfulness and peaceful inner strength. Just as you can change the biology of your mind (brain) with thought with fear, you can change your neurons with happiness or contentment.
In much the same way that a computer and software work together to accomplish goals, your brain and mind work cooperatively to understand, interpret and process the world around you. Computer hardware can work faster or slower depending on the kind of software used and your mind (the software within the hardware of your brain) can change how you understand the universe.
Why do software, hardware and mindfulness matter? I use this analogy as a tool to understanding how to work on basic problems with your world. Through study, meditation and mindfulness you can improve your understanding of how the software and hardware of your mind work together. This interaction of the brain and the mind is often the basis for many of the issues we experience.
Over time you can use neuroscience research, like that done by Richard Davidson, to update your own software. Mindfully change your processes to reflect the world you would like to inhabit rather than the world of your childhood or your fears. Changing thoughts can impact the pathways in your physical mind and allow you to more readily understand how a problem can be solved. You can improve how you interact with the world around you.
East Meets West, Do You Mind?
I've been reflecting a great deal on my upcoming conference, on my work with patients and on how we as health care providers decide how to merge what we learn at these educational events into our practice. The burgeoning field of neuroscience meeting eastern psychology (more specifically Buddhist Psychology) has been a long interest of mine and now there are whole conferences that merge East to West.
Of course my Integrative Medicine Fellowship merged alternative medicine with conventional medicine and that has influenced my practice significantly. To me it seems to be a perfect fit to bridge what is being understood from neuroscience with what we know in human sexuality. As I counsel individuals and couples in sexuality I am certain that this connection brings more to our possibility of growth and experience as whole people.
In some of my blogs, I discuss Eastern psychology, mindfulness, neuroscience, and how I see these influences shaping my practice in sexuality counseling and Integrative medicine. As a small introduction, let's evaluate what we call “problems” and how those “problems” affect our sex function and health. In the healthcare world we call this "sexual dysfunction."
To understand where these so called problems originate, we turn to the mind. But the question becomes what do we mean by the term "mind?" In Eastern Psychology, the mind is referenced in a broader sense as an integrated being (thoughts, feelings, sensations) verses what we may call our thinking brain in the West. In Western Psychology, there is no firm definition of “mind.” Yet, we commonly use the word in our everyday language. I hear this all the time. “Oh I changed my mind,” “What’s on your mind,” or “I can’t stop my mind from these crazy thoughts." Often, this kind of talk is about the thinking brain. Perhaps this "mind" isn't always the thinking brain we assume it might be. Understanding our problems means it is worth asking a few questions of ourselves to explore how each person defines "mind" for themselves.
If we understand how we (as individuals) use the term mind, we can begin to understand how to apply mindfulness to our daily lives. We can begin to learn how to label so-called “problems” from our minds that create distress to our sexual well-being and well-being in general.
So just take a moment and close your eyes. Take three long breathes – in and out. With continued slow breaths, scan your body from head to toe and contemplate your mind. Keep the inquiry of "where is my mind" active in your thoughts? Ask yourself questions like: "Is it my heart, or my toes, or my belly, or my brain, or my eyes or my skin?" Notice how when you bring attention to each of these areas there is a sense of mind there.
This sense that there is a center in each of these areas is commonly know in science as proprioception or “sense of self.” Yet the ability to locate an exact area of this “knowingness” that is occurring with such a questioning thoughtfulness is not fully understood. When we look through the lens of Eastern Psychology we glean a better understanding and where mindfulness is touched. Enjoy this investigative contemplation and look for the upcoming blogs on integrating East and West into Mindful sexuality.
What is Mindfulness?
Patients often ask, "Is there anything I can do to heal or feel better?" YES! The best tools aren't an exotic new drug or a detailed exercise regime -- its all in your mind. Healing begins with an essential quality of awareness and perceiving called mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a term borrowed by psychology from the spiritual path of the Buddhas, but the science supports mindfulness as a helpful piece of our own healing from many traumas. We use the term mindfulness to describe that moment-to-moment focus where you have your complete attention on the experience before you. This is easiest to think about when the experience is happy like marrying the love of your life, holding your child for the first time or an incredible vacation sunset.
Difficult situations like hearing that you have cancer or that your job is going away are harder for us to manage mindfulness. Often our feelings of judgment, opinion and fear rush in to fill that space and defend us from the experience. We're trying to fight against the bad or threatening experience, which is a pretty natural desire. Unfortunately, that desire to fight the situation immediately means we become tense. We take a stance and then begin focusing on that divide between us and "it."
Mindfulness sounds pretty simple -- be aware of right now. Okay, you've got that, you're reading a blog entry on it. But truly being in a mindful state requires a non-judgmental observation of your thoughts, and feelings and then accepting those things without attaching any importance to them.
This kind of observation and acceptance without injecting our negative self-talk, societal training or other input takes time and practice. Afterall, we've spent a lifetime learning what is "good" or "bad" and having opinions about everything from food to careers to pets.
Being in the moment, finding your place with mindfulness, brings about a wealth of tools for you to use in healing sexual wounds, personal growth, health and emotional well -being. Not to mention stress relief!
Mind Your Eating
During my training in Integrative Medicine, we had a full day of mindfulness activities — eating, walking, touching, listening, smelling — an experiential cultivation of the five senses. I had a meditation practice at the time, yet it never occurred to me that I might apply mindfulness to my senses. The experience of being mindful about how I perceive the world changed how I approached eating, walking, touching, listening and smelling. So when I think about the usefulness of slowing down, dropping into the senses and being present to sexual experiences, it only makes sense that teaching patients how to bring awareness to their senses is vital to cultivating sexual well-being.
Patients often complain about being in thinking mode during sex (i.e., the kids, house chores, work, etc). The person misses a lot of the pleasure and desire available to them by being present and aware of their body. Their thoughts and worries thwart healing sexual enjoyment.
Learning new skills works best if you start small, so I like to use the following eating exercise as a way to begin learning how to be aware and mindful of your body's sensations. Next time you sit down to eat, try the following exercise. (We will work into the sexual experience in a later blog but you can certainly try this out with the next touch you receive from your partner!)
First make sure you are sitting in front of your food and it is completely prepared. This is where you will prepare your mind to be still. Sitting up straight with your hands resting lightly in your lap, take a deep breath down to your belly and count to six. Slightly hold and exhale through your pursed lips to a count of six and then hold again at end of exhalation before grabbing onto the next breathe. Do this about five times.
With a mind of appreciation, place a bit of food in your mouth and very slowly taste into your food, very slowly chewing and being aware of the taste. Continue to bring conscious breath to the experience. If you catch your thinking going to work issues or other things, bring your attention back to the flavors, textures, and chewing experience of the food.
If you are able to get through your entire meal with this level of awareness – congrats you’re on your way to cultivating a mindful life of well-being! If you struggle with this, which is most of us, just keep up the work and bringing your mind back to the sensations you have with each bite. Over time, you will have a whole new appreciate for this incredible ability to eat food and a building skill for using your mindfulness to enjoy your body's amazing sensations.
Sherri Aikin is a Fellow of Integrative Medicine, Nurse Practitioner, Sex Counselor, Mindfulness Facilitator, and Life Coach.
I'm a current patient and I have set up my ChARM account.
Telemedicine. Contact by email or call 775-403-5757.
"Throughout my 40s, I sought help from different professionals for perimenopausal and relationship issues. In Sherri, I found a trusted guide to help me navigate the turbulent waters...."