Week 5: Ritual + Environment Design

👉 Link to Week 5 Handbook 👈

5.0 📝  SUMMARY ~ Key Ideas + Overview

Welcome back. You might think that the course is ending, this week — but actually in some ways it’s just beginning — as the real test will be how much of this theory and protocols you have embodied in a year from now.

Let’s recap — you’ve learnt the theory and protocols for cultivating interoception — self regulation — and emotional fluidity — this week is about exploring our everyday lives.

This final week will include less theory, but will be focused more on practical opportunities to take an audit of your everyday rituals and environment — with the aim of redesigning these more intentionally — and to be conducive to nervous system flourishing.

And in case you’re wondering why this is only at the end of the course — it’s because making these habit and environment changes — without a deep understanding of interoception + self-regulation + emotional fluidity will be limited in their effectiveness — so you can think of this section as creating the final pieces of support scaffolding for a healthy nervous system.

1 // We’ll begin with the story of Lao Tzu’s Hollow Pot — and what I call an ‘Environment Design Audit’ — sharing principles for ensuring that your sensory environments are aligned with the state that you desire to cultivate in each space.

2 // We’ll then apply this theory by creating a plan to bring more intentionality to the design of one of our most important rooms for nervous system rejuvenation — your bedroom — and how to create your very own Sleep Sanctuary.

3 // Then I’ll share a template for three simple morning + evening rituals — that will create the conditions for your nervous system and circadian health.

4 // Finally, we’ll engage in the process of Reflecting Forwards — and I’ll provide you with some journal prompts to set you up for success in the months and years to come once this course ends.

5.1 🪴 THEORY ~ Lao Tzu’s Hollow Pot

Lao Tzu’s ‘Hollow Pot’

The process of shifting the state of our nervous system is like Lao Tsu’s ‘hollow pot’:

Cut doors and windows to make a room. Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you. Hollowed out, clay makes a pot. Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.” — Lao Tzu

Just as a potter’s hands are in conversation with the clay — guiding, shaping, listening. We too can use our minds to listen to, guide, and shape our nervous systems.

The problem that we run into in life is that we try to EFFORT our way to certain states ~ be it creativity or perhaps sleep.

However, the proper function of our mind is to create the internal and external conditions — for the spontaneous emergence of our desired state — be that flow, creativity or in this case, sleep.

So far we’ve mostly looked at our internal conditions, this week we’re going to explore how we’re shaped by our exteroception.

Another way of stating this is that:

You design your environment, and then your environment designs you in return.

From the perspective of our nervous system we are constantly ‘co-regulating’ with our environment — we are taking exteroceptive cues from all the sounds, the visuals, even the smells — all of these stimuli are tuning our internal state.

As a Lab Scientists will know, if you want to change a cell in a petri dish you just need to change the culture that it's in. The same is true of our human cells.

So the primary invitation for this week is to apply this exteroceptive lens and intention redesign some of your environments — working with creative constraints of shared spaces, budget etc. — such that these spaces are more conducive to your desired nervous system states.

A crucial first step is accepting radical responsibility for these conditions — even though we may not choose to say commute on a train or work in a busy open office environment — we almost always have greater autonomy than we realise.

So what types of ways are we shaped by our spaces? Well to give a concrete example:

there’s a landmark study that looked at what’s known as the CATHEDRAL EFFECT which demonstrated that higher ceilings reliably led to more abstract + creative thinking vs. lower ceilings which were more suited to detail-oriented tasks.

And this is just one way of bringing greater awareness to how we are being often unconsciously shaped by our environments.

Take a moment to think about some of the spaces where you have felt most creative or enlivened? Or some of the spaces where you reliably relax and fully exhale? Or maybe environments that feel over-stimulating and cause you to withdraw. Keep this lens on your reality in your back-pocket for this week — exploring how different spaces impact your internal landscape.

5.2 🏡  THEORY ~ Exteroceptive Audit

In the scientific literature, interceptive or internal awareness and exteroceptive or external awareness are studied in very distinct ways.

However, in my own experience — and I realise this is a sample size of n=1 — as I have cultivated greater interoceptive awareness — my experience has been that my exteroceptive capacity – or sensitivity to external stimuli ~ has also tended to increase.

I’ve found in my own life that the more I build embodied awareness, the more that I feel the impact of say intense bright lights late at night or noisy office space.

I remember walking into a Wholefoods supermarket after a 10-day silent meditation retreat and the busyness combined with the glaring overhead lights were so intense.

So this is just something to track in yourself, and whilst at times this heightened sensitivity can feel challenging — I believe it is a superpower because we’re more aware of the responses in our body that were happening anyway, just beneath conscious awareness.

This week, we’re going to look at environment design in the context of bedroom ~ or what will become your sleep sanctuary.

But it’s important to state that these principles can be applied to any type of space… it could be a question of how might you design your living room for connection and spontaneity or play — or if you are someone who works from home, then you might easily apply this environment design lens to optimising for flow, focus and creative output.

Here are the two questions to ask yourself:

First, what is your desired nervous system state in this space? Is it primarily about relaxation and rest or focus and stimulation?

Second, run through an inventory of your external senses — and ask what would be most conducive to this state. I’ll give some examples for the office space that I’m recording this in.

  • Visual — I’m facing the window so that I can look into the distance and relax my gaze for periods of deliberate ‘defocusing’ in between work. The colours are warm and earthy. The ceiling is high to aid with creative thinking.
  • Spacial — having plenty of open space and a less cluttered desk ~ for me personally ~ allows for greater periods of consistant focus. Although I realise that others prefer spaces of organised chaos. Another friend removed all of the chairs in his house in order to encourage more squatting and building lower body mobility.
  • Audible stimuli — again this something to experiment with if you haven’t already. How is your capacity to focus or relax impacted by different sounds or music. You might try complete silence with noise cancelling headphones, or white noise, or explore the range of binaural beats offered by the Endel App.
  • Olfactory — this is a really underrated sense in my opinion, there’s plenty of research to show that scents like peppermint essential oil or sage increase our alertness whilst others like lavender incense are calming and relaxing.
  • Habitual — the question here is how can you reduce friction to your desired flow and increase friction to things that you’d like less of. We humans often take the path of least resistance. So for example, removing sugary snacks or alcohol from easy access. Setting a pomodoro timer on your desk. Putting your guitar out of it’s case if you’d like to play more often etc.

Okay — so hopefully this is enough to get the wheels of your mind spinning. I invite you to imagine that you’re hired yourself as a nervous system interior-design consultant — you’re paying yourself to map out ways that you could experiment with your environment to cultivate more intentional nervous system modes of being. I would love to hear your creative suggestions & ideas for any room or space in the Circle ‘Environment Design’ channel.

5.3 🛌  EXERCISE ~ Design Your Sleep Sanctuary

So based on your audit and reflections about your environment and exteroceptive audit — the next obvious question is what are some simple changes that could be implemented?

For this episode — the invitation is to focus on redesigning possibly the most important room for nervous system health — and that is your bedroom.

My wife Kelly and I recently moved into a new home here in Boulder, and we did this with our bedroom which was previously an empty shell. Kelly is a former sleep coach so I will say that we had an advantage here… but nevertheless the principles we used I believe are highly transferrable to your situation.

We haven’t really talked about sleep yet. But it is absolutely critical to Nervous System Health. As anyone who isn’t sleeping well will tell you, it impacts everything ~ from your physical performance, mental clarity, digestion and mental health.

Sleep is a deep rabbit hole — many great books and research papers have been written — here is my attempt to curate and distill the 20% of the recommendations + changes that in my experience will give you 80% of the impact in terms of deeper sleep.

In your Week 5 Handbook, you’ll find the section 5.2 — with a grey box for you to choose one passive change and one active behaviour change.

Below this is a Sleep Santuary Cheatsheet with eight potential passive or environmental changes that you can make — which are just simple one time changes you can make to forever improve the quality and depth of your sleep.

Below this are eleven ‘active’ changes or behavioural modifications that you can experiment with to create the conditions for consistent and rejuvenating depth of sleep.

You may of course choose more than one — but do so with caution and knowing that it’s usually more long-term efficient to pick one or two at most in the beginning and commit for 21 days before adding more.

5.4 🌅  DESIGN ~ Morning + Evening Rituals

Despite the viral productivity gurus out there on social media — no one can tell you what the ideal morning or evening routine looks like.

We all have different bodies, preferences, family sizes and commitments.

What I would like to encourage however, is first — at least to reflect on how your default morning routines are supporting you ~ and then to bring a little more intentionality to experiment with other ways of designing the flow of your day — that is ideally in greater alignment with your biology and our circadian rhythms.

And in my opinion, it pays to work with our bodies’ natural cycles rather than against them. As Professor Andrew Huberman loves to say:

"We are not the same person across the different hours of the day, at least not neurochemically."

In this episode I’m going to invite you to include three things in your morning flow and three things before bed — that I believe will benefit everyone’s long-term nervous system health and also hopefully be accessible to almost everyone listening.

🚀 Begin Every Day With These Three Things:

Okay, so let’s begin with mornings.

I share these knowing that everyone has their own unique set of creative constraints ~ be it young children, challenging work hours or constant travel.

That said, I recommend trying your utmost to stick to these recommendations 85% of the time ~ it will make a disproportionate difference to not only how you feel during the day but also the long-term health of your nervous system and body.

There are three things that no matter your circumstances you should be able to weave into your schedule — and knowing that this really really set the tone for your day.

Those three things are:

  • Morning sunlight
  • Movement
  • Interceptive practice

Let’s unpack each of these in a little more depth.

  1. 🌅 First, Sunlight // this has been long studied and now slowly become mainstream knowledge that — getting actual sunlight into your retinas within 90 minutes of waking — ideally for a minimum of 5-10 minutes, or 30+ if it’s cloudy — sets of a cascade of biochemical triggers ~ specifically cortisol for your alertness & begins the timer for the onset of melatonin and adenosine.

  1. 🏋️‍♂️ Second, Movement // this could be a gentle walk with the dog, an intense HIT workout, using a jump rope or a stretch session … whatever feels most supportive to you. But it is important that you move your body in a way that feels aligned to your own needs. Personally, I like to do my resistance training outside in the mornings usually followed by a sauna + cold plunge — then re-hydrating with water, lime, and Himalayan salt.

  1. 🧘  Third, Interoceptive Practice // whether you use the morning A.P.E. practice, a breathing protocol, a meditation practice of your choice, or an internal movement practice like Qi Gong, investing at minimum a few minutes to tune in internally and tune into your inner landscape before diving into your day will truly pay dividends in the long run. The simplest version of this would be 5 minutes in coherence breathing whilst you tune into your internal state.

🚫 📱 Bonus: Don’t touch your phone or drink coffee for the first 90 minutes of the day ~ and take a few minutes journaling with ‘morning pages’.

🌆 End Every Day with These Three Things:

Alright, let’s shift onto essential evening rituals — there are three categories here:

  • Avoiding Blue Light Post-Sunset
  • Intentional Down-Regulation
  • A consistent sleep time

Let’s unpack each of these in a little more depth.

  1. 😎 First, avoid Blue Light Post-Sunset // this might be the biggest behaviour shift for most people. The science is absolutely clear here that even low levels of blue light (one study of many). There are two straightforward steps here
    1. Ideally, carry a pair of blue-blocking glasses with you if you are out of your home after sunset.
    2. And install dimmer switches to all lights in the house ~ ideally place them lower down or alternatively if you can use candles.

  1. 🧘‍♂️ Second, Intentional Down-Regulation // for the majority of us we will be feeling stimulated to varying degrees at the end of our day ~ so it’s important to do something that you find drops you into a relaxed state of ventral vagal.

  • 👨‍🔬 Experiment experiment experiment // Refer to the protocols listed in the self-regulation section of NSM for ideas, or experiment for yourself ~ things like taking a hot bath or attending a yin yoga session are great to try. Remember to notice for the *sigh* response as an indication that whatever you are doing is working.
  • 🎵 Use Your Senses // You can also use certain relaxing playlists (I’ve linked one on Spotify in the course notes) as well as certain scents or incense to train your body to take these as cues for down-shifting.
  • 🥘 Eat dinner as early as you can // eating late has been shown to negatively impact HRV and therefore our recovery during sleep, implying that we’re not getting the deep rest our body needs.

  1. 🛌 Third, aim for a Consistent Sleep Time // Coming back to the importance of our circadian rhythms, having a consistent time that we wind-down, fall asleep and wake up — is also critical for our circadian rhythms. Again understanding that life happens, but doing your best to stick to a 45 minute window 85% of the time is recommended.
  2. So there you have it. Let’s summarise what we’ve covered. Each morning aim to get some morning sunlight in your eyes — some kind of movement practice and some interoceptive practice.

    And note that you could stack all three by say doing an embodied workout outside in your garden looking at the sun in-between sets.

    And then in the evenings. Do your best to Avoid artificial Light after sunset, wearing blue blocking glasses if you need — make time for your preferred method of down-regulation — and aim to get a semi-consistent sleep and wake time each evening.

    If you stick to these recommendations — you’ll be working with your natural biology and creating the conditions for long term nervous system health and wellbeing.

5.5 👩‍🚀  JOURNAL ~ Reflecting Forwards

Congratulations. You’ve made it to the end of Nervous System Mastery!!!

Don’t forget to look back on your custom NSM handbook to integrate and reflect on the lessons and protocols that we’ve covered in the last 5 weeks.

I’ll leave you with four journal prompts designed to both elicit key take-aways and insights as well as set you up for success and lifelong learning for the months and years to come — you can find these in your handbook for this week.

1 // Reflecting Backwards — What are the top five things that you would wish to remind yourself of and ensure that you don’t forget in the months and years to come?

2 // Reflecting Forwards I invite you to conduct a ‘post-mortem’ looking forward into the next 6 months, ask yourself what might get in the way of implementing the nervous system theory and practices that you’ve learned? What guise will you ‘Resistance’ take? What will be the greatest challenges or obstacles to anticipate ahead of time?

3 // I will commit to continuing my own learning & self-experimentation in the following three ways — which questions are most alive in you to explore? Which books might you like to read? Which coaches, therapists or practitioners might you explore working with? Which experiences feel like they would nourish you? Or daily habits that you feel good about committing to?

4 // What’s one specific way that I can pay it forward could you share some of what you’ve learned with a friend or loved one — or perhaps something that you might be able to contribute to the NSM community?

Okay, thank you so much for your time and attention — it’s truly been a pleasure to share this work with you — and I wish you the very best of luck as you continue to walk this lifelong path of nervous system mastery