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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 63

If you’re struggling with bouts of anxiety, and have followed this series so far, you may have glimpsed that some relief can come from recognising what’s going on in your own mind and with your relationship with your own parasympathetic nervous system, which includes the amygdala.

Yes, there are meditation techniques, breathing techniques, cognitive techniques, all kind of techniques, which are aimed at addressing an anxiety overload, and they can all help — but getting right to the bottom of anxiety means understanding what is going on in our heads at an even more fundamental level than these techniques normally reach.

Last time, we looked at the possibility — indeed, probability — that as human beings we are projecting the entire contents of our inward world onto the outer one, mostly in complete ignorance, and suffering the feedback of anxiety as a result. Our innermost dreams and desires are meeting with frequently opposing and contrary realities and our amygdalas correspondingly are very active.

Escaping from our own projected realities, and starting to live life more as it actually is, is the beginning of sanity. This is done by recognising that, as owners of minds, we have been in the ‘export business’, shipping out our deepest desires to the world around us and expecting it to conform to them.

You can immediately see miniature versions of this by visiting someone’s home. Most human beings have taken a space and created it according to what they think or feel within— furniture, paintings or photographs, bookshelves, even the wallpaper, all stem from what the dweller thinks is right or good. Of course, affordability comes into it — but even on the most meagre income, a person’s dwelling reflects to some degree what their inner world is like. Lots of clutter? Their mind will equally be filled with images, memories, things that they don’t want to dispense with or feel that they can’t let go of. Minimalist? Similarly, the person’s interior world will be stripped back to basics, not retaining anything he for she considers ‘superfluous’ — itself a clue as to what’s going on with that individual.

These are extreme examples. In fact, any example provided will not necessarily help you, the reader, detect or understand what is going on inside your own head as each person is much more unique than you might think.

You can read all about inner worlds projecting onto outer realities without it meaning much for you as a person — it’s all very interesting, and you might be sensing some truth in it, but until the ‘penny drops’ for you as a unique being, this will all still be intellectual and not an experiential reality.

If you are overwhelmed by conflict or difficulties, or if you feel your life has no meaning, and that anxiety is all there is, you may need to seek therapy — in other words, get help applying this to yourself. Whom you seek, and how he or she will set about helping you, can be as varied as individuals are varied.

Most people, unique though they may be, seek ‘quick fixes’, understandably. Who, being haunted by panic attacks or worry, would not desire immediate relief? But this kind of self-exploration may take you to areas of yourself which you may never have considered before.

This isn’t so much about ‘improving yourself’ as it is about ‘understanding yourself’.

It’s a pretty safe bet that if you are swamped by anxiety, there are aspects of yourself which have so far eluded you completely.

Here’s what you probably have to face: that the life you are leading right now is a projected one. In other words, you’ve been living in a fantasy world, projected from inside your deepest dreams onto the world around you. Your idea of ‘yourself’, your closest relationships, your career, your community of friends, your plans for the future, all of these things will probably have a large component of illusion about them.

When you start unpicking those illusions — turning off the projected images and fancies one by one — you may begin to see what’s actually there instead.

This isn’t quite as dramatic as the film The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves’ character Neo is extracted from an artificial world which he thought was real life and comes to see that reality is somewhere quite different, but it is along those lines.

The Allegory of the Cave

Plato's Cave is an allegory presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic, written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates. Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained in a cave since childhood, their legs and necks fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them and not to look around at the cave, each other, or themselves. These prisoners watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. These shadows are all that they can see; they give them names based on very limited knowledge. The shadows are the entirety of the prisoners' reality but are clearly not accurate representations of the real world. Socrates explains how a philosopher is like a prisoner who has been freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all. Other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.

The one prisoner who is freed would look around and see the fire, the light hurting his eyes and making it difficult for him to see the objects casting the shadows. He might not believe that what he was looking at now was more real than the world of shadows to which he had been used: in his pain, he might turn away and go back to the shadows. If someone dragged him up the slope, out of the cave, he would probably be angry and in pain, and this would only worsen when he encountered the fierce light of the sun.

Gradually, though, he might come to see the reflections of people and things in water and then later see the people and things themselves. Eventually, he might be able to look at the stars and moon at night until finally he could look upon the sunlight itself.

The freed prisoner, Plato explains, would think that the world outside the cave was far superior to the world he experienced in the cave. He would probably have an urge to share this with the prisoners remaining in the cave, but his eyes, having become accustomed to the sunlight, would be blind when he re-entered the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. The remaining prisoners, might infer from the returning man's blindness that the journey out of the cave was dangerous and harmful. They might conclude that any attempt to get them to leave the cave must be resisted.

As an allegory, Plato’s cave contains many forms of symbolism which tell us about the nature of perception. In the terms of our discussion, the cave represents the outer world, the one we spend most of our time fixedly staring at, which we tend to accept at face value, where we believe that the shadows we see are the true forms of things. The chains that prevent the prisoners from leaving the cave represent our own ignorance, preventing us from learning the truth. The shadows cast on the walls of the cave represent projected truth; we name them based on the little we know. The freed prisoner represents those who understand that the projected world is only a shadow of the truth.

If you can grasp that right now you are chained in a cave, projecting things onto a wall, and that the object of the exercise would be to get out of the cave altogether, stay tuned for forthcoming instalments.


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