As summer unfurls with a lushness and sense of abandon, we are asked to find our interconnectedness and joy. Joy is the emotion associated with the fire element, early summer’s realm, and the fire’s energetic is to reach out, to connect with others. I find myself struggling to find and justify joy. Families are being separated at the border. A country that was founded on in the pursuit of religious freedom is now discriminating against certain religions. Our very basic human rights are under threat. Where is there room for joy?
And then I remember my old marching band, the Infernal Noise Brigade. Our practice was joy as a form of rebellion. We would come clattering in formation, all 20-some-odd of us, in punk-fabulous attire, with handmade harnesses for our instruments and flags and whistles. When we showed up to the protest, the march or the rally, when we blasted horns and beat drums in the street, people used joy as fuel. They danced and smiled and kept fighting the good fight, anger still present but transformed, sustainable. We all remembered why we were there: to demand joy as a human right. To fight with love.
Love is a radical rebellion against capitalism, against the status quo. Joy is a revolution against the prison industrial complex, against corporate greed. Joy and love connect us to our humanity. Our humanity reminds us why we all deserve equal access to secure homes, clean water, nourishing food and physical safety.
From a very young age I yearned to know what motivated some people to be freedom fighters and others unjust persecutors. I couldn’t understand why some are committed to uniting humans through kindness and love while others wrap their lives up with practices of threat, intimidation and violence. It feels like a polarity of human nature. It is so evident in our current political climate, in social media rants, in the way my city is changing.
Looking at the delicate interplay between love and fear as motivators for human behavior fills some gaps in the puzzle. Our lifestyles have evolved speedily away from those of our recent ancestors, the threats to our wellbeing are quite different than they used to be, and yet our systems haven’t had much time to catch up. We react as though our survival is threatened when a coworker is in a bad mood or our partner is incommunicative. In some ways, until recently in our human history, our tribe was our survival. And being able to respond quickly to subtle variations in our environment might have been the thing that saved us.
There are many models of how this polarity shows up in human body and behavior. I am highlighting some of these theories to suggest that the state of our bodies, the impact of our lives on our nervous systems, can shift us back and forth between our survival instincts and our compassionate nature.
There are many reasons humans become disregulated and live in a hyper-vigilant state. It is very hard to love and put energy into human connection when one’s life feels endangered. This is a daily reality for some people, because of police and racial violence, not having a safe place to live or access to enough food. Others find themselves in constant fight or flight mode for more mysterious reasons, even when they are relatively safe and have access to resources.
Heart and Pericardium
“The healthy experience of intimacy with others is based on knowing what lies in our own heart.” – Lonny Jarrett
Because I now see many puzzles through the lens of Chinese medicine, I am choosing the Heart and Pericardium as my first model for a conversation about love and fear.
In Chinese philosophy the Heart is considered the benevolent leader, the true self. The Heart is both where, how and why we seek to connect with each other. To be truly open to intimacy with others, we must know what is in our own heart. We must be on the path created by our own truth.
Anatomically, the pericardium is a membranous sac that surrounds the heart with a protective fluid. In Chinese medical philosophy, it is called the heart protector, and it is seen as the heart’s fortress. The Pericardium decides what is allowed into the heart and what isn’t. The heart knows no fear or mistrust, and so it needs a firm bodyguard to decide who is worthy of the Heart’s golden light. The Heart would give itself freely. The Heart would welcome everyone to the dinner party. But the Pericardium is weary of freeloaders and those with mal intent. The Pericardium knows the value of the Heart.
The Heart and Pericardium are both organs of the fire element, the joy, laughter and love of our lives. The hearth to which we come home. The fire element helps us reach out and communicate with others. In balance, the Heart exerts its energy appropriately and the Pericardium is open but discerning. The fire element out of balance doesn’t know how to warm itself, lacking in engagement with intimacy, or it over-warms- burning through relationships- burning through life. The fire can gently warm and invigorate or it can sear and scald. It requires balance. Without human contact and connection, the Heart withers. With too much, it is overwhelmed.
Trust and safety are essential to a healthy Heart dynamic and often, with betrayal or lack of intimacy in formative years, the heart protector becomes rigid, over-controlling. Fear of being hurt again prevents true openness to intimacy. Fear blocks love from truly taking root.
I often ask myself, “Is my Heart big enough to hold everything this human life has to offer? Can it make room for all the beauty and joy while not turning its back on the pain and grief? Can it love even when it sees all the hate and fear in the world? Can it love when there is no guarantee of love in return?” I ask myself these questions a lot these days, as I coax myself to be a loving person as an act of rebellion against the forces of hateful ignorance.
Recently I was at a meditation retreat. Within 24 hours I had witnessed a dear friend give birth and found out another friend lay dying in a hospital of a drug overdose. I sat in the quiet room filled with collective cultivation and I asked myself, “Is there room in my heart to hold it all?” I wasn’t sure, stretched as I was by the marvelous phenomenon of birth and the dark mystery of death occurring so close to each other, so I asked my teacher. I sat on the cushion across from him during our private meeting and I explained my feelings about the present moment, having to experience so fully the extremes of human existence. I asked, “Can I hold space for all of this?”
He said, in his calm and thoughtful manner, “No, you can’t.” It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. He continued, “You can’t do it alone. But you can when you tap into the collective heart. When you connect with the whole of humanity. You can’t do it by yourself, but you don’t have to.”
Autonomic Nervous System
I speak a lot about the autonomic nervous system because of how greatly it impacts health and the ability to heal. We are equipped with two complementary autonomic (unconsciously directed) nervous systems and together they allow us to achieve balance.
The sympathetic nervous system is dominant during activity, exertion, arousal and stress. It responds quickly to our environments, activating our muscles, speeding up the heartbeat. It is balanced by the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart down, facilitates digestion and rest and allows human intimacy and connection.
When the collaboration between the two systems is balanced, we are able to move appropriately between the two, in sympathetic when we are exercising, running late for work or feel endangered in some fashion and in parasympathetic when it’s time to rest, eat a meal or spend time with someone we love.
When the body is under stress from overstimulation, overwork, fear and anxiety or denial of basic human needs like enough sleep, nourishing food and physical safety, the balance gets thrown off. The body stays in sympathetic mode and reacts in a hyper-activated/hyper-reactive manner. This interferes with digestion, sleep and intimacy. It’s hard to be patient, to listen and respond appropriately and to connect with others when we exist in that space.
The vagus nerve is the cranial nerve that enervates the organ systems. It is one of the prime tools of balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by bringing on the parasympathetic. It has two branches in humans. The more primitive dorsal branch is common to all animals and is greatly impacted by trauma (both big and little traumas), which can cause a total shutdown of the system. The ventral branch is newer in our evolution and unique to mammals that raise live young. It initiates facial expressions and expression-recognition for social contact. Cardiac and digestive changes have proven to be associated with facial expression via the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.
Social engagement stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us to settle. Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and keeps us on guard.
Trauma can be transferred through generations via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.
Through clinical observation of myriad populations of people who have gone through traumas such as genocide, slavery, abuse, starvation, extreme poverty and family separation, and how those traumas were passed down through generations, the term intergenerational transmission of trauma was introduced. Studies of epigenetically transferred stress hormone patterning suggest that trauma is passed not just through nurturing influence, but that stresses of this severity actually have a genetic impact and can be passed on for generations via genetic coding.
Attachment theory attempts to explain close personal relationships and why people respond to intimacy the way they do based on developmental conditioning. Psychologist John Bowlby defines attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Three main attachment styles were originally identified: ambivalent-insecure (anxious), avoidant-insecure and secure. Adult behavior in intimate relationships can be categorized and understood based on these attachment styles.
A secure attachment comes from a place of love and ability to connect in a regulated manner. For the more anxious attachment style, love and anxiety are often intertwined, making it difficult for love to blossom without a lot of fears coming up. People with an avoidant attachment style are more guarded against letting love in or out, similar to an overactive Pericardium.
Humans are hard wired to connect to other humans. Sometimes our attachment styles interfere with our ability to do that, but with acknowledgement and practice we are all capable of getting back to our innate ability to love deeply.
Love and Fear
All humans have an enormous capacity for love and all humans have a system wired for fear and survival. We are always navigating our way through the biological responses of our bodies to survive and the desire of our hearts to connect through community, intimacy and love. That is the human condition. And it’s a bit of a contradiction that we have to live with.
We know through studies of neuroplasticity that the central nervous system responds by strengthening the pathways we practice. When we are able to practice kindness, love and honoring of other people, those practices become more natural to us. When we communicate well, open ourselves up to others and take in the beauty around us, we have more capacity for joy. And joy can be our fuel, even in a difficult world where people are treated unfairly and our future is unknown.
Joy can help us fight for freedom and equality for all. Joy and love can help us undo the power of fear, which causes people to hate those that are different from them and hoard resources they don’t need. I remind myself that when people are behaving that way they are acting from their more primitive instincts. They are forgetting their humanity. And they are suffering as a result. This allows me to have some compassion.
How We Move Forward
This struggle in us, between our compassionate human nature and our animalistic instinct, will continue. But we are not helpless. We can take care of ourselves in order to show up for others. We can nourish our human connections and reinforce our compassionate nature by practicing it. We can be excellent to each other. We can look out for strangers. We can admit when we are hurt or insecure. We can be emotionally accountable. We can find joy in the little things life offers and let it fuel our resistance to greed, hate and fear. We can write love letters. We can practice kindness, even when we feel we have nothing left to give. Often practicing kindness is a gift, too.
Photos by: Ian Schneid, Tanya Heffner, Vlad Tchompa, Bruno Nascime, Helena Lopez