Monday, 30 October 2017

Where Do You Wish to Stabilize on the Spectrum?

     On one extreme end of a continuum, one feels alone, afraid, anxious - struggling to survive. The environment feels harsh. Relationships feel adversarial, "cut-throat" competitive. Everything feels like "do or die", "every person for themselves." All threats feel life-threatening and evoke equally powerful reactions - "fight, freeze or flight."
     We've all known rough & tumble characters who can't hold back from saying exactly what's on their mind, nor even restrain themselves from physical aggression, regardless of consequences. Such consistent reptilian reactivity puts a huge strain on all relationships, jobs, civilized society, and perhaps most of all on one's own quality of life!
     In this universally common level of consciousness (with a wide range of intensity & consistency), even an innocent remark - a mere slight to one's self-concept (ego) - can feel life-threatening, and therefore provoke disproportionately powerful "fight-freeze-flight" reactions, which to objective observers will seem extremely inappropriate. And yet, most of us have more than one "button", that when pushed, reliably triggers immediate inappropriate reactions which we regret later. 

     Van Der Kolk writes that if your past environment & genetics have trained ("conditioned") you to feel chronically frightened & unwanted, then your brain is specialized to manage feelings of fear & abandonment ie life feels like a chronic struggle to survive, and naturally, you'll tend to be in survival mode which is rarely if ever appropriate in modern times.
      If, on the other hand, you've been conditioned to feel safe & loved, then your brain is specialized to explore, play & cooperate, so you'll naturally spend most of your time near the opposite end of the continuum ie life feels like a pleasant, interesting adventure, and you'll be behaving appropriately, and at times even wisely, regardless of circumstances. Bessel Van Der Kolk. “The Body Keeps the Score. Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” Penguin Books, 2015.
     In this qualitatively different, universal but usually fleeting level of consciousness, we experience peace, ease, equanimity, clear awareness, timelessness, stillness, silence, effortlessness, loving-kindness, and joy.

     My first dog had been mistreated before we got him at 2 months of age. For the first few weeks, he was terrified, hid under furniture, and would urinate in fear from almost any stimulus. Gradually he learned to trust us, became very loving towards us, but was aggressively protective. When we once left him in a kennel over a weekend, his feelings were so hurt that on our return, it took about half an hour before he could even look at us.
     My second dog was treated well by the people who gave him to us, again at 2 months of age. He was happy & friendly with everyone, including strangers who came to our door, greeting all with enthusiastic affection. Once he was eating from his dish in the backyard, and a little kid around age 3 accidentally ran right into him - not advisable for a stranger to do to a large dog. All my dog did was lift his head, look at the child, then continued eating. He had no concept of fear, anger or violence. We had to give him away, and did so to a friend who lived about a block from our place. They never tied him up, yet he never tried to return. Not only was he not offended, but was perfectly happy with the new owners.

     Unlike animals, our minds can instantly & effortlessly shift from survival to wisdom mode. The more skillfully we train to perform this shift, the more our mind stabilizes in this far more evolved wisdom mode or level of consciousness. 

Katie Hoffman      "Nana’s Garden"

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