The Magic of Cacao and the Highly Sensitive Nervous System

It’s no secret I love cacao. I’ve been immersed in the heart opening practice of ceremonial cacao for 7 years now. But my journey with mama cacao has changed so much over the years and particularly in the last 12 months it’s been heavily influenced by my journey into the world of embracing and stabilising my highly sensitive nervous system.

I write this piece with so much gratitude for everything that cacao has shared with me over the years and the immense amount of wisdom I’ve uncovered within my own body, mind and heart.

And while I know this may not resonate with others, it is my truth and through my work with other highly sensitive women I suspect there are at least a few of you out there that may know exactly what I’m talking about, so here is a little story about my personal journey with mama cacao.

When I first sat on the porch with Keith, (the chocolate shaman) in Guatemala he spoke to us about the work of Empaths and offered guidance on how to embrace this gift without digesting everyone else’s crap everywhere we went. Prior to this point I had absolutely no idea I was sensitive to other people’s stress or emotional experiences….so this was a huge aha moment….that has radically changed the way I live.

But it’s taken a long time for me to truly understand even a snippet of what had been shared with me then. And as my sensitivity became something I was more conscious of I realised I at times feel other people’s experiences viscerally – very much in my body, and in the way my nervous system interacts with the world. And things began making more sense – for the first time I began to realise the physical symptoms I was experiencing (fatigue, vertigo, exhaustion, dizziness, poor digestion) were signs of my highly sensitive nervous system trying to process more than it could digest (literally) and that I was caught in over-stimulation and overwhelm. This opened the door for me to truly begin to see all the aspects of my sensitivity in a far more positive light – and harness the gifts that came with it.

I’ll write more about HSP, empaths, the gifts of sensitivity and taking your power back in another blog but for now let me get back to the topic of Cacao and the Highly Sensitive Person and highly sensitive nervous system.

After cultivating a little (aka a shit ton) more self compassion for my sensitivity I acknowledged my nervous system could no longer handle big doses of anything – not even blissful or positive things including this very beautiful plant medicine that had been my sweet soulful companion for years. It had me begin to question had I been in fact contributing to the overwhelm and sensitivity pushing myself over the edge? And was it time to work with mama cacao in a new way.

And the answer was a resounding yes. I’ve been on a bit of spiritual junkie journey since 2012 trying all sorts of weird and wonderful workshops, courses, plant medicines, meditations, retreats and bodywork in the name of ‘healing’ or ‘enlightenment’. I’ve spent ummmm…..an incredible amount of money on this journey educating myself, healing, cleansing and de-conditioning. And while I know all of those experiences contribute to where I am today on reflection I can see many actually forced me into growth, rather than allowing – and pushed an already very sensitive nervous system into complete overwhelm, shutdown and discombobulation.

So this is where I share that when I first discovered cacao I was numb to pretty much everything, having long ago decided that it was safer to cover up my sensitivity, I didn’t feel very much at all.

When I began travelling my only wish to feel again.

After years of studying the intricacies of our autonomic nervous system I’d now say I lived in a permanent state of overwhelm and my system often defaulted to shutdown, freeze or disassociate. I had perfected the art of not feeling, by leaving my body because I’d long ago decided that all of the feelings that came up were just way too much for me to process and integrate.

Cacao was one of the most beautiful supports I had in the process of learning to feel again. She, along with heart & stillness based yoga and meditation bought my system back online after having been in emotional overwhelm and shutdown for a good chunk of my adult life – I saw her as a gentle hand holding mine. She, and a group of dedicated cacao lovers encouraged me to feel whatever was coming up and to let it be there, to let it be seen and loved. It was the turning point for me. A point of allowing emotions to be part of my world again.

BUT – and this is the purpose of this blog – what I didn’t understand at the time was that having an impeccable sense of Self and knowing how to ground BEFORE I started to heighten my sensitivity would have been a really bloody good idea. Instead I lost myself in transcendental practices and plant medicines that encouraged me to leave my body and empty my mind wreaking havoc with my nervous system and creating trauma that would later need to be unravelled.

For me cacao helped me to feel my heart again, to connect in with my emotional body, to understand that there were many many layers that had been built up around my heart over the years and much that I had suppressed and denied. But without the grounding practices I was unable to stay present or to notice what my system needed and I was a ticking time bomb for adrenal fatigue and PTSD.

Reality is a time came a long long time ago – where the layers around my sensitivity had been peeled back and I was no longer caught in shutdown but instead had flipped over into flight mode – running away if things got too intense. To the point that I travelled for almost 7 years, moving every 3 months – basically avoiding any emotional experience that became too intense. And yet also chasing the next ‘peak experience’ that for a moment would feel amazing but very quickly would leave me feeing overwhelmed and ungrounded. I was caught in a loop of going from overwhelmed and shutdown to feeling better and engaging more in life – to passing through my window of tolerance and straight back into the other side of overwhelm – overstimulated and with my sympathetic nervous system activated.

So while I adore cacao and the magic she helped me to uncover within myself – it’s been my story that drinking large quantities of a plant medicine that increased my sensitivity was not necessarily the wisest nor the most compassionate thing I could have done once I had reconnected to my sensitivity.

When I lived in Guatemala we would drink 40-50grams of cacao in a ceremony and I thought that was OK for me then, but despite the warnings of my teacher to always listen to what our body was telling us – I stopped listening and just kept drinking for many years to follow. Desperate to find my truth, to leave behind my suffering and to help others to do the same, I drank without knowing my nervous system was already having a lot of trouble digesting life, without understanding that what I needed was a little less sensitivity not more. I needed to take my foot off the accelerator for a moment but instead I had one foot on the accelerator while the other was also on the brake – hello burnout, adrenal fatigue and digestive destruction!

And I believe this became more of an issue when I was no longer living in an energetic vortex surrounded by pristine nature that supported my grounding and clearing. When I started living in suburbia in a modern western environment where the collective consciousness was a little different. Bombarded by stimulation 24/7 with sounds and lights, and electro magnetic fields (even when we think we’re being still our systems are being bombarded with EMF’s) – I had a mind fragmented by trauma, and a nervous system stuck in hypervigilance struggling to digest and integrate what I was experiencing.

Thankfully, after a pretty good dose of my own suffering and some wise tips from feminine teachers who guided me on my path to Embodiment I began to prioritise grounding and not engaging too deeply in the emotional chaos of the world when I was already struggling to digest.

And the amount of cacao I drank varied hugely – there would be weeks and months where I wouldn’t drink at all. And at other times I would drink a teaspoon daily with the occasional 2-3 tablespoons at other times, but always experimenting and listening to what my system needs in THIS moment. Not what someone else has told me – or what works for them, or even what has worked for me in the past….but RIGHT NOW what do I need.

With cacao ceremonies becoming more and more popular & accessible in the west I wanted to share my story especially for those with highly sensitive nervous systems, trauma or PTSD so you can be encouraged to listen to your needs….it may be your path that less is more.

Mama cacao continues to play a key part in my evolution, growth, connection to joy and acceptance of my sensitivity as a super power. And I believe she is a beautiful tool for awakening the heart. But the particular way I work with her now is as a companion – I don’t give my power over to her – I know she is simply helping me uncover pieces of God (myself) that I had forgotten. And I play with her in much smaller doses to support integration of the love, innocence, joy & playfullness she helps me to remember. I affectionately call her my antidepressant and I mostly turn to her when I feel my heart close or am needing extra support to connect to the magic and sweetness of this life. And when the world is struggling with a pandemic I’m incredibly grateful for the lightness she helps me to find within myself.

I also still wholeheartedly believe she is a gift for others journeying into sensitivity, empowerment and whole hearted living. However I understand that for the Highly Sensitive nervous system grounding into the physical body and learning how to stay with our experience even in the most intense of emotional experiences is the most important tool we will ever learn. And that sometimes the most compassionate thing you will ever do for yourself is to ease off the accelerator for a moment while you digest all that you’ve already consumed.

If you tend to experience emotions very intensely and find yourself often caught in a whirlwind of emotions, yours or others, play a little with practices that help you digest the experiences before you turn up the volume on your emotional world. Ground into your body and experiment with mindfulness or simple concentration practices to restore balance to your nervous system and trust your body knows what it needs in this moment.

On this day where people all over the world are connecting to chocolate in their own special way, take a moment to offer your gratitude for all that the spirit of cacao has offered to you and most importantly to the gift of your wise beautiful heart.

“I believe the magic of the most beautiful heart centred teachers – particularly plant medicines is to reveal to you the gifts that already lay inside of you. To help you appreciate the subtleties of this beautiful life.” 

Lani

Reach out if you’d like any support or guidance on your journey with cacao or high sensitivity.

Much chocolatey love

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