From Activation to Coherence

by Debra Sheehan | September 2008

IN VOLUNTEERING TO WRITE for the E-zine this month, I became curious about how I could describe all that I have learned from the many systems that I have been privileged to study. These include Matrix Leadership Institute, HeartMath Institute, the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), NLP, and the Cranial-Sacral systems. My intent is to share the synthesis of these systems that lives in my heart and that I apply in all circles of my life including family, friends, and business.

I have been affiliated in one capacity or another with Matrix Leadership Institute for 11 years. I have learned about roles, past traumas and how they can activate a group. I'm more aware of dreams and projections and how they play a part in our communication with each other. I also see how much I was asleep too.

The concepts presented by all of the systems I incorporate are very similar. How can an individual connect from his or her heart? What impact does trauma have on the brain and the heart? How can we resource ourselves and heal from these impacts?

I want to begin by presenting a view of the heart as our power center. With Kirlian photography scientists can actually see the energy being emitted by our bodies. This shows that the energy emitted around the heart is much bigger than that emitted from anywhere else in the body, even the brain. Research has shown that it extends 15' or more beyond our bodies.

All spiritual practices teach this also. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." (Proverbs 23) or "The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart." (Buddhist-Dhammapada 18:255). In NCBI it is said, "We don't change minds, we change hearts," and in HeartMath,® "A change of heart changes everything." Think about the gesture you make when you refer to yourself. Don't you point to your heart rather than your head?

Research from the HeartMath Institute reveals that there is more communication going from the heart to the brain than from the brain to the heart. When we can intentionally shift our heart rhythm pattern, we can enter into states that allow the two branches of the nervous system to synchronize. When we are stressed (real or imagined) the sympathetic nervous system (gas pedal) and the parasympathetic (brake) become chaotic.

Breathing can begin to synchronize this system. This is why when we get scared, nervous or anxious, we often hold our breath. Breathing is a main technique that is taught in yoga, which is also designed to balance the cardiovascular and nervous systems. When the heart's rhythm is a smooth sine wave rather than a jagged one, scientists call this coherence.

When we are in this state of coherence, we are actually entraining our body into a healthier state. Our immune system, cardiac system, blood pressure, hormonal/endocrine systems and the three parts of our brain work together in a harmonious way. I have found that experiencing this harmonious balance actually changes how I perceive the world and people around me.

We all know what it is like to be traumatized at some point in our life. Often activation in the nervous system overwhelms us and the response in our physiology is fight, flight or freeze. Later in life, the emotional activation that corresponds to a traumatic experience and creates the energy to drive the firing of our neural network, is actually needed in order to change. The hardwiring of that activation or feeling state is what needs to be changed or re-wired.

In the brain, the amygdala reacts faster than our cognitive centers. One of the functions of this part of the brain is to sense (emotionally) whether we are safe. It does so based on past conditioning. The current experience does not have to be an exact match with our original traumatizing experience?only similar. The term "hijacking" is often used to describe this phenomenon.

When you walk into a group of people and have an emotional reaction to someone without knowing why, that person's voice or behavior may remind you of someone from the past who hurt you or embarrassed you. That past feeling comes alive in the present and you project this memory, often unconsciously, on to this new person. You might even get angry.

Now if our higher cognitive centers were functioning, the part of the brain that can assess, become mindful, analyze, and differentiate, shuts down. This makes it difficult to know if this reaction is real or imagined. Hours or days later we could be saying to ourselves, "Oh, this is from the past. She is not doing anything to me. It just reminds of that past person." The arousal in our nervous system then settles and once again synchronizes.

Resourcing - a term used in both HeartMath and Matrix - refers to what you do within yourself to get out of what your brain, nervous system and emotions are telling you is happening that is not actually occurring in the present. Resourcing is about changing the pattern of incoherence to coherence. It is about restoring the heart rhythm pattern to a smooth one so that our bodies and brains can make another choice. It opens us to the Now and the possibility of a "new story."

In Matrix groups, we have the opportunity to re-story our experience of being in groups. One key practice for resourcing in Matrix is that of giving and receiving appreciation. The feelings associated with appreciation generate a smooth heart rhythm pattern, which override any other habitual feeling. We begin to remember that our reactions to others may result from conditioned beliefs (our old stories) and that we have allowed our past unhealthy experiences to influence us, rather than question them or intentionally change them. The feeling of deep appreciation is one of the best antidotes for stress (anxiety, fear, frustration, etc).

In groups, I have learned to use appreciation, along with the power of my heart and breath, to shift my physiology so my higher perceptual centers become available to me again. As I make this shift, I am entraining others hearts and minds to do the same. This phenomenon is called entrainment. Sometimes I can sit with an appreciation for what is happening. Sometimes I simply feel gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to heal - to be able to see and feel the situation differently. Each moment I practice this shift, it changes the impact I have in the group. It takes me out of the fight, flight or freeze, and aligns me with the true power within.

The next time you get activated in a group, practice appreciation in the moment. You may heal that moment and open to the possibility of celebrating our differences and embracing oneness. I start with myself. I first assume responsibility my thoughts and feelings. As I shift my physiology, I perceive others with compassion, openness and heart. As Gandhi said, "You must become the change you want to see in the world." In Matrix trainings, Amina talks of love and openness. When we can practice this shift in those tough moments, we open to a field of love and begin to re-story others and ourselves.

Debra Sheehan, BS, RCST, is a Licensed HeartMath Provider, Matrix Leadership Institute Facilitator

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To me, MLI is a wonderful learning process for business and community leadership development. It opens a person up, increases one's personal choices, creates flexibility for responding. One develops emotional intelligence and becomes more resourceful in all types of settings. It is the stuff MBA programs never touch.
— Dieter A.
Evanston, IL