Thursday, February 25, 2016


Imprisoned by trauma

It’s pretty common for people who have made big changes in their lives, even for the better, to get “homesick” for the old life even though it may have been miserable and the person might have made an heroic fight to get out.  Consider all the immigrants coming out of Syria: can you imagine making the transition to living in the US?  Consider all the Russians who suffered and suffered, won victories, and headed right back into oppression and suffering.  I once read a moving piece about a street dweller who took refuge with Good Will, lasted six months and went back to the street.  For the freedom, he said.

It’s a counselling given that to most people a known hardship is more attractive than an unknown good, an uncertain future.  It’s not rational and it’s not even emotional.  It’s physical, biological.  It is built into all animals to want to stay, even to go back to where they were.  One follows the likelihood of stability, trustworthiness, predictability, which are associated with a known place.

I’m still thinking through the consequences of our narrow understanding of consciousness, esp. in terms of the mantras called “choice” and “discipline”.  Basically, we believe that we are consciously thinking through evidence and are in control of the decisions we make based on them.  By now I don't get up in the morning to write a blog as a matter of discipline -- it's a habit.  I finally figured it out when someone told me that when they had to give up practising the piano every morning, their fingers hungered for the keyboard.

“Consciousness” is only part of thought.  We insist on thinking of it as the “highest” part of us, our identity, that part of us that we can hold accountable, a purified derivation of experience.  In fact, it is foam on the beer, as transient and shifting as any other aspect of a functioning human.  Criminal law only works because of our assumptions about guilt — that bad acts are purposeful and we must be held accountable — and that is enforced by writing out laws and precedents so they will stay consistent.  Otherwise the consequences are too much the result of contingencies, sometimes major factors (a state of war or stigma) and sometimes minor (simply not liking something about a person or yielding to influence from someone powerful).

The media has found that stories about people unjustly punished sell well, though they tend to back off from social categories penalized for being poor, or young, or immigrant.  But this discussion is not about the social desire to go back, to have “do-overs,” to repent of rebellions.  I’m thinking about individuals.

We had a pet eagle who was unable to fly when she was brought to us as a fledgling.  We built her as a big a cage as we could, but it was hardly enough for her to actually fly ten feet.  One day we replaced the wire on the cage, so she was not caged between the time we took the old wire off and put new on.  She did indeed fly up to the ridge of the house and she spent about an hour there.  Then she returned to her cage which she could only do because we left the door open.  It was what she knew, where she ate and slept.  Home.
A golden eagle and a bald eagle are two different birds, though most of the public can’t distinguish except for the white head that was incorrectly called “bald.”  The reason they are so different is that they inhabit different ecosystems:  the bald eagle lives along rivers and eats both carrion and fish.  When the fish spawn, the eagles cluster in large numbers, perching in the big trees along the river.  Plenty to eat, no need to hide.

Golden eagles eat small mammals on the prairie.  They stay high in the sky, using their fantastic eyesight to constantly scan for small hurrying movements.  Then they drop as fast as bullets and pluck up the ground squirrel the same way a bald eagle plucks a fish out of water.  Bald eagles have featherless legs so they’ll shed water.  I could really get off on this stuff.

Because we are not individual organisms at all.  First our whole species is shaped by the environment and next we as individuals only think we are self-contained.  Skin separates us from the environment, but life barely distinguishes between what’s in-skin and what’s out-skin.  The body adapts to whatever food is in the environment, even the timing of ingestion, so that it “wants” whatever it is used to.  The molecules prepare so that the lining of the stomach and the action of the gall bladder excrete a little in advance of what they expect.   

The addiction to chemicals like street drugs are only a more intense version of every creature’s addiction to the world, and the effect of change on the body is also the same.  I mean, if you’re used to coffee in the morning, your body will cry for it.  We so underestimate this sub-conscious effect, this limbic factor, this cellular “thinking,” when we make changes.  

Yesterday someone asked me for something to read that would indicate how I’m thinking these days.  One of the key concepts I pursue is the “liminal,” an anthropological term that addresses the limens or threshholds of life and describes ceremonies that help body, mind, and community cross over them.  Of course, the community helps us remember who we are even as we change and disrupts us if they get it wrong — say on return from the military or from university.  

“Now it is time to broaden the definition of the liminal again. Some of our new liminality comes from the rise of the global citizen, whose work and lifestyle takes them from culture to culture in service of multinational corporations, governments, and nonprofits aiding the developing world. With economies slowing in the West and heating up in places like Turkey, China, India, and Brazil, workers can expect to leave their culture of origin for foreign lands. That includes Americans themselves.”  -- from an article in

Liminality is something like being “through the looking glass” where things are reversed, but also unpredictable.  But it is also like being homesick, where the loved and familiar has not yet been replaced by attachment to a new context, even one that was chosen and wanted, even better suited than the previous home.  There’s something hard-wired-in. 

The research on brain organization and function seems to suggest that one kind of neurons are clustered like computer documents in folders, which can be nested in other folders, deeper and deeper layered.  What I find suggestive is the idea that a “deep” experience can reach the deepest and most inclusive pre-suppositional folders of neurons in order to open them to change.

In a completely different metaphor, I’ve heard people talk about feeling that they were going to drown unless they struggled in the only way they knew.  But when they surrendered and relaxed, they found that the water was holding them up -- they were floating.  There’s a suggestion of suicide about this idea, which makes it scary, but it IS a kind of suicide to let the old self die so that a new self has a space in which to form.  Waiting for a guarantee and preview of that new self is not possible.  You have to “become” into the terrifying future.

It’s best to find a community that can travel together.  Ceremonies of leaving and accepting are as much about the body as the mind.  Helpers must give up the idea that it is something they are doing, that they are “saving” people.  It is only providing the opportunity that helps.  The actual work of leaving and accepting must be done by the individual in his own body.  The rules are not written.  They must be evolved face-to-face.

But cultures and nations often get in the way by trying to hurry, to make rules and appoint panels, to force growth, but never to change the deep forces that are convenient to them as power-mongers, the entitled.

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