Let me know if this has never happened to you. You tell a friend you had a nasty cold last week, she tells you that her boss and her uncle did too, there must be something in the air. You tell your other friend that you had an argument with your boyfriend, she tells you that she also had troubles with her mother, it seems that mercury is in retrograde and it makes communication hard. You tell yet another friend that you lost your job, he tells you that surely the universe has better plans for you.
Do you experience something between irritation, sadness or a sense of being utterly alone when these sort of things happen to you? Maybe you are a very understanding person and know deep down that your friends have very good intentions when they answer you like that, and so you can appreciate their efforts to bring some relief to your suffering.
In my experience these sort of interactions rarely lead to a deeper exploration of the situation at hand. Once we seem to have identified the cause of our suffering we tend to stop going any further. It is rare that someone, on hearing about our problems, might say: "And how is that for you?" or "What´s really bothering you about this?". We seem to have a predilection for problem solving from a logical, analytical stand point, we like to understand, classify, organize and explain our experiences in an orderly and seameless fashion. It is unquestionable that this does bring some kind of relief. Understanding and making sense of our world is an absolutely essential process of the human psyche and it provides us the ground on which to stand on. Essential as it is, this process in not, in and of itself, sufficient to bring a real sense of peace and completion. We often overlook the fact that besides understanding our experiences with our intelect we also need to integrate them through our emotional and physical selves. This is a lot less straightforward than explaining them intelectually. It is a rather messy, incoherent and, frankly, difficult to sustain process. Our emotions don't simply want to be analyzed, they want to be felt, they call for a deeper kind of understanding, a rather experiencial, multi-layered understanding that often begins with a confusing fog and only slowly begins to unravel. Or emotions often need time and silence to unfold, they need a break from the insiting question "but why?". They need to be left in peace and simply allowed to exist for a while before we can begin to decipher their messages. This is unsettling and uncomfortable. Generally this is the moment when we begin to think that "things happen for a reason" and this seem to offer some kind of hope. We are very good at making up these "reasons", sometimes we even think that the simple notion that there must be a reason is enough, even though we may never know what it is.
I believe that there is a reason for all this reason seeking. When we understand (or think we understand) the cause of an event, we gain a sense of agency over it. We essentially believe that we can control events by understanding the underlying factors that cause them and this is certainly true, in most cases. Even when these reasons are not offering us direct control over things, like in the case of astrological or religious explanations, at least we feel secure that we don't live in a random universe where things happen just because. That is the worst possible thing that could happen to a human: randomness. We absolutely need to believe that we live in a world that makes sense or our sense of survival is at stake. How could anyone survive in a random world? We wouldn't be able to plan our actions or predict their outcomes. We couldn't keep ourselves safe, we would be utterly vulnerable. That is precisely how we feel when we simply allow our emotions to be, we feel undefended.
Although it is unquestionable that we do need to have a sense of agency over our lives and we do well to try and understand the world we live in, I also believe it is an essential part of the process of maturation to come to accept our ultimate vulnerablility and stop defending ourselves from it by creating explanations for the things that happen in our lives. We simply don't know if there is a reason why our mother got cancer or our partner left suddenly to sail across the seven seas. and for all the efforts we may make at keeping everything under control and safe our cat will still die and our hair will fall off, as poet Ellen Bass tenderly points out in her poem "Relax". We have a lot to gain from the uncomfortable experience of learning to face our vulnerability in a world that keeps its explanations mostly to itself. When we relax our effort to understand and explain we suddenly can allow ourselves to be, to experience, to know what it's like to live what we are living. Instead of frantically looking for the answer, we can sit down and admit we have no clue and still, here we are, alive. It is remarkable how this can open up new possibilities for a different kind of understanding, a fuller, deeper sense of being alive and to partake directly in the workings of a world in which we are quite clearly not the master-minds. It isn't necesarrily a path that shields us form pain but, since this is unavoidable anyway, it affords us a sense of true connection with the experience of being human. I wonder if this, in some sense, can become just as important to us as our need for security. We don't have to fall in to a nihilistic or cynical attitude either, that, in my view, is still a defense from the experience of vulnerability. We can begin to explore the boundaries between what is in our hands to shape and form and what simply requires that we sit a while with our hands in our lap and feel what it's like not to be in charge, trying to accept that confusion and bewilderment are inescapable experiences of being human.
In the last post (which you will find below this one) we introduced the Default Mode Network and discovered its purpose and way of working. As a quick refresher, we can say that it is an automatic part of our nervous system designed to function when we are not focussed on any particular task and which takes care of organizing, reviewing and trying to predict anything that has to do with our sense of self and our social interactions. Its aim is to keep us safe and it organizes itself around past relational experiences .
As we have seen, although its intentions are good, oftentimes the DMN has turned in to a bit of an over vigilant, critical, gloomy and inflexible voice that runs a pretty dismal commentary on our life. This might keep us safe in some respects but it hardly makes for a pleasant life companion.
In this article we will explore some of the ways that can help us transform our DMN in to a more enjoyable, compassionate, collaborative and supportive companion. You can also listen to the audio, where we are going to practice a guided meditation that helps us bring these ideas in to our day to day life.
Getting to know your DMN
Although we have given same general ideas to help us understand the DMN, every person has a particular way in which their DMN has configured itself. Some can be particularly critical and tending towards perfectionism, always looking out for what could be better. Others tend to scan for danger, for threats and possible disasters, worrying and trying to prepare for the worst. Some are very concerend with fitting in and being accepted, others with being able to express our unique nature and been seen for who we are.
It is useful to start getting to know what your DMN is particularly interested in. What are its concerns? In what particular way is it trying to keep you safe? If you could picture your DMN, what would it look like? What tone of voice does it use to speak to you, does it wag its finger or is it shrugging its shoulders?
Starting a relationship with your DMN
Once we have identified our DMN, we can start having a relationship with it, therefore recognizing that IT is not ME. Giving it a form, a character, helps to remember that it is a part of ourself but not our essential self, our identity, and more importantly, that its voice is not the voice of truth. A client of mine sees it like an old cranky granny which helps him dialogue with her with a bit of humour and tenderness. Establishing a relationship is essential, yet more essential is the kind of relationship we establish. A conflictive, dismissive, critical or submissive relationship won't bring any meaningful improvement. As with any relationship in life, getting to understand the deep concerns that the DMN is trying to care for, however skewed and clumsy its way of doing that may be, helps to foster a sense of respect and inclusion. Understanding that your DMN is trying to protect you from harm, to avoid you feeling the pain you felt at some earlier point in your life, that it wants you to belong, to be accepted, to be valued, to be safe, might help you to connect with it in a softer way. NonViolent Communication invites us to make a very important distinction between Needs and Strategies: a need is a core value that is essential to our wellbeing, like safety, belonging, freedom, care etc. A strategy is what we do to try to fulfill that need. Unfortunately strategies can be very poor, short sighted and once they become habitual they hardly ever get updated to see if they are actually working. Our DMN could have pretty bad startegies, like criticizing us all the time in order to "make us better people" in its attempt to fulfill our need for acceptance and love. Or it can stop us from ever taking a risk, just in case things go bad, trying to fulfill our need for safety. Recognizing the needs our DMN is trying to care for might help us to get on better terms with it while we also try to review its strategies.
A bit of humour
Steven Hayes, the American clinical psychologist who developed ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) shares a few ways in which to "put the brakes on" the DMN. One of them which I have found particularly useful in my work with clients is the use of humour. It is essential to differentiate between humour and ridicule. If we go back to the cranky old granny example, we might want to use a kind of affectionate humour to tell her: "Hello there...yes, here we go with the end of the world scenario again...I know you really want to make sure I am safe and prepared in case of danger....thank you for your care...I think I am pretty safe just going down to the shop getting some milk but I´ll practice my karate chops before leaving the house if that makes you feel better!". Humour is a way of letting the DMN know we have understood its intention and that we also want to try a different strategy, lightening things up. Its a bit like what we do with an old friend or family member who has an annoying habit but we love them very much anyway. Lightening up is a vital part of relating with our DMN since its voice can become so familiar that we actually believe it without ever questioning it. "Catching" our DMN on the wing and being able to take some perspective, not arguing but knowing that things are much bigger, much more awe inspiring and mind boggling complex than it would have us believe, can be a life saver.
Broadening the view and updating the files
Our DMN has based its way of seeing the world on certain experiences that have most likely happened when we were quite small. That means it has not caught up with the fact that we are now in a different environment, with different people, that we are older, more skillfull and resourceful than we were back then. Also, in its effort to keep us safe from danger, disappointment and suffering, it has a habit of only registering the experiences that support its view of the world. If my DMN is sensitive to the suffering that comes from not being accepted it will hook on on every little side glance in the eyes of other people but it might not take much notice of the big smiles I receive. Making a conscious effort to register experiences that are offering a different view of the world and recognizing all our skills and resources can help broaden and calm the DMN.
Trying something different
Your DMN has been there for a long time and it's not going to go away overnight. Infact, it's probably better that way cause you might not manage to survive without its array of skills. The aim here is not to get rid of your DMN or turn it in to a superstar or the 0.1 version. A more realistic aim is to learn to live with it, in as much comfort as possible, knowing that it will show up every now and then with its quirky habits and that you also have the possibility of choosing to do things differently. You don't have to be a slave of your DMN nor do you have to be completely free of it. Without it you may end up not protecting yourself when you need to, or you might have to use vasts amounts of energy trying to be conscious of every thing you do. The key point is having the option to choose, when you want to. Do you want to go out for dinner with friends tonight or do you actually prefer going along with the old habit of choosing safety in being alone and doing your own thing? Neither is a better choice, the sad thing would be wanting to go out and having your DMN dragging you home.
So, start paying attention to what you actually want to do right now, to the situation you are in, the people you are with...are they actually threatening? Is there a need to use the old protective strategies or could you take a little risk and do something different? Could you accept help and see if it turns out to be as disappointing as your DMN tells you it will? Could you take in a kind word without having your DMN scrunch it up and throwing it in the bin staright away? Could you be just a little bit more vulnerable or brave, which are really the same thing in the end? Figure out some small way in which you can take a risk and see what happens...was your DMN right? Maybe it was, or maybe not, in which case don't forget to update the files!
Calming a stressed DMN
There are various ways in which we can offer our DMN some relief when it gets over active.
Acupuncture has a pretty good record of affecting the nervous system in ways that help calm it down.
Doing something creative that engages the body is a good way of getting the DMN off the hook. Painting, drawing, playing music, singing, dancing etc.
Slow martial arts like Tai Chi or Ki Kung are wonderful for stabilizing the DMN
Doodling can be also very effective. I have recently come across Zentangling, a modern version of the old art: https://zentangle.com/.
In the next post we will look at the role of our limbic brain in all that has to do with emotions, out of control reactions and trauma, to be sure to get it, suscribe to the newsletter!
I would love to hear if any of these ideas has made sense to you, if you have tried any of them out and what kind of experiences did they bring you. Share your thoughts in the comment section below!
1/10/2019 0 Comments
Welcome to a new year which will hopefully bring us all further along the path of greater peace, compassion and wellbeing in ourselves and in our world.
My personal contribution to this is a series of short articles and audios which I created to help share the fundamental references that underpin Relational Integration, namely: Interpersonal Neuro Biology, Mindfulness and NonViolent Communication.
I believe that the information contained in these articles and audios will greatly enhance our capacity to orient ourselves towards empathy, collaboration, healing and inner peace throughout this year.
I invite you to join me in the first chapter of the series where we shed some light on the Defalut Mode Network, otherwise known as "the constant chatter in our mind" to find out how to create a positive relationship with it.
Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to receive the following installments. If you find this post useful, please do pass it on to others who may benefit from understanding themselves better.
Your comments and ideas are very valuable and very welcome, so I hope you feel inspired to share them in the comment section below.
Empathy is a buzz word these days, it seems to have found its way in a wide variety of contexts and there is a whealth of information about it. Empathy is at the core of NonViolent Communicaction and also it has a fundamental role in Inter Personal Neuro Biology, making it one of the subjects that I most frequently talk or write about. I have created this little booklet to serve as an introduction and, hopefully, clear guide as to what empathy is and isn't, as I regularly encounter misconceptions about it. Even when we understand it correcty theoretically, empathy still proves to be a skill that needs regular practice and commitment in our world. It is my hope that this booklet will serve to foster the development of a more empathic culture and society.