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Neuroscience approves of a holy imagination.

The Polyvagal Theory can help show us how times of noticing beauty can reset our nervous systems for peace.

Published on:
June 29, 2021
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8 min.
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Last June on the eve of the summer solstice, I tasted heaven on earth while vacuuming the back bedroom. 

It was before dinner when I stole away to vacuum the house while my family finished cooking dinner. Beginning in the living room, I noticed the handmade wooden shelves my husband created, the setting sun blazing through open shades. As I vacuumed the small bedroom, I entered a little sanctuary: evening light poured onto the creamy quilt on our bed as indigo and lavender filled the darkening sky. I noticed The Lovers painting by Marc Chagall hung splendidly above the bed while the tops of the wooden dressers on the opposite wall held beloved treasures. I paused to examine my labor, and light was all I saw. 

All of sudden, I stopped vacuuming, my whole body riveted by overwhelming feelings of love flooding my heart. Recognizing a holy moment, I remembered the psalmist’s words from the Daily Office I had read not that long ago: “I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and glory.” The bedroom became a temple as I beheld all the bewildering beauty.

In Polyvagal Theory, the understanding is that our nervous system relies on three automatic and interactive pathways to help us to connect with others, rest and recover, and return again to engage with the world from a place of flexibility, ease, and resilience.

I was starstruck with the beauty of my life in that timeless moment, the beauty created in my home through artful collections of paintings, cards from family and friends, dearly beloved handicrafts from children, and all the dreams, heartaches, losses, and memories from a lifetime of living. They all stood with me in living witness as I marveled at the miracle of one ordinary human life: my own. I told my husband about the experience later that night and we marveled at it all together. 

On the Neuroscience of Emotion and Social Connection 

My encounter with beauty last summer is something that all of us can experience as children of a good and loving God who longs to bless and strengthen us for the challenges we face. And the latest neuroscience research from Polyvagal Theory can help show us how these times of noticing beauty can reset our nervous systems for peace. Polyvagal Theory, a complex understanding of how our nervous system relates to others, was originally researched by psychologist Stephen Porges and widely disseminated by trauma therapist Deb Dana. In Polyvagal Theory, the understanding is that our nervous system relies on three automatic and interactive pathways to help us to connect with others, rest and recover, and return again to engage with the world from a place of flexibility, ease, and resilience.[1] These three pathways each intersect through our Vagus nerve, or the long cranial nerve that runs from our skull to our abdomen. Each pathway offers a clue into the mystery of how God uses times of beauty to awaken and refresh us.

In seeing times of beauty from a polyvagal perspective, we are reminded that our lives cycle through these pathways throughout our days. The first pathway, or dorsal lateral, helps us slow down; this pathway runs from the backsides of our bodies, from the skull to the stomach, and aids in digestion and rest. It is the main pathway we emerge from when we awake from sleep and start our day. The sympathetic nervous system, which works by helping mobilize us for action, gives us the energy to run away or fight an incoming threat. The ventral vagal pathway, running from the skull to our heart and abdomen, allows us to be present in the world from a place of openness and ease; and as Dana has shared, this pathway is our home base, allowing us to feel warmly connected as we engage with the world.[2] All three pathways work in concert to help a person move through the world, face challenges, and relax and connect with others. And with self-knowledge and daily intention, we can learn how to extend the buffering beauty can offer us as we navigate our amazing and complex world. 

Returning to my experience, I purposefully noticed the aesthetic beauty of the room, moving into a marvelous blended state of dorsal lateral and ventral vagal pathways, of both stillness and alertness.[3] Reflecting on God’s word naturally came to mind as I imbibed the experience while breathing deeply and feeling a sense of calm. Truth be told, I also felt a strong union with the world as I gazed upon the beauty of the room, creating a chance for the Holy Spirit to bless me. Strengthened by sinking deeply into the experience and with an additional feeling of safety and connection to God and the people I have been privileged to love, I felt more prepared to engage in the tasks ahead in a busy week of work and family life.

The simple yet powerful practice of noting our blessings is supported by social science research.

And as I shared my beauty experience with supportive others, I felt spacious, thus tapping into the ventral vagal pathway and living with a greater sense of ease. Those around me sensed this deep peace emanating from me and their nervous systems relaxed as well, allowing them to enjoy the present moment. This experience, of others being able to relax while my nervous system feels safe and calm, is known as co-regulation, and according to Dana, it works to create safe and meaningful connections with others.[4] The wonderful practice of noticing beauty allows God to work through these imperfect yet dearly beloved bodies, creating stronger ties and shared meaning with our family, friends, and neighbors from a place of safety, connection, and peace. 

Beauty, Gratitude, and Transcendence 

Although the experience occurred last summer, I return to it again and again when I am under stress, thanking God for the blessing and diminishing the damage wrought by evil in the world. The simple yet powerful practice of noting our blessings is supported by social science research. Numerous research including work by Dr. Brené Brown has confirmed the power of appreciating the prosaic moments of our daily lives and how noticing and acknowledging beauty through gratitude can help us move from a place of disconnection to a place of courage and resilience.[5] Dr. Brown’s work has shown that living from a place of deep connection with others is strengthened, not diminished, when we take time to look for and acknowledge the goodness in our ordinary moments. 

In fact, many religious writers have documented the amazing effects of looking for beauty at home. From popular bloggers like Sarah Bessey and Ed Cyzewski to contemporary mystics like Maya Angelou and Barbara Brown Taylor, these writers and more have experienced God directly in their daily lives, reminding us God’s beauty meets us where we are. In The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris’s slim yet powerful volume celebrates the holiness of domestic life, a place in which she works and prays, noticing how and when God’s beauty arrives. She writes, “It is the paradox of human life that in worship, as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation.”[6] Our search for beauty is a universal human longing to touch the divine in our midst, meaning transcendence is as close as the kitchen, the nursery, the workspace, or our own backyard. 

Long-lasting healing happens not just personally but collectively as well

The Scriptural Precedent of Gratitude, Appreciation, and Joy

Moments of transcendence offer us even more than a glimpse of the holy: they help us move beyond ourselves and honor the gift of an embodied life.[7] In fact, the Bible sets the precedent that a human life can be filled with transcendent moments, providing examples through countless stories and poems that expressing appreciation, joy, and gratitude at God’s beauty builds the foundation for transcendence to arise. From Hagar naming of God who saw her to Mary’s Magnificat to the celebratory psalms which sing of God’s beauty to Paul’s letters encouraging disciples to look for the good, noticing beauty is an essential practice in the life of a believer.

In fact, Jesus confirms the importance of living with awareness of our values when he said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Historian Diana Butler Bass elaborates in her book Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks that Christ is asking us to choose our thoughts and time with wisdom and discernment: what we will put our focus on, and how will that affect the state of our hearts?[8] Choosing to express appreciation and practice gratitude for our blessings and our creator God who has gifted them is a disciplined response for a Christian, and it is also deeply accessible. Gratitude lists and times of structured prayer are some of the myriad ways we can recall our blessings and create the conditions for gratitude and wonder to emerge. 

In that line of thought, it would seem that I accessed my deep love for God and for my life through noting beauty and the subsequent gratitude I felt. This is the power of cultivating a habit of looking for beauty in our everyday lives: it moves us to worship and fulfills Paul’s instruction to rejoice, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances. My experience of noting beauty and thanking the giver, and the ensuing gratitude I felt, is even confirmed by neuroscience research. Our bodies are wired for noting and appreciating beauty, even helping us relate to others with more ease and peace. Actually, the practice of naming our blessings and sharing with others, as we see modeled in the psalms, is reminiscent of savoring, a psychological practice of actively appreciating our blessings with all of our senses, which helps ground the God-given experience of blessing into a lived and embodied reality. [9]

The Power of Noting God’s Beauty in Community 

Gratitude and noticing beauty are not just private and individual practices, but they are best practiced communally, reinforcing the veracity of scripture and the polyvagal perspective: long-lasting healing happens not just personally but collectively as well. 

This, I think, is the greatest blessing of transcendent moments of beauty: in the end, these moments give us back each other.

Perhaps if we spent more time collectively noting beauty, would it allow us to feel safe, peaceful, and connected enough to have much-needed conversations on racial justice? These times of noting God’s beauty through repentance and reconciliation liturgies that would help us reimagine a world in which we reject oppressive theology, honor indigenous peoples, and teach Christian youth what countless civil rights leaders and thinkers have taught: the health and flourishing of our collective lives is intimately bound up together. We cannot heal on our own. And as Christ followers, we have a promise to uphold, that of demonstrating God’s beauty as expressed through unconditional and delighted love is for all peoples, not just the majority in power.

Healing collectively might also look like conducting creative worship services that celebrate God’s amazing diversity through honoring Black History month or Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage at church services. Liturgies on beauty might also look like honoring our roles as the caring stewards of God’s beautiful natural world. We can stretch ourselves and read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer or Native by Kaitlin Curtice for a church book club, create service projects to clean up local nature parks, and share our experience of God’s beauty at a church service dedicated to raising awareness of environmental stewardship. Reading books like Wild Hope by Gayle Boss to children in Sunday School and teaching them how to care for wildlife responsibly might be another way to practice God’s beauty in churches.     

With the power of our holy imagination, the possibilities for God to awaken us through times of transcendent beauty are endless. And as we envision new ways in which our worship, personally and collectively, can fulfill the proclamation of bringing about God’s beautiful and kind reign on earth, we honor beauty. This, I think, is the greatest blessing of transcendent moments of beauty: in the end, these moments give us back each other. We have the honor and privilege of sharing these special moments with others, moving beyond ourselves and becoming of service. And when science and theology converge, our practice of Christianity in a beautiful and complex world is deeply changed for the better. 

Jenn Zatopek
Jenn Zatopek is a recovering perfectionist, writer, and therapist. She has been accepted to Brite Di-vinity School to pursue a degree in theology. Jenn’s work has been featured in magazines such as SheLoves Magazine, The Glorious Table, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, Panther City Review, and elsewhere. You can find her writing about the intersection of psychology and theology at her website https://theholyabsurd.com/, Instagram at @theholyabsurd and Twitter at @JennZatopek.

[1] Dana, Deb, and Stephen W. Porges. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton Series On. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

[2] Simon, Tami. “Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System.” Sounds True: Insights at the Edge. Podcast audio, June 6, 2020

[3] Simon, Tami. “Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System.” Sounds True: Insights at the Edge. Podcast audio, June 6, 2020

[4] Simon, Tami. “Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System.” Sounds True: Insights at the Edge. Podcast audio, June 6, 2020

[5] Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden, 2010.

[6] Norris, Kathleen. The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality). First Thus Used, Paulist Press, 1998, pg. 82.

[7] Smith, Emily Esfahani. “What a ‘Transcendent Experience’ Really Means.” The Cut, 30 June 2017, www.thecut.com/article/what-a-transcendent-experience-really-means.html.

[8] Butler Bass, Diana. Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks. New York, Harper One, 2018.

[9] Kennelly, S. (2012, July 23). 10 Steps to Savoring the Good Things in Life. Greater Good Science Center. Https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/ite10_steps_to_savoring_the_good_things_in_life

[10] Cover image by Alina Grubnyak.

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