Shortly after her book, Writing Down the Bones, was published, I attended a week-long writing workshop with Natalie Goldberg at the Green Gulch Zen Center. In that workshop Natalie gave a lot of useful directives designed to plumb the back alleys of the unconscious and mine the hidden depths of the right brain. One of those directives was “give yourself permission to write the worst crap in the world.” Another was: “Write about what disturbs you.” Traumatic memories get stored in the right brain mostly as imagery and body sensation, and putting words to those memories can often help move them in the direction of integration and healing.
Shortly after I returned from that workshop I attended a Stanford basketball game with some friends. We had floor seats at Maples Pavilion and at half-time I looked out across the court and my eyes fell on a young woman sitting in the first row. Suddenly I felt a great wave of energy flooding my body. It was a mix of sadness and anger and regret all mixed together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was suddenly face to face with an Ursa Major person.
Invasion of the Constellation People
Before I continue the story, let me back up a moment. Ursa Major is one of the central constellations in the northern sky. It’s readily visible and contains the bright stars that make up the Big Dipper, often used by navigators to find the North Star to guide them. The North Star in me is my open, broken heart. If we think of stars in the night sky as nodal points in a network, and we also think of neurons in the brain as parallel nodal points, Ursa Major people are those who automatically and effortlessly activate many nodal points in our neural network – primarily in our right brain, and for most of us, below the level of conscious awareness. In people of similar developmental stages, that activation is often the cue they unwittingly use for beginning a romantic relationship. Our children are almost always Ursa Major people for us, and we for them. Not coincidentally, the primary nodes movie stars and Ursa Major people set atrembling are often the very ones holding memories from our personal traumatic past – everything that has resulted in heartbreak. Through the miracle of transference and projection, Ursa Major people have our number; they show up holding many of the keys to our personal trauma combination lock. If we have any choice at all, it’s probably only whether we elect to spin the dial.
The Real Work of Life
Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the Sufi mystic poet once wrote: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Unaddressed and unresolved trauma along with unprocessed grief and loss, in my experience, are some of the quivery foundations supporting the walls I have built against love. Projection and transference are the bricks and mortar that make and keep those walls erect. They overlay my conditioning and personal history onto others, distort my perceptions and prevent me from authentic loving encounters with real people as they actually show up in real time.
If we don’t have a practice like journaling, day review, mindfulness meditation, effective therapy, or hanging out with a network of intimate, trustworthy, spiritually oriented friends (anam carae) – something that allows us to clear out psychological daily distortions and upsetting emotional experiences on a regular basis – they begin to accrue and take up residence in the neural net. I suspect they also thread neural connections between one another. Losses must be grieved. Trauma must be resolved. My experience is that if they aren’t they’ll find a means to become displaced and leak out in more frequent and ever-stronger ways. They’ll begin standing in the psyche like a line of energetic dominoes and result in broken hearts divided. A simple thing like a chance meeting of an Ursa Major stranger at a basketball game can activate the whole line and bring them suddenly crashing down.
Majoring in Loss
As an Ursa Major person, it didn’t immediately become clear that Rhianna held big potential to bring great healing gifts to me and/or great painful reminders of traumatic memories and major losses that have accrued throughout my life. Or both, as it turned out.
I began looking for Rhianna at each Stanford game that season after that first time. I left every game greatly disturbed, then went home and began journalling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose in response to her. Gradually, those thoughts and feelings began to automatically take the form of a surprisingly compelling story. Writing privately about Rhianna seemed to begin weakening my defense mechanisms; my suspicion is they also managed to weaken the hold that inhibitor neurons had for keeping traumatic memories tightly under wraps.
Knowing How My Brain Works Makes it Work Better
In much the same way that neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s detailed knowledge of how the brain works helped get her through her stroke ordeal, writing about my encounters in response to Rhianna were aided and abetted by my own knowledge of the grief process and of brain workings. That knowledge allowed me to both directly experience and stand and bear witness to traumatic memories as they became actively awakened in my brain. They presented themselves one after another, week after week, like a kind of neurological Powerpoint: “This is Your Life in Trauma.” I simply took notes and let them flow into a coherent narrative.
I would offer that Ursa Major people show up in our lives all the time, and that their purpose, when put to skillful use, has the potential to be a healing, therapeutic, spiritually maturational one. I would also simultaneously suggest that when they do show up, unfortunately we often miss them completely or engage with them in unskillful ways that invariably add to the burden of suffering we each carry with us into the world. Most love affairs and many parent-child relationships have little to do with love; they often end up triggering and reenacting early wounding and usually result in very little healing resolution. They mostly build more barriers to Rumi’s direct experience of love.
When reemerging traumatic memories are worked with skillfully (through the suggestions above or with some form of somatic psychology like EFT, Somatic Experiencing or Hakomi), at some point, the isolated, dormant dendrites on the neurons holding the traumatic memories in check manage to come alive and hook back up into the larger network (this is all conjecture at this point, of course, although Scientology has made billions with their “auditing” process acting as if it were true). When reconnection back to the central network is done successfully, healing has been accomplished.
Stanford did well that Ursa Major year – I went to watch them play as one of the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio, Texas. They lost in double overtime to Kentucky. Rhianna’s doing well, too. She married her boyfriend basketball player and moved to Portland. He’s a homeschooling dad for their two kids and she’s a super-popular high school teacher who manages to show up in a Big Way every day for her students. I did well, too: my novel, The Icing of the Shooter – an exploration in grieving losses I didn’t even realize I’d suffered – managed to win the Jack London Award for fiction that year.