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Love for the Amygdala

Mind experiences reality through ordinary and non-ordinary perception. Brain, however, is limited in perception to the 5 ordinary senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

Non-ordinary perceptions include dream imagery, gut feelings, intuition, synchronicities, and deja vu, for example. Shamanic journeying and other deliberately-induced hypnotic trance states such as ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, with skillful guidance, can also open doors to non-ordinary perception, where we might be able to unearth disavowed parts of ourselves.

Indigenous traditions dating back thousands of years and all over the globe have relied on the local shaman to provide communities with critical information from non-ordinary reality.

Connecting with the “unseen world” has been a lifeline to ancestral wisdom in Africa forever, without which healthy communities and individuals cease to exist. Wholeness is the dynamic mystery of interconnection of the various aspects of the universe, unseen and seen.

Fear is an impulse to cut ties and separate and defend, a signal from the sentry on the guard tower in the citadel of Self, back to headquarters, that says: drop the portcullis and arm the cannons. As mammals, our amygdalae are robust protectors, something like our immune system is to the gut: sorting threats from all of the rest of the information we perceive.

Do we need a threat response? The survival of our body depends on it. But the amygdala needs something it does not often get: enough down time and reassurances after a stressful event to know that it has left threat and returned to security. Like a guard who is never relieved from duty, the amygdala can begin to act a little odd, if not specifically cared for… This dysfunction is recognizable to the conscious mind only after the fact, when we overreact to a new situation. The amygdala has fired shots into the air because it does not know that the present situation is non-threatening. We can tell this is happening when we feel “triggered” by someone or something which is in fact non-threatening, and we act out of anger or fear.

Amygdala signals are driving our nervous system and our bodies out of the window of tolerability and into hypervigilance, fight or flight, or even freeze. The amygdala is a repository for undigested intense experiences, and it uses uncomfortable sensation and emotion to remind us we have more emotional digesting to do. These signals fire off whenever a new experience smells, feels, looks, tastes or sounds like the undigested memory.

Quite literally, traumatic memories are not recorded where “normal” memories are stored. These memories in fact have unresolved ties with the amygdala, until they are released through trauma healing techniques. Like an old laptop computer with a slow processor and very limited memory, the amygdala malfunctions when too many big files stack up on its little hard drive for too long.

The poor beleaguered amygdala has to receive and label every new experience and decide if it is threatening or nonthreatening. And the default is set for threatening. Fear for anything unfamiliar, coupled with fear for events which smack of previously-experienced trauma, crimps the bandwidth of energetic flow of love, both given and received. Repeated experiences of overwhelm can be a vicious cycle contracting into more and more isolation and more and more fear. For deeply traumatized people, it is as if fear is their one remaining, and only trustworthy, companion.

The process of spiritual awakening is the turning of the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle.

Gradually we remodel and stretch our conduit of love, wider and wider, until the reference points of self and other are eventually lost in the bliss of oneness. When we truly experience our essence, which is indivisible from everyone and everything, then our human apparatus, even with its antiquated mammalian fight/flight system and its brainstem-mediated freeze mechanism, can enlighten itself by truly experiencing the joy of knowing that there is nothing to defend, nothing to win or lose, nothing to fear, not even death. Some fellow human beings may have accomplished this: Jesus, Gautama Buddha, possibly Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, certainly many others known and unknown.

We are all capable of this natural state of non-fear. Love is the natural state of life. Fear is the shadow to its light. Fear, in fact, is an illusion created by the nervous system in order to activate the organism into implementing self-preservation behavior. Same mechanism used to great effect by political regimes and religions which instill fear or guilt in order to dominate the behavior of its subjects.

We prepare for our adventure of self discovery by gathering a few essential tools. Having a guide is extremely useful. Someone like Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings books. There are many living masters, who are like us working through the illusion of fear. Our guides are not different from us, only a few steps further down the path. I also recommend a great deal of inquiry into the shadow, with a good flashlight! Such a flashlight is powered with honesty and self-responsibility and humbleness and curiosity and kindness so that we may rescue the wretched creatures (hate, fear, shame, and so many others) we once out of necessity locked in the dungeons of the mind. Then these parts can take their places within the ever-expanding sense of wholeness we come to know as our limitless self. A jolly band of fellow adventurers is also highly recommended.

One very effective way to heal our love constriction is through loving relationships. I think most people who are widening their bandwidth for love probably do it that way. When we share a loving gaze with a loved one, the hormone oxytocin is released by the pituitary glands in both parties. This “love hormone” downregulates the amygdala, lessening fear. Being seen really is healing. So many of us grew up without enough being seen, loved, accepted, or supported enough.

A potent complement to expanding the conduit of love through relationships is the shamanic journey. Ancient methods of healing, as well as modern ones, are based in this technology.

Hypnosis, somatic experiencing, EMDR, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and ketamine assisted psychotherapy involve a light trance or altered state within which material from the unconscious (unseen) mind becomes much more accessible. Guidance from a skilled practitioner can dramatically accelerate access to the sources of the constrictions we wish to heal. These expeditions into our shadow material are essential. If we are to become whole, we must first know all the dark corners where we harbor resentments, pacts of revenge, unmet desires and needs. These skeletons in the closet of the mind are discovered not to be bogey men at all, but just a non-threatening collection of bones. All of these ‘dark energies,’ when accepted and loved, are liberated from their exile where we confined them, into light as aspects of a whole integrated self.

A healthy expansive self correlates with having a brain whose metabolic desires are whole and integrated as well. An adult having a temper tantrum is literally not using the adult part of the brain (the cortex), as blood flow is shunted to the overworking amygdala and other lower brain areas.

If we are to succeed in the epic endeavor to grow to our unlimited potential to embody divinity while inhabiting human bodies, we must find a way to love the amygdala.