Overcoming the Amygdala Part 17
Earlier in this series we reached what we are colloquially calling the ‘flip point’ — the point at which everything seems to reverse upon itself. The outer world of panic, anxiety and moods and the inner world of peace, tranquility and certainty change places — the world we normally live in, associated very much with cause and effect, stimulus and response, switches with the world we yearn for, which we recognise, even after only a brief acquaintance with it, as our true ‘home’.
The truth is, as we will see more deeply later on, the whole set of concentric circles that we are calling our Personality Ecosystem is ‘home’. A useful way of thinking about it is as a large house with many rooms: the outer rooms are the ones we are ‘camping out’ in, doing the best we can with the limited facilities we find there, while further inside the house are the much more comfortable, larger, quieter and better-fitted rooms. The realm of the amygdala encompasses the outer zone, acting, if you like, as an exterior alarm system to protect the place as a whole — deeper within, there is no need for it, as we move away from anywhere where there might be danger.
This begs a few questions, one of the main ones of which is this: if the inner rooms of this ‘house' are so pleasant and safe, why do we choose to live in the much noisier and more dangerous outer rooms, exposed to dangers of all kinds, real and imagined? Why don’t human beings withdraw into their ‘homes’ and live calmer, more secure and much more pleasant existences?
It’s a good question, and one we can only begin to answer by looking a little more closely at the realm we live in.
Cause and Effect
Our world appears to be one dominated by cause and effect: we drop a stone and it falls to the ground; we breathe in and oxygen feeds our cells; we make a decision and things take place along a line determined by that decision. These sequences are a fundamental part of logic and the way we operate in this world. The most extreme form of this cause and effect pattern is the stimulus-response mechanism which lies at the heart of the amygdala — something happens, and a set of reactions is triggered regardless of conscious thought. This all seems simple enough, and certainly appears undeniable at first glance.
But, as we glimpsed when we looked at Time earlier, this might not be all there is to it.
Time, as the apparency of linear progression through scenes of ‘flash’ duration, creating a sense of ‘past’ and ‘future’, can be understood in terms of making a movie — a frame-after-frame sequence presents us with the illusion of motion and action. Here Cause and Effect seem to fit nicely: what appears in one frame — a stone released, a breath taken in, a decision made — seems to be followed naturally by its effect: a stone falls, oxygen enters the bloodstream, actions begin. Stimuli and their consequent responses seem to slot in even better: something happens and in the next ‘frame’ something immediately follows.
But place these frames next to each other like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle and the relationship between them changes: it doesn’t necessarily or automatically follow that a stone dropped will fall to the ground after all; a breath taken in is an event in itself, not necessarily connected to the rush of oxygen to the cells. Decisions made could stand alone; actions that follow from them in a linear framework do not need to do so in a latitudinal one.
Our cause-and-effect minds immediately rebel. ‘Of course a stone dropped must fall to the ground!’ the analytical mind protests. ‘What else is it supposed to do?’ But if we can put aside such voluble protests for a moment, we can perhaps get a brief glimpse of a reality structured around latitude rather than along lines.
We have a set of incidents — a stone released, a breath inhaled, a decision made. If we can imagine these disconnected from what our minds are trained to believe must automatically follow — a dropping, a motion of oxygen, a chain of events — we might catch a glimpse of a world outside that of Cause and Effect, in which each encapsulated figure, viewed separately, might become the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which we disentangle everything else. We look at the stone released and instead of seeing a linear pattern of consequences, we see a latitudinal pattern of significances: each independent ‘event’ bringing everything into unity only to be itself relegated when we look at another event, like a breath taken — something we would consider marginal or inconsequential or repetitive in a linear framework, but which, viewed in this new way, takes on a hegemony.
Cause and effect — and the ‘trigger mechanism’ of stimulus response — is only one set of relationships, one which every instant we spend in the outer zones of our Personality Ecosystems suggests is the only relationship, but one which, as soon as we cross the inversion threshold or ‘flip point’, takes on new dimensions.
This is one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to pass from the Calmer Zone deeper into the rings of the ecosystem: once we get to a certain point, things take on new connections and our mind drifts away from linear associations.
Think of what happens when you dream. Your mind detaches itself from the day-to-day linear thinking of the awake world, doesn’t it? It seems to wander, to drift. You find yourself thinking about things long forgotten, or apparently totally unconnected things, or strange and surreal things; you see faces you don’t recognise, witness events you’ve never seen, visit places you have never been to — or revisit places where you have been in the past only to find them changed in subtle and unsubtle ways. Here’s the really weird thing, though: while you’re dreaming, this all seems to make sense, doesn’t it? Of course, says your dream-mind, here you are visiting Aunt Bertha back in Calcutta and enjoying a big meal with lots of guests, some of whom seem to be school friends from your youth, others of whom are work colleagues from your current job, all mixing together to celebrate Aunt Bertha’s hundredth birthday, all apparently knowing each other in some way, and your dream-mind doesn’t bother to question any of it. It’s only when you wake that you realise you don’t even have an Aunt Bertha, that you’ve never been to Calcutta and that all through the dream you were wearing pyjamas and no one noticed.
What happens in dreams is that ideas, images, scenes, faces, items, emotions and so on all connect up in a non-linear fashion. Dreaming is a glimpse of what the reality beyond the flip point might be like: connection by significance rather than past-future/cause-effect.
When you enter the Calmer Zone, you are in sleep’s hinterland — you should be familiar with it, you visit it every night. What might not be so familiar to you is living there with an ‘awake’ mind, bringing as you inevitably do some of the expectations of the cause-effect world with you. As you wander in the Calmer Zone, you want to make causal connections: why is that lamppost floating? What does South America have to do with the sandwiches which your old Uncle Jim is feeding to the Moon? What is that strange sense of homecoming you get when you look at the blond-haired young singer on stage in downtown Vladivostok? Too much questing for logic, though, and the scenarios fall apart — you ‘wake up’, and emerge from the Calmer Zone altogether.
The trick to living in the Calmer Zone — and to going deeper into it — is not to struggle against any of this. Yes, nine times out of ten your experience will be no different than that of falling asleep: that’s what ‘falling asleep’ really is, a visit to the Calmer Zone in one way or another. When we have unpleasant dreams, we are on the zone’s outer edges, and usually the dreams have some element in them of real anxieties that we face in the outer world; when we sink further into the zone, our dreams take on different characteristics and bear little resemblance to anything we consciously know. Experiencing the zone’s depths is quite different to visiting a distant land, though it bears some similarities: the people we meet there might be strangers, the customs and habits may be at variance to our own, the landscapes may be strange and wonderful — and the whole thing might possess a different emotional quality than anything we are used to. Like foreign visitors, our best bet is to observe, be patient take in the new and assimilate it, and become accustomed to the strangeness. The thing not to do is to bring our personal prejudices and expectations with us. We will tend to do so at first, that’s only natural: but when we do, we will find ourselves sliding away, back to the ‘normal’ waking world. The more accepting we can be, the more the zone will reveal its innermost mysteries, and the stronger we will emerge from it.
That’s the goal: a better assimilated individual, one who is becoming more accustomed to the wider circles of his or her Personality Ecosystem, and so is able to live in any part of its ‘house’ in relative comfort.