Often when you hear the phrase ‘speak from the heart’ or ‘play from the heart’ we take it to mean to connect and express ourselves from the very core of our being, to say what we feel without any reservations. And this is generally regarded as a healthy thing to be able to do. But, what is often misunderstood is that this phrase is not merely metaphorical- it is now known that the physical organ of the heart has a vital and complex role in our social and mental-emotional health, and is not just a mechanical pump.
“Over the past several decades, several lines of scientific evidence have established that, far more than a mechanical pump, the heart functions as a sensory organ and as a complex information encoding and processing center. Groundbreaking research in the relatively new field of neurocardiology has demonstrated that the heart has an extensive intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a “little brain” in its own right… Containing over 40,000 neurons, its complex circuitry enables it to sense, regulate, and remember.” Rollin McCraty, Phd.
The human heart emits the strongest electromagnetic field in our body, much larger than the brains. This electromagnetic field envelops the entire body extending out in all directions, and it can be measured up to several feet outside of the body. Moreover, this field contains information specific to each person, and can be measured as an indicator of someone’s mental-emotional state.
The Institute of Heart-Math, in Arizona, USA, has made awe-inspiring progress in understanding these mechanisms and processes. A mile-stone discovery was made showing that the Heart Rate Variability (the moment-to-moment change in the speed of the heartbeat) is a clear indicator of positive and negative emotions, and that when we are in a positive state, the hearts powerful regulatory effect on all the other systems of the body creates an over-all improvement in bodily function and health. In other words, feeling good is good for you!
The Heart-Math Institute has gone on to plot the intricate relationships between the brain and the heart, discovering that there is an optimum balance achievable, which greatly improves our cognitive and physiological functioning. This they term coherence and is a natural state that occurs when we feel ‘in the flow’. By lightly placing our awareness in the area of our heart, regulating our breath, and generating positive mental feelings, this relationship can be easily established. Specific methods for heart-brain coherence are freely given on their website, adapted differently for people with health conditions, anxiety, PTSD, or for children. In many ways the secret to creating this relationship lies in the breath and learning how to regulate the breath in different circumstances with ease. At the end of this article we will look at one such method.
Some of the proven benefits of heart-brain coherence are:
Of course, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it has long been known that the heart holds an influence on every system in the body, on all aspects of health. In the 2000 year-old foundational text of Chinese Medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing, it is stated,
“The Heart is the Emperor, and from it stems the awareness of one’s being. It is responsible for intelligence, wisdom, and spiritual transformation. The Lungs represent the Prime Minister, which advises and helps the Heart in regulating the body’s capacity for change and transformation.”
Awareness (the mind’s resting ground) is known in TCM as the Shen, and it is rooted in the heart and expressed through the eyes. It is interesting to see how this old wisdom is starting to be reflected in modern science. By using the method of lightly bringing our awareness to the area of the heart, we can think of it as having the effect of centering a scattered mind or bringing it home to rest. It is also interesting to note how the lungs were traditionally considered second in hierarchy to the heart, assisting in its function of ruling over the rest of the body.
The modern understanding on the function of the lungs and respiration is that it is primarily concerned with gas exchange, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. However, there is another vital role it takes in human health and healing which is often overlooked- it acts as a regulator for the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs all the unconscious functions of our body. (The vast majority of all our biological functioning is unconscious) The work of Stephen Elliott has clearly established that when the breath is regulated in a certain way, it enters a coherent relationship with the heart, optimising blood flow and heart rate variability, and has a balancing effect on the ANS. The importance of this is highlighted when we consider how crucial ANS balance is to our everyday functioning and health.
The ANS has two main branches that work in tandem with each other to assist us in our everyday activities and biological functioning- the sympathetic branch, which kicks in during activity and is known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode, and secondly the parasympathetic branch, which is known as the ‘rest and digest’ mode and is essential for healing and restoration. A great deal of modern maladies could be thought of as resulting from sympathetic dominance, people being overly adrenalized and hyper-stimulated, not being able to stop or fully relax, often resulting in mild but constant fatigue and low-grade anxiety. The method I will now describe is a simple but effective way to bring balance to the ANS and create a coherent relationship between brain-heart.
This simple exercise can have remarkable benefits if practiced regularly and brought into daily habits. If the counting aspect is cumbersome for you, try entraining your breath with this recording:
To learn more about balancing the breath and heart-brain coherence join one of my qigong classes and tea ceremonies or have a look through the links provided below.
Acupuncture and Herbs are well known about in the West- over the last few decades millions of people have experienced their healing effects. What is less known is that both acupuncture and herbal medicine are branches of a larger tree that is Traditional Chinese Medicine and that there are many other modalities and techniques, such as cupping, gua-sha, moxabustion, tui-na massage, medical qigong, facial reflexology and dietary therapy. All branches of TCM have their own strengths and special benefits and therefore can be chosen specifically to address different issues. All share the same underlying principles, foremost of which is that prevention is better than cure. All the following treatments can therefore be experienced and enjoyed just for their preventative and health enhancing effects as well as to tackle specific illnesses.
Gua-Sha is a hands-on medical treatment that’s been used throughout Asia for centuries. Traditionally it is most often used as a first-aid treatment at the immediate onset of cold and flu symptoms- it’s fantastic to ward off colds! This is due to its powerful effect on the immune system. In any case where the immune system is compromised Gua-Sha may be of benefit. It is also commonly used for pain conditions and muscle stiffness around the neck, shoulders and back- it resolves spasm and pain by strongly increasing micro-circulation to the area between the skin and muscles. Gua-Sha also has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, and on not just muscles and other soft-tissues, but also on organs as well, which accounts for its use in conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, gastritis and liver disease.
The technique involves using an edged massage tool and rubbing deeply along the surface of the body, usually with the aid of therapeutic oils. It feels like strong massage and has the same after-effects. However, the key to its potency lies in producing what is known as ‘Sha’- the appearance of redness on the skin. The appearance of Sha is different depending on the amount of tension and stagnation in the muscles and fascia, but in all cases will gradually clear in a few days. Gua-Sha creates a four-fold increase in micro-circulation to the surface tissue, can boost immunity and reduce inflammation. It also feels great!
Moxabustion is a form of heat-therapy that is often combined with acupuncture. It is used for its prized ability to bring warmth deeply into body, and is particularly useful when coldness has penetrated and become lodged in the body. This can be thought of as when blood-circulation is poor or when muscles contract and go into spasm. For this reason it is used in many pain conditions, from stiff neck to period pains.
It involves the burning of a specially processed herb known as moxa, which is the blossom from the Mugwort plant. It can be rolled up into cigar-like sticks and then held over points and areas of the body, or it can be rolled into little pyramids which are burnt directly over acupuncture points and lifted off as soon as the heat is felt. What makes moxa special is that it burns very slowly, at a very high temperature, and emits a high amount of infra-red light. It is not only used for colds, muscle pain and stiffness, but traditionally it is used to strengthen and nourish the body, and so is useful in many conditions where tiredness and weakness are present. A great example of this strengthening effect can be seen in the Moxafrica charity, which has been using Moxabustion to combat tuberculosis in Africa. (www.moxafrica.org)
If you experience moxabustion yourself you would certaintly appreciate the effects- it feels soothing, relaxing and nourishing at the same time.
3. Tui-Na Massage
Tui-Na massage is steadily growing in popularity as more and more people are discovering its potency. Although it can be used for relaxation and for its preventative benefits, it’s real forté lies in its medical uses. In China, there are whole departments in hospitals that specialize solely in Tui-Na.
Some of the massage techniques share similarities to deep-tissue or Swedish massage, however there are many techniques which are quite different and unique- such as rolling techniques, plucking, patting, vibrating, or acu-point massage. Another difference is that most Tui-Na is performed with clothes on or through a cloth. It is often thought of as being an intense and vigorous type of massage, although actually there is an entire spectrum of styles depending on what is being addressed and the practitioner’s background. Of course it excels in treating pain and physical problems, but also can be beneficial for all types of things from gynecological and digestive issues, to stress, insomnia or headaches.
In the hands of an expert it is real treat to experience, and will leave you feeling both relaxed and vitalized!
For the past ten years I have tried to make an annual meditation retreat. The first few were difficult, challenging, but also deeply transformative and profound. After learning the practical aspects of meditation, the basic techniques and underlying rationale, going on retreat became a less daunting experience and something that feels very natural and regenerative. Not only has it become a way of decompressing from urban life, a kind of ‘reset’ button which brings a freshness, power, and liveliness to body and mind, but it also has a re-orientating effect, like a fine-tuning of my internal compass, helping see where I’m at in my life and state of mind, and setting a clear vision for the right path ahead. I find it essential for the healing work that I give.
My principle teacher along the way has been Guy Burgs, a non-religious teacher who has a great skill in synthesizing the great meditation traditions and being able to convey them in their essence to a modern audience. Over the last few years I’ve struck out to undertake solo-meditation retreats, so as to go deeper into the practices in my own pace, which has led me to a unique centre for meditation in a very remote part of the world. There isn’t any particular need to seek remoteness for a retreat, but knowing that you can’t escape easily is a good incentive to stick at it!
Wat Pa Tam Wua is a traditional Thai forest monastery nestled in the mountains of Thailand’s most northern province, Maehongsong. The journey to the monastery is somewhat of a pilgrimage, as it takes around 8 hours of travel from Chiang Mai, and the road through the mountains is both notoriously curvy and spectacularly beautiful. The journey is worth it, though, as Wat Tam Wua is a natural paradise, with streams and rivers, waterfalls, groves of mango trees, a beautiful lake, and many caves in the surrounding mountains. The natural beauty, peacefulness and remoteness of the place make it ideal for meditation.
The daily schedule is simple and follows the basic routine of the monks- rise at 5am for meditation alone, meet at 6.30am to offer food to the monks and share breakfast, 8-10am is walking, then sitting and lying down meditation, meet at 11am for lunch, 1- 3pm again walking, sitting, and lying down meditation, 4-5pm cleaning, 6.30pm chanting the Sutrus and a finishing meditation at 7pm. One can choose to remain silent through one’s stay, or you can talk with others if you like too. The abbot, Phra Luang Ta, is probably the happiest person you’ll ever meet. His ease of laughter and genuine care and love is an ever-encouraging presence. He gives general guidance for meditation, but the more in-depth discourses are given by other English-speaking monks. The place is very spacious and clean, with individual huts (called kutis) given to each guest, and larger dormitories for men when there are many guests. Usually there are about a few dozen foreigners from all over the world and a few dozen Thai people.
The two main techniques used in the Thai and Burmese traditions are called Vippassanna and Samatha. They are like two wings on a bird, mutually complimenting and necessary for each other. Samatha means ‘concentration & serenity’ and is all about relaxing and stilling the mind so that it becomes very stable and tranquil. Once you have this base, the technique can change to Vippassanna (insight meditation), which is all about investigating the mind, learning to directly understand it’s mechanisms and releasing unhelpful patterns of thinking and emotions. Together these techniques can have a remarkable and transformative effect on one’s mind and life. Finding the right entry point and balance between them is the trick, as everyone has slightly different temperaments, which makes certain meditation styles easier or more difficult concordantly. In some circumstances formal sitting meditation is not ideal for people- walking, qigong, yoga, or mindful activities like tea drinking and creative work can have a more settling effect on the mind.
This is actually one of the things that makes the approach at Wat Pa Tam Wua slightly unique- there is an emphasis on walking meditation, a practice which is designed to strengthen the energy of the mind not only for sitting meditation sessions, but throughout one’s normal daily activity. The monastery is part of the Thai Forest Tradition, a movement started around 100 years ago by the famous Isan monk Acariya Mun, of which the Abbot is a direct student. Acariya Mun’s vision for the tradition was to practice in the ways of old, and became known for living and walking through the jungle forest of Northern Thailand as his main practice ground. The mortal risk of tigers was a very real threat back then, particularly when sleeping in the wild forests. One of the reasons for Acariya Mun’s renown was his ability to lay a mantle of protection over the monks who would live with him in the forest, none of whom were ever attacked by tigers, even though they could be heard. The Abbot would joke about these tales, having to contend with tigers and huge snakes back in the day. Thankfully none were to be seen whilst I was there.
However, on the eighth evening of my stay at Wat Tam Wua we experienced a monumental deluge- a true tropical monsoon. The next morning it became apparent that all the power and water supply had been flooded out, and so instead of the usual afternoon routine, everyone went upriver to build a damn and repair the pipes. Coming together to carry heavy sacks of sand and big water pipes was actually a welcome break by this point. Strong physical work feels very good after putting in so many hours of strong mental work. It was also heart-warming to join our efforts with the monks, who were working just as hard and directing the operations. After some hours it seemed that we had achieved enough for the day, so I chose to go up to one of the meditation caves to settle the mind and continue the practice.
About an hour in the rain started again, so I decided to continue in meditation until it passed. But it only got stronger and stronger, until I realized the sun had set, darkness had set it in and I would have to venture back through the storm. When I arrived down from the mountain, thoroughly soaked, I came to the main bridge, which I would have to cross to return for the night. As I approached I could hear what sounded like gunshots being fired, but then realized was the sound was of huge boulders being swept down the river, along with fully-grown trees. A river in full-flood is an awesome sight, but crossing one is another thing altogether! The waters had swelled at least three times, right up to the steps of the bridge, and were so rapid and powerful that they commanded you to take stock. A test like this at the end of the retreat proved to be a real boon- I was presented with something truly fearful, and through my practice was able to keep a composure that I doubt have would have had ten days past. This gives you courage.
The next morning we awoke to a real flood, with the only road in flooded, and much damage to the monastery along the river. Apparently monsoons like this happen every 5-10 years. The Thai army was sent in to help with the repairs, which distinctly changed the atmosphere of the place. The abbot seemed to be as peaceful as ever though, and gave me a bottle of wild mountain honey for the journey home. With some help I managed to get my motorbike across the flood, and started back through the mountains.
Some might see the whole idea of meditation retreats as running away from life’s problems, as a form of escapism. In a sense, there is an element of this- by cutting ourselves off from our daily world we do gain a certain escape from the immediate pressure of modern life- breathing space. For many- the initial desire to go on a retreat comes from a recognition that life is becoming overwhelming and even untenable. But it is a mistake to think meditation is a quick solution or release from life’s difficulties, for we carry all our emotional baggage wherever we go. Even in the paradise surroundings of Wat Tam Wua you can’t escape life’s storms. Rather, meditation offers a holding space to safely bear witness and release our internal stormy weather. After the storm, we not only find a delicious freshness in the air, but also a calmness and a clarity. We then can then re-enter our lives renewed and resilient.
For more information on learning meditation or qigong feel free to contact me.
If a frog falls in a pot of boiling water it will instinctually jump straight out and survive. If a frog is placed in a tepid pot of water and a very slow heat is applied, the water will gradually come to boiling point, the frog will not think to jump out and he will boil alive. This is because frogs aren’t good at detecting small shifts in temperature; they just acclimatise to the heat slowly and unfortunately won’t have the wit to figure out what is happening. This is known as the boiled frog syndrome.
Unfortunately a similar situation has happened with us, the modern urban-living human: instead of unknowingly being boiled alive like the frog, we have acclimatised ourselves to an environment that is increasingly hazardous to our health. This process of acclimatisation has, admittedly, been going on for some time, but in the last 50 years the heat has become intense.
The main hazards of our environment are three-fold: primarily we are being exposed to increasing levels of chemical pollution in our air, water, food and the built environment. Secondly we are being exposed to increasing and unrelenting levels of different kinds of technological pollution. Thirdly, we are gradually being overwhelmed by mental-emotional stress to such a level that it is impacting on many aspects of our health. Through this article I will look at a few examples of this noxious trinity, and give some practical solutions to help buffer these hazards and fortify your health.
Since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been invented. Many of these chemicals have been dispersed widely into the environment. Some will persist in the environment for decades and even centuries. Most of these chemicals did not previously exist in nature. Over 2million tons of toxic chemicals are released by industry into the US environment each year, including 36,000 tons of recognized carcinogens. Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75% are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain. In recent studies nearly 300 chemicals have been found in newborn babies, many of which are known to be toxic. This is especially troubling given that foetus’s and newborns are the most vulnerable to environmental toxicity. In short, our landscape, our homes and our bodies are saturated in toxic chemicals.
What I call technological pollution is two-fold. On the one hand we have ‘screen-life’, where our relationships at work and with our family and friends are flattened into 2D smart-phone or computer screens. This flattening degrades our language and the way we express and relate to each other (and the world at large). Our humanity is defined by our language; as a species the health of our language, the way we speak to each other is intricately related to our health and well-being. More significantly, ‘screen-life’ has a developmental impact on children and youth. When we are raised in or become acclimatised to a 2D environment held at close range this gradually limits our ability to keep perspective with the sensuality of the world at large. In short, ‘screen-life’ has a detrimental impact on our relationships, which are also a key part of keeping in good health. On the other hand there is the slightly controversial topic of electromagnetic radiation/pollution. It is controversial because industry and our own entitlement to the comforts of technology make it extremely unpopular and inconvenient to give credence to the notion that mobile phones and Wifi may be hazardous to our health. This creates a significant obstacle in carrying out scientific research- there are still many unknowns as to how EM radiation interacts with our own EM field and health and much of the research is obstructed or tainted by vested interests from the industry. That said, when it comes down to it, it is better to be cautious when there are serious potential risks at play. (The World Health Organisation cautions against prolonged mobile phone use due to it's connection with the development of brain tumors.)
The third ‘boiling frog’ factor is the overwhelmingly high stress levels of modern living. When did you last feel truly and totally relaxed, both in mind and body? If it takes you some time to answer this, we can assume that although we know what it’s like to relax and unwind, there may well be underlying streams of tension that keep you on guard even when you don’t need to be. This tension will have a dampening effect on the incredible restorative, regenerative, and healing capacities of your own body.
The good news is there are many things we can do to counter-act this onslaught from our environment. Here is a list of things I find useful for myself:
- Drink clean water, invest in a water filter.
- Eat clean foods, avoid all synthetic, pesticide-sprayed, non-organic foods as much as possible.
- Be cautious about taking medications when not essential, be wary of becoming addicted to opiate-based painkillers, sleeping pils, or anti-depressants. Always personally research potential side-effects of medications.
- Support the detoxifying capacity of your body- research foods and herbs that support the liver and cleanse the body. Research different detox protocols and get to know how to detoxify your body.
- Find ways to naturally improve the quality of your sleep. Our sleep is the main period for mental and physical restoration, detox and healing.
- Limit your screen-time. Create a cut-off point in the evening where you switch all phones and screens off. Try to make this at least an hour before sleeping.
- Give your self a ‘digital detox’ for a whole day or weekend.
- When making a call on your mobile do not hold the phone next to your head until the other number has picked up. Hold your phone at least 1 inch away from your ear. This simple practice will greatly limit your exposure to the most intense radiation from your phone.
- Learn to self-regulate. Explore your breathing habits, practice awareness-based exercise such as qigong, taichi, yoga, or pilates.
- Make time for being in nature, enjoy your local wildlife.
- Invest energy in your friendships- “True wealth is not measured by a man’s riches, but by the strength of their relationships.”
Even though living in a big city can be highly stressful, it is worth remembering that it is not just the environment that determines the stress, but it is how we choose to respond or react. Being able to adapt to constantly changing pressures is a skill worth developing. This way, we’ll begin to notice when the heat is rising, and jump out of boiling water!
Many people experience tea as a healing plant, but it is often only tea enthusiasts who are aware of its true healing power. I propose that new findings in the field of mental-emotional trauma reveal another dimension to the healing power of tea, and through collaborative learning and discourse we may all broaden our understanding of both tea and healing.
In my life I have gradually developed a passion for both tea culture and the healing art of Qigong, which in the last 5 years I have been teaching alongside each other. I find tea and qigong to be very well suited, just like tea and meditation. My professional background is as an acupuncturist and massage therapist, with a special interest in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and related illnesses. Over the last year I have been giving monthly tea ceremonies at a residential trauma clinic in Oxfordshire, England, and this has helped me see more clearly into nature of tea ceremony and healing.
People come to stay at this beautiful centre in the English countryside for anything between a few weeks and 6 months. They come to heal themselves and recover from things such as PTSD, anxiety, nervous breakdowns or depression. Often they present with severe and complex traumas, which have made living normally in society impossible. The centre itself is highly innovative, integrating pioneering body-centered approaches to healing from trauma, including Somatic Experiencing (body psychotherapy), EMDR, equine therapy, yoga and Tai Chi. Trauma very often creates a situation where the nervous system is on constant red-alert and highly sensitive. Because of this the centre’s primary emphasis is to create a safe-haven for people to decompress from the pressures of their lives and minds.
Initially I was asked to teach qigong and lead discussion groups around the general theme of qigong, meditation, traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy. However, after the first few sessions I decided to bring my tea-ware along and serve tea. The first few discussions had felt more like lectures, which didn’t seem to be engaging people that effectively, and so I was hoping that by serving tea I might open up the space for more fruitful dialogue and engagement. The response was very positive, with everyone enjoying the tea, being present and curious through the preparation, and feeling able to communicate and be more open within the group. The participants were noticeably more relational and relaxed after the session than before. It was wonderful to witness how different these sessions were- tea truly is a ‘great connector’, a bridge between people, a harmonizing agent between aspects of ourselves and with nature.
Over time I have started to develop my approach and fine-tune my serving style to the setting. This has been an interesting experience, and not just from witnessing the difference that tea brings to the equation, but also as a way of learning to hone my skills and adaptability to different people and dynamics. I believe tea ceremony has a great potential for helping heal and resolve emotional trauma. However, the underpinnings of how it helps heal these sometimes hugely debilitating conditions throws up many questions- where is the healing coming from? The tea leaf itself? From me as a guide and server? From the mindfulness and group ritual aspect of the ceremony? As you might guess, all 3 of these factors are important.
Some people at the centre have asked, what is special about tea in itself- could the same benefits occur if we were to make gourmet coffee or hot chocolate and share the drinking experience in the same way? Learning to be present and mindful is a powerful tool in healing trauma, and so any activity where we are slowing down and taking time to nourish and care for ourselves is beneficial. However, the tea plant itself has a particular quality that makes it perfect for cultivating mindfulness- it awakens and brightens the mind, but at the same time it brings a calmness which is missing with other dearly loved plants such as the coffee bean or cacao pod.
If we look back to the first mention of tea historically we will find it listed as a medicinal herb in the original pharmacopeia of traditional Chinese medicine- Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic. Its therapeutic quality is described simply as ‘brightening the eyes’. This is symbolic language- the eyes are considered the prime diagnostic windows into the health of the mind. Although the tea-leaf contains a myriad of preventative health benefits, I believe this primary function of ‘brightening the eyes’ offers curative potential as well. If we are actively using mindfulness techniques for self-healing, tea can be a hugely valuable support in this process- it nourishes our ability to stay awake, present, and concentrated. It is also interesting to note that one of the key diagnostics that can be noticed in someone who has suffered overwhelming trauma is seen in the eyes- which sometimes seem as if they are veiled, hidden, or frozen.
In England we have a very strong tea tradition, and it is common knowledge that any disputes between people or personal crises are best solved by first ‘making a nice cup of tea’. So it is already a given that tea can act as a healing agent in social disharmony. However, what is being more and more acknowledged in the trauma field is how important the social realm is for individual health and healing.
One of the most exciting discoveries of the last few decades was made by the neuroscientist Stephen Porges, when he realized that there is another layer to our nervous system which is critical in the stress response. His research intersects psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology and has come to be called ‘Polyvagal Theory’.
Most people are familiar with the ‘flight or fight’ and ‘freeze’ responses. These are instinctual mechanisms that are evolutionarily imbedded into our autonomic nervous systems (ANS). When people experience trauma and are unable to process and recover from the experience, this leads to haywire in the nervous system, which becomes confused and highly sensitive- what is termed a dysregulated nervous system.
The ANS is often seen as being balanced like two sides of a scale- when we are under physical or mental stress the sympathetic aspect of the ANS is stimulated and when we are relaxed, eating, and sleeping, the parasympathetic aspect of the ANS is stimulated. The two modes create a cascade effect through our hormonal systems, metabolism and blood circulation. Simply put, the sympathetic speeds things up and the parasympathetic slows things down. For optimal healing and regeneration we are dependant on the parasympathetic, and the nerve pathway which governs the parasympathetic is called the Vagus nerve. This stems from the lower aspect of our face and jaw and runs down through our throat and enervates the organs of our trunk.
Polyvagal theory highlights that the Vagus nerve has two distinct branches, one which is slower and older, and another which is newer and faster. The old branch is activated in the ‘freeze’ response, it’s kind of like a default automatic shutdown when stress becomes overwhelming. This is an effective survival mechanism that is seen when and animal ‘plays dead’- the predator loses interest and instinctively avoids dead meat for its own safety. This happens exactly the same in humans- we faint or we ‘dissociate’ from the body, numbing us to terror and pain. The newer branch of the Vagus is distinct to higher mammals and is specifically related to social communication- we are using this part of the nervous system instinctively all the time, in any environment when we’re reading others facial expressions or hearing their voices. This represents a new layer to the stress response- the orientation mode.
The reason why the orientation mode is so vital for humans is linked to our vulnerability throughout our infancy- unlike many animals we’re entirely dependant on our caretakers and have evolved to use facial expression and voice as an essential bonding (and survival) skill. Even more importantly this skill is integral to functioning socially and is also essential for our physical and mental health- Polyvagal theory teaches us that we are constantly regulating each other’s health just by conversing and reading facial expressions. When there is the slightest sign that the person we are with is detecting danger, our orientation mode picks up on this and depending on our conditioning kicks into the sympathetic ‘flight or fight’ mode. When our environment and the people we are with appear safe and at ease, we are also safe and at ease, and our nervous system remains in a balanced state. In time, this understanding will be hugely significant for modern healthcare- optimal healing is dependant on a safe social and physical environment and diminishing signs of threat and danger.
When we experience a traumatic event our bodies have an inbuilt evolutionary resilience that helps us survive and regain equilibrium. However, our culture and modern lifestyles has changed so rapidly in the recent centuries that often it is very difficult to gain equilibrium after trauma, and our nervous systems are left in a dysregulated, overly sensitized state. Stress has become so pandemic in our society that actually we don’t even need a single traumatic event to knock the nervous system out of balance- the gradual build-up of physiological, emotional, social, and environmental stress can be thought of as ‘soft trauma’. Whenever we reach breaking point (i.e. when it becomes overwhelming) this can manifest in similar ways to ‘hard trauma’- anxiety, depression, pain, and dissociation.
This way of looking at the underlying mechanisms of social interaction and stress gives us new insight into why tea ceremony can be such a powerful and sometimes profound experience for some people- there are multiple levels at work.
If you have engaged in a harmonious tea ceremony, you know in your heart and understand all this already. Nevertheless, if we broaden our knowledge this can empower and give more clarity to our intent, leading to more skillful interaction with tea and those who we serve.
If you are already engaged in tea ceremony this research and new understanding of stress and trauma will help dispel any doubt that the way you communicate, spoken or through body language and facial expression, is vital to creating harmony and healing through tea. Polyvagal theory gives credence to the old Chinese saying that ‘the doctor is the medicine’. This goes to re-emphasize how important self-cultivation and meditation is for doctors and for self-healing. When you have a bright-hot charcoal ember and a log of wood is placed close-by, the dry log will spark up into a blaze. This is an analogy for when a healer’s spiritual Light is clear and strong, just being in their presence can activate healing and change.
A different line of research that gives further weight to this concept is that of the HeartMath Institute, which clearly shows that when a state of mental-physical coherence is achieved in one person, this spontaneously arises in those who are close-by. The process by which this coherence is developed is by a simple method of breathing slowly whilst resting a peaceful awareness on the area of the heart. The heart’s electro-magnetic field becomes coherent with that of the brain, and this field extends out from the body and ‘entrains’ those who are close-by. It might seem far-fetched, but this process of coherence and entrainment can be clearly measured.
The first step when working with either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ trauma is analogous to the first step of qigong- ‘gathering the Qi’. This simply means slowing down, centering, creating a safe environment, grounding, and setting intention. When we can start to cultivate mindfulness and remain present in the moment-to-moment and in the body, then we have built the stability of mind to take the next step in beginning to process and release old patterns and traumas without getting knocked off-balance and re-traumatized.
When mindfulness slips and stability is lost, it can either fall towards the sympathetic mode of speeding up, becoming restless or anxious, or towards parasympathetic dissociation, which is a spaced-out, disembodied, dreamy state. Through practice we can become familiar with this spectrum of experience and learn to self-regulate and set the stage for our own healing or help co-regulate and assist others in this process. When tea is combined with simple mindfulness and embodiment practices, this offers a strong support to begin taking these first steps. It is also interesting to note that the sensitivity skills that are developed when drinking tea are superb embodiment exercises in themselves, as the main pathway of the Vagus nerve runs from the face down through the throat and into the core of the body.
When I first began serving tea at the centre I was unsure what would be the ideal tea to serve and the most suitable method of preparation. Initially I served GABA oolong tea, white tea, or aged white tea, as I wanted to avoid teas that might be too stimulating and potentially agitating. This worked well, but since then I’ve come to realize that the main factor in avoiding agitation is actually not the tea type, but the quality of the leaf. As such, organic living tea is key for healing and good health. Because I never know in advance how many people might turn up to the sessions, I’ve learnt that it’s best to come prepared for either gong-fu style preparation if there are a handful of people, or bowl-style preparation if there is a full house. Being spontaneous in this way allows me to attend fully to those around me rather than relying on a fixed plan for how I would like things to go. This is surely a valuable life-lesson in these changeable times.
When assessing what type of tea might be appropriate for someone, it is helpful to think back to the spectrum of experience mentioned earlier. If people seem agitated, restless and leaning towards sympathetic dominance, we could consider this as an excess Yang state of being, and conversely if people seem dissociated, spaced-out and not rooted in their body this could be seen as an excess Yin state of being. We can then adjust both our behavior and the tea we serve to harmonize with the group. Teas that accent the surface qualities of colour, fragrance, and taste can help harmonise the Yang, teas that accent the deeper qualities of texture, throat-feel, body-feel and Cha-Qi can help harmonise the Yin. Our attention can also be specifically drawn to these qualities in any particular tea, as no tea is definitively Yin or Yang.
When aiming to create harmony within a group, I believe we can learn from the Daoist wisdom of being like water. Rather than projecting or enforcing any state of mind through our space, we yield to what is around us and accept what is. We can see if we can release ourselves to the stillness in the room, or release into our breath and listen for the stillness in the background of our body. Ideally we rest in a state of embodied presence and coherence. If we feel safe and at home in ourselves this will help create an environment of safety for others. The heaviness that often surrounds people who are stressed can be counteracted by generating a sense of light-heartedness within and radiating this through one’s voice and expression.
I continue to be fascinated by all aspects of tea practice, and by it’s particular relevance and helpfulness in modern times. The old wisdom that runs like gold through the history of Cha Dao and through the indigenous traditions of the East holds incredible potential for the healthcare crises that is unfolding in modern society. It is up to us to draw together new ways of applying these old traditions and adapting to changing times.