Ronan Loughney • • 11 min read
Nervous System Mastery: how I learnt to meet myself where I am
This article is about my experience during and after Jonny Miller’s Nervous System Mastery course in November last year. The course is designed to help you understand and regulate your emotions, become more resilient in challenging emotional situations, experience a greater sense of aliveness and more.
For $150 off enrollment, apply at https://nsmastery.com/ and use the code HEX when you are signing up.
It was a difficult start to 2023.
I’d been sick in bed with a sinus infection for about three weeks over Christmas and the new year, the longest I’d ever been infirm in my life. Then, just as the new year set in, I achieved that most unwanted rite of passage into adulthood and became embroiled in an interminable, kafkaesque legal situation. I had just finished my ‘Review of the Year’ and was feeling primed for a year of serene success. But it seemed that the year had other plans.
I found myself growing more and more despondent each day, still bearing the physical listlessness from the illness, while grappling with complicated and unwieldy legal emails for a case I knew shouldn’t even exist; not to mention the usual depressiveness during those long, dark January days.
At this point, I would usually retreat into myself, perhaps finding comfort in alcohol or other substances. Although I have carefully cultivated a set of spiritual and self-care practices over the years which have brought me enormous benefits, I have always found that this toolkit has certain limitations, falling mainly into two areas; what I will call: the Acceptance school and the Discipline school.
The Acceptance School relates to practices which encourage mindful acceptance of a given situation: It’s not about changing the situation or even your own internal state but merely being aware of it, seeing it for the impersonal, transient, and basically insubstantial thing that it is. This school is largely populated by different kinds of meditation and mindfulness practices.
Meditation is the tool par excellence for becoming more open to experience in all of its manifestations, for training ourselves to welcome whatever arises with equanimity, presentness and gentleness.
But meditation has its limitations, particularly in moments of crisis. Although we understand that the central tenet of meditation - mindful acceptance of what is - is more relevant in these situations than ever, this can feel maddeningly insufficient when we are struggling. There is a catch-22 whereby, if we are not sufficiently advanced in our practice to find the stillness inside the storm, then we cannot access the stillness long enough for the practice to do its work, and meditation becomes just another stick to beat ourselves with.
On the other hand, in the Discipline school are things like exercise, cold showers and plunge pools, rigorously managing our sleep schedules and so forth. In this school, the emphasis is on jumpstarting ourselves out of difficult moods through (at least an initial) force of will.
These are helpful for breaking us out of sulks and other bouts of self-indulgence. But this school too has its limitations and internal contradictions. The catch-22 here is that it is exactly at our most despondent when the desire to enact any of these practices goes out of the window.
The great irony is that it is usually when I am on top of life that I am waking up at 6am, taking cold showers, and hitting the gym before work. Finding the will to do so as we begin to falter - becoming less confident in the sense that we are masters of our own destinies and not merely pinball machines of wanton moods - is perpetually elusive, and is essentially the core of every failed intention and resolution.
The question I had never thought to ask was:
Was there something in the middle of both of these extremes, something between the binaries of acceptance and discipline?
Was there something which could allow me to approach and accept the vagaries of experience, whilst also giving me a crutch to support my mood in the face of my own capricious sense of internal balance?
Was there something which could jolt me out of extreme and debilitating moods, without relying on accessing a Herculean reservoir of will which was exactly what I was lacking?
Fast forward to the other morning and I found myself walking aimlessly around my house just after 9am, physically withdrawing from the obligations screaming for my attention on my to-do list, the various exigencies of my legal case not least of them.
My housemates asked me how I was, and seeing my despondency, suggested solicitously: ‘You should go for a run. It releases endorphins. Endorphins are good for you.’
At this point I, of course, wanted to smash all of their possessions and go into an extended diatribe about how I knew a f*cking run released f*cking endorphins thanks. I wasn’t born f&cking yesterday you f*cking F*CKTAPS! [Dramatisation, thoughts may have been exaggerated for effect.]
More than that, I wanted to take myself off into the dankest corner of my room, wither into a little ball and physically shield myself from the assault of grown up responsibility. I wanted to return to the closest thing I could get to a womb.
But I didn’t.
And that was largely thanks to having recently completed Jonny's NSM course. Although it’s hard to summarise in a nutshell, the course basically gives you actionable techniques to check in with and regulate your emotional state, increasing your autonomy to face situations how you would like to, rather than just how you happen to be feeling.
Thanks to the course, despite wanting to shut the world out, I had the presence of mind to acknowledge that if I withdrew now, I would still awaken to the same situation, only more groggy-headed and with even less evidence to support my belief I could actually deal with it. And I had the tools to deal with the situation head-on, rather than repress it and allow it to run riot around my subconscious, ready to burst forth as depression, addiction, rage or some other symptom of imbalance later down the line.
The course had also helped me understand that how I felt, in my body, was my choice and my responsibility. And that therefore the truly self-compassionate response to the situation was not to retreat into myself but to be my own physician and guide.
So, feeling this deep need to rest and reset, but knowing that sleep was not what I needed, I decided - as I had many times over the months since completing the course - to do a 20-minute guided Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) practice.
NSDR is a process of gently guiding your nervous system into a deep state of relaxation through bringing a soft and nurturing awareness to various points all over your body. It is a process that works quite unconsciously, or rather, hypnagogically (on that lip between sleep and wakefulness) and so requires nothing from the practitioner besides a gentle attention.
As always, before I lay down to go through the practice, my stressed and saddened mind simply did not believe it would actually help: My problems are objective and material! A shift in my internal landscape will do nothing to address them!
Even throughout the process, the conscious mind was whirring away, analysing and judging the experience as it is wont to do, declaring, ‘It’s not working, it’s not worrrrrkinnnng.’
And yet, as I lifted myself up twenty minutes later, I was once again mildly astonished to find that I felt lighter, clearer and, crucially, ready to meet the challenges of the day.
What I love so much about this practice is that you don’t really have to do much of anything at all. You lie down. Your mind drifts. You listen, sort of. And then, hey presto, you feel better.
Now, the course is by no means offering some kind of endogenous Prozac, and you do need to put effort in to see the benefit of the practices. (It is important to acknowledge that it takes considerable effort just to disrupt our habitual responses to moments of difficulty and discomfort, and to take a step back from the default mode of doing in the first place).
But the automatic nature of the healing effect of NSDR is indicative of a general feature of the techniques the course instructs you in:
The more you can let go (ie the less strain and effort you put in), the more effective the techniques will be.
This is very much an antidote to the rushed and harried culture that we live in, where more is more, where work and grind and busyness are exalted and glorified.
Jonny’s course gives us a healthy reminder of what Yoda said best:
This concept of effortless effort runs throughout the course, and again and again you are reminded to let go of doing, and to allow the processes simply to unfold.
Alongside NSDR, Jonny introduces many other simple, actionable techniques that you can apply in various situations of stress, despondency, overwhelm and so on (which you can see and try for yourself here). All of them are easy to learn, provide immediate, observable results, and are simple enough to implement so as to be accessible in times of need.
Building these into my every day has fundamentally changed how I relate to my experience. Because I now have a wealth of resources to deal with situations which I would previously have quailed at when the traditional supports of bloodymindedness or caffeine had run out, when I felt too stressed to meditate or do yoga, or too disgruntled to go for a run or cold shower.
In terms of the tangible improvements in my life I've experienced since quitting the course, perhaps the most significant change that has occurred for me since completing the course has been quitting alcohol.
Now, we should always be cautious of designating one thing as the cause of another. There is always a complex of circumstances that lead to us making any changes in our lives. So much is about timing and context
So, while I’m not going to say that the NSM course was the reason I quit alcohol, I will say that it was definitely a key part of a complex of reasons that led me to.
Because, even though the course isn't ostensibly about alcohol consumption or any other mild addictions or peccadilloes, what the course does extremely well is to confront you - gently but firmly - with yourself. It introduces, in other words, a kind of actionable self-awareness.
By encouraging you to first become aware of your state, moment to moment; to then interpret for yourself whether this state is proportionate and appropriate to the situation at hand; and then to identify and implement some protocol or other to tweak this state, by its nature the course slows you down and brings you into your body.
And when that happens, when we become more subtly aware of what is going on inside us, it is natural that certain harmful behaviours begin to fall away. Because they don’t feel good any more. Or rather, we finally become aware of how they really do feel.
By noticing how tired I felt for days after drinking, how often I had to resort to pumping myself up through the breath or a cold shower or a run (I'd already quit coffee), but also how sluggish and stupid I felt while under the influence, it started to become clear that drinking just wasn’t worth it. And so quitting happened, not quite by itself, but with a little push from consciously held intention. And here I am in March, sober as a towel.
Some other changes also seemed to unfold naturally around the same time:
I stopped working for an employer who was emotionally manipulative, because I was more aware of the day-to-day and moment to moment sensations in my body. While this change too was attributable to many other factors, the course certainly played its part, not least thanks to the amazing mini coaching session I had with Joe Hudson from Art of Accomplishment during one of the calls.
Perhaps the biggest win though, or the one with the biggest potential for profound and long-term impact, is simply the encouragement to get curious about all facets of experience.
Our inner and outer worlds are infinitely mysterious. They can overwhelm us, entrammel us in their wicked complexity, and indeed will always do so if we continue to approach them as riddles to be solved, challenges to be overcome.
But when we bring an attitude of curiosity, which is to say joy in our not knowing, we begin to see the beauty in the mystery, not just the confusion.
Since completing the course I have noticed in myself a new capacity to remain hopeful when I cannot see a way around a problem. There is an understanding that, though I may not be able to see a way ahead now, through remaining open and curious, I am far more likely to find one when it appears, and I am less bothered about being ‘stuck’ in the first place. I am less solution focused, and more simply seeing what is here. I am less frustrated when an unpleasant feeling or thought sticks in my mind, and more prone to welcome it as just another part of experience.
Ultimately, the course came at just the right time for me, at a point where the modalities and practices I’d used to get me where I am had become a little stale, a little rote perhaps. I’m thankful for the course, firstly for giving me some new tools to strap to my belt. But also for reinvigorating the practices I already had by reminding me to bring a sense of exploration to it all.
Our curiosity is like the lamp that we bring with us as we descend down the mine of the self. In this sense, I think it is this which helps us navigate the binaries of acceptance and discipline. We will oscillate on and on between the two, tying ourselves up in riddles of our own making. But with curiosity, not only do we open ourselves out to more ready solutions, but we cease to strive so much for them, and so the problems can begin to disentangle themselves.
If you're curious to explore more about the course after reading this article, you can find out more here. If you'd like to apply, use the code HEX when checking out and you'll get $150 off!
If you'd like to apply for a bursary/scholarship, you can do so here: https://form.typeform.com/to/ygUmaB1u
If you can’t afford the course either way, some of the free resources included in this article were:
Some other invaluable free resources I found along the way
Ronan Loughney is a writer, musician and coach, committed to seeking truth, finding beauty, and deepening human connection and community.
If you want to connect with him or see more of his work, go to https://www.ronanloughney.com/