A nervous system approach to meditation

One of the main insights from evolutionary theory is that as it unfolds, life becomes more complex, more intelligent and more skilled. In fact, this increase in capacity is a necessary condition due to the process of natural selection: the survival of the fittest. One of the great developments in living beings over the course of evolution is the emergence of the nervous system: a central intelligence which helps organize and coordinate resources, energy usage and interactions with the environment. Hundreds of millions of years ago, complex life increased its chances of survival by going into a freeze state: like the possum who fakes being dead in order to be able to trick the fox that he’s already dead and not worth eating. Later, we learned to flight and fight, further enabling us to remain alive in the face of threats. The fact that these nervous system responses evolved over time is very significant because it means that they are increasingly intelligent and complex. It also means our nervous system operates hierarchically: when faced with a threat, we will first evaluate the possibility of fight, then flight, then freeze.  These principles have big implications for the meaning of meditation and how to practice it! I’ll share a few insights here from my own practice.

First off, since I was a child, whenever I was confronted by something difficult I’ve had the tendency to go into freeze as my go-to threat response. And it served me well! I was able not to get into much of harm’s way and have a mostly happy childhood. However, when I started meditation, because I couldn’t tell the signals of freeze, often when I came across a difficulty I would leap into freeze right away. Due to my lack of awareness of the nervous system and how to regulate it – I didn’t even know about this state of freeze – I sometimes would do a very unhelpful thing: (pathologically) strengthen that pattern of going into freeze.

These trends did not help my live a more meaningful and regulated life, on the contrary. Meditation started to have some perverse effects in the way I was interacting in relationships and my engagement with the world. For example, whenever I was experiencing difficult emotions with other people, I would favour states of ‘calm and equanimity,’ considering these to be higher states than states of fight or flight. Because the nervous system operates hierarchically, if we experience freeze, this means we’ve exhausted our ability to fight and flee the environment, and use our last resort solution to survive. In a way freeze is a higher state, but it also impacts the system more powerfully and destructively if accessed to often! So over time, I learned the importance of experiencing fear for instance (which would often get me in a state of flight), or frustration/anger (which would often get me in a state of fight).

That way, I’ve been learning to experience a broader range of emotions and states, more adaptively. And that word to adapt is really the key one: connecting to the experience that we are facing with the appropriate/adaptive response. There is a growing consensus that the essential skill of regulation is cognitive flexibility, which also means adaptive responsiveness. So instead of going into a disconnected, distancing and ‘calm’ state of freeze whenever I remember being criticized sharply and I’d been upset about it, I’ve been encouraging myself to explore emotions of anger, resentment, sadness, etc. Paradoxically, it now consumes for me less energy to feel a strong emotion like anger than to go into a state of ‘calm’ because once it’s felt, then the sympathetic arousal that was ignited through the criticism is discharged (rather than being stuck in the body as it does when going straight into freeze).

The key point, from a nervous system perspective on meditation, is that all emotions are actually essential to be experienced. Embodying the full range of emotions in meditation helps build a more resilient nervous system that is less dysregulated and has less energy stuck in the body system. Come and join us at the next Dharma Gathering to practice these skills!

3 Reasons to meditate

What is the purpose of meditation? Shapiro (1) studied that question empirically with meditators in California, and found that participants’ answers fitted into at least one of three categories:

  • Self-regulation: achieving a sense of wellbeing
  • Self-exploration: knowing oneself
  • Self-actualization: embodying and developing the fullness of one’s character

A closer look at the early Buddhist teachings (the Pali canon) offers a similar goal for meditation, albeit in different terms: “freedom from stress.” While this may seem at first that being free from distress only relates to being regulated (the first category above), both knowing oneself and developing qualities are also essential to this task. Looking at my own experience, I went through a deep depression in my early twenties because I could not understand my place and purpose in life. I had just separated from my girlfriend, with whom I thought I would be “happy ever after,” and did not see a future for myself in the business and economics degree I was completing at university. I had all the ingredients to feel good: sufficient resources to cater for my basic needs (and much more), plenty of friends and a very active social life, a loving family, great physical health, and a bright future ahead in the line of my professional career. Yet, I fell into depression.

My mental health was affected not just by all the factors named above, but also by a need for a deeply satisfying sense-making framework of who I was and what my place was in the world. That was missing, and it felt like I was living an increasingly darker nightmare as my desperation increased by the day. That’s when I decided to go to Thailand and start an period of meditation in Buddhist monasteries.

I practiced intensive meditation in Thailand for about six months, and a lot happened. I’ll explain more details about that in another blog post, but what I’d like to share now is that my study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings offered a conceptual framework and a systemic set of teachings to relate to my experience that was inspiring and meaningful. Finally, I could start to understand more clearly, and validate a growing intuition, that there was more to me, who I was, the world I was living in and how I experienced others than the story I had been told of a Newtonian, objectified, separate and materialistic existence.

At the core of it, my main insights centered around

  • the need to cultivate a perceptual capacity in order to have more moments of harmony inside myself and with others and the world
  • the importance of working towards a transcendent goal (nirvana) because the quality of every one of my present moment states are directly impacted by it

I could quite easily fit both of these goals into the latter two categories in Shapiro’s study: understanding myself, how I perceive myself as well as the development of new ways of being amount to self-exploration and self-actualization. What was missing though? Self-regulation! I was very intent of understanding, expanding and transcending myself, but brought no importance to being grounded and feeling good. Instead, I practiced a lot of (sometimes extreme) asceticism, in order to intensify exploratory and transcendental experiences, which eventually got me into a lot of trouble, and why I turned very seriously to a nervous-system centered approach to meditation. What is that and how does it work? That’ll be the topic of next month’s blog post.


(1) Shapiro, D. H. (1992). A preliminary study of long term meditators: Goals, effects, religious orientation, cognitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24(1), 23-39.

*Systemics: the need to include my place in society, and how society affects me

Somatic Imagination

“What you frequently ponder upon, that becomes the inclination of your mind

Buddha (1)


I am my perception. As I walk down the forest close to my home in the autumn, I smell the pine trees, I see the wide variation of colours as all other trees lose their leaves, and hear some birds singing softly. I am momentarily mesmerized by how beautiful and enjoyable it is to be surrounded by all this life and vibrancy. And from that, there is a sense of greatness of life, of oneness and a deeply harmonized sense of who I am and my place in the cosmos.

The thing is, as I am Swiss, I have grown up going to the mountains and forests very often, yet never got to perceive nature and myself in this way before. Undoubtedly this comes from a prolonged meditation practice and deepening appreciation of nature, both of which help to beautify a relationship to myself. Training in perception, as we do in meditation with qualities such as mindfulness, love, compassion, joy, equanimity and somatic sensitivity have influenced how I perceive myself, and vice-versa.

I have often been taught that meditation is about “being the present moment with what is.” However, though acceptance is obviously a key component of meditation, as I follow my perceptual development over these last 15 years of practice, I see other patterns emerging: more beauty, more belonging, more calm and more joy for example. And so why not intentionally develop these outcomes

This is something I have been growing into these past few years: intentionally orienting my mind towards ‘positive’ qualities such as beauty, space, pleasure, contentment and gratitude. I have found that there is most often something, even the tiniest little thing, in my perceptual experience that involves some kind of positive quality, and with a sustained attention towards that, it grows (2). At this point in my practice, I spend most of my time co-creating my experience along with spontaneous impulses coming from my nervous system, the external environment as well as imaginal drives. This last dynamic of imagination, seems to be most attractive to me now, where I allo.w my mind to create shapes, forms and colours that seem to be most harmonizing to my experience (in my imaginal repertoire). One of the indicators for this harmonizing quality that I intuit around is the somatic resonance of these imaginal impulses. For example, in my meditation this morning, I felt some narrowing perceptions on my body which got me feeling more anxious, and spontaneously I would reach out for more space and orientation outside my body, I literally created space and broadened the size of my energetic and perceptual field. It then got to the point where it felt too large and anxiety started creeping in again, with agitating waves and a feeling of fear, so I relaxed by coming back into the body softly, feeling the earth under me and gently sensations of ease and pleasure also available. This creative-imaginal movement from the creation of space, back to orienting towards palpable somatics of pleasure and groundedgrowness is an example of the intuitive skill I call somatic imaginal: allowing the nervous system to feel soothed, brightened and dynamized (“somatic”) by producing whatever impulses coming to mind spontaneous (“imaginal”).

Next time you sit in meditation, it may be worth experimenting to find out: “what images (forms, colours, sounds, voices, dimensions) help to soften and dynamize my somatic experience in this moment?”

Come and join our next Dharma Gathering on December 4th to further embody your imaginal capacity!


(1) Two Kinds of Thought, Majjhima Nikāya 19

(2) See Broaden-and-Build theory from Barbara Fredrickson


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