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Toward Wholeness Blog

The Vagus Nerve: Where Spirit meets Body meets Jesus

Note to reader: This is part three in a series about the relationship between your spiritual health and the health of your spiritual heart. You can read part one here, and part two here. These articles don't constitute medical advice. As always, consult your physician for medical advice.

In the first post for this series, I showed you that when the author of the "Proverbs" in the Bible said, "above all else guard your heart," he wasn't just talking about your spiritual heart. I showed how the well being of your physical heart is intimately tied to the well being of your spirit, your inner heart. The two entities, at the least exist as an ecosystem, each affecting the well being of the other.

In the second post I demonstrated that a healthy spiritual heart (the precursor to increasing the health of one's physical heart) begins by adopting a posture of receiving. This way of living stands in stark contrast to the anxiety inducing striving that so often characterizes our lives. It doesn't matter whether we're seeking more money, more influence, the upper hand in a conflict at home or work, or better standing with God, as a person of faith. The problem isn't our goal, it's our striving because, as the second post showed us, our striving is the antithesis of our creator's invitation, which is to simply, as children, receive: unconditional love, forgiveness, a sense of calling and direction, the strength and assurance needed to take next steps every day, the capacity to live in the present moment, and more. All these capacities are available, but like the prophet Isaiah said, they are only available as gifts to be received, not as merits to be earned.

Now we can turn a corner, and consider how to situate our lives so that this posture of receiving can become normative. To do this, we'll consider the place where, as humans, I believe the spirit meets the body most profoundly. That place: the Vagus nerve!

Christopher Berglund wrote a series a few years ago for Psychology Today about the Vagus nerve. In it, he said, The vagus nerve is the prime driving force of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates our “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. On the flip side, to maintain homeostasis, the sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight-or-flight” response. Ideally, within your autonomic nervous system, the tug of war between these two polar opposite mechanisms creates a "yin-yang" type of harmony marked by homeostatic balance.

The Vagus nerve, in other words, is predominant when we're not striving! (As the Psalm writer says: “cease striving and know that I am God”) The Vagus nerve is running our nervous system (hormones, heart rate, respiration rate, heart rate variability), when we're in a posture of trust and receptivity!

There's a chicken and egg question surrounding all this, and the way we answer it has far reaching implications on the degree to which we think our spirit and body are related. Some would say the a mindset and posture of receiving are what create the slower breath rate, deep sense of awe that comes form more intense awareness of one's surrounding, and a desire to reach out and serve others. In other words, "as soon as we feel safe and the conditions are right, we can relax and receive" and then out from that place, we'll be enabled to bless and give to others.

What Berglund shows us in his articles, though, is that it can work the other way just as well. In other words, "Yes; being content can lead to slower, diaphragmatic breathing. But also, slower diaphragmatic breathing can lead to being content!" Cause and effect, in other words, are sometimes interchangeable.

"What does all this have to do with following Jesus?" I can hear some readers asking the question as I write. There's a good answer, but you'll only discover it by walking a bit further down Berglund's "Vagus nerve" trail. He posits that there are, in fact, several things we can do in order to bring us to the place of "rest and digest", actions we can take to calm our bodies. Remember, I use similar language as Berglund, but would suggest that our goal is to come to a place of quiet, childlike receiving from our Creator because in such a place you're at rest. The evidence will be in your blood pressure, your resting heart rate, your sleep, your capacity to be present in the moment and actually see the beauty of the world around you. You will be like the "weaned Child" of which the Psalmist speaks, when he says, "Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with his mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me [ceased from fretting]."

Berglund says the most recent science reveals there are actions we can take which, especially if taken consistently, can move us out of the striving "fight or flight" mode of being, into a place of "rest and digest." What are they? He lists nine, seen in the photo here. What's amazing to me is that each of these practices overlap in very clear ways with some of the 'spiritual disciplines' that have been central pursuits of Christ followers seeking to move beyond perfunctory religion into a relationship of experiential intimacy with Christ and all the fruits of living into one's calling that flow from such intimacy.

Over the next few weeks I'll show you how each of Berglund's activities can, with a Christo-centric twist, be practiced even more fully as spiritual disciplines. It turns out that Berglund is saying the same thing as Jesus. "Everything begins with faith!" The difference, of course, is that I believe that the object of my faith isn’t the discipline of breathing, it’s the work of Christ. But the way I breath can help quiet my body soul to a greater degree so that I can encounter Christ. Let's look at the Berglund’s first one quickly as an example: it’s the discipline of breathing from the diaphragm.

If you've ever been involved in first responder activities, you know that the victim, who is facing the stress and shock of a accident, or avalanche, or rockfall, or was hiding during a mass shooting, will be breathing rapidly, which is a normal stress response. The first responder is trained to first assess the victim's breath rate, and then seek to get them to breathe slower. Why? Because a slower breath will lower the stress response. If you can willfully breath deeply from the diaphragm, and slowly, the rest of your body will, over time, come to believe that "it's safe to put away the flight or fight hormones and rest now."

The first responder does this, in part, by being calm. As the victim comes to trust the responder, something called "entrainment" can happen. The victim subconsciously picks up on the calm, slow breaths of the responder. Can you see the profound application? Jesus says, "take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and you will find rest...." Learn from me - and find rest!

I promise you this. If you take a few moments each morning and pray the "Forest Faith" prayer mediation, and do so consciously seeking to slow your breathing down, and breath deeply from your diaphragm, you too will find a place of rest. Your heart rate will be slower. Your blood pressure will be lower. This place of childlike trust and safety, though, is also the place where we are able to experience the reality of being loved by God, held by God, filled with fulness of God. In other words, if by faith, we bring our body into a place of calm and receptivity, we will gifted with a greater awareness of the presence of Christ. So, yes, the way you breathe can affect the way you receive.

I know there are some who struggle with this, who believe that if we have a propositional acknowledgement of the presence of Christ in our heads, it's enough. That we continue to breath shallowly, and rapidly doesn't matter. While there are certainly exceptions for physiological reasons, I mostly disagree. You're not a body. But you're not just an intellect either. You're a person, spirit soul and body, and you can feed any part of that ecosystem by feeding other parts. The sooner we leave behind the notion that simply thinking "Bible thoughts" will make us whole, the better. It's time to embody the life of God, just like Jesus did!

NEXT UP: How physical exercise is a spiritual discipline.

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