Through the Unknown Remembered Gate was the perfect title for the recent retreat I gave. We were attuning to the ways in which our psyche is shaped by forces outside of our control. Our primitive inheritance, foetal life and infantile experiences are largely unknown to us in consciousness but remembered by our bodies.
These forces determine significant aspects of our lives but are outside of awareness, unless and until we make the effort to understand them, to bring them into awareness and thus to change them. T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets provided wonderfully appropriate pegs on which to hang the different aspects of the theme. It occurred to me that some of the frustration we feel with ourselves, constantly or from time to time, could be mitigated if we took these forces into account as facts of life.
The process of evolution determined that we were built primarily for survival, not happiness, the desire to be happy is a later arrival. We have an automatic flight, fight or freeze response, because in primitive times human beings had to recognise swiftly whether that was a bear or a beige rock beside the bush. If it was a bear and I ran, I‘d be dead because it can run faster than me. (Of course if it was a beige rock and I ran like the devil and anyone saw me fleeing it I might ‘die’ of embarrassment anyway!) There is no point in trying to fight a bear, best freeze. These days we don’t often encounter rogue bears but our primitive brain does not know the difference between a danger outside or a danger from within, the scrunch we get when anything troubles us elicits the flight/fight/freeze responses.
A big difference between the primitive and modern responses is that in primitive times when the danger was passed the body went back to harmony much faster than it does today. We are so good at re-hashing bad stuff in our brains and each time we do our system recalls the threat and acts accordingly so we can be on red alert most of the time – and that is very stressful for the system and may in due course result in physical symptoms of distress and sickness. We must take seriously the fact that our brains and our reactions do not know the difference between out there reality and fantasies inside out heads.
And we have phenomenal memories for danger, so a voice tone or a grim look that put us on edge when we were two, if perceived in an authoritative face when we are twenty-two or even sixty-two can prompt the same response. To make sure we are safe these responses ‘go global’ so anything remotely akin to what has frightened us in the past will be hedged round for our general safety.
The Law of the Tribe
Another way in which primitive life could be endangered that still affects us today is commitment to the tribe. To be outside of the tribe was life threatening; survival depended on community. This alienation anxiety is still inherent in us, though we may not recognise it as such. We have this twin conflict: to be part of the tribe or to be an individual in our own right; either to remain true to the values etc. of family, school, church etc. and resist the urge towards adult personhood or to become all that we want to be and risk being ostracised by the group.
Our emotional responses are programmed in us very early on, before we have any control or awareness. As Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion) and others have shown, our emotional lives are formed and the foundations are laid (and will remain largely unchanged) in the first 18-24 months of life. This means that our emotional responses are instinctive and infantile, based in early responses devoid of any mental activity. Furthermore there is a decent body of material suggesting that a significant part of our personality is formed in utero. A mother’s emotions are flowing through her cells, which inevitably mean also through the unborn child therefore the mother’s emotional state may impact on the personality of the child. There is also, of course, the determining effect of the mother’s condition, post-natal. The gender of the child and his/her position in the family are further contributing factors shaping our early life.
As infants and toddlers we are curious about, but ignorant, of the world. The big people who surround us are ‘better’ than us because they can do things we can’t; they can make themselves understood and make up our minds for us. It is touch and go whether it dawns on them that we are feeling beings as well as eating, crying and eliminating things. All of this can contribute to the result of a well-adjusted, self-affirming person or one with an inferiority complex, large or small and all this has happened before we know who we are!
The Second Part
The second part of the retreat looked at the implications of all this for spirituality and our belief in or understanding of God. The take up point was a couple of quotes from the late Dom Sebastian Moore OS.B. “The sense of human worthlessness makes God unbelievable. A sense of human greatness is the threshold to belief” and the rather intriguing suggestion: “If God is not pressing on me to know myself, God does not know me.” Both quotes are from his book Let This Mind Be In You (London 1985) But that is a blog for another day!
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