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I have a perspective that people in my community have often heard me share: “Healing’s always trying to happen.” I frequently express it in the aftermath of people perpetrating some kind of unskillful, ignorant, unconscious act upon me or other people.

Admittedly, it can take a bit of dot-connecting to make sense of something like Covid-19 being an expression of “healing trying to happen,” since it’s currently killing so many people. And yet most Covid-19 patients die as the result of a “Cytokine Storm,” which is essentially the healing response going into hyper-drive and damaging healthy tissue. Turns out too much healing trying to happen can sometimes be fatal. For any of us.

Embracing the Familiar

The View From Greece: Manual Labor - AskMenMany of the people, places and things in our current lives are there because at some level and in some ways, they feel familiar. I’m still wearing the same brand of Levi jeans I wore as a kid and many of the people I interact regularly with on my little island nation have the feel and flavor of the people I grew up with. They are a great many people who spend part of each day working with both their brains and their back – doing all kinds of manual and mental labor around their various homesteads.

Similarly people often become committed partners and marry people who “feel familiar.” These are the people with whom we “have chemistry.” If we don’t and they don’t, given enough time, it seems our brain will do its best to morph them into significant people from our past. They will often morph into people with whom we have “unfinished business” (you know, like mom and dad).

Depending upon how traumatic and disorganized our early beginnings were, we may have to engage in a string of serial relationships until we find the exact “right wrong person.” That will be the person to whom we can mostly likely safely entrust our unconscious.

Here There Be Dragons

If we believe the extensive research of “The Einstein of Self-Regulation Theory,” UCLA Medical Center’s Allan Shore, it’s in much of the wiring on the right side of the brain that a preponderance of our traumatic memories get stored, since that’s the side that develops first and fastest. It’s also the hemisphere that ends up processing and storing overwhelming early, dysregulating emotional experiences. And it’s those early, painful traumatic memories that we don’t allow just anyone easy access to.

Excitatory vs Inhibitory

Which would be fine, except for one thing: those memories live in our neural network under wraps and can keep a significant portion of neural real estate out of commission. The way the brain seems to accomplish this is by taking the excitatory neurons that become activated during a highly emotional or traumatic experience – usually in the right hemisphere – and wrapping them in a protective cloak of inhibitory neurons. Too many wrapped traumatic memories can often result in chronic energy deficiency – depression or chronic fatigue (or any number of other stress-related (often auto-immune) illnesses). The white neurons in the illustration above (from the Blue Brain Project) are inhibitory, while the pink ones are excitatory. As far at the brain and it’s real estate is concerned, this the equivalent of a neural slum. There’s little life energy energizing this neck of the woods.

Surprise! Surprise!

This then is where the work of entrusting our unconscious to the right wrong person comes in. It’s not an accident that a life partner overdraws the checking account, or leaves their dirty clothes on the bedroom floor, or never puts tools back where they belong. It’s no big deal, really, except that’s exactly what my mother/father used to do! Along with dozens of other things. And when it happens my nervous system invariably goes on red alert – “I’m back in an unsafe household, with unsafe people.”

More precisely, threat detection neurons signal the adrenal glands to prepare for battle. Or flight from battle. Or freezing in place – depending upon the degree of activation and the amount of stress hormones a pile of dirty clothes can activate. 

Tyree Guyton Turned a Detroit Street Into a Museum. Why Is He ...Anecdotal reports suggest this neural real estate can actually be reclaimed through any of a wide variety of methods. The Scientology auditing process seems to work. Somatic Experiencing (SE) seems to work. The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT- Tapping) seems to work, often. Essentially, each of these methods seems to work by re-activating the excitatory cells storing a traumatic memory, and then finding ways to move the body that deliberately and intentionally work to discharge the stress hormones that are triggered all over again once the inhibitory neurons set them free. Once that happens, the emotional charge is no longer associated with the traumatic incident. All that’s left is a memory of what happened as a fact of living. The memory no longer has energy bound up in it. And now that neural circuitry is free to flow. When it works, it’s kind of like a successful neighborhood reclamation project. Here’s to your own healing trying to happen!

 

Zen SamuraiThe old monk sat by the side of the road, with his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap in deep meditation.

Suddenly his tranquility was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior standing before him. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But slowly he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing moment.

“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt, whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is rusty and neglected. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned crimson and the veins on his neck stood out pulsing wildly as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from his shoulders.

“That,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent, “is hell.” In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-descent and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

 

One question we are left with might be: “What allowed this monk to manage the stress hormones his adrenal glands most likely would have been flooding his brain and body with under threat of death?”

Last week, a friend and I were on a Walk-n-Talk in one of South Whidbey’s many public parks – Trustland Trails (wonderfully well-named). We had my Bernese Mountain Dog, Emmy with us off-leash so she could wander around and explore the myriad unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells she so loves to discover. My friend and I were on the trail deep in discussion about a co-presentation we were planning – The Neurobiology of Creative Wisdom: The Anais Nin Chapter Image result for bernese mountain dog– when suddenly we came upon a young mom and her 15-month-old toddler walking slowly on the path up ahead of us. Emmy immediately took note of the toddler – Jack – as we approached. At first, surprised, Jack’s eyes got wide and he immediately moved behind his mother’s leg for protection.

Even though Emmy loves kids and is ever-gentle, I immediately put the leash on her and we approached Jack and his mom very slowly. From behind his mother’s leg Jack began to point at Emmy and make a sound that I suppose was his version of “dog.” His mother, meanwhile, had crouched down and put one hand on his back and the other on Jack’s belly. She would then take her hand off and point at Emmy, and in her reassuring motherese voice, declare, “good dog” to Jack several times.

I could visibly see Jack’s body begin to relax as we continued our cautious approach. I reassured the mom and Jack that Emmy was indeed friendly (her tail was wagging like crazy) and that there was no cause for concern. As we got closer, Jack’s mother stood up and he came out from behind her leg. Clearly curious, when Emmy was close enough, Jack put his hand out and touched Emmy’s cold, wet nose. More to regulate my own nervous system than his at this point, I pulled Emmy away and we then moved slowly around Jack and his mom and continued on down the trail, waving goodbye as we passed.

Threat Detection on Display

Through that brief encounter I could readily imagine the threat-detection circuitry in Jack’s little brain signaling his adrenal glands to generate sympathetic stress hormones to put him safely into self-protection mode.

Fortunately, Jack had his mother with him, willing and able to answer The Big Brain Question for him with a skillful, resounding,”Yes.” She was fully there for Jack in deed, word and action. Her own nervous system quickly recovered after being surprised by two strangers and a dog suddenly coming up behind her. And at that point, all of her energy and attention was in Ventral Vagal, social-engagement mode and could be solely focused on soothing and calming Jack. By the time we managed to walk slowly around Jack and his mom, Jack was back in Ventral Vagal social engagement mode himself, fully ready to play with Emmy his new-found friend. Later, as my friend and I continued our discussions out in the parking lot, mom and Jack re-appeared. In his hand Jack had a fist-sized pine cone. He immediately ran over and offered it as a present for Emmy!

Neurobiological Beings R Us

What’s interesting about this experience is that all of us are walking around with the same nervous system, the same threat-detection circuitry, the same adrenal glands as Jack. The only difference is that any variety of life challenges – other than encountering two strangers and a dog on a park trail – could be the triggers that set our danger circuitry ablaze. For many people currently, it’s the unfolding Coronavirus Pandemic. Point of fact: unless and until you actually acquire the illness, there’s no real threat present in your life. What the circuitry and the adrenal glands are being activated by are the mental machinations that project and imagine all kinds of frightening outcomes. Which doesn’t mean we don’t become informed and take intelligent compassionate action to care for ourselves and others. We simply don’t do it motivated by fear.

But it doesn’t have to be a daily media blitz screaming, “Danger, Danger, Danger”  wildly activating our threat-detection circuitry. Most often what triggers it are the run-of-the mill thoughts that our neurobiology regularly secretes on an ongoing basis:Image result for lost car keys “I wonder if my wife has overdrawn our checking account again?” “Where are my car keys; I swear I’m losing my mind,” “Is there anyone currently in my life that I really CAN count on?” All day long conceptual mind generates thought after thought after thought, and every single one of those thoughts raises or lowers the levels of stress hormones running through our brain and body. As they do, we are afforded pretty much a single choice: become increasingly more refined in our awareness of how such metabolic processes actually feel inside us, and then develop our own unique personal practice(s) that allow us to determine whose most capable of being in charge of our nervous system – our wisdom selves or our adrenal glands? May you gracefully become the boss of you, as you increasingly find creative ways to answer The Big Brain Question “Yes” for yourself and others. All your living systems will thank you as you do.

Image result for molecule of moreGreetings. It’s been awhile since I’ve put up an Enchanted Loom illustrated book review. This first one is a book we all know intimately without even having to read it. Daniel Lieberman’s and Michael Long’s collaboration on The Molecule of More is basically a deep dive into how one particular neurotransmitter more often than not, drives our daily lives in both healthy and unhealthy ways – mostly the latter. What to do about such matters. The authors offer a host of possibilities, none of them easy. They also suggest that what we collectively actually end up doing very likely leaves the human race hanging in the balance. As dramatic as I know that sounds, I think they are actually holding a reasonably plausible view.

This second Enchanted Loom review is for a book written by the young philosopher, Ryan Holiday. His assertion that … Stillness Is the Key may not make sense for many of us living immersed as we are in this digital age. It’s difficult for most of the people I know to simply carve out enough time for sleep, let alone time to be awake and do nothing but sit still. Image result for stillness is the keyAnd it will continue to be difficult until we actually find a way to make the time to experience stillness fully. And therein lies the rub. Without doing the work and encountering the benefits directly, it’s difficult to imagine that such an activity could be worth doing at all, especially since, it’s by no means easy to do in the first place. Nevertheless, Holiday makes some convincing arguments and presents some compelling anecdotal accounts that do indeed suggest the pursuit of stillness is a worthwhile activity – or more accurately, a worthwhile inactivity.

P.S. I have room in my calendar for two people who may be interested in doing a deep dive into The Neurobiology of Sacred Relationship with me. If one of them is you, feel free to email me at: FloweringBrain@gmail.com

Contrary to what some people may think “Explosive Percolation” has absolutely nothing to do with explosive diarrhea, although I can understand why some people might think the two connected. Both can contribute to a significant “phase” or “state change.” Pray for the former, as opposed to the latter.

Explosive Percolation describes a process by which viruses and complex networks can exponentially expand to rapidly take things viral, for good or bad. In any finite network, whether it’s the internet with all its hubs and connections, or it’s the molecules in a cup of coffee, connections don’t get made uniformly. They get made in small collectives that scatter throughout a medium. When enough small, connected collectives reach critical mass, all it takes is a few unique, strategic connections to accomplish a “phase change.” A common example: water into a solid – ice; or into a gas – steam.

Rich Clubs

Related imageOur brains are essentially finite networks. Neurons connect to other neurons which connect to organs and muscles, which connect wirelessly to other neural networks taking up residence in other people’s brains and bodies. You might conceive of humanity as one massively complex, finite neural network.

In each of our brains, large neuronal collectives have been assembled in twelve distinct areas, six in each hemisphere. These Grand Central Stations in the brain are called Rich Club Networks and they’ve been identified in the Superior Frontal and Parietal areas, the Putamen, the Precuneus, the Hippocampus and the Thalamus. Much more of the energy and information of our daily lives passes through these 12 areas than through any other parts of our brains. Since new connections are being generated, established and maintained in every waking moment of our lives, it stands to reason that some connections are going to be of higher energy-and-information-processing value than others – specifically connections made between Rich Club hubs.

Quality AND Quantity

It also stands to reason that the sensory experiences – including conceptual thinking – producing those connections – what we continually encounter and engage our eyes, ears nose, skin and mouth with in our everyday world – are going to incrementally impact both the number of connections, their location and the quality of the content – the learning they represent. Image result for impoverished neuronsAs one example, let’s say our day’s activities fill our neural networks with greed, aversion and ignorance. Those experiences are going to produce one kind of internal personal neural network. And with each daily addition, they’re very likely going to “bubble and boil” until they produce a state or phase change. Such explosive percolations of this sort show up every day as headlines in the weekly tabloids. Recent cover pronouncements from The Star, for example, loudly proclaim: “Lori Loughlin’s 5 Years in Jail,” “Mila Kunis, Divorcing and Wasting Away,” and “Justin Bieber on Suicide Watch.”

Compare the activities of the people activating those Star-fodder neural networks to people with networks spent in contemplative practice; days spent performing community service without a court requiring us to, or years spent studying the offerings of wisdom teachers through the ages. Anything and everything we do in the service of kindness, wisdom and grace matters and makes a difference, even if we can’t see it, don’t believe it, and don’t register it consciously. Networks are continually moving in the direction of percolation, and when the time is necessary and sufficient, explosive percolation can happen. It’s inherent in the nature of their creation. What kind of phase change might this kind of constant percolation produce, individually and collectively? I’ll leave that to perc-test in your own creative imagination’s neural networks.

For the few of  you who may not know, The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor that originated in Usenet newsgroup discussions around 1985. Begun by Stanford neurobiologist Wendy Northcutt, they recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization as a result of their own actions.

Image result for darwin awardExamples of recent Darwin Award winners include the gentleman who thought it was a good idea to try and take a selfie together with a bear in the wild. Or this young man who accidentally shot off his own sausage at the meat counter in an Arizona Walmart. Or these two guys who thought it would be a fun challenge to race up a drawbridge while it was opening in their little Chevy hybrid to see if they could fly on over to the other side. They succeeded in flying over to the “other side,” just not the one they were aiming for. R.I.P.

From a neuroscience perspective, all of these young men were doing their best thinking and taking the best actions the connections in their neural networks would allow in each of those moments. They were all doing their “situational best.” The unfortunate result for each of them turned out to be an “Oh Shit” moment. I’ve had a number of such moments myself over my seven-plus decades. Fortunately, none of them won me a Darwin Award. The primary reason? I believe I learned early on how chronic stress can literally unravel brain wiring.

Situational Best

To do your “situational best” means you realize that your brain contains 86 billion neurons making a thousand trillion (one quadrillion) constantly changing connections. The fact that such complexity is even a little bit manageable is something truly marvelous. Take into account all the out-of-your-control factors—the missed appointment, your partner’s whims, the oppressive humidity—and respond the best you can. In other words, all any of us can do at any time in our lives is our situational best.

Image result for stress

Stress Can Impact Brain Wiring

To do your situational best is to deploy something neurobiologists call response flexibility or fluid intelligence. It often means realizing that when – in the immortal words of “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski – “new shit has come to light,” we have the wherewithal to change our thinking and acting in response to changing conditions. This is essentially an Executive Function. Not all of us have access to it all the time. Robust Executive Function results when lots of wiring from all around the brain somehow manages to congregate and connect together in the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex). Some of us never grow that wiring, which can be profoundly adversely impacted by elevated stress hormones. And some of us are simply delayed in its development (There are activities we can engage in that research suggests can positively impact prefrontal connectivity. Email me at FloweringBrain@gmail.com and ask for the PFC Paradox pdf and I’ll be happy to send it to you). 

Your situational best means doing, to the best of your abilities based on what each given moment presents, whatever your in-the-moment neurobiology will allow. Recognizing the limitations of our brain wiring means that all of us are doing our situational best at all times in every instant. The good news is that in any subsequent instant, our situational best can be even better than the moment before. 

When Our Situational Best Would Have Us Do Nothing

A number of years ago I wrote a blog about a chimney fire at my house a few days before Christmas. My immediate situational best upon discovering the blaze was to simply freeze. In the next moment, though, at the prompting of a Good Samaritan, my situational best became “get a hose, climb up on the roof and spray water on the flames.” That Samaritan’s prompting dynamically changed my brain wiring connectivity in an instant.

Which brings us to The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience: “a more organized brain can help organize a less organized brain.” A corollary of the Golden Rule is that “all of us have the potential to be better and smarter than any one of us.” And any one of us can help any other one of us from ending up an unintended Darwin Award winner. Do your situational best! (As if we can do anything but).

Brain-Befriending Death

“Love and death are two great gifts in life. Mostly they are passed on unopened.”  ~ Rilke

If you ask 100 people on the street if they’re afraid of death, a great many will directly answer “No.” You might think there are no thanatophobes living among us. And yet, Terror Management Theory researchers know that, whether we consciously admit it or not, our brains and bodies wildly fear death and consistently do everything in our power to turn away from it.

In their book, The WImage result for new twin towersorm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski write, “Over the course of human history, the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”

To protect us from the reality that our embodied time here on earth is finite – we all come with an expiration date – Terror Management Theory’s Stephen Cave, a Cambridge metaphysicist, has identified the four edited “immortality stories” below that we regularly tell ourselves and act out in our lives to help our brains and bodies keep our stress hormone levels at least a little bit manageable.

The Elixir Story 

The Elixir Story is the simplest. We want to avoid death, and the dream of doing that in this body in this world forever is the first and simplest kind of immortality story. It might sound implausible, but actually, almost every culture in human history has had some myth or legend of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth – something that promises to keep us going forever. Image result for magic elixirThroughout European history, we find them in the work of the alchemists, and of course we still believe this today, only we tell this story using the vocabulary of science. So 100 years ago, hormones had just been discovered, and people hoped that hormone treatments were going to cure aging and disease, and now instead we set our hopes on stem cells, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. But the idea that science can cure death is just one more chapter in the story of the magical elixir, a story that is as old as civilization. Betting everything on the idea of finding the elixir and staying alive forever is a risky strategy. When we look back through history at all those who have sought an elixir in the past, the one thing they now have in common is that they’re all dead. Listen up, Ray Kurzweil and your merry band of Transhumanists.

The Resurrection Story 

The Resurrection Story stays with the idea that I am this body, I am this physical organism. It accepts that I’m going to have to die but says, despite that, I can rise up and I can live again. In other words, I can do what Jesus did. Jesus died, he was three days dead, and then he rose up and lived again. And the idea that we can all be resurrected to live again is an orthodox belief, not just for Christians but also Jews and Muslims. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we are reinventing it again for the scientific age, for example, with cryonics. That’s the idea that when you die, you can have yourself frozen, and then, at some point when technology has advanced enough, you can be thawed out and repaired and revived and so resurrected. And so some people believe an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again, and other people believe an omnipotent scientist will do it.

Soul Immortality Story

The Soul or Spiritual Immortality Story embraces the idea that we can leave our body behind and live on as a soul. Image result for eternal soulNow, the majority of people on Earth believe they have a soul, and the idea is central to many religions. But even though, in its current form, in its traditional form, the idea of the soul is still hugely popular, nonetheless we are again reinventing it for the digital age, for example with the idea that you can leave your body behind by uploading your mind, your essence, the real you, onto a computer, and so live on as an avatar in the ether. Be prepared to accessorize around the color blue.

The Legacy Story

Related imageThe last immortality story is The Legacy Story, the idea that you can live on through the echo you leave in the world, like the great Greek warrior Achilles, who sacrificed his life fighting at Troy so that he might win immortal fame. And the pursuit of fame is as widespread and popular now as it ever was, and in our digital age, it’s even easier to achieve. You don’t need to be a great warrior like Achilles or a great king or hero. All you need is an Internet connection and a funny cat. But some people prefer to leave a more tangible, biological legacy — children, for example. Or they like, they hope, to live on as part of some greater whole, a nation or a family or a tribe, their gene pool. But again, there are skeptics who doubt whether legacy really is immortality. Woody Allen, for example, who said, “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Implicit in each of these stories live our brains, bodies and minds. I’m currently putting together an online presentation that weaves my own learning over 50 years of death studies and teaching, together with my last 15 years of neuroscience study. The intention of the presentation is to help us make friends with death (or at least help us find ways to manage our neurophys- iology) and be able to perhaps turn a little bit toward the reality of our eventual transition. If you’re at all interested email: giftsofloveanddeath@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to notify you when the presentation is ready to explore together.