Thursday, April 10, 2014

Claim and Manage Your Sensitivity

When I was a kid, my mother often told me how super-sensitive I was. I took almost everything personally and totally to heart, and I sometimes reacted with outrageous tantrums that embarrassed me and everyone around me.

Looking back, I believe I was someone whose nervous system had outgrown my physical body. I had no practice, as I do now in yoga, to show me how to wind the coils of my nervous system in ways that would reduce my hypersensitivity. For many years I walked around with a lot of metaphorically, and probably literally, exposed nerves that were constantly triggered.

Sports helped a lot. Talking to friends helped, too. But it wasn't until I started meditating at age 21, as part of my tai chi practice, that I began to learn how to soothe myself. I say began, because it has taken years of dedicated practice to feel at the core of my being that I am in fact calming myself. I was kind of like Bob in the Bill Murray-Richard Dreyfuss movie, "What About Bob."

Dreyfuss plays the in-control psychiatrist, and Murray plays Bob, his out-of-control patient, who follows his doctor and family to their Lake Winnipesaukee getaway. In the clip above you see Bob's face close up, with a determinedly and tentatively joyous expression, saying, "I'm sailing! I'm sailing!" The camera pans away, and you see that he's tied to the mast. I could have just as easily repeated, "I'm calming myself! I'm calming myself!" So many times my wild nervous system got the better of me.

There are numerous scientific resources describing the mechanism of the nervous system, and plenty of drugs to address disorders arising from its disruption. I'm not a scientist. I'm a writer. I'm much better at speaking metaphorically. Spiritually most of us are like teenagers whose nervous systems expand at a faster rate than we can embody them. It's absolutely exhausting to live feeling that you're going to burst out of your own skin. Like babies and teenagers, a common response to overstimulation is to sleep more. When I'm going through a tough time, which is rarer and rarer, I often feel that my nerves are so tangled up that they're hissing and sizzling. Sometimes the most immediate remedy is to simply lie down. Rest is a time when I can relax enough to allow the tangled superhighway-like nervous system to find its sustainable length and breadth.

Mostly, though, I find I don't need to sleep my way out of it. All the practices of yoga are beneficial, most especially meditation, for soothing my mood fluctuations. My nervous system will always send out crazy runners, but meditation and its ongoing effects prune them. Now, more often than not, my natural sensitivity works for me. Yoga keeps me sensitive in productive ways.

It is possible to be sensitive without being overstimulated. With practice, you can choose what you respond to, and how. Even if you haven't yet begun a meditation practice, you can practice calming your nervous system in yoga class. Many of my students fall asleep during Savasana, the relaxation pose done at the end of class. In our sleep-deprived and overcaffeinated culture, that's understandable. It's also very seductive. You've just completed an asana practice, you're feeling great, and you're lying on your back under a warm blanket. It's important to resist the temptation to fall asleep in Savasana. Besides lying perfectly still, your work is to maintain a slender thread of awareness. Focusing on your inhale and exhale helps. Think of it as tending the dying embers of a fire. You want them to be live long enough to burn fresh firewood in the near future. Even if your attention to your breathing turns into a snore, see if you can extend the length of time you concentrate on your breathing and reduce the time you sleep in Savasana. Your nervous system will be immensely strengthened when you suspend your awareness to just this side of sleep.

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