Guided Stillness: Meditations for the Nervous System

Guided Stillness: Meditations for the Nervous System

Pake Nielson

Taking time to calm the nervous system can seem out of fashion in today's world. We are made to feel that by becoming calm and relaxed we are inherently missing out on something. However untrue that is, both society as a system and our nervous system seem rigid against us. Our nerves do what they do best: communicate and relay stimuli. Asking this system to communicate less can be like asking someone not to think of monkeys. And so, we must go about it through the way of sensations instead of thoughts. 

Instead of constantly moving from one thought to the next we give ourselves a pause, a moment of space. But how you might ask? Well, let's start with a meditation that is more commonly referred to as "nerve flossing" in modern somatic therapies. 

  1. Start by taking your seat. An upright chair or a seat on the ground will work well. Although, you will want to sit up straight as there will be some movement in this exercise. Try not to lean back or lay down. 
  2. Once you are sitting comfortably, take a few deep breaths. Each breath should feel deeper than the last, bringing in more comfort and relaxation. Allow your body to relax all the way, letting go of any tension or stiffness you may have found. Take as many breaths as you need and move on to the next steps as you feel comfortable doing so. 
  3. Now that we are comfortable and relaxed, start by softening your gaze while looking straight in front of you. Take a breath here, then begin turning your head to the left as slowly as is comfortable. When you reach your left shoulder, let your body twist to look all the way behind you. 
  4. Once you feel ready take a breath, on your exhale begin to come back to the center slowly. Try to take as much time as you can to get back to where you started. Allow yourself to slowly scan the room. You do not need to name anything you see or describe what you are feeling. Instead, focus on your breath, the sounds of the room, and the feeling of air on your skin. 
  5. Repeat this process but over the right shoulder. Once you have come back to your center again, you will then tilt your head all the way back. So that you are staring at the ceiling above you. Take another moment here and then once you are ready, bring your gaze back to the center.
  6. Finally, the last step is to turn your gaze toward the floor and under your chair. If you are seated on the floor, turn your gaze into yourself as if you are viewing through your stomach. It's important here that you curve the spine of your neck rolling forward. Once you have reached a comfortable ending point, take a breath and return to the center as we have done before. 

This exercise is becoming more and more popular with many different therapists and practitioners as it assures the body that it is safe and there is no danger in the room. There is not a bear hiding in the ceiling or a tiger underneath your chair. Doing these exercises before meetings, arguments, and stressful situations can greatly reduce the feeling of hypervigilance. 

I first ran into this meditation from the book Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, who uses this technique with clients who have experienced racialized trauma. Resmaa uses these exercises not only to comfort people who are in distress but also in group settings to help sync and settle collective nervous systems, often leading to a great sense of connection and productivity.

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