According to the latest research, what I’m witnessing is her autonomic resting state, as a balanced nervous system allows for optimal metabolism with optimal organ and immune system function.
What I am gazing on is how safe she is feeling at a level deep within her brain and down into her nervous system. She feels secure with seemingly not the slightest sensory perception of threat from either her internal or the external environment. I sit up and automatically cross my legs, feeling a familiar tension as I press them together.
I am sure there is less tension than a couple of months ago, when I first became religious about my deep breathing routine as part of a deliberate effort to re-condition my autonomic nervous system. I close my eyes to begin, tilting my head up slightly and smiling in realization of how this happens more spontaneously now, after a while I open my eyes noticing how relaxed and uncrossed my legs are. I feel the increased skin contact with the bed sheets where constricted muscles have eased their defensive tension, and higher oxidisation of circulating blood bringing increased sensory feedback from skin surface to brain. I look around the room, eyes moving slowly from object to object, making sure to take in the shape, colour and dimension of each item, as if trying to sense the nature of their substance in relation to mine. I’m orienting my sensory perception towards the external world now, finding the right balance between brain neuron, internal and external feedback needs. Am I looking for a Sasi like relaxed yet alert autonomic nervous system activity, a feline calm resting state?
Like most people I had been oblivious to my own hidden autonomic nervous system activity, my unconscious reactions to the world and to myself. How I wish I was wired like Sasi and could remain blissfully unaware of this deeper self, for Sasi life flows with a healthy combination of thought and spontaneous reflexive action, with patterns of neuronal firing and autonomic nervous system activity established by her early experience in the first three years of life. Her early experiences of positive innate affects have become her nerve-based expectation of how the world works and how to be in the world. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy her happy unguarded disposition, begets a similar response from others and her positive vitality is like a force of nature, attracting others like a magnet. I laugh to myself thinking how she‘s living proof of how contagious innate affects are, she infects everyone around her with indescribable pleasure. Yet like everyone else she has forgotten how she was soothed to a calm resting state after her very first breath triggered the innate affect of distress known as the birth cry, forgotten how calm her mother was in her early life, and takes it completely for granted.
Forgotten too, what kind of care she received and what kind of neuronal/nerve-based sensations formed her early experience. I wonder was she constantly held close to her mothers chest and how much she felt skin contact, felt her mothers heartbeat and how often was she in rhythmic synch with her mothers breathing, soothing away any sensations of innate distress?. How often did she see smiling faces that roused sensations of elation within her, this metabolized energy state so vital for healthy brain tissue growth in the first years of life? What percentage of her early sensation experiences were positive, conditioning her nervous system with predominately positive expectation? Of coarse she can’t remember any of this for it was never ever conscious, the foundational experiences that now stimulate her impulsive movements, her thirst for positive sensations and her aversion to anything resembling the negative kind. For example when I want to explain complicated theory to Sasi, the primary innate affect of ‘distress’ is triggered in her brain, a small number of neurons fire for milliseconds stimulating a nervous reaction that demands urgent relief from this negative state of being, hence the instantaneous look of ‘what’s wrong with you,’ as a plea to resume a pleasant sensation experience.
Looking around the room in this early dawn, I’m reminded of Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now,” and his description of the night he first sensed such power, how his awareness of objects in the room changed as he became grounded in calm state. I can relate to his experience as I sit here enjoying a slow rhythmic breathing, mindful of keeping my facial muscles relaxed and relieved that I can’t think much while in this state. I wonder if I’m finding switches in the sensory feedback loops between my body and brain, and instantly these thoughts bring a certain tension to my checks as if I’m posturing a face of concern. The very idea that I can consciously affect my own internal feedback loops has been a revelation in the last few months and I try it in the other direction tensing my face like a Greek mask of tragedy, sure enough it brings on a surge of thinking with a concerned tone. Thoughts of Greek masks and muscular feedback loops between the body and the brain brings to mind an image of the Buddha, and I turn to look at Sasi’s large painting hanging above our bed. It’s a famous one of his serene looking face with eyes closed and presumably contemplating his breath. His supremely serene look reveals a conspicuous lack of muscular tension and it reminds me how the facial muscles are used as a signalling system to other animals.
The face gives unique feedback to others about our internal state, those two hundred muscles in the face can display an amazing variety and subtlety of emotional state. Yet the muscle spasms also work in the opposite direction, as sensory feedback signals to our own brain which also trigger innate affects. Hence my concerned thoughts when I contort my face, how I must have triggered the innate affect of distress, which stimulated the surge and tone of thinking. Looking at the Buddha I wonder how much he knew back then, how much he understood what he was actually doing in his meditative state. Its taken centuries for science and the magic of MRI scans to even begin to reveal the hidden networks of our brains neural stimulation of the autonomic nervous system, only now are we beginning to understand the secret of the Buddha’s repose. "He not only relaxes every muscle, he closes his eyes to further reduce sensory feedback," I say to myself.
* * *
I get up before Sasi wakes, needing to make amends for my stunt with shame affect last night. I make a breakfast and bring it to her, placing the tray on her bedside table I lean over and kiss her check.
‘Darling,’ she rolls over to face me and starts to stretch her silky limbs, making some delicious waking noises, delicious because Sasi has the purest, untainted innate affect expressions I’ve ever experienced. We share breakfast together with the usual pleasant banter, although there’s some sense of distance this morning, a slightly gnawing tension, the feeling that something is off with our banter more formulaic than spontaneous, more like a series of well rehearsed one liners. A little later after dressing and preparing for work, Sasi comes to bid me farewell.
‘Have a good day darling, don’t work too hard,’ she tells me with a slight tone of sarcasm in her voice.
‘You too darling,’ I say with a genuinely warm smile.
‘Perhaps you can manage half a dozen paragraphs today,’ Sasi says as she turns to walk away, our customary kiss no where in sight.
‘Ouch!’ I say, knowing how much I deserve it and wondering if this will be enough to disperse the negative affect that is now unconsciously motivating her. Sasi is angry with me, but can’t give the affect/emotion its full innate expression, angry outbursts, screaming, hitting are not normally part of her emotional repertoire. I wonder if she will unwittingly take it out on some poor soul at work and my head drops knowing that trying to talk to her now will probably make it worse. Her anger is largely unconscious and it’s expression is consciously unacceptable to the good socially responsible person Sasi was raised to be. Her conscious sense of self is fighting her unconscious self, fighting her innate instinctual affects by denying instinct as part of her personality, even though her repressed anger is a perfectly natural and legitimate response. Like any animal attacked, as she was last night, her freeze/fight/flight/fright defense system is active and she also feels anger as frustration with her unconscious shame response. She is trying hard to model good social behavior, being what she should be, yet her usual flowing persona is submerged now, replaced by simulated positive affects in the postured pretense of good manners.
What should I do? Should I do something stupid and admit it to her, thereby giving her the chance to chastise me and gain the upper hand, the dominant position while I assume a sub-dominant subservient posture. Or should I find an antidote for her negative state, an anti-affect that will drown the bad feelings that now energize her unconscious reactions. I reach for the telephone book and look up the adverts for singing telegrams, finding a guy who sings and tells jokes, a dozen red roses and bottle of Champaign should warm the office proceedings as well. As I put down the phone I pray that it goes down well, fantasizing that contagious laughter from the other girls, will infect Sasi too. An hour later and alone in the house I anxiously wait for a phone call, wishing there was someone here to affect me to a joyous state. I put on my favourite music instead and notice the steady reduction in anxiety as my senses are affected by the rhythmic sounds.
I’m reminded of affect regulation theory again, of inter-regulation and intra-regulation and my fantasy images of Sasi at the office with singing telegram man making everybody laugh. Such internal fantasy is intra-regulation as I try to alleviate my fears and guilt by using my imagination to stimulate a positive affective state within myself, neurologists call this auto-stimulation. Hopefully if all goes well Sasi will have her negative state changed by the inter-regulating affect of those around her, their infectious laughter will trigger the innate affect of joy in Sasi. Just as this music is triggering innate joy in me, with the negative affect of distress swamped by a surge of electrochemical activity, a joyous and positive affective state.
Time to write I decide and sit down at my desk gazing at an intimidating blank sheet of paper, "will the writing flow today" I wonder. I make a start and find that ideas and writing come without constraint, with continuing energy fueled by relief that I’m not held back like yesterday. I can feel nervous excitation in my body as my legs pulse with rhythmic movements and the idea of taking a notepad to a café springs to mind. I remind myself to stay calm and try to sense what’s happening here, the Buddha comes into mind again as I remember the Buddhist concept of sensing the gap between the spark and the flame.
An involuntary nod of the head overcomes me as I see the parallel to innate affects as the flints that light our emotions, stimulating our energy and movement. I think about the nine innate affects and wonder what neurons and their electrochemical activity is stimulating my nervous system right now. Of the three evolutionary layers in my brain, which layer is having the most affect on my autonomic (animal) nervous system? It feels like the higher layer of my brain is functioning ok, at least in the thinking department its responsible for, yet the lower layers seem to be stimulating fight/flight adrenalin with a nervous sensation in my legs and the irresistible urge to move.
"Where did that analysis come from," I wonder, I doubt the Buddha would have had such thoughts, he’d never heard of Darwin or Allan Schore or Stephen Porges, and could it be true that newly acquired knowledge can rewire the brain? Have some new neural connections formed in my brain, finding synaptic associations in all the written words that my eyes have scanned lately, and somehow been deemed worthy of memory? How much of my minds current associative ideas, my brains synaptic connectivity is taking place in the hot limbic (mammalian) emotional region of my brain and how much neuronal activity is happening in the so called, cooler and logical frontal cortex region?
Autonomic nervous system urge wins out and I decide to walk to my favourite coffee shop, rationalising my decision with thoughts of giving my hyperactive vigilance something to do, allowing space for some creative thinking. While walking along I try to visualise what’s going on inside my brain, over one trillion cells, one hundred billion neurons, with each neuron capable of five thousand synaptic connections. "There’s a whole galaxy of activity going on in there," I think, imaging electrochemical storms as bursts of energy which coalesce to form new ideas, just like a star filled nebula. "Now there’s limbic region activity for you."
While walking, I pass by the path into the woods that I had trod yesterday, it sparks an implicit memory of that experience and my shudder of shame. A storm of thoughts is released and I wonder if I’m brave enough to trigger the shudder here on this very public footpath. Of coarse the thoughts trigger memories triggering the dreaded sensation and I close my eyes while pausing to fight off the feeling of collapse, "this is a body memory," I say to myself.
Where is it from and what is it for though? Are these objective questions about an instinctual reaction that has nothing to do with object oriented logic or higher brain function. In Sasi’s animal nervous system view, it’s an instinctual reaction to the memory of a perceived threat. I guess those neurons in my brain don’t know the difference between an actual and self stimulated threat, blindly responding to internal feedback. I cast my mind back to the shudder’s first appearance as I faced my fathers rage, I think I was about six or seven years old then and the memory is fuzzy, making it more vivid threatens to completely undo me. Dad wasn’t being particularly violent that day, there were no blows from his clenched fists, yet the emotional rage had felt like such utter contempt and disgust for his own child. Perhaps that particular outburst was the straw that broke the camels back so to speak, the cumulative effect/affect of his almost daily unpredictable rage filled rants.
I stand completely still for a moment now, evoking the scene again and daring myself to feel the absolute depth of this sensation. In this moment of deep reflection I realise that the shudder is not about shame but inescapable terror and a biological urge to escape by feigning death, a vestige of mammalian heritage in my autonomic nervous system. I’m now fifty seven years old and this is the first time I’ve used the word terror in connection with that event or my fathers daily behavior. Events I’ve described many times in group and individual therapy sessions, not knowing until today, or perhaps not being able to admit to myself until now the reality of my father terrorising his own child.
* * *
It is to simple to suggest that this one event is the sum cause of my lifelong nervous hyperactivity, although it adds to the explanation of my irrational fear of people. Unconsciously, what I fear is that people will trigger that same dreaded reaction, it’s the expectation of such negative sensation I fear, not the reality of any current situation and I can now see how my conscious mind was confused by the numbness this biological reaction evokes. I take a few minutes to breath deeply and calm myself, reclaiming my equilibrium and soothing my nervous system to lower activity before proceeding to the cafe. Fortunately my favourite coffee place is quiet and I settle into a comfortable armchair by the upstairs window, slowly beginning to sketch out ideas for the opening chapters. A triune layered brain and nervous system, the very first sensations of life triggers the innate affect distress, an innate affect is a whole body physiological reaction encompassing an increase or decrease in metabolic rate to energise or de-energise the brain/body.
The human brain’s postnatal maturing in the first three years of life, is dependant on interaction with adult brains which trigger innate affects, energizing metabolic states vital for the further growth of the brains neural networks and systems. A mix of innate affects become the platform for our complex emotionality, based on the density of early positive or negative experiences. Each family has a generational mode of affect/emotion expression, which is generally either predominately positive or negative with a generally open or closed bias towards sensation experience. Our object orientated perceptual bias, is a coping mechanism unconsciously affected by our upright locomotion. The brain and the body function largely by systems of electrochemical activity, poorly described and deeply misunderstood using object metaphors as descriptors.
‘I told the guy he’s crazy if he thinks I’m working for less than double pay on a weekend.’ The volume of his voice had interrupted my train of thought, drawing my attention to the three men now sitting at a nearby table.
‘I tell you that son of a bitch would have us work for peanuts if he could get away with it.’ The voluminous voice belongs to a large man flanked by two others who are nodding in earnest agreement. I sit and watch for a while as the big man holds court, always interrupting any comments made by his friends, always topping any tale by the other two with a bigger yarn of his own. He must be at least six three in height, big barrel chest with his raised jaw pushed slightly forward, clearly proud of his dominance in this particular hierarchy. The other two have slightly lower head postures when sitting passively, chins pointing down and inwards, constricting the windpipe and triggering an instinctual sub-dominate posture, here is a situational response of appropriate shame. I wonder if this is the emotional echo of the life eats life law of survival which all animals are subject to? Of coarse we all deny that, we are certainly not animals after all, even though we can be the most creatively destructive creatures on the planet.
I shake my head at my cynical thoughts, wondering about my own character defining early innate affect experiences, fear, distress, anger, are these what Carl Jung would call my emotional complex? I muse about my birth experience too, wondering if the three days of struggle followed by an unceremonious forceps delivery could be described as birth trauma, and what does go on inside the brain/body prior to birth? I wonder what affect the pre-birth experience has, what goes on before the first breath which triggers the innate affect of distress as a signal for support? I wonder if generally speaking we are unconsciously immersed in defensively triggered innate affects and whether we grow out of it, certainly the sarcastic humor of my childhood was fueled by unconscious innate affect reactions.
‘Well, back to work guys, can’t keep the boss man waiting.’ I watch the men troupe out of the cafe, noting the ranking order in their procession with big man out front of coarse. None of this behaviour is consciously acknowledged by any of the men, they are just three buddies sharing a work break, and I wonder how much my own observations are biased by a ranking need to feel myself as superior, stronger. Would I have simply joined in with the rank and status game if I had been invited into the group, of coarse I would for there was more going on than just ranking behaviour. They shared jokes and received the vitality affects of smiles and laughter, the boosts to the immune system and so on, and what does it really matter if most of the jokes came from one man, there is now no doubt about the essential need of vitality affects from such social interactions.
Time for me to go too, I have an important candle light dinner to prepare for my darling. As I rise from the chair I notice how knotted my stomach muscles have become again, "so much for relaxation exercises," I say to myself. While walking home I struggle to feel a solid sense of earth beneath my feet, aware that I have retreated inside again with to much concerned thinking triggering innate distress, the locus of my metabolic energy oriented to my head. It’s been a strange month, staying home alone to write, I feel like I’m loosing my accustomed sense of self, instead of being immersed in work activities and surrounded by people, I feel like I’m falling in on myself. The normal day to day inter-reactions with other people and the unconscious compass that provides is falling away as I channel all my energies into thoughts about this book.
* * *
Upon reaching home, I feel somewhat tired and drained, and decide to take a short nap before I prepare the meal. I lay face down on the bed, wanting to get a feel of stomach muscles against the mattress. I try to find a better felt sense of my internal state, I can feel a pressure in my head, a blood flow that I’ve somehow stimulated with my earnest concerned thinking. It feels like a flight from my body to a large degree, and I wonder how I am organizing it, what am I doing to stimulate this affective state? I sense the tightness in my chest and my habitual shallow breathing, the legacy of childhood asthma, I feel a hard knot in my stomach and a pinching of my anal sphincter muscle. The Hakomi phrase ‘How do you do’ comes into my mind, and how it translates to ‘how are you doing YOU?’
I wonder which innate affects are firing in my brain to spark this internal state, as if I’m trying to escape, but from what? I think about my realisation on the way to the coffee shop, and if I do have an unconscious sense of terror, then this escape sensation I’m feeling makes sense in terms of an animal nervous system response. I think about the four part autonomic nervous system response to threat, freeze/fight/flight/fright, and wonder if I use the fright end of that spectrum to channel much of my body’s metabolic energy into my head? Perhaps this helps generate my constant thinking, and is my lifelong preference for the intellect an adaptation of an unresolved terror reaction? I remember that arousal and metabolic energy is largely to do with heart rate and stress response. Still lying face down, I bring my focus of attention to my chest area, with immediate affect to internal feedback signals. I feel a relaxing of muscles in my stomach and I suddenly sense my legs, I feel a fight between thought filled awareness and felt awareness. As I try to shift awareness of sensation away from my head and into my body, I’m a bit dismayed at the strong resistance to orienting awareness away from constant thinking, away from my head. I concentrate on feeling my chest muscles, sensing what tensions I can and trying not to think, "why do I find it so hard to let go of thinking."
Slowly I feel a drifting down, the sensation of relaxing muscles and tensions, and a slowing of thoughts in tune with my deeper breathing. Keep it up, I say to myself, sensing that this is different to the sitting position, of deep breathing exercises. I try to bring more felt attention to my chest muscles, feeling an increasing depth to my breathing, as well as a definite undoing of those knots in my stomach. Involuntary deep breaths overtake me, and I become aware of more internal feedback, more sensory awareness of my body as I continue this re-orienting of metabolized energy away from my head. As I stay with this focus on my chest area feeling an expanded rhythmic rise and fall, and slowly becoming aware of muscle tensions in my face, particularly my jaw. A deep sigh overtakes me now as I remember that tension in the jaw is seen as a sign of repressed anger, although it’s no surprise that anger could be one of the innate affects that stimulate my normal energy state. As I re-orient to this feeling of just being here without thinking, I become aware of tensions in my checks and around my eyes, finding that the more I let go of these tensions, the less pressure of thought there is. Awareness of pressure at the top of my head, reminds me how affect/emotion is used to generate metabolic energy states in the form of increased blood flow through the brain. Is that blood pressure I can feel? I wonder, and thoughts about this sensation at the top of my head shifts orientation and energy up there again. I continue to practice this felt awareness of my chest muscles, with thoughts about heart rate and metabolic energy alternating with sensations of muscle relaxation, particularly in my stomach, anus and legs, and thoughts like, why does sensing my body like this feel so weird?
* * *
Bang! I’m jolted awake by the sound of our bedroom door being slammed shut, opening my eyes to see the bedside clock showing 6.30pm, "oh no!" I rise and wonder out to the kitchen where Sasi is busy unloading food from the fridge, about to start cooking the meal I promised myself I’d make.
‘Hi darling’ I say, feeling sheepish and more than a little guilty. Sasi continues her search of the fridge contents, ignoring my lame greeting.
‘Did you have a good day?’ I ask, bracing myself for the look when she turns around. Sasi straightens herself and turns slowly indicating just how bad this going to be. She fixes me with a look that is somehow beyond contempt, making me feel I’m even not worthy of that and I smile meekly like a five year old who’s been caught red handed doing something naughty.
‘How was the Champaign?’ I ask, in a vain attempt to defrost the atmosphere. She turns away in silence, moving to a bench top area to start the food preparation. This is going to be a long night and I wonder how close I should get while she has a weapon in her hand? I decide to give the tension time to dissipate and head for the bathroom to freshen up. While showering I notice unusual sensations, with a newer felt awareness of where I am and what I’m doing, I feel the pleasant sensation of the water splashing against my skin much more than usual, with slower more deliberate movements than I would normally use. Usually I rush through this exercise, busy thinking about something or other and almost totally lost to this feeling of being in the now as Eckhart Tolle might say. "So this is what re-balancing my autonomic, animal nervous system feels like," I think. I have thoughts about attempts to use computer metaphor to describe affect/emotion and the brains functioning, telling myself I must be re-configuring my operating system. "Stop thinking!" I think, "just feel it," I say out loud.
I finish showering and slowly shave, brush my teeth and get dressed, wondering if I’m savoring this ‘now’ sensation or avoiding the time to face the music, before wondering back into the kitchen with the sensual delights of cooking filling my nostrils.
‘Can I help?’ I ask.
‘Set the table,’ Sasi barks, without turning to look.
‘You could always throw something, as long as it’s not hot or sharp,’ I suggest.
‘Don’t be stupid - Oh! Sorry you can’t help it, can you,’ she fires back.
‘Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Your so pathetic,’ Sasi tells me, still refusing to look at me.
‘If your angry then be angry, don’t give me this childish cold shoulder crap’ I tell her.
‘Childish! Childish! You’re the one who’s freaking childish, pretending you can write a book, when all you do is hang around the house and sleep!’
‘It’s hard work darling.’ Sasi freezes with carving knife in mid air trying to comprehend my incredulous comment.
‘Don’t darling me! - I agreed to let you spend a year writing while I support both of us, if you can’t write grow up and go back to work,’ she demands.
‘It will come darling, I just need time to deepen my insight.’
‘It’s been a month already and all you’ve done is read more books and write two lousy pages,’ Sasi shouts at me.
‘And?’ I say.
‘Your so pathetic, you really are!’ She says jamming the point of the knife hard into the wooden craving block.
‘That’s better darling.’
‘Fuck you! You pretentious, self-absorbed, arrogant prick!’ Sasi shouts, picking up a dinner plate and hurling it towards me. I duck, twisting to watch the plate whistle over my head and carry on through the open door to the hallway, where it lands on the shag pile carpet without breaking.
‘Amazing! - Anymore?’ I say.
‘I fucking hate you!’ Sasi screams as she hurls another plate to the tiled floor, smashing it to pieces. With tears rolling down her cheeks now, she pushes me to the floor as she passes by on her way to the bedroom. I feel the words, ‘What about dinner?’ Rise in my throat, but resist the temptation, acknowledging it as a pure dominance urge, then my head drops down as guilt and shame consume me and I pray she’s vented her anger now.
* * *
Anger is an innate affect that can be suppressed, modulated or simulated and Sasi suppresses hers like most people do in accordance with the social rules of good behaviour and their ability to cope with the stimulated internal sensations. Since my stunt with shame affect, Sasi has been suppressing her anger through denial, which is stimulated by innate distress as an aversion to experiencing negative sensations. Denial also as a resistance to expressing anger towards her life partner, risking the threat of separation, and with little experience of anger as an nervous sensation such feelings threaten her from within. Like the old saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”, it is the innate affect and its stimulated sensations that we fear, not the object that has triggered our innate affects. Innate affects are biological - physiological, whole body, instinctual responses, evolved to enhance our prospects of survival.
We confuse this animal foundation to our being with our higher faculty of mind, rationalizing and seeing pathology in little understood and mostly denied, innate affect responses. Sasi’s unacknowledged fears of losing our relationship and her aversion to the sensations, innate anger stimulates within her, manifest in distress stimulated denial which has blocked her from giving full expression to her justified anger. With a different life experience, Sasi may have defended herself forthrightly at the first instance of my attack on her, when I’d triggered an innate shame response. Having had little experience of such negative affects, like anger or distress and certainly not the unhealthy side of shame known as humiliation, Sasi has struggled with sensations her life experience has not prepared her for, emotions her wonderful social nature finds threatening. She struggled to keep this emotional energy cool, even though it is generated through the reptilian and mammalian layers of the brain and is not cool in its instinctual nature, evolved over millions of years to compel us to physical movement.
Chp 3 >>