Lisa Ulanoff LMHC SEP
Insights into the Brain:
How Neuroscience Can Help Us Access our Spiritual Self
Insights into the Brain:
How Neuroscience Can Help Us Access our Spiritual Self
Western psychology has only recently begun to understand how the brain functions. Slightly more than a century ago, our brain's capacity to think, and to use logic, ruled the era; the norm was repression of feelings and emotions. Freud gifted the world with the concept of the subconscious; he described its potency; how it is truly the master of our thoughts and behavior. This is what was new to the world at that time: unraveling our repressed feelings would result in changes in behavior and a change in symptoms. Where Freud brought in the meaning of the unconscious, and how to use it to insure a healthy ego, the 1960s was the beginning of the brain breaking away from the rigidity of repressed feelings and the beginning of breaking away from a strict allegiance to a cognitive approach to life (thinking, logic and analyzing). Where the Victorian Era was all about rules, repression, boundaries, containment and station in life, the 1960s was a time of psychedelic drugs, identity disruptions, over throws of rules and regulations, the feminist movement, and the sexual revolution. This time period led our 20 Century brain, further into the experience of breaking up our cognitive ideas about ourselves, and into the exploration, consideration and identification with our feelings. Psychological modalities like Primal Scream, Core Energetics, Bioenergetics, and Gestalt, began to open up the corset of Victorian psychoanalysis and brought human kind into clear access of their emotions via what neuroscience calls the limbic brain. The limbic brain is a section of our brain which rules our affects: it is where we experience our feelings and determines our capacity to attach to other people and make lasting intimate relationships.
“So how are you feeling” became the most well used phrase in psychotherapy. You can see in old documentary clips, previous to the 1970s, for a person to even name a feeling they were experiencing, could of taken a year; naming a feeling was often a revelation. The influence of the Victorian era, was still strong and our collective psyche needed much inquiry; researchers like Mahler and Bowlby further supported the importance of the 'emotional part of our brain' (the limbic brain), within the health of our human development. Their research focused on early emotional attachment, how that resulted in our patterns of attachments in later life and pointed to our later capacities for intimacy.
Spirituality, takes us down an entirely different path; where psychology’s purpose was to establish a healthy ego, and healthy attachments, spirituality teaches that we are not what our ego is identified with and we are not necessarily our feelings either. Our feelings are often part of our conditioned responses, they are often automatic reactions; feelings may or may not be the truth of what we are.
However, we need our feelings, as stepping stones, we need them as vehicles to move through, in order to understand them completely, in order to come into the truth of who we really are. Spiritually speaking, we are so much more than our reactions, as we are so much more than our familiar thinking and self images. In short, we are not who our 'ego self' thinks we are. We are not the roles that we take up in our life. We are much more than the roles of our vocations, mother, son, father, daughter, friend, teacher,etc, that we wear throughout our lives. Letting go of these roles as a major identification, at first, can be disconcerting....however, it is worth it. If we go beyond our familiar thinking, if we go beyond our self images, and if we investigate our emotions with a neutral and loving curiosity, then we begin to experience ourselves as 'our true nature', (sometimes referred to 'presence'). This state of 'presence', is difficult for our ego to recognize because it often appears as something small, tender, gentling and sweet.Our conditioned thoughts and feelings are so loud and dominate, they take up so much room in our brain and body, so we do not notice the goldmine of the 'true nature' of this 'presence' that is sitting right next to us.....so available to us.
John de Ruiter, a spiritual teacher in Canada, once responded to a Seeker who asked him," how can I become enlightened, John de Ruiter responded, "how are you avoiding it."
Spiritual teachings and ancient cultures have a myriad of words to point to this state; these words span the eons of life on this planet and include every culture that has lived here. Some more modern words that refer to ‘the state beyond our ego’ are: ‘our true nature’, ‘the now’ , 'non-dual' , ‘presence’ or ‘essence’, 'the Absolute', 'that'.
Surprisingly, psychology, and Western culture, have no name for this 'state of presence'; our culture does not recognize the reality of our spiritual state of beingness, so it is no wonder that the experience of it seems to elude our brain. It is no wonder that because of the lack of recognition from Psychology, when it comes to knowing this spiritual state, we are often like, the fish swimming around, desperately searching for water.
Now that the “feeling revolution” has come and gone and our culture includes the recognition and expression of emotions; we have now accepted as the norm - that feelings are a very important part of the health of our brain and nervous system. However, there is still something missing, something that can help both the therapist, the patient and the Seeker.This missing element, is hardly recognized in the study of psychology, yet it needs to be utilized for most symptoms to disappear. What has been missing is: naming and experiencing our sensations. Utilizing sensations will help symptoms clear; utilizing sensation will help the brain change. Eugene T. Gendlin, in his book, Focusing, describe how to access our sensations in utilizing the intelligence of the body, in order to heal. He has been known to say that, unless you access sensation, there will be no healing, no resolve.
In review of the 21 Century brain: we can name our thoughts, we can now name our feelings; the next step is sensing into our feelings and finding out where and how they arise in the body as sensations.
The study of trauma has helped us understand how we can utilize sensations in order to help resolve trauma. We see that people who have trauma do not need to excavate their emotions and feelings; they are already overwhelmed by their feelings. People with trauma cannot heal by changing their thoughts or having an emotional catharsis, as was popular from the 1960s through 1990; what has become evident is that talk therapy alone does not help in resolving trauma issues. In fact, getting trauma survivors in touch with large amounts of affect can often re-traumatize them and put them in a freeze state. One thing that helps people with trauma is teaching them to become mindful of bodily sensations; utilizing sensations, within a therapy session, which will help heal trauma and begin to rewire the brain.
Including the awareness of sensations helps the healing of trauma, because it helps resolve the experience of freeze and/or powerlessness that gets stuck in the body during a traumatizing experience ..... but how does this information relate to accessing our spiritual selves?
Both seekers and people with trauma, in the end, need to become mindful of their fight flight and freeze. The victims of trauma need to find and redirect their fight or flight in order to resolve trauma symptoms; Seekers needs to slow down the fight and flight in order to become a neutral observer and move past it. Both need to become 'super tuned' to themselves, as they nudge themselves into sensing into their sensations. Both seekers and trauma victims, learn to digest feelings that get stuck in the body. Stuck feelings in the body to the trauma victim causes symptoms, stuck feelings in the Seeker causes identifications with their personality, which prevents them knowing themselves as presence.
Whenever you slow down these automatic reactions, by utilizing sensations, a very distinct, state of calm and stillness often arises, and in many cases, this distinct state of calm, fullness and stillness 'becomes you'. This is the state that is beyond the fight, flight and freeze response, this is the state of Presence. When the belly and heart become like open space, and the head feels clear, when all is lined up, our true 'beingness' arises and becomes us.
After working as a trauma therapist for the last fifteen years, I have concluded that when we go beyond our normal brain function of fight, flight and freeze, we are no longer going along with the automatic design of our brain. We are in fact going against our cave man brain. I have concluded that slowing down the fight, flight and freeze response in our brain, understanding it, not "spiritually bypassing it", it becomes a doorway, into the realm of the Absolute....into a state where we are not experiencing the stillness but we become the stillness. We are not experiencing ourselves as 'full' but we become the fullness......We are not loving 'the other' but we experience ourselves as love itself.