These are certainly challenging times for us all. I don’t think that “global pandemic” and “social distancing” were on many of our New Year’s To Do lists. But here we are, and the whole world is encountering uncertainty on so many fronts.
Resilience is one thing I’ve learned from decades in the Chinese internal martial arts. In the “soft arts” it is more important to be able to neutralize a punch than to throw one. And from decades of energy healing, I have learned how we each need to be responsible for our own immune systems.
“All healing is self-healing.”
Both ask the questions:
“How do I avoid taking a hit?”
“How do I bounce back after taking a hit?”
“How do I live my life so that I don’t get hit so often?”
And we’re all taking a few shots right now. We are awash in reminders that the world will be a dangerous place for the foreseeable future. Global pandemic. Economic collapse. Insufficient medical supplies.
The immediate challenge is how to stay healthy and how to minimize danger to others during this time. We are being updated constantly about the best strategies to control the spread of COVID-19, so I won’t get into those here. Instead, I would like to shift the conversation to what we can all do to keep excessive worry from overwhelming our immune system.
And we have more control over our immune system than most people know.
It starts with our thoughts. Simply put, negativity suppresses the immune system. Stress hormones serve an important role in keeping us alive. When we live in our fears, however, the stress hormones our body uses to handle emergencies, particularly cortisol, don’t return to normal when the present danger has passed. When artificially stimulated by continuous activation, however, they can cause damage to the body-mind.
One of the functions of cortisol is to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system. This was adaptive when running from sabertooth tigers, but less so when we are exposed to bad news from around the world. Even twenty minutes of stress can reduce the natural killer cell activity, your body’s primary defense, for up to three days.
The hypothalamus and pituitary control the levels of cortisol in the blood. When danger is present, cortisol levels are increased. When danger is constant, the body-mind recalibrates to make that the “new normal.” In a way, it becomes addicted to a certain level of angst and the chemical cocktail it produces.
Adrenaline activates immediately then returns to normal in two minutes. Cortisol sticks around longer: about twenty minutes. Still not terrible. However, if we continue to mentally throw gasoline on the fire, the cortisol keeps coming. The endocrine system can’t tell the difference between fear caused by present danger and or by an imagined future.
For example: Bill is glued to the news channel. For many hours a day, he gets the latest updates about the spread of COVID-19 from around the world and what he can do about it. Then he listens as experts talk about what all that means. Then he hears other experts explain what those experts were talking about. Then other experts critique the absolutely horrendous responses made by the politicians he doesn’t like.
Bill is angry and afraid. He is certain that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we are all powerless to do anything. He is awash in cortisol.
Chronic high cortisol levels can lead to many health problems, here are a few:
- Compromised immune system
- Fat around waist and hips
- Slow healing
- Diminished cell repair
- High blood pressure
- Accelerated aging
- Heart disease
- Reduced muscle mass
- Poor memory
Joy strengthens your immune system. Anger, fear, worry, despair inhibit it. These emotions are born of non-coherent energy and in turn beget non-coherence. Love, compassion, hope, enthusiasm: these reflect coherent energy.
Simply put, coherence describes any system that is working smoothly and efficiently. Coherent energy is directed, organized, and pulsing together. When something is coherent, qualities emerge that are not present in a non-coherent state.
For example, a 60 watt incandescent light bulb will illuminate only a very short distance. Most of the light waves are out of phase and crash into each other. A laser is coherent light. That means that the light waves are all in phase and moving in the same direction. A laser pointer uses only 5 one-thousandths of a watt, yet is visible 12 miles away.
You have approximately 70 trillion cells in your body. Each cell is a living creature. If you can get them to be even a little more coherent, then good things may happen. Coherence and entropy are inversely proportional. That is, in any system an increase in order results in a decrease in disorder. (Sounds simplistic, but it’s actually helpful to remind yourself that you are part of the problem or part of the solution in your own life.) An increase in coherence in your body-mind results in support for your immune system. It gets stronger, more flexible, more resilient, less vulnerable to the threats that come with every news broadcast. Fear and anxiety transform into love and resolve.
(To be clear, you are already coherent, just by being alive. All life is coherent. Life defies entropy by creating new structures to adapt and overcome the challenges it faces. Syntropy. Buckminster Fuller developed a definition of syntropy in relation to “whole systems” as, “A tendency towards order and symmetrical combinations, designs of ever more advantageous and orderly patterns. Evolutionary cooperation. Anti-entropy.”
Life is a dance between the coming-together and the falling-apart. Enhancing the coherence of your body-mind allows you to meet life’s challenges a little better. I abbreviate “enhanced coherence” to “coherence” for convenience.)
Coherence is another way of saying wholeness. The word health derives from an Old English word meaning “whole.” When we feel more coherent we feel healthier. We radiate health. And as we get more coherent, we become coherence exporters. Our wholeness affects those around us, lifts their spirits. (See my blog Exporting Coherence, where I get into this a bit more.) Just as non-coherence is contagious, positive energy can transform the prevailing mood.
When in a more coherent state, the nervous system calms down. We think more clearly. Attention shifts into the present and creates space between all those thoughts about a threatening and confusing world. This calms the adrenaline/cortisol stress response and gives the body a chance to heal and restore order.
How do I get more coherent?
To answer this question I return to a technique I discovered when competing in push hands tournaments back in the old millennium. How and why it works was explained in Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate. If you are one of the thousands of people I’ve shared this trick with over the past couple decades, you know the answer. But if it doesn’t seem as effective as before, or you never really adopted it as an effective tool, please read on.
I’m talking about pointing and reaching with the index finger as a quick and easy way to heighten coherence.
It’s a very simple thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t come naturally. It’s a learned skill that requires practice, like swimming or singing. But each time you do it, you rewire your nervous system. You learn to like the state of heightened coherence.
There are a thousand ways to do it wrong. When I teach it, I guide people to experience coherence while avoiding most of the pitfalls. I want them to see what is possible if they do it correctly. When they try it later on their own, they may run into the dreaded learning curve. If the payoff is not big enough, they may not feel it’s worth the effort. Or they may dismiss its effectiveness before they have explored it.
And that is unfortunate, because it only works if you use it…and use it correctly.
I have demonstrated how pointing and reaching unifies the body-mind in a way that amplifies effective power and root in taijiquan. Situations that would ordinarily feel threatening can be confronted calmly. Here’s a fun video from back in the day:
Demonstrations like this one are done to show that it’s a real thing, this coherence, with real applications. It’s tougher to demonstrate the effect it has on you subjectively. That has to be experienced.
Simply put, heightened coherence integrates the body-mind, calms the nervous system, clears the mind, and brings attention to the present moment. This is much more important than any martial application. It’s your health and peace of mind.
The two keys to activating the coherence are:
Lightly reach with your index finger as if you were turning on a light switch on the wall. No muscular tension. The results you get are directly proportional to how much you INTEND to reach and how directly you actually FEEL the extension, not just “think about feeling.” Both the intention and the feeling must be done, newly, as if they are being done for the first time. To do this, one must override the brain’s “very helpful” function of automatically objectifying everything and turning it into a story.
This automatic part of the brain is called the Default Mode Network (DMN) and it updates the personal narrative moment-by-moment. It creates a churn of thoughts when we’re not focused on a specific task. But when we consciously FEEL, something remarkable happens: we hit the “pause” button on the DMN and shift to other parts of the brain. (See my blog Anxiety and Non-coherence).
Some people are disappointed when pointing the index finger “doesn’t seem to work anymore.” They don’t realize that they are not performing the process NOW; they are running a memorized action. “Muscle memory.” Consequently, they are no longer in present time…they are back in their thoughts. The brain has substituted an algorithm for conscious action.
Surprisingly, we have to learn to FEEL consciously. (And by “feel” I mean tactile sensation, not emotional response.) That’s because the sensory nervous system is largely preconscious. It takes practice to get the conscious mind to recognize information from that part of the brain. (See Feel First, then Do.) Touch things with your index finger, then actually feel the sensations that come from your skin to your brain. It sounds simple, but it takes practice to awaken all those sleeping nerves.
Controlling Cortisol with Coherence Meditation
In order to interrupt the barrage of fear-based thoughts that cram our minds in this difficult period and drive our cortisol levels out the top, we need to take the mind off random play. Give it a break and allow your cortisol level to even out. Shift out of the DMN and return to NOW. It can happen almost instantly if you bring your full awareness to enhancing coherence. This meditation is best done in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Once you get the hang of it, you can do it anywhere, anytime. You can do it for a few seconds or for hours. You can do it while waiting on the supermarket line. Or driving a car. Do it as a warm-up for your favorite meditation. It’s pretty versatile.
Controlling Cortisol with Coherence Meditation
We will get through this together. And the road will be a good deal less bumpy with the help of a little coherence and a lotta love.