someone i loved once
gave me a box full of darkness.
it took me years to understand that this too,
was a gift.
~ mary oliver
A key piece of my social neuroscience training explores how little sensory information our workaday senses consciously take in (roughly 1%) if we don’t pay deliberate attention to sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch. Often participants are surprised to discover that the amount we take in is so small. Afterall, our eyes seem to see everything on the highway we need to in order not to crash, and our ears hear everything that our significant other says to bring home from the Goose Grocery, and we easily smell the deodorant or shampoo he or she uses. Nevertheless, all we need do is watch a short video like this one by Professor Richard Wiseman and his Color-Changing Card Trick to realize both how much our senses actually miss in any moment and how much more we might be able to take in with training and practice.
I would argue that one of the purposes of significant relationships in our lives is to increase our sensory capacities. Especially awareness of those things that live in the depths of implicit memory – the deep repository where lives our own personal box of darkness. It contains vast amounts of information that our senses have taken in unconsciously, mostly direct or perceived threats to our survival. They live in the tissues of our brain and our body as what I tend to think of as states of chaos – unintegrated, dissociated stressors that we have had to build physical and psychological defenses around. Mostly in response to … Adverse Childhood Experiences.
As Villanova psychologist Tom Toppino suggests: “What we know influences what we see?” And if what we know is an early life of adversity, writ large and small, much of our later life would be well-served by doing our best to come to terms with that early life (for a stirring confession of how we can end up being very successful in the outer world, while our inner world remains disorganized, joyless and painfully chaotic, read this brief account by Michigan pediatrician, Tina Marie Hahn).
Why It’s a Joy to Be Hidden, But a Disaster to Not Be Found
British developmental psychiatrist Donald Winnicott speaks directly to the need for the hidden, buried parts of ourselves to be surfaced, seen and in some manner brought to healing resolution (It’s actually one of the purposes I use this blog for – as Narrative Medicine). Jesus said much the same thing when he supposedly warned: “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” At one level, Jesus is talking about ACEs untreated, alive and unwell in virtually all of us (none of us escapes childhood unscathed).
How do we know when a significant relationship is bringing forth buried trauma, searching for the possibility of healing? Simple: we pay attention to our adrenals. If they’re flooding us with adrenaline and cortisol and that’s showing up in our body generating feelings of anger or fear and there’s no real, immediate threat present (a REAL threat means there’s a real cougar or the equivalent actually munching on our leg, not some painful, dissociated memory surfacing from the past, and not some distant future being disastrously imagined). Paul Tillich once observed that, “The first duty of love is to listen.” What we know from neuroception and hyperacousis research is that listening becomes extremely difficult and distorted when stress hormones are flooding the body and brain.
In addition, many of us have been conditioned by parents and society to wholeheartedly believe that it’s other people who cause us trouble, mostly by what they say and do. What most of us lack training in, which can significantly rewire our brain, is how to skillfully manage what Houston psychiatrist Bruce Perry calls our relational neurophysiology. Much of our own personal difficulties arise in the brain, in the body and in the mind. And that’s where they are most skilfully addressed.
Here’s a quote from Ajahn Chah a spiritual teacher I have great respect for. It’s from his book, Food for the Heart:
“Learn to see that it is not people, places or things that bother us, that we go out and bother them. See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of mind. When you know this, you can grow in every moment, and every experience reveals truth and understanding.”
What to Do About that Box?
Over the last fifteen to 20 years, in response primarily to the managed care industry demanding that therapy be brief and effective (one of the few positive benefits?), a great number of (mostly) experimental therapeutic interventions have emerged in the marketplace intended to address the fallout in adulthood from Adverse Childhood Experiences. Few of them are proven and evidence-based. Rather, they have come into being as Thoreau once advised: “It’s perfectly find to build (healing) castles in the air. Next, set to work building the foundations under them.” Here’s a link to the list. Realize that no one therapeutic size fits all, of course, and while practitioners in modalities like EMDR and EFT are busy at work building anecdotal and evidence-based foundations to confirm their benefits, many on this list may be worth experimenting with as a way to begin to open and turn our own personal box of darkness into a gift.
P.S. I’m reprising last September’s Social Neuroscience Training – Taking the Brain to Heart beginning again this September. Click here for details if you think you might be interested in this educational adventure.