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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 13

We’ve been exploring the Personality Ecosystem, a set of factors which interrelate to produce the phenomenon of You in your many aspects and guises. Understanding yourself — your real self, many-faceted and deeper than you expect—is the key to effectively combatting the negative influences of the mechanisms in your mind/brain which are geared to trigger overwhelming alarms within you.

We started with an image of concentric circles, with the Panic Zone on the outside. This is where the amygdala’s functions are at their peak, throwing the individual into a physiological and mental storm of over-reactions in a well-meaning attempt to safeguard well-being in the presence of a real or imagined threat in the environment.

Then comes the Anxiety Zone, which is fraught with worry but within which you can function to a small degree; this is followed by five other zones, proceeding inward: the Rhythmic, the Calmer, the Manifesting, the Play and the Zen Zones. Using the principles of Active Meditation, it’s hoped that a person can reach at least the outer edges of the Manifesting Zone.

Let’s see how far we can get.

The master image of the Panic Zone was the Cave which, under Active Meditation, became a vast night sky full of stars, granting the individual space on a grand scale.

The chief image of the Anxiety Zone was the Labyrinth, potentially transformed by meditation into a tapestry of beauty and meaning.

When we reach the Rhythmic Zone, something fascinating happens: we hit upon a very useful image which will serve us well for a while, until at last its usefulness will be outlived in quite a distinct fashion, as you will hopefully see.

This is the image of the iceberg.

It’s a common motif in modern times — we hear all the time the expression ‘That’s just the tip of the iceberg’ to describe all kinds of phenomena, from environmental disasters (in which icebergs can be involved literally) to social or political issues, to personal matters, to just about anything in which the visible, or perceptible parts of something form the minority, while the bulk of the thing lies out of sight, looming in the darkness below awareness, ready to inflict damage. The image is made sharper and more pertinent by the Titanic disaster at the beginning of the twentieth century, in which a dream vessel on its maiden voyage was utterly destroyed by something huge and impersonal emerging from the night, leaving behind the haunting motif of one of the modern world’s most tragic incidents.

You could say that the iceberg is an amygdalic image: it proclaims that what we see is only a small part of a mysterious and potentially disastrous whole. But we can usurp the picture for our own purposes.

How the iceberg comes into play for us is as an image of ourselves. The Panic and Anxiety Zones, along with half of the Rhythmic Zone, form the normally ‘visible’ part of the ecosystem which we are calling the whole person; all the other zones lie ‘underwater’, not usually discernible to ordinary perceptions, in a kind of unconscious darkness for which the ocean is a suitable metaphor. We live — under normal, daytime circumstances — in an 'outer' world. That outer world is one in which the amygdala plays a key role, scanning and projecting and assessing and calculating every second of our waking time in order to try to protect us from danger and keep us surviving in that world. It’s possible to picture, in fact, this outer region as a hostile one compared to the relatively placid regions that lie ‘beneath the surface’: the bulk of the iceberg of Us lies deep and still in calm waters. It’s only the tip that extends into the dangerous daylight.

When I was eight years old, I journeyed on a small ocean liner from Southampton in England across the world to Australia. We voyaged down the coast of West Africa to Cape Town, and then across the turbulent Indian Ocean to reach Perth in Western Australia, and then Adelaide in South Australia. The reason I’m telling you this is that the ship upon which we travelled had several passenger decks: A Deck was on top, and from memory was painted whitish blue throughout; B deck was a sickly green; both these decks had portholes which looked out onto the open sea. C Deck, where our cabin was located, was yellow and below the waterline and had no ‘windows’; D Deck I think was red and was below us. My brother and I once went exploring and found ourselves at the front of the boat on B Deck, right in the bows, where the two sides of the hull came together in a sharp, curving point. I’ve never forgotten the terror of hearing the thundering ocean against that sharp edge — of the picture of billions of gallons of chaotic seawater pounding into the ship’s prow as we forced our way onward through the deep water. My brother and I both ran in horror from the sound and the thought.

This is where we stand now on our journey down through the concentric circles of the Personality Ecosystem: the edge of the ‘sea’ of the unconscious, where waves of supposed ‘unawareness’ wash up against the relatively known ‘prow’ of the conscious awareness.

But it’s not really like that at all.

As we have seen, the turbulence and unawareness lie above the ‘waterline’: it’s in the Anxiety and Panic Zones where fear makes its home. As we progress deeper into meditation, we will find instead that the lower part of the iceberg is in fact a region of deep calm and certainty, and the tip of the iceberg is the home of drama and the unknown. In the ‘underwater’ world, we’ll find out far more about our true nature.

The Rhythmic Zone lies partly above and partly below this ‘waterline’. When above it, we are subject to the amygdala’s stimulus/response dominance and whims, caught in the web of alarms which have the intention of helping us but which are more often than not deeply crippling; when below the line, we can begin to glimpse a truer, more serene, more rational version of ourselves which, like the waves on a coastline, rhythmically ebbs away from us and flows towards us, tugged by forces we can scarcely imagine. It’s highly desirable to reach this point, if we can, because it’s the beginning of true calmness and control.

Here’s how we can get there:

1. Relax the body and mind as much as possible using standard meditation.

2. Imagine that you are seated on the tip of an iceberg, surrounded by the gently lapping water of a vast ocean. You’re not cold, not affected by the ice at all, but are somewhat mesmerised by the soft, rhythmic ebbing and flowing of the waves. Go down right to the edge of the sea and begin to wade in.

3. Like a tide coming in, the water slowly rises over you. But here, still deeply relaxed, you have the opposite experience to the one which your body is expecting: instead of struggling to breathe, you find that you can in fact breathe more easily. Take deep breaths; you are leaving behind the oxygen of panic and worry, and taking in lungfuls of tranquility.

It’s like discovering you have a set of gills that you never knew about — you can get what you need from this new medium, below the surface of what you have formerly referred to as your ‘conscious’ mind; your body and thoughts thrive on it. Breathe deeply again, until you are comfortable imagining yourself ‘underwater’ — you feel warm, comfortable and serene, enriched by the watery medium all around you. It feels like coming home.

4. In your mind’s eye, you can see the surface of the ‘water’ above you — the light plays on it, dancing about ceaselessly. As you continue to deeply relax, you sense that the play of moving light represents all the endless worrying and volatility of the amygdala-triggered mind which you have left behind. You are at one remove from all of it; just under the water, you are safe, untouched and untouchable.

5. If it helps, use those words as a kind of mantra to reinforce the feelings that may come and go at this point: ‘untouched’, ‘untouchable’. Repeat them to yourself: ‘Untouched; untouchable’. You’re resting near the surface of a vast ocean of You, and these regions and those below them have never been touched, cannot be touched, by the nervous energy of the amygdala.

6. At this point, it will be likely that the feelings of deep mental and physical calm which you occasionally sense will be fleeting — you just about grasp them and they are gone again. Don’t try to hold onto them; just let yourself float there, just under the surface of this imaginary waterline, picturing your surroundings in your mind, not trying to ‘do’ anything else.

7. Again, it’s quite likely that your mind will wander at this point, or that you will fall asleep. Let this happen if it happens. You’re now touching upon levels of inner calmness where the slightest ‘movement’, mentally or physically, can cause ripples which disturb your equilibrium briefly. Keep practising.

8. Eventually, the ocean will be your ‘home’, a place to which you will be able to retreat and find a haven from worry.

9. Breathing calmly and deeply, open your eyes and return to the ‘normal’ world.

10. Look around at the corners and edges of the space you’re in: say to yourself ‘I’m back in Amygdala World’.

Though you have returned to what you would formerly have called the ‘awake’ world, you have touched upon levels of yourself which are not and never have been part of this plane. However stressful your ordinary circumstances may be, this can be refreshing and invigorating.

Practice this technique regularly, more than once daily if you can. Don’t lose patience if it is not always easy to sink ‘below the water’; simply persist, gently encouraging yourself to breathe in this new Rhythmic Zone.

The more you practice, the easier it will get to reach the Calmer Zone beneath it.


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