The other day a friend of mine told a story of taking a long train ride, several years after her husband died. For some reason the trip set off her grief in a terrible way. She was undone by what my grief share calls the “ambush” of grief, sometimes referred to as a “wave” of grief. There are moment where grief seems to come at us as a wave, knocking us off our feet and sometimes knocking us over.
I love the beach and I love to swim in the waves. Not all waves are alike. There is the first wash over our feet wave that shocks our ankles with its cold temperature. Then there is the wave that is about two feet out of the shoreline that smashes into our legs, right above our knees. Then only one foot deeper into the ocean is the wave that slams into our middle and splashes up into our face making us look away. A couple feet past that wave is the one that demands we get our heads wet. To this one, we dive under and swim out past the crashing waves and into the floating waves. When I was a kid, I would stay out there floating up and down until my teeth chattered and I could no longer feel my legs for numbness.
But on my way out to the floating, teeth chattering experience, I have to navigate those harsher waves that can easily knock one over. Have you ever been knocked over by a wave?
The first thing that happens is you stumble to the ground with an arm reaching for the sand to steady your body, so you can quickly jump back up to a standing position. Because if you’re knocked over by one wave, another one is right behind it.
And a wave were to knock you on your butt, the tide would now be at the height of your head. So the next wave that is coming fast will not only knock you down but will likely turn you over. And tumbling under the tide is the worst feeling ever.
You lose which way is up and your arms reach for the ground, your legs are taken by the water and seem to be of no use to you. It’s horrible.
When I liken grief to a wave, that’s what I mean. When a wave of grief comes, it is that strong kind of wave that comes up from under you and knocks you down. It throws your arms and legs into a panic to try to “right” yourself.” It’s horrible.
And the more I’ve listened to my own experience, the more I’ve heard stories of those traveling this grief road with me, the more I realize these waves are unique. Waves of grief come with specific memories. And these “knock you down kind of waves” carry sensory data. They come fueled by a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch.
Sensory memory is out of cognitive control. Let me say that again – sensory memory, memories we have saved from stimuli related to our senses are not controlled by the cognitive part of our brain. So we cannot control what sensory data we retain or how we store it or for how long we store it.
Instead this information is controlled by the somatosensory system, which is a 3-neuron system that relays detected senses through pathways of the spinal cord, brainstem, and thalamic relay nuclei ultimately transferring them to the sensory cortex in the parietal lobe.
What I love about that last paragraph is that I worked on it for ten minutes and I’m still not quite sure what it means. What I do understand is that there is an element of passivity in the somatosensory system meaning that the information “sensed” and then “stored” is not done cognitively or intentionally in the same way we “learn” and “store” what we learn.
The somatosensory system detects a sense. So this system isn’t the one doing the sensing, it’s the one figuring out what to do with the senses.
And so back to my friend on the train. The wave of grief she experienced; the one that knocked her over – it came from the movement of the train. You see, she and her late husband used to take the train to work together. And on top of that, her dad worked on the train. So she had a relationship with trains AND her body had stored sensory data from being on trains. Think about how our bodies move when on a train. We sort of jiggle with the cars. Think about a train ride from an auditory sensory perspective. There is a consistent rumble of the train. Close your eyes, can’t you feel it in your body and can you hear the sound of the train?
Somatosensory memory. Somatosensory memory unfurled a wave of grief that knocked her over that day.
Pete said that sentence often. He said it to punctuate the end of the day. He said it to punctuate a story. He said it to provide a lens through which he wanted others to understand the world. And he always included it in prayers.
Since Pete married a pastor and so many of our friends are pastors, it made perfect sense that when we gathered for a meal, we would ask Pete to pray. He would jokingly say, “The room is lousy with pastors and you want the bass player to pray?”
Pete didn’t close his eyes when he prayed. His prayers always felt to me like he was directing an intentional conversation with someone present at the table. As we bowed our heads, Pete would clear his throat, swallow and begin, “Dear God, we live with an embarrassment of riches.”
Turns out we pastors knew what we were doing; the bass player had great theology.
Even on days like today, the day after dozens were killed in Las Vegas by a person holding a legally acquired weapon. Even on days like today, I believe Pete would mention the riches with which we live.
This lens of always remembering the riches in our lives has served to frame most of my memories for the past two decades.
The longer Pete is gone, the more I find myself framing memories. In fact, coding and storing memories is essential if I am ever going to be able to recall and remember my life with Pete. The better I can code and store a memory, the better chance I will have at not forgetting.
Unlike short term memories, long-term memories have a physical presence in the brain. Neurons create actual physical connections and those physical connections endure whether they are being used or not. They need physical space in our brain.
Storage and encoding go hand in hand. Storing a document in a specific folder helps define it. We access memories based on how and where we store them in our neurological brain cloud.
Grief this last month has often felt like a “memory making factory” has set up shop in my brain. As if there is a sharp witted woman in the recesses of my mind who is calculating the right size, shape and color of each memory. She is coordinating the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that is associated with each memory. She is working overtime and I am so grateful for her but I also worry about her accuracy in the coding and storage of these memories.
Sometimes she hands me memories where Pete is larger than life. Our life together in the memory is all light and no shadows. And that’s not accurate. Our life had lots of shadows.
Pete was diagnosed with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis 12 years ago. I will code this diagnosis as happening halfway into our marriage. But I will also code his diagnosis through the lens of the riches. We lived with a lot of riches at the time, some very specific riches. For example, I had just begun my first pastorate. This community of faith fit me so perfectly that everything I ate at the time tasted like it had extra butter in it. That wasn’t all. Dan had found his love, Faith. She belonged to a piece of his heart long before he met her. She says it this way, “there was a place in Dad’s heart, a nest of sorts, that was made just for me.”
We had a lot of light, a lot of riches. A diagnosis of MS formed an obstacle in the light and shadows were cat around it. But we only knew those shadows because of the light that was there in the first place.
How much of the shadows would Pete want me to keep intact for long term retrieval? What would Pete say of the woman in my brain who is working so hard at coding and storing? What would he say about how important it is for me to remember the way he felt when I hugged him or what his voice sounded like when he welcomed me home?
How would Pete code and store the memories of our life together if he were the one trying to ensure long term retrieval?
Well I think he told me how. He would code and store the light first. When he would say, "we live with an embarrassment of riches," he was defining life by the light and not by the shadows.
A week or so ago, a facebook friend crowd sourced the following question, “For those of you who've lost a loved one in the past and feel like you're healing… What habits, practices, or efforts have contributed to that healing? What should grieving people make sure they're doing?
I responded with, “Do massage or yoga or energy work as often as you would do regular therapy. Trauma lives in the body in ways that typical talk therapy can’t get to.”
Since Pete’s diagnosis with MS, I have been consistently curious about the mind/body connection. I use Louise Hayes Heal Your Body like a reference guide, easily acceptable to me on my kindle app. That led me to learning, practicing and teaching the Japanese healing technique, Reiki. I have used massage as a regular form of healing for myself. And recently, I’ve engaged in private yoga lessons with a skilled, loving Iyengar yoga instructor.
Iyengar yoga is new to me. In the past, I have gravitated toward a flow practice, where my breath worked with my movement to find and release stress and discomfort. Iyengar seeks to perfect a post by building it from the bottom up. Staying in a pose and making microscopic changes has allowed me to explore my body more thoroughly.
Last week, upon arrival to my yoga lesson, I explained to my teacher that during a massage the week before we were surprised at how “locked up” my sacrum was. Well, “surprised” is probably not accurate; it makes perfect sense. Our sacrum is at the base of our spine. Our spine holds us up, supports us all day, and all night. The sacrum is the beginning part of our root chakra. The root chakra is the portion of our body from our hips down to our feet. Energetically, or psychosomatically, our root chakra is all about grounding, being rooted in life. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to either of us that my root chakra is “locked up.”
With the death of Pete, my life has lost much of its footing. We cannot underestimate how much our primary relationships provide solid footing for us. Pete was the one at the end of the day who affirmed that I was deeply loved, despite whatever the day had brought. In a very real sense I have been uprooted and as a result my body is clinging to itself for stability. Physically, my muscles are locking onto themselves and affixing themselves to my spine.
So my yoga instructor and I did a full hour of poses that would help release my sacrum. We started in seated position, stretching forward. We moved to side twists. We ended in down dog, finding that my hamstrings are connected to my gluts are connected to my sacrum. Yikes! Ouch! But here’s the thing, instead of loathing my body, being angry or frustrated that it was so locked up, I found myself in down dog, sending the thought, “I’m so grateful for you,” to my body.
Maybe that sounds odd, but I am so deeply grateful for this body that continues to hold me upright. This body of mine is astounding. It is teaching me and supporting me. I am a body. I believe as a spiritual being that I am more than a body but for too long my spiritual life positioned my body against my spirit. As if my body was bad, evil, sinful. My spiritual life posited that it was its own being that could overcome, dominate the flesh part of me. Ultimately this is so unhelpful.
My body is working really hard to help me be spiritually healthy. My spirit ought to be working really hard to make my body healthy. John Barnes, a renowned physical therapist says, “the body is not just a reflection of the personality, the body is the personality.” He also believes “the body remembers everything that ever happened to it.”
I believe that too.
At the point in my yoga lesson where I was thanking my body for helping me live my life, my yoga instructor asks, “do you know about fascia?”
Here’s what I’ve been learning since that question. Fascia is like the membrane of an orange and it’s all over our bodies. Fascia is made up of densely packed collagen fibers that wrap around each of our internal organs and connect them to our muscles and bones. Some like to imagine that perhaps we are not made up of 600 different muscles but instead we have one muscle that separates and distinguishes it into 600 different parts. Our fascia stabilizes our entire body and gives us our human form. It is a fluid system that literally holds all of our life together – and not just physically…
Fascia contains sensory nerve endings. Proprioceptive sensory nerves help us perceive ourselves as separate from the outside world. Nociceptive sensory nerves help us perceive harmful substances like chili powder in our eyes or hot and cold temperatures. Interoceptive sensory nerves help us perceive pain and hunger.
Our fascia not only holds my back together, it also holds all of the emotion that I have experienced since Pete’s death – the dread, the sadness, the fear, the relief, the gratitude, the delight, the want, the hope. It’s all there, in my fascia – in your fascia. John Barnes, renowned physical therapist says, “when one experiences physical trauma, emotional trauma, scarring or inflammation, the fascia loses its pliability. It becomes tight, restricted and a source of tension to the rest of the body.”
So there is no amount of talk therapy that can get at the emotional memory locked in our beautiful, complex bodies. We are at our core, body. And I am lovingly helping my body loosen up its grip on life.
Pete visited me again – this time it was after yoga class. I was sitting on my mat, the rest of the class had left. I was basking in the after glow of mindful movement. I was wondering how long they would let me stay in the space when all of a sudden he was in front of me, in the trademark Scibienski gargoyle squat.
I looked up slightly as if to find his face and he said, “Hi cute girl.” A familiar greeting.
“Hi,” I said.
After a pause, I settled into his “presence,” I asked, “you ok?” A familiar question.
It was the question I had asked so often for the past several years. Pete was so sick for so long. And as I settle into his absence, I am remembering how very sick he was this past year. I thought we had more time together but he was so very sick. And he needed so much of my attention and love and care. And our lives had become quite small, him and me and our greetings – hi cute girl and you ok?
But that morning when I was settling into his presence, I had to imagine that the answer to “you ok?” is quite different than it had been. He was more than ok. He wasn’t sick anymore. He wasn’t wheeling through life anymore. He had full use of his legs and arms and he was squatting like he had done for most of his life.
His answer came to me within his silence. His silence returned the question. “And you? You ok?”
“I think I am. I’m not really sure what ok is. But I’ve started doing yoga again.”
After a pause, I added, “And I miss you.”
And again his silence spoke as if to say, “I miss you too.” and “I want more for you.”
He misses me? Is that how this works? And he wants more for me? More what? Certainly not more grief. Maybe more than grief. More than the gnawing question of how I will do this without him. More than the constant struggle to breathe deeply. More than the confusion of how to live without him.
Maybe those two thoughts go together. Maybe it’s not that he misses me wherever he is but that I am not myself. I am no longer who I was before he died. And I feel it. And I guess if Pete is real, he feels it too. He's right, I am not the same. And I miss me too.
And although I wish I could hold a conversation without my mind drifting. Or hope to go into meetings without breaking down in tears, the missing myself is much deeper. I don't feel like myself. My body feels different all the time. My instincts are not the same. I am acting oddly for me. And it's truly intriguing that no one else seems to notice. In other words, I'm presenting fairly "normal."
I suppose on the outside, I look the same, my relationships are the same, my job is the same, my voice is the same. I know I'm working to provide leadership and care as a pastor, and I'm doing so by relying on skill sets that I have honed over decades of ministry. But as I am living out each moment, I do not feel the same. You know what, Pete? I miss me too.
He misses me and he wants more for me.
But I don't want more. I want him. It all comes back to that. I want life with him. And he wants more for me. He wants me to find life without him. And so I said, “But I don’t want to do this without you.”
When I looked up next, he was standing, waiting for me to get up off my mat. To take my practice into my day. To find myself and to find my more.
I’m reading Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story. It’s scrumptious. In this retelling of her husband Ray’s sudden death, her writing is beautifully broken and raw. It’s not that she writes in fragments but her thoughts are short and contained. One thought at a time. One truth or one question or one observation. The story is told by a grieving brain.
Don’t get me wrong – the book is still written by one of the most prolific narrative writers of our time. And while I’m no Joyce Carol Oates, my grieving brain has made a friend with her grieving brain.
Grieving brain is odd. Grief affects many areas of our brain. I found this great article by Barbara Fane, that has helped me understand what is going on in my brain. For example,
Our parasympathetic nervous system (in the brain stem anda lower part of our spinal cord) controls our autonomic nervous system – rest, breathing, digestion. When a person is grieving, breath can become short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases. And sleep can be disturbed; insomnia can be an issue.
Our prefrontal cortex/frontal lobe holds the ability to find meaning, to plan, helps with self control and self expression. “Scientific brain scans show that loss, grief, and traumas can significantly impact your emotional and physical processes. Articulation and appropriate expression of feelings or desires may become difficult or exhausting.”
The limbic system, the emotion-related brain region, particularly thte hippocampus portion “is in charge of personal recall, emotion and memory integration, attention and our ability to take interest in others.” While we are grieving, this area of our brain creates responses to loss and grief as a threat as a way to protect us from more pain.
I can attest to my parasympathetic nervous system being fully functional.
My breathing is shallow. My appetite is not what it used to be. I can’t finish sentences – and not like many of us who can’t find the right word sometimes. I am at a loss for words in regular speech so regularly that I’ve grown accustomed to speaking at a different cognitive level or being incredibly quiet in social settings. My vocabulary and syntax is decades below what they were before Pete died.
As a pastor, I have feared I am not fully engaging with people in my congregation. Building relationships has always been the foundation for my ministry. But I’ve noticed that when others are telling me stories, I’m listening but not engaging the way I have for the whole of my adult life. Sometimes it feels like there is a me watching me listening to someone tell me a story.
The best advice I’ve received is what would you say to someone if they came to you with these concerns? I would give them so much grace. I’d say, “Oh my word, you’re grieving your husband, your best friend. Your entire life is upside down. Of course you can’t breathe deeply! Of course you can’t finish sentences! You’re doing just fine. Be patient with yourself. Be kind.”
But now having gone through this, I would add, “your brain is doing the best it can and its even doing some of these things to help you. It’s good to remember that grief is a process of the mind and body.”
I have worked so hard at controlling my thoughts, keeping my mind focused on what I think is best. But at the end of the day, I am a body. My body, specifically my brain, is working at Pete’s death. And I will choose to embrace my brain and its process.
My brain misses Pete as much as my body.
There is a chapter in my memoir (the one we are all praying will find an avenue for publication soon) entitled “Christians Believe in Resurrection.” Here’s a portion I am considering today:
While I was a chaplain, I watched a group of doctors resuscitate an elderly gentleman. Resuscitation is a gruesome act. It often involves broken bones and blood. While physicians monitored blood pressure and breathing, I monitored grief and loss. Everyone in the room wanted to save life. I wanted death. I wasn't callous to the family or the doctor's desire to prevent death. I get that not everyone is comfortable with “do not resuscitate” orders. The doctors did not save this man. He suffered yet another major heart attack. And his last minutes on earth were traumatic.
Pete’s last moments were complicated just like that experience I had as a chaplain. Pete had a major heart attack. I watched it happen in his eyes as he reached for me and said, “Help.” Then he fell back on the bed, gasping for breath. I held his torso in my arms as I reached for the phone to call 911. He took four labored breaths as I cried and whispered “no, no, breathe honey, breathe honey, no, no.” And then I believe he was gone.
But the switchboard director answered the phone and asked me to get him onto the floor. She instructed me to do chest compressions. And then the squad arrived and they took over. And then at some point they thought they saw cardiac activity so they continued. And then finally, I asked, “are we doing the same thing over and over and getting the same response?” There was a pause and this time I did not whisper, I waved me arm and said, “Everybody stop. Really. Stop. Death is ok.”
Here's a bit more from the memoir:
“Resuscitation is about holding onto the life we have. We hold onto what we have; we cling to our lives – exposing our lives to traumatic acts of resuscitation just to hold onto what we know. We try all kinds of things to resuscitate the life that we know… There are obviously some situations that require some more grit. Sometimes in life, we need to keep working at something. But there are a lot of times where we need to stop for a second and imagine an end. Stop. Let go. Allow death to happen. Embrace loss. Wait for resurrection.
When Pete and I can no longer do certain things or go certain places, we adjust and sometimes those adjustments seem bitter. I have grown to understand that bitterness is a sign that I am still trying to resuscitate. I don't want the life we imagined to die. I want to try to keep it alive. I cling to the life we had. I cling to the dreams we dreamed together. But when a dream is dying, or MS has taken Pete's ability to walk, I want to have the courage to say, “Do not resuscitate.”
As you can imagine, I am having to imagine a new life. A resurrected life. But at the same time I am most certainly clinging to the life we had. I am overwhelmed with wanting to maintain or recreate the family life we had, the home we had, the comfortable conversation I so deeply miss. I worry about whether my life will work without him. I worry if I will know how to be who I have become – a stepmother, a grandmother, a pastor, a writer, a friend, even a lover – without him. But “who I have become” is not tangible. There’s nothing physical to hold onto.
In fact, all of the tangible things are either donated, packed or treasures that we have kept. We have donated Pete’s clothing, the dishes we used during our life together, many of our books. We’ve thrown away cds and packed up pictures. In one week, movers will pile our “life” together into a 10x15 climate controlled box, a tomb if you will.
The Christian scriptures say Jesus was in the tomb for “three days.” Three days is a literary device that essentially means “when the fat lady sings.” Jesus was in the tomb until the “fat lady sang” or “until it was time” or “when God was good and ready.” The “three days” is when the magic happens, the miracle of new life from death.
He missed it. Pete missed Mateo’s third birthday. I made a 3D firetruck cake that sliced easily and everything. Pete would have remembered the meltdown I had last year when the dump truck cake fell apart and Julia and I “fixed it” by throwing a bunch of broken vanilla wafers on it and creating a whole new 3D cake. “No one will know, Mommom,” she said. And they didn’t. But this year the cake worked just as planned. And the kids helped me decorate it and… Pete missed it.
And I couldn’t help but think about how Mateo being three will only know Pete from what we tell him. And although he’ll hear how Pete was beyond joy, without words at the adoption of Mateo, Mateo will never hear Pete tell him about how adopting a baby was a dream come true for him. He’ll never hear Pete talk about his hope for a world that loves one another, across racial and ethnic, social and economic barriers. He’ll never hear Pete talk about camping out at the Washington Monument and being jarred into adulthood when armed military personnel monitored their peaceful protest.
He won’t hear Pete talk about; he will hear us talk about it. But it’s not the same. Pete is missing out on life. And Mateo is missing out on life with Pete.
Pete missed Charlottesville too. And this was when I realized it wasn’t just that Pete was missing out but that “we” were missing out on experiencing life together. I didn’t miss out on this past weekend’s events. I am not missing out on trying to figure out what kind of world I live in now. I am in the thick of it but my partner and best friend is not here with me and so I’m missing being part of a “We.”
I can’t help but think if I were a “We” still, I would have had a thoughtful, fruitful conversation about race and violence, militia and the first amendment. If I were still a “We,” I would have gained a historical perspective that I have grown to assume is readily available to me. And now I am grasping for the questions to ask other that would get me somewhere near that conversation that would be happening in Pete’s head. I want to be part of that conversation and I used to be part of that conversation – every day, but especially when horrible things happened.
Pete and I loved to talk to one another. About anything. Neither of us danced on the surface of life. We loved the conversation about what makes life worth calling it life. And so when people walked into the University of Virginia wearing khakis and carrying torches, I don’t want to search the internet for good journalism, I want to ask Pete what he sees and what he thinks. I want to lay in bed with him, my arms wrapped around him, his arms wrapped around me. I want the two of us to shed tears together for a country we love but no longer recognize. I want the two of us to pray fragments like,
Dear God, what is happening?
Dear God, we are sorry - for our part - implicit and complicit.
Dear God, what the hell is happening?
Together, our prayers were never "put together." They were honest and vulnerable. They spoke of our sinful nature and how we were at a loss as to what to do next. And now I am left with my own prayers; there is no "we" anymore, just “me.” And it’s so much less than “we.”
And so it’s not that “he” missed Mateo’s birthday or “he” missed Charlottesville, “we” did. We missed it. And “We” are going to miss a lot of things.
I promised myself I'd update the blog once/week and then I also promised myself that some weeks I might only have picture to share. I've reached that week.
I've started to pack up my house. This has included taking an inventory of what I wish to keep, what I will use, what I will imagine in my life moving forward. If you know me, I really have no problem throwing things away. Purging is cathartic (for me.) And so I can only imagine that I will eventually be opening boxes and wonder, "did I really throw out the dish drain? What was wrong with the dish drain?"
And joking aside, in a moment of rash purging the other day, I threw out the key to a small storage closet in our building. And I didn't realize it until I needed the key. Ugh.
We've also taken three full car loads to the local Good Will. That's been great and gives me a little bit of help with my, "look how much stuff you're putting in a landfill" guilt.
Having to imagine what my life will be is the most ridiculous idea that it's made it that much easier for me to settle into bedroom three at Dan and Faith's house. I've given myself the freedom to grieve, to reflect, to cry, to laugh. Eventually, I will begin to imagine what is next.
In the meantime, Julia and I are playing monopoly. She's killing me.
And if I had the brain space or the reflection time, perhaps I would make some grand connection between how I'm trying to figure out my next move, hoping to pass Go and collect $200 as often as possible. I might understanding why I mortgaged Water Works just so I could have another property with the same color. I think it's fair to share also that Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't look too appealing to me with its current residence. And maybe I'll ask my therapist what she thinks about me using the iron as my playing piece.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid.”
These are the first words of C.S. Lewis’ renowned book A Grief Observed. In this honest and thoughtful memoir, he recounts so much of the chaos that occurred within his mind and body after his beloved died. I’ve read it twice since Pete died and I’m still mostly stuck on that first thought.
Grief feels like fear.
For example, when I get in my car alone, a funny things happens at about mile 3. Without prompting, remember the moment Pete stopped breathing or I remember I have to pack up my house in the next six weeks or I remember that I don't really know how to do life without him. My breathing changes. And I feel unrest. This is the same feeling as fear. It’s fight or flight time.
You see fear comes to us from our amygdala. The amygdala is part of our animal brain. It’s lodged deep in the cerebral cortex and it is part of our limbic system. It controls memory, our decision making, our emotional reactions. It gives us fear… and I’m going to say grief too.
Grief comes from memory. Grief is a much deeper seated emotion. It’s not cognitive.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is the Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. He’s also a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and in an interview with Krista Tippet, he said, “We have these two different parts of our brain. Our animal brain makes us go to sleep, and makes us hungry, and makes us turned on to other human beings in a sexual way, stuff like that. Then we have our rational brain, the Broca’s center, which is sort of the part of your brain that helps you to reason, understand and articulate things. It also allows us to get along with other people in a civilized way.”
These two parts of our brain are not connected.
That’s why when we become upset, our ability to articulate disappears. (And this also is why our political discourse has become uncivilized, irrational and nonproductive.)
So what is a girl to do when she’s at mile three and her amygdala hijacks her brain?
For that I turned to yet another interview with Krista Tippett. In February of 2016, she interviewed, Dr. James Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founding director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Dr. Doty is at the forefront of how our mind communicates with our bodies. Dr. Doty talks about how we all have to deal with the “The baggage of evolution: the fight or flight response that is linked to violence and tribal conflict.”
“When we are fearful, we have a tendency to shut down. We don’t want to have new experiences. We want to have familiarity, which is typically with people who look like us, act like us, think like us. When we shut everything down, it gives us a sense of being safe but it also keeps you on pins and needles waiting to be attacked.”
Do me a favor and read that last paragraph again… because I feel like that several times a day. I live with an overwhelming feeling of being unsafe. My shoulders are constantly riding up my neck and my arms, my biceps in particular are always flexed.
How do we deal with this baggage from evolution? How do we bypass the amygdala? There has got to be a way to get my animal brain to communicate with my cognitive brain so that I can grief in a productive, soothing way.
Well… listen to this. Dr. Doty has been studying the effects of meditation and mindfulness on our brain. With a meditation practice for as little as two weeks, we see lower blood pressure, a change in the release of stress hormones and a strengthening of the immune system.”
Basically, practices like meditation or mindful breathing connects our parasympathetic nervous system with our with our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the communication method between the heart and brain.
So a funny thing happened yesterday around mile three when I was alone in my car. My breathing changed. I felt unrest and I my brain started toward the direction of running in circles of things I could do or should do. And instead, I took a deep breath. And I felt my body present in my car. I breathed again. I looked out the window and noticed a specific tree, a specific house, something that was present, here and now.
Then I breathed again, and again, slowly, intentionally until the unrest passed. Take that amygdala.
Three days before I left for Portland, I admitted to my oldest son and his wife that living alone was mostly leaving me lonely. I needed people around me, particularly at night time. I asked if the offer to move a bed into their house was still good. “Of course” they said.
Two days later, I found out that I could not stay in my condominium. I live in a 55 and older community and I am not 55. Our request for a one year exception was denied.
One day later, I would be on a mission trip to Portland, Maine with some folks from church. One of the things we were going to do was work with refugee families. The irony was not lost on me. I would encounter people who had fled from their homes, who had been displaced from any kind of life they knew, who would eventually settle here, a foreign land. Perspective… perspective.
Two days into the trip, I made a joke about being homeless when I get back to NJ. One of my teammates quickly responded, “You are not homeless; you are house-less. They are not the same thing.” Again… Perspective.
Three days into the trip, we stole 30 minutes to check out the rocky beaches of Portland (different from the miles of sand along the Jersey shore.) One of the young adults on the trip was collecting shells and I asked her to pick me a good one. They were fully intact snail shells, still fully intact.
They reminded me of the parable of the lobster -
“Long ago, when the world was very new... there was a certain lobster who determined that the Creator had made a mistake. So he set up an appointment to discuss the matter. “With all due respect,” said the lobster, “I wish to complain about the way you designed my shell. You see, I just get used to one outer casing, when I’ve got to shed it for another; very inconvenient and rather a waste of time.” To which the Creator replied, “I see. But do you realize that it is the giving up of one shell that allows you to grow into another?”
Because lobster shell is not elastic, the lobster must shed its shell in order to grow. Shedding is called “ecdysis” and the overall process is called molting. A lobster will molt dozens of times over the course of its life. Therefore, much of a lobster’s life is spent preparing for, performing and recovering from molting.
I dare say in this way, we are very much like lobsters. We spend a lot of our time preparing for, performing and recovering from molting.
And if resist or refuse, our lives become uncomfortable and unmangable. Similarly to the unhappy lobster who requested to stay in its shell, I believe we too can resist change. Haven’t we all been guilty of trying to stay where we are when we really needed to move on, change, grow, mature… molt?
For sure, the molting process is gruesome; it’s vulnerable, stressful, painful and downright scary. But my shell doesn’t fit anymore; in fact, it’s for many reasons thrust on me and for reasons I control, the life I had is no longer compatible. While I will pray for patience and peace through this process, it is clear that the steps are mine to take. God will not take them for me. And so I will read, reflect, share, process, learn what I can about what I am becoming so as to find and grow into my new habitat.