Overcoming the Amygdala Part 41


I know that the name of this series is ‘Overcoming the Amygdala’, and that we have covered a lot of ground in terms of doing just that, and possibly learned much about ourselves and the way we think and behave along the way. But what about those moments when all the therapeutic techniques in the world aren’t going to be enough? What about those episodes in our lives when no matter what we do, or think, or how we act, things come crashing down around us and we’re left collapsed in the middle of total ruin? What about those periods when it seems as though we have utterly lost control of everything we valued, when our dreams and visions have been torn away or torn up, when all seems black?

There is no simple answer to this, apparently. If there were, the whole of human life on this planet would appear different. If there were some button or buttons we could push so that, no matter how bleak things became, we could always turn on a light, our existences would be completely secure and we would not fear much at all, would we?

For some, religious faith fulfils this function. Believers can turn to some inner consolation and draw strength from it no matter what is happening to them or around them, it seems. But even the firmest and most devout believer has moments of doubt, dark nights of the soul; and even the brightest lights occasionally go out or disappear from view, if we’re honest.

It’s possible to develop a non-religious equivalent of faith, too, in theory — some set of beliefs or stable values which act as a touchstone for comfort in times of crisis. But I’m talking about the times when all stability is lost, and even the most sacred or firmly held belief flutters away into the void and is useless. These are the times when, far from overcoming the amygdala, we experience it overcoming us: the old formula You < perceived threat = alarm triggered has been calculated where You = zero, and the alarms are no longer so much alarms as they are signifiers of a new, empty and pain-filled reality from which there seems to be no escape.

I can only discuss this because I have experienced it, both in the past and recently: raw, visceral despair, unshakeable, immovable, unthinkably deep, devastatingly vast. As I have said earlier, there have been times when it seems as though this view of the universe as a yawning void appeared to me to be an insight into the ‘true nature of things’, and that everything else — all appearances of joy, love, peace, harmony and so on — were mere bubbles on its surface, ephemeral and fragile, easily dismissed and short-lived as illusions. In this state, plunging into the void one can feel as though one is confronting and confirming a kind of absolute Truth: the ‘painful meaninglessness of everything’. It brings a dark comfort, and even a sense of pale wisdom to feel that one is glimpsing the ‘ultimate reality’, full of horror though it might be.

In those circumstances, meditation or the analysis of cognitive distortion or reminding oneself of any kind of mantra or procedure is like pasting a post-it note on an outside wall in the middle of a tsunami — nothing can withstand the wave that strikes, and the only future that presents itself is drowning.

All those things — meditative methods, analytical approaches, imaginative techniques and so on — are really designed for the times just outside the wave, the periods when we still possess some semblance of rationality and hope, when the lights, though distant, are still recognisably ‘on’ somewhere. In those slightly brighter hinterlands, we can work like crazy to build beacons and flares with which to guide ourselves out of the night when the night comes — and they work, in those conditions. We can crawl towards the light when we can see where light’s coming from, even though our progress might be slow and our pathway difficult.

But in those times when light is not only invisible but a mere memory? No — there’s nothing for technique or method to work with, nothing to grip onto. All stability is subsumed; all order undermined; all capacity to see blinded.

What then? Is there any comfort to be had in such scenarios?

Let’s start by clearly defining what this state of despair is: it is a complete absence of stability, a confusion. The word ‘confusion’ gives us a clue: it comes from Old French confus, from Latin confusus, past participle of confundere ‘mingle together’. In the kind of state we’re talking about, everything is mingled together with no differentiation — the ordered world that our minds work to build around us collapses, with no vestige of structure or semblance of hope. We are caught in a whirlwind of bewilderment, swept up in a tornado of uncertainty. Nothing stands out as firm; there is no security.

Except for one thing.

Transparent though it might seem, the one thing we’ve just been able to do is define the condition.

We’ve labelled it as a state of bewilderment; we’ve outlined its parameters.

And no matter how bewildered it gets, that definition and those parameters hold: they become their own points of stability.

What use is that?

Outside the hurricane, as you are probably as you read this, it seems of little worth. What’s the point of knowing the shape of the state you’re in if you’re right in the middle of it? Fair enough: rationality, when it’s working, naturally demands more than a mere definition.

But when it’s not working — when the sea of chaos is rising and drowning seems imminent — then human nature flails for anything that it can grab hold of: religious faith, a set of values, a comforting thought, a rescuing hand, the presence of something, anything, other than the confusion. And, failing to find any of these, it now has one thing which is eternally stable: a definition of the state being endured.

Having such a definition gives us more than might appear at first glance: it presents us with finite dimensions; and it puts us ever-so-slightly at cause over that state.

1. If we can define something, name it, label it, identify it, then conceptually we have given it limitations: it is such-and-such, implying that it is not so-and-so. Small comfort there, you might think, but ‘Any port in a storm’ as the old saying goes: when you’re drowning, you’ll hold on tight to anything that you can. In the middle of a confusion, being able to say to oneself, ‘I’m in the middle of a confusion’ is a small step out of the chaos because it gives the confusion borders.

2. Once we have given something borders, we have exerted a degree of power over whatever it is. The borders may be vast, the terrain within inhospitable, but the knowledge that the condition is not infinite means that we are not quite so effect of it as we were.

In terms of the amygdala and its alarms, even if those alarms are deafeningly loud and crushingly powerful, calling them ‘alarms’ immediately puts them in their place to some degree. We do the naming, not the alarms; we determine where the borders are, not the state itself.

Then there’s a little more…

I’m reminded of a story I read a long time ago featuring a black-hearted though very perceptive villain. A henchman reports to him that the villain’s son — an estranged enemy of his father and the protagonist of the story — is ‘vulnerable’ at that moment. ‘How so?’ inquires the villain. ‘Because he is in a state of spiritual confusion, master,’ replies the henchman. ‘Fool!’ snaps the bad guy. ‘Spiritual confusion is not vulnerability but the seed-bed of profound new strength!’ he adds (or words to that effect — it was a long time ago…)

It’s just a story, but it contains an insightful truth: when we are lost in the tornado of uncertainty, our dreams and our control slipping away, our worlds falling apart around us, we are also undergoing a radical shifting of potential. As we watch our house of cards collapse, and as we grieve the passing of so many dear hopes and visions of the future, we are also witnessing the immense spaces that their departure opens up. It might be little comfort to us in our moment of grief and loss, but the passing of everything we hold dear is also a birthing.

Childbirth is agonising: a woman endures the excruciating separation of herself from the body she has created within her. But after the pain comes possibility, and a new unimaginable joy.

No point trying to convey that wondrous thought during the birth — but afterwards? It becomes self-evident.

All moments of despair, all dark nights of the soul, all periods of suffering, are seed-beds of profound new strength and joy. They have to be that dark, that empty, to serve their purpose as wombs of new futures.

Those thoughts may not help you in the heart of the storm — but as soon as the storm passes? See for yourself if they are true or not.

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