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How Did We Get This Way?

Moose fighting with antlers

“A mother’s attitude toward her child at the earliest stage of development has a huge influence on the identity or the attitude the child eventually has about herself, her environment and the world.”, says  J. Pittman McGehee, D.D., in his book Paradox of Love:  A Jungian Look at The Dynamics of Life’s Greatest Mystery.  This statement resonates deeply when I ponder intently the violent acts of emotional and physical violence happening all over the map, inside and out.   If you take anything from this piece, here’s where the honey meets the butter, this is it – The Big Brain Question.

When I took my neuroscience training, I was introduced to The Big Brain Question (“BBQ”).   I discovered how the brain develops in response to the environment surrounding it.  And I discovered the more energy and information our brain is able to process, the more reliable behaviors we’re able to develop and display, especially under stress.   So the BBQ is this – “Are you there for me?”  How we think, speak and act as adults is directly related to the kind of attachment style to our parents we experienced as a child.

As adults, we carry certain residues from childhood and if we aren’t taught the tools of mindfulness, most of our adult life we will spend acting out in violence to ourselves and others, numbing out with alcohol, drugs, sex or fill in the blank, and developing narcissistic thought and behavior patterns.  Mark Epstein, M.D., author of The Trauma of Everyday Life, indicates that “When there is a serious malattunement in early life, however, there is often a traumatic residue that manifests in surprising and disturbing ways.   Epstein studied the Buddha’s path of enlightenment and discovered that the Buddha’s journey can be seen “as an expression of primitive agony.”

Many of us carry primitive agonies and many of us act out our residues in disturbing ways through violence, addiction, and through the expression of narcissistic tendencies.   Our violence, our addictions, our narcissistic tendencies are expressions of primitive agonies.  Our primitive agonies are our emotional experiences and memories from childhood that never found a safe place to feel, understand, and process them.   So as adults, we have no idea how to how to relate to our primitive agonies in a safe and comfortable way.  When something in our lives gets really uncomfortable, fear reigns strong, and without the discipline of mindfulness in our lives, fear usually wins, and we and those around us suffer even more than the original suffering we felt from the uncomfortable feeling we don’t know how to process.

As Dr. McGehee pointed out, our attachment to our mother or caretaker as a young child is vitally important in how we approach and act in the world.  It’s also vitally important for how our brains develop and process information.  There are 4 main attachment styles that determine in large part how we act our residues later in life. As a child, we will experience predominantly one of these styles.  We may find we have experiences in more than one attachment style, but most of us will mainly identify with one.

Secure attachment occurs in about 65% of the population with children exhibiting secure, explorative, happy states of being.  The mother’s response to her child is quick, sensitive and consistent and because of that, the child believes and trusts their needs will be met.  Avoidant Attachment occurs in about 20% of the population with children exhibiting not very explorative or emotionally distant stats of being.  Their mothers are distant and disengaged and the children subconsciously believe their needs probably won’t be met.  Ambivalent Attachment occurs in 10-15% of the population with children exhibiting anxious, insecure and angry states of being.  Their mothers are inconsistent; sometimes sensitive and sometimes neglectful.  The children feel they cannot rely on their needs being met.  Lastly, 10-15% of the population experience Disorganized Attachment.  The children exhibit depressed, angry, completely passive, and nonresponsive states of being.  Their mothers are extreme, erratic, frightened or frightening, passive or intrusive.  The children are severely confused with no strategy to have his/her needs met.

I must note that even if you experienced Secure Attachment as a child or as a parent you practice Secure Attachment, we will not escape our primitive agonies completely.  We can only be good enough parents.  We are all imperfectly perfect and we can only strive and try our best given the level we understand our inner Self and our neurobiology.   In order to promote secure attachment as parents, we need an understanding of our inner Self, neurobiology, and to practice contingent communication ( please see my piece on Attuned Listening https://www.solsenseyoga.com/2014/02/13/how-to-listen-like-a-yogi-attuned-listening/).  As adults when we become more aware of how our childhood attachments affect our thoughts and behaviors as adults, we can still experience and pursue secure attachment as an adult and seek psycho-somatic practices that address mind/body integration, such as yoga and meditation.

We relate to our world as adults based on how our brains were organized as a child and our brains are organized based on the attachment style we experienced as children.  What’s the importance of this brain organization anyway?  We want the main centers of our brain to communicate effectively and efficiently.  Here’s an example.  When we carry residues from childhood with us sometimes our actions are direct expressions of our primitive agonies and we get stuck in our amygdala, the emotional hub of our brain.  This is where we will stay stuck in fear – flight or fright.  Our neurons aren’t communicating to our hippocampus, which makes sense of this feeling traveling through the amygdala analyzing the potential threat, and if we have expressed our primitive agonies in very damaging ways, through drugs or alcohol, neither the amygdala or hippocampus is communicating with our prefrontal cortex where we can bring rational understanding to the uncomfortable feelings.

Our attachment style we experienced as a child and our actions as adults highly influence how are brain is able to grow or destroy neural networks that will either help our brain communicate efficiently or we will have many roadblocks and more trauma replays.

When we carry our residue with us from childhood, my neuroscience teacher, Mark Brady, Ph.D., says that every brain at some point in time will go through what he calls a “spasmodic, trauma-linked brain disorganization, which shows up in emotionally expressive ways.”

Even if we experienced secure attachment as a child, we will likely have some residue from childhood that we carry with us, and some of us will still take actions that are expressions of these primitive agonies.  We won’t ever get the “perfect parent” so are we all inclined to seek imperfectly perfect traumatic doom? No way!  Life doesn’t work that way.  There’s a way to navigate our experiences, particularly pain and suffering, that elevates our awareness and builds up our brain network systems, even in the uncomfortable agonies we sift through as adults.

Dr. McGehee notes in Paradox of Love, that the “Mother” is an archetype that every human experiences as we all have the same longing, need and desire for mother love.  Our experiences of mother love, and consequently, the inner mother, vary greatly depending on the kind of attachment style we experienced as a child.  In those various experiences lay the vast differences in how we express and process our primitive agonies.    He explains further “Your experience of a mother is different from mine, and your need for a mother and your experience of her begins to define your personality.  That leads us to the third mother, the inner mother, which is the mother complex.”  McGehee defines the mother complex as “the kind of inner complex we have that is a part of our unconscious personality.”  Please note that both women and men can fulfill the role of mother, just as many women are fulfilling the roles of fathers in today’s society.  McGehee explains further that if we didn’t have a good enough mother (note attachment styles here) we will have reparations to do as adults.

Neuroscientists are pointing out that about 90% of our actions stem from implicit memory, in the deep reservoirs of our unconscious.  Epstein, elaborating on the concept of primitive agonies explains, “Originating in painful experiences that occurred before we had the cognitive capacities to know what was happening, they tend to blindside us, traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting pain we do not understand.”

So, are we infinitely lost in our unconscious repeating patterns with immense pain and hooking on to actions where we express pain destructively either actively through violence or passively through numbing?  Not at all.  Our wisdom teachers have opened a new path for us to investigate, experience, and elevate our consciousness.  We must dedicate ourselves to sufficient inquiry, diligent self-love routines (which include yoga, meditation, good nutrition, and other forms of body awareness movement)  not of narcissism (which in my opinion is another way of numbing in many cases) but of the divine and universal kind of self-love, and to connecting our paths to what Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage To Teach, calls a “community of truth.”  Palmer explains, “I understand truth as the passionate and disciplined process of inquiry and dialogue itself, as the dynamic conversation of a community that keeps testing old conclusions and coming to new ones.”

Yoga and meditation are vital tools to navigate our primitive agonies regardless of what attachment style we experienced as a child; however, if we experienced an ambivalent or disorganized attachment, these tools are doubly important to healing ourselves so we can traverse traumatic experiences in a manageable way and perhaps even see healing light in enduring those kinds of experiences.  Yoga and meditation help us identify our mother complex and can help guides us to what the Buddha discovered that the mother we keep seeking out there is really in here, inside of us.  Epstein calls this the “relational home.”  He notes the Buddha’s most fundamental discovery was “that the human mind is, in itself, the relational home that is needed to process trauma.”

If our minds are the relational home we need to process trauma, then perhaps it’s a good idea to think about how we are treating our minds right now.  Yoga and meditation give us the tools to become aware of destructive patterns in our life, and they give us the tools to heal the mother complex and find sanctuary in our relational home. Pain will never go away, but we can certainly walk a path where we experience it differently in a place I call the “uncomfortable comfort zone.”  Epstein further notes, “Trauma, if it doesn’t destroy us, wakes us up both to our own relational capacities and to the suffering of others.  Not only does it make us hurt, it makes us more human, caring, and wise.”

So, how did we get this way anyway?  Let’s not go pointing the finger to our parents just yet.  It’s a cycle of fear that has repeated itself over the generations. There is a collective fear consciousness that pervades all of us, until we become more conscious of it and work to shift it.   Let’s connect to humility when we become more aware of our own primitive agonies thinking of our parents’ tools for understanding their own inner Self and neurobiology.  Everyone in a sense is doing the best they can given their own neurophysiology.   Our ancient wisdom guides remind us to look inside, and to do so effectively we must have a dedicated commitment to our daily well-being.

As Teilhard de Chardin said, “Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.”  Through our commitment to our daily well-being we will discover that the fragments are our thoughts and neurobiological state in any given moment in destructive and traumatic environments, and that when we honor ourselves in divine self-love we see the wholeness of who we are, and in that realization, the world truly does come into being.

Om Shanti Om ~ Athea


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