This Is Your Brain On God – April 2012
In the last 24 hours I’ve touched into my own personal grief around loss, have ricocheted away, with nausea and hopelessness, from media coverage of the horrors of hazing, and have experienced my own capacity to turn away from others’ pain and trauma. I have also heard about a moment when previously unmediated rage was held and a life was transformed. As I see myself and my capacities for connection and disconnection, I wonder how to hold myself as a member of the human race, and I am both shocked and heartened by how cruelty and divinity can coexist within us.
So this month I have been stunned by the hugeness of rage, terror, grief and overwhelm that we humans can feel, both outwardly toward others, toward God and the universe, and inwardly, in the form of self-loathing, despair, hopelessness, depression, unlivable anxiety and broken-heartedness. It is one of the paradoxes of being human, that we are capable of such depth of feeling and of such disconnection. To survive these waves of emotion, some of us can turn off reception of these messages and dwell in our left hemisphere, the land of our brain that has no way to resonate with ourselves or others. It is safe there, where we cannot feel. And without a solid self-compassionate attachment circuit (or compassionate self-witness), we are lucky if we can retreat there, or else we dissolve in the acid of our own agony. But if we live in either place for long, we are either incapacitated for action, or incapacitated for compassion and connection, or both. We need access to our full emotional experience, and to be able to hold it, alone or in community, and we have to have access to integrated right and left hemispheres to be able to take action that meets our need for integrity and self-expression and to be able to live with a broken-open heart.*
How do we begin to hold this enormity? Can we heal from our agony? And what if our survival pattern is disconnection? Can we change our patterns of retreat? The answer is yes, our lives can be changed. And just as these wounds were originally formed in relationships that were devoid of resonance, we are challenged by and re-shaped in resonant relationship in current time, no matter our age. Whenever we take emotion that has never before been held, and name, understand and resonate with it, we are changing brains. We are building bridges between left and right hemispheres, and strengthening the fibers that allow a person’s compassionate self-witness (the right orbitofrontal cortex) to hold and soothe the enormity of emotion being channeled through the right amygdala. We are healing, expanding and enriching our world, one person at a time.*
In studies of spirituality and the brain, we are finding that it is only when the barriers of our sense of separate self dissolve, that we can experience a sense of oneness or unity with something greater than ourselves. This dissolution of our stories about who we are and what others have done to us, moving instead into a more flexible and responsive space, gives us the gifts of presence and hope. The deep study of Nonviolent Communication is one avenue that takes us into this current of healing resonance. The progression can look something like this: First we learn that our own desires for others to act a certain way come from deeper needs of our heart, and we start to identify those needs. We learn that we have feelings, and that our feelings point toward these deeper, undeniable needs of the soul. We learn that others’ words are actually keys to their heart and their longings. Then our stories about who we really are begin to deepen – the judgments and pain that we have about ourselves are held with compassion, and melt away – a first step toward a consistent sense of union with creation. And we begin to have conversations between self and other, between our souls.