Overcoming the Amygdala Part 14
There’s a key moment in Dante’s Commedia at the end of Inferno, canto 34, when, having surveyed all the Nine Circles of Hell, the two poets — Dante and his spirit guide Virgil — reach the abode of Lucifer. Initially, they perceive him as a giant creature embedded up to his waist in a frozen lake. They climb down Satan’s furry body, through the surface of the frozen lake and out of Hell, but, as Dante soon learns, in doing so they pass through the centre of the Earth and experience a reversal in gravity, causing Satan to appear upside down: whereas he first appeared buried up to his waist, a lord in the domain of Hell despite his entrapment, he now has the appearance of plummeting head first into the ice, a fallen angel. It’s a crucial moment for Dante, but also for an understanding of the mediaeval universe — things are flipped around and what seemed dominant is suddenly revealed to be abased on a cosmic scale.
It could also be a crucial moment for us, as we try to progress from the upper circles of our Personality Ecosystem to the deeper truths of the inner circles.
Outermost of the circles was the Panic Zone, the harsh interface between us and the material world, where our amygdala reigns more or less supreme and its dominant alarms overpower us; next came the Anxiety Zone, in which some daily functions are possible but which is fraught with fear and worry; below that was the Rhythmic Zone, where we began to glimpse a different kind of reality, one in which the individual has some respite, some peace and quiet away from the stimulus-response amygdala universe.
As we progress inwards, we come to the next zone, tagged ‘Calmer’ or ‘Karma’ depending upon your inclination. Here, real peace is possible, outside the range of most meditation techniques or only briefly glimpsed by them. And it’s here that we encounter what could be grandiosely termed the ‘Inversion Threshold’ but which is perhaps better called the ‘Flip Point’ — like Dante, we can reach a point where everything seems to be turned upside down, and what appeared to be supreme becomes relegated to almost an irrelevance, while what was formerly invisible becomes central.
The best initial image for this is probably a continuation of our iceberg picture from the Rhythmic Zone — but this is the distinct point, mentioned earlier, where the ‘iceberg’ as an image outlives its usefulness and melts away. Instead, we are left with the ocean as a central motif — a sea in which we are floating, at present just beneath the surface, drifting with currents and forces we can scarcely envisage.
Karma comes into play here as a concept. The word itself has been defined as the ‘deed’ or ‘work’ or ‘action’ but also ‘object’ or ‘intent’, usually meant to mean the executed action as a consequence of an activity, as well as the intention behind it. A good action or intent creates ‘good karma’; a bad action or intent creates ‘bad karma’, put simplistically.
In popular understanding, it has come to mean that the present circumstances of an individual are a result of his or her actions in the past. These actions may be those in a person's current life, or, in some traditions, possibly actions in their past lives. The laws of karma are supposed to operate independently of any deity or any process of divine judgment.
For the purposes of Active Meditation, it’s a simple analogy: if we are floating in a body of water, and we make a movement of some kind, that movement creates ripples — the ripples can be felt by others, perhaps, but we certainly feel them ourselves. Without getting into the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of any movement, it’s easy enough to imagine that any motion causes ripples. That’s all we need to grasp at this point.
In this Calmer Zone, the realm of the amygdala is far away; the alarms have either been switched off or have receded so that we can hardly hear them. We float in an untouched realm of pristine peace, and our self-image benefits enormously from any time spent here, however brief.
How can we get there?
Try the following:
1. Relax the body and mind as much as possible using standard meditation.
2. Imagine that you are floating in a vast, peaceful, warm ocean. Nothing is happening; you’re just there, at peace, enjoying the sense of warm support all around you.
3. Just as you perhaps experienced in the Rhythmic Zone, you can breathe more easily here than you can normally. Deep breaths seem to invigorate you more fully than they ever did before; worry is entirely absent from each lungful.
4. Whereas in the Rhythmic Zone, you could imagine the surface of the ‘water’ above you with the light playing on it, representing changing anxieties and worries, here you are lower down and all is at peace. Nothing can touch you here; not even the semblance of an alarm can disturb you.
5. Deep peace may be fleeting, but it is of such quality that even if you only feel it for a moment, it is as though you have spent a year convalescing. Your body and mind sing with gratitude for the relief they are experiencing.
6. Don’t try to grip or grab at the deeper moments; just let yourself float there, motionless and at peace.
7. What’s likely to happen is that you will ‘twitch’, mentally or physically. Something will pop into your mind, whether connected with your present circumstances or not: it might be a random image, a sensation, a vision, or a physical itch. Your reaction will probably be twofold: you will respond to whatever it is without thinking, and then feel disappointed or frustrated that you responded. This is perfectly normal, especially at first. Practice will enable you to smile at such reactions and thoughts.
8. Eventually, you will spot that the flinch or twitch caused the ripple of the response in the same way that dropping a stone into water causes ripples. Then you may come to see over time and with practice that every thought you have, whether a perceptible ‘twitch’ or not, is also causing ripples, perpetual ripples, and that these ripples — so subtle and gentle that you failed to notice them at all at first — are creating further ripples, and so on.
9. Let the ripples run their course. Imagine tiny currents around your floating body, each caused by a thought or reaction to a thought. This is Karma: the rippling Effect of every Cause. It’s neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but only a mechanical consequence of any thought or action. Judgement falls away; you are not being measured nor are you expect to ‘perform’.
10. Breathe deeply. Your mental meditational ‘gills’ are learning to absorb the oxygen of tranquility and not need the more turbulent air or worry or concern or nervousness which they formerly felt they required. Spend as long as you can just breathing. (Again, falling asleep or thoughts wandering are totally to be expected phenomena.)
11. When you are ready, float up towards the surface of your imaginary ocean. The patterns of light on that surface are the beckoning thoughts, emotions and images of ‘ordinary life’. Open your eyes and return to that world.
10. Look around at the corners and edges of the space you’re in: say to yourself ‘This is the zone of the amygdala.’ Recognise that, just because the amygdala operates here, does not mean that it has any mastery over you.
One of the things which it is to be hoped that you are experiencing as you practice Active Meditation is a growing calmness in daily life, even though your external circumstances may not have changed much. This may be because the amygdala’s formula is altering: it used to be You < perceived departure = alarm triggered; but now, as you emerge from meditation strengthened and reorientated, the calculation may be shifting towards You > perceived departure = no need for alarm.
The amygdala may be coming to picture You differently: more tranquil, more able, more willing to co-exist with perceived departures in the environment, less in need of a fight/flight set of responses. You are learning to recognise and incorporate into your self-image more of your Personality Ecosystem.
Regular Active Meditation is like regular training as an athlete: you build up strength and stamina, ready for the challenges to come.
And there’s more training ahead.