The Value of Rest
From The Value of Rest – and all we gain from refrain
(Hvile – alt vi vinner ved å la være)
By Siw Aduvill
Published by Tiden Norsk Forlag, Oslo, 2019
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Learning to rest
If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit!
A morning in June, around fifteen years ago. I had jumped into the car and pulled out onto the narrow road in the residential area in which I lived. When I rounded the next corner, I suddenly found my route blocked by a large vehicle and a man standing in the middle of the road.
My spontaneous reaction was to yell out of the window.
To be totally honest, I don’t remember exactly what I said word for word – my memory has conveniently edited it out. But what I do remember is that the man I cursed and shouted at didn’t scream back at me. He simply stood there, calmly, looking at me. Then I realised that the vehicle was a truck from the local council, there to collect the rubbish. My own rubbish! And I was sitting there screaming at the poor man?
Filled with shame, I eventually managed to splutter out a clumsy apology. Then I sat there – still ashamed – in the car for a few minutes, and waited until the waste collectors had finished their job and could let me pass.
Was there a matter of life and death at stake – was that why I had my foot to the floor and was firing on all cylinders? Hardly. I was stressed because I was late to teach a circus skills class to a group of children. This was the third year in a row that I’d arranged a summer school in circus skills for kids in Oslo, and as the person with the overall responsibility for the programme I had to be there before everyone else. The problem was simply that I had so many other balls in the air at the same time – quite literally. I’m a professional juggler, and have worked as a circus artist, instructor and director in the modern circus for most of my working life.
I was (and still am) a person who would get easily carried away by new ideas, and who would often start new projects. I also had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and a desire to see things through – no matter the cost! And this certainly cost me. I hit the proverbial wall – or tent canvas, as it were.
A few months later a viral infection knocked me sideways for a few months, and then when I still didn’t manage to stop, this developed into chronic fatigue.
First, I had to rest – whether I wanted to or not. Looking at a wall on which the paint had already dried was more than stimulating enough for me. Then, after several years, the wall finally started to bore me, and I made a few feeble attempts to resume my life. After living my life like a swinging pendulum for a while, repeatedly taking on too much before completely collapsing, I found that I had to cultivate a balance between activity and rest, so that both my body and mind would have time to recover.
So began my search for good rest. A search that would take me to several countries, via huge numbers of books and articles and encounters with people – both living and dead – who through their belief systems, research and personal experience could teach me something about what rest could be. As I moved through this process, I became keen to understand how the nervous system operates, and as an extension of this, what it means to rest. As part of my journey I became a qualified yoga instructor, and have taught yoga and meditation for the past ten years, both at home in Norway and abroad. As a yoga instructor, I meet lots of people who are exhausted by the way in which we live – which perhaps isn’t so surprising, since many seek out yoga and meditation only when they realise that stress has caught up with them. The world is spinning at an ever-faster pace, and there’s a lot to keep track of. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by everything from time pressures and extreme weather events to milk allergies and the extinction of various species. All this results in us being overstimulated and under-rested much of the time.
When I published my book Yoga When it Counts in 2015, I received many strong reactions from readers who told me that they recognised themselves in my descriptions of an overexerted body and mind, and the feeling of never measuring up. This led me to believe that our conversations around stress are far from concluded. But I didn’t want to write another text about just how ill you can become from living with stress over time – the tabloid newspapers offer up more than enough of this. The part of our nervous system that reverses stress responds better to positive impulses – to the framing of opportunities, permission, care and encouragement. I wanted to emphasise the positive aspects of getting more rest. The process of writing this book has provided me with confirmation that rest broadens our minds and makes us more intelligent; being rested also makes wine taste better and orgasms last longer. In other words: we have everything to gain.
So what is rest? My definition of rest is being in a state in which the nervous system is in a so-called parasympathetic response, i.e. when we activate our system for safety, trust and care – the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ state I was in when I screamed at the man who was just trying to collect the rubbish. Our normal state, as I see it, should be one in which we are fully relaxed; a state in which we place trust in each other, and wish each other well. But we are programmed for action, and driven by our primitive brain. Restlessness takes over, and it’s easiest to simply carry on in a kind of ‘business-as-usual’ state, without listening to what the body actually needs.
In his book The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough, American physician Matthew Edlund divides what he calls active rest into four different categories: mental rest, physical rest, social rest and spiritual rest. Directing our focused attention towards a single element, such as the breath or a mantra, can give us an experience of mental rest. Physical rest we can achieve through relaxation techniques, in which we permit the physical body to become still and calm; we can also rest while moving, such as by taking a stroll, dancing, or performing exercises using techniques from practices such as qi gong and yoga. Social rest, according to Edlund, is mostly about enjoying the company of others – he believes this type of rest to be just as beneficial to one’s health as quitting smoking, and includes sex in this category. The last kind of rest Edlund mentions is spiritual rest, which arises when we feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Many people find that they experience this sensation when out in nature – at sea, for example, or in a forest or on a mountaintop. Rest can be found in feeling small, as this can free us from the sense that we’re carrying the entire world on our shoulders – as can often be the case when everything seems to be only about us, and what we’re capable of achieving.
The act of resting might sound passive, but in this book we’ll look at active rest – how lying down to take a nap can be progressive and positive. How much rest do we need in order for it to make a difference? In our body? In the culture in which we live? We are all different, and must therefore recognise that each of us will need to find a unique balance between activity and rest; it is clear, however, that many of us would benefit greatly from resting more than we currently do. Rest will not solve all our problems in itself, but we need to be rested to effectively tackle life’s challenges.
This book is intended as an invitation to shop less, stress less and take on less, so that we can enjoy more of what life has to offer. To see that less is more, and that in a calm state we become more creative and empathetic, and act in ways that are more in line with what is best for both ourselves and others. To understand that challenges don’t need to be met with constant brute force, and that a life free from stress and panic truly is a possibility – and one we must grab hold of! Imagine a slack elastic band which, if drawn back, can then shoot forwards with great energy! This is how we might think about rest.
This book embraces silence and withdrawal, but not with the intention that we should remain in silence. There isn’t much solidarity in living in silence, especially when so many of us have voices that go unheard. Withdrawing gives us the opportunity to recharge our batteries in order to return with greater strength, and to speak up when we see injustices and situations requiring better solutions. It enables us to be efficient, and to persevere when tackling the great challenges of our time. We still have some way to go, but walking uphill is much easier when we are rested – and when we walk alongside others.
Chapter 1: The sympathetic body
The Church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.
In the summer of 1975, people abandoned the beaches in favour of cinema auditoriums in order to watch the movie Jaws – which at the time was one of the greatest box office successes in Hollywood history. Millions of people chose the darkness of the cinema over the sun, the sea and their bathing costumes – and afterwards, it would be a long time before many of them would dare to enter the water again. What’s so scary about sharks? The short answer is: everything. For over 400 million years, these carefree gangster-fish have swum their way through five mass extinctions that eradicated almost all life on earth, and there is little to indicate that they’ll be going anywhere soon. A shark can develop up to 30,000 teeth in its lifetime; by comparison, a human being has just thirty-two. And in addition to possessing all the same senses as humans, sharks can also sense electricity and vibrations under water. This means that they can detect the signals from your heartbeat – even from great distances away. A shark is also able to sniff out just a single drop of blood from among a million drops of water! But despite these and other monstrous qualities, only thirty to fifty shark attacks on humans are reported each year; of these, around five to ten will be fatal. Across the world, more people die of peanut allergies, but ‘Deadly Peanuts: The Movie’ doesn’t exactly have the same potential to scare the living daylights out of us. In the darkness of the cinema, a layer of fiction exists between the audience and the real threat. Our heart rate might increase, our muscles might tense up and we might gasp for breath – but deep down we know that we are safe in our seat. If we find ourselves in a truly dangerous situation, such as a war zone, there is far more at stake.
Much of what we know about the nervous system is a result of observing people in such extreme situations. What triggers the fear response, and prepares the body to fight or flee? Our nervous system can be broadly divided into what we call the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system enables us to control voluntary movements. It enables me, for example, to move my fingers across various keys on my keyboard to create sentences, which in turn enable me to communicate with you through time and space – I’m able to control the mechanical part of this process to a certain extent. But as I sit here breathing and blinking, and feel my heart beating to pump blood around my body, or that my bladder is full and that it’s time to empty it, it’s the autonomic nervous system that is at work. This autonomic nervous system is again divided into two – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic response
When we watch the movie Jaws and our breathing becomes shallower, our heart beats faster and our muscles tense up, this is a sympathetic response. The process goes something like this: through our senses, we receive information that there is danger afoot. The brain produces stress hormones, which prepare the system to respond by either fighting or fleeing. Blood flows out into the arms and legs, so that we’ll be better able to act quickly. When we are frightened, the nervous system responds by firing on all cylinders. This is generally a favourable response, since it ensures our ability to survive – in a threatening situation, we can try to get away from our attacker or the impending danger by running or swimming as fast as we can. If this isn’t possible, our other option is to fight using our muscles and teeth for all they are worth – although here we don’t possess the impressive bodily attributes or skills of many other species. So unless we happen to have a harpoon hidden down our bathing costume, our best option is to flee the scene.
The body is also able to respond in a third way, however, which can feel as if our brakes and accelerator are being floored at the same time – with the result that we simply stand there, as if frozen in time and space. It might be beneficial for a prey animal to play dead when encountering a predator that will only eat fresh meat because it knows that eating the equivalent of sushi that’s been left out on the counter for too long might have a negative effect on its health and survival. The Australian possum is deserving of several Oscars for how successfully it can play dead – it plays this role so convincingly that the predator eventually casts it aside and starts looking for another, living victim. After the credits have rolled the possum simply gets up, shakes itself off, and strolls on its merry way. This is rarely an alternative we humans actively choose – as tempting as it might be to play dead at boring dinner parties or certain Christmas gatherings. But for humans, the activation of a freeze-response in a threatening situation, such as during an assault, can result in a feeling of powerlessness, and in some cases shame at not reacting actively, which can settle in the body as trauma until it is processed.
We usually talk about the sympathetic response in relation to fear and stress, but it is important to emphasise that we can also mobilise a positive sympathetic response. There are contexts in which we activate the sympathetic response to give us energy, or to have fun or feel excitement (such as when watching a scary film about sharks). Some people like to challenge themselves with various kinds of intense stimuli that would give others a heart attack just thinking about them; individuals who are attracted to extreme sports, for example, experience these activities as positive stress. Challenging yourself by giving a speech at a gathering, or taking responsibility for a project that seems just out of reach, can also be a positive experience and provide a sense of achievement. But extreme sports are not for everyone. This is partly about our personal base level – that is, how high a level of stress our body is subjected to on a daily basis. It might be that people who live in safe surroundings have a greater need to seek out situations and activities that give them an adrenaline rush; if, on the other hand, you belong to a group of the population that is continually stopped by the police or shot at, and are living under circumstances in which you must constantly be on alert in order to survive, swimming with sharks or bungee jumping suddenly seems much less attractive.
The parasympathetic response
The nervous system’s parasympathetic response is the opposite of being on red alert. It is through this response that we exhale and relax, easing the tension in our shoulders; that we recover, and digest both food and impressions. This is the body’s system for safety, assuredness and satisfaction; how it feels when everything doesn’t seem to be going up in smoke, when the key doesn’t break off in the lock – when a shark isn’t trying to eat you. It is within this landscape that the daily functions of body and mind play out, and it’s also our greatest source of feelings of satisfaction and belonging. It was previously believed that these states of mind arose because the system that handles danger was turned or tuned down; now we know more about how this system makes use of natural chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with deep joy and strong positive emotions. When we are in a parasympathetic response, feelings such as trust and compassion are far more accessible to us than when we are on red alert.
The parasympathetic response is sometimes referred to as a regenerative process, since it renews the body’s cells and systems. The regenerative process doesn’t need much energy in order to function, but the absence of danger is a prerequisite. Our surroundings are important for the nervous system, because we respond and organise ourselves in accordance with the demands of our environment at any given time, both consciously and unconsciously. The parasympathetic system reacts positively to safe surroundings, regular and calm breathing patterns, relaxed muscles, slowness and rest. But because the surroundings in which we now live are so full of stimuli, modern humans usually spend more time in defence mode than in regenerative mode. We can, however, attempt to create a positive and supportive environment in which we emphasise giving the body and mind what they need in the form of peace and coherence, so that struggles and self-defence don’t come to dominate our everyday lives.
Of course, we can also insist on maintaining an environment filled with stress and challenges; one in which our calendar is always jam-packed with appointments and we never take the time to catch our breath. It’s possible to keep this up for a long time – but the problems arise when something unexpected happens and we have to drop everything to focus on the situation in front of us. Because defrosting the freezer suddenly seems much less urgent when we have a huge leak under the sink, or when the stove has caught fire. If our house is going up in flames, we must prioritise mercilessly and mobilise all our resources in order to put out the blaze – and this is also true for the body. It can’t prioritise digestion or cellular regeneration when the alarm has been sounded; faced with a threat, reproduction isn’t such a high priority, either. This might explain why we lose our sex drive and desire for intimacy when we have a long list of things to do within a tight deadline. These tasks might not represent a real risk to life and health – but the body responds as if it needs to focus on surviving.
The three parts of the brain
The brain plays a natural role in the relationship between what we experience and how the body reacts, and there are three main parts of the brain that are referred to in connection with stress reactions. The first is the so-called reptilian brain, which is the first part of the brain that developed in humans. The reptilian brain is connected to the autonomic nervous system, and manages instincts that are necessary for survival. It is here that the fight-or-flight response is regulated, in addition to basic bodily functions such as sleeping and waking. Reptiles aren’t exactly known for being overly sentimental – they lay eggs that are easy to abandon, and leave their newly hatched offspring to fend for themselves.
But things are different for species that give birth to live young. Most mammals are helpless in the period following birth, and our behaviour was therefore forced to adapt to these needs in order to ensure the survival of the species. It became necessary for us to care about each other, and so the limbic part of the brain developed. The limbic system plays a significant role in how we interpret sensory impressions, how we code and remember sensory information, and how we react to all this information emotionally. It monitors both our internal and external environment, and ascribes emotional significance to all we smell, see, hear, feel and taste. The limbic system is known as the seat of our social and emotional intelligence, and is also responsible for the creation of memories.
Just behind our forehead lies the newest part of the brain, which is therefore called the neocortex – in this book also referred to as the frontal cortex. This new cortex is where we utilise our language, make plans and solve problems, and doesn’t actually mature until we reach our early twenties. This is the centre of our rationality, and the part of the brain we use to solve mathematical calculations. We are particularly enthusiastic about and proud of this part of the brain – to such an extent that we often permit the rational part of us to override other kinds of intelligence. But when we are stressed, and shift into survival mode, it is our reptilian brain that steers the ship – when this happens, we would do well to engage the other parts of our brain. We can do this through calming down, by activating the parasympathetic response. The body then sends a message to the brain, informing it that there’s no shark fin to be seen nearby, and that the production of stress hormones is therefore unnecessary.
Jumping back to the start
If you are a blue tit, you have to watch out for the cat sitting there staring at the nest. If you’re a squirrel, you should find a tree to climb when a dog comes bounding past. In a dog-eat-dog world, such as the savannah or the forest, the stress response is activated daily. But the animals manage to quickly reset their nervous systems after the immediate danger has passed – either by shaking themselves off, by fighting, or by getting away from their attacker. We humans, however, tend to enter a state of chronic stress, in which the stress chemicals continue to rage through our bloodstream and where the system fails to reset to parasympathetic mode. What happens then is that the easily ignited survival response that puts us on red alert starts to corrode the body’s organs and the system as a whole. One example of this is the stress hormone cortisol, which is useful for short-term, defensive behaviour because it mobilises fat and sugar, giving the body energy. At the same time, however, damage to the immune system, organs and cognitive functions can result if the body experiences high levels of cortisone over an extended period of time. The fight-or-flight response is always ready to shift into gear – and this is positive, as it increases our chances of survival. But since we know that we cannot remain in this state for long without paying a high price for it, we can try to make some choices that will reverse this process. And one special nerve in particular can help us do this.
The vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, and one of the main instruments of the parasympathetic nervous system. From its origins in the brain it winds down the neck, past the heart and lungs via the oesophagus on its way to the stomach, liver, kidneys, adrenal glands and intestines. The vagus nerve controls swallowing (together with other nerves of the tongue and throat) and the vocal cords, and both influences and transfers impulses from the lungs, heart, stomach and digestive tract. The vagus nerve (from Latin: to wander) influences such large areas of the body because it wanders through the organism, linking everything together. The word tone is used to describe the vagus nerve’s functional ability, and this is measured by monitoring the heart rhythm in connection with the breathing rhythm. Your heart rhythm increases slightly when you breathe in, and its tempo decreases slightly when you breathe out. A large variation between the in-breath and out-breath results in higher tone in the vagus nerve – high vagal tone indicates that the body has a good switchboard system, and can more easily activate the parasympathetic response.
This also improves the function of many of the body’s systems. It has been suggested that high vagal tone results in improved blood sugar regulation, and reduces the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease because it also results in lower blood pressure. High vagal tone is also said to be beneficial for digestion, because it results in improved enzyme production in the intestines. Chronic inflammation and pain, prolonged and intense stress, and emotional challenges such as mental trauma, loneliness and depression, are all conditions associated with weakened vagal function. But since the vagus nerve practically wanders throughout the entire body, there is much we can do to influence it. Yoga, meditation and rest have proven to have a positive effect on heart rhythm variability (the variation between the in-breath and out-breath as mentioned above). Laughter acts as a medicine in most contexts – including this one, since the stomach, lungs, vocal cords and diaphragm are spontaneously involved. Humming and singing affect the part of the nerve that wanders through the neck and throat – since song plays a role in most cultures, might this be because we instinctively feel that singing calms and creates bonds between us?
We have looked at how the nervous system’s sympathetic response is sympathetic in the way that it ensures our survival, and that the body responds as best it can to protect us from dangers and threatening situations. We have also seen that we cannot remain in a state of continual high tension without this affecting our health. For most of us, a big fish with thousands of teeth poses less of a real threat than the adverse health effects that can result from prolonged stress. The regenerative state we can enter into when we relax is of tremendous value to us human beings, and so it can be useful to think about how we can cultivate this and make it into a more normal state. We must therefore learn ways to reverse our state of red alert, so that we change the body’s biochemistry and experience a state of calm, belonging and care. This is the very essence of what we must do in order to rest.
Excerpt, pp. 114–128
Chapter 12: Sensory collaboration and attentive presence
Lose your mind and come to your senses.
Frederick Salomon Perls
‘This wine is of much fatter variety.’ A group of people from my neighbourhood in Vålerenga are sitting around a table, atop which is an assortment of wine bottles. Everyone is in high spirits, the conversation flowing freely. ‘This wine has a completely different tone than the last one. It has hints of barnyard and vanilla that give it a broader taste, which give body to it.’ I haven’t quite reached the point where I understand what it means if something gives wine tone or body, but hope that this will change over the course of the evening. We’re being introduced wine tasting techniques, and several members of the group are interested in acquiring the proper vocabulary to talk about wine. This is where ‘barnyard’, ‘leather’ and ‘body’ come in. We should find our own terms and expressions, says one of my neighbours, who then assesses a red wine from Burgundy as ‘dumb and delicious’. We agree, it’s a little short… on taste. Definitely more interesting from the outside. People are here to learn more about the names of grapes and districts; to become familiar with the various categories and good vintages. But I’m here because I want to explore my senses, and to examine how wine tasting is a collaboration between the various sense organs.
Simply put, a sense is an ability we have that provides us with information we can interpret. Our surroundings inundate us with huge volumes of physical and chemical stimuli – we receive information through particles of light, sound waves, chemical substances, pressure and temperature. This information is picked up by our sensory receptors, which then send signals via our neural pathways to the brain. The brain’s task is to sort this information as best it can. Everything we experience via our senses is the result of billions of nerve cells passing electrical and chemical signals between them. We usually talk about the five senses we have – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – but in addition to this quintet we have the ability to perceive other forms of stimuli beyond those which these five senses can register. These include temperature, our kinaesthetic sense, and proprioception, which is our ability to determine where the various parts of our body are positioned in space. This sense helps us to move through a dark room when we are unable to trust our visual sense, and to keep our balance. We also have sensory receptors that register pain, balance and vibration. But these, of course, are not our primary receptors when tasting wine.
‘First, we’re going to greet the wine’, says Kristin Hovde, our guide on this evening’s journey into the realm of the senses. We start by using our sight – the wine’s appearance can tell us a lot, Hovde explains. She pours the wine into glasses, and we are each told to hold a glass up against a white background in order to look at the colour. It should be clear, and have a clean and bright appearance. Young red wines are mainly a bluish-red, while older reds can have a brown or orange glow. Young white wines are usually colourless or a pale yellow, but can become a deeper yellow or yellowish-brown when stored. We are then asked to swirl the wine around in the glass and consider its ‘legs’ (the drops that run slowly down the inside of the glass when we hold it still again). Swirling the wine in the glass also oxidises it and so release its flavours, explains Hovde, who has worked at the state-run Vinmonopolet wine outlet for eight years, and is an enthusiastic communicator.
Using our sense of smell, we experience the wine’s aroma. The smell of food and spices is perceived through the nose, as well as through our sense of taste – which soon becomes apparent if we have a stuffy nose, for example, as anything we eat then seems to have little flavour.
‘Lift your glass and stick your nose into it. Inhale gently, continuously, as if you’re smelling a flower. Does it have an intense aroma, or a weak smell? Which of the wine’s components can we pick up on using our nose?’
‘Gooseberries!’ ‘Kiwi!’ ‘Freshly cut grass!’ exclaim the people around me. ‘I think my nose could use some training at this,’ I think out loud. One of the other participants says that it helps to go around sniffing the raw produce in grocery stores – so now I know what I need to do from now on.
Our sense of taste is activated when we take a good swig and let the wine move all around our mouths. To experience more of the aroma, we are encouraged to suck in a little air between our lips as we sip. The woman beside me seems unwilling to do this, but since I lack fine manners, I have a good go for both of us. The tactile feeling of the wine in my mouth is emphasised by the slurping, and activates several of my other senses. Pleasant tastes activate the areas of the brain that control happiness and the sensation of reward. The sense of taste is different from the other senses in that the signal it sends to the brain passes through three independent neural pathways – the lingual nerve, the facial nerve and (drumroll, please!) the vagus nerve.
An activity such as wine tasting requires attentiveness and calm, because the task demands one to be present with one’s senses open – the same applies to tasting chocolate, for example. One of the benefits of being in a parasympathetic state is that we produce more saliva in the mouth, which helps to heighten the taste experience; when we eat, the food’s flavours are released by our saliva and penetrate our sensory cells more effectively. When we are under stress, however, our mouth becomes dry, and food consequently seems to have little taste to it. So if we want to experience how aromas and our sense of taste can be heightened – and by extension how this also enhances our other senses – it is worth calming ourselves completely before we take a seat at the dinner table.
Resting in the senses
There’s a Zen joke that goes like this: If you need to hide something where you’ll be sure nobody will ever find it, where’s the best hiding place? Punchline: In the now – because there’s nobody there. That which is known as attentive presence can be defined as a state of being in the present moment. We choose to be right here, right now, instead of travelling backwards or forwards in time. In addition, we choose to accept the current moment as it exists, with all its thoughts, feelings and physical sensory experiences. Meditation can take many forms, and there are countless techniques for achieving various objectives now available on an ever-growing marketplace. But common to most forms of meditation is the selection of a point on which to rest the attention, in order to direct the attention towards something that allows the thoughts to land. When we permit our attention to flit about in all directions, this makes us more unsettled than we need to be.
Since our senses can overwhelm us when we are overstimulated, it is useful to observe this in relation to stress and rest. Paradoxically enough, what helps most of all is connecting to and turning on our senses – choosing to enter into one of them completely, with all our attention. When our thoughts begin to escalate, we can do this by turning our sights on our sensory impressions, either by choosing to concentrate on one sense at a time, or to open ourselves up to several sensory impressions simultaneously. The idea is to return to the area of attention we have chosen, over and over and again. There is rest to be found in being in our senses, because they take us out of our head. It can therefore be quite wonderful to enter a sensory garden and enjoy all the colours and smells; to savour a cup of freshly brewed coffee or a glass of wine.
The body knows how to navigate the world as long as it is able to use the senses – it knows how to dance, sing, mourn, eat, sleep, rest and kiss. But when we are under stress, we become less sensitive. We lose contact with our senses on a more subtle level. We might notice this when food no longer tastes appealing but we continue to wolf it down regardless, for example, or when we sit before a television or computer screen without being present at all. And speaking of screens, we’re now spending more quality time with them than ever before – including when it comes to sensual satisfaction.
But many of the people I have spoken to who regularly use online porn say that it makes them less sensitive – that they find themselves having to increase the dose of stimuli in order to get the same effect. The lure of stronger visual impressions grows, while their own ability to feel anything at all decreases.
In treatment programmes that help people to break out of their porn addictions, participants are encouraged to slow down and cultivate a sense of leisure and delay, in order to return to the moment and their senses.
Why is a reduction in the use of our senses problematic? Because we experience life through our senses. We perceive and read our surroundings and the people around us; we feel and respond to each other, and we must be present in our senses in order to do this. Viewed from this perspective, sensuality – and especially pleasure – are an extension of rest. That which feels good can pull us out of our head and into the world, through our senses. And the flipside of this is that rest and restitution make the experience of pleasure even stronger, in a positive spiral.
Why is this useful? Because through the senses the body is the portal to the current moment, and it is only here that we can rest. So if our senses are stimulated by wine and bring us into the present moment, this will certainly be the case for anyone who decides not to use the spit bucket during a wine tasting session. No one in our group uses the spit bucket this evening, and so after having tasted six different wines my neighbour and I totter the forty metres that make up our way home to the apartment building in which we live, full of sensory impressions, good conversation – and more than just a few fermented grapes.
Chapter 13: Resting vagina
Have orgasms! You deserve them!
In 1996, vaginas began to talk. At first, they were a little perplexed that anyone wanted to hear what they had to say, but once they got going they had so much on their minds that they ended up giving long monologues. Eve Ensler’s episodic play The Vagina Monologues is based on interviews with 200 different women, who spoke about their experiences and feelings linked to their own vagina. By way of introduction, Ensler says that vaginas need community and a language. She believes that there’s been too much darkness and secrecy surrounding them – and by extension an ignorance about this uniquely important part of the body. Anyone who plays a role in women’s sexual lives as their partners will be enriched by entering this deep, dark space and learning its intimate secrets.
‘Feminine sexual arousal can reach an intensity that men cannot comprehend’, writes Simone de Beauvoir in the book The Second Sex. She goes on to say that male sexual arousal can be intense, but is most often local, and that the man – possibly with the exception of at the moment of orgasm – will always remain in possession of himself. The woman, on the other hand, loses her mind. For many, this effect is the definitive, sensual moment of the act of love, which de Beauvoir argues also has a magical and fearsome quality. To what, exactly, is she referring? Something powerful, deep, rich, and – as she writes – magic! The lovers who manage to draw a woman up from the depths can expect an intense encounter, writes de Beauvoir. The experience is the source of the life force, something primal that lies beyond the reach of the prefrontal cortex. Surely we’d all like to be able to access this?
But there is, as Ensler points out, too much ignorance among us, even among the women whose vaginas this concerns. The only way to change this is through information and communication. The following section is about orgasms and pleasure – about why orgasms and pleasure are important, and what gets in the way of us accessing them. We’ll also take a look at our fantastic nervous system, and the connection between rest and ecstasy.
Song from a rested vagina
In the weeks after I had read Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography, I became a self-appointed megaphone for vaginal competence. I seized every chance I could to start conversations about the intimate details of the nervous system’s role in the sexual act – everyone I met received answers to questions about the female genitals they hadn’t even asked. But the positive thing about these conversations was that people were interested in learning about the vagina, regardless of whether they had one themselves. In the book, Wolf describes her experience of how a pinched nerve in her back impacted negatively on her orgasms, and in particular how she felt after having had a powerful one. But spinal surgery restored the neurological connection between her genitals and brain, and this made Wolf curious about this connection and how the various parts of the body are linked. Wolf describes the network of nerves in a woman’s genital region as being extremely complex, and points out that every female body is different, which may explain why there are significant variations in the sexual stimuli women prefer. By comparison, the male neural network in the pelvis region is far less intricate than the female equivalent – more local, as de Beauvoir describes it. But regardless of whether and how the various regions of woman’s genitals can evoke orgasms, they are all connected to the spinal cord and on up to the brain. This means that the brain influences the vagina, which in turn influences the brain in an ongoing dialogue.
Like de Beauvoir, Wolf describes orgasms that put a woman into a trance-like state, on a plane at which she produces extremely beneficial chemicals in the brain. Under optimal conditions, a woman can achieve orgasms that make the areas of the brain connected with creativity light up! When a woman approaches climax, the centres in her brain that control behaviour and pain regulation are deactivated, and she can reach ecstatic states with elevated activated dopamine levels. When she eventually lands, she’ll enjoy swimming in a delicious cocktail of opioids and oxytocin.
So what does this have to do with rest? The autonomic nervous system paves the way for nerve impulses that move from the vagina and clitoris to the brain, and regulate a woman’s response to stimuli and the release of tension. This process is related to the relaxation response, which was mapped by Herbert Benson in 1975. In the wake of Benson’s work, hundreds of studies have investigated the benefits of activating this system, and several of them have shown that the relaxation response is far more important for female arousal than was previously believed. The type of intense orgasms that open the gates of creativity are dependent on the optimal activation of the parasympathetic response – i.e., it is necessary to cooperate with this sensitive, magical, slowly calming and easily embarrassed system, as Wolf points out. The process is contingent on thoughtfulness, and on having plenty of time. Negative stress can reverse a woman’s process of achieving her full sexual potential, and I would therefore like to emphasise:
Negative stress is extremely bad for vaginas!
Women who rush
In the book Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, Australian biochemist Libby Weaver describes the biochemical effects of our alleged need to always be in a hurry. If women remain under negative stress over time, this affects the ovaries, uterus, menstruation and menopause, because the body becomes unable to produce the hormones it needs. There are very few women in our culture who would not experience significant health-related benefits from resting more, Weaver writes, and believes that there is reason to suspect that stress affects women differently because of their biology. According to Weaver, this is particularly unfortunate because women live in a system that operates on the basis of principles at odds with their biological foundations. She explains that the three systems of the body most affected by stress are the nervous system, the endocrine system and the reproductive system. The overexertion of organs and the system in general means that the body has to fight through all its processes, instead of moving smoothly through the transitions and cycles that are a significant part of having a female biology.
The result of this chronic overexertion is that many women say that they are too tired, too busy, too sad, too angry and too dejected to have sex – it becomes yet another thing on the list of all the things they should be doing, something they ‘owe’ others and feel guilty for not doing more often. In the article ‘Why Sex is Important for Women’, American Zoë Kors writes that an enormous number of the women she speaks to in her work as an author, speaker and coach have lost their desire for sex and physical intimacy. Kors argues that sex is incredibly important for women’s physiology, including by helping to regulate the body’s hormonal balance and strengthen the immune system. Sex is also positive for the pelvic floor muscles, which are again linked to the deep structures of the back and ‘corset’ muscles, which support and strengthen the core and spine. Sex has a positive effect on women’s cognitive abilities and creativity. Women whose lives are continuously lived at the expense of free time and the opportunity to develop a relationship with their own sexuality and intuition are at best missing out on a deeper sense of contact with and experience of the world – and at worst at risk of becoming seriously ill.
It is still the case that women shoulder a greater share of the responsibility for the care of children and elderly relatives, for the cooking and housework, while simultaneously setting incredibly high standards for themselves by insisting that they manage all this while also holding down a full-time job – and all without developing a single grey hair or wrinkle! On the basis of this, is it any wonder that it is women who are most often in a rush? In addition, women are often told that they think and worry too much, and this activity of judgemental self-criticism takes place in the prefrontal cortex, in the area just behind the forehead. Sex – and orgasms in particular – reduce the activity in this unsexy part of the brain. Caresses, a sense of security, and admiring gazes and words help to create the optimal fertile ground for a woman to be able to switch off from her worries. It’s easy to use our resources adapting to all the demands that society sets for us regarding our efficiency, activity level, roles and appearance, and to have little left for ourselves. A woman who feels safe and loved, admired and desired, can let go of all this so the nervous system can shift into its care and trust mode. This will enable her to let go of all her inhibitions, and rather than getting lost in endless trains of thought be able to (temporarily) lose her mind.
Am I safe?
This is the question asked by the hypothalamus much of the time. It does so by relating to its surroundings, such as by investigating temperature conditions: am I too hot? Too cold? We also do this emotionally by monitoring whether there is danger afoot, by reading and attempting to understand the situation in which we find ourselves. From here, a kind of alarm is activated if we either don’t understand what’s going on, or feel threatened. In Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, Libby Weaver writes that the questions Am I safe? and Am I loved? often slip into one another, and in practice can become one and the same question for our psyche; she consequently presents a new explanatory model for why we end up running in circles. Weaver believes that our deep-seated, perhaps even pre-verbal longing for a sense of belonging and acceptance results in us doing all we can to avoid feeling rejected. Being in a constant hurry becomes a strategy for avoiding the pain of not being deemed worthy of love.
This contributes to us often stretching ourselves much further than we should, and might explain some of the ‘good girl’ syndrome that afflicts many women. We stress about being accepted or recognised by a society in which we are too tired to participate. The book Perfekt. Skapelsen av det plettfrie mennesket (Perfect: The creation of the immaculate person) by Norwegian journalist and author Mari Grinde Arntzen examines the pressure of expectation, especially as expressed in lifestyle magazines and blogs targeted at women. Arntzen discusses how much of a burden it can be to be exposed to a high-performance culture via all channels, and looks at several concrete examples in which lifestyle magazines and celebrity bloggers admit to falsification and fraud, including in the form of retouched images. It is easy to let this version of reality influence us – and just as hard to let go of ideas about who we should be that are based on standards we haven’t set for ourselves. Since we are programmed for love and belonging, we are willing to pay the price we believe we have to pay to have these fundamental needs within us met.
The question Am I safe? can also be understood literally. If a sense of safety and security is absent, the nervous system fires up the sympathetic response so we are ready to face the potential threat. Is there a real threat to my safety right now? Should I get out of here as quickly as possible? My friend is on her way home from Grünerløkka in Oslo early one light summer evening when a car pulls up beside her. In the car are two men. The one in the passenger seat leans out of the window and shouts out everything he wants to do with her vagina; the driver drives slowly beside her down the street. She’s unable to get away. Back at home, she posts about the incident on Facebook and asks: ‘Has anyone else experienced anything like this?’ – the comments quickly fill with similar experiences. The avalanche that was triggered by the #metoo movement following the allegations of abuse committed by mighty film producer Harvey Weinstein showed the world just how extensive and normalised is sexual harassment. Women are presented like prey animals in advertising and the media; in many video games women are brutally raped and assaulted for entertainment. Sexual violence is systematically used as a weapon in war, and a culture of abuse among the UN’s peacekeeping forces has been repeatedly exposed. What message is this sending to young girls as they grow up? Know that you are never safe. That you are not worth protecting. All this means that women, whether consciously or unconsciously, are required to mobilise their survival response much of the time.
Being hysterical is often associated with being oversensitive, wanton and feminine – and by extension, fragile. The image of the woman as porous is more palatable than the woman who chooses not to internalise all the violence around her and instead acts out. One theory posits that the diagnosis of so-called ‘hysteria’ received by many women in history was a form of post-traumatic stress in those who had been subjected to violence in the home, rape, emotional abuse, or premature sexual experiences. The sum of repeated unpleasant incidents, large and small, naturally results in women constantly being on high alert. This leads to wear on all the body’s systems, and contributes to our becoming exhausted. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a form of chronic stress reaction that manifests itself mentally and physically through clinical presentations we are unable to understand, and therefore unable to cure. There is nothing ‘really’ wrong with you, and so you fall into a vague umbrella category of psychosomatic disorders in the company of a great many of your fellow women. In retrospect, many have understood hysteria as a reaction to the culture of the age and its expectations, understanding and treatment of women. Perhaps the most hysterical thing about the hysteria diagnosis is the perspective behind it, which pathologizes femaleness and women’s sexuality.
New narratives about pleasure
Roles and behaviour that are communicated through films, TV series and pornography are the primary source of sexual education for many people, which is why it is so infuriating that a common denominator in many of them is the passive role of the woman in the sexual act – either in that she is physically passive (simply thankful for being permitted to take part?), or in the sense that attention to her pleasure is not written into the scene. There is an enormous distance between the loud, apparently satisfied women and the sexual stimuli to which they are permitted to react, and the spectrum runs the gamut from completely ridiculous on the one hand to bleak on the other. This is especially problematic when girls are not even permitted to be the protagonist in their own sexual experience. Might the narrative that women are not very interested in sex be replaced with one that instead proposes women are not very interested in sex that does not include their pleasure?
[Translator’s note: Due to time constraints I have not checked the exact wording of referenced texts originally written in English or translated from other languages – these will obviously require clarification.]