Self Calming: 86 Ways To Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

Below is a concise self calming list I recently brainstormed for myself–and I thought it might be helpful for others as well. I keep a copy on a single piece of paper in my pocket and look at it periodically through the day. It has some eccentricities, so if one or more of the ideas is not clear, ask about it in the thread and I’ll do my best to explain what I was attempting to capture.

The ideas are an eclectic mix of insights derived from places like Buddhism, neurobiology, philosophy, and literature. If you’re not already clear on this, the sympathetic nervous system is associated with stress (the four Fs: fear, fleeing, fighting, mating) and the parasympathetic with calm. And of course the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with one another, so reaching a state of calm or eudaimonia (well being, flourishing) isn’t necessarily about just suppressing the sympathetic nervous system in favor of the parasympathetic, but activating it more skillfully (in sex, for instance, the parasympathetic nervous system activates in foreplay, the sympathetic in orgasm).

The items on the list roughly cluster into categories: discipline and energy (as preconditions for anything in life to happen); wellness (exercise, diet); meditation; general self calming; simplicity; ecology; creativity; venturing forth (novelty seeking and risk taking); networking (connecting with others); and the questioning of habitual narratives.

If I were to boil down the list to just four words, they would consist of a metaphysical claim accompanied by an overriding, parasympathetic practice: one thing, no reaction. That’s probably quite a few historical thinkers–East and West, from Buddha to Spinoza to Schopenhauer–in a nutshell.

Here’s the list:

86 ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system: (1) call up (trigger) discipline, Shakti (energy), & Lila (jazz, the brain’s play & seeking systems); (2) imagine a possible future you want & delay gratification for it, exercising the anterior prefrontal cortex; (3) “do the harder thing” (R. Sapolsky), not the easier, exercising the ventral medial & dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex; (4) precommit (remove temptations to strengthen resolve); (5) practice curiosity, critical thinking, attention to detail, excellence, resilience, & grit (stick-to-itiveness); (6) face the truth (ask pointed questions & stay for the answers); (7) say, “I’ll handle it” (have inner confidence) & “I’ll feel the fear & do it anyway”; (8) say, “You’re never going to feel like it”—then do the harder thing; (9) practice Zen no thinking, mindfully observing things via target-vow-witness: i.e. halt deliberation & say “ah so” to whatever surprising, pleasant, unpleasant, distracting, random, or entropic event comes along (example: “I’ll walk from here to that distant light, noticing what I experience in 5-4-3-2-1,” then ask along the way, “What’s it like to be alive?”); (10) have a Zen no-thought morning ritual (think habit, habitus, & neuroplasticity—and also think Sartre, choosing oneself in advance); (11) exercise aerobically for one hour and work muscle groups (arms, abs, legs) to boost GABA, neurogenesis, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and glutamate, preferably out of doors (run, bike, swim); (12) dance, stretch, do yoga, or tai chi; (13) eat flax seeds & broccoli, go vegan, fast, or eat only between noon & 6pm (think “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” & “beans are really, really good for you”); (14) take supplements (fish oil, D, tumeric); (15) self-administer dopamine by breaking macro-goals into micro-goals (have a check-off list with deadlines: “I’ll be in the gym by 5am”); (16) set goals & say no to whatever takes you off of them, but also be atelic—or atelic with telic things (think process & practice, not project & goal; performance art, not outcome); (17) dampen reactivity with an even temperament (go from a soundtrack of desire to a meta-soundtrack of non-reactivity); (18) accept the bent nail (Heidegger’s dasein, Dogen’s uji) and all future engine failures now (the cup is already broken); (19) dampen pre-traumatic stress syndromes with Ram Dass’ “be here now” and E. Tolle’s “is now okay?”; (20) after a trigger, breathe with mouth shut or practice breath work, like alternate nostril breathing or breath counting, taking your reactive, default mode network—the spell of your usual head chatter—off-line; (21) notice the delusions of the evolutionary matrix (in-out boundary delusions; delusions for sex, food, status, etc.), then hack the matrix by breathing evenly, noticing things but not reacting, like a lion on a hill; (22) exercise your attention and discipline muscle—pre-frontal cortex—via meditation (fix unconditioned attention on the present, without tanha—thirst—& don’t grasp or push away, but feel the heat—tapas—& stay); (23) notice at what stage of rising-ripening-rotting a thing is & follow it without passion, cultivating wisdom; (24) think: “This will pass” and “This moment can be a chance for practice”; (25) watch karma burn, run, flow off; (26) be in no hurry, have no preferences; (27) see that nothing is simple, but consists of parts, & so take nothing personally (think No Country for Old Men: “I got here the same way the coin did”); (28) after vipassana, replace any remaining, spell-casting negative or reactive self-talk with wisdom-based, rational self-talk (rational emotive or cognitive behavioral therapy); (29) in place of rumination, pan out & see language games, systems, & subsystems as Earth’s cathedral façade, then do tratak (focused subsystem meditation, noticing the inner logic of one of its alcoves); (30) be the Buddha mind (wind moves, flag moves, mind moves); (31) be the radio: broadcast what comes; (32) as you ironically wait on joy, grace, & the law (truth) to visit thee, go from room-to-room with calm and sympathy (think Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode”; think Kafka’s The Trial; think of the peculiar spotlight of space-time you so improbably inhabit—and of entropy and Max Ernst contemplating Prague Castle and Charles Bridge as a precarious, traumatic, and “fortuitous meeting of two distant realities on an inappropriate plane”); (33) drop desire to see inside & outside as one (one thing, no reaction; Emerson’s transparent eyeball—then “I choose love awareness”); (34) see each as aspect of you—and you as aspect of each (think HBO/Atlantic shorts series Question Your Answers, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Indra’s net, sunyata, and Wittgenstein’s aspect seeing); (35) be in uncertainties (“I don’t know”; neg. capability; think: “There’s the way I think things are and become, and the way things are and become”; mantra: “My model may be wrong” or “My model may not match reality”); (36) think Bell’s Theorem, seeing seemingly unentangled things as really entangled, like water & H2O (if this, then that; if not this, then not that); (37) think of choice, chance, & accident as limited views on a broader, strange attractor determinism, akin to a failure of perception of a deeper interconnection, and so come to calm (Spinoza); (38) reduce serotonin suppressing cortisol by getting or giving a massage (tap, pound, squeeze, rub, brush off, scratch, tickle, poke); (39) soak or shower; (40) trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response; (41) relax muscles & exercise imagination (let go; do somatic quieting or biofeedback, savoring the positive in memory or fantasy); (42) hold thy tongue; (43) go still & silent (play dead, corpse pose, nap: nothing sounds as good as silence feels); (44) get dark sleep or sleep outside; (45) pet your puss cat or pooch; (46) let go perfectionism; (47) make peace & default to peace, your sanctuary nature; (48) make love, not war; (49) make a mental passage to India with ahimsa (nonviolence), satyagraha (truth-telling), aparagraha (non-grasping, non-materialism), santosa (contentment), & saucha (cleanliness); (50) declutter (keep green & clean); (51) unplug; (52) take no action (A. Ginsberg: “It’s never too late to do nothing at all!”); (53) don’t shop: it’s never too late to buy nothing at all; (54) reduce alienation by simple, ecological acts (make toothpaste; dry clothes on a line; compost orange peels); (55) plant a tree; (56) build an upcycled, tiny house; (57) find financial peace (goal: debt-zero; think Camus: money buys time for higher life; think Whitman: “I loafe and invite my soul / I lean and loafe…hoping to cease not till death”; think Coleridge: “The soul itself must issue forth, / A light, a glory [halo] … / Enveloping the Earth”); (58) read or write in a quiet place; (59) do art or photography or sit with an art or photography book, magnifying glass in hand; (60) make or listen to music or poetry, enacting time; (61) slo-mo: pause to ask questions, linger, look, & feel (think what a photograph achieves by arresting time, generating a crawl space around it; think Museum Hours, savoring sights, essential oils & other aromas, sounds, textures & tastes, eating slowly & taking small bites); (62) notice a process (its stage; its parts in that stage; what it’s embedded in) & count patterns (how many trees, exactly?); (63) notice a thing odd, sui generis, ugly, beautiful, true, or good within a process (name & un-name the thing; integrate & disintegrate it); (64) think happening : notice that all things (nouns) are really events and relations in combination (C. Rovelli); (65) be in nature or listen to nature sounds; (66) venture out, travel, or watch slo-TV; (67) get sunlight & rock hunt; (68) look into the sky, day or night, or catch sunrise or sunset; (69) do a new thing (“365 days—no repeats”; think “This can be an experiment”); (70) be grateful and reframe: be more Pollyanna than Cassandra (catch your negativity or disconfirmation bias; bias your default mode network toward the positive—and if things go bad, you’ll handle it); (71) straighten posture/power pose; (72) practice self-other compassion & forgive self-others; (73) practice a bit more extraversion; (74) be with others, share, & make friends; (75) take a walk-and-talk; (76) expand your circle of empathy; (77) find village roles you can play (elder leading a group; cook at a festival); (78) engage in meaningful, ecological, hopeful work & projects; (79) bring to a cause your solidarity, rebellion, & imagination, i.e. come under a spell of Dionysus—a theatrical ecstasy—but just for fun (don’t play it too seriously); (80) watch comedy (be ironic, smile, laugh—boosting endorphins); (81) notice the poet’s fictions (the dramas of imagination; Milton’s “sport of winds”; Magnolia’s “This is the part of the movie where…”); (82) play the poet’s fiction’s light, not locking in on one narrative, but noticing that “there is more than one way to look at a thing” (L. Clifton); (83) subtract imagination from the poet’s fictions & see what’s left (W. Stevens); (84) fake it till you become it: reflect on how it is to think, feel, & behave at your best—and how your thought/behavior is maladaptive or adaptive (Blake-binding or Blake-releasing of life); (85) enter present experience without tightness (be loose, relaxed, open, flexible, accepting—i.e. enact hospitality, welcoming each moment as one might while on an LSD trip); (86) don’t make pain important (Nietzsche)—and open to pain, frustration, failed models, fatigue, complexity, uncertainty, your modular brain, and competing goods (accept, don’t deny; no need to Picasso/Minotaur pose)—and don’t make them excuses to forestall action (the Hamlet Syndrome)—now choose (Nietzsche & Sartre).


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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, beauty, Bernie Sanders, david hume, edward feser, God, Lucretius, meditation, philosophy, poetry, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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