Recently I watched “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace,” the documentary about Ram Dass post-stroke. He talked about his first time taking mushrooms with Timothy Leary, who assured him, when Ram Dass felt himself disintegrating and panicked with the certainty of his own death, “Trust your nervous system.”
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the nervous system and experience – or what I might loosely call “consciousness” or “awareness.” And I must say that while the idea of trusting your nervous system resonates deeply with me, there are ways in which the structure of the nervous system actually makes life difficult for people in C21st America. The nervous system isn’t all that trustworthy for telling us about the nature of the world or the universe; it’s only good at interpreting that world in terms of survival in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Which is not where we live.
A handful of examples:
The nervous system can only accommodate a limited amount of stimulation before it simply overloads. Women often experience this just before or just after orgasm and they wonder if they’re broken. Not at all, they just have ordinary, human, limited nervous systems.
It can only communicate a limited amount of information, and can only generate awareness of a small subset of that limited amount of information. Of all the things you are sensing right now, and right now, and right now, you are aware of almost none of it. The feel of the chair under you, your clothes on your body, the muscles in your pelvis, the tension in your feet. How much were you aware of before I drew your attention to them?
The nervous system can only pick up a narrow band of sensations, and much of the potential information in the world and in the universe is utterly unavailable to it. Infrared: invisible to us. Things as small as a cell: invisible to us. Smells: “The world of smell is now virtually closed to modern man,” quoth Douglas Adams.
The nervous system can only understand sensory experience in the context of its past and its present, never outside that context; no matter how much you practice, you will never quite get to know the world unmediated by the history of your nervous system.
And trauma to the nervous system changes it profoundly, channeling new sensations into tide pool of experience, a miniature ecosystem of your own consciousness, shut off from the larger ocean of your life until you begin to heal the trauma and return to your full (but still limited) experience.
Just a few examples.
No, the nervous system is not good at telling us about the nature of the world or the universe.
But the worst thing is that your nervous system will, for its own good reasons, lie to you. It will tell you that things are alarming or unsafe when in fact they are safe. And yet it will tell you to stay with someone who hurts you, even if you’re actually safer if you leave.
Your nervous system has its own mathematics, its own way of calculating odds, and it is biased in favor of safety for most people. For high SES, low SIS people (maybe 5% of the population? 10%?) it’s biased in favor of risk.
I wonder what it would take to help people tune their nervous systems as you tune a piano, periodically undoing the inevitable souring of harmony. It’s not too complicated, actually. All you have to do is grab the reins of your awareness and choose what to pay attention to. Where your nervous system would have you pay attention to risk and fear and pain, shift your focus to safety and joy and pleasure. Where your nervous system would have you tuned to your thoughts, shift your focus to your body’s sensations. All it takes is practice.
It’s one of those things that’s simple but not easy. And people get frustrated because their brains will wander away and over and over; they have to take their attention by the hand and gently return it to what they want to attend to, like a distractable child, wandering in a meadow after butterflies, when she’s supposed to be learning about the flowers.
Sex is, in my view, the ultimate expression of being human. It is the nervous system playing its game, full blown. But that includes the ways it is incompatible with modern life. To overcome the games your nervous system would play, you have to take deliberate, slow steps, recognizing the ways in which your nervous system lies to you in order to keep you safe and training yourself to be in control of your brain, so that your brain isn’t in control of you.