… or the worst things that have been done to me.
When I was around six or seven years old, my mother took a job cleaning houses. Actually, only cleaning one house – Dr. Benjamin Hewitt, a Yale psychologist’s house. On some of those workday mornings my mother would take me with her and deposit me in one of Dr. Hewitt’s children’s bedrooms and let me rummage through their toy box and find things to play with while she cleaned. And on some of those mornings I walked out of the house with one of those children’s toys in my back pocket or stuffed down my pants.
This bit of petty larceny went wholly undetected by my mother or anyone else, and as I grew older my penchant for petty theft only increased. I would go over to the Yale campus, find unlocked bicycles and ride off with them without thinking twice. From D’Andrea’s Pharmacy I’d pocket Topps baseball cards and DC comic books. Over at the Finast grocery store I’d shoplift Ballantine beer and Pepsi and HoHos as a teen. In my early twenties I took a correspondence course in locksmithing and learned how make and use a Skeleton key; and then how to pick and open pin-and-tumbler locks without even needing a key. This enabled me to become a successful cat burglar in West Los Angeles.
The Shadow Knows
In all of this larceny I was never observed or apprehended even a single time. Except … by my own neurophysiology. My brain knew what I was doing. It was with me and bore silent witness to every caper. Through a process known as neuroception, my neural network was simultaneously aware of the stress and negative impact those actions were having on my brain’s capacity to generate healthy new cells and new connections between them. Those petty crimes were also damaging my heart. So my brain knew it would have to do whatever was necessary to get me to stop. Including getting me arrested, if need be. Why? Because as Morehei Uesheba, the founder of aikido has pointed out, I was out of alignment with the universe, inside and out. And some part of my brain knew it. And my heart did as well.
Fortunately, neither my brain nor my heart ever had to resort to getting me busted. The major intervention it was able to orchestrate when brain and body could no longer stand the increasing strain of misalignment, which I’ve written about recently, was to get me interested in spirituality.
Constructing the Narrative of Me
All the adventures and episodes that unfold in our lives go into making up an internal narrative that we tend to store in our brain’s long term memory banks. What we mostly store away for future reference are experiences and information that might prove useful down the road: never go into a hospital without your lawyer to advocate for you; don’t take a lover who will ridicule your skillset; beware of sandy roads on a motorcycle around curves; don’t drink beer in choppy seas while tuna fishing, etc. While these remembered experiences might serve as valuable, and even life-saving cautionary tales, they come with a downside. One downside is this: they all become part of what can end up making me a prisoner of my personal history. I am the person who did X, R and L, but not Y, S or M. My imprisonment becomes especially cruel and unusual punishment when I begin to think I am less than the worst things I have ever done.
Making Amends is Good for the Brain
There’s a growing body of research to support it, and in addition my own intuitive hunch is that things like Catholic confession, truth and reconciliation, and restorative justice are brain-positive interventions. Even something so simple as posting a note on Ondrea’s Apology Page can be beneficial. We begin to grow an integrated, robust neural network sufficient to free ourselves from the personal narrative which includes so many of the unskillful, ignorant, unconscious things we’ve all done. As Dan Ariely’s research into cheating and lying attests, with confession we are allowed to open a new page. There’s something liberating, first of all in confessing one’s trespasses – those unskillful actions arising from an undisciplined, seriously disorganized brain and a fragile heart – and then in being guided and supported in actions to restore and repair whatever damage we may have done.
Polyvagal Beings R Us
But it’s more than that. Confession and restorative justice is good for the heart. How? Simply put, I believe it enables the vagus nerve to restore and expand the working range of HRV – heart rate variability. As behavioral biopsychologist and Polyvagal Theorist, Stephen Porges observes, the flexible ability of the heart to change its beating patterns makes us better equipped for social engagement. We grow in strength of heart, constructing a life path that Carlos Castenada’s Don Juan would champion. We begin to lose self-concern and self-absorption and turn towards people we may have turned away from in the past in fear or trepidation. We begin to engage them with grace and genuine, compassionate interest.
We then have the possibility of helping them see and know they are so much more than the worst things they’ve ever done. Or the worst things that were ever done to them. Working towards our own liberation can then work to help us all become liberated from the prison of our personal history.