Being Right Minded

The events of the past couple of years has fragmented our community, increased our levels of fear, and left us feeling alienated. Our society has moved to left hemisphere dominance, reducing meaning and depth of our lives. In 2023 I will be sponsoring a workshop that is intended to reverse this trend. Similar to an encounter group, the goal is to tone our vagus nerve by creating a safe, caring, emotionally friendly atmosphere and experientially learn how to be right minded. We will strengthen our right hemisphere by participating in group exercises and sharing what it means to be fully human. You can expect laughter, fun, and deep enjoyment through nonjudgmental social engagement.

The core group exercises include Right Minded Seeing (seeing uniqueness in others and at the same time sensing our commonality); Right Minded Touching (feeling the energy exchange by touching another’s hand); Right Minded Smelling (being fully present with the smell of the skin on another person’s forearm); Right Minded Hearing (listening with full attention to what others are saying); and Right Minded Connection (feeling the collective energy field of trust and compassion). This final exercise fosters love for all of humanity.

Becoming right minded can only be taught from one person to another person. It is a way of being vs. doing. There are no expectations that anything should happen. There are no demands placed on you other than just being present. I recommend you enter these exercises with curiosity and allow yourself to be open to whatever happens next. Feel free to ask any questions at any point in time and opt out if you ever feel uncomfortable and wish to discontinue.

The more you train your right hemisphere to be the “master” and your left hemisphere to be the “emissary”, the more successful you will be at toning your vagus nerve. If you are not sure what I am talking about I am referring to the polyvagal theory.

We used to believe that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) was divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. We now know it’s divided into three sections: ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. Going back 500 million years ago our ancestors only had one option – to be very still and quiet. When a predator came too close, we feigned death. A few hundred million years later, we added the sympathetic, which allowed us to either run away or fight. A few hundred million years later we were primates, whose survival depended on social networks. Social engagement now serves to regulate (or dysregulate) the two lower systems.

Neuroception is a feeling in your body. Your ANS is constantly monitoring your social interactions to assess whether you are safe or not. These are known as your gut feelings or your heart felt response. These feelings are implicit and wordless. Neuroception might be thought of as somatic signals that influence how we make decisions that are outside of our awareness of what triggered it. Before your central nervous system (CNS) understands and makes meaning of an experience, your ANS, via the process of neuroception, will have assessed the situation and initiated a response.

Most people are raised to deny, suppress, or not trust their neuroception. Yet, it will always influence how we act and feel about something. The challenge is to learn to identify the subtle changes and be curious about what they mean and what triggered them. The CNS is not very good at accurately interpreting these feelings. We are basically not wired to have insight.

Here is a description of the three categories of the ANS.

Ventral vagal: Here we feel safe and connected, calm and social. In this state, our heart rate is regulated, our breath is full, we take in the faces of friends, and we can tune into conversations and tune out distracting noises. We see the “big picture” and connect to the world and the people in it. You might describe yourself as happy, active, and interested in life. You see the world as safe, fun, and peaceful. You can be organized, follow through with plans, take care of yourself, take time to play, do things with others, feel productive at work, and have a general feeling you can manage your life. Your health would be good and your immune system strong. You would experience an overall sense of well-being.

Sympathetic: This becomes activated when we feel a stirring of unease – when something triggers a neuroception of danger. We go into action. Fight or flight happens here. In this state our heart rate speeds up and our breath is short and shallow. We scan our environment looking for danger. We are “on the move”. You might describe yourself as being anxious or angry and feel the rush of adrenaline that makes it hard for you to be still. Your brain is listening for sounds of danger and you don’t hear the sounds of friendly voices. The world may feel perilous, chaotic, and unfriendly. Some of the daily living problems can be anxiety, panic attacks, anger, inability to focus or follow through, and distress in relationships. Health consequences can include heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep problems, weight gain, memory impairment, headache, chronic neck shoulder and back tension, stomach problems, and increased vulnerability to illness.

Dorsal Vagal: When all else fails, when we feel we are trapped and can’t escape the danger, we become immobilized. We move into shutdown, collapse, and dissociation order to survive. Here at the bottom of the autonomic ladder, you feel alone with despair and escape into not knowing, not feeling, almost a sense of not being. You might describe yourself as hopeless, numb, frozen, not there, abandoned, foggy, too tired to think or act and the world as empty, dead, and dark. You may believe you are lost and no one will ever find you. Some of the problems can be dissociation, problems with memory, depression, isolation, and no energy for the tasks of daily living. Health consequences can include chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, stomach problems, low blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain. From here, it is a long way back to feeling safe and social and a painful path to follow.

We are all very sensitive to the vagal tone of others around us. Everyone’s goal in life should be to master the skill of toning the vagus nerve. It’s our highest priority and we all prefer to hang out there. In the ventral vagal mode, you can joke around, act lively, be spontaneous, genuine, and non defensive. Being in a place of loving kindness, compassion, inclusiveness, and generosity, you co-regulate other’s vagus nerve. Your state of mind becomes contagious. Everyone you come in contact with unconsciously notices a change in how they feel. They calm down. Even more, when their vagus nerve becomes toned, the reciprocal feedback loop increases your tone. This interchange is both selfish and altruistic – a true experiential moment of non-duality. Your challenge is to learn ways to gradually take you there and keep you there for as long as possible.

Here are some ways both socially and solo:

  1. Have frequent face to face interactions with other people. Minimize social media and replace it with a real social network of friends. Feeling socially isolated decreases vagal tone whereas feeling connected increases tone. Strive to create a small circle of friends (6-8) who engage in activities together and who also share the goal. (see Lynne McTaggart’s Power of 8)
  2. Slow diaphragmatic breathing. This is also known as slow abdominal breathing. It’s free, easy to learn, and can be done anytime and anywhere. Exhale a bit longer than the inhale. Try it for 60 seconds at a time and notice the difference.
  1. You can make breathing even more effective by using a computer with Heart Rate Variability Training (HRVT) software.
  1. Practicing the Relaxation Response (see Herbert Benson, MD).
  1. Daily meditation on gratitude with a practice of gratitude in daily life.
  1. Daily Metta meditation, which is sending out good will and compassion towards everyone.
  1. Consistent exercise program. I recommend daily routine of alternating weight training and cardio.
  1. Challenge yourself to laugh more often and work on improving your sense of humor. Take yourself less seriously.
  1. If you are going through a difficult life situation (like divorce) or can’t seem to let go of something, engage in 20 minutes of “narrative expressive writing” for 3 consecutive days. This is writing your story from a perspective that is self-distancing, as opposed to a self-immersing.
  1. Eat with your gut in mind. You owe much to your mental and physical health to the gut flora that inhabits your digestive tract. Choose foods and drinks that support them. Discipline yourself to put them ahead of your impulsive wishes.

Make a commitment to consciously seek daily lifestyle choices that keep your vagus nerve active and engaged. Continuously be mindful of your thoughts and actions. Use your mind to interrupt and change thoughts that disregulate your vagus nerve. Think before you speak or behave to evaluate how this will affect those around you. Are you going to lift them up or bring them down?