Renewing the Mind

In Romans, we’re encouraged to renew our minds, but what does that really mean? Can we just think our way to healing? Today, Dan and Rachael dive into the fascinating world of mind-body renewal. 

They discuss how relying solely on our thoughts for healing has its limitations and propose a more holistic approach that considers the polyvagal system—a fascinating network that regulates our nervous system.

Referencing Romans 12:2, they stress the importance of going beyond just thinking differently, recognizing the deep connection between our bodies, minds, and spirits. Dan explains the three stress states of the polyvagal system—ventral vagal, sympathetic activation, and dorsal vagal shutdown—and how disruptions can skew our perception of reality and impact our relationships.

You’ll also discover some practical techniques to help regulate the polyvagal system and clear your mind. By the end of this episode, we hope you’ll gain a deeper understanding of renewal—one that embraces not only our thoughts but also our physical and spiritual well-being.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: It’s not the best way to begin a podcast to say we are the children post-enlightenment. We are the children of Platonic and Aristotelian thought we are the grand, grand, grand, whatever level of children of a view of changing our minds that let’s just say it’s problematic. And so what we’re going to talk about today is the process of what it means to renew your mind when you acknowledge that the mind is more than the left hemisphere and its capacity for reason, deduction and language. And again, it’s really interesting. We often talk about the right hemisphere being more image sensation, but the reality is both hemispheres think both hemispheres have language, et cetera. But we’re going to step into it. Again, I don’t want people to go, I don’t want to listen to this, but we’re going to talk about the polyvagal system, but I want to set the context and that’s Romans 2 or 12 with a couple verses. So let me just read, “Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you’ll be able to test and approve what God’s will is his good pleasing and perfect will.” So when I first heard this passage as probably even not a believer, I was informed that this is the passage that justifies the others to make sure you know the Bible because the renewing of your mind is going to be accomplished by a full facility of knowing the Hebrew and the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. And that again, we are not arguing in any way against, but if we can just start with a core premise, and that is you can’t talk your brain out of neurological processes. And if we understood that we could have saved many of us a whole lot of unnecessary suffering. So as we begin this, I’m curious where your noose, that is the Greek word for mind, where’s your noose going?

Rachael: Just, I mean, in some ways everything we’re naming right in this moment is why I do the work I do and such an intersection because as I’ve shared before on the podcast, I spent a majority of my childhood and teenage years and early adulthood years wrecked with a kind of incredibly debilitating but high functioning anxiety in my body that because I too was being formed in this way, that if you cognitively ascent to this truth found in scripture, it should be able to change your mind. And if you’re having anxious thoughts, that’s a disease of the mind. So you need to just memorize scripture. And that got doubled down on when I was in that more spiritually abusive season of my life, dating one of my youth leaders in a relationship with one of my youth leaders. And then the infatuation wearing off and wanting out and sitting in the pastor’s office with charts about perfect love has no fear, love is patient, love is kind, and even a little chart of a little human with their brain and that’s where lies come in and distortion and untruths that are making you anxious. And if you can just change, if you can just meditate on what love is, it will change this kind of loss of love that you have. It’s a deficit of your brain and your mind and your faith that you don’t have this. So it took a long time for me to get any kind of help with someone saying a lot of this anxiety you’re feeling… Yeah, I had worked so hard, I had memorized so much scripture. I was a Biblical studies major studying Greek and Hebrew, writing exegetical papers on every genre of the Old Testament and New Testament. I had tried so hard to think my way to a kind of healing that by the time things got really bad with my anxiety, which we could talk more about, there were a lot of things that helped keep it at bay running different things. But when things got really bad at the end of my college career to where Rachael was not okay, I got convinced because I genuinely, in my mind, theologically, scripturally could not make sense of why I was incapable of experiencing the fruit of the Spirit that is peace or letting my anxious thoughts be supernaturally healed by the one whose peace passes understanding that I convinced myself, that we were in the end times and that God had removed God’s Spirit from the earth. Because if I stayed with that logical ascent to these truths as the key to healing, there wasn’t another explanation for why I could not relinquish the anxiety other than maybe this was the thorn in my flesh, like Paul talks about, that I was just going to have to suffer to the end of time as a way to prove my faithfulness. So when you bring those very simple words, it’s like my whole lifetime flashes before my whole childhood and early adulthood of teenage years flashes before me.

Dan: Well, and that frame in my initial training therapeutically was the mentor who was very deeply committed to what was called rational emotive therapy, Albert Ellis. And the notion that your thinking can alter your emotional life. And again, not to say that there isn’t a true. These are not things that are just yes or no, but the bottom line was always essentially the notion that our cognition, our thinking has the capacity and power to change our emotional in that sense neurological world. So what I don’t want for people to hear is that there’s no possibility of transformation. There really is, but it’s through processes that are in alignment with the concept of giving our body, dealing with our body. And so from the very beginning, I can’t tell you whether or not Paul understood the interplay of the left and right hemisphere. If he understood the polyvagal system, I would probably guess he didn’t. But nonetheless, within the framework of the scriptures, there is a deep understanding that there is something about engaging the body as a sacrifice, which is our holy offering, which has the power to transform our mind. So what we’re going to be coming back to is the polyvagal system gives us access for a kind of transformation that is not meant to be in competition with our capacity to think and reason, but is meant to be in alignment. And when it is, there really are changes. But what I find even as we eventually step into the polyvagal system, what I find when I have conversations with what I’ll call friends who are not in our field and who are somewhat, I’ll just say love me, but are somewhat dismissive of sort of the therapeutic world and trauma, et cetera, and that kind of, it feels too disruptive to begin to go now there’s more to the change, renewing of our minds than just what we think because it is so embedded, so embedded over literally hundreds, thousands of years, and you just don’t come in and snap your fingers and accept that people are going to make that shift. Let’s start with an example, even without talking about the polyvagal system, let me just say one of the most important things you do is resetting your neurological system, and we’ll talk about some of the ways to do so, but let me give people a very clear picture from the beginning of one way to do so. Splash cold water on your face.

Rachael: Yeah.

Dan: I’ve been in meetings where I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew things were not going well for me or for us, and I migrated to the bathroom to see if I could get myself a little bit more centered. And I wasn’t even thinking like, well, the polyvagal system I need..

Rachael: Needs a reset.

Dan: But I got cold water and splashed it onto my face not knowing. It literally is one of many opportunities to begin to change the neurological process. So if you hear nothing more than what we have already begun to offer splash cold water on your face, and that is a form of sacrificing your body as a holy gift in order to be part of renewing your mind. And that’s sweet. I just think that’s hilarious.

Rachael: I do love that.

Dan: And again, without even talking about all this, what would you have done 10 or 20 years ago before you even stepped into trauma and understanding a little bit more of the brain?

Rachael: Oh yeah. I mean, one thing I’ve kind of already named, for me, I think a way that I was offering a lot of kindness to my body that was very fragmented because of the neurological processes of the biochemical neurological processes of anxiety and an overactive limbic system was running, and I was a competitive runner starting in fifth grade, which is really funny. It’s rare for fifth graders to be like, I love long distances. I think I want to run the mile. It’s like, most fifth graders that start out in running are like 100 yard dash. I want to be the fastest. I was like, I just want to keep running. How many laps can I run around the track? Let me keep running. There was something about that kind of rhythmic ongoing movement that made me, at the time, would I have been like, this makes me feel good. No, but it did it give me my body? Yeah, that neurological reset or at least enough endorphins to kind of combat all the other things pulsing through my body to bring some kind of regulation. I felt more regulated after running or that that was a daily practice for me for 12 years from fifth grade to my sophomore year of college.

Dan: Incredible. Yep. Movement is another word for this. When we are moving, especially if it’s rhythmic, not sprinting, but just sustaining, whether it’s a long walk or a non intense run, our body begins to in one sense, reregulate or reset. So let’s talk about the polyvagal system, and I’m going to try and do this as briefly, clearly, but it is just a beautiful complex system. First of all, it’s the longest cranial nerve in our body. So it runs essentially from the occipital, which is if you put your left hand the very back of your head, that’s the occipital lobe and it runs all the way down through your esophagus, through your lungs, into your stomach, down into your colon. So it is in many ways the super highway of our affect of our sensation. And it’s reading our organs, it’s passing on information, and I mean it’s regulating so much of our life, our breathing, it’s regulating our digestive tract, it’s regulating our heartbeat. So in some sense, I would call it the river of life and how we tend to that flowing river of neurons and neurological processes is in so many ways going to influence our immune system. It’s central to health issues to a sense of vitality and capacity to actually think well. So to the degree we aren’t tending to that portion of our body, we are going to be in some ways, maybe not incapacitated, but slowly and progressively given over to a disease process that we actually can do work to be able to change. So as we begin that process, let me now get just, I’m sorry, a little more technical. This is work of a brilliant researcher by the name of Steven Porges, P-O-R-G-E-S, and he brought into awareness that the fight/flight process is, it’s kind of a binary. It used to be thought about stress on stress off, stress on, stress off. And his research, and again, this is going to just bear with me a little technicality here. He began to notice that there are three different stress states. I’m going to do it really quickly, something called the ventral vagal system, which essentially boils down to it’s our capacity to socially co-regulate through the care and attunement of another human being. And that really was a radical in one sense, discovery when we’ve named it in other contexts. But when we realized it’s only been over 30 some years that we’ve understood how we co-regulate one another by our attunement, by our face, by the tone of our voice. It’s so beautiful.

Rachael: I was just going to say it’s only been 30 years that we’ve had a scientific theory to say this, but my guess is many cultures before us that weren’t living in such a Platonic Aristotelian, not only kind of mind, brain, body split, but an individual versus collective community split. That’s a lot of wisdom. Some cultures have held onto and others like mine are coming back to and needing that scientific hint or clue to lean back into it. But it is so interesting when you say that because where it takes me is having an 18-month-old who I am getting to witness in real time, how not only does my body offer regulation to her body offers regulation to me, there are literal moments when I’m helping her get to sleep the minute her body enters deep sleep, my body lets down in a way that I’m like, she just entered deep sleep because now I’m so tired and exhausted. So that’s just a tiny, tiny example, but it is stunning and beautiful. And so hopeful that we don’t just have to do it on our own.

Dan: Well, Becky the other night said to me, I’m going to be watching a video instead of going to bed at our normal time. Are you going to be okay? And I looked at her and I went, what do you mean? Am I going to be okay? Yeah, I think I can go to bed without, and she said, the last couple times I’ve done that, you’ve said to me it was a hard night because you didn’t fall asleep. Even that sleep process as an older person, you know that we are co-regulating. And that is essentially through the ventral vagal. Ventral means front front of our body is indeed regulating. So our face, our voice, et cetera. Now we have a second part of the vegal system and it’s called the sympathetic activation system. And it really is where we get fight flight. It’s generally where we feel something of chaos or anxiety where we can begin to feel that locked up body. You feel tension in your neck and your back. You can feel your stomach roiling. And that process is what I would argue most people have come to live with as just the normal, as stress related, can’t really find much change. I work out, but it doesn’t really change the tonality of my body. And so I think in some ways, if we can underscore that in an evolutionary sense, this part of our body is almost 500 million years old and it was primarily set for the Serengeti and noting a tiger and being able to run, fight or flight. But we’ve all caught, we may have tigers and bears, but there’s a whole lot of stress that when we begin to feel the accumulation, we know there are changes that are happening in terms of our capacity to digest, our breathing, our lungs, our immune system. And what I want to underscore, it’s not new data to most people who’ve been listening to us, but what Porges found was what he eventually called the dorsal vagal shutdown. And that’s where we get fight flight and then the word freeze. And what he underscored is that most people when they think of freeze, they think of almost something catatonic. But it’s actually, yes, that’s perhaps the extreme case, but the reality is in that dorsal vagal the back of us, and that’s why so much of our tension is felt in the back of our bodies, neck, back, et cetera. It’s where we begin to, in some sense disconnect where we don’t really keep any sense of presence to what’s going on. So we’ve got three levels. We’re meant to be in that ventral vagal, but we end up being sympathetically activated almost to a point where, and I think this is a really important point, that the sympathetic activation actually begins to bring more of that dorsal vagal. So you see people, and I’ve seen this in marriage counseling, I’ve seen it in my own marriage where I look calm, where I look like things are going okay, and then one sentence that Becky says, or one additional task that I’ve got to do, and I’m losing it and I’m like, what is going on? I mean, I may know in the moment I’m being immature, but it almost feels like I can’t stop. So when we think about freeze, I think we need to think in terms of the polyvagal system that a lot of us are living in between this kind of sympathetic activation and this dorsal shutdown. And so we get activated and we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the neurological capacity to manage something of the intensity of what we all know was a very small slight or problem. Familiar?

Rachael: What’s coming to my mind is this meme I found that was, I think you could apply it to so many things, but the particular caption on this was for mothers. It was like for mothers of young children who there’s only two modes. And I think what you’re describing, it’s giving a visual to those two modes you just described. It was like one, it’s, oh gosh, that comedian, I’m not going to remember his name, but it’s like he’s in both and it’s one that’s like the happy go lucky and the music is like, and he’s just kind of doing this, and then it’s like, now I’m overstimulated. And then it’s a different character in an SNL bit. And he is like, I’m freaking out. I’m not okay. I’m losing my mind. It’s like something like that. And I feel like that’s what you just described. It’s just been making me laugh a lot. And I’ll try to remember which comedian it is.

Dan: Well, and shall we just say, most of the time I think of that when I mishandle a really small issue, there was a phone call that Becky asked me to make and I had a meltdown. And she was like, do you understand it’s 10 digits? You need to put the area code in, but it’s 10 digits and it’s just going to take you literally less than a minute to let this person know that they can’t do X, Y, or Z. And it was like, again, the left hemisphere at some level was going, I know this is not a big deal, but I am overwhelmed in that moment until I understood a little bit more about the polyvagal system, I would’ve assumed I just need to try harder, I need to think better, and I just need to be more mature. And I’m not saying that those three things aren’t true, but there’s this point of going back to say, don’t think of freezing as literally the shutdown where you cannot move. Many of us are oscillating between this kind of sympathetic overstimulation, but actually we’re far more dorsal vagal close to that. I can’t handle it. I can’t take anymore. And you need to engage it.

Rachael: Well, I just was going to say, and I know we’re going to maybe talk more about this, but I think what’s so interesting, well one, it was Bill Hader that was the comedian Bill Hader. So you can imagine his bits. But so much of thinking about that dorsal vagal overactivation and toggling between, it’s so much of the healing ways in which people say, here’s so much of the work you can do for the polyvagal system to actually bring some regulation has to do with the pelvic floor and your hips and your diaphragm and everything you just named that’s along that corridor. And again, it’s like that is just for many of us who have been so spiritually formed in a system that says, no, you’ve got a renewing of your mind is only cognitively memorizing or thinking on a string of language. It almost feels like, wait, what? I need to do deeper breathing. I need to sing. I need to hum. I need to go to a pelvic floor physical therapist.

Dan: Yes, you can see why some of my friends are dismissive, why in some ways there is kind of this disruption. This just can’t, first of all, it can’t be actually our body. And second of all, it really can’t be that simple. When I say simple, I don’t mean easy, but clear. There are things we can do to create a neurological reset. But to underscore that, when you’re in some sense in that sympathetic overload and you’re in that dorsal vagal shutdown interplay, the research has indicated your perception of reality, and this is really very important, will be highly suspicious. You will perceive a smile as hostile. You will perceive a lack of engagement on the other face as this person’s trying to destroy you. So if we begin to think, not just individually, but corporately, if we begin to think about the political left, the political right, and to begin to go, we are living in a traumatized era where the perception of our world around us is incredibly threatening. And so our suspicion, our heightened sensitivity to pain and offense, so the person who’s operating again in that dorsal, vagal sympathetic activation interplay, they’re not going to be able to metabolize reality because perception will be distorted. This is really big stuff. And so when we get down to, alright, fine, maybe you’ve moderately convinced me to actually think about splashing water on my face, it’s not going to offer a kind of final solution. Constant being able to be able to return to that ventral vagal, more social pro-social co-regulated stance. But at least, I mean least know that when you’re in a conflict with your spouse and you feel somewhat threatened, likely you’re not perceiving reality and it isn’t just a matter of he or she is immature, it’s that likely you are activated and the dorsal ventral is actually at play. What would it mean for us relationally to begin the process of going, this is not a helpful interaction as long as my neurological system is at some level opposed to you and to me and to us. So just taking a pause now, there’s more than a pause, but at least stopping processes. Most argumentation, most intense conflicts involve systems that were designed millions of years ago to deal with a singular threat that now are vastly more complex. Can we acknowledge we need to renew our mind? If so, how do we bring our body into the sacrifice that actually creates the potential for change? And I want to go back to, you said a word or two a moment ago, and that singing and humming, How does that work for you?

Rachael: I mean, honestly, this is another one of those things, and this is part of what I love about the way that God made us in bodies. I still think there’s so much of whether our culture, things were erased from our culture or not passed out or not, our bodies know certain things and just instinctively do them to survive. So for me, singing and humming, I mean I still to this day hum out loud and I’m not aware that I’m doing it. I used to do it all the time with my office mate when I worked with Matt Morrissey and the little tiny office cubby. I would be humming and he would be like, are you aware that you’ve been humming for the past 20 minutes while you’ve been typing? And I would have no awareness of it because it was just something my body was doing humming and movement. And again, there’s a lot written and talked about and understood and around certain cultures, for example, African-American culture in the US like gospel music, soul dance. So much of that not only are just deep theological communal expressions, but are also a way of surviving the horror and trauma of enslavement and Jim Crow and lynching and mass incarceration. So again, we see these ways in which our bodies are made to Resmaa Menakem talks about that in “My Grandmother’s Hands” as well, like that communal resonance as a form of healing, the very polyvagal disruption that we’re naming and talking about. But for me, just singing a lot and humming a lot.

Dan: Well, and again, I’m not going to prove that my voice is a tenor of cacophony, but I’ve been told that by multiple sources. So I have at least strong bass. Singing has never been a comfort. But humming again, where does the polyvagal system, the vagus nerve run from occipital down through our throat, through our esophagus, into our lungs, into our stomach, into our colon. So when you hum, you are actually engaging the vagal system. And again, the reason it’s called vagal is Latin from the word Vegas and vagabond is a good example. It means the wanderer. So we literally have this wandering river of life going through us and being able to hum will create a reset. Meaning there are so many ways to tend to your polyvagal system, including singing. If you find your own voice at least desirable enough to hear, it will reset. Let me give you another, and I’m going to ask you to do this, Rachael, even though nobody can see us, but people can do this. Link your fingers together.

Rachael: Oh, link them together.

Dan: Yeah, link them together now. Put them behind your neck so that you are in between the bones, those bones in the back, right up against the muscles. Now what I want you to do is I want you to don’t move your head, but move your eyes to three o’clock. Do you know what I mean by that? Yeah. Think about where three o’clock would be. Move your eyes and keep them there. I’m going to ask you to keep them there for about 10 seconds. Tell me what you’re beginning to feel.

Rachael: I feel my breathing slowing down. I feel almost like a tingling sensation going down the back of my spine.

Dan: Yep. Yep. What you just did again is a reset. And I’m not assuming at the moment you’re in enormous stress, but your body just actually came to a greater level of rest. So what I’m not going to do is to go through five other examples, but we have this lovely little gif called YouTube, and you can spell polyvagal and you can, I mean there are, I’d say about 200 million polyvagal reset videos that last anywhere from three to four minutes showing you a few techniques about how to reset. But when I don’t even know how long ago I realized that when I felt stress, I’d often look to my right and meaning I would sort of look up and I could begin to feel a little bit like Oh, oh, clarity. Well, it isn’t that essentially when you look to the right, you’re accessing the left hemisphere, but in that process, you’re not just activating your capacity to think and reason, you’re literally resetting your polyvagal system so you can think more actively and thoughtfully. And in that process, there are again from splashing water to humming to putting your, and again, the reason you put your fingers together and put it back behind is you’re actually putting your hands on the beginning of your polyvagal system. So where the occipital lobe biz. It’s usually on that left side of your brain and sort of right below the bony part right before you get to the muscles. And massaging that, literally going back and forth and finding where there is tension is another means by which you create reset. So what would it be like if we actually had three or four skills that we knew to utilize when we’re in a meeting or in a conflict with our spouse and actually needed to be able to get the ventral vagal back online? That’s the part of co-regulation. You’re not going to be able to co-regulate if you have fallen deeper into the sympathetic activation or into the dorsal vagal. It’s so simple

Rachael: Two thoughts that came to me is one of my favorite resets is the deep diaphragm breathing where you breathe out with a groan, moan. But you can’t easily do that in the midst of other people. Because it’s really… people are like, what is going on? But I think I’m just making a connection in real time right now as we’re having this conversation. That part of why. So for a season, the end of my time living in Seattle, I had an incredible acupuncturist Sofina Lin at Instill Acupuncture who also did cranial sacral work while I was getting acupuncture. And if you’re not familiar with cranial sacral, it’s just what it says. It’s kind of based off of when we hold a baby, we’re holding their sacrum in the back of their head. And as you’re talking about poly vagal theory, I’m like, oh duh. That’s the beginning and end of the polyvagal system. And so applying a lot of pressure, and it was just so healing for my nervous system and therefore my capacity to return to a kind of reasoning, which I think is just the paradox of the full circle. And I hope you kind of started off by saying this, we’re not saying to people you shouldn’t understand some of the really beautiful truths of scripture. We’re simply saying that using that as the only tool to regulate a body you’ve been given actually an unnecessary cruelty. And we can much better integrate and make meaning of things and see how it actually relates to us when we are regulated.

Dan: Yes. And we don’t have to wait for a day later. You can, in a meeting, say I’ll be right back. Go into the bath and again, first thing, splash some water. Now, if people can hear you, maybe you don’t want to do that the first thing. So instead, you put your hands linked hands behind into that occipital area and begin the process of looking at three o’clock, and then five or six seconds, bring it back, then do it again. I mean, you can tell even in a short period of time that there is a little bit of change. So as you’re beginning to regulate to bring down some of the stress biochemicals, you’re now in a better place. And so wash your hands, flush the toilet, splash some water, get a towel, and go back in to the conflict with your spouse. Go back in. But know that now you are ready to perceive reality with a lot more truth and generosity than you would have been when you’re operating with suspicion and you’re fleeing on the Serengeti from the threat that’s in front of you.

Rachael: Yeah. I think one caveat I do want to add is we’re not suggesting that this is the, we’re not suggesting this is the answer to addressing massive systems and realities of injustice that actually continue to even more severe than running from a tiger on the Serengeti, keep our nervous systems really dysregulated. I view this kind of care as more of a mercy in the midst of, yeah, there are other things that need to be done to address what is causing us harm and traumatizing our bodies. And in the midst of that, there can be mercy in moments when, yeah, is it going to lead to the kind of full regulation and peace in shalom that we most long for? Likely not. But is it going to offer a mercy for us to not have to leave our bodies and then reenact more harm and more trauma in our primary relationships, in our primary context.

Dan: So in conclusion, all we can say is hum to the glory of God. Splash some good cold water to the glory of God. And if being able to turn your eyes to three o’clock reorients, find your own ways to be able to care for your very being in a way then that you can indeed, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.