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CHet Powers

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Polyvagal Daily Fluctuation Single Slide

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Nice sentiments all, right? Easy for them to sing and say, but what about for the rest of us? Those of us who haven’t had the time or place or resources or genetic heritage or fellow spiritual travelers to help each other become enlightened lovers?

Turns out our work might actually be easier than there’s was. Why? Because we know more about brain structure and body functioning than they did (although their writings suggest they were all accomplished neurocardiologists – knowledge essentially acquired through deep self-and-other observation).

But here in 2019 we know how the Vagus Nerve and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA) have operated through all evolution to insure our survival as a species. We’re also becoming increasingly aware of how often most of us move between self-protection and social engagement any number of times throughout our day. Also, how often we withdraw and shut down as a means of self-regulation (Whidbey Island is full of people who prefer solitude to social engagement. Many of them identify as artists). Not to mention how neuroplasticity works and how to effectively heal and resolve trauma.

Image result for artisteIn my mind, it’s the neurobiological structural and developmental limitations and vulnerabilites that being human invites us to work with if we are going to be moving in the direction the wisdom teachers above are suggesting for us. In order to do that, however, we’re going to have to develop our own unique, personally relevant operational practices that will move us in the direction of an expanding self-regulation network capacity capable of producing greater energy and information processing and integration. Which is a fancy way to say that in order to become more loving we have to practice being more loving. Whatever we practice, we tend to get better at, whether it’s the guitar, money management or social engagement. Particularly, heart-felt social engagement.

So, what might such a practice look like? Unique and different for each and every one of us, I would wager. Why? Well, when you consider your brain and mine contain 86 billion neurons making approximately one quadrillion connections (does anyone REALLY know how big a number one quadrillion actually is?), and each of us has had a whole host of life experiences that have shaped that circuitry, can our personal practice for becoming more loving possibly be anything other than unique and singular unto us? I don’t think so. That being said, start deliberately practicing. Begin with little steps and see where they take your heart.

And if you’re one of a handful of bold souls interested in taking a personal deep dive into The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory), i.e. discovering what creative possibilities might go into a personal practice, simply click HERE. It’s completely safe and you’re under no obligation.

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I volunteer for our island zen hospice, Enso House, to pick up and deliver their recycling to the local center. One Saturday while I’m at the recycling center flattening boxes in front of the cardboard bin, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

ALGEBRA MATH WELDING HAT“That is the greatest HAT!” a young woman says to me. As I turn around, she’s beaming. I smile back.

“Would you like one?” I ask her.

“Yes. Where can I get one?”

“Come with me,” I lead her over to my truck and take one hat out in black and one in white and hand them to her (I keep a supply for just such occasions!).

“OMG. These are SO GREAT.” She beams. “I’m a physics professor at Monterrey College. These are PERFECT to wear to class.” She literally skips away as I finish the recycling.

Good Day Sunshine

I’m feeling light and joyful as I begin backing out of the parking lot. Altruism circuits are blazing glory. At the same time as I’m leaving a Chinese woman in a new Chevy is backing out as well. In my buoyant, happy mood, I smile and wave her to go ahead of me.

At the exit we’re both turning left, against the traffic. When the road is clear she starts across. I glance briefly left and then step on the gas, only to discover the woman in front of me has stopped her car FOR NO REASON!

I slam on the brakes, narrowly miss rear-ending her, and feel a HUGE rush of adrenaline flood my body. Almost immediately, of it’s own volition, a discursive thought comes careening through my mind: “F**king Asian drivers!” So, much for my peaceful, joyous, delightful morning.

And then I realize – there it is: State Driving Story.

State Drives Story

In perfect Polyvagal unfolding, my neurophysiology makes sh*t up in the moment almost totally outside of my control. Only now, with this realization, I burst out laughing.

I’ve caught my Inner Makeup Artist in the act, since the reality is … I’m perfectly fine. There was a brief moment of real danger, but my brake foot took care of it, and it passed in an instant. But my brain and body were reacting as if it hadn’t. They’re more than a little bit lagging in coming back to the safe, present moment in which there is now absolutely no danger whatsoever. So that’s one way brain and body try to kill us – the slow metabolism of stress hormones compromises our immediate ability to tend to the present moment, especially after an actual threatening incident.

But, in THIS moment, everything is all right.

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The Enemy

Catching my Storycrafter in the act and laughing was all it took to restore me to my previous happy, connected, and now forgiving internal state. It’s easy to feel forgiving when your threat-detection circuitry is no longer defending itself against what Non-Violent Communicator Marshall Rosenberg called Enemy Images and imaginary dangers. It’s almost impossible to feel that way however, when stress hormones and threat-detection neurotransmitters are dropping me repeatedly into self-protection mode. That is a recipe for winning a Darwin Award.

So, that’s my recent Polyvagal Story and I’m sticking to it. Be on the lookout for your own to share. They are legion and make their way into our lives more times in a day than most of us realize or care to admit. I daresay, once you start paying close attention to the many times the binary “connect or protect” choices surface in any day, you’ll be astonished. And many of them can unwittingly result in “near-death” experiences.

And if you’re one of a handful of bold souls interested in taking a personal deep dive into The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory), simply click HERE. It’s completely safe and you’re under no obligation.

This week once again offers two Enchanted Loom graphic book reviews. The first review is the last “grace” book written by Kathleen Singh, a longtime friend and colleague, before her death late last year. 91S9ERT8rNL.jpgUnbinding feels like the culmination of a life’s work spent in earnest spiritual pursuits. Many of those years were devoted to acquiring wisdom and grace at the bedsides of dying people in her work as a hospice psychologist. In case you’ve forgotten them from my last post, you can find the Three Great Tasks and my review of Kathleen’s book HERE.

The second Enchanted Loom offering is a book by one of my favorite neuroscientists, Greg Berns. Iconoclast.jpgThe book is called Iconoclast. Greg is a professor at Emory University and he researches all kinds of interesting things neuroscience. Like how dogs’ brains work (he trains them to lie perfectly still in an fMRI scanner! You can see him training one here). In this book, Greg explores what has to happen in your brain and body in order for you to go against the so-called conventional wisdom and march to the beat of your own heart. It’s both harder and easier than you might think. You can find my review of Greg’s book HERE.

Before she died, my friend Kathleen would frequently remind me that my life had three great tasks: confronting my mortality, stilling my mind and opening my heart. Neuroscientists know that the brain is connected to the heart by way of cardiac nerves and vagus nerve bundles running back and forth between the two organs. But they don’t know much about opening either organ in the way Kathleen meant.

Most of the heart’s nerve fibers carry signals from the heart to the brain. While heartfelt sentiments really are heartfelt – they originate from and are experienced by back and forth blood flow and electro-chemical energy flow between the two organs – they are also “brainfelt” at the same time. And that flow is profoundly influenced by the people, places and things we fill our lives up with. Spend time with the right people, in the right place, doing the right things at the right time, and the three great tasks that Kathleen pointed to above, take on a momentum and direction of their own.

Out of Integrity

Much of that back-and-forth heart/brain flow is influenced by how “integrated” our neural networks are, i.e. how robust the number and connections our brain cells are able to make with each other. Image result for heartfeltHow might that robust complexity show up as a heartfelt sentiment? A recent example: Leonard, a senior friend of mine, recently told me a story about having some power tools stolen from a construction site he was on. Rather than feeling violated or exploited, his first thought when he noticed the tools were missing was, “I feel so bad for the person reduced to stealing from old people.” A truly heartfelt sentiment, right? I would posit that Leonard’s response is the result of a high degree of neural integration (Leonard’s been working on himself for decades!).

When people do things like steal from others or make appointments and promises and unilaterally decide not to keep them (or violate almost any spiritual directive for that matter), they are essentially out of integrity, literally. From a neuroscience point of view, integrity has to do with integration – the numbers and connections of cells throughout the brain and body all in contingent communication and working together. Generally speaking, the more robust, the more integrated we tend to be, and the more “heartfelt” expression we can muster to walk through the world with. Viewed through this neuroscientific frame, integration seems to be in short supply in much of the world these days. The more common response is to become emotionally hijacked and feel completely justified in pointing the finger at others (guilty as described!).

State Drives Story

Our brain receives transmissions from our heart and determines the state of our being. Elevated resting heart rates (over 90 beats per minute) e.g. tell us that something in our lives very likely needs attention and some kind of positive intervention.

Our brain also receives transmissions from all the other hollow organs in the body and they, too, contribute to the state of our being. Especially powerful are the transmissions we receive from our adrenal glands (or more precisely, the hormones and steroids they secrete). The signalling from the adrenal glands tells us a lot about our general feeling of safety in our world. It’s hard to get in touch with heartfelt sentiments when we’re feeling attacked or unsafe in the world. What our adrenals most often make available to us are varying degrees of connection or self-protection, with a bias towards to the latter.

Adrenal Mastery

The good news is that we can change the way our adrenals work and we can practice living in ways that move us in the direction of increasing neural integration. Related imageIn the recent documentary film, Free Solo, rock climber Alex Honnold has a brain scan that discloses his threat-detection circuitry is “under-active.” Hanging from his fingertips without a rope 2000 feet up on the side of a sheer rock face (El Capitan in Yosemite) simply doesn’t scare him. But of course, he’s done that climb with a rope over and over and over and over. My working hypothesis is that it’s the live practice, with proper safeguards, that have managed to change his brain in positive, fear-reducing ways.

I’ve done something similar with being uncomfortably self-disclosing with this brain science blog – there’s way more knowledge about the brain that I don’t know than I do. And some of the stuff I do know is simply wrong. Not to mention – embarrassing. But my intention has always been to help reduce suffering in the world, so I’m willing to put wrong and partially researched findings out there if I believe it serves that purpose.

What might you be willing to put into practice in the service of changing your brain, managing your adrenals, and strengthening the connections to your heart? Whatever it is, you’re most likely going to have to live with discomfort until integration happens.

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I had my first sexual experience. It was with Dusty, a young, single mom who had gotten pregnant the first time she had sex. I was only the second person she’d ever been sexual with. To our mutual surprise we both managed to have an orgasm during our very first time together, though neither of us really knew what we were doing.

woman holding metoo sign main image.jpgAfter Dusty and I amicably parted ways, a series of short romantic relationships followed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but each of those engagements was with young women who’d been the victims of sexual abuse (odds are pretty high that if you’re reading this blog, you have also had sex with someone who’s suffered sexual abuse or you’ve suffered it yourself. Official statistics report 1 out of every 4 American women has been sexually abused. When you include unreported and forgotten incidents, the number is likely much, much higher [80% of the thousands of Catholics requesting exorcism this year are survivors of sexual abuse]). But in each of these relationships events unfolded that soon convinced me I had a Magic Peni$ (I’m using the dollar sign for an S to avoid spam filters). Here’s how the magic unfolded…

One young woman managed to completely pass out as a consequence of my vigor and virility (or so my post-teen brain had me think). Another woman in her mid-thirties had been completely non-orgasmic until she met me. Another with a similar story not only became orgasmic, but had an allergic rash all over her arms and neck completely disappear after our first time together. Another woman, older than me once again, had her irritable bowel syndrome completely disappear in the days immediately afterward.

Can you begin to see how penile delusions develop?

Where Did the Magic Go?

One day though – many among you could easily predict – the magic in my member suddenly vanished. As you might imagine, this became a cause of great concern. And great concern – more often than not – usually makes things worse. I now found myself with a romantic partner who was not only non-orgasmic, but remained non-orgasmic. And, horror of horrors, soon lost all interest in my Magic Peni$. Time to move on, right?

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Is Amazon convinced they have a Magic Peni$?

Wrong. Anyone who possesses a Magic Peni$ can’t simply walk away from a good challenge (My brain back then was pretty clueless about unworkable mindsets. When romantic relationships take on the tone and tenor of high-stress events, you can pretty much predict the outcome).

It’s not my intention to make light in any way of the trauma that results from sexual abuse. For many people, men and women alike, it results in lifelong pain and suffering. And many who suffer seemingly unrelated maladies, like shopping addictions or impulse control, never connect the dots to the original, earlier cause. With the benefit of time, experience, neurobiology, trauma study and hindsight what I now realize is … there was no real magic in my Magic Peni$. Duh. Instead, what there was was … healing trying to happen. I just happened to be the guy, in a few instances, with whom some actually was able to.

Safety is the Treatment

Several things contributed to those positive experiences as best I can tell. One was: I’m a pretty safe guy to be around. I have never forced anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. I can actually hear “No” as “No” and stop whatever I’m doing when told to. I’ve even taught women the SUDs Scale and invited them to practice with me. As psychophysiologist, Steve Porges reminds us: “Safety is the treatment.”

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SUDs Scale

Another contributing factor, in my estimation was that the sexual trauma these women experienced was something they wanted to heal, and they were open to that possibility. Complex trauma that involves extended physical, emotional and sexual abuse was not part of these women’s personal history. Except for the last woman above. Zuza had all of the elements of complex trauma – a father who incested her, a mother who criticized and demeaned her and refused to believe her accusations, date rapes in high school, even a period of prostitution involving abusive men (healing trying, but failing, to happen?).

Needless to say, Zuza and my relationship was troublesome and trauma-reenacting from the start. For both of us. Unfortunately, neither of us knew then what we have subsequently learned separately later. We only lasted together long enough to realize that the greater part of our healing journey lay ahead of us. And we wouldn’t be taking it together.

This week’s post offers another couple of Enchanted Loom illustrated book reviews. The first is Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel’s book, The Logic of Faith. This offering is Elizabeth’s interpretation, after many years of study, of the Buddhist conditions that underlie much suffering in the world: Dependent Origination. If you want to know why life sucks and is scary at those times that it is, this may be the book for you.

Image result for the logic of faithThe second book is a transcription of a give and take dialogue between two longtime friends, former Harvard professor and spiritual teacher Ram Dass and contemplative activist, Mirabai Bush. The title of their collaboration is, Walking Each Other Home. It explores the preparations they each are making as the end of their respective lives draws closer daily. Click on the book images to read the reviews.

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“The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” ~ Elie Wiesel

I’m not on my deathbed (as far as I know), even though there’s a high probability that I’m well past my brain’s and body’s natural lifespan mid-point. Which is kind of a significant teaching in itself – brain cells have instruction sets written into them to activate their natural, organic demise. It’s called apoptosis. I’ve written about it a number of times over the years.

Bolte Taylor Brain

Jill’s artwork: “Neural Processing”

So, assuming that I still have some hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades (?) to go, when I do finally find myself on my deathbed, what might be the ONE neuroscience teaching that I’d like people to remember (and not necessarily remember me for beating a dead horse over and over about it)?

There are, of course, many compelling, OMG! teachings about the brain that I’ve written about over the years. Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of what it looks like when the brain apprehends the world without our language centers running noisy interference – that’s high up on the list.

So is the FACT of neuroplasticity, as covered at length by Norman Doidge in both of his books. What’s not so well known or well-researched is just HOW plastic the brain really is – mounting masses of cell assemblies that may only last for microseconds and correlate with varying degrees of consciousness.

The One Teaching

But those are not the ONE neuroscience teaching I’d want to leave you with if I was on my deathbed. A brain fingerprintNor is the fact that every brain is unique unto its owner, just like fingerprints. And in that uniqueness, sometimes neural fiber tracts can wander from one brain sensory area into another, showing up as the ability to smell sounds or hear colors (synesthesia). Like I said, each of our brains is unique and changing microsecond by microsecond. But that’s not my deathbed teaching.

Here it is …

Brains grow and become healthy and maintain that health by a single evolutionary process: feedback loops. The interactions that go on between brain cells and extra-cellular glycoproteins, genetic transcription factors and signalling molecules produce feedback loops that are best described as Collaborative or Contingent Communication (CC). Behaviorally, it’s exemplified by what parents naturally do when they speak “motherse” (or fatherese) to their young children. It’s what pet owners do when they speak “puppyese” to new puppies. Contingent Communication is the primary driver of secure attachment in children and in pets. It’s what allows them to build brain networks that can easily regulate arousal, and it’s what makes people and pets feel safe and at home in our presence. Contingent communication, in fact, is us paying close, focused attention, and it is what lends us presence. Again, it’s the fundamental process that builds healthy brains.

Divine Beautiful Brain

Contingent Communication

On my deathbed I would have to deliver you both the good news and the bad news about Contingent Communication. Contingent Communication is complex and requires us to grow large dedicated fiber tracts associated with all the sensory centers, helping them to become operationally integrated. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that learning and practicing it is not easy; most of us suck at it. The main reason we suck at it is because we haven’t been taught how important it is – it’s the fundamental process involved in brain cells coming into being and morphing into different varieties and then being directed to various neighborhoods – different lobes and hemispheres across the brain. And we rarely learn the importance of mimicking this fundamental brain development process in our daily lives. No one teaches us how to design activities to strengthen a Contingent Communication practice. We don’t learn the critical importance of responding to the world and the people in it in a timely and effective manner (emphasis on timely and effective).

Artists, in my experience, often implicitly operate at a level of depth and understanding of CC. It doesn’t matter what their artistic medium is – they have to learn to pay exquisitely granular attention to what their art is wanting them to attend to, to learn. They take what they discover and then attempt to put it into creative practice. Then they rinse and repeat – a constant process of give and take, add and subtract, put together/take apart. This instructive story about jazz pianist Keith Jarrett exemplifies the granular depth and complexity that the Art of Contingent Communication can be taken to.

Applied Contingent Communication

The work of Leah Green, founder of The Compassionate Listening Project and Marshall Rosenberg, originator of trainings in Non-Violent Communication, essentially try to address the listening element of Contingent Communication. The main takeaway from their work is that … we actually need to train and practice this critical brain-benefiting activity. On my deathbed, my last wish would be a life-affirming one. It would be for each and every one of you reading this blog to creatively design and establish venues for taking your own CC practice out into the world. Humanity sorely needs the knowledge and awareness you now possess.

*** If these posts over the years have been helpful, buy me a coffee:

https://ko-fi.com/sigmundjung