Overcoming the Amygdala Part 7
Last time, we took a quick journey into the realms of possibility opened up by Active Meditation.
Unlike ordinary meditation, which has the aim of bringing about a state of relaxed stillness for you, Active Meditation uses other techniques to take you to places you’re not likely to go without practice, places in which You as an individual are a much more powerful and causative person than you probably are now. In effect, there are aspects of your personality which you consider to be inseparable parts of yourself which form a Personality Ecosystem, and, like all ecosystems, these can sometimes fall out of alignment and start to be destructive to itself.
Those parts of yourself with which you are probably most familiar form, imaginatively, the outer rings of a series of concentric circles which we briefly looked at earlier.
When you are out and about in the world, the amygdala is at its most active, interfacing with the external and internal environments and alerting your physiology directly every time it senses real or perceived threats in your surroundings and calculates You < perceived departure. Alarm after alarm is triggered as the amygdala seeks to prepare and protect you, so many that it’s often hard to keep track of each one.
Over time, you internalise these alarms and form opinions and judgements about yourself based upon them, further consolidating a weak self-image which then distorts the formula You < perceived departure = alarm triggered even further.
These are the outer circles of your Personality Ecosystem.
What’s the way forward, then?
Toys, Tools and Weapons
As a human being, you walk around with mental artefacts which fall into three broad categories: toys, tools and weapons. The more dangerous your surroundings appear, the more you tend to weaponise things, naturally. The amygdala itself is a kind of weapon: it’s evolved to be your ultimate protector. By passing powerful signals around your conscious thought processors, it is designed to alert you to danger before you can think and so save your life or promote your well-being.
The amygdala is a bit like the One Ring in Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings: it’s a device you can rely on to keep you safe even in the most dire of circumstances, making you ‘invisible’ to menace by activating your ‘fight/flight’ mechanisms even when your reason protests. It’s your ‘precious’. And like the One Ring, it’s hard to get rid of — not because it has a mind of its own (which is arguable) but because you yourself feel you need it. It’s your last resort, your secret weapon, the one thing that will always be there to fall back on.
The truth is that we all have this fallback device and it’s been built into our brains or minds so that it will always be there even when we resist its existence — or so it appears at first.
As we grow stronger, we can start to recognise that the amygdala could also be used as a tool, something we can use causatively rather than be the effect of; and when we are at our strongest, it can become a toy, a thing to play with, to use as an amusement because we no longer feel threatened and can approach the world like children again, free from fear. (Readers of The Lord of the Rings will perhaps see the scale of characters in the book whose attitudes towards the One Ring had a similar range, from Gollum’s ‘secret weapon, stolen from him with world-shaking consequences, to Tom Bombadil’s playful power over what he considered a ‘trinket’).
Reaching the ‘toy’ stage, though, isn’t usually a matter of snapping our fingers: it takes knowledge and practice.
It begins with standard meditation, which is really no more than a familiarisation process: through regular relaxation, we become accustomed to the presence of the amygdala’s alarm signals in our bodies and minds, and develop some capability when it comes to turning them off temporarily.
Then, through Active Meditation, we can learn to recognise exactly what it is that triggers the alarms, and, as we become more and more adept, we can begin to control their activation, transforming them into tools or even toys.
Ordinary human existence is much like living in a house packed with alarms. Standard meditation guides us around the house and we learn where each alarm switch is, clicking it off before moving on to the next room. Often we find that the alarm we just switched off reactivates as soon as we leave, but slowly, and through regular practice, we can reach a point of relative peace.
Some of the alarms remain inaccessible, though, and Active Meditation helps us down into the basement (to extend the analogy) to find the main alarm panel. Here we discover the ‘hard wiring’ which needs to be undone if we want to control the alarms lastingly.
Glimpsing the Secrets
Using standard meditation, relax your body and mind as described earlier.
Using Active Meditation, settle your attention on those outer rings mentioned above: the ‘face’ that you present to the world and your internalisation of the alarms triggered by it.
It’s a turbulent world, isn’t it?
You probably find it difficult to concentrate as your amygdala mechanism ‘pings’ again and again, sensing departures from perfection around you. These range from immediate threats (perhaps, from passing vehicles outside to thoughts of certain people) to sensations of physical inadequacy (perhaps you feel unfit or unattractive or in some way deficient) to thoughts of relationships, job worries, anxieties about society and so on, on and on until your mind rings with alerts.
Beneath that is the way that you may have incorporated these signals into an image of yourself: you might have concluded that you are a ‘nervous person’, or that you are mildly agoraphobic, or that you are ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ or doomed never to be happy in a relationship, or fated to be miserable at work, or whatever it is: firm conclusions, unarguable in your own mind. In this circle, your self-image is predominantly negative and causes you some anguish.
Most of us live much of our lives between these two circles — either walking around getting triggered, or pondering on what the triggers ‘mean’ for ourselves as individuals.
Most of us remain entirely unaware of the five other circles which lie beneath these outer rings, in which life looks quite different.
We sometimes get a glimpse of the circle immediately below these, the one in which we can be relaxed for a while, or occasionally experience joy, love, peace, harmony, laughter and light. Those experiences are normally fleeting: just as we reach out to grasp them, they pop like a soap bubble and we are back in our all-too-familiar zones of Anxiety and Panic.
Rarely, we drop into the circle beneath the fleeting one, and get a brief peek at an entirely different existence, in which anxiety is only intermittent.
Most of us never get to the deeper circles.
Many of us think that the conclusions which we have arrived at about ourselves are based on ‘observation’ and therefore must be ‘true’, failing to spot that they are based on having alarms continually ringing in our heads for years.
It’s like trying to listen to a symphony being played in the Albert Hall while all the fire alarms in the hall are going off at the same time. Our perception of the symphony’s music would be a little distorted, don’t you think?
Your perception of who You are is similarly distorted: behind, beneath, beyond the ‘noise’ is a music. Barely discernible at first, detectable a little more when one learns to filter out the alarms, and then able to be admired for its full beauty once the alarms cease, this hidden image of You is the thing which will empower you to change the formula so that You > perceived departure most of the time — unless you’re actually confronted by a rabid sabre-toothed tiger, and even then you’d have a better chance once you learn to use the amygdala as a tool or even a toy, rather than have it hard wired into your skull as an automatic weapon.