Tornado in the Doorway

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I alert people to what they will experience once they start applying  stress reduction techniques to their most stressful situations. Frequently, things feel worse! How could this be? I thought stress reduction techniques work by cooling things down such as  stress hormones or our emotional brain systems. Cooling should make us feel less anxious, confused, angry, defensive, etc., right?

As beginners,  our anxiety can increase and our bodies can feel pretty bad. I think this happens for a couple of reasons:

  • We put some of our focus on how our bodies are feeling in that moment. Frequently when we are reacting to a high-stressor, we go to our well learned responses which can be quite separated from body awareness. We are thinking a mile a minute and our emotions are following familiar paths and forms of expression. Our body does not get its due even though they are very involved in the situation.  When our focus returns to our body we can feel our breathing is off, or our bodies are pumped up with stress hormones, or our hands are shaking and more.  That doesn’t feel good at all.
  • We split our focus from just what’s happening to working our technique.  That’s a heck of lot to juggle.
  • We probably discover that we have not practiced the technique enough to know it well so we find ourselves trying to remember all of the steps.
  • We probably discover that the experience produced by the technique feels too unfamiliar to make us feel comfortable doing it in a high stress situation.

Diminishing the Tornado and Passing Through the Doorway
The increased discomfort caused by the forces above is the tornado.  The doorway is where we can pass from high discomfort of a body and mind in stress, to feeling better and having more control over ourselves. There are three things we can work on to make getting through the doorway easier or even possible.

  • We can diminish the power of the tornado by getting very familiar and practiced with our stress tools. Daily practice, in the face of lessor stresses, can really sharpen our mastery.
  • We can learn to expect the tornado and therefore have a better chance of persisting with our technique. When discomfort rises (hello, tornado) we stick with our stress tool and not back off. Most of the time, eventually it will produce some results (perceivable stress reduction and/or clarity of thought/feeling).
  • We can expose ourselves to the stressor or similar stressors and bring the discomfort down.  As the level of stress decreases the power of the tornado to rattle us diminishes. When a situation is less stressful, the tornado may not even appear. The balance between the stress and the effectiveness of our stress reduction technique will be such that the technique matches or exceeds the capacity of the situation to produce stress. Piece of cake.

Credits:
Funnel cloud photo – Public Domain. Credit: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL).

The Chatter Cloud

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An observation from the borderland between regular conscious life and the unconscious world within.

When I meditate long-enough I usually bump into something I call The Chatter Cloud. In addition to being an interesting experience, it reminds me just how independent some of our inner world can be.

Getting to the Cloud

I have to use single-pointed meditation to get there. Single-pointed meditation means reducing thinking, moving, and feeling to very, very simple terms. Paying attention to the sensation of breathe moving into the nose and out of the nose and that is it. As other stuff comes up, I ignore it and go back to holding attention at the nose. Simple but hard.

The Cloud Itself

In this simplifying process I hit a place where I hear chatter much like one hears in a busy public place, multiple human voices but none of them are clear enough to understand.

After several minutes of work (45 or more), a cloud of inner chatter moves in on me or I move in on it as I sit in one-pointed meditation. It is different than the normal chatter we all hear, this chatter feels more abstract like something from a much deeper place than the usual inner dialogue. it appears to be serious stuff, probably tied to the anxieties of living.

Beyond the Cloud

First it is suddenly there and then it passes in about a minute. Next, the cloud is gone and then I move to a clearer meditation place.

It is somewhat disturbing to hear first hand something that is probably running all the time and I’m completely unaware of it. I have to wonder what is this doing to my feelings, moods, ability to think clearly, etc.

I assume that if I can meditate frequently I can keep this cloud away but for how long? What other clouds are below the surface?

 

Theta Brainwaves: The Little Known Door to the Unconscious

doorknockerOur brains, waking and sleeping, pump out an assortment of brainwaves: beta, theta, delta, gamma, alpha. Of this list, theta may be the most important for exploring and using the imagination. Research and experience since the 1960s shows theta enhances creativity; increases insight; discharges old and unresolved emotions; and opens us to changing and adding beliefs.

Theta was first explored in detail by Elmer Green. Green invited all sorts of meditators into his biofeedback lab to see what type of brainwave activity they could produce.  Deeper meditation and experienced meditators produced more theta and less alpha and beta. Curious about his own practice of observing imagery, emotions, and insights as he coasted off to sleep (hypnagogia), he had someone monitor his brainwaves as he moved from regular awareness to deep inner observation. There, too, were higher levels of theta.

Peniston and Kulkosky came along later and tried theta biofeedback training on people who were suffering from major psychological issues such as trauma and addiction. Several times a day and for several days, patients would be coached on how to let go of tension in their bodies and in their minds.  The deeper they were able to relax, the more theta was produced and the biofeedback machines provided tones to let the patients know they were on the right track.  In recent years, the theta training  protocol has been refined and streamlined from multiple sessions across multiple days to single sessions once or twice a week.

Anna Wise attached theta work to goals commonly sought by recent explorers of self-development. Answers from within could be evoked and brought up from the deep unconscious. In fact, theta work seems to work better if it is purpose-driven in the sense we set out and expect to do some inner work when we go to theta. Wise points to two types of content worthy of exploration: specific events of our past and current feelings; and general content such as what makes a good life; what is inner peace; image of god; wisdom, etc.

How Can Theta Waves Do What They Do?

Few have explained how theta waves can produce such results. However, some research (see references section) is connecting  learning and memory to theta.  This makes sense when we consider that it has been known that young children, roughly 4 to 7 years old, produce more theta than older children or adults.  Assuming that the ages 4 to 7 (some say 2 to 5) is a crucial period for a child to learning the most important lessons of living (i.e. look both ways; how to recognize a friend from a foe; a happy person from an angry person), then theta could be facilitating rapid and deep learning.

If this is true, learning to produce theta at will, pushes are ability to learn to new levels and speed.  We could learn new patterns such as habits and core beliefs.  And we could replace old, unhelpful habits and beliefs with new ones that are healthy and helpful. Essentially, get into theta and slip back to when your mind was very young, very open, and very capable of learning at a tremendous pace and depth. We have a second chance to get things right.

Knocking on the Door With Your Theta Brain-waves – The options:

Option 1 – Find a biofeedback center and ask for Alpha-Theta protocol training.
Don’t expect this to be short and cheap. It can take 20 to 30, half-hour sessions costing $150 or so per session.

Option 2 – Purchase and Experiment with Neurosky/Mind Reflector
Mind Reflector is affordable and comes with a built-in alpha/theta protocol created by biofeedback/neurofeedback experts.

Option 3 – Work with the Anna Wise System of Imagery
Anna Wise did a great deal of work charting brainwaves and their related mental and physical experiences. Wise wrote that we can learn to spot theta brainwaves at work by watching imagery. Not what is appearing in the imagery, but the qualities of the images. When alpha brainwaves are predominant, images will appear sharp and clear. In theta, imagery appears less defined. She doesn’t explain why that is, but in my experience, theta imagery is fuzzy because we are not simply observing the images as we do in alpha but becoming immersed within the images.  We are getting lost in the dream-like experience and we lose touch with ourselves. Just like in our waking life, if we are immersed in getting through the day, most sensory details are fuzzy since we have little attention focused on them as they happen.

I highly recommend her book, The Awakening Mind for its fantastically helpful insights and information alongside her imagery scripts. CD Baby sells recordings of the scripts narrated by Anna Wise herself.

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Resources:

See Elmer Green’s – Beyond Biofeedback (out-of-print but used copies can be found)
See Anna Wise – Awakening the Mind: A Guide to Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves

Default Brain Mode – when the brain really heats up

Evidence shows our brain never rests. When we go into an inward focus, the amount of energy certain sections of our brain uses, increases beyond what was required to focus externally.

Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, thinks that this is probably not a totally positive event. She believes that our brain becomes much more active with inner chatter and distractions. The default state automatically goes to these four main mental activities:

1) Inner commentary – creating an opinion on the present moment and looking for what is wrong and what can be improved in a type of alternate reality;

2) Time traveling – thinking about the past or the future, imagined scenarios, inner fantasy;

3) Self-referential processing – Creating a sense of self – who you are, “I am the person who ____, I like this and I don’t like that, other people should treat me a certain way because of who I am.” It defines your identity or ego. This solid rigid sense of self distances you from others and the present moment;

4) Social cognition – Thinking about others, what they think about you, what you think about them, looking at yourself in relationship to others, comparing yourself to others.

McGonigal is a teacher of yoga and a proponent of quiet minds. Indeed, the brain’s default status may make meditation difficult. However, those who are curious about the content of our minds and who are drawn to observing the imagination, this is confirmation that the production of the imagination must be vitally important to the human since so much energy is dedicated to it.

More examination, both using imaging equipment and noting personal experiences, will give us with a clearer view of this state of mind and what part our imagination plays in this activity.

Play It Backwards – Look at a memory with new (imaginal) eyes

All sorts of details pop out at you when you: go into the imaginal mind-state, call up a memory, and let it re-run in your mind’s eye. Suddenly, up comes all sorts of important details, and then there is an “aha” about something unseen and unrealized at the time of the real event.  What we thought we knew about what happened, previously all tucked away in our memory, now looks brand new: “Yikes, why didn’t I see all of this when it was happening? I thought I was seeing everything but compared to this view, it was like I was wearing foggy glasses and half out of it.”

Why Do We See More on Replay? The Power of Normal Replay and the Power of Dream Theater

Of course there are the normal factors of taking a few more looks. We are bound to discover a few fresh details just through repetition. Next, we might be viewing the event with a different perspective. Perhaps the event was charged with a lot of emotion, such as frustration or anger. After the fact we can watch it from greater distance and see other details.

We can use a bit of free-editing with imagination to reshuffle the memory event. Instead of taking things in order we can move the ending to the beginning and the beginning to the middle, etc. We can play it in slow motion or high speed. Or we can step into the shoes of the other people, animals, things, etc. and see things from their perspective. Objects and locations can be swapped out and replaced with others.

But if we go deeper, that is, move into the imaginal mind-set which is more closely related to dreaming than being our normal wakeful selves, something else comes about.  If we spend enough time in imaginal space (and have practiced these techniques), the target memory will become more vivid. We will know this at the attentional level because we will loose more and more awareness of things happening outside of our minds. As we focus more and more inward, the more we are drawn inward.  We really start to feel, at least to some degree, that we are in the memory and not just standing outside of it looking at it. If we are in the memory, then our regular senses are there too. We find ourselves engaging our bodies as we engage them to navigate our everyday external world. We can feel the effects of weight and texture as well as hear sounds unique to the memory location. We start to pick up on the details of light, color, and shade.

On top of these mind-state changes, when working in the imagination, we usually move to a greater wholeness of awareness than is normally available to us.  C.G. Jung gives us a good inventory of the major functions of awareness that could be available to us if we were whole. His functions are: thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. As noted above, our sensation function (our senses) become engaged when we step out of looking at a memory and step into the memory. Our thinking, feeling, and intuition functions can operate in two ways: as part of how we look at the memory during the replaying and as a participant in the memory itself. When that happens, we have all four functions operating, generating information about the memory. This is far different from when we were in the real event; then we probably only had one or two of our functions that we tend to rely upon operative. The other one or two functions got shuffled to the background. Not the case here, as we replay it in our dream theater.

Our dream theater is our maximal way of memory replay, but it also is highly important to exploring philosophy, mythology, literature, symbols, our dreams, and our lives as they play across the stage of life. Turning inward and bringing so many resources online to look again or to look at what we have never carefully examined before, will, without fail, show us much that is new and surprising.

Meditation versus Imagination

Early in most of my workshops/trainings I go right to this point:  imagination is different than meditation. The reason I start off there is because some people come to imagination work with meditation techniques. That is not the best way or the fastest way to get into one’s imagination. Classical meditation makes the assumption that we are too connected to our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and other things going on inside of us. To counter this over connection, meditation masters long ago developed methods to: shut down inner chatter; slow down thinking; move away from our emotions; and let our bodies run in the background with limited attention. Not all meditation methods are the same but on the whole, most follow this pattern of disengagement. I use the metaphor of “emptying the cup”, that is, emptying ourselves of much of our daily content.

Ray Bradbury follows the approach of the imagination worker:

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

In imagination work we tip the cup over and see what is there. We don’t try to distance ourselves from it. Whatever it is: emotions, wanderings, thinking, dreams, fantasies, troubling and repetitive thoughts, etc. we let down the barriers and we open to it. Imagination works in a circular way. First it releases our ability to see what’s inside of us and then it frees the contents. This freeing in turns deepens our vision of the unconscious. Our enhanced vision increases more freeing as our unconscious trusts us with more content and delights in our interest. And on goes that cycle.

Summary:  Imagination fills the cup. Meditation empties the cup.