by Judith Schmidt, PhD.
“In spite of all similarities, every living situation has, like a new born child, a new face that has never been before and will never be again. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence it demands you”. (M. Buber)
It was a wonderful Florida learning retreat…the learnings have continued to reverberate within me, with others in my work, and in my subsequent teaching. I want to thank all of you who shared in the retreat with Alexis and myself for all that you gave and taught from the openness of your being.
The words that stay with me are: presence and space. The healing relationship field that creates the rhythm of presence and space.
Someone in one of my study-supervision groups speaks of a man in his thirties who had been belittled as a boy by his father as a sissy. He toughened, became a ‘man’s man’, ‘forgot’ that his emotional brain, his limbic system, had associated being vulnerable with being shamed. He came to therapy after he himself became a father. He felt like he was acting, he missed something of himself that his son had awakened, a certain sense of aliveness, of realness.
We know from what we learned together in Florida that this new father’s limbic system was awakened by the unalloyed presence of his son’s limbic attachment seeking and catalyzing resonance in those around him. You know how enlivened we can be when we are with infants. After a year of therapy, this new father came to a session and broke down and cried. The therapist wanted to know if she could have done anything more to help him open.
I asked her to describe in detail the space between them. She painted the scene: he sat across from her and to the side so that he could look at her and also look away he cried silently, then reached for a tissue, stopped crying, talked, then cried again. “And you?” I asked. She thought a while and then said: “I was mostly quiet very moved by him sometimes I sat forward in my chair and then leaned back after he left, I sat in my chair for quite a while and cried and then I judged myself my boundaries that I was too open…and had I done enough? I felt like I had done nothing really”
While she spoke, I imagined the two of them. I imagined her face being registered by him, providing him with a mirror of acceptance, telling him that he was not a sissy, but a vulnerable man, beginning to erase the signal of shame registered by his young limbic brain.
I thought of the profound importance of the face in our work, in all of our relationships. I think of the way the baby registers its mother’s face within its first 36 hours. Its mother’s face and voice. Not yet its father’s. How for the baby, and for the limbic level in all of us, voices and touches can be the faces that mirror a safe world of refuge, or not.
I thought of the experiment that has been done with infants just beginning to crawl. It is called the ‘visual cliff’ experiment, in which the infant crawls out on a piece of plexiglas until it reaches what seems like a cliff to the baby who does not see the plexiglas that he would fall onto if he went further. At the point of experiencing danger, the baby looks to its mother’s face to tell it how to proceed. In the mother’s face, the baby finds its next movement. If it finds its map in mother’s face more often than not, that map becomes an secure inner compass for the rest of life. Even if lost, there is a sense that it can be found. If that map of the world is not found in a good enough way in mother’s face, it becomes the work of the therapy relationship to create the map and, eventually, the internal compass.
I thought of how the faces of this therapist and her patient met and matched and created a rhythmic field of energy, a circulating container of communion in which he could find his own movement of crying, stopping, gathering himself, letting himself go again, wave by wave.
I thought of Winnicott and his spatula game, in which a baby, sitting on its mother’s lap, being seen by Winnicott, would pick up a tongue depressor, a spatula, from the table, pick it up and drop it, perhaps have it taken away by mom (rhythm interfered with), perhaps picked up and returned by mom many times (mutually responsive play). At some point, the baby holds the spatula quietly, unmoving, pausing, quiet. And, then, suddenly, the spatula become a ‘something’, perhaps an airplane, moved up and down by the child with the delight of discovery.
For Winnicott, that moment of pause became illuminated with deep significance. He called it the ‘moment of hesitation’, in which the baby was given both the presence and the space to be in its quiet inner world, uninterrupted, unimpinged upon, unhelped by its mother doing, helped by its mother’s presence, to find the expression of its ‘spontaneous gesture’, its creative movement that arose out of the hidden self.
As the therapist and I talked about all of this, I could see a smile light upon her mouth. She shared that she saw how much she was doing in her being, even though she felt she was doing nothing. And that, in fact, if she had done anything more than be mindful with her sensing self, present for the young man’s experience, she would have been impinging. She could appreciate the act of trust this man had placed in her, their good ‘work’ that had led up to it, and how there was the beginning of the revising of the limbic shame this man had early experienced. I thought of how loving presence can change the brain.
Imagine the brain as a kind of flower. The brain stem, the oldest, reptilian part of the brain, regulates basic physiological processes for survival: temperature, breathing, blood pressure. The very top part of the brain, the new brain, the neocortex, developed later in our evolution, is the flowering of our capacity to think, analyze, process, reflect, symbolize, plan. The limbic system is a small area of the brain, sitting in between the old and new brains. It functions to register cues from outside and from inside of the self to determine safety and survival. It will not discriminate between inner signals and outer signals, nor between past and future alarms. If it registers danger, it wil,l with trigger-timing, signal the old brain to speed up the heart rate, take flight, fight, or freeze. The thinking, reflecting brain is not consulted. There was no time for reflection when survival was at issue. Thus, the new father we are talking about was taking a very big step to cry in the presence of his therapist. For the first time since his childhood, he was risking vulnerability, thus bypassing the alarm signal of danger from his limbic system. This could only happen if and when he experienced an attachment with someone who signaled him in a non-verbal, non-thinking way that he was safe and would not be shamed. The mindful presence of his therapist was no doubt helping him to create a new limbic map.
The practice of meditative mindfulness, or centering, carried into our work opens the therapist/ healer and client to a richness of possibility. In letting be, which is quite different from doing nothing, both therapist and patient become able to hear and enter the myriad potentialities of dialogue which come to the surface from deep within each self and between the two selves.
Like a pot on the wheel, the therapist practices being centered in her own receptivity while at the same time diffusing it into her outer movement. This movement circulates to and stirs a dance of resonance with the unfolding presence of the patient. The practice of meditative reflection is centered upon a compassion which is based on awareness that everything that is has its value, simply by virtue of its being, by turning on life’s wheel. As Pema Chodron says: “not picking this or that”just letting be, accepting, self-accepting.
I think of the research done on attachment patterns formed by young babies. What is described as a secure attachment is one in which mother is able to respond to her child’s unique way of needing her as anchor and needing autonomy from her. Being able to sail away and return to port. This mother can respect and respond to the rhythm of dependence and autonomy needs with her child and dance with them. The mother who was able to create secure attachment was not the one who was abundantly adoring or physically contactful with her child, as this contact more often than not came out of her own need rather than out of response to the child’s needs.
This week, while at the gym, I watched a little girl of about two-and-a-half years walking in the hallway, holding her mother’s hand. Her face framed with blond hair, wearing overalls and red mary jane shoes, she looked around with wide-eyed curiosity. Her mother met some friends, talked with them. They went on. People kept milling about. The mother then stepped away, went into one of the rooms, probably to check on a class. The little girl stood still as a deer in the headlights. She stood frozen for a few seconds, horrified. Then she shuddered a bit and in a very quiet, shocked voice, she said “Mommy?” At this point her mother reappeared. She sat down on a bench, talking to someone. The child went to her, placed her hand on her thigh, bent toward her and stayed that way for a while. Home to safe harbor. Mother kept on talking and within a minute or two, the child was looking about, curiosity restored, a slight smile on her lips. I said to myself “that is a secure attachment”. The mother was there, not overly reacting but present, not overly present, not perfect, but obviously assured of their connection and available.
The securely attached child is one who can carry within herself that circulatory connection which at first came from the mother. This weaves into the child’s psyche-soma the capacity to regulate its ups and downs, to find refuge within itself and with others, to be alone because deep inside it is not alone, to fall apart and come together again, to trust being with reality as it is and to trust the movement that comes from within to create life.
The difference between secure and insecure attachment is that between the emptiness of despair and the emptiness that has the faith of experience that something will come next out of the mysterious source of being. In Kabbalistic practice, there is the ever-recurring movement between ayin, nothing, to yesh, something. In Buddhist practice there is the mindfulness that form is emptiness and emptiness, form. The moment of hesitation, nothing. The spontaneous gesture, something. Falling apart. Coming together in a new way.
The practice of faith, rooted in infancy before there is a developed neocortex (that does not happen until we are about three years old). Rooted in the communion between the limbic systems of mother and infant. We now know that this early rooting of faith also affects the growth of the brain. Where there is poor limbic attunement, there is excessive death of neurons in the crucial pathways between the neocortex and the limbic areas responsible for emotional regulation. The bridge between our emotionally registering limbic self and our thinking, reflective neocortex self is weakened. The work of therapy becomes the repair of this bridge between the emotional, mental, and sensory selves.
In our learning retreat, in our individual work, we were able to see how significant it is, in repairing that bridge, to come to our senses, moment by moment bringing awareness to the moment of here and now being. And how, if that is not possible in a given moment, or not at all or very little for some people, it is the work of the therapist to lend herself, her sensory presence and her mind, as a container that gives verbal and nonverbal voice to the bits and pieces of the dysregulated self of the other. In this way, being present, lending our neocortex, giving voice to the fallen-apart pieces of self, we help the others to find their own voices, connections between their emotional and reflective selves. As we help clients come to their felt senses, become able to put words to the physical sensations of depression, anxiety, panic, happiness, hope we are helping them to remove the emotional labels which only re-trigger the limbic response, thereby creating a bridge between the limbic brain and the sensory regulators of the old brain. The bridge must start as a bridge between self and other, I and thou, and then become a bridge within. Within and between.
When the bridges do not get built, rewiring connections to self and others, then the old wounded ways are transmitted from one generation to the next. Imagine how the father we talked about above may very well have taught his son to know the shame of being a sissy if he had not begun to revise his own limbic story.
Recently, I worked with a mother of a young son who had been referred by the school for psychoeducational testing because he was having difficulty ‘behaving’ in class and following the teacher’s instructions. The mom described to me the drawings the son had made in the testing session. In one, there was a beautiful house drawn but it was empty inside. No one lived there.
She proceeded to tell me how her son was born several weeks premature and had had to be kept in hospital in an isolette while she was sent home. She ached to see her child alone and so tiny in that enclosed crib when she visited. She was not allowed to hold him as they were afraid of germs infecting his jaundiced body.
She told me how, when he was an infant, if he began to cry, she ever so quickly reached for her breast and got it to his mouth. As she talked, her hand was thumping on her chest. When I asked what her hand was doing, she listened for a while and then said, “it’s showing you how I am being pulled at, demanded of to fill the emptiness.” When I asked her: “When did you first feel that way?”, she broke down crying and said “Oh, my God, I felt that way when I was a little girl with my father. He was so depressed and frail and silent in his rocking chair. I did everything I could to make him betterjust like I did and still do with my son. If I don’t make him better, I am bad, I am guilty.”
She could see how she did not register the difference between her father and her son. The limbic system does not register such difference. It only registers the emotional signal of what danger is present and what response is necessary for survival of emotional connection. This mom’s eyes looked clearer when they opened. She left with a sense that she could sit at the dinner table that evening, look at her son and say to him from within: “You are my son. You are not my father. I am your mother. I am not the daughter.”
She also said that she could trust that her son could learn the difference between the emptiness she had been so quick to fill for him early on, so that he could not now bear frustration, and the emptiness of knowing that something will come. This is the work of transforming the legacy of emotional wounding, of building new bridges within oneself and with the ones we love.
It is so hard to talk about all of this in the abstract, but we witnessed deeply for one another how this bridge-building and repairing happens. How we create a space and modulate the emotions of the other with our presence. And we saw how this seemingly passive act is really a very active being present. We learned together that we do not need to, nor does it necessarily help if we only, look around in our explicit past to uncover the central memories of our lives. There is something under explicit memories of actual events. So often in therapy, we try so hard to retrieve these memories. Often they cannot be retrieved in the way we are looking for them. They are stored as implicit memories, in the body, in the organs and tissues, in our neural wiring. And so we need to look behind the veils of conscious knowing to the dreams, the images, to the ways we are with one anotherwith ourselvesall of us, myself as well, wanting aliveness, all of it, all the colors of our many selveswith presence, finding possibilities for new beginnings willing to take risks to come home to our being.
When we look within in these ways, we discover a richness in our selves. Even if that looking is painful, pain is often felt as better than deadness or despair or dysregulated emotion. A dream, for example, can retrieve limbic memory, stored without word or thought.
As I am writing this, it is the week of Passover. A woman I work with who is deeply related to the spiritual practices of the Jewish faith had done an imaginal exercise with me in a group in which she was to see herself fleeing her Egyptto see what she felt about leaving to see what she took with her as she fled. That night she dreamed that she was back in the house where she had lived with her husband when he died suddenly at a young age, twenty five years before. Limbic memory does not know about time.
She is in that house. It is on fire. Everyone is fleeing. She does not want to leave the place she shared with her husband. But she must or die. She takes with her a round tile with a small goat and the word love on it. She flees for her life, all the while not wanting to. She comes to the front door. She is afraid to open it. Will the wind blast more fire in or will she be able to get out?. In this psychic place, she is still trying to get out, although in waking life she has gone on, remarried, has a good life. And she is still leaving her Egypt. She comes safely onto the street. She weeps as she watches the house burn to ashes. She looks down at the ceramic piece. The innocent goat has turned to a sinister animal and the word love has turned to the word strife. She cries for much of the day following this dream.
She is also grateful to take another step forward, to pass over and rewrite her unforgettable because unarticulated grief. The dream becomes a container for limbic re-membering. The archetypal meaning of her dream, touched in her by Passover, is also a container, a vessel in which to hold her wound, to let her know she is not alone, for there are others fleeing their Egypt, transforming survival into meaning.
The next night, this same woman has another dream in which she is being chased by horses. That is what happens in the Passover story. As they flee, the Semites are chased by horses, not to be let go. One horse topples as it runs. Shocked by its fall, it takes hold of the dreamer with its front legs and pulls her backward by her shoulders into its alarmed grip. It is cutting off the rhythm of her breathing (this woman has asthma since the time of her husband’s sudden death).
In her dream, she comes to the realization that the only way she will survive and not suffocate is to relax into the source of her breathing, deep within her. As she breathes from her source, the horse releases its grip. It is interesting that some people call God the Breath of Life.
For me, the horse in this dream can be viewed as the emotional or limbic body of the dreamer, vividly showing us how we can be held in its reflexive grasp, sometimes developing psychosomatic ways of communicating a terror that does not reach the level of words. As someone has said, ‘the tissues hold the issues’.
The woman’s capacity to dream, to enter archetypal space, helps her to go beyond these implicit memories stored in her body and to find the possibility of a new source that can rewrite, re-breathe, her wordless story. She now has access to a renewed sense of agency that has come from deep within herself. She has received the gift of a new meditation practice which puts space around the narrowing of her limbic memory and the constriction of her breathing. This is a gift we can work with. It gives space to the narrowed places and provides possibilities for a new and more spacious limbic relational map. This revised map is one that connects above to the part of the self-brain that gives meaning and below to the part of the brain-self that provides a sensory floor. This potential for a wholeness of self is what allows for the experience of falling apart and coming back together again. For the shattering of our vessel and its forming anew. For trust in ever becoming. For faith in the inner source of Being, in the Breath of Life.
The finding of meaning in the process of discovering and sharing one’s story in the presence of the other is critical in restoring a sense of control to someone who has been hostage to the unmediated three-alarm system of the limbic brain when it is endangered. Finding feelings, finding words, finding a reflecting face offers the anchoring for self-reflection and the making of new meaning. A sense of capacity for charting one’s course, of creating one’s life, thus comes into being. This is what Bollas refers to as ‘living one’s destiny’, what is known as truly one’s life, rather than living one’s fate or closed down existence.
Yesterday I read this poem, which I share a part of because it seems so relevant:
..Look, I’m just like the black dog in the yard
when you point to the shed and say “go”,
and he won’t even attempt to follow the implied line
from fingertip to open door,
but instead pants and stares at your hand,
the benefactor, the disciplinarian,
the gnarled knuckle and swollen joint,
the scar from his playful jaw, his first
raucous snarl and snap.
The dog understands
where you want him to be, and probably the reason,
but not even his eyes will shift,
as he prefers to study the familiar palm
and the bond that shapes it
and the blood that warms it
and the possibility of resonance,
the possibility of touch. Signifiers by R.T. Smith.
Being borne by and being born through presence and space. Someone said : ‘touch is the name for love, there are other names for other things.’ We know that someone can be touched by the resonating face, the way one sits and listens, the way one feels seen. Deep listening. Deep Seeing. Touching. Love. That is what I carry from Florida.