I just participated in an amazing experience at Esalen, for 7 days. I attended an intensive immersion training offered by Laurel Parnell, creator of Attachment Focused EMDR, perched right at the edge of the sea in Big Sur. I was transformed and inspired by the rugged power of the cliffs, sea, whales, and condors, and training simultaneously. AF-EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to activate both hemispheres of the brain, in conjunction with guided recall of troubling circumstances or traumatic events, to integrate stories and inaccurate negative beliefs with more whole, rational and emotionally developed parts of the psyche. The result is that neural pathways that have been frozen as a result of the body’s flood of fight/flight hormones and neurostransmittors are literally linked up with more current, adaptive, and functional parts of the nervous system. Primal and seemingly unshakable self-concepts such as “I’m alone” or “I can’t take care of myself” that get lodged in the nervous system anywhere from infancy through adulthood, can be processed through to rational completion, and suddenly integrate with more nuanced and flexible cognition. The goal of this modality is to heal trauma, which it absolutely does. During a session a client is guided (with bilateral stimulation – such as alternate knee tapping or auditory tones) to follow the natural arising of thoughts, images, sensations, emotions. During all the sessions I participated in as both therapist and client, clients left feeling a significant decrease if not complete elimination of disturbance related to an initial chosen trigger.
The most striking thing to me about this modality is an inexplicable but remarkable by-product. At the end of sessions clients frequently report feeling warmth, self-acceptance, love, profound forgiveness, and speak aloud some of the most insightful and compassionate statements about themselves and anyone involved in their traumatic events. Its as though the psyche, no matter how many years it has spent caught up in and repeating suffering from the past, is just waiting to return to its original state of openness, compassion, and strength. Our baseline is wisdom and compassion, when we can support our nervous systems to move through and release the events that punctured or inhibited neural integration. Everything else is a deviation from that wholeness. As water always finds its way downward, as light shines through any crack without bias, trauma always seeks resolution, and seems to know its own way given open channels.
I’m grateful to Laurel Parnell, her vision and passion as a therapist, and the many skilled teachers and therapists I worked with over the course of that week.
The last night I was at Esalen, these words came to me, inspired by the healing and connection I witnessed and experienced directly:
Your light will never stop tracing its way back to the origin of stars
No matter the weight
And deaf grinding
of misunderstandings -
that you held more dearly
than a map in the tender dark.
Your light gathers momentum
A flock swan hope,
The fierce gems of hummingbird throats, waiting
In the hurricane of your heartbeat
Pushing against any crack
Or right kind of quiet
To turn it into a window
Or door to the sky.
Even tectonic plates
Where civilizations sleep and roar assumptions
On a bed of
Ancient liquid fire.
There is nothing certain
About the things that hurt
Except that they are temporary coverings
To your wild honey,
To the Milky Way of your/
There is nothing you can do
To not belong here.
You are home.
You have never
Not been loved.
And every cell in your body is
An original diamond
Coded to resonate the singular song of stars, whales, water, and warmth.
When we Let everything we know
Everytime I’m in the wilderness, something simple hits me as astonishing. Winding down a trail from a couple days and nights in my favorite high sierra landscape, I spotted a row of willow saplings, taking root in the most precarious and unprobable places: a tiny crack in a giant granite boulder.
Willows like low, damp stream banks and snow-melt saturated meadows. In this case, they obviously found everything they needed right there, because these saplings were a couple feet tall, and entirely lined the length of this cracked boulder, for maybe 15 feet, like a vibrant little green fence.
Something about this sight filled me with a sense of freedom and real possibility, and reminded me how opportunistic life is for all living things. Despite the odds, the trees, lacking any fear or self-consciousness seemed to be saying: “F yes, I was designed for this!” There are a lot of things, obviously, that make humans different from willow saplings. In that moment though the difference that stood out to me was peoples’ ability to worry and consider catastrophic outcomes.
Everyday we are confronted with the many choices of how to survive and thrive. In most cases, we’ve already chosen what we want whether consciously or unconsciously – what we want to root into – and then waste precious energy worrying, and hold ourselves back from diving in to what we’ve already started. The material world is one of limits, sometimes not ideal, and confining in some mind-boggling ways.
Whether its courageously, or through not committing, or waiting, or diving in impulsively then changing our minds…we are always orienting ourselves to the tasks at hand.
The human brain, in attempt to protect itself, is amazingly skilled at predicting as many possible future perils as possible. To worry is to put on the brakes. It is also a way to contract emotionally, attempting the same action but with only half the brilliance and power. Its an important thing our psyches do, but in myself and most people I know, it has a tendency to be over-active and get in the way of what we’re actually up to.
What if we had the self-awareness and self-discipline (not required of a willow) to take our fearful projections of important circumstances such as a relationship, ending a relationship, starting or ending a job or project, making your move, and see that fear for what it is: a protective mechanism, not the truth about the future.
We all have that rough, beautiful possibility somewhere in our lives, to dig in deeper, to stay with it 5 more minutes, 5 more months, to feel uncomfortable and not panic about it, to start something growing in an unlikely or unknown terrain, or find that new terrain. You were designed to expand into your life, to relax in the wildness and imperfection of it all, to dig in and complete whatever you want to complete. We are always allowed to pull back and change course, to feel afraid and acknowledge it. But what if you told yourself, about that thing in your life: I was perfectly designed for this! Whatever is happening, whoever you uniquely are, send your roots down into the grit of it, let your branches expand out, and see what happens next.
Here’s what I think is amazing about what happens in our bodies:
Our nervous systems are constantly taking in, processing, storing, ignoring, amplifying, and making meaning of all that is happening in our environments. The complexity of the exterior and interior worlds meet and meld and are translated into experience, sensation, and story at every moment.
When we’re stressed out, or irritated about a difficult interaction, or feel stuck, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered. Andrenaline and then cortisol permeate your blood stream. The amygdala is activated. As this happens, blood stops flowing to your neo-cortex, where there is the capacity for thoughtful consideration, perspective taking, flexible interpretations of events, new thoughts, and spontaneity. The ability to feel good diminishes. The ability to “work it out” might go out the window.
There are countless ways to change your chemistry, and enhance your brain’s ability to function. If you’re angry, scared, there are certainly reasons for it, and all emotions carry rich information, but your brain is not able to function with all its capacities at that moment.
In the case of music: When you put on a track that has a positive association for you – you know what happens. Your body moves toward the state it was in when those memories were formed. Your memories trigger a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones that can help reverse the fight or flight response in the body, and help you feel better.
This is what I love: novelty is incredibly powerful for helping the neo-cortex activate and expand. Positive new experience, reasonable (not fear inducing) challenge, and safe-but-not-too-easy types of activities promote brain growth, flexibility, hopefulness, and resilience. So, if you put on music that you haven’t already listened to for years, and take a run down a different street, you’re healing your brain by engaging it. When it feels like you need a change, you probably do! Only it may not be as drastic as you think. Your brain is sending you the message that it needs different stimulation to shift out of whatever over-familiar neuropathways are activated in that moment. Listen to something different, do something new, give your brain a bath in novelty.
Music is one of my daily adventures. Immersed in new soundscapes, life’s storms become rich adventures, full of possibilities.
We’re all telling stories to ourselves, and to others, whether we realize or not, all the time. Even if you’re a meditator/yogi and grew up on a commune, or your Mom is a cranial sacral practitioner goddess or invented organic bamboo legwarmers, and your Dad hangs out with Deepak Chopra or your Dad IS Deepak Chopra, you’re a person, and you have an ongoing narrative going on in your amazing and complex mind.
You’re writing your own myth, every second, and you can’t help but believe it, and your friends and business coach and next door neighbor likely do too. And the myth you’re writing unconsciously each moment shapes YOUR version of YOUR possibilities, the size of your world, and who you actually are.
Because I’m a psychology and creative project geek, I did an experiment, and I tried it with friends, and it was so awesome I even tried it with clients. I gave myself a homework assignment, and I’m going to give it to you too. You’ll just need a little time with yourself, your willingness to imagine, and your writing tool of choice. Go with this:
Take stock of the many circumstances of your life in its fullness. See if you can take in the horizon of things in your life as they are, simple facts. Imagine yourself, perhaps from outside as an objective and well-intentioned stranger, peering into your life as though you were watching a movie. Begin to see yourself as a character, a heroine, an example of what is possible. Let this potential version of you be someone you would encounter, resonate with deeply, and feel completely amazed and inspired!
From that vantage point, ask yourself: How could this version of you expand into WHAT IS happening in your world now, including the unplanned, less than ideal circumstances? Writing yourself as the heroine/hero of this real moment, how will she/he greet these with more of her loving self, more creativity, and more of an adventurous embrace? How does she greet the day? How does express herself? How does she deal with heartbreak and disappointment? How does she take care of herself, and the things she’s passionate about? What call has she been putting off, that she most deeply desires to act upon?
This experiment has unleashed some fiery pursuits and ignited some sparky happy habits. Be Brave and Have Fun!