My latest summer reading is Freddy Silva’s newest book, Legacy of the Gods. The title doesn’t begin to explain what this book is about. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, and it is 100% relevant to gardening, but I want to finish reading it before I say more about it here. So today I’m going to prepare you for future blogs on that subject by talking about what I learned from another book on my summer reading list: Awakening the Brain, by Dr. Charlotte Tomaino. Because our nervous systems are what it’s all about.
Dr. Tomaino is a neuropsycholgist whose first vocation was – are you ready? – nun. Her book is a perfect example of the many ways that science and spirituality are converging in this century, and her life is an embodiment of that process.
What I came away from Tomaino’s book better understanding is how the brain and mind interact and how much the choices we make in our minds influence our brain and its structures and biochemistry, which in turn influence the mind and our thoughts…. It’s a critical feedback loop, and taking care of these delicate and sensitive nervous systems is not something that is yet taught in most families or in school. Tomaino’s book is like a mini-course in learning to recognize and respond to the signals that tell us when our nervous systems are getting stressed and about to head in a direction where the amygdala is about to take over and clear thinking and openness to opportunity is about to disappear. All politicians could benefit from this kind of information. Anyone who spends more than 60 seconds in a day listening to politicians could benefit from this information.
The basics are deceptively simple: keep hydrated and oxygenated (as in drink plenty of water and breathe deeply), get plenty of sleep, eat well for your body, and get good exercise. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But try all of those things for just one day and let yourself start to notice the difference. I know my garden and plants really appreciate it when I am the kind, patient person who has taken care of herself first.
The other element that Tomaino adds in is the concept of “neurochoice”. Each decision we make is contributing to how our brains structure their networks, and once a neural path is established, the tendency is to keep using that path, making it wider and bigger. Spouses, parents, and children are the people who know how to “push our buttons”, but really all they are doing is showing you a ‘neurochoice’ made long ago that has now fixed into a strong neural pathway. It’s up to each of us to restructure our brains and make new choices about what pathways we’re going to let fire up.
My response to gophers in my garden is a good example. I can see evidence of gopher damage and decide (or allow myself) to think nasty thoughts about gophers. This will begin the process that revs up the stress systems in my brain and body, sending cortisol and other stress hormones into my bloodstream, further firing up the parts of the brain that react instead of think. The long-term result may be a few extra dead gophers, but it’s also going to be my chronic ill-health.
A different neurochoice is to slow myself down, breath deeply, notice all the plants that are still thriving and reach for the creation of a neural pathway that acknowledges the benefits of diversity. This keeps my brain in a mode that allows me to notice what responses will most benefit me and the garden as a whole. Some trapping may be in order, but it won’t be a stress reaction, it will be a well-considered response.
Both my husband and I have read Awakening the Brain, and the biggest change we notice in ourselves is how much more compassion we have for other people. Whether it’s the angry person in line at the gas station or the vitriolic outburst we witness somewhere, we tend now to turn to each other and nod our heads knowingly; that poor person has no idea how to take care of their nervous system or how to make healthy neurochoices, and is clearly suffering the repercussions.
I’m sorry I couldn’t find a way to make this more lively, but I do hope you get the idea. Drink plenty of water, breath deeply, get plenty of sleep, eat the foods that leave you feeling calm and healthy, and exercise. Take care of your nervous system first. Next time I will talk about how doing these simple things will help us to live the full potential of our ecological roles on this lovely, marvelous planet.