“What you frequently ponder upon, that becomes the inclination of your mind

Buddha (1)

 

I am my perception. As I walk down the forest close to my home in the autumn, I smell the pine trees, I see the wide variation of colours as all other trees lose their leaves, and hear some birds singing softly. I am momentarily mesmerized by how beautiful and enjoyable it is to be surrounded by all this life and vibrancy. And from that, there is a sense of greatness of life, of oneness and a deeply harmonized sense of who I am and my place in the cosmos.

The thing is, as I am Swiss, I have grown up going to the mountains and forests very often, yet never got to perceive nature and myself in this way before. Undoubtedly this comes from a prolonged meditation practice and deepening appreciation of nature, both of which help to beautify a relationship to myself. Training in perception, as we do in meditation with qualities such as mindfulness, love, compassion, joy, equanimity and somatic sensitivity have influenced how I perceive myself, and vice-versa.

I have often been taught that meditation is about “being the present moment with what is.” However, though acceptance is obviously a key component of meditation, as I follow my perceptual development over these last 15 years of practice, I see other patterns emerging: more beauty, more belonging, more calm and more joy for example. And so why not intentionally develop these outcomes

This is something I have been growing into these past few years: intentionally orienting my mind towards ‘positive’ qualities such as beauty, space, pleasure, contentment and gratitude. I have found that there is most often something, even the tiniest little thing, in my perceptual experience that involves some kind of positive quality, and with a sustained attention towards that, it grows (2). At this point in my practice, I spend most of my time co-creating my experience along with spontaneous impulses coming from my nervous system, the external environment as well as imaginal drives. This last dynamic of imagination, seems to be most attractive to me now, where I allo.w my mind to create shapes, forms and colours that seem to be most harmonizing to my experience (in my imaginal repertoire). One of the indicators for this harmonizing quality that I intuit around is the somatic resonance of these imaginal impulses. For example, in my meditation this morning, I felt some narrowing perceptions on my body which got me feeling more anxious, and spontaneously I would reach out for more space and orientation outside my body, I literally created space and broadened the size of my energetic and perceptual field. It then got to the point where it felt too large and anxiety started creeping in again, with agitating waves and a feeling of fear, so I relaxed by coming back into the body softly, feeling the earth under me and gently sensations of ease and pleasure also available. This creative-imaginal movement from the creation of space, back to orienting towards palpable somatics of pleasure and groundedgrowness is an example of the intuitive skill I call somatic imaginal: allowing the nervous system to feel soothed, brightened and dynamized (“somatic”) by producing whatever impulses coming to mind spontaneous (“imaginal”).

Next time you sit in meditation, it may be worth experimenting to find out: “what images (forms, colours, sounds, voices, dimensions) help to soften and dynamize my somatic experience in this moment?”

Come and join our next Dharma Gathering on December 4th to further embody your imaginal capacity!

 

(1) Two Kinds of Thought, Majjhima Nikāya 19

(2) See Broaden-and-Build theory from Barbara Fredrickson

 

“The climate crisis is a crisis of view

Rob Burbea (1)

 

Our moment-to-moment experience is influenced by many factors, including the environment we are in. By the environment, I mean the immediate surroundings as well as the larger ecological and societal context we inhabit. I remember a time on silent retreat when it was cold because of winter, and I practised meditation for long periods indoors. It was enjoyable to feel the warmth of the fire, listen to the crackling wood and see its embers. It felt so alive, so vibrant, such a presence despite the loneliness in my hermitage. I thank the gods and goddesses of nature for being such a support during difficult times.

We evolved intimately with nature, and whether we feel our immediate environment matters to our sense of belonging and embodiment in each moment. Nowadays we urban people spend so much time on our tech equipment (phones, computers, cars), that feeling intimate with nature is not a given. There has recently even emerged a new mental health diagnosis of Nature Deficit Disorder (2). Our modern industrial societies, influenced by secular humanistic and Cartesian body-as-object-of-mind, have conditioned a challenging dynamic to our relationship with the environment and nature.

Sacredness can be felt in many varieties and infinite ways. What do we hold sacred in life? Is nature included in this sacredness? It is worth contemplating our relationship with nature and explore ways in which we can enrich our meaningfulness and sense of belonging on this planet. Let’s take a moment and feel Earth’s embrace – the pull of gravity on our bodies and hearts – and allow that to ground us and enable a letting go right now.

How is it to rest on Earth’s force and holding?

Let’s feel into the breath…

How things look outside as we allow this?

Our minds are often pulled in many directions, and yet there is also this opportunity to enjoy Earth’s embrace. Perhaps there is a way in which the pull of gravity can be felt as Earth’s love for our bodies and hearts.

We are right now at a key moment in our human and history of evolutionary life altogether. The climate catastrophe is starting to be widely felt in its impacts on our societies, at the edge of civilizational collapse (3) (notwithstanding the extinction period we have just entered). Is life around us and as the species itself a part of our sacredness? Let us take another moment and feel into the goodness and liveliness of having other beings around us. How is it to feel the birdsong in the morning, walk with dogs, caress cats, ride horses, or other animals resonating in our imaginal space?

Let’s bring to mind a moment when we felt an animal’s love.

Sensing into that experience, sensations, breath.

Taking time to enjoy and appreciate.

As we feel the nourishment from the life around us, and our dependencies on many many other species, perhaps our hearts open. And from this open heart, we can feel a deeper belonging with others, on this planet, together. I encourage all of us to include life and the Earth itself to be included as imaginal forces in our meditations, uplifting our hearts and grounding our bodies. From this love of nature and a felt-sense understanding of ecology, our activism, belonging, groundedness and contemplative practices can enable new ways of being into this world. This sacred world, with its myriad beings and mysterious ways, is worth protecting.

Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to further embody Earth’s embrace and love for life!

 

(1)  « An ecology of Love » Dharma talk by Rob Burbea, 21.12.2015: https://dharmaseed.org/talks/32201/

(2)  “Ming” Kuo, F. E. (2013). Nature-deficit disorder: evidence, dosage, and treatment. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 5(2), 172-186.

(3)  Degroot, D., Anchukaitis, K., Bauch, M., Burnham, J., Carnegy, F., Cui, J., … & Zappia, N. (2021). Towards a rigorous understanding of societal responses to climate change. Nature, 591(7851), 539-550.

“We inter-are”

Thich Nhat Hanh (1)

 

With mainstream values of individualism, we will often tend to consider ourselves as separate from others, nature and the world. However, a new research paradigm in somatic neuroscience emerging called “radical embodiment” (2-3) ), shows that the shape of our sense of self differs based on our social context. This has profound consequences for our meditation!

When we feel safe with others, we broaden the edges of our self to include others and when we feel threatened, we tend to close up and narrow our self-construct. And this relational phenomenon has direct impacts on how we experience our bodies and can self-regulate. Because we have a wider sense of self with good friends, actions require less effort than if we were alone or with difficult company. Actions are less “bioenergetically costly” (4) because we assume that others are a part of our body and therefore budget our efforts based on a larger pool of resources. Others literally become resources for us. This means that the people we have around us really affect how we experience our bodies, our immune functions (5) and many other foundational physiological process for basic health.

Moreover, the presence of other people also affect how we relate to ourselves psychologically and attentionally (6) . I have been experimenting with groups of friends and in teaching retreats how paying particular attention to others, and meditating together with short phrases of loving-kindness and noting of one’s present-moment experience offered a different way of connecting to one’ own internal experience. And I totally love it!

I have spent many years in retreat, in silence, alone and certainly benefited in immensely powerful, unique and life-transforming ways from this. I do think that developing this form of self-reliance, calm and depth of commitment to any practice opens to high levels of devotion, insight and transcendent opportunities. AND, there is so much that can also be experienced and explored in relationship and with a deeply trusting relational container.

In NeuroSystemics then, we pay attention to the interaction between relationships and our quality of presence. We learn to practice and nourish a co-created safe space so that we can all go deeper inside and free ourselves from suffering. Being in relationship with others takes some work, and at school we don’t learn basic listening, emotional expression or conflict resolution skills so these do not come easy. However, as we learn to engage with others a participate in the design of a skillful social space, we can all go deeper.

 

Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to further embody this quality!

 

(1) “Call me by My True Names  – The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh”, Parallax Press, 2005

(2)  Raja, V. (2021). Resonance and radical embodiment. Synthese, 199(1), 113-141.

(3)  Beckes, L., IJzerman, H., & Tops, M. (2015). Toward a radically embodied neuroscience of attachment and relationships. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 266.

(4)Coan, J. A., & Sbarra, D. A. (2015). Social baseline theory: The social regulation of risk and effort. Current opinion in psychology, 1, 87-91.

(5) Dos Santos, R. M. (2020). Isolation, social stress, low socioeconomic status and its relationship to immune response in Covid-19 pandemic context. Brain, behavior, & immunity-health, 7, 100103.

(6) Sieber, A. (2015). Hanh’s concept of being peace: The order of interbeing. International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 5(1).

 

When clients come through the door, especially in the initial stages of therapy, their affect tends to be very dysregulated. High levels of negative emotional arousal will tend to colour their perception and experience very strongly. Therefore, a most urgent therapeutic task is to support clients regulate their bio-affective state. As clients become more settled and oriented to the present moment, it is possible to gently guide their physiology, affect and cognitive systems towards greater integration. The purpose of integration is to embody and strengthen skills of bio-affective deactivation, in order to build greater processing capacity in relation to challenging experiences. 

This organismic learning gradually empowers a clients’ system to sense into the rich complexity of their experience, leaving no part out, and gradually inhabit more spaces of their psycho-somatic dynamics. Finally, this contained and embodied process of progressive complexification grows and builds until it reaches its next threshold of capacity, at a far-from-equilibrium state, leading to new emergent properties to arise: an insight, a new state, a previously unexplored perception. As an attempt to conceptualize this trajectory, NeuroSystemics proposes a 3-step therapeutic mapping: regulation, integration and liberation. This paper will provide some insights from the humanistic and contemplative sciences to explicate this journey.

Therapist as model for regulation

One of the most powerful tools for therapeutic success is the therapist herself. The common factors research paradigm, analyzing over 70 years of clinical data, explains that the therapeutic alliance, comprised of (i) a trusting and compassionate therapist-client relationship, (ii) clear goals and (iii) tasks to achieve these goals, is more important that any specific technique. These relational factors, common to all successful therapeutic outcomes found in the literature, can be embodied through a series therapeutic attitudes: friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity. 

In Buddhist contemplative practice these correspond to “brahma-viharas” (Hinsdale, 2012), literally meaning divine abodes. These have many similarities to Carl Roger’s (Rogers, 1986) humanistic principles of congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard, and offer a more differentiated map based on the client’s bio-affective shifts. Simply put, a therapist would attune and respond to their clients’ bio-affective state with a therapeutic attitude that would support greater ease, often corresponding to the following pairings:

 

Brahma-viharic qualities

In the face of negative affect, one of the most meaningful supports a client can receive is compassion (karuna). It is a positive state of mind where one feels joy at the possibility of lending a caring hand to one in need. In some cases, when the client is in the midst of distress, it may be possible to offer an attitude of benign neglect. The therapist’s attitude of genuine friendliness (metta) creates the most basic and fundamental affective space within which the client can feel safe and develop trust. Friendliness is mostly relevant for therapists to practice when clients experience somewhat pleasant feeling tones. As a principle, as the therapeutic process evolves, therapists’ higher-level feeling tones (joy as the highest) will become attuned responses to clients’ lower-level affective tones (very negative as the lowest). Therefore, over time, it will progressively be possible to expand the quality of friendliness to neutral and negative feeling tones.

The therapeutic encounter offers many moments of joy (mudita), which is a skill where the therapist attunes to the client’s joys, even momentary upsurges of joy – feeling joy in regard to the joy of the client. As with so many causal processes in complex systems, they are bi-directional or even multi-directional. At times, therefore, it can work in the other direction: the therapist’s joy can be contagious enough to help the client rise up to that level of affective intensity. Equanimity (upekkha), synonymous with equipoise, is a balancing quality helping to bring an evenness of mind, an investigative quality to all negative and positive experiences.

Positive emotions have shown beneficial effects in terms of their “undoing” of negativity. Fredrickson’s “undoing hypothesis” is based her empirically tested Broaden-and-Build theory (2001). The key element here is to understand the positive and negative feedback loop processes at play. 

 

Figure 2. Positive feedback loop processes for positive & negative emotions

 

Experiencing positive emotions internally first help to broaden one’s cognitive and behavioural repertoires. Brain imaging studies have shown that positive emotions broaden the scope of physiological visual attention and expand people’s repertoires of openness to new experiences. At the interpersonal level, induced positive emotions increase people’s sense of “oneness” with close others and their trust in acquaintances

Benign neglect, compassion and equanimity, respectively, can be reflected as a progressive gradation of support when a client experiences difficult emotions. Friendliness, joy and equanimity, respectively, are positively reinforcing attitudes towards the clients’ progressively pleasant affective tonalities. It is initially through the therapist’s support and explicit attitudinal intervention that a client can learn to reduce their challenging states, down-regulating affective processes. By modelling an attunement and responsiveness to clients’ nervous system states, affect and socio-cognitive processes through the embodiment of brahma-viharic attitudes, clients will eventually learn to regulate their own waves, changes and movements in their bio-affective rhythms. As the client understands the importance of this attitudinal practice (clarifying this as a goal of therapy), their task is to learn to support and regulate themselves in the therapeutic setting and in their daily life.

 

Figure 3. Therapy-generated affective positive & negative feedback loops 

 

In effect, positive emotions will develop a momentum via positive feedback loops of broadening and building (escalatory process), and negative emotions will be reduced both in their intensity and frequency via negative feedback loops of narrowing and responding (de-escalatory process).

A transcendent trajectory

As clients begin their therapeutic journey, regulation entails a down-regulation of negative states. As the therapist, through their quality of presence, embodiment and modelling of brahma-viharic attitudes, clients are able to skillfully negotiate challenging bio-affective states, and upregulate positive states. The below diagram describes this journey as a rising curve to the highest affective tonalities, followed by a reduction in the intensity. The declining curve, indicating a reduced intensity in positive affect, is informed by Buddhist meditative maps of jhanas. These are states of increasing happiness, absorption and refined perception.  

The Buddhist path to de-pathologize the psyche implies a gradual clarification, a ridding of confusion, a refinement of perception of one’s direct experience. The affective trajectory in the diagram, from left to right, describes a progressively less constructed, more subtle nature of phenomena. This means that very negative experiences are more constructed, more entangled, more fabricated than positive experiences, which are further along the process (more to the right). As affect matures and deepens, it reaches even more subtlety and stillness, taking form in equanimity, and progressively deeper states of equanimous experiences. These are experienced as higher forms of happiness the positively-valenced states preceding them, involving non-dual perception and further sensitivity to the emptiness of inherent existence of experience and phenomena.

 

Figure 3. Experiential subtlety

Trauma & jhana 

There are important implications and correlations with this conceptual framework and that of trauma healing. Trauma occurs as a result of a nervous system overwhelm of sympathetic arousal in the autonomic nervous system (Porges & Buczynski, 2011). This leads to the nervous system to transition from sympathetic (fight and flight) to dorsal vagus (freeze) activations. A client in freeze will experience a much-reduced access to sensation, affect and orientation, and reduced sensitivity to mental images and cognitive content.  

Interestingly, scientific evidence is emerging showing similarities in neurobiological substrates of jhanas and freeze states, except that these states are profoundly resourceful and transformative. They differ in three respects: (i) the preexisting conditions leading to its emergence (enjoyment training vs shock), (ii) the conceptual framework attempting to understand them (refinement of understanding the phenomenal nature of experience vs pathology) and (iii) the contiguous neurobiological networks (isolated vs interconnected) and physiological rhythms of state transition (rapid and erratic vs smooth and systematic). Freeze, a system evolutionarily designed to process backlog of sympathetic overstimulation, then, may also be a profound opportunity for cosmic connectivity and transformative meaningfulness.

 

The threads on the diagram, starting black and only rising, shifting through shades of grey, yellow and culminating in gold, describe the client’s progressive movement of integrated bio-affective regulation. Freeze states appear at the bottom of the graph, and clients often begin their therapeutic engagement with strong patterns of freeze, as described by the thick black threads. 

Conclusion

Therapeutic presence with brahma-viharic attitudes, followed by the client’s self-organizing attunement to bio-affective states, and regulatory capacity of them, enables the process to evolve towards greater positivity (in thickening yellow threads). After reaching the peak of positivity, the system is able to experience the pendulation between approach (social engagement) and avoidance (fight-flight-freeze) states, with increasing rhythmicity and synchronicity. These wavic patterns help the process of somatic integration, leading to new levels of bio-affective agency emerging when the threshold for holding capacity of the complex interactions has been reached.

 

May this article be of benefit for all beings!

 

You can learn more about the application of these evolutionary and systemic models, their associated neuroscientific empirical research, practice and clinical interventions along with time for practice in our workshops, courses and trainings at www.neurosystemics.org.

 

Together we go further.

 

References

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist, 56(3), 218.

Hinsdale, M. J. (2012). Choosing to love. Paideusis, 20(2), 36-45.

Porges, S. W., & Buczynski, R. (2011). The polyvagal theory for treating trauma. Webinar, June, 15, 2012.

Rogers, C. R. (1986). Carl Rogers on the development of the person-centered approach. Person-Centered Review.