Managing the stress.

Reading “My Grandmother’s Hands” and RCL Pr16A

Menakem begins Part II of My Grandmothers’ Hands talking about the “soul nerve.[1]” He calls it the “unifying organ of the entire nervous system…” which reaches almost everywhere in the body except for the thinking brain. The soul nerve does not think. It reacts and is involved in any feeling you can imagine: love, fear, dread, hope, empathy, anxiety and of course the urges to fight, flee or freeze.

Menakem provides exercises in “soul nerve training” in order to help us be aware of and learn to settle our bodies.  The goal is not to reduce or avoid stress, but to increase our ability to handle stress and manage our reactivity so that we are free to choose our response.

Some of the settling exercises were familiar to me from Insight Meditation. I have used them to get distance from stress.  Menakem’s purpose is different. He wants us to remain present to stress. [2]

I had a chance to try it out a couple of days ago during a frustrating phone conversation with a company that had made a mistake with our order.  After saying “I would like to speak with your supervisor” I had about 15 minutes to wait before the supervisor came on the line. While waiting, I noticed the tension in my body. It was in my gut, my shoulders and even in my forehead. I did the two exercises I knew best (body scan and belly-breathing) and within minutes I felt settled. I wasn’t enraged or relaxed. I wasn’t distant or detached. I was present and free to think about what to do or say next. I was managing my stress. It was not managing me. Menakem’s exercises worked.

I remember what it’s like be in a group in which some well-meaning white person claims that they already know all about racism. There was a time when I thought the same thing. The anxiety behind the defensiveness understandable. No one welcomes the fear, anger and guilt that a sentient white person is likely to feel when learning the truth about anti-black racism in America.  

But there are ways to manage that stress. Ways that work.  Learning to focus on our own bodies and soul nerves is one of them and might help us open ourselves anew to the work of anti-racism.

A quick thought about this week’s gospel reading. Peter’s answer to the question of Jesus’ identity or significance feels a little odd. Jesus himself observes that Peter’s answer seems to come out of nowhere. Peter’s answer may have been a good one, but there was truth in the other disciples’ answers too.

The story is written to dismiss the other disciples’ answers as less worthy. I think that’s unfortunate.  A uniquely inspired Peter might be a good model for hierarchical church leadership, but it’s a lousy model for the kind of group or community work that values each of the members for the insights which arise from their own experiences, hearts and bodies.

[1] Others call it the vagus nerve.

[2] If we can remain present, we can become aware of how the stress manifests in our body and then develop the ability to calm the body while still in the presence of the stress.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay