Suffering

Something happened to me on September 4th of this year.  It was not very dramatic at first. But it became one of the most important moments I have ever had.

I was waking out of sleep. As often happens, I wake up to instruction from the Sufis who have gone on before me and who act as guides and teachers. There is something about the hypnogogic state that makes it easier to remember than the dream state, at least for me.

Anyway, I will not relate all the details of what happened (perhaps later on Rose Opening Forever). The important thing is that I considered a number of things about my own personal “history”, or “story”, or “internal narrative” as it is called now. I had rejected a number of these internal experiences because they seemed incredible and impossible to verify, grandiose, narcissistic, and possibly deranged. But I realized as I thought about one incident that happened as I was born – by caesarian section – that just accepting the sequence of the event and its outcome had a peculiar effect on me. Something in me relaxed, as if a load was taken from me.

In Scientology, the idea behind the notorious “engram” is that emotional incidents that are experienced in a state of diminished consciousness may not get properly translated from short term to long term memory. They can survive as a memory, but one inaccessible to normal consciousness. If the memory was traumatic, the fear and disorientation can intrude into the here and now in an inexplicable and inappropriate way.

Until recently, there was little scientific explanation for this, although the empirical evidence for the mechanism has put new wings on many a psychiatrist’s home. In Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Buddha’s Brain, he describes exactly what mechanism can cause this: interactions within the Sympathetic Nervous System and the combination of endocrine glands called the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis”. In particular, an unfortunate tick in this system between the amygdala, which creates implicit memory, and the hippocampus, which creates long-term memory, can result in a kind of internal “programming” that is all too familiar to me and many others.

When continual or extreme stimulation occurs to the amygdala, it becomes hypersensitive, encouraging conversion of state anxiety into trait anxiety. That is, anxiety attached to a situation becomes chronic anxiety. Moreover, the same neurochemicals that hypersensitize the amygdala interfere with the hippocampus’s work to convert short-term memory to long-term memory. As Rick Hanson says, “Painful memories can then be recorded in implicit memory – with all the distortions and turbo-charging of an amygdala on overdrive – without an accurate explicit memory of them. This might feel like: Something happened, I’m not sure what, but I’m really upset.”

According to Scientology, to remove a “charged” issue, one has to go back and re-experience it in sober consciousness over and over until it “blows” and loses its emotional command power, the “charge” that pulls you out of the present and makes you relive some unpleasant event in the past. I wasn’t trying to audit out this event in myself, but that is more or less what happened. But this was different. I was releasing a preverbal “engram” laid down during my birth, and it became apparent as it unwound before me and dissolved that it was indeed the incident that I had been looking for my entire life that poisoned my relationship with my mother. Basically, I was stabbed in the back accidentally during the operation. I was conscious at the time and understood that men with knives were cutting my mother open to get at me. And I blamed her for not protecting me from them, and for getting the stab wound in my back in the process.

Now, I am still not certain that this happened 62 years ago or not. But what happened at that point in bed is that some structure in my mind unravelled. I felt this and took up looking at a set of related ideas and memories and assumptions. The same things happened with them; other related parts of my experience seemed to unlock and melt away as I looked at them. I was left in tears with a sense of great inner peace.

That sense of peace has lessened somewhat as my life got back to normal that morning and since. But there was one important difference: I was not suffering anymore. I still got frustrated: often, but not that deeply, and totally without suffering. I got depressed, but also not that deeply, and also without suffering. Today is October 1, and the suffering has not returned. Nor do I have the feeling that I need to walk around on eggshells waiting for it to pop up and clamp onto my ankle like a pit bull. It just seems to be gone. Without drama, just gone.

This is what my whole life has been about as long as I can remember. I suffered tremendously, dramatically, deeply, and brutally for six decades. It ruined my life. It made interactions with other nearly impossible, work a torment I could only face with drugs, love an urban legend like alligators in the sewers, and death a shining star of promise of release from a nightmare that never ended.

And it has made me think about suffering. Buddha’s Brain, mentioned above, is largely about suffering (Rick Hanson’s latest thoughts about the relief of suffering can be found in a TEDx lecture.) It is not pain – I still feel pain, I still get depressed, exasperated, impatient, heedless, thoughtless. Not as deeply, by any means, but it is there. What don’t I feel now? I don’t feel wounded, vindictive, deprived, proud, or most importantly, treated unjustly.

I just don’t take it personally, as the saying goes. To be blunt, shit happens, but I do not see myself as shat-on. So, from a personal point of view, you cannot experience “justified” suffering. To hurt in this particular way, it has to be transgressive. You must have your trust or personal view of yourself or something personal belittled or humiliated or negated or made into nothing.

I asked my Sufi teachers what caused this distortion, and they said. “Narcissism”. Hmm. According to A.H. Almaas, who wrote a large book about the topic, narcissism is an egoic response to isolation from the truth, or specifically, Truth.  This getting closer to the Buddhist observation that suffering comes from attachment – in this case, to the ego’s view that only it really exists and that it can act and be self-sufficient. Without Truth, this must suffice, though it is no more noble, at its root, than a parakeet twittering at itself in a mirror – in its cage.

So my current thought – and I will be thinking about this for a good long time – is that this is the other shoe dropping after my experience recounted in my “heart-centered” blog, Rose Opening Forever. I had a radical reorientation of my self; my ego apparently no longer had me in a rear naked choke, as the MMA guys do to their opponents. But as Rose makes clear, I had to “tap out” first.

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