spirit

THE CHAIN OF BEING

THE CHAIN OF BEING

Let me tell you how I best understand the fundamental links of being. These four variables together comprise something I call the being chain. It is these four factors which operate mostly unknown, influencing everything, especially how we think and interact with each other and the world.

Contrary to what most people believe, we exist emotionally and then use our brain (usually the left brain in right handed people) to rationalize things later. We tell ourselves a story of why.

Emotions occur faster than the brain can think for good reason: If a threat is present, we don’t have time to weigh the pros and cons of a situation. Instead, we’ll use our fight or flight system to prepare to either escape or resolve the danger immediately. OK, basic enough.

Out and about, we exist in a mild fight or flight state most of the time.

The human brain is a prediction machine. It uses the body’s needs, and prior emotional experience to make sense of the circumstances in the environment. Everything we do, our perceptions, our actions and our learning is based on making and updating expectations.

In fact, all our disappointments are driven by our expectations.

Even sight is based on predictions and expectations.

What you see comes in through the eye and hits the visual cortex at the back of the head. Most of the signaling goes from the eyes to the vision center there.

But, some neurons go the other way, coming and going from higher levels of the brain (the cerebral cortex) down to the visual cortex. These are thought to carry predictions. If you have seen it before, you are likely to see it again. If you can’t identify something, your brain will fill in the blank from memory until you see a more accurate picture. This is helpful remembering a route home, but also allows us to see imgaes in clouds on a summer’s day.

The brain uses interoception to gauge the body. That means it checks what’s going on with you physically through its special sensors. It does this primarily through the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus system, which is connected to the heart, gut and organs.  It uses something called proprioception to gauge where you are in a space, and exteroception, which gives you an awareness of your surroundings and stimuli derived from it like light and sound, etc. We focus mainly on interoception.

For example, 100,000 neurons line your gut, another 40,000 exist in the heart. More than 80% of vagus neurons are afferent, meaning they signal towards the brain. These give the brain a constant update of what is going on physiologically, in the body.

From this, you get two general emotional states: valence and arousal. Valence is simply comfortable or uncomfortable. Arousal is either on or off, alert and agitated or resting.

Feelings are predictive, not reactive. Long before we become aware of feelings we have, they have already taken hold of our body’s system. The brain is constantly trying to predict what will happen next to prepare you for circumstances.

You probably remember overreacting to something on incomplete information. We all do it. It’s a natural part of what it is to be human. It’s only as things unfold can we tell if our reaction was appropriate or not. We are constantly adjusting. The better we understand this, the easier it is.

Feelings are predictive responses to the body’s needs based on prior emotional experience, then tested against the social reality before you after the fact.

We learn emotions first as babies, and they become increasingly complex as we are exposed to new experiences. Contrary to the idea we all possess the same emotions, it is more that we experience many of the same things which produces a similar storehouse of emotional responses.

Every experience you have as a young child onward contributes to your bank of feeling states. These are called upon predictively (and mostly below the surface of awareness), allowing you to face whatever situation is in front of you.

It’s a best-guess system, corrected after the fact.

Even as you read these sentences, you are trying to predict where I’m going with this. In conversations with friends, you are doing the same; that is, trying to guess what they will say next. You’ve caught yourself finishing other people’s sentences more than once. Others have done the same with you.

Prediction is why when you first gaze upon a scene, you may see things you know from memory before seeing what is actually before you. That’s the brains prediction system at work!

In any given moment, your brain is using its vast storehouse of recalled emotional experience to determine the future—and the best emotional state in the moment to keep you safe. You are also using the same basic mechanism to predict and understand the people around you.

We sometimes jump to conclusions based on beneath the surface feelings about something. Other times, we under-react because our experience doesn’t signal the current situation as a threat or familiar.

No two people’s emotions are quite the same, simply because no two persons have lived in the same way. In the case of anxiety or anger, you may now understand how prediction is the real cause of our discontent and pain.

You can imagine all this brings great advantages. Recording old emotions in the body for future use is a handy evolutionary adaptation. Having feelings directly connected to your sympathetic system means fear can safeguard your life.

The sequence is this: Physiology (body) to emotional state (valence and arousal) leading to predictive feelings (based on old experience) and finally, thoughts. This is the chain of being.

Think of thoughts as an “explanation” for what’s going on with the body.

This is why we adjust after-the-fact. The body is way ahead of us, and thoughts come last in the chain of being. Where do we feel fear the most? In the body. Follow me so far?

By understanding feelings as imperfect guesses based on old experiences, we can take responsibility for them by countering their effects and letting them go.

What’s the best way to create new feelings? Create new experiences.

Doing new things gives you new feelings to store away for later. This is also how we break an old fear pattern by implementing new strategies.

Doing this gives you a deeper repertoire of scenes and emotional data points—which your brain will automatically employ and test against the ongoing reality before you. That’s also what maturity is about: Life gets better as we get better at life!

It’s worth repeating: all our disappointments are driven by expectations. Not only is this true, everything else about how your body and mind deals with the world is also driven by expectations. Changing expectations is going to the source of things.

To consciously change your state at any given moment, you can change what you think or change what you do.

DOING AND THINKING

The chain of being: Physiology, emotional state, predictive feelings, thoughts.

That’s your approach to life, factoring in your consciousness. Here’s something else: You can intervene at each end of this chain to tackle anything. You can change the body, thoughts, or both.

Focus and Language: two special forces bridging the chain of being

We simply cannot take in all the information around us and record it. Nor can we mentally attend to but a tiny fraction of the stimuli in our environment. The brain is amazing, but it has its limits.

Imagine looking around you with a large magnifier and only seeing through its lens. You would see some things straight ahead clearly up close, the rest of it at the sides would be blurry and faded. That’s what your brain’s ability to focus is like.

Focus is both mental and physical. You use your eyes to focus, and you turn your body towards what engages you in the environment. And, pictures from what you see engage your mind physically at the visual cortex. The rest of your senses operate on focus as well as you touch, smell, strain your ears to hear or taste something.

What you are telling yourself, your self-talk, your thoughts, are under your free-will ability to control by way of focus. So is your imagination.

It can also be either/or. You can stare at something new and for a moment, register no thoughts. In these instances, you can almost feel your brain trolling through its databanks trying to make sense of the scene. Other times you can stare into the distance and see nothing, while vividly day-dreaming about something unrelated.

Where you decide to focus works at both ends of the being chain. You can use focus to take control of fear by determining what your body will do and thereby, what thoughts come to mind.

Language: a bit of both worlds.

If you were born wild without language, it is thought that you would soon develop one to communicate with those around you. Like focus, language has both thinking and doing aspects to it. It straddles the divide between the two ends of the chain.

You speak a language, in which case it’s a physiological thing. Add to this you can whisper, and you can scream, you can also sing, and you can whistle. There’s a remote village in Italy where some of the old-timers whistle to each other to communicate. Whistling to them is a language on to itself.

You will often think in images, impressions, even feelings, and taken together, you often express these with the use of language in thought. “I told myself…,” we say to others as we explain ourselves. “What I was thinking was…,” is another. And all of our rationalizing, the story we tell ourselves after the fact to explain why we have acted, felt, or thought something, is expressed in language.

While what you do and what you think are the main doors to your chain of being, both focus and language play special roles.

Focus means you cannot remember much of your past. You can only recall a tiny part of your history depending on its significance and emotional intensity. What this tells us is to put full stock in a remembered past is a mistake, necessary, but rather weak grounds for making conclusions about the present.

That’s not to discount or dismiss the past entirely. After all, part of the richness of your life and most important lessons resulted from what you remember. It’s likely there was both pain and pleasure derived from your history, and these experiences added to the fullness of your existence.

But it’s important to realize the remembered past is a faulty record, and therefore accord it the skepticism it deserves. Studies show just talking about our past experiences changes what we remember in an exercise in reconsolidation. It’s said every time we revisit a memory, we put it away just slightly changed. We put a different spin on it as we reconcile the past through today’s eyes.

Again, it’s the power of focus, a great deal of which is not under conscious control as the chain of being rules.

A similar case can be made for language. When I was learning to write, my father used to tell me how important it was to get the wording just right. In fact, this is one of the best challenges of writing, or communication in general. Getting it right when we describe our situation or thoughts to others is far more effective when we find the exact words to express what we are trying to say.

And so, it goes with our thinking. If I tell myself I always get nervous meeting new people, chances are I always will. If I tell myself I can’t, what I am really saying is that I won’t. If I mention I am “outraged” when the word “concerned” would have done just as well, I pay for it physically in higher emotional arousal. Inflammatory words cascade through the chain of being and cost me, exaggerating their physiological effects in the end.

Talk angry and the body is angry too. Speak fearfully and the body cowers from life, afraid, protective, tentative, hesitant and weaker than needed.

The body is the universal address of your existence. Living in the present is the only way to live life effectively. The past is but a distant memory.

Sure, keep an eye on the future but spend most of your energy in the present—where the real action takes place. It’s all any of us can control anyway, right?

Similarly, you can tackle the chain of being at the thinking end to reframe things, thereby providing answers which create better feelings and a more relaxed emotional state.

Letting go of ill-will towards someone or something often results in a noticeable relaxation of the body’s musculature or internal process. It can stop our guts from flipping. It can make a headache go away.

I have two ruptured disks. I’m in pain every day. Yet, medicine knows of others who have two ruptured disks and have very little pain. The differences between the two might be found in my chain of being.

I know if I carry anger towards someone, my back will hurt more than usual. I had to learn this over the years. Now, I’m very careful to not carry ill-will or suffer the consequences. Part of my self-care is to not make things worse by triggering the chain of being with shitty thinking.

Another cool example of the chain if being is smiling. Even better, smile facing a mirror. The brain will sense your smile and release hormones to match the body’s condition. Suddenly, mood elevates. Every time you brush your teeth, smile at yourself in the mirror to finish, hijacking the chain of being in your favour.

I used to bridle my door to door reps’ mouths with a pen. Having a bad day? Sit in the truck with a pen across your mouth, forcing your face into a smile for 10—15 minutes. Sure enough, when I put them back out to work, they’d start selling again. I’ve done this successfully too many times to question its merits as an intervention.

Anyone in a full-blown panic attack can kill the pain of anxiety in ten minutes by going for a jog. There’s something about putting one foot in front of the other while staying upright at speed which negates the future-focused thinking characteristic of anxiety. Soon, the body takes control and releases the tensions held by thought.

I tell you all this because we often forget the body. Instead, because we tend to think in language, or in pictures and music, we focus only on our thoughts and convince ourselves this is where we should put the most stock.

But when you consider the chain of being, it’s plain to see the natural order of things starts at the body and ends with thoughts. When people experience trauma, there is a disconnect in the chain of being. Heart rate variability will lessen and tension may hold physically indefinitely. Unexpressed defensive postures usually employed at the time of trauma may instead by internalized in the body and cause problems later. This is why activities like yoga are so effective in this case, the breathing and body awareness allow for a reconnection of interoception pathways.

The chain of being is why I put the body first when I consider areas of my life. It’s body, spirit, people and work. It all begins with the body. Routine habits like good posture while sitting or walking, or activities like dancing, can elevate your emotional state and provide immediate benefits.

You may think you live at some street or avenue or town somewhere. While this is true as a place where you rest, put your stuff and get your mail, it doesn’t give the real picture about where you live.

The universal address of your existence is in your body.

Go rattle that chain…

Stay powerful.

Christopher K Wallace
Advisor to Men

https://www.facebook.com/groups/advisortomen/

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A Question of Spirit

an essay by Christopher K Wallace

We don’t often talk of spirit when discussing substance use. Go big or go home seems to be the order of the day: all-in belief or nothing. I suppose this might be due to our physiology. After all, our eyes see out. We should be forgiven for seeking answers to big questions out there somewhere. As if looking to the heavens will reflect some perfect truth we can use to guide our actions. There’s merit to this: it often does.

But first, let me ask you something: Have you ever been afraid? Where you momentarily had the wits scared out of you? What happens? 

Your breathing shallows, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and thinking narrows as you focus on escape or resolution. We all know these symptoms as classic fight or flight. Now, think of what happens after you drink a couple of beers or smoke a joint or take any other mood-altering chemical. Sure enough, it’s the same thing: breathing shallows, heart rate goes up, blood pressure rises, and most importantly, thinking narrows. Using these substances puts your physiology into a fight or flight state.

The body doesn’t distinguish between medicines; moreover, it has no idea it’s “just a joint,” or “just a couple of beers,” or “doctor prescribed.” It’s all the same, considered as a threat to your system from foreign poisons, where your body is put off-balance, out of something called homeostasis. And once in this state, the body counters by doing everything it can to restore itself back to normal, including engaging the sympathetic nervous system to help.

Perspiration, breath, heart rate, liver and kidneys are all put on overtime use. Adrenaline and cortisol course through your veins in preparation for fight or flight—or freeze or feint, the other two Fs of the 4Fs, and often overlooked when your being is under attack. Meantime, the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine provides cover for the habituated user, making them think the buzz means everything’s OK. It’s not.


Let me give you some examples.

If you think of your first experiences with any of these substances, you may recall how your body and mind reacted with fear. It could be dizziness or vomiting from alcohol use; or an intense fear from using cannabis. Some people say they don’t get off on pot the first time they try it, that’s how good your body is at countering its effects. People stick with it and adapt; eventually, they feel it. Cocaine is another one which induces intense fear. And for some people, first LSD use is the scariest thing ever, resulting in a “bad trip.”

Remember in high school being over at that one friend’s house with the cool parents, where a garage or basement became a drug zone after school or on weekends? Maybe you passed the bong around until you were all pretty much unable to speak. Oh sure, maybe someone says, “Hey dude, do you think your cat’s stoned? Do you think it knows we’re high, man?” We all thought we were buzzed; when in truth, we were immobilized by fear.

Nietzsche said, “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses.”

The brain relies on what comes in from touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight to log onto our world. Experience is derived from the senses; therefore, undermined sensory inputs means compromised experience. Alcohol and drugs create a fear response in the body while using dopamine to trigger your reward centers, keeping awareness of fear symptoms at bay. Beneath the surface, a tug of war is going on while you sit and get high.

The brain and body are not separate entities. In fact, your whole physical being is the universal address of your existence. As such, feelings live as equally in the body as they do in the brain through the tenth cranial nerve. Known as the Vagus Complex, it connects your brain stem to most of your internal organs, including the heart and gut.

Feelings come from experience. Think of what kinds of feelings a baby has compared to an adult. As the baby matures, it’s capable of a variety of emotions in increasing complexity as its experience grows. And, feelings are predictive, not reactive as we often think. Much of the brain works this way. Let me explain.

Your brain predicts your sleep and wake cycle and builds up levels of melatonin to prepare you for slumber. It predicts the eventual need for food by signaling with the hormone ghrelin well in advance of meal-times.  Even your visual cortex receives inputs from the eye, but also has neurons running the other way, from the cortex, which carry predictions affecting what you see. At any moment, beneath awareness the brain predicts what state is required and scans your bank of previous experiences for matching emotions in preparation for what’s ahead.

In this way, science tells us we live emotionally and use our thinking brain to explain things after the fact. Emotions rule because they occur milliseconds faster than we can think, acting as our early warning system. The line between reality and imagination blurs during substance use, while the body tallies the score. The brain’s memory doesn’t discern between stoned or drunk and straight. It’s all just input.

After decades of smoking hashish, the last ten or more years as a nightcap to my day the way others use a glass of wine to unwind, I noticed (and for the first time really took stock of) my physical symptoms. Then I asked myself this question: “Can you be afraid and confident at the same time?” Most people’s gut answer to this is to say: no, it’s one or the other as the feelings are mutually exclusive. If you are in fear, you may still be in action, but it is unlikely to be with much confidence. It’s more likely you are going through the motions, rather than giving things your best.

Moreover, if emotions rule my actions, without me even realizing it through my databank of recalled events, I had to ask myself what compounding effect substance use was having on my confidence?  I’m talking about real confidence here, the kind gained from trial and error. Sometimes, it comes from taking a great leap of faith; other times, it arises from a series of small victories adding up to a quiet competence. Either way, it’s always hard-earned.

Math is like that, so is spelling or writing. Even riding a bicycle results in a lasting physical confidence, whereas doing something like public speaking for the first time can vault a person into a new sense of self. Think of the first time you climbed high into a tree or jumped off the high diving board at the local pool. So much of our progress in life is because of these quests to add to our personal repertoire of skills and emotional durability. Life usually gets better when we get better at life.

The times on weekends where I’d drink a half-dozen beers on a Friday or Saturday night, or both, I’d find not much got done during the day. I would also fail to connect with my wife and children in a meaningful way. The things I’d planned to do on my days off were often put off or started but never finished. Once, I built half of a fair-sized shed, became unsure of my plans, so just dismantled it. I stacked the wood behind my house, and never returned to the task. Confidence.

And small things, ordinary demands a man rises to meet during life, were not being handled with any urgency. It didn’t take much to put me off my game. I came to realize with every beer I drank, what I was really doing was sipping on fear and pissing out confidence. Every haul on a joint meant inhaling more fear and exhaling a critical part of my power.

Who needs this confidence thing anyway? Turns out, we all do. I’ve heard it said confidence is the stuff we use to turn thoughts into actions. This has wider implications. Let me ask you, “How then, do you live confidently when you regularly subject your body to a fear state which cannot be resolved with action?” In my case, when I was honest with myself, I had to admit I could not.

I’d work hard at gaining confidence, and yet, doubt would creep back into my life. It meant I didn’t invest in all the technological wonders that have arisen in my lifetime and which I could have easily participated in. It meant I took jobs which kept me safe. It also resulted in me not standing up for myself when I should have. Overall, it kept me playing small. It was two steps forward, and one step back. Sometimes, admittedly, it was just one step back. Though, I had all the trappings of the middle class, I was living a charade.

I’m not talking about occasional substance use. I’m referring to habitual use, from more than once per week to daily consumption. Under the fear-load this engenders in the body, assuredly, confidence wanes. In time, this steady assault on confidence can become something called “learned helplessness.”

That’s when you tell yourself a story about confidence. You may realize it’s for other people, something off in the distance, far from your existence. Or, more likely, it’s something we don’t talk about at all because it means we have given up aspiring to becoming something more. In a measure, we abandon our dreams.

Can you live this way and survive? Sure. You can get by. But even now you’ll realize it’s not what Mother Nature or God had in mind when you defied the odds by beating all those other sperm to the egg, when you won the race of life. Damn it. This was not supposed to be our destiny. The Universe wants more from you, from me, and confidence is key to allowing our spirit to fly, to soar with the eagles in full view of the sun.


But here’s what happens. Twenty years may go by. If you’re lucky, one day you’ll have an epiphany like I did.  You may realize you have not lived those twenty years at all. Instead, what you have really done is lived one year…twenty times. 

Let that sink in a bit. I had to soak in it for a while.

 

Why did I need this jolt of fear everyday? When I searched a little deeper, it dawned on me. I’d been creating fear like this since I was a kid. I figured out my family of origin likely set me on this path through its uneven attachments and unpredictable violence. Paradoxically, I was a fear seeker. Early on, fight or flight had carried the day for me and I survived, thereby searing its red-hot brand upon my soul. I lived by it. It meant life or death to me. If there was no fear in my life, I’d seek it out, create it out of thin air if needed. As I recalled the decades gone by, I could see a significant part of my time was spent re-enacting a deep need for fear. Imprisoned this way as a little boy, I carried these emotional shackles into adulthood.

Fact is, I meet fear at an entirely different level than most people. I have been strangely attracted to it, mostly beneath my awareness. It’s as if my body survived it before and needed to prove it could survive it again. I was stuck in a loop. Perhaps it’s why I stand up to bullies. My first question when encountering people is to unflinchingly think or say, “How can I help you.” It’s why I act best when I’m protecting my tribe, a brother’s keeper. My self-concept silently commands: “Stand aside, this is for men.” It’s because I can, capably, fearlessly.

Yet, this was the gift I’d allowed to wane over time. The difference between how I saw myself and how I really acted caused me untold dissonance. Once I understood why I continued to use drugs and alcohol, and how this diminished my confidence, the allure soon faded. I must live true and free. I have a destiny to fulfill, a pact with the universe: to let loose my spirit as a guardian to others. When honourable men use their power for good, in service of themselves and those around them, life becomes meaningful.

This, then, is the key to our freedom.

More questions I asked myself: How much of your confidence are you willing to sacrifice to keep a fear habit for another year? How much more of your spirit can you compromise? We think we have time: we don’t.

And so, it was for me. I had been using drugs and alcohol to narrow my focus. Instead of finding my personal tract, where my spirit could expand and answer the universe’s calling, I was running from it.  Narrowing my focus was a good objective, but not this way. I have experienced the zone before: it’s a place where a mighty congruence of my ability and drive and concentration allow me to feel as if I am forcing time to stand still. It’s a place of command, where my spirit lets loose and flies high. And there, fully aware now, filled with meaning from serving myself and others and connected by purpose, I am set free: powerful once more.

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who once said, “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”I say to you then: let this be one of those times.

Stretch, my brothers and sisters, and we will find each other up there.

CKWallace, Advisor to Men @ckwallace.com
©2018 all rights reserved

References:

Alcohol, aging and the stress response,  See Spencer and Hutchison (1999) Alcohol Research Health 23 (4) 272-83
And Allostatic Load, Bruce McEwen, PhD in Neuropsychopharmacology, Nature.com

(Nietzsche quote, “All credibility…”: Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2011 edition), Modern Library – ISBN: 9780307786791. Also, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, p. 134)

(Emotions live equally in the body and brain: See Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2011, Norton Books ISBN 978-0-393-70700-7)

(Emotions are predictive: See Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made, 2017, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-544-12996-2.

And The brain is predictive: Diane Kwan writing in the March Scientific American issue, Self-Taught Robots, has a nice graphic about the predictive brain citing How Evolution May Work through Curiousity-Driven Development Process, Pierre Yves Oudeyer, Linda Smith is Topics in Cognitive Science, 2016)

(Holmes quote, “When a man…”, See Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table, essay series appearing in Atlantic Monthly (1857) and book (1858))

 

Christopher K Wallace, B.S.T., C.H.

Advisor to Men

© 2017 and 2018 ckwallace.com

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