-Rebuilding The Space Between
Focused attention is a practice we do with meditation. This practice rebuilds the parts of the brain that allow the left and right hemispheres to communicate, and is a reflection of what happens when our moral maps are reconstructed to account for our trauma.
In an earlier lesson, I mentioned a meditation practice with the process of “using the sword” of true speech. Now, let’s elaborate a little on what that means.
Recently, the ancient practice of meditation has come under scientific examination, and its benefits have been endorsed by modern thinkers. The wide range of benefits we can achieve through this practice is undeniable, but explaining how to use it as a tool can be hard.
But meditation is powerful: its process shifts the mechanics of the brain and, among many other things, can help us integrate traumatic memories into our consciousnesses in a manner where they no longer upset us.
So what is meditation, exactly?
Looking at the Sanskrit and Hebrew interpretations of the word, to meditate means to become familiar with something through repeated focused attention.
We need “to become familiar with” memories from the past that still upset us today, which is what we’ve already started doing by truthfully and precisely describing what happened to us. We learn to possess, observe, and become aware of the memory instead of identifying with it. We learn to be able to see it from a detached perspective with compassion and forgiveness instead of with confusion, judgment, or critique. This lets us rewrite our story with a better integration of that memory.
Your identity is not your memories, emotions, thoughts, or desires. It’s something deeper. We have memories, emotions, thoughts and desires but we are not the same as those. That means we can learn to observe and govern those things without becoming them. We are the observer living in a body, not a body whose every whim is in control.
To start this process, we must come to terms with the fact that the memory is not going to magically leave us. It must be integrated into our moral landscape as we discussed in a previous lesson.
If we practice the art of observing our past pain, the pain will no longer be in control. If we place ourselves in the observer’s perspective, we separate ourselves from what we observe. Recall the heroic idea of becoming the “faithful and true witness.” In part, that means to have faith in the process, speak with integrity, and observe without judgment. The hero is a meditator. By becoming familiar with trauma, we become the witness of it, not the victim.
The trauma, when integrated, becomes the teacher that we as the observer can incorporate into creating a better future. This is why we don’t take things personally (remember the Four Agreements). If we take things personally, we identify with a message that does not contain the full—or even partial—truth about who we are.
It can be scary, though, to become familiar with something that has left scars. A very common human response to horrific events is to just not talk about it or distance ourselves from the event or events. Humans have a psychological defense mechanism that makes us “disembody,” or leave ourselves, in a sense. This is also known as dissociation. Our soul escapes the body because what’s happening is so unbearable. So do we really want to “become familiar with” something so painful?
Well, what’s really the alternative?
Negative coping strategies numb us to the pain we don’t want to feel. And although we can’t be blamed for wanting to ignore difficult emotions, not allowing those emotions to come to the surface leaves them to rot inside us. Trying to rely long-term on coping mechanisms that were designed for in-the-moment survival can make a gap inside us, and trying to bridge that gap can drive us mad. The gap is denial and it’s fed by numbness. A piece of us is hurt and is crying out to experience love and care, but too often, we answer that cry with suppression.
The only way out of denial is by bridging the gap with awareness.
To get to a place of freedom from our pain, there is no other route than the full experience of our deepest grief, to bring our awareness of our moral injury to high definition.
Here we turn to acceptance, one of the steps of processing grief. We can’t grieve properly unless we know exactly what we’re grieving for. That’s acceptance. That’s becoming familiar with pain. Once we are able to speak the truth about the injury, then we know how to process it. We know what to grieve; the loss of innocence, the death of a marriage, the violation of what is objectively right.
When we become familiar with this terror, we can start to heal from it. Being familiar makes scary things come out of the fog and into the light, where scar tissue can start to form where there once was a puncture wound, and possibly create something stronger in its place.
It’s in this space that we can do the hardest work of all: forgiving.
You’re already familiar with the concept of speech being your sword against trauma. The most potent blow you can ever deal to that trauma is the words: “I love you. I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you.” Bringing kindness to a dark place, maybe to your past self as a child. Repentance, an admission of fault that actually serves to help us realize more of our potential. Forgiveness, that breaks the connection between us and a past offense. Gratitude, which gives health to the body at least as much as other lifestyle practices.
What exactly is forgiveness?
Let’s clear up some misconceptions.
In our culture, forgiveness gets a bad rap. It’s misunderstood. Its opposite – vengeance – is often glorified. Our right to get even must be upheld. It’s the urge of the ego to use revenge to balance the scales.
But the scales are too complex for us to truly balance. While the justice system and laws are there to discourage bad behavior, it was never their job to make things “even” in the cosmic sense. There are too many factors to consider when determining someone’s sentence after a crime. That’s no excuse for poor behavior, but ask why someone gets a ten-year sentence instead of a ten-year, two-month, three-day, seven-hour sentence, a sentence that precisely matches the crime and gives the perfectly metered out punishment?
We can’t meet that standard. “An eye for an eye” is about the best we can do from a legal perspective – you steal $100 from a neighbor, you must give your neighbor back exactly $100 to get even. Other factors being equal (and they never are), that exchange would be the most ethical system of balancing out the scales so far as we can manage.
But when we try and take “eye for an eye” retribution into our own hands, to refuse to let go of our “right to get even,” humans will inevitably collapse into their own ruin. This scene from my all-time favorite childhood TV show, Malcolm in the Middle, perfectly illustrates this point.
Humanity is too complex for the scales to be truly rebalanced by a flawed system of returning an eye for an eye. I think this is the point The Good Place comedy was trying to make that we looked at previously.
The latter option is the only one that allows forgiveness for the cheating behavior, as forgiveness is to give up your own right to get even to a “parent” who knows better. Call that parent the transcendent spirit that drives good human culture (like the wise king character we discussed in the previous lesson), “God,” or a “Higher Power,” but releasing the pain to something else to handle it – which itself is an act of faith – is the only way to truly let go.
Forgiving is not the same as “letting someone get away with something.” Instead, it’s the cure to your own pain. It’s you letting go of the pain and seeing that person as a broken human being full of snakes just like you are. It’s an enormous act of courage.
The truth is, in the final analysis, no one gets away with anything, and accepting what happened through meditation and practicing forgiving is the only starting point in healing from trauma.
How an awareness practice fits in
The skill of awareness can be practiced through meditation. For the structure of the brain to show a detectable shift, it requires about 25-30 minutes of mindfulness practice per day for eight weeks. This is quite a remarkable finding; you can change the way your thoughts are routed through the networks in your mind by practicing focused attention for less than half an hour per day for about two months.
Your mind shapes your brain. By taking time out of the day, shutting off the outside noise and repeatedly drawing your attention away from the flow of consciousness to an anchor like your breath, you’re practicing the art of awareness. The act of focusing your attention to this anchor is like combing your neural network in a positive direction. Like combing your hair in one direction over and over, with enough repetitions, the network is remade. When we become better at being aware, our ability to accept things as they are increases. It allows us to label our feelings for what they are so the mind can flow through them instead of avoiding them.
We’ve discussed briefly a few brain structures and what happens on a physical level when we practice focused attention. There’s one more piece of the brain I want to introduce: the corpus callosum. This is the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Generally speaking, the left side is the part of us that creates order and finds meaning in our actions. It places things into useful categories. The right side is more associated with creativity and exploring unknown things. It feeds this new information to the left side so it can categorize it in a useful way. The optimal state of being is when both of these parts of us can communicate with one another, when there is a healthy balance of refined orderliness and chaotic creativity; known and unknown territory.
This space has been illustrated with the yin-yang symbol; it’s not good and evil, but order and chaos that must balance each other out according to their conception.
Moral injury is an experience that shows us there’s way more unexplored territory than our moral maps had outlined before the trauma.
For brains that have prolonged experience with PTS, the corpus callosum suffers and shrinks. The left and right parts of the brain aren’t communicating in a healthy way. This is one possible reason why poor memory is so common with a PTS diagnosis. You might find yourself asking, “why am I like this?” Part of you disagrees with what you do and part of you goes ahead with the behavior. These parts are dramatically split apart in moral injury and must get to know one another again. The corpus callosum must be rebuilt and we must reconstruct our moral understanding; body and mind are affected and they need to be healed.
So how do we repair the bridge between known and unknown moral territory, and the physical structure in the brain that mediates between these two? We have to practice occupying the space between the known and the unknown, the gray area of both our moral map and the physical one.
Practicing the art of awareness helps us occupy that space between. By drawing focused attention to an anchor like the breath or to another immediate physical sensation, we activate our skill of awareness. Occupying that cerebral space of being aware, instead of being distracted by everything else in our world, we can literally rebuild the structure between the left and right hemispheres of the brain; the corpus callosum bridge is rebuilt through repetition of this process.
Imagine that your conscious awareness is like a bead. When you sleep, the bead sort of roams around, sorting through the events of the day automatically as processes of sleep take over. When you awake, get that first hit of coffee, and complete your morning routine, the bead is pressed up against your forehead, focused. Then you head to the store and the bead just sort of wanders around near the back as the focus blurs.
Meditation is the act of taking control of that bead and placing it in the threshold space where healing and growth occur. This is done by focusing on an anchor again and again, like bicep curling the bead to stay in one location. It’s this process that alters the state of the mind.
This psychological space we occupy during meditation is the optimal place of growth, literally and metaphorically.
As we wrap up this lesson, let’s take a brief look at this idea of “the space between” from a theological perspective.
We bridge the gap that trauma produces and occupy this space of grey between shadow and light by repeated focused attention on a still point. Humans were designed to be the mediators between these spaces. The Taoists and Ancient Hebrews understood this well. The former is displayed in the yin-yang symbol, the latter in Genesis chapters 1-3 and in Proverbs 8.
The dividing line between order and chaos is a pattern that can be discussed as the relationship between brain hemispheres or as a manner of setting our moral landscapes in order. It is the optimal place for humans to be.
This space between is wisdom which allows humans to “make decrees” (Proverbs 8:15), which contributes to flourishing conditions.
So, when our worlds felt like they disintegrated in a moment of moral injury, occupying the spaces that disintegration created has healing power. These spaces are often where, at first, we least want to go. But if the Proverb is true, occupying the space left by that damage produces wisdom, something which is “better than fine gold” and “surpasses choice silver.”
- Forgive yourself and others, but don’t allow yourself to be abused.
- Trust, but don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of.
- Be grateful, even though you suffer.
- Love, even if betrayal is possible.
These are the spaces between where we must learn to reside.
Today’s Assignment – Meditation Exercise and Journal Entry
- Describe your pain. What exactly still needs to be grieved over? What was the behavior that bothers/bothered you that has been most difficult to process? Was it your own or someone else’s? Both?
- Let’s practice some meditation. Clear out five-ten minutes from your schedule. Find a quiet, clean space. Pop in some headphones if it helps and put on some meditation sounds (I’m personally a fan of the hang drum). You can sit cross-legged on a firm pillow, in a chair, or lying down. As the music begins, practice observing. What do you feel in your feet? In your hands? How can you disengage with thoughts and allow them to pass instead of being consumed by them? Can you practice “seeing” those thoughts and allowing them to pass?
- Following your meditation, practice saying this simple phrase to yourself: “I love you. I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you.”
So far, you’ve been reviewing some foundational human movements: the squat, pull-up, push-up, and plank.
Today, we’ve got a 14-minute follow-along workout with even more fun “primal” exercises. Put on some workout clothes, grab some water and follow this link to get started.