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Attending to body and mind and cultivating balance

To continue from where I left off yesterday… what is ‘the dance of the spirit and reptile?’

To put it simply, this is balancing the newest and oldest part of the brain, so your body and mind/spirit work in unison. To explain further bear with me while I recap and oversimplify some basic biology.

The brain stem is the oldest part of the brain. Here lies our instinctual fears, and the reptiles, the first animals to walk the earth had only brain stems. Then the mammalian brain developed and within that is the amygdala, which is our memory centre for emotion. This part has some ability to evaluate emotion but is still quite primitive. And this is connected to the endocrine glands which action the hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which permit us to react quickly in dangerous situations and help to give us the symptoms of fear, ie the increased heart rate etc. And these physical symptoms reinforce the emotional feeling of fear.

Therefore, our fear system is a wonderful and useful system that has kept us alive for more than a million years. And it can still help us to survive physically dangerous situations as it prompts us instinctively to do the right thing before we even have time to consciously process the situation.

However, we also have another part of the brain, the neocortex, which as the newest part of the brain, evolved in order to give us a more sophisticated way to evaluate and react to what is presently happening. This is the site of our intellect and some would say our spirit. And this means we have the ability to override our primal fear reactions.

Note, we have the ability to override our primal instincts but the important point here is that fear is a normal, biological, valuable, primal, human instinct and there is an integral fear system woven into the brain in order to keep us safe. And the situations which trigger that fear will be universal but also unique as the emotions connected to different experiences will be 'stored' in our amygdale, as our brain does its wonderful job of trying to protect us.

So if we know this, what do we know?

We know that if fear is an intrinsic part of our physicality, if we treat it is as an enemy to be defeated, scorned, beaten down or ignored, we will most likely end up defeated and beaten down because we are fighting against ourselves and a million years of evolution. Rather, when we are aware of feeling fearful or anxious, if we treat our fear as we would a friend who we love dearly, a friend who provides an important service, but who sometimes gets confused or a little overzealous, and as we would such a friend we listen to him, talk kindly to her and reassure him when necessary or make her laugh, or gently redirect her attention, we are working with him/her. And as we all know, when we work with our friends as opposed to trying to fight them, we usually achieve more and feel better, don’t you think?

So balancing the dance of the spirit and the reptile is recognizing that they are both a powerful and valuable part of us and each has their worth, but most of the time if fear turns up, spirit needs to also put in an appearance and be the one who ends up running the show. Fear can end up being quite destructive if left unsupervised for too long!

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