Archive for May, 2007

Organs, Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Organs and Emotions

In Chinese medicine and in Taoist meditation practices, caring for the energy flow through the organs is considered as important as cardiovascular health and muscle tone are to us here in the West.

The functioning of each organ also is associated with a specific emotional continuum:
the heart: with impatience, hastiness, and joy, respect, love
the lungs: with grief and courage
the kidneys: with fear and gentleness
the liver: with anger and kindness
and the spleen and pancreas: with worry, fairness and openness.


One way to approach caring for the organs involves attention, spending some time with the organs, the related sensations and associated emotions. One of the morning prayers in traditional Judaism thanks God that all the vessels that should be open are open, and all the ones that should be closed are closed–bringing our attention first thing in the morning back to the basic physical phenomenon of body. Our organs could be more than mere industrial chemical factories, more than strangers to us. In one meditation practice, Mantak Chia’s “Inner Smile,” you send a smile to each organ in turn, locating it physically and also bowing to the archetypal emotional principle each one embodies.

( )

East meets West: Emotion and the Autonomic Nervous System

This is a shift from our most common approaches to emotions, which usually involve trying to understand them, rationalizing, analyzing or denying, and a lot of blame of others or oneself. From the Taoist point of view emotion can be met more directly. Interestingly, this corresponds to Western science’s growing understanding of the role of the autonomic nervous system, the one in control of the famous “fight or flight” response. Before emotion gets involved with all the thinking about a feeling (and the further feelings this engenders), it begins below the level of consciousness, in the amygdala deep in the brain, and in sensations related to the responses thus triggered: sweating, rapid heart-beat and shallow breathing, muscular tension, etc. The act of smiling, or the process of allowing the breath to release and deepen, speaks directly to the animal nervous system that has already jumped into action, calming it back down. The approach of Eastern systems finds support in information from our very own scientific tradition. After all, everywhere, human beings are observing the same processes.

The inner dog

The responses of the nervous system would make complete sense for an animal in the wild. They prepare it to address an immediate threat by either mobilizing to fight or to run away. Unfortunately, we are the heirs to this very same nervous system; while it may be a jungle out there, most situations in which we find ourselves are not best met by fight or flight. Society has evolved more rapidly than our nervous systems.

What can we do to address this situation? I like to say that along with the well-known “inner child,” we might think of ourselves as having an “inner dog.” A major difficulty for “inner dog” is being able to detect what constitutes a true threat. Our brains associate life and death conditions with all kinds of situations: the boss yelling, the truck’s din as it passes by, and many, many topics of thought. (especially ones involving threats to anything which has become identified with “me”–my country, my baseball team, my self-image etc.). Each one of these circumstances triggers similar processes in our brain/body. The job for whoever is in charge of the dog, is to notice the signs of the reaction: the thoughts arising are already several steps behind the physical sensations which can be detected with practice. Changes in breathing, an increase in muscular tension, temperature shifts, any or all let us know that the autonomic (automatic) nervous system is reacting. These are the same signals that, when left unchecked, turn into what we call panic attacks.

The issue here is to incorporate into our world view the needs of this animal, living in society as we find it. We need to recognize the communications via body sensations and we need to attend to them instead of ignoring them, to learn to tune into them not to tune them out. They are behind so much of the tension which leads to so many of our chronic health problems. We must apply our scientific understanding to our daily experience of life so we can stay at ease in complex situations that we confront.

Further reading:

The Emotional Brain– Joseph LeDoux
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers– Robert Sapolsky
William James–
The Stress of Life– Hans Selye
Waking the Tiger– Peter Levine

Sitting practice

Monday, May 7th, 2007

Sitting posture. The most important thing is to have the sacrum free to respond to the breath. That’s true in every situation, and more so in meditation practice. One of my early Rolfing teachers used to say: “Don’t sit on your brain.” In one of the Taoist meditations, spine rocking–starting at the tailbone–is one of the basics for energy flow. As a starting point, the basic question of whether the sacrum is free, whether we can find tiny movement at the tailbone, is a principle that could serve as a guide for our individual differences when meeting the many options traditions offer. Better to sit in a chair if it allows the sacrum to breathe, than to sit in seemingly perfect lotus with the base of the spine locked. Opting for form alone, we could sacrifice the essential. On our knees, as in Zazen, will work for some; up on cushions until the space is made for the slight movement in the pelvic floor, for others. A sacrum free to respond to the breath is a good benchmark for standing practice also.

Sitting. What kind of stillness is present? Is it the mind that wants to move, undisciplined? or does stopping all the other activity reveal the movements that simply are; the body that inherently moves? We have to be so careful not to turn meditation into another project of the dominating ego. What is the body saying? Can we listen without assumptions?

Experiment Results

Friday, May 4th, 2007

I was introduced to the basketball pass experiment (see the post “Try this Experiment”) at a lecture by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Museum of Science. We were carefully instructed to count the passes among the white-shirted players. At the end of the video, we had succeeded–14, 15 passes–but not a one of the 250 people had seen a gorilla-suited person walk across the scene. In order to focus on the white shirts, to succeed at our task, our brains chose to screen out the entire category of “black movers,” no matter how unusual.

Attention/perception is most often selective. Even when we are not as deliberately focused as in the situation described above, even right from birth, we meet the world with preferences; we are making choices about what matters. The question, though, is who is choosing? There’s a famous image of all of knowledge as a pie, where one slice represents what we know, one slice what we know we don’t know, and the whole rest of the pie: what we don’t know we don’t know. What information are we screening out without even realizing it? Open attention, in which we try to open the doors of perception, not to choose or evaluate, seems to have to be practiced. (see post “Meditation and the Mind”). It is not clear that it ever just comes naturally. Our brains come with certain predispositions. What assumptions may we be making? How do they shape our experience of life, of relationships? Can we see into our conditioning at all?

Try this experiment

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Follow the link to try this experiment.

When viewing the video, see if you can count the total number of times that the people wearing white pass the basketball. How many passes?

Then watch it again.

More at

My comments coming in the post titled “Experiment Results.”