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Ayahuasca

Managing your nervous system

Last week, I saw a good talk on somatic experiencing therapy. I’ve heard about it, and in some ways what I heard was quite obvious, but it was good to have it spelled out.

Somatic experiencing is one of several body-focused psychotherapies that have risen to prominence in the last two decades, partly as a reaction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’s narrow focus on cognition.

Body-focused therapies include everything from mindful body-scanning, to focused relaxation, to EMDR and tapping, to traditional practices like yoga and Tai Chi, or arts practices like dance and singing, or indeed sports, nature – basically, anything that involves more than sitting in a chair thinking and talking.

Somatic experiencing therapy was developed by Peter Levine in the 1960s, while he was hanging out at Esalen, the human potential college in northern California. But don’t worry, it’s not New Age, as far as I can tell. Like I said, it seems pretty common sense to me.

Somatic experiencing focuses on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), how it affects our emotions and consciousness, and how we can learn to regulate the ANS so it doesn’t burn out. The ANS controls the automatic functioning of our body – skin, body-temperature, circulation, digestion, breathing- and the release of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

There are two systems in the ANS. First, the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re not safe, there’s a threat nearby’ and preparing you to respond to that threat.

The eyes dilate, the mouth goes dry, the skin feels prickly, you may start to sweat, the heart beats faster, the breath is quicker and shorter, blood goes to arms and legs in preparation for action (this is why one can feel dizzy), digestion stops (or you may throw up, or piss or shit yourself).  The kidney and hormone glands release a surge of chemicals to prepare you for action, such as adrenalin, cortisol and epinephrine. This boosts your short-term energy but leaves you feeling very tired afterwards.

The second system in the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘rest and digest’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re safe’ and letting the body rest, recoup, and digest. The breath and heart-beat slows, the stomach digests, inflammation goes down.

When the two systems work well together, the body achieves homeostasis. It’s like a car driving well with the accelerator, gears and brake.  It responds to threats appropriately but also finds time to relax, digest and heal. When the ANS stops working, the body becomes stuck in fight-or-flight mode. It’s in a state of constant vigilance and defensiveness. This is extremely wearing to the body and the immune system. It’s like driving across the country with the hand-brake on. It damages the immune system and can lead to chronic stress, insomnia, burn-out, heart conditions and psycho-immune disorders like in ME / CFS, Fibromyalgia, POTS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can also lead to dysfunction in the ANS. A traumatic event triggers the freeze response, which is an ancient animal survival technique – playing dead in front of a predator. During the freeze response, the mind can dissociate, by either blacking out or separating and observing from outside the body (as it were) or from behind a glass wall of derealization. When the ancient freeze response is activated, younger or higher systems in the brain go offline, such as the social engagement system. Our face freezes and we’re not capable of even altering our facial expression, much less socially interacting. With PTSD, one is easily and frequently triggered into this freeze response.

Hearing the talk took me back to 20 years ago, when I had PTSD and social anxiety. I remember how physically tiring it was – my body was constantly releasing stress chemicals, and never getting the chance to re-charge.  I would sometimes go into moments of derealization when I felt the centre of attention – everything would suddenly seem unreal, like I was watching from far away, and my body would feel awfully anxious. I still sometimes get that.

I would make myself go to social events and try to be friendly, and then I would end up in arguments. I couldn’t understand why. The CBT theory was that I was merely perceiving arguments that weren’t really there, but this was not the case. In fact, going to a party triggered the freeze response in me, and this would shut down my facial expressions, making me look angry and arrogant, and people would respond defensively to that. It took me a while to figure out this was what was happening, and that the way to break the feedback loop was to focus on my self-acceptance rather than other people’s reactions.  I eventually drew this graph to explain it to myself.

The only way I could manage my nervous system, back then, was through booze. It didn’t work very well, because I would over-drink and behave inappropriately; the hangover the next day made me more anxious; the booze stopped me ever learning better coping methods; and I could easily have become addicted. I still use booze to calm down during socially stressful situations, but slowly, Buddhist practices, in particular the teachings of Pema Chodron, are helping me learn to tolerate uncertainty, physical anxiety, and social ambiguity (her teachings really fit well with Somatic Experiencing, by the way – she mentions it in her latest course, I’ll put the full quote in the comments).

Back in my 20s, CBT / Stoicism was certainly helpful for me. It slowly trained my automatic self-talk, so that instead of saying ‘this is a threat, this is a disaster!’ it said ‘this is a threat, oh well, big deal’. I learned to shrug. But that was a long, slow process. Luckily, the CBT course I followed – Overcoming Social Anxiety Step By Step – incorporated body-focused exercises like relaxation and slow-reading. Traditional CBT does not pay sufficient attention to the body and the ANS.

We can join up the two approaches – the Socratic and the somatic. After all, Epictetus said ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’; while Peter Levine has said ‘trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event’. The cognitive and the somatic are connected – both involve judgements, they merely process those judgements in older and younger systems. A good therapeutic approach will work with both systems.

Here are five ways to manage your nervous system:

  • Deep breathing

Last week, I went to play tennis, and noticed my mind and body were all over the place. I switched into 5/7 breathing – breathing in for five seconds, breathing out for seven seconds – and did that between every point and between every game. It totally turned my game around. Before, I’d been very agitated, swearing at myself every time I hit the ball wrong. Now, I shifted into a Zen-like calm, and gradually my body relaxed and I hit the ball like I wanted to. I go into 5/7 breathing whenever I notice I am slightly stressed, in a meeting say, or on the Tube. It activates the vagal nerve at the back of the neck, and switches our body into the parasympathetic nervous system. I suppose one could over-use this technique – sometimes one is too relaxed on the tennis court, and one needs to shout at oneself a little to get one going. Homeostasis doesn’t mean being totally relaxed all the time.

  • Connection

Last year, I wrote about learning to scuba dive in the Andaman Islands, and how, on my first deep dive, I got into trouble and started to hyperventilate. For a second, I thought I was going to die. My instructor reacted perfectly. She saw I was panicking, and gave me a hug. This calmed me down sufficiently that I started breathing more slowly, and could continue the dive. Hugging tells our body we’re safe and OK. Physical connection is an important mammalian healing response after trauma – look at how chimps groom each other following a clash. Some universities have tried to de-stress students by introducing petting zoos, which is a nice idea but might be stressful for the animals. As soon as my life is a bit more settled, I plan to get a dog – dogs are incredibly healing, especially for the English, because it helps us communicate affection at a non-verbal level, something the English struggle with.

  • Come to your senses

Tuning into our senses can help us switch out of physical stress. The therapist David Field calls it ‘orientating yourself to beauty’. Rather than heeding your internal rumination narrative, you focus outside, on the beauty of the sensory world. On my second deep dive in the Andaman Islands, I was worried I would panic again. Instead, I focused outside of me, and was totally absorbed in the beauty of the underwater world. That was tuning in to vision, but one can equally tune in to touch, taste, sound or smell. Last year I interviewed Anthony Fidler about how he has learned to navigate occasional psychotic episodes using spiritual practices like mindfulness, Tai Chi, connection practices and flower remedies. It’s interesting how embodied his practice is – he suggests that part of being prone to psychosis is having a very sensitive nervous system. The technique that sounded a bit idiosyncratic to me was the flower remedies. But I guess he’s tuning into smell and using that to navigate highly stressful moments. It reminds me of a moment, on an ayahuasca retreat last October, when I felt very scared. I asked for assistance from the facilitators, and a lovely guy called Joel came and sat next to me. He said ‘you’re going to find that perfume bottle very helpful’. We’d all been given a bottle of magic perfume, called Agua Florida, which Latin American shamans are very fond of. We were advised that we could use it in ceremonies if we felt anxious – just dab a bit of it on our face or arms. This sounded like crazy advice to me – how was cheap eau de cologne going to help me? But now I think, maybe it did. It helped me come to my senses, rather than going into a fight-and-flight or a freeze response.

  • Sing and dance

David Field suggests that trauma – the freeze response – shuts down the part of the brain that’s capable of nuanced thinking, so we become very black-and-white in our thinking, shaping the world into simplistic narratives of goodies and baddies. Someone in the audience said ‘that sounds like Israel and Palestine – they’re traumatized, and stuck in black-and-white thinking’. That’s what my brother is researching at the moment – how political polarization is connected to trauma. But how can a community collectively respond to trauma and process it? One method humans have evolved is singing and dancing together. It feels good, it synchronizes our breathing and heart-beat, it releases pent-up emotions, it articulates our inchoate suffering, and it directly affects our vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. I remember watching the Manchester One Love concert, a few weeks after the bombing, and feeling incredibly moved. I thought how powerful music is as a means of collective response to trauma. Dancing alone or together is also a powerful means of healing. Aristotle suggested in his Politics that the good society should have ecstatic rituals to help citizens find catharsis and shake off the nervous discontents of civilization. Any form of shaking – from jumping up and down to running or even bouncing on a trampoline – can help us shake off nervous tension. Think how central shaking is to ecstatic rituals, from the Quakers to Shakers to Holy-Rollers to the head-banging worshippers of Cybele.

So: deep breathing, connecting, coming to your senses, and singing and dancing. Those are some basic ways one can affect one’s vagal nerve, increase your ‘vagal tone’ (which is your ability to go into threat-response and then calm down quickly), and activate your parasympathetic nervous system to rest, heal and bond. All of which makes me think how important rituals are – they absorb our consciousness, slow our minds and bodies down, engage our senses, and give us the opportunity to sing and dance together. That’s how humans have healed ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Socrates and his rational talking therapy is a relatively new approach. The old ways still work too.

By the by, what I’ve described here is a fairly personal take on somatic therapy – I’ve missed out many of the key concepts and methods of Somatic Experiencing, so if you want to learn more I recommend you seek out the writings of Peter Levine or a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which people often recommend to me but I haven’t read yet. 

 

‘This is just a test’

Apologies for the delay in writing. I’ve been in California for the last three weeks, immersed in preparing for Burning Man, then going to Burning Man, then recovering from Burning Man. I have so many impressions from this month I can’t yet structure them into a neat essay, so consider this a postcard instead.

If I was going to sum up San Francisco, it would be the fact that in 24 hours, I met two separate people who firmly believed they were going to live forever, thanks to technological breakthroughs in the near future. Also within 24 hours, I saw two homeless people shooting up in the street. There’s a combination of evangelical optimism in the power of tech to save the world, and an anxious sense that everything could fall apart any moment – every day, an eery earthquake siren rings out over the city, followed by the words ‘this is just a test’.

I wanted to visit the Bay Area, and maybe even move here, because it’s a visionary place, a place of bold spiritual experiments. In the UK, talking about ecstatic experiences feels a bit weird. Here, halfway through a talk on ecstasy at Burning Man, I looked out over my small, stoned audience and realized they’d probably had more ecstatic experiences that morning than I’d had in the last five years.

Bay Area experimentalism goes back at least as far as the 1950s, when Alan Watts helped to kickstart the San Francisco Renaissance, infusing Zen and Daoism into American culture. Down the highway in Big Sur, Michael Murphy launched Esalen, an educational institution devoted to the ‘religion of no religion’ – I met him two weeks ago, friendly and still excited, and spoke to him for four hours about his memories of Watts, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard.

Esalen was a hot-tub of new ideas – it helped to develop transpersonal psychology (a psychology open to the spiritual experiences and spiritual potential of human beings) as well as gestalt therapy, holotropic breathwork, somatic therapy, shamanic healing, encounter sessions, ecstatic dance, deep ecology, and many of the other approaches which are now mainstream in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ global culture.

Murphy struck me as, firstly, a great researcher and fine mind; and secondly, an amazing spiritual entrepreneur. At 31, he’d set up an institute that is still going, persuaded luminaries like Huxley and Abraham Maslow to help, worked out a working business model, and attracted grants for research projects with universities and organisations. Five separate research institutes have been spun out of Esalen, helping to influence everything from legislation on alternative health to new approaches to diplomacy.

The Bay Area has also long been a site for experimentation in new forms of living – Stewart Brand helped to inspire the back-to-earth commune movement with his Whole Earth Catalogue, Watts lived in his houseboat with other artists, where he ran a centre for comparative religion, and thousands flocked here in the summer of love to shack up in houses or sleep in the parks. You still meet many people living in intentional communities – I gave a talk at one, Kaleidoscope, visited another – a marvellously kooky house called Embassy, and met a designer living at an ‘intergenerational commune’ called Magic in Palo Alto. It made me sad to move back to my single-dweller existence back in London.

It’s a place where people devote themselves to lifelong learning and new forms of higher education mushroom up, like Esalen, like the California Institute of Integral Studies (which Alan Watts helped set up), or online learning platforms like Masterclass and Udemy. The San Francisco Free College provides free classes to everyone in the city.

It has been, and still is, a place of experimentalism in sex and drugs. It was down the road, at the Golden Gate Park in 1968, that Timothy Leary announced the world should ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. It was also in the Bay Area that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters organized their acid tests in the mid-60s. And psychedelics are still a BIG part of Bay Area culture – everyone seems to take them, from the AI engineers and venture capitalists down to the hippies on Haight Street. The California Institute of Integral Studies is the only educational institution in the world which has a masters in psychedelic therapy. At one commune dinner earlier this week, my fellow guests traded stories of their experiences on esoteric chemicals, like Londoners casually swapping suggestions for the next box-set.

Free love is also explored with the same earnest, slightly techno-engineering approach. I was told of a recent workshop in ‘relationship anarchy’ where people wore badges showing different shapes indicating the type of structures they were open to (dyads, triangles, dodecahedrons and so on). Michael Murphy also told me of a chart at Esalen, one year, called the ‘Fuck-O-Rama’, indicating all the participants in a retreat, with lines showing who fancied who and who had fucked who. A flow-chat for polyamory – how very Bay Area.

All of this utopian experimentalism flowed into Burning Man, a situationist happening in the desert that has morphed into an experiment in urban planning and communitarian living. For one week, Black Rock City rises out of the dust, with a population of 70,000, making it the third-biggest city in Nevada, with its own airport, ranger force, psychedelic harm reduction tent, orgy camp, vast desert art gallery, and everything else one could possibly dream of (except a library, natch). And then, after a week, it dissolves back into dust.

And the area is home to some of the young companies that have changed the world and defined all of our virtual lives – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Netflix, Tinder and so on. It’s exciting to be close to where reality is being re-made. It’s also alluring – there’s so much money sloshing around, surely some of it will find its way to me!

But any place with so much utopian optimism is also going to have a pretty massive shadow. Silicon Valley is going through a period of soul-searching. Bay Area residents always thought of themselves as the plucky outsiders, the rebels, the Burners. But from another perspective, they’re the 1%, the new global elite, dancing at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs while the rest of society struggles to adapt.

Suddenly, the rebels have the power, and they’re not used to it. Steve Jobs urged entrepreneurs to ‘make a dent in the universe’ – but what if the dent is in something important, like democracy, or civility, or job security, or our capacity to pay attention? It reminds me of the Mitchell and Webb sketch where they play two SS Nazis and Mitchell says: ‘Have you noticed our caps have got little skulls on them? Hans…are we the baddies?’

Alan Watts preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ when he moved here, and the Bay Area has, in fact, been exporting insecurity around the world, through disruptive algorithms that take away people’s livelihoods. I asked one venture capitalist how worried we should be about automation and AI replacing jobs. ‘Extremely’, he replied. He, like several other tech entrepreneurs, thinks the necessary response is some sort of universal basic income, to support people while their jobs are taken away.

The mash-up of spirituality and extreme wealth can leave a weird taste – you’re always networking, even at an orgy. Your latest incredible epiphany becomes a way to impress people and secure funding. You emerge from your 5meo-DMT trip convinced the universe wants you to launch your new app. You’re a superhero, a divine god– why shouldn’t you be a billionaire? I’ve met shamans who run ayahuasca ceremonies to consult the spirits about new business ventures, or retreats offering ‘sacred upgrades’. I can see a scene at the Pearly Gates, when Jesus asks ‘what did you do for the starving and the marginalized’ and they (or rather, we) say ‘well…I did go on this amazing ayahuasca retreat and really connected to my highest self’.

Gurus flutter around the millionaires like hummingbirds. They remind me of the court priests of Versailles, or Mr Collins, the oleaginous vicar in Pride and Prejudice. The gurus cater to the spiritual needs of their fabulously wealthy clients and assure them of their cosmic mandate. To be honest, it’s partly why I came here – I thought I could perhaps get rich selling philosophy to Silicon Valley. But I’m not sure I want to be Mr Collins.

Meanwhile, the rents are so high in San Francisco, I met one person who pays $1300 for a bunk-bed in a communal room; a trip to the doctor to check out an ear-infection reportedly costs you $10,000; gun crime is out of control – one of my uber drivers lost her cousin to a random shooting the week before;  and there are so many drugged-out or mentally ill homeless on the streets, it’s like walking into the zombie apocalypse.

Some entrepreneurs are already dreaming of the next escape, to new cities built at sea, or to New Zealand, or to Mars. They plan, after all, to live forever. ‘What do you want to do with forever?’ I asked one of the transhumanists I met. ‘Oh, solve human suffering, have fun, explore space.’ There can be a lack of humility in the spiritual culture here (we are gods), which stems partly from a disconnection to the earth – humus – and a gnostic desire to escape matter, Earth, death, to escape shit (there’s concern about the amount of human feces in the streets here, but luckily someone has invented an app to help navigate around it).

Meanwhile, the Bay Area itself is threatened by climate change, by rising sea levels, forest fires, and the drying up of arable land. But maybe, if humans do come up with an amazing idea to deal with climate change, it will emerge from here.

Yesterday I met another Brit who’d moved here 20 years ago, and who works in a network dedicated to ‘restorative economics’, trying to find a better model for humanity to live in harmony with the planet. That sort of deep ecology also emerged here, in the work of Bay Area thinkers like Joanna Macy. The Brit told me he was inspired to move here partly by Alan Watts, and his insistence that humans are just one part of the natural ecosystem and shouldn’t think of ourselves as separate.

I asked him what he thought would happen to the Earth this century. ‘Well, the arctic is releasing methane, which is not good news. The IPCC’s predictions seem overly optimistic, so I expect sea levels to rise over the next few decades. That will lead to serious geo-political instability in response to mass migration, and potentially nuclear wars.’ I imagined seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, as I kayaked down Piccadilly Circus. ‘And what about the longer-term?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Hopefully some humans will survive.’ And the strange thing was, I still enjoyed the rest of the day.