Posts Tagged ‘Eckhart Tolle’

Once, in a significant relationship of long duration, I very reluctantly initiated a breakup. I initiated it for many reasons. One “senseless” reason was to avoid having to re-experience the feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect so familiar from childhood. What I ended up feeling, of course, were crippling, pulsating pangs of loss, abandonment and neglect.

To the logical brain, initiating a breakup to avoid feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect makes no sense. To the feeling brain and a heart desperately trying to heal, it makes perfect sense. The Pain Body (an Eckhart Tolle term that I particularly resonate with) in concert with trauma long buried in unconscious Implicit Memory looks out and pinpoints the precise people to help us reenact the trauma – in unconscious hopes of healing it at last. But with abandonment and neglect, by their very nature, that rarely happens. Partly because every way you try to reenact it you lose, and partly because when you’re in the middle of a reenactment, a greater awareness of the larger picture is seldom available: it doesn’t feel like healing trying to happen in the least. More often than not ALL people involved end up in triggered states of emerging traumatic memory re-creation. And being in an actively triggered emotional state seriously compromises coherent brain function and possibilities for healing in everyone. It feels much more like a return to the wild, than trying to collaboratively and sanely navigate treacherous terrain.

Lacunae R Us

Children who experience abandonment and neglect repeatedly feel at risk when attachments of any kind are broken. Whether physical, emotional or neuro-cardiological, we also have large gaps in our developmental unfolding. Those gaps are called lacunae in the psychiatric literature. Spiritual teacher, A. H. Almaas simply calls them “holes.” These are missing structures that form normally from experiences of people/parents being there for us come hell or high water. As a result, we often end up with fewer inner neural reserves to call upon to help us navigate safely and securely together through the hard stuff. Our physical Pain Body simply becomes overwhelmed with emotion, greatly impairing coherent thinking or action. Often, the only way out, it seems, is to flee. Or to isolate. Isolation, different than deliberately chosen solitude, is rarely an optimal strategy.

Choiceless Unawareness

Some people, like Eckhart Tolle, assert that we all have choice in how we experience such re-surfacing memories. From my perspective they have little understanding of how transient disorganization happens when the stress of traumatic memories becomes activated in the brain. They also fail to understand how much activity of the brain is completely unconscious and easily manipulated (all we need do is look at Stanley Milgram’s at Yale or Phil Zimbardo’s obedience experiments at Stanford for confirmation). Furthermore, few of those who assert such notions concerning choice, while they may be victims of other forms of abuse, they have rarely suffered abandonment and neglect themselves. Choice may be available to some of us later, in the wake of traumatic memory activation, after the poo has been cleaned out of the loo. But Tolle and his advocates would be better served, I think, to hold the matter of choice and free will as an open question rather than to offer it as rigid dogma. I suspect neuroscientists David Eagleman and Bruce Hood live in my camp on this matter of choice, since each recognizes that every brain is enormously complex and operates the best it can in any moment in every situation.

Children at Risk

Those of us who hail from a history of abandonment and neglect are also at greater risk for abandoning and neglecting relationships and our own children than those who don’t. I came very close to unconsciously organizing the family (brain-body) stressors in my own life such that I nearly abandoned my daughter Amanda at age 4, the same age that my father abandoned my own sisters and me … the compulsion to repeat the trauma. The compassionate heart of one of the very few good therapists I’ve worked with over the years, helped me hang in … until Amanda was 13. Then, my understanding of the real limits of the psychotherapy profession at the time, and too many traumatic memories mounting an emergent assault on too many fronts, proved to be beyond my ability to manage. They shut down coherent functioning in my brain and severely limited my choices. Separation and divorce ensued. But I did manage to hang in a little better than my own father did: I continued to provide financial support and spent as much time as Amanda and we could manage together. An Authoritative Community might possibly have helped me hang in better. Possibly.

So, what will help to heal abandonment and neglect? I can only speak from my own experience, but what I most greatly yearned for during those periods of regression and painful traumatic reenactment was for someone who deeply understood how healing attempts often show up chaotically. They would be someone who could stay fully present in the midst of my regressed stony silences, plaintive wails or angry outbursts, and to each of them simply calmly say over and over again, “That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving. That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving.” That’s what it would mean, at least for me personally, to meet The Big Brain Question with The Big Heart Answer.

P.S. If you want to see the specific and startling impact that abandonment and neglect have on the brain, click HERE.

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One morning several years ago I was on a contemplative forest walk through the fall foliage around the Omega Institute in upstate New York. I was ambling mindfully along, just taking in the brilliant diversity of the morphing oak and maple trees, inhaling the air filled with peat and chill and doing my best to be fully present in the moment.

Suddenly, up ahead the figure of a man appeared from around a bend in the trail. A small jolt of adrenaline coursed through my body as my brain made a quick assessment that this was not some sociopath out for an early morning stroll while taking a break from the pursuit of enlightenment. But even if he was, my size and the walking stick in my hand would have most likely served as adequate protection. Wild Mind doing its best to protect me from a potential apocalyptic future.

As the distance between us closed and I began to make out the features of the man’s face, a sense of familiarity began to arise. We both slowed on approach, each moving to the right side of the path to allow the other to pass. Our eyes met for a brief moment as we intersected. His had a twinkly glint in them. They were the unmistakable eyes of someone I knew but had never previously met. Two or three steps later, his name flashed through my brain: Eckhart Tolle.

Shortly after his book, The Power of Now came out in 1999, I read it and liked it a lot. I found it simplified and reflected much of what Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and a whole host of other wisdom teachers advocated: life is best lived in the present moment. Simple and easy to say, not so easy to consistently enact. Until that inborn ability is conditioned out of us by anxious parents and a condemning culture, children frequently tend to have NOW mastered.

Trauma-Catapulting into the Present

One thing that’s interesting about Tolle’s journey is his description of how, after decades of depression, he came to be able to fully reside in … NOW. Here it is:

“I cannot live with myself any longer” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the “I” and the “self” that “I” cannot live with. “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words, “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.

Contrary to what the promotional copy says about it, I don’t quite find The Power of Now to be a “complete guide, a complete course in meditation and realization.” I don’t think any teaching solely consigned to print really has that capacity. The minute ideas are committed to print (or a blog post on a computer screen), they lose significant aspects of their vitality. They become … ideas. In part, it is for this reason, I think, that many wisdom teachings are best transmitted orally, not to mention repeatedly.

Network Upgrading

From my perspective as a brain educator, there’s one basic requirement to be able to live fully in the present moment: free up increasingly larger network bandwidth; this increasing capacity can then undergird the support scaffolding necessary to provide and sustain the energy required to observe and calm heart, brain, mind and body when distressing thoughts or experiences confront us. Oh, and one more thing: Wisdom teachers who have made this journey and built such foundations frequently claim that mental underpinnings can’t be sustained without the power of the heart infusing them – the heart apparently provides the rebar to keep the foundation all of a piece when placed under great stress loads.

Without the strength that the heart provides – without the refined, super subtle energy of love – the present moment becomes quite elusive in my experience. Neurologist Bob Scaer does a great job explaining why in his article, The Precarious Present. Tolle’s description above of his body-shaking and his mind going blank, would fit Bob’s theory of “freeze discharge” resulting in bringing back online a reservoir of neurons cordoned-off from earlier traumatic experiences. Harvard neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor further underscores Bob’s perspective in the piece I presented several weeks ago from her book, My Stroke of Insight. We each need an “energy presence,” an Executive Director overseeing the full catastrophe that continually unfolds between our ears. Healing personal embodied trauma and the strengthened network that often results seems to be an important essential step.

In future posts we’ll explore ways and means of recruiting that heart presence. Enlisting the heart to sustain the capacity to fully and fearlessly live in the NOW ranks as Job One for ourselves and our children.

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