It’s funny how sometimes just the right teaching by just the right teacher at just the right moment comes rolling through my extroverse. When it does, it seems to remain embedded in my neural network forever. It’s like my brain had been growing and changing for awhile, pruning old connections here, growing new connections there and then suddenly this teaching shows up and makes an unmistakeable and undeniable “Aha” vital connection between two Rich Club centers. And that’s all she wrote.
This particular teaching was initially kindled by Dean Ornish, the MD who did the studies showing that preventive medicine can reverse what was formerly thought to be irreversible heart disease. Dean was sponsoring an evening talk at the San Francisco Unity Church by his own spiritual teacher, the Woodstock guru, Swami Satchadananda. Swami died in 2002, and he was very frail when he appeared onstage and was introduced by Dean. But he was only frail in body; his mind and his voice were delightful and devilishly sharp.
Un-yoking the Yoke
I forget the exact title of the talk he was giving that night; based upon the teaching, I would hazard a guess that it had something to do with why the Yoga of Relationship is one of the most challenging yogas. That certainly seemed true for me at the time, and apparently for the standing-room-only crowd as well.
One thing that makes relationships such a challenging yoga is the simple fact that the other person sometimes says or does things we don’t like. The reason we don’t like what they say or do is because it upsets us. The reason it upsets us, more often than not, is that either implicit traumatic memories get triggered (and fail to announce themselves to our conscious awareness), and/or our brain begins making up all kinds of imagined disastrous futures, and convinces us that our relationship partner is clearly the cause. The brain is constantly connecting things together that happen simultaneously in space and time.
Except at its root, our own neurophysiology is the actual culprit. Our brain is making up the stories and triggering the cascade of stress hormones that send us into a fearful state of hyper-arousal (or depression as hypo-arousal). Because in most every moment of relationship conflict (barring actual physical, verbal or emotional abuse) we’re perfectly safe. But when that hyper-arousal happens it’s almost a given that we will begin pointing fingers and making accusatory statements that begin with “You.”
One problem with “You” statements however, is that at their root they are enormously disempowering. They relegate us to the victim position and we generally find ourselves hanging out in that too-familiar state of learned helplessness. Spend any great degree of time there and it begins to feel like the gloom of our familiar.
Blame = Life Threat
Another problem with assigning fault and blame is that the brain interprets most every evaluation, most every negative judgment as threat. This is one root revelation of Steve Porges’ vagus-nerve-based Neuroception Theory. Anytime we feel threat, not only is our body and brain adversely affected – they launch a tidal wave of stress hormones in response – and negative resonance leaves our partner’s brain and body similarly affected. Stress hormones “close down the thinker.” They short-circuit cognitive functioning, needing to conserve neural and body energy resources for survival necessities. And the disorganization and hyper-arousal bounces back and forth with rarely any resolution.
Unfortunately, shame, blame, fault-finding and finger-pointing are not all that uncommon in many primary relationships. When they show up, few of us have many tools to skillfully address, calm and disarm them. And this was the memorable teaching I received from Swami Satchadananda on that foggy San Francisco night years ago. In the midst of his talk about these kinds of relationship dynamics, Swami paused and looked out over the audience. Then he solemnly raised his right hand and pointed it directly at us.
“Remember,” he said, “Anytime you’re pointing the finger of blame at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”