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“Death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.” ~ Michel de Montaigne

The neurons in your brain work like billions of little batteries in a network. They receive a collection of neurotransmitters (mostly glutamate) from thousands and thousands of other batteries and then build a sufficient charge to generate electrical signals which they then fire on down the line. But if the signal isn’t sufficiently strong – too few batteries turned on at once, or too many batteries generating a canceling negative charge – they fail to keep the energy flow going. They’re kind of like the light switch in the room you’re reading this blog in. If you fail to flip the switch with enough force to fully raise it, the light won’t go on. It’s the strength of this signaling that neuroscientists can use technology to measure. But there are all kinds of things going on in your brain that current tech can’t measure.

One of those things we can’t measure with current technology is how awareness of death underlies much of the activity that unconsciously drives our brain’s and body’s electrical signaling. And yet, wiser people than me have suggested that indeed it does (think: every major spiritual teacher from time immemorial). If that’s so, then what is there for us and our brains to do about it?

No Fear

I have met a number of people (mostly physically abused, and mostly men) who claim that they have little or no fear of death. Such a declaration is always suspect to me, since I know that what we think cognitively and what our brains and bodies can actually process in any overwhelming moment are often not even close to a match. Along those lines I’m reminded of a story told by Zen Mountain Monastery teacher John Daido Loori. One day he and his own teacher were discussing fear of death and the role of meditation practice in helping to overcome that fear. “I have completely overcome the fear of death,” Loori confidently declared. At which point his meditation teacher jumped up and knocked Loori to the floor and began strangling him in earnest. Loori’s cognitive brain structures may have thought he had overcome his fear of death, but his body put up such a violent struggle that it sent the teacher flying across the room in its efforts to obtain the oxygen necessary to remain alive.

The One Unexpected Thing

Burning Ganges Ghats

Burning Ganges Ghats

So, if we can’t actually think ourselves over the fear of death, what might we be able to do? One approach I have taken for much of my life is to sidle on over towards death. To examine it up close and personal, kind of indirectly. Not the way monks practice in India – sitting all night in cemeteries, or meditating for days on end before the burning bodies floating on ghats down the Ganges River. No. The way I turn towards death is per my own personal prescription. What my brain and body are able to manage in the doses I’m able to take.

So, for example, when I first began grief counseling, I specifically requested I not be assigned people with life-threatening illnesses. I only wanted to meet with surviving loved ones. I recognized and honored my own emotional limits. Then, after a number of years, as I became increasingly comfortable and perhaps a little skillful hanging out with grieving folks, I requested clients who were the living loved ones of people who were actively journeying down the end-of-life trajectory. Only then, when I thought I might be ready, did I request an actively dying client. It was a young man in the end stages of leukemia (we always remember our first time). But I turned out not to be as ready as I thought I was: I spent most of our single session distracted and dissociated. Fortunately, there was little personal penalty for simply not being ready.

So, if I wasn’t ready then, and I’m still not ready now, what am I doing to get more ready? One thing I do is research and read a lot in the “death literature.” I have a whole bookcase in my office dedicated to death and dying titles. Here’s a piece I read recently that I especially like from behavioral neuroscientist, Kate Jeffreys:

Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place. Put more simply, death stops a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well.

So, death appears to be the natural order of things and reading and research in the death literature can be a positive help. Here’s a bonus thing I do which you might want to consider – I work hard to get over myself. Here’s an interesting study describing just how that might actually become accomplished in my brain. Turns out that getting over ourselves is like many other things in our lives: it requires learning and ongoing practice. It’s such learning and practice which ends up measurably changing the brain, and it does so apparently in very specific areas. CingulateThe area of the brain that seems to correlate most strongly with both narcissism and selflessness is our old friend the Cingulate Cortex – a kind of bridge structure between our emotional centers and our cognitive cortex. It’s the highlighted structure in the illustration on the left. The primary difference structurally, between self-centeredness and selflessness in our brain is which part of the Cingulate Cortex has developed the most neural fibers capable of transmitting Big Charge. The ass end of the Cingulate Cortex (posterior or PCC) lights up big-time when narcissism is in full flower; and the front part (anterior or ACC) shines brilliantly when selflessness is leading the charge. Selflessness correlates with diminished concern for the self. As self-concern diminishes, my current best sense is: so does concern over the demise of the container which contains that self. As that process continues to unfold, usually when I least expect it, I periodically find myself joyfully afforded … Glimpse After Glimpse.

First, the good news: Bad news juices my neural Rich Club networks. Always has, always will – depending upon many variables. Buddha’s Brain author, Rick Hansen, writing in the Psychotherapy Networker last month, details both why this is the case for my brain, and why it might be for yours as well: the brain has built-in sensors for threat detection. My brain/mind/body reacts to bad things faster, more strongly and more often than it does to good things. negative-biasAs Roy Baumeister, a research psychologist known as Dr. Evil at Florida State, puts it, “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.” Paying attention to people, places and circumstances which might prematurely terminate my life with extreme prejudice turns out to be very good for my health, and it appears to be hardwired in from birth.

Negative Resilience

Unless it isn’t. I might have been the rare wild card raised in a safe, loving home who somehow managed to avoid the seemingly inevitable neural decimations that take place in Middle School and High School (according to one of my education heroes, Ken Robinson, 98% of kids who think they’re creative in kindergarten, disintegrate to only 2% by high school graduation. Can anything else be responsible for that shift other than … brain damage?). If I did manage to somehow avoid that damage, I’m in a bind, for I very well may not have been afforded the opportunity to robustly develop my brain’s threat detection sensors. Which would have pretty much made me naïve, dead meat on the street, post-graduation. I would have been easy prey, readily identifiable by any marginally savvy, street smart thug. And believe me, they come in all colors and stripes (many modern-day thugs wear ties and work in financial institutions; some even have walls filled with plaques, diplomas and certificates ironically attesting to their thugness. Former Harvard president, Larry Summers comes most immediately to mind. Sidebar: Thugs rarely comprehend the planetary suffering or the karmic consequences of their collective actions. Here’s a dot that few thugs will connect – the planetary increase in child abuse and neglect resulting from their unskillful acts).

Modern Day Death Traps

ran a bit long

Even the most banal criticism
overshadows the good news

Where my brain and its negativity bias most often tends to get me into trouble these days though is when it decides that life is strong and stable enough for me to engage in long-deferred “growth opportunities.” My brain seems to continually want me to grow and learn and change, something that’s not generally at the top of my To-Do List, my Honey-Do List or my Bucket List. How best then, to go about that work?

Battling the Bias

Well, we might start with what Marcial Losada, famous for the “Ratio” named after him, has written. “We are not to become uncritical Pollyannas – but instead to practice ‘realistic optimism.’ That means telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given situation without denying or minimizing the facts.”

From there, we might embrace what Mother Teresa observed: there’s no life requirement for us to do great things. Instead, we each have the possibility to live into to this Zen parable, which I’ll recount here (with a bit of editing for clarity) from Mark Epstein’s new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life – A Guide to Inner Peace:

Years after his beloved guru had died, a student was back in India staying at the home of a friend who was their guru’s most devoted disciple.

“I must show you something,” the disciple said one day. “This is what Dada left for me.” The disciple was excited, of course. Any trace of his guru was nectar to him. The elderly man opened the creaking doors of an ancient wooden wardrobe and took something from the back of the bottom shelf. It was wrapped in an old, dirty cloth.

“Do you see?” he asked.

“No. See what?”

The disciple unwrapped the object, revealing an old, beat-up pot, the kind of ordinary pot one sees in every Indian kitchen. Looking deeply into the visitor’s eyes, the disciple told him, “He left this for me when he went away. Do you see? Do you see?”

“No,” the student replied, “I don’t see.”

His friend looked at him even more intensely, this time with a wild glint in his eyes.

“You don’t have to shine,” he said. “You don’t have to shine.

So, may we all be free to breathe fully into exactly how we are, where we are, when we are and not have to shine. And be freer still to operate as Mother Teresa advised and let the natural, organic impulse toward growth move us to do small things with great love.

The fact that I’ve gone from being a very successful homebuilder to being passionately interested in how your brain works and how my brain works is more than a little astonishing to me. Image-scanning technology was only a dream when I was in graduate school, and most everything we knew about how brains worked we learned from rat autopsies and sawing open the dead skulls of Aunt Julia and Uncle Fred. How living brains actually operated was mostly the work of creative imagination based on lots of curious people peering at dead brain tissue under low-powered microscopes. My own interest emerged solely by accident. Or so it seems.

Smiley, the Reaper

banksygrinreaperlargeIn graduate school in the 80s I was hanging around minding my own business when one day a woman showed up to make a pitch to our class. She was trying to sell us on the idea of spending our poppy-sweet Northern California nights hanging out with dying people and the family survivors of people who’d committed suicide, been murdered or been killed by cancer or car crashes.

“This woman is nuts if she thinks anybody wants to spend free time hanging out with people like that,” I remember thinking. But she wasn’t nuts; and to my amazement several of my classmates signed up at the conclusion of her presentation. And that’s when I noticed something that should have been obvious to me from the outset: Even though this woman was talking about her work with dying and grieving people, she was absolutely radiant in her bearing. As she described the nature of her work to my class, she positively glowed with high energy and great passion. Imagine my surprise when I found myself walking up to the front of the room and writing my name on her Training Sign-Up Sheet.

Slow Out of the Gate

First off, let me be clear: right out of the gate I sucked as a grief counselor. After my first four home visits the clients immediately called the agency and asked them not to send me back. The problem was evident to everyone, including me: dying people and people in emotional distress made me nervous. And not just a little nervous: tongue-tied, rigor-mortified, dry-mouth, freeze-response nervous.

Sadly (and happily), I had one thing going for me: I was male. There weren’t a lot of males eager to volunteer their time in emotion-heavy environments back in the 80′s. With a lot of compassion and skilled coaching, gradually I got to the point where I could get beyond a first home visit. Slowly, my brain began to change in ways that allowed me to more easily manage my own emotions. Clients began to stick.

Each One Train Ten

Years passed and I began to thrive in the work to the point of joining the team that trained new volunteer counselors. At some point it occurred to this team that there was a grief population that wasn’t being served, either in our community or in few other places in the world – children. So, together four of us researched, experimented and put together a program that we could offer as a free community service to kids in Palo Alto, California.

And then, when the program was up and running, a funny thing happened. Kids were required to attend with their surviving parent. The parents would meet together with a group facilitator while the kids would go off separately with a pair of grief counselors trained to work with the kids for an hour and a half. Pretty soon it became apparent that not only was what we were doing working – and beneficial for both parents and kids – but the kids were working through and integrating their losses much more rapidly than the parents were. This fact got me very curious.

Scouring the Research

My first impulse when I find myself curious is to go out and do some research. My initial exploration into grief took me to the trauma literature. The trauma literature not surprisingly took me to the psycho-neuroimmunology literature. From there it was a short leap to somatic psychology and developmental neurobiology. Turned out there were specific things we were doing with the kids – which weren’t being done with the parents – that was making an undeniable difference in the rate and quality of their healing.

First was, parents, kids and counselors met together initially for 10-15 minutes to chat and share cookies and juice. Then parents went off with a counselor and kids went off separately. Once gathered together in the Play Room, the kids sat in Circle. They weren’t required to use words to say anything about their loss beyond who the person’s name was who died, and what they died from. Next, after the initial 5-10 minutes of Circle, kids were free to engage in any activity they wished to. All the activities were non-verbal – drawing, sandtray, tile-making, collage, coloring, mask-making – basically artwork in its many varied forms (This turned out to be one of several significant variables).

Healing Full Steam Ahead

Contemporary-Pebble-Pillow-for-Living-Room-Accessories-Livingstones-Collection-by-Stephanie-Marin-620x601Art wasn’t all we did. I have since come to appreciate both from my work with the kids, from my own direct experience – and from neuroscience research – that there was one thing we did in addition to the activities above that to my mind made the greatest difference: we built a “Steam Room.” The Steam Room was just like it sounds, a room roughly 16 by 20, heavily padded on the ceiling, floor and all four walls. It’s primary purpose was to allow kids to let off steam. Every week, three at a time, together with a facilitator, kids would all want to go into the Steam Room first. In there they could throw pillows, jump, scream, tumble and wrestle to their heart’s content.

And that is essentially what ended up happening over and over: their hearts became content.

When I look at research like this, this and this, that indicates over and over again that the human brain is first and foremost designed for movement, should I be the least bit surprised at this result?

When I was a kid, I had a lot to be depressed about: little parenting, little money, little safety. I spent a lot of time alone in the woods or in my room or on the basketball court early in the morning before other kids showed up. I avoided parties like the plague, participated in zero extra-curricular school activities, and acted out my disorganization on the family pets, while engaging in any number of other anti-social activities like gang-fighting and public drunkenness as a teen (I was actually arrested for my high school science project: illegally manufacturing moonshine that made several of my friends sick).

A Moonshine Still
A Moonshine Still

Then one day I met two Yale Divinity School students. I still remember their names more than half a century later: Vic Weber and Dave Woods. I spent two weeks with them at a summer camp for underprivileged kids. They were the counselors. The first day at camp I almost drowned because I was ashamed to confess that I didn’t know how to swim. Dave pulled me out of the deep water when I was just about to go under. He and Vic also modeled something for me that up until that point I hadn’t had modeled: hope.

When someone models hope for us, it’s difficult to feel depressed. Why? Because hope mitigates the fear/stress response in the body. And both my personal experience and the research of Stephen Ilardi confirm that most often depression is a runaway stress response. How I suspect it works in the brain is that it throws our four basic neuromodulators out of whack (serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine and dopamine). Neuromodulators essentially regulate and balance the firing of neuronal action potentials in the brain. When the stress response makes the neuromodulators run amuck, action potentials simply are inhibited in their firing and propagation. The low energy of depression is exactly that: a significant number of our brain batteries (neurons) have gone dead.

Neuromodulation Makes It Happen

One in nine Americans over age 12 takes pharma for depression in an attempt to re-regulate their neuromodulators. But meds are not even close to being a decent long-term solution. And in fact, many meds taken over long periods become addictive and end up being more difficult to manage than the condition they were originally prescribed to treat (for some real horror stories about withdrawing from benzodiazepines, do a “benzo withdrawal” search online).

So, if I’m not going to take meds, and everything else I’ve tried for depression hasn’t worked, what am I going to do? Here’s what I’ve managed to do in my own life that seems to have worked so far for the first 60+ years:

Mr. Serenity
Mr. Serenity

1. Attend to Shame Thoughts. I continually monitor the thoughts that surface in my Word Brain and do the best I can to catch those that show up and try to make me feel bad. Many are shame-insults and once I catch them, I simply refuse to submit to their attack. I thank them for their concern for my well-being (which is often what they’re unskillfully attempting), but then immediately replace them with my favorite now-now-now mantra: “In this moment, everything’s all right.” (I once considered purloining Frank Costanza’s mantra, “Serenity Now,” but that didn’t resonate as much as I hoped. But don’t use mine or Frank’s. Feel free to come up with your own).

2. Sleep Sufficiently. I haven’t used an alarm clock in more than 50 years. I simply go to bed when I’m tired and wake up when I’m rested. That usually works out to retiring somewhere around 8:30 to 9 at night, and has me waking up around 3 in the morning, fully rested and rarin’ to go. From time to time I may find myself needing a 20 minute nap during the day, which I usually honor the need for.

3. Anti-rumination. This is related to Number 1 above. Life unfolds in the present moment. Any time my mental machinations take me away from what’s directly in front of me, I deliberately redirect my focus and attention right back to what I can see, taste, touch, smell or feel that’s right in front of me. If I’m wrestling with the puppies, then I’m fully wrestling with the puppies. If I’m raking the dead rhodie leaves and piling them into the John Deere wagon, then I’m raking and piling. Anything else that shows up in my mental space is simply a ruminative distraction. Time to get back, Jojo, to being right here, right now.

4. Sunlight. It’s interesting; since moving to Whidbey Island, I have never before paid so much attention to the weather, especially to sunny days. Sunny days are truly prized here in Puget Sound, and whenever they show up, like many Whidbey Islanders, I tend to spend much more time outdoors. And I also supplement with a little larger than recommended doses of Vitamin D.

5. Body moving. Exercise is medicine. The only problem is that both me and my body hate exercise. By “exercise” what I mean are things like pointlessly walking on a treadmill, using a step climber or sitting in a rowing machine. Most of the exercise in my life that I’ve enjoyed has been in the service of creating things: houses, healthy pets or beautiful landscapes. These days, the puppies help, along with a goodly number of scheduled weekly WalknTalks with friends.

6. Social Interaction. We’re all people who need people. But that doesn’t necessarily make us the luckiest people in the world – unless the people we surround ourselves with have some knowledge, care and concern about this embodied journey we are all on. The world is full of people with disorganized brains and broken hearts who, because of that damage, have a propensity for performing unskillful acts. Growing up in the housing projects in New Haven taught me early on the truth in this wisdom teaching from Arab scholar Ali Bin Abi-Taleb: “Keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise person.”

So, there you have it. Mix, match and modify to create your own anti-depression protocol.

So, enantiodromia is a word that’s really good to have awareness of stored in your body as well as your brain. The word itself was coined about 2500 years ago by Heraclitus, the “weeping philosopher” in ancient Greece. He was also known as Heraclitus, the Obscure. Sadly, that’s the fate the study of philosophy often provides a person.

Heraclitus, the Obscure

Heraclitus, the Obscure

As for “avatar,” since James Cameron’s 2009 movie of the same name, I’m guessing many people only know them as blue-bodied animatrons with wide eyes and smushed noses. The word actually has its roots in Hindu spiritual philosophy and refers to supreme beings who descend to earth and take human form with the intention to be of service to humankind. And not only joyful service.

Shit-Stirrers

My combining here of avatar and enantiodromia is essentially intended to refer to the people in our lives who stir up all kinds of intense energies in our brains and bodies. Usually, but not always, they’re significant others. Avatars often stir great lower chakra energies in addition to powerful heart connections. Initially. Then comes the enantiodromia part of the relationship. Enantiodromia, as Heraclitus conceived it, was the tendency for all imbalanced energies to pulsate themselves over to the opposite extreme. Thus day fades into night; joy morphs into sorrow; love erodes into indifference. Unless, of course, awareness is brought to bear.

One thing of great interest to me in this regard, is that all of us begin life enantiodromically. Our brain begins growing most of its connections in the first years of life, primarily on the right side, holding significant areas on the left in reserve for when the language window opens at about 18 months. This is a significant period in our development, and it’s that network rebalancing that I believe is most responsible for the experiences parents call “The Terrible Twos.” Part of what makes them terrible is kids now have two wildly growing hemispheres along with words to express needs and they can also locomote, requiring much more parental time and vigilance to keep them safe and healthy.

alternating-brain-hemispheres1Here’s one other significant impact of enantiodromia early in life: because the right side of the brain is the first to develop, according to “Einstein of Attachment” researcher, Allan Schore, it becomes the default center for recording and storing early overwhelming experiences. From mother’s anxious moments, to her commanding voice, to experiences of hunger and fatigue – it all gets buried away primarily in structures on the right side of the brain. I’ve written about the memories stored here without benefit of language before. They’re called: The Unthought Known.

The Table has Been Set

To the extent these early experiences are traumatic and disorganizing to the network, and to the extent they become associated with our early caregivers, they set the stage for many of the relationships we will form throughout the rest of our lives. These relationships frequently end up triggering early traumatic memories (as well as pleasant ones – otherwise there would be no relational draw in the first place). But since those surfacing memories from the past rarely announce themselves as such, it takes some understanding and awareness to be able to make the connection. But more importantly, we need to understand that the significant other who just tosses the dirty dishes in the sink for the “maid” to clean up, whom we feel some small degree of rage towards and might secretly like to strangle – our emotional upset has little to do with that person. They are energy gifts from the universe, meant to help us get a grip, do some necessary internal repair work and grow some increasing network capacity. They are those wonderful growth opportunities provided by our Enantiodromia Avatars.

Job #1: Regulating Hyperarousal

For the most part, the memories such significant people trigger for us are manageable, depending greatly upon our early beginnings. If we experienced significant abuse or neglect as a kid, then odds are the “healing journey” is going to be a much more challenging one than if we were only occasionally yelled at and sent to our room for a timeout.

What makes primary relationships often so challenging is that our brain isn’t organized to allow us to easily connect the dots between dirty dishes at age 33, to being forced to sit at the table for hours until all the food on our plate was gone at age 5. But there is very often a connection with every emotionally challenging experience in our early lives to events triggering upsets in the present. And the clue to the connection is often the degree of upset we feel. Using the dishes example, if there’s no emotional charge, we can simply ask our partner, “Can you please be more mindful and put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher so I don’t have to do it?” The partner’s response: “Absolutely. Sorry. It’s just a bad habit left over from childhood. I’ll make it part of my mindfulness practice.” End of discussion.

Ahhh. Wouldn’t it be great if every kitchen discussion could actually proceed with this clarity of expression and intent? Dream on little broomstick cowboy.

God and the Devil are strolling down a garden path.

God is holding his hands cupped together out in front of him.

“Whatcha got in there?” the Devil inquires.

“None of your business,” God replies.

“Come on. Let me see. What harm could I possibly do to something
that belongs to … GOD?”

“Forget it,” God says.

After a few more exchanges, God finally relents and opens his hands.

“What IS it?” the Devil asks, clearly perplexed.

“It’s TRUTH,” God replies.

The Devil’s eyes immediately glow fire-red.

“Ouuuu!” he exclaims, “Here, let me take that and organize it for you!”

A Wisdom Teaching

One of my favorite wisdom teachings comes from Jiddu Krishnamurti (his teachings are some of my favorites; not him, however. He was a little too severe and humorless for my taste. Which I would very likely be as well, if my family “sold” me to a bunch of crazy Theosophists and shipped me off from India to England at a very young age. But I digress).

Krishnamurti

A powerful teaching that Krishnamurti is much noted for came after he announced to his Theosophist benefactors out of the blue one day that he was immediately disbanding the spiritual community that had grown up around him – The Order of the Star. He completely disbanded the organization of 60,000 followers. That must have taken some strength of heart. I’d love to see a contemporary mega-church leader or corporate CEO do something like that. It defies the imagination: Joel Osteen closing Lakewood Church, or Jeff Bezos closing Amazon and all their mega-distribution center doors. “People don’t really need to buy any more crap,” Bezos declared in his dissolution address, “Even at our competition-destroying discount prices. And we don’t really need to be blackening the skies with package-delivery drones either. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.”

In dissolving his extensive organization, Krishnamurti announced:

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path.

Krishnamurti thought the goal of complete psychological freedom could only be realized through an individual understanding their real-world relationships with themselves, society, and nature. Most neuroscientists would whole-heartedly agree: every neural network contained in every brain on this planet is necessarily unique in its exquisite, complex unfolding. It turns out that extensive research by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has determined that every Christian is uniquely Christian, every Muslim is uniquely Muslim, every Jew is uniquely Jewish.

Main Brain Directive

Our brains are designed and developed for one primary reason: to move our bodies through the world in ways that promote and sustain life. Because the environment is constantly changing, our brains must have the capacity to constantly change as well. And they do (take a look at this 2 minute video to see those changes unfolding live).

Action Potential Graph

Measuring a Neuron’s Action Potential

So, if a constantly changing brain is designed to safely navigate us through a constantly changing world, what shall Christians, Muslims and Jews (or any of the adherents to the world’s other 10000 religions, each with their own God) do about our ongoing attempts to make so many things in our world predictable, safe, stable and secure? In three words: get over it. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, all walking around with brains just like yours in a constant state of dynamic flux (never mind the continual flux that the natural world is constantly in), all attempts to resist change can only result in great suffering. Change is a fundamental feature of living systems. All things ceaselessly undergo creation, change, birth and death. One important way to begin to be able to feel comfortable turning toward this reality and fully embracing it is to creatively work with Karl Pribram’s observation about our bodies and brains – which is to regularly practice skillful ways to regulate afflictive arousal. The changes that the world presents us with isn’t the problem; it’s how our brains and bodies change and grow to be able to manage them.

It’s a good thing to engage in somatic practices that allow us to regulate the biophysical (hyper)arousal that often accompanies change, especially change that surprises us, that we are completely unprepared for. (If you click this link you’ll find a rich Mind Map infographic that depicts a great menu of activities that we can choose from as possible ongoing regulation practices). It is out of this lifelong practice of WARP (Willful Arousal Regulation Practice) that I personally believe makes neural networks more robust, with great compassionate strength of heart emerging as an inevitable by-product. In walking our own pathless land toward truth, we should all become so WARPed.

Note: Only two more spaces remaining for The Writer’s Brain webinar. Click HERE if your warped brain thinks you might be interested.

When I was eleven years old I convinced a friend of mine to trade me his Daisy Model 25 Pump Action BB gun for my comic book collection. I didn’t tell my mother or any other adults that I made the trade. I kept the rifle hidden under my mattress and made trips to the woods surrounding our housing project carrying the gun in two pieces inside a trench coat that I had cut the bottoms of the pockets out of.

PumpGun

Daisy Model 25

Several times a week in the spring and summer I would silently stalk prey during early mornings and sometimes in the evenings. After the first few outings, where I managed to shoot a sparrow or a chipmunk, the inhabitants of those woods apparently sent the word out: the idiot kid with the gun is on the prowl – head for cover. I rarely came upon anything else game-worthy again; mostly I found myself reduced to trying to shoot minnows and water bugs resting on top of the deepwater pools in our brook.

Bluebird Singing in the Dead of Morn

But one chilly late summer morning, after a long, mindless, tiring trek up and down the whole woods with no murder-success, I spied a small bluebird about 25 yards up ahead. She was perched upright on a blackberry bush. I took careful aim and shot. Nothing happened; the bluebird just sat there. Again I took aim, and fired once again. Still nothing happened. I decided to move closer and take one final shot. As I began making my way closer, suddenly the bluebird leaned over and toppled forward, never letting go of the bush branch it was feet were wrapped around. She was now simply hanging there upside down, perfectly still.

I walked up next to it to take a closeup look. Her eye was open and except for one small ruffle at the base of her neck, she seemed to be in perfect shape. And then, with absolutely no warning, she released from the branch and dropped into the thorny thicket below. Witnessing her topple and then sudden fall caught me off guard – I unexpectedly burst into tears, catching myself completely by surprise. An embodied awareness somewhere within me knew instinctively that the bluebird was dead and what I had just done was deliberately anti-life. And that I had not just taken life from this bluebird, but I had also taken some small karmic bit of my own life with that BB gun. It was a lot for an eleven-year-old to fully grok. It bypassed all cognitive considerations and stabbed me right in the heart.

Repaying Karmic Debt

diamondback-rattlesnake-crotalus-joel-sartoreFast-forward 40 years: One of my favorite places to walk on the San Francisco Peninsula is out on the Sawyer Camp Trail that runs along the Crystal Springs Reservoir. The water that fills Crystal Springs travels 167 miles through the Hetch-Hetchy Aqueduct near Yosemite and supplies all of San Francisco with its drinking water. On this particular Spring morning, walking with a friend of mine, I came over a rise on the paved trail and spied a group of people standing around in a circle down at the bottom. I assumed that a runner had fallen and was being given aid or that a dog had been injured, but when my friend and I arrived at the gathering, we encountered a different scenario altogether. Coiled protectively in the middle of the circle of people was a baby rattlesnake. With my brain producing absolutely no conscious thought, and without so much as a single word, my body immediately stepped through the people into the center of the circle. My right hand took the plastic water bottle I was holding and aimed a stream of water directly at the baby snake’s head. It oriented towards me, but simultaneously backed up in response. Another squirt and it backed up further. One more and it was now off the trail and into the underbrush where it then turned and silently slithered away.

Then, with nary a word, my friend and I simply turned and continued on with our morning walk.

Unpacking Compassion

Although my brain gave it no conscious thought in the moment, three things were immediately bottom-up clear to me as I came upon the collection of people encircling the snake. One was – baby rattlesnakes in Springtime are the most dangerous, since their newly composted venom is at its toxic peak; two – while they didn’t realize it, the people surrounding that snake were within reach had it become threatened enough to re-actively strike; and three – there was an action and an outcome that might prove beneficial to all living beings in that moment – me and my available water bottle.

In truth, I can take no credit for what unfolded on the Sawyer Camp Trail that morning. There was no conscious actor driving the action potential. What there was was simply life’s impulse to protect life. An impulse whose roots grew out of an anti-life action that took place 40 years earlier with me and a Daily Model 25 BB gun. That impulse was thankfully alive and well and stored forever strong in the neural networks of my brain and the myocytes of my heart.

NOTE: The promised Writer’s Brain online offering, which, for many reasons will be limited to 12 people on a first come-first served basis, is now open for enrollment. Click HERE for details.

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