This week I read a book that told me it’s critical in blog-writing not to “bury your lead.” I’m going to take exception to that bit of blogalistic advice and first tell you a story that illustrates the primary purpose of psycho-spiritual practices like these, and then go into detail about specifically what that purpose is.
So, I’m at the local island bakery with my dog Bodhi, who’s gentle and well-trained enough to be a service dog. He’s patiently sitting beside me while we’re waiting in line, something we’ve done here many times before. Bodhi has been a favorite around town since he was a puppy. Everyone knows him and likes him. Even our house cats, Archie and Gracie, like Bodhi, and there are always doggie treats waiting for him at the bank, the post office, the ferry toll booth, the recycling center, and … the bakery.
Neither Bodhi nor I are intruding upon anyone, and the owner of the bakery has already greeted us with a welcoming smile. Suddenly from behind us an authoritative male voice loudly growls: “There are no dogs allowed in here. It’s a violation of the health ordinances.” I turn around and come face to face with a bakery customer sitting alone with a schnecken and coffee and some “Things to Do on Whidbey Island” brochures spread over his table. He looks like one of our typical, ubiquitous, invading summer tourists.
Policing the Bakery
Immediately I feel this great wave of anger rise up from the pit of my stomach. It’s like someone has physically attacked my beloved, helpless child. I’m surprised and speechless, at both this “attack declaration” and my own response to it.
After the urge to pull the spring-assisted lineman’s knife out of my back pocket and stab this invader in the heart passes, I take the only next action available to me: “Come, Bodhi,” I say, and gently lead him out of the bakery. I am still upset as we leave though, and it’s not until Bodhi and I have walked up Third Street, down Fourth, over to First and down Second Street, that the adrenaline and cortisol begin to move out of my system. Slowly my monkey mind starts to settle as well. When I get home though, my wife gets to hear about this incident in great detail. So do the folks in a class I co-teach on Tuesday nights. And now all you blog readers are hearing about it as well.
So, what’s going on here? Let’s unpack it.
The Red Alert Response
First of all, standing in the bakery with Bodhi, I was in a completely relaxed, undefended state. It was a warm, sunny summer morning. All systems were balanced; homeostasis ruled. The complaint about Bodhi showed up out of the blue as a complete surprise and felt like a sneak attack causing me to instantly orient in the direction of the “threat.” Immediately, my sympathetic nervous system put my brain and body organs on Red Alert. The right side of my brain’s limbic system went into emergency mode, sending signals to my thalamus, which were then relayed instantly to my amygdala – the smoke alarm in my emotional brain. From there, the Danger Signal traveled to the hippocampus where it was relayed to my orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) through the neural throughway of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Fortunately, there were sufficient transmission fibers bundled in my ACC such that I didn’t pull my knife out and stab the bakery patron. In the housing project where I grew up, there were a number of people for whom that would have been the automatic response. They would have justified it as suitable punishment for someone coming into my neighborhood and acting so disrespectful.
The Charge of the Corticotrophic Brigade
Once my OFC and ACC conferred and agreed to take murder off the table as a reasonable, self-defensive response, my hypothalamus instantly went to work, sending signals to the adrenals sitting atop my kidneys, initiating the release of adrenaline. The adrenaline opened my pupils wide and dilated the arteries in my muscles and heart, accelerated my pulse and respiration and prepared me for dealing with this “emergency.” Next, the hypothalamus initiated the release of ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) from the pituitary gland. This triggered the massive release of cortisol, also from the adrenals.
As most of us know from direct experience, from our own recurring “Bodhi Bakery Incidents,” all of this action that I’ve described above happens in an instant. Conducting this great symphony of survival turns out to be a single complex bundle of nerve fibers: the 10th cranial nerve. It’s that nerve bundle, the vagus (from the Latin, meaning, “to wander”) that meanders through the body and connects up all our hollow organs – along with the muscles of the head and neck – to our brain (See illustration at the right).
Stopping Your 10th Cranial Nerve From Being the Boss of You
And it is this nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, that every single psycho-spiritual practice, when you subtract out all the pomp and circumstance – all prayer, all worship, all scripture reading, all zen meditation, any of ten thousand psychotherapy modalities, any friends of Bill W. meetings, etc. – is designed and intended to try to bring under increasingly conscious control. It’s a pretty simple endeavor, actually. Just one that takes most of us more than a single lifetime to accomplish. But at least now you know what all of our work is at the most elemental level.
Addendum: Two nights after posting this piece I had a dream that reminded me of an important element in the bakery story that I somehow omitted. While Bodhi and I were waiting in line to be served, he apparently became frustrated in anticipation and let out a single sharp bark. It both startled and surprised me, since I’d never actually heard him bark before. How might this change your perspective on the story?