Social Trauma and the Culture of Excitotoxicity
Speed is one of the most powerful drugs on Earth
So much of what we call abnormality in this culture is actually normal responses to an abnormal culture. The abnormality does not reside in the pathology of individuals, but in the very culture that drives people into suffering and dysfunction." - Gabor Maté, MD
Our society is a society that's under chronic threat...We have to acknowledge that human beings are a traumatized species." - Stephen Porges, PhD
- A Culture of Trauma and Chronic Dysregulation
- What Does All this Have to do with Cognition and Trauma?
- Don't Be a Machine - Be Music!
- The Machine State of Bureaucratic-Administrative Economic Government
- The Un-Thinking Political Machine: Computation v. Cognition
- Another Disclaimer!
- "Earth is a Solar-Powered Jukebox:" Listening With and Playing in the Somatic Symphony of Earth
- Natural Quiet is the "Reference Pitch," or Tuning Fork, for Harmonious Neurophysiological Tone (i.e., health!)
- Activating the Ventral Vagal Brake: Emotional "Regulation" as Somatic Tuning
- Tuning in to the Somatic Symphony: Silence is Home to Spirit
A Culture of Trauma and Chronic Dysregulation
One of the most important elements of this new/ancient paradigm of deep life-mind continuity is that there is literally no separation between "individual" psychology and "social" psychology. As Maturana and Varela explain: "there is no discontinuity between what is social and what is human and their biological roots. The phenomenon of knowing is all of one piece, and in its full scope it has one same groundwork" (The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, p. 27).
(Though there is not separation, this is not to say that there is no distinction between social/collective and individual/subjective forms of cognition. There is a massively complex and dynamic interface between the two; more on this later.)
Even though American academic culture has created a system of research that divides study of existence into a bewildering array of fields, disciplines, subdisciplines, specialties, subspecialties, hyperspecializations, and super-hyperspecializations (in the late 1980s, a pair of sociologists identified over 8,000 distinct fields and specializations of study among academic experts; there are many more than this today), this does not mean that the results of research through such hyperspecialization necessarily give us a more accurate conceptual-theoretical understanding of reality.
As it pertains to cognition, the reality is that every instance of human psychology is simultaneously and unavoidably sociological, and every instance of human society/culture is "psychological." In other words, the field of study called "social psychology" is a redundant term. Psychology just is a social phenomenon. There is no such thing as non-social or non-sociological psychology. This is a pure theoretical contrivance of the most misleading order. Trying to understand human psychology by looking primarily or exclusively at the internal phenomena of an individual's brain or nervous system is like trying to understand the biochemistry of an individual tree in a forest by looking only at the phenomena within that tree and not taking into account the surrounding ecologies of soil, water, atmosphere, mycorrhizal fungi, animals, insects, other plants, weather, seasons, and sunlight. It's just not possible.
Imagine a botanist claiming that they have understood how a redwood works even though they have no idea how the tree's surrounding environment contributes to and makes possible its life and literally every function and phenomenon that occurs within/as that tree. What a bogus claim! And yet, this is basically what generations of psychologists and neuroscientists have done: they have claimed to understand human psychology-cognition by looking inside people and letting other scientists study the ecological conditions (society, the natural world, etc.) in which humans exist, conveniently abstracting away from those concrete (literally, as in the case of cities) conditions that quite literally and tangibly (and thereby conceptually and theoretically) have profound influences on the cognitive phenomena of humans. This methodological myopia is what John Dewey (the misunderstood genius whose research constituted a large part of my doctoral research) critiqued 100 years ago when he said:
Those who talk most of the organism, physiologists and psychologists, are often just those who display least sense of the intimate, delicate and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and processes with one another. The world seems mad in preoccupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry, education. In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes, search for those links which occupy key positions and which effect critical connections is indispensable." (Experience and Nature -- LW1:224-25)
The paradigm of deep life-mind continuity (of process ontological autopoietic cognition) defines cognition holistically, which means that by definition, cognition cannot be understood by breaking it down into "component parts." Cognition just is an emergently holistic phenomenon (leaving aside the complexity of its necessarily diachronic nature, which also cannot be abstracted away from, even though this is what most psychologists and neuroscientists do). Maturana and Varela make this plain: "under no circumstances is a biological phenomenon defined by the properties of its component elements" (Maturana & Varela  Autopoiesis and Cognition, p. 113).
So, without understanding the ecologies-fields-systems and collectively emergent nature of living systems (which are cognitive systems), it is not possible to understand cognition. To study the process ontological dynamics of the many ecological systems in which humans move and have their being is to study "psychology." In every instance of "sociology" there is "psychology," and vice versa. Neither can be understood in the absence of the other, because they are the same phenomenon!
Unfortunately, the rapid rise of logical positivism in the 1920s-1930's (coupled with the acute emergence of the joint phenomena of industrialism, academic/expert professionalism, militarism, materialism, and imperialism roughly between 1910-1950 -- the world wars had a massive impact on the sorts of research, inquiry, pedagogy, and funding developing and pouring into the newly established graduate school-driven research university that quickly developed in the first few decades of the 20th century) overshadowed the brilliant empirical naturalism of the American pragmatist movement, which contemporary science is now validating and expanding in remarkable and paradigm-shifting ways.
John Dewey's empirical naturalism (the "ism-based" shorthand designation of his scientific perspective, which inclusively is a process ontological, quantum field-systemic biosociohistorical-evolutionary autopoietic theory of critical-progressive collective dialogic inquiry and intelligent social change) detailed in remarkable complexity and nuance how cognition, biology, sociology, psychology, communications, evolution, politics, history, education/schooling, academic research, and economics are all inextricably wound up together. Through conceptual invention we can selectively view and study what we abstractly call "parts" of the world, but in unanalyzed ontological fact there is literally no separation among any aspect of human and natural experience.
What Does All this Have to Do With Cognition and Trauma?
When we expand our perspective beyond the extreme limitations and reductionism of modern academic scholarship and open to the reality that all living phenomena are cognitive phenomena, we can assess the neurophysiological-emotional health of society much like the health of an individual human. A cursory glance at contemporary culture reveals what I think is obvious: we live in a profoundly dis-eased culture. American culture especially is a remarkably ill culture, and sadly this sociocultural disease has been spread globally and infected thousands of other communities around the world. I could write an entire book on just this idea, so in the meantime, here are a few other accounts of this perspective:
- Ethan Watters's prescient Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche
- Dr. Bruce Alexander's The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit
- Dr. Stephen Ilardi's TED Talk: "Depression is a Disease of Civilization"
- Dr. Gabor Maté's forthcoming book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture
- Also consider, in this context, Nietzsche's insightful assertion that "In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule."
Symptomatically, this cultural disease can be easily seen in statistics such as the following:
- In the aggregate/on average, Americans work more hours yet are simultaneously in more debt than citizens of any other industrialized nation
- U.S. society exhibits the most extreme socioeconomic inequality of any society in human history
- Americans are the most depressed, anxious, addicted, drugged, and chronically ill society in human history
- On average, around 20 U.S. military veterans commit suicide daily
- Prescription drugs -- properly prescribed and taken as directed; i.e., not including abuse or overdose -- are the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
- The U.S. constitutes only 4% of the world's population while having close to 25% of the world's prison population
- Americans are 20 times more likely to die in a mass shooting than citizens of any other industrialized nation
- the statistical majority of American adults live with at least one chronic illness and consistently take at least one pharmaceutical drug (and a large portion of the population takes multiple synthetic pharma drugs, many of which are not adequately studied and tested before going to market)
These and countless other social-level phenomena and trends reveal how profoundly unhealthy Americans and our collective social condition really are. As Stephen Porges, Ph.D. (creator of the Polyvagal Theory of the vagus nerve, which has provided the empirical-theoretical basis for the contemporary revolution in understanding and resolving trauma) says,
'Toxic load' is frequently discussed as a stressor of our immune system in the context of chronic exposure to environmental chemicals that may be carcinogenic. However, chronic negativity also creates psychologically toxic environments and the cumulative effects of these environments are less frequently discussed. ...The chronic exposure to these risks [of social danger/harm] degrades processes from cell to society and compromises the maintenance of health and the development of children.
"Making the World Safe for Our Children: Down-Regulating Defence and Up-Regulating Social Engagement to 'Optimise' the Human Experience." Children Australia 40, no. 2 (2015): 114-115)
Beyond contingent statistics and trends, moreover, we can also identify scientific principles and law-like phenomena that reveal the systemic-structural dis-ease of this culture.
As I discussed on the "Paradigm Shift" page, health (from Old English hælþ) literally means wholeness. This refers primarily to a functional condition and only indirectly to a physical intactness or completeness. Defined autopoietically, a living system is a complex of energies (functions, processes, activities, etc.) coherently organized such that the functional effect of the system's activity as a whole serves to sustain the conditions (internal and external) necessary for that system to maintain its particular form of organization (i.e., to maintain itself as the sort of system it is, e.g. as a herd of gazelle, an individual wombat, an ecology, a culture, or a planet).
The importance of this holistic organization and activity cannot be overemphasized. Living systems manifest a level of being-activity that cannot, in principle, be reduced to the "parts" of that system: "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Humberto Maturana -- who, with Francisco Varela, first systematized and formalized the autopoietic theory of life-mind-cognition -- is unequivocal about this: "under no circumstances is a biological phenomenon defined by the properties of its component elements" (Maturana & Varela  Autopoiesis and Cognition, p. 113).
I emphasize this emergent holism of living systems because our culture is so extremely, extensively fragmented that we often lose sight of this larger picture. We have not only lost the forest for the trees, we've lost the trees for the bark, the bark for the cells, the cells for the chemical components, the chemical components for the molecules, the molecules for the atoms, the atoms for the quarks, and the quarks for whatever they are supposedly "made of" (hint: there are no such "basic particulars" or "elementary particles"... awareness is fundamental to reality, and "physical matter" is an outgrowth of this awareness). We must recover our perceptive abilities and skills to see and experience reality as and through a systems-fields-collectivities-ecologies framework, because this is all there is: "The world consists of organized fields in process - all the way down, and all the way up...any process, no matter how micro, consists of yet smaller processes, ad infinitum" (Campbell  p. 455; 459).
So, let's return to the question of the health of contemporary society-culture. Health = wholeness. The presence of disease in a living system is quite literally the manifestation of a condition of functional-energetic dis-ease: the harmonious, rhythmic, homeodynamic functional integration of the processes that constitute an organism is disrupted, and such disruption threatens the organizational coherence (health) of that organism because when the coherent organization and functional unity of a living system is disrupted, the organism's life-support and health-restoring systems are compromised. When such holistically functional integration is disrupted, a condition of fragmentation, energetic imbalance/disproportion, and fear-based perception-action comes to dominate a living system. In such a state, extensive and sustainable health cannot exist.
Don't Be a Machine -- Be Music!
In humans, such a condition of dis-ease manifests neurophysiologically as a literal, physical state of duality. Our cognitive systems -- which, when healthy, operate as a holistic unity, per above -- are divided: qualitative mind is severed from the conceptual-analytic mind. Our cognitive processes become controlled by abstract, restrictive dualisms: we think in terms of either this or that (but not both, and certainly not any one of the potentially infinite other options we could conceivably imagine). Our cognition, in effect, becomes mechanistic and computational.
Computers and machines operate according to binary code: strings of 1's and 0's. In binary code, there are merely two absolute values: either 1 or 0. Nothing else. There is not 1.7, 0.8, 0.4, 1.3, etc. in binary code. It is either a "1" absolutely or a "0" absolutely. These are purely abstract, absolute values; there is no variation, no relativity, no dynamics. This works well for machines, because they are not alive. But in living systems, literally nothing is binaristic/dualistic in this fashion. Moreover, cognition of any kind -- including human -- is not to be understood on this machine-computer model. Sadly, generations of psychologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists have been fundamentally misguided in their research by this profoundly mistaken metaphorical model of cognition-mind (see, e.g., Boden ; Chemero ; Clark ; Dupre ; Dupuy ). Maturana and Varela state this succinctly in their excellent book The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding: "The popular metaphor of calling the brain an 'information-processing device' is not only ambiguous but patently wrong" (p. 169).
Civilizational culture is so pervasively infected with rigid, mutually-exclusive dualities that we don't even notice it, much like we typically don't attend to the fact that we exist within an atmospheric field of gases that we continually inhale and exhale every moment of our lives. We live within a mechanistic social world. For the vast majority of people in civilizational culture, the large majority of our cognitive interactions involve experiences of machines, computers, inanimate structures, and other dualistic-binary-digital systems. This includes our political system, which of course permeates literally every aspect of human experience, at least indirectly.
The Machine State of Bureaucratic-Administrative Economic Government
Imagine going to the grocery store wanting some vanilla-maple almond butter for a new recipe you're trying. You find the aisle with nut butters only to discover the shelves full of nothing but peanut butter: crunchy or smooth. You find a store employee and ask where their "alternative" nut butters are. The employee replies: "Oh we don't have those. We just have crunchy or smooth peanut butter." Incredulously, you ask: "No honey peanut butter? No chocolate-hazelnut spread? No speculoos? No cashew, walnut, macadamia, pecan, or blended butters?" The reply: "Nope, just plain crunchy or smooth peanut butter, without salt."
Next, you go for some bread. You're looking for some local, artisanal gluten-free multigrain loaf bread. But again, you find the same situation: the only bread on the shelf is corporate industrial sliced white and wheat. "Surely this is a fluke," you think. "They must have more types of bread somewhere." So, you ask again: "Excuse me, where are your other breads?" The store employee just shrugs and says, "That's all we got. White or wheat." Stunned, you clarify: "No multigrain? No rye? No ciabatta? No sourdough? No baguette? No brioche? No challah? No pumpernickel? No naan? No wholegrain nut and seed? No banana bread? No cinnamon swirl? No vánočka? No zopf? No injera?" The reply comes again: "Nope. Factory-baked, machine-sliced white or wheat from Wonder Bread, take your pick."
Or, imagine car shopping: you want a mid-size AWD hybrid 4-door crossover with decent clearance and off-road capability but still smooth on the highway and efficient and comfortable driving around town. You go to the dealership, and ask what's on the lot. They reply, quizzically, "Crossover? Sorry, bud. We got a brown 4-door sedan and a red 2-door truck. Take your pick." You think he's joking. "Okay fine, I know 'crossover' is just a trendy term. What do you have in mid-size SUVs or hatchbacks?" The salesman shakes his head: "Just car or truck, what do you want?"
Okay, you get the idea. What many people fail to realize is that this is basically our situation politically and thereby socially, in general. Every aspect of our lives is pervaded by politics; nothing is unaffected, at least indirectly. And what sort of choices, variety, and diversity do we get politically in the U.S.? Two basic options. We get to choose from two basic, uninspiring options (the Democrat or Republican parties) that have been around forever but around which countless creative and innovative developments and changes (socioculturally speaking) have emerged. Our political system is a homogenized, industrialized, GMO'd, corporatized, mechanized, culturally myopic bureaucratic-administrative control system that structurally, functionally, and legally precludes any real socio-cognitive-cultural-ideological-linguistic-economic-philosophical diversity, dynamicity, variety, creativity, experimentation, innovation, or strategic agility. Moreover, this system was designed and established historically by the financial elite of the industrial-commercial segment and is currently maintained by the contemporary global neoliberal investment capital financial elite. Both political parties serve this sect of society as a primary function and concern, and any substantive social benefits of government are secondary and often incidental effects of efforts directed expressly and primarily at industry and commerce, which, economically, in extreme disproportionality benefit a tiny portion of the population while over 100 million (in the U.S.) and billions (globally) live in chronic poverty.
This is a profoundly dis-eased cultural system.
Economic currency (capital, goods, investments, energy, material product, property, cash, etc., and now crypto) is the "lifeblood" of civilizational culture. (Indigenous cultures, universally yet in diverse local form and detail, sustain a fundamentally different type of "economy" based on mutual and equitable gift exchange, which actually manifests -- i.e. literally is -- the precise dynamics of living and cognitive systems as detailed in Maturana and Varela's autopoietic theory of life-mind-cognition-evolution, as well as the same dynamics as articulated in quantum systems theory, ecology, dynamic-emergent-embodied-embedded-extended-ecological cognition, evolution by natural drift, swarm intelligence, and a bunch of other scientific models of reality.) Economic-financial wealth or poverty is a direct determining factor of one's access to and safe experiencing of countless resources, environments, food/water, education, time, healthcare, etc. that are necessary for health, peace, and wellbeing.
If we think of society as an organism, we can imagine, hypothetically, that some animal has contracted a disease that causes only 1% of the cells in the animal to receive 90% of the nutrients from the food it eats, while the other 99% of the cells has to divide and ration the remaining 10% of the nutrients. (These numbers aren't meant to be empirically representational of the wealth distribution of the U.S.; but it is ridiculously extreme, whatever the actual percentages/distribution. Someone do the math for me.) Such an animal would not be healthy! This is basically what we have in civilizational culture. The "dis-ease" of our culture is a sociocultural, economic, political, structural-systemic "neurophysiological-economic" dysregulation of the most extreme, imbalanced order. Heck, even pro-capitalist economists such as Joseph Stiglitz acknowledge the grave reality of such insanely disparate economic inequality.
(Also, any economists out there: if you want to understand economic phenomena, go study forest ecology. Leave the numbers, equations, and abstract scholarly theories aside for a while, and learn how energy flow naturalistically works in living systems. Nothing in human existence is separate from these dynamics of the rest of the planet, so understanding the non-monetary "energy economics" of living systems will give you a vastly greater understanding of human economic reality than any classical or modern economic textbook. At the very least, if you want to understand the origin of economic inflation, read Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. "Economic" [read: living systems-energetic] inflation did not begin with currency-based commerce; it began 10,000 years ago with the advent of civilizational culture defined -- as Quinn brilliantly does -- as the creation of a hierarchical-administrative economic social order built on a system of "totalitarian agriculture.")
Not coincidentally, research has shown that human gut bacterial diversity is inversely correlated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and likely other conditions and symptoms of dis-ease/illness. That is, the more homogenized the bacteria in your gut, the more unhealthy you are. This basic principle holds true of all living systems: biological-ecological-functional diversity is a necessary and ubiquitous character of robust, agile, adaptable, sustainable, holistically-healthy natural ecologies across all forms of the tree of life. And, it's further not a coincidence that contemporary U.S. society is, by many measures, the most chronically ill and diseased citizenry among industrialized countries, given that the U.S. political-economic system is the most bureaucratized-mechanized, digitalized-dualistic, and homogenized industrial nation-state/social system in the modern world. Such a homogenized sociopolitical duality is functionally, structurally, and ideologically rigid, and as the Harvard psychologist Susan David, Ph.D. says, "rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic."
In other words, our social neurobiophysiological system is profoundly dis-eased, just as it is in an individual human's body when traumatized. In trauma, which is remaining chronically and un-naturally stuck in a survival-defensive response, ultimately manifesting as Tonic Immobility -- which might be said to be the ultimate state of functional rigidity, as it is a neurophysiological-emotional-nervous state dominated by a pervasive sense of fear that sustains people in a continual state of catatonic contraction and hypertension -- our energy systems/flow become dramatically imbalanced, i.e. disproportionate. During the sympathetic fight/flight response, virtually all our body's resources are channeled to the systems and processes that support literal fighting or fleeing. Restorative, immune, and other healing and health-sustaining functions are drained of oxygen, blood, etc., so they can't work as well (or hardly at all, in extreme and chronic cases). Likewise, if we shift into an immobility/shutdown response, all our systems are simply "tuned down" so low as to be nearly dead. Either state can be adaptive for a very short period of time, but chronically both conditions destroy our ability to remain healthy.
In short, when we are traumatized, we move from a state of holistic functional integration and unity (e.g., all branches of the nervous system and all other bodily systems/functions are active in a sustainable, dynamically-balanced, holistic "somatic symphony" -- this is when we feel really good just sitting and enjoying the magical experience of being alive...which is partially generated by the abundant presence of the endocannabinoid anandamide, which term derives from the Sanskrit term meaning "joy, bliss," which is our internal, naturally-produced version of the phytocannabinoid THC from the cannabis plant, the "bliss molecule," which is what's also largely responsible for the "runner's high," which is feeling really good during/after enjoyable exercise or dancing) to a state of fragmented disproportionality.
In this traumatized, fear-driven state, we react rather than respond. We act autonomically rather than intentionally. We work mechanistically rather than artistically. Our neocortex (where much symbol-based cognition occurs, like reading, writing, speaking conceptually and abstractly) is functionally disconnected from the rest of the brain, nervous system and body. Without the vastly more complex, dynamic, nuanced, and aesthetically-rich cognitive experiencing of the somatic-sensuous mind, we resort to relying on abstract, conceptual, linear logico-deductive analytic quantitative thinking to name, perceive, experience, and manipulate our reality.
As it happens, the peculiar grammatical structure, syntactical nature, and terminology of English makes it the most dualistic, abstracting, and objectifying language on Earth, and the large majority of scientific and technical publications globally are written in English, and English is the most common commercial-business-trade language. So, simply by working and communicating within globalized, Americanized civilizational culture, our cognition is conditioned to be mechanistic and computational.
When we rely primarily or exclusively on concept-based thinking -- especially when it is so dualistic, as with English -- we begin thinking mechanistically and computationally. In trauma, our conceptual-analytic cognition is functionally severed from 99% of what constitutes human cognition: qualitative, non-conceptual, aesthetic, non-linear/spontaneous, emotional, sensuous experiencing. When symbolic-conceptual forms of thinking dominate our cognition, we are no longer even cognizing, we are computing. We are merely analyzing, calculating, measuring, quantifying, categorizing, objectifying, controlling and manipulating ourselves and the limited elements of the surrounding ecologies that this extremely limited form of cognition can detect and engage. Moreover, trauma is a state of neurophysiological dysregulation in which fear dominates our perceiving and feeling, leading us to engage the world via a combat-oriented posture, which in some cases is adaptive but in many cases is maladaptive and even contributes to our experiences being more dangerous than they actually are.
This is precisely how American culture functions. American society (inclusive of economics, politics, military, schooling, prisons, transportation, etc.) is deeply traumatized: stuck in a chronic and pervasive state of dysregulation and dysfunction that flips between extremes of anxious, hyper-paced combative hyperactivity (sympathetic-adrenal fight-flight) and tonic immobility. On the hyperactive, fight/flight combative end of the spectrum, there's the military-industrial complex encircling the globe: the U.S. military is BY FAR the most extensive, pervasive, highly-funded military in human history. The U.S. spends more on military activity than the next seven (7) highest-spending countries combined. Likewise, the U.S. maintains approximately 800 military bases around the world, whereas France, Russia and Great Britain combined only operate 30 foreign bases. Here is the sociocultural-political manifestation of America's out-of-control fight/flight response: dramatically excessive military presence in every corner of the globe.
This culture's hyperactive, sympathetic-adrenal fight/fight response also manifests generally in economics, business, schooling, healthcare, and virtually all other aspects of society. Nearly everything is rushed, with a primary value and goal being to maximize everything at almost any cost. Whether concerning consumer product availability, services, policy change, or social change/revolution, most people in this culture want everything now and fast. There is little patience for gradual and incremental change, movement, innovation, and communication. This has become so extreme that many people now experience significant distress if someone doesn't reply to their text message within 2-5 minutes.
On the opposite side of the spectrum -- tonic immobility; i.e., catatonic rigidity, stuckness, lethargy, lack of motivation and sustainable action -- are the stultifying inefficiencies of the bureaucratic-administrative control system that is the "government," and the correlate political apathy of a large portion of the population. A few years ago I attended a conference on mindfulness and higher education. I met a man who had worked in the federal government for 25 years before retiring to start his own political consultation company, which took him around the world helping smaller governments streamline their processes and work more efficiently. Tim (not his real name) and I had a few in-depth conversations about how to integrate somatic cognition into such systems. Right away, he acknowledged how systemically difficult this is; he recounted how there is "virtually no creative, autonomous thinking in the federal government these days." He explained that in many cases, young idealists surge into a government position after years of education and work tailored to land them their job in whatever sect of government they want to make change. They enter with bold ideas, creative vision, innovative thinking, and enthusiasm. Then, Tim lamented, within 2-3 years they're all burned out, exhausted, pessimistic and cynical.
What these young idealists faced in government was our society's cultural tonic immobility. Fear dominates government and politics. Just watch ten minutes of mass media network news and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. "Politics" these days is predominantly fear-based blaming, finger-pointing, mudslinging, personal attacking, and shaming. Fear, shame, and resistance to substantive change characterize much of the political culture. These are precisely the qualities and characteristics of an individual human stuck in chronic, complex trauma.
Given this sociopolitical culture of trauma, dysregulation, fragmentation, and fear, is it any wonder that only about half of the eligible American voting population actually casts a vote for major elections? And, if we're honest about the situation, a large portion of those who do vote are unthinking partly-line voters; and another large portion vote simply to avoid the shaming and guilt-tripping they know they'll receive from friends, family, and/or colleagues if they don't vote; and another portion simply votes for the "lesser of two evils." In truth ("Let's not shame our eyes for seeing. Instead, thank them for their bravery." --Joy Harjo), only a tiny portion of American voters are extensively, critically informed. And many of those, if they're honest, are deeply dissatisfied with the options presented to us.
We do not live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy. If you don't know what an oligarchy is, please take a moment to educate yourself about what's happening on planet Earth right now: a tiny, tiny portion of the population owns and controls the vast majority of wealth, and government is controlled by finance and industry. Ostensibly "democratic" voting schemes are mere smokescreens to make us feel like elected officials truly and substantively represent us, and we're thus distracted from the reality hiding in plain sight: this social system utterly fails to deliver on its lofty promises, promises politicians on both sides of the isle have continually propounded with religious zeal and cult leader-like assurances while they and the system have consistently failed to deliver on these claims for, oh, roughly 10,000 years now. This is a profoundly, disturbingly, extremely unhealthy condition for humanity.
The wealth inequality of contemporary civilizational culture is so extremely vast that I believe it is no mere metaphor, and no stretch of concept, to say that this cultural system is literally insane. As Nietzsche says: "In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule." Colin Feltham presents a similar thesis through his "anthropathology" framework, though I diverge from his analysis in some subtle yet crucial ways, so I won't fully endorse this perspective here. The basic idea I'm offering here is that when we model civilizational culture as an autopoietic system (or, at the very least, as potentially such a system, or approximating one), which is to say a living organism, we can assess the health and viability of this cultural organism (social system) according to the principles of life and health as enumerated by the emerging paradigm of autopoiesis and life-mind continuity. The results of such an assessment are clear: this cultural system is extensively, pervasively, and deeply traumatized and traumatizing, individually and collectively (since the "individual" and the "collective" are mutually-determining, mutually-defined phenomena, neither making sense in the absence of the other side of the complementary pair).
While this may come across as depressing or cynical, this is not at all my intention. In emphasizing so strongly the ills of our cultural condition, I intend to shift our perspective from individual pathology or "deficiency" (as the modern medical establishment does by default) to a diagnosis of social pathology. For me, the encouraging implication of this perspective is that we come to realize that "our" (individual") depression and anxiety is anything but: the collective experience of these symptoms of neurophysiological dysregulation indicates that there is something seriously wrong with our sociocultural-political-economic system/ecology, of which we are component functions.
There is not something wrong with you, if you feel chronically depressed and/or anxious, for the experience of depressive and anxious symptoms actually indicates a powerful adaptive ability that has been undermined by our culture and thereby twisted into a maladaptive outcome -- not by any fault or deficiency of our own, but by our culture's restriction, shaming, and repression of the energies naturally manifest in and through a defensive-survival-protective response.
Depression and anxiety are the phenomenological symptoms of a neurophysiological dysregulation coincident with "trauma" -- in other words, trauma just is such chronic, sustained dysregulation. But this does not mean there is something "wrong" with us that needs fixing or manipulating via contrived "single molecule, single target" synthetic drugs made in a lab by a giant corporation. This is what the medical establishment has tried for decades now, and this has largely failed (witness the steadily increasing rates of chronic illness among Americans, the most synthetically drugged population in history).
To heal from trauma, to energetically regulate, we need to release the excess sympathetic energy that was stirred up during a defensive-survival response, and then re-tune our systems to a healthy, natural flow of holistic functional harmony, i.e. health. In this process, we come to learn that the dis-ease so many people try to escape through numbing drugs or activities actually reveals the profound strength of our nervous system's ability to protect us in the face of danger/threat. These strengths and abilities are not to be repressed, but to be engaged, developed, and honed so that we can survive in contemporary society without constantly repressing our energies and/or being triggered into a chronic condition of fear-driven and anxiety-producing hyperactivity. More about this below.
The Un-Thinking Political Machine: Computation v. Cognition
As it relies excessively on abstract, quantitative, digital-binary, algorithmic computation and bureaucratic-administrative control systems, our political system is pervasively mechanistic. In many sectors of life in American culture (and scientistic-mechanistic civilizational culture generally/globally), research and work are dominated by the remarkably unintelligent, naïve, and scientifically false ideology that "if it can't be measured quantitatively-numerically, it's not real or valuable." This is pure dogmatic ideology (otherwise known as "bullshit"), and this cognitive virus has infected multiple institutions that have tremendous power in shaping our tangible and imaginative lives, individually and collectively. This socio-cognitive dis-ease has infected schooling, politics, academia, science, medicine, farming, industry, healthcare, and even many psychotherapy training programs. If you thought science was straightforwardly "objective," "neutral," and "impartial," please think again. Here are just a few accounts of how pervasively contemporary science is infected with dogmatic ideology:
- Ben Goldacre - Battling Bad Science (TED Talk); Bad Science (book); Bad Pharma (book); What Doctors Don't Know About the Drugs They Prescribe (TED Talk)
- Henry Bauer - Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth; and: Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method
- Thomas O. McGarity & Wendy E. Wagner - Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research
- Paul Feyerabend - Against Method; The Tyranny of Science
- Robert Whitaker - Mad in America
- John Dewey - Experience and Nature
Ultimately, the trouble is that when the "cognition" (read: living function) of a system is characterized by objective, abstract, binary-digital terms and values, it can no longer be properly called cognition: it is computation. And, recall Maturana and Varela's assertion: "The popular metaphor of calling the brain an 'information-processing device' is not only ambiguous but patently wrong." (They are not the only ones to see this and demonstrate why it is "patently wrong." See the Resources and Bibliography page for many more sources on this.) Cognition is emphatically not reducible to information-processing, symbol processing, or abstract, quantitative-data based computation: this is the realm of inanimate, unfeeling machines and computers, not living systems!
Living systems are almost entirely qualitative-sensory feeling. There is a very, very easy way to test this hypothesis, by the way. If you get the chance, go hike into the middle of a wild, natural forest or related ecology untouched by human activity. And just stand or sit there for as long as you need to realize what's there. When you "realize" what's there, you'll "know" exactly what I'm talking about. Hint: when immersed in and thoroughly connected with a true living system (like a forest) rather than the dead, material structures and mechanistic noises of urban-industrial civilization, you can literally feel yourself and the surrounding environment in a way that totally removes the need or desire for analyzing, understanding, interpreting, naming, calculating, planning, predicting, controlling, or fixing.
And when you feel that (not "understand" that, whatever that means, anyway...I spent 9 years in grad school studying quantum neurophilosophy and cognition and I have no idea what "understanding" mind-cognition would mean, except maybe that not understanding is "understanding" -- as the IBM research engineer Emerson Pugh, Ph.D. put it: "If the human brain[/mind] were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."), you'll embody immediate empirical validation of the claim I offered above. So don't "think about" it -- just go find some wilderness and just go be there and do nothing. It's lovely. (More on this below, after the disclaimer.)
Lest I be gravely misunderstood, my pointing out the dogmatic and ideological nature of much modern and contemporary science (per above, and throughout this website) does not mean I am "anti-science." But neither am I simplistically "pro-science." I am pro-moving-beyond-reductionistic-and-simplistic-binaries-such-as-anti-vs.-pro-frameworks-for-cateogorizing-and-moralizing-massively-complex-and-dynamic-sociocultural-conceptual-political-legal-ethical-phenomena-practices-policies-and-experiences. Or, more simply, I am "pro-good science" and "anti-bad science." Science is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used constructively, wisely, creatively, sustainably, and equitably, or it can be used destructively, dogmatically, mechanistically, unimaginatively, violently, and unfairly. To think that just because something is done "scientifically" (or just because a research study is published in a scientific/scholarly journal) it is therefore necessarily good and trustworthy is to display a fundamentalist faith in a dogmatic ideology on par with any other unthinking religious, social, or political fundamentalism.
Science is a human-social practice and institution, and is thereby liable to infection by the same sorts of conceptual and theoretical viruses that plague all other sectors of society. To pedestal an ambiguous, ostensibly universal and unified singular construct of "Science" as an all-powerful, all-knowing, faultless, consistently reliable method or system to be uncritically trusted is to very un-scientifically convert a messy, imperfect, constantly changing, sociohistorically-linguistically-economically contingent human activity into a God-like omniscient being who demands unwavering faith and trust, which encourages the followers of such dogmatic doctrine to become self-righteous judges of all those who do not believe what they are "supposed to" believe, thereby equipping them with an ironically religious-like, myopic ethical perspective that is leveraged to shame and guilt-trip anyone who dares extend a critical attitude toward the beliefs and methods of that religious-ized "science."
Science can be remarkably reliable and supportive of knowledge, technologies, and tools that support life, but it has also produced remarkably inaccurate results and dangerous ideas that have been used in disturbingly destructive and life-harming ways. Here is just one recently relevant example of the messy, complex nature of real-time science (or what Henry Bauer calls "frontier science"). One of the most experienced and knowledgeable epidemiologists in the world today, Michael Osterholm, MPH, Ph.D. (who is Regents Professor, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health; the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP); Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health; a professor in the Technological Leadership Institute, College of Science and Engineering; and an adjunct professor in the Medical School at the University of Minnesota) explained recently in a discussion of the confusion around research on mask effectiveness in preventing the spread and infection of COVID-19:
I worry that we've missed the bigger point of what's going on right now with the science of respiratory protection, and right now I can tell you, and it's not just on masks alone, but I can tell you how bad the medical literature has gotten. You know, when we're all done with this, I hope that there's a number of medical [journal] editors that are fired from their jobs, because I can tell you, the amount of junk, plain science junk that's coming out right now, is a real challenge, and you know, I will say that there is incredible work coming out, some amazing quality work, so I surely don't want to cast that as the majority. It's not."
Please know that the vast majority of information you're hearing every day in the popular literature or even in the news about cloth masks is not coming from anyone with any expertise in aerosol science. It amazes and disappoints me how many of my professional colleagues have no real understanding of aerosol science and the physics of respiratory virus transmission, but are very willing to present themselves to the media as such experts."
Another challenge we face with understanding masks and respiratory protection is the increasing number of poorly conducted and inadequately reviewed studies getting published in rapid succession. Some are even being widely distributed before they are reviewed and published. The media tends to jump all over them assuming they provide newly found and definitive answers about mask protection."
Again, please know that I am not emphasizing these issues with scientific and medical research and publication with the intention to "bash science." I am a scientist who believes in the potential power and beneficial use of science, if and when conducted critically and creatively. Thus, unscrupulous people, institutions, and companies who -- often selfishly, and/or out of political, vocational, or economic motives unrelated to truly sound scientific methodology -- irresponsibly leverage a scientific credential and identity to push ideas and research paradigms that do not serve the greater health and sustainability of all life on Earth deserve to be critiqued, for such equal-opportunity critique is the spirit of science itself.
In other words, just because someone holds a credential, a professional-occupational position, or gets a paper published in a scientific journal or book does not necessarily mean they and their ideas are to be trusted. This is like uncritically trusting a priest or some other officially/formally designated religious/"spiritual" professional's ideas about spirituality just because they hold a credential and/or institutional position. Of course, this also applies to me, this website, and everything I am saying here. But what is it I'm ultimately saying about mind, cognition, and consciousness? I am saying that when it comes to cognition, your own direct, immediate, non-conceptual somatically-felt experience is the expert. As I've emphasized on multiple pages:
***Nothing I say here will make much sense, and certainly can't be deeply understood, unless you have a direct, immediate somatic experience of the phenomena these words describe***
For me, it is a decidedly delicious irony that the results of thousands of contemporary scientific studies of mind, cognition, and consciousness from dozens of scientific fields and disciplines are -- like so many streams and tributaries flowing down the peaks, corridors, and valleys of a mountain range that eventually merge into one great rushing river -- coalescing into a roaring current of conceptual coherence that says: if you want to "understand" mind, cognition and consciousness, forget books/articles, concepts, analysis, and quantitative measure (the very stuff of modern science), and deepen into your own direct, embodied qualitative, ineffable experience. As John Dewey perceptively summarized:
The office of physical science is to discover those properties and relations of things in virtue of which they are capable of being used as instrumentalities; physical science makes claim to disclose not the inner nature of things but only those connections of things with one another that determine outcomes and hence can be used as means. The intrinsic nature of events is revealed in experience as the immediately felt qualities of things. (Experience and Nature, p. 6)
Insofar as this is true (and, inclusive of all the paradoxes and ironies inherent in the following statement, it is scientifically and technically true), this means that the more conceptual "understanding" one generates about mind-cognition-consciousness, the less accurately one "understands" mind-cognition-consciousness, since these phenomena are characteristically (i.e., ontologically, literally, actually, really, tangibly, etc.) qualitatively ineffable. Ineffability, by definition, cannot be conceptually defined. So to "define" mind-cognition-consciousness through physicalist ideologies that reductively "explain" consciousness by correlating phenomenological states with neurological activity is not at all to "explain" such phenomena. As Dewey also rightly pointed out 100 years ago:
"As far as it is assumed that modes of consciousness are in themselves already differentiated into sensory, perceptual, conceptual, imaginative, retentive, emotional, conative...physiological study will consist simply of search for the different bodily and neural processes that underlie these differences [i.e., Dewey here is describing the still-common methodological fool's errand of trying to identify the "neural correlates of consciousness." This is a pure conceptual contrivance constructed on a fundamentally erroneous ontology. See my dissertation for details]. The outcome is an exacerbation of the traditional mind-body problem." (Experience and Nature; LW1:256-57)
The crucial proviso here is that our surrounding environment-ecology has a massive influence on our "individual-inner" cognition, so in order for such direct embodied experiencing to yield accurate insights into the nature of life-mind-cognition, we will ideally explore our experience in an ecology unpolluted by the dysregulating and dissonant mechanistic noises and hyperactive, anxious pace of contemporary urban culture. The noisy, hyperactive, chaotic, mechanistic mind-chatter of our social neurology and social discourse makes it very difficult to truly deepen into the qualitative ineffability of our somatic minds. But that is precisely what we all, individually and collectively, need right now. How do we do this? We must re-discover our place in the Somatic Symphony that is Earth.
Gordon Hempton, the acoustic ecologist, reminds us that "Earth is a solar-powered jukebox." In our chaotically, dissonantly noisy acoustic social environments, we have forgotten that nature is music. Simply to exist in contemporary urban or suburban society requires us to numb or dampen our acoustic sensibilities, which is profoundly problematic given that our sense of sound is the primary modality through which we evaluate the relative degree of safety and/or danger of an environment.
Of all our sensory capacities, audible and felt sound is our most accurate, expansive, and inclusive means of experiencing a surrounding ecology. Smell is close behind, but vision is dramatically more limited than we've come to believe in our decidedly pictographic, image-obsessed culture. Vision is actually one of the least reliable senses we have. Conversely -- careful, honed listening to a natural acoustic ecology provides a vastly more detailed and extensive experience of a total environing situation.
Hempton reminds us that while it is typical for animals to have eyelids and that there are even a handful of naturally blind species of animals, the fossil record doesn't contain a single instance of a species having evolved earlids. This would be far too dangerous, as sound is our primary means of being connected to the total environment and detecting approaching danger (in the form of predators, weather, pests, etc.). Through sound, we can omnidirectionally experience a huge area spreading out around us.
Here [in a pristine acoustic ecology], the auditory horizon can be as great as 20 miles. Now if you do the math, and you calculate the area of a circle with a 20 mile radius, that's over a thousand square miles. I come here to be reminded what an opportunity it is to be alive today. Nature is music. And I'm not asking you to get all theoretical here; I'm saying: just listen. ...This is the time to be alive. This is when we will make the big decision: will we, or will we not, fall back in love with planet Earth?" (Gordon Hempton; from He Hears Music in the Quietest Place on Earth-Can You? National Geographic Short Film Showcase)
When we spend enough time in a natural ecology unpolluted by human and mechanistic noise intrusions, we can allow and open our sensibilities in such a way that our cognition (which, again, is not just "mental" experience but our entire sentient experiencing, inclusive of the diverse, dynamic, multidimensional qualitative-emotional-sensory sensitivities that characterize 99% of our cognition) expands into and melds with the entire environment surrounding us. This is what Hempton calls listening to the "poetics of space." In this form of listening, we do not listen for any given sound, or try to hear anything in particular. Rather, it is a total-body opening to a holistic sensory experience of an ecology, led by sound. Ultimately, it is not just about the audible sound; we can listen to a place with our entire being as an integrated, polymorphic, multidimensional, experiential "microphone." This is poetic listening.
As the U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo says, while lamenting how schooling does not teach us such holistic listening skills: "We could have been taught to listen. I imagine being in an elementary or middle school classroom and hearing the teacher urging us to: Listen with your ears, your eyes, your throat, your abdomen, your toes... I am right there. We can listen with everything. Imagine listening with your belly to the cricket on the stairs, the raven at the door" (from Poet Warrior: A Memoir).
As Sherri Mitchell (Weh'na Ha'Mu' Kwasset) reminds us: "We live in a vibratory universe." Literally everything in existence is flowing oscillations of energy, including "physical matter." Everything that exists is part of a continuous, unified complex of vibrational energy flow. And, whether we are reflectively aware of it or not, our somatic minds constantly experience and resonate with whatever vibrational frequencies surround us at any given time. We spontaneously and unavoidably attune to the qualities of energy swirling around us. The scientific, technical term for this, per Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, is "structural coupling." The tangible structures and functional organization of our being, which together constitute our existence as emergent components of the larger cognitive system that is nature/mind, become "structurally coupled with" whatever qualities and characteristics dominate our environment. In other words, the qualities and characteristics of our own physical constitution (which is the tangible manifestation of our cognition) literally resonates with whatever surrounds us.
Given that our current social ecology is profoundly, dramatically, distressingly, extensively, and intensely dysregulated, dissonant, chaotic, hyperactive, scared/fearful, and combative, the more we give attention to these aspects of our social world, the more we come to quite literally embody these qualities and characteristics in our own cognitive-somatic constitution. We come to manifest dissonant, dysregulated, energies, movements, and thinking. This is the basis of the current global pandemic of depression-anxiety, which is the symptomatic manifestation of the underlying neurophysiological dysregulation we call "trauma."
So, how do we heal? How do we un-couple ourselves from such a dis-eased social mind/ecology? We must experience silence, or at least natural quiet. Our social worlds are so pervasively infected with unnatural, mechanistic and chaotic noise that it is extremely difficult to feel safe enough to engage the full extent of our multidimensional, holistic sensory experiencing of reality. Our social reality roundly restricts the development and refinement of our cognitive capacities, holistically defined. To begin recovering these sensitivities and to energetically-emotionally-neurophysiologically regulate (i.e., heal from trauma), we need to re-learn what a naturally harmonious state of being is like. And for this, we must experience natural quiet. We need an embodied-cognitive "tuning fork." Nature and wilderness is this tuning fork.
Natural Quiet is the "Reference Pitch," or Tuning Fork, for Harmonious Neurophysiological Tone (i.e., health!)
Neurophysiologists and psychologists sometimes talk about our ability to emotionally regulate in terms of "vagal tone." This refers to the strength, agility, and functional efficacy of the "vagal brake," which is the ventral branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. The variable activity of the ventral branch is what keeps us energetically-emotionally regulated, or enables a defensive or survival response. The ventral branch of the vagus nerve complex is what regulates the activity of the sympathetic nervous system as well as the dorsal branch of the parasympathetic. Sadly, most doctors, therapists, and other clinicians do not know -- because they have not been taught, so I'm not trying to place blame on them -- that all aspects and branches of our nervous system are 100% active-online all the time. This means that when we are in a relaxed, calm state, the sympathetic nervous system is 100% online. How can this be?
The ventral branch of the parasympathetic nervous system is the "vagal brake." This means that activity in the ventral branch serves to dampen, keep in check, or regulate the influence of the sympathetic fight-flight response and the dorsal parasympathetic shutdown-immobilization response. Energetic regulation via the nervous system is not a dualistic-binaristic matter of either feeling safe or feeling threatened. Feelings of safety-danger are dynamic and relative, continuously fluctuating along a wide spectrum of excitation-relaxation. When we have high or strong "vagal tone," we can move along this spectrum fluidly, adaptively, and extensively while still feeling safe and regulated. This means we can experience sensory intensity without feeling triggered into a defensive-survival response. We can experience "intense activation" and "intense relaxation" without feeling anxious (sympathetic activation/dominance) or depressed (dorsal activation/dominance).
This relates directly to the function of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and general action of cannabinoids, too. In fact, doctors and researchers are also beginning to speak in terms of "endocannabinoid tone." This refers to the activity and influence of the endocannabinoid system in its regulatory function in relation to all other neurophysiological systems and functions in the body. Low or weak endocannabinoid tone means that ECS activity is deficient, and thus cannot effectively regulate and modulate our body's health-support systems and functions. Persons with deficient or weak ECS tone-activity exhibit all manner of diseases and symptoms associated with dysregulated neurophysiology. Ethan Russo, MD has named this "Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency," or CED. There is now substantive evidence showing how CED underlies a wide range of diseases, illnesses, and syndromes such as migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, Huntington disease, Parkinson disease, insomnia, chronic pain, irritability, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and many other conditions. Indeed, as Pal Pacher and George Kunos assert: "modulating ECS activity may have therapeutic potential in almost all diseases affecting humans" (Pacher & Kunos, 2013, p. 1918).
This is no longer a speculative or outlandish claim. The neurobiophysiology of health and dis-ease -- at least heuristically speaking -- is rather simple. The joint activity of the nervous system and the ECS explains how "psychological" trauma is a physical trauma, and thus how "emotional" dysregulation can manifest as a wide range of "physical" diseases and symptoms, which science and medicine has heretofore wrongly labeled "treatment resistant" or even "mysterious" conditions. As I've explained on the Embodied Cognition and The Polyvagal Theory pages of this website, when we are triggered into a defensive-survival response, the ventral branch of the parasympathetic (the "vagal brake") removes its regulating-dampening effect on the sympathetic and/or dorsal parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. This enables either the sympathetic-adrenal fight-flight response, and/or the dorsal-dominance shut-down-immobilization response. In these states, the body's many complex and dynamic health-supportive systems and functions are "tuned down" and/or interrupted. This is also a variable phenomenon. For short periods of time -- i.e., when truly faced with danger or a life-threatening situation -- this is adaptive. But when we remain in such states of neurophysiological dysregulation, we become literally, neurophysiologically dis-eased. Chronic, sympathetic hyperactivity manifests symptomatically as "anxiety," and chronic dorsal hypoactivity manifests symptomatically as "depression." In both cases, there is low/weak vagal tone and ECS tone. That is, there is limited activity in the ventral vagus, and strong, dynamic ventral activation is what makes us feel safe and allows our health and life-support systems to be properly resourced and function effectively.
The interconnected, mutually-informing functions of the ECS and nervous system also help to explain the variable experience of consuming phytocannabinoids from the cannabis sativa plant. We often hear of people claiming that "weed makes me paranoid." This is technically, scientifically, and medically inaccurate. There is a linear causal claim in such a statement, but in living systems "causation" is emphatically and characteristically non-linear. This is not how cannabinoids and the cannabinoid system work. It is simply wrong to place the entire blame on cannabinoids, as if the consumption of phytocannabinoids can directly, holistically dictate neurophysiological-phenomenological experience. When a person consumes cannabis and later feels anxious, paranoid, and/or depressed and lethargic, this is primarily reflective of a pre-existing state of neurophysiological dysregulation. In other words, what's happening here is that the anxious/paranoid and/or depressive phenomenology is more accurately chalked up to low/weak vagal tone: the ventral branch of a person's vagus nerve is not functioning properly, which is coincident with a state of chronic dysregulation, i.e. trauma.
The longer a person remains in a state of energetic-emotional dysregulation, which is to say that the longer one carries with them unresolved trauma, the more limited is their ability to experience intensity of excitation or relaxation while feeling safe. This is referred to as one's "window of tolerance" or "zone of comfort." The depth and intensity of the traumatic state of "Tonic Immobility," as Peter Levine, Ph.D. calls it, is inversely correlated with the strength and activity of the "vagal brake:" the longer and more complexly we persist in trauma/Tonic Immobility, the more narrow and limited is the range of safe experience along the wide spectrum of excitation-relaxation. It is the variable action, strength, agility, and dynamicity of the vagal brake that enables us to become really excited and/or really relaxed and yet still feel safe/regulated. But the more trauma we carry, the less active is the ventral branch, the vagal brake.
Cannabinoids have variable, dynamic, and contingent effects on our neurophysiology and emotional-phenomenological experience. They can be activating-energizing, or they can be relaxing-calming. (Among many, many other complex functions and effects.) In order to experience such effects positively, we must have a correlate measure of strong vagal tone. When someone consumes cannabis and feels anxious or depressed, it is not the cannabinoids causing that experience: rather, this indicates that a person has weak/low vagal tone, and thus the excitatory or relaxing effects of the cannabinoids are extending beyond the person's unnaturally narrowed (because chronically traumatized) "zone of comfort." Thus, they experience such activation-excitation or relaxation-calming "negatively," which is to say as anxiety or depression.
"Positive" excitation (ecstatic happiness, joy, wonder, motivation, playfulness, imagination, curiosity, etc.) and "negative" excitation (anxiety, fear, irritability, worry, paranoia, distress, etc.) are distinguished neurophysiologically by one primary variable: the strength and activity of the ventral nervous activity, or vagal brake. Sympathetic nervous system energy is predominant in both pleasurable and undesirable states of excitation, because sympathetic activity just is excitatory-activating energy. Conversely, there is pleasurable and undesirable experiences of relaxation. When dorsal parasympathetic (the shut-down/immobilization response) nervous system energy is dominant, we experience "intense relaxation." With strong ventral-vagal tone, we experience such relaxation safely and enjoyably. Lacking sufficient ventral activity, we experience such "relaxation" negatively: as depression, lethargy, lack of motivation, despair, etc.
Activating the Ventral Vagal Brake: Emotional "Regulation" as Somatic Tuning
In all facets of health and wellbeing, having strong, agile and dynamic ventral vagal activity is essential. When there is strong ventral vagal activity, we feel safe; this enables our natural healing abilities to function properly. If we don't feel safe, we cannot effectively self-heal/emergently-heal. Feeling safe is fundamentally important for health and wellbeing. This can hardly be overemphasized. As the trauma specialist Bonnie Badenoch asserts: "Safety is the treatment." When we truly feel safe -- which is not an analytic matter of deductively determining or logically deciding, but directly feeling somatically -- and this embodied feeling of safety is allowed to direct our experiencing, our energy systems will naturally and spontaneously self-regulate. This is the very nature (i.e. ontological constitution of) of living systems. Such regulation cannot be forced or dictated; it must be enabled and allowed. Any supposed "therapy" or "therapeutic modality" that does not prioritize helping a client feel safe and enabling, allowing, and supporting our innate, spontaneous self-healing abilities is an anachronism that should be banished to the annals of tried-but-failed clinical practices. So, if you seek a therapist to support your efforts in healing from trauma/dysregulation/depression/anxiety, find someone who understands that working primarily with embodied sensations (rather than conceptual, abstract analysis) is essential for effective and sustainable therapy. The Somatic Experiencing website allows you to search for practitioners trained in that therapeutic approach. This is not the only somatic based therapy out there, but it is one of the best training programs for somatic therapies.
For countless reasons, it can be extremely difficult to feel truly safe in today's social worlds. Primary among these is the incessant noise surrounding us in urban-suburban society. When I speak of the acoustic environment, this includes not only audible sounds heard through the ears, but also a larger feeling of the sonic and tangible-vibrational energies that are constantly bombarding our somatic minds every moment. As we go about our busy, hectic days, our reflective minds are typically distracted from this onslaught of acutely activating acoustic stimulation. Nonetheless, the sonic intensity and hyperactive speed of contemporary culture dramatically impacts our somatic minds, which are constantly and holistically sensing our total stimulatory environment in search of cues indicating whether we are safe or dangerous. Here is John Dewey, describing this somatic-qualitative experiencing of reality:
Apart from language, from imputed and inferred meaning, we continually engage in an immense multitude of immediate organic selections, rejections, welcomings, expulsions, appropriations, withdrawals, shrinkings, expansions, elations and dejections, attacks, wardings off, of the most minute, vibratingly delicate nature. We are not aware of the qualities of many or most of these acts; we do not objectively distinguish and identify them. Yet they exist as feeling qualities, and have an enormous directive effect on our behavior. ...In a thoroughly normal organism, these 'feelings' have an efficiency of operation which it is impossible for [analytic/conceptual] thought to match." - John Dewey (Experience and Nature, p. 227)
Hyperactive, chaotic speed and intense, dissonant noise are the two most safety-undermining sensory qualities in human experience. As Gordon Hempton notes, "Listening, for all animal life -- at least higher vertebrates -- is our sense of security. And when we're in a relatively quiet place, we can hear that all the information is in. So quiet places generally tend to be secure places." This is because such sensory stimulation prevents us from feeling into the more subtle, complex, and dynamic nature of our somatic minds. It is through the somatic experience of qualitative sensation that we most directly, accurately, and efficiently assess and respond to any given situation. Sadly, this excessive speed and noise of contemporary society is another way that our cultural ecology traumatizes us and prevents us from healing. To heal from trauma, we must slow down and re-learn to experience our somatic sensations not as threatening, but as the very essence of our self-healing abilities. As Malidoma Patrice Somé reminds us:
Among the Dagara, the absence of 'time' generates a mode of life whose focus is on the state of one's spirit. This is not comparable to what machine-dominated culture is all about. While in America, the newcomer thinks at first that people move hurriedly in order to enjoy the thrill of speed. But a more traditional look at motion, at speed, quickly reveals that speed is not necessarily so much a movement toward something as it is a movement away from something.
The elder who noticed that moderns don't have to run toward something that isn't moving was pointing to the idea that to move is also to keep oneself distracted. The indigenous mind cannot conceive of it otherwise. And so the elder sees those in constant motion (going places, doing things, making noise) as moving away from something that they do not want to look at or moving away from something that others do not want them to look at. When you slow down, you begin to discover that there is a silent awareness of what it is that you do not want to look at: the anger of nature within each of us, the anger of the gods, the anger of the ancestors or the spirit world.
In his book The Africans, Ali Mazrui began his study of the triple heritage of the African people by pointing out that the ills of the continent of Africa nowadays are the result of the anger of the ancestors in the face of the general desecration brought about by modernism. He indicates that throwing away one's culture for another is an insult to the dead, and can result, as in the case of Africa, in a lot of unresolved ills. In a way, Mr. Mazrui is not just speaking about mechanized Africa, where the worship of the ancestors is being gradually replaced with the worship of machines. He is also speaking to the developed countries, where the antlike frenzy of life, characterized by a work-obsessed culture, is symptomatic of an illness that is perhaps too large to face. Thus speed is a way to prevent ourselves from having to deal with something we do not want to face. So we run from these symptoms and their sources that are not nice to look at. To be able to face our fears, we must remember how to perform ritual. To remember how to perform ritual, we must slow down. ... Thus the two worlds of the traditional and the industrial are diametrically opposed. The indigenous world, in trying to emulate Nature, espouses a walk with life, a slow, quiet day-to-day kind of existence. The modern world, on the other hand, steams through life like a locomotive, controlled by a certain sense of careless waste and destruction. Such life eats at the psyche and moves its victims faster and faster along, as they are progressively emptied out of their spiritual and psychic fuel. It is here, consequently, where one's spirit is in crisis, that speed is the yardstick by which the crisis itself is expressed.
We cannot truly listen, and we cannot truly feel, unless we slow down. Speed and noise distract us from feeling, and feeling deeply. One of the primary ways our culture traumatizes us is not only encouraging but actively rewarding workaholic lifestyles that exploit people's hyperactivated states of dysregulation (i.e., unresolved trauma) in service of capitalism. Neoliberal, entrepreneurial consumer capitalism glorifies "hustling" as a primary social value and laudable mode of work. While this sometimes benefits us occupationally, it is deeply detrimental to our spiritual, emotional, and relational health. This is not to say that "work is bad," or that the alternative is to be a lazy couch potato (another false duality [i.e., either you hustle and work frantically and excessively, or you are a lazy, unproductive member of society], as is characteristic of the mechanistic mind of civilizational culture). It's just to say that our workaholic culture is so excessively accelerated and noisy that we have a dramatically distorted perception of what's natural, healthy, and sustainable in terms of a pace of life and what it's like to truly feel calm, safe, and regulated.
Given this distortion, we need a reference point; we need a reminder of what's truly real, what's natural, what's standard and sustainable for living systems undistorted by the extremely anomalous state of contemporary, high-tech, digital-virtual, global industrial-commerce culture.
Tuning in to the Somatic Symphony: Silence is Home to Spirit
The fear-driven dysregulation of contemporary society is so pervasive and all-encompassing that many people don't even realize just how deeply this affects us. Our "baseline" of standard, "normal," or healthy experience has been so significantly skewed that most modern humans have no idea how excessively hyper-paced contemporary cultural cognition really is. Meditative practices and somatic exercises like yoga offer a degree of counter-balance, but all too often such practices are also engaged in a hurried, limited manner that merely enables us to keep pace with the out-of-control fight/flight response of our culture, rather than equipping us to deeply and sustainably alter our joint individual-collective movements, reflections, and communications.
There are now countless smartphone apps, online programs, and ostensibly "spiritual" practice-based studios that market and offer mindfulness activities in a manner analogous to the endless varieties of nutritional shakes, "meal" bars, and pills sold as quick, easy, convenient "meal replacements" that can be consumed while rushing from one activity or meeting to the next. Of course, at times and in limited use, such products have their place. But ask yourself: can a "meal bar" wrapped in plastic and pulled from a grocery store shelf ever match the experience of going out for a relaxed dining experience at a sit-down restaurant serving local, fresh, organic, chef-prepared food? Or the experience of spending an entire evening at home, in good company, making a wholesome meal from scratch?
In like manner, using a phone app for quick, easy 5-minute meditations once, twice, or even a few times a day will never generate the sort of experience one can embody when taking time to just be in nature, in an ecology of natural quiet, for as long as one needs to be reminded of what's truly real, what's natural, and how deeply and extensively we can relax, regulate, settle, and calm when unperturbed by the noisy chaos of industrial-technological society.
You might very well be thinking: "Sure, this sounds good, but it's an unrealistic luxury to take that sort of time away from all my important tasks and go into nature for any extended period." Insofar as this is true, this only affirms everything I've been saying: our culture has so conditioned us to believe that all these supposedly essential tasks that dominate our every waking minute are the most important concerns in life, even while the masses remain chronically distressed, anxious, strung-out, exhausted, restless, and tired from not sleeping enough, or deeply enough. And the ultimate irony is that our culture tells us that the solution to these ills is more: meditate more, read more self-help books, go to more yoga classes, go to the gym more often, get more therapy, buy more supplements, get more prescriptions, take more activity-filled and entertainment-based vacations, etc. Indeed, our culture is so irrationally obsessed with more that we often hear the patent absurdity that "less is more." I know that this is sometimes meant figuratively, not literally, but the point is that trying to re-frame less as more reveals our addiction to more as the primary and ultimate value of life. Instead, try this: less is less, and sometimes that's not only okay, but the very best option.
Essentially, our culture sends us this message: your distress, dysregulation and disease is YOUR problem, and to fix that problem YOU need to try harder, do more, do more faster, and continue trying harder until you reach some magical place of "security" and sustainability derived from having created an economic stability for yourself over against all the other hopeless saps who struggle to "make it" because they aren't trying hard enough. Hustle your way to socioeconomic salvation!
Note that this is the same sort of messaging and thinking that cult leaders use to shame and guilt their mindless followers into an unthinking obedience that drains their ability to think creatively and independently and to choose and act autonomously, in accordance with what they know is best for themselves, because they are actually allowed the time and resources to experience themselves in their contingent uniqueness and self-determine how best to live, work, recreate, relax, and heal.
The very sad reality is that the "mindfulness revolution" in contemporary high-tech industrial societies has been co-opted by an economic system that knows nothing except to commodify, market, and sell anything and everything that can be made into a consumer item to be endlessly packaged, re-packaged, and purchased by the anxious masses who will of course continue to be anxious and distressed insofar as they maintain their agency-undermining dependence on a system that only cares about them insofar as they continue overworking themselves to make enough money to buy all the stuff the marketers spend billions of dollars convincing them they need to buy in order to feel good, be happy, get healthy, and succeed in the very system that inherently prevents the vast majority of people in that system from succeeding.
In the New Age Spiritual Industrial Complex, as Kelly Wendorf perceptively calls it, mindfulness is packaged and consumed in such a way as to merely placate people in the face of an overwhelmingly dysregulating, threatening, and oppressive social reality. Millions of overworked people rush into 50-min long lunch-hour yoga classes and then rush right back into their frantically-paced, mindless work environments hoping that their "mindfulness" practice will equip them to continue climbing the corporate ladder and someday "make it" to a point where they don't have to hustle so much anymore. In other words, all too often (though not always, of course; I'm aware I'm painting in very broad brush strokes and there are always exceptions) so-called "mindfulness" or "spiritual" practices are actually just the latest method that the oligarchs who run civilizational-economic culture use to keep the working masses sustained just enough to continue believing the lie that if we all just work hard and long enough, we'll all magically arrive at some promised land of collective economic abundance and equanimity in which we can all retire at 60 and vacation all year. I hope I don't have to explain the insane absurdity of such a false narrative. But for those of you still drinking the consumer-capitalist kool-aid, just consider this one fact: in the U.S. (in which the richest 400 Americans own and control more wealth/capital than the poorest 200 million Americans) in the aggregate, citizens work more hours and are in more debt than citizens of any other industrialized nation. And, in industrial-civilizational culture generally, people work dramatically more hours for less reward than humans in any pre-civilizational culture. And, we're vastly more diseased, chronically ill, depressed, medicated, and anxious about financial security. I fail to see how and why this system is good for people.
Rather than keeping us plugged into and dependent on the systems that have caused the distress, trauma, and dysregulation from which we use mindfulness-spiritual practices to try to resolve, as Kelly Wendorf rightly asserts, "True spirituality does not tame the spirit. It radicalizes it. And then it calls the spirit forth to serve in the liberation of humanity from oligarchy, consumerism, fascism, conformity, fundamentalism, and oppression in all its forms."
So what is this "true spirituality?" I won't give you a definition, because true spirituality cannot be conceptually defined; much like the 99% of cognitive experience of humans cannot be defined, because it is qualitative ineffability. As John Dewey explains:
The office of physical science is to discover those properties and relations of things in virtue of which they are capable of being used as instrumentalities; physical science makes claim to disclose not the inner nature of things but only those connections of things with one another that determine outcomes and hence can be used as means. The intrinsic nature of events is revealed in experience as the immediately felt qualities of things. (Experience and Nature, p. 6)
To "understand" cognition, life-mind, and the process-ontologically emergent nature of living systems and quantum reality generally, forget books, research, and abstract quantitative analyses of these phenomena. YOU ARE A DIVINE QUANTUM COSMIC AUTOPOIETIC ORGANISM manifesting immeasurable, cosmic conscious intelligence. If this sounds odd, it is only because we in modern culture have been systematically taught to forget and deny this intelligence, in countless ways, in virtually all aspects of life. The crux of the matter is that to engage, experience, manifest, and extend such intelligence, we must re-learn to cultivate the limitless wisdom inherent in our somatic minds. We must call our spirits back, as Joy Harjo encourages. We must court our divine Inner Teacher, as Sherri Mitchell emphasizes. This requires finding and settling into a qualitatively slow silence that allows us to actually feel/hear/discern the voice of eternal wisdom that can manifest in, through, and as us all, as all equally parts of the Divine cosmos that birthed us and sustains our lives in every breath we take. "Silence," as Gordon Hempton reminds us, "is the thinktank of the soul."
Silence is the yeast that helps to bake the bread of emergent, spiritual-somatic wisdom:
The primary role of an external teacher is to empower your relationship with your inner teacher. Your inner teacher is the all-knowing part of you that is connected to the Creator and the entire creation. In order to find our inner teacher, we have to stop running and start being comfortable with the silence within us. It is in this silence that we learn to hear the small, still voice that is often drowned out by all the noise and distractions in our life. It is only in the quiet and stillness that we find the guidance that we need.
~~~Sherri Mitchell [Weh'na Ha'Mu' Kwasset] Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change
The power of quiet is great. It generates the same feelings in everything one encounters. It vibrates with the cosmic rhythm of oneness. It is everywhere, available to everyone at any time. It is the force within us that makes us stable, trusting, and loving. It is contemplation contemplating. Peace is letting go -- returning to the silence that cannot enter the realm of words because it is too pure to be contained in words. This is why the tree, the stone, the river, and the mountain are quiet.
~~~Malidoma Patrice Somé
Silêncio Guerreiro (Warrior Silence) - by Márcia Wayna Kambeba (translation by Tiffany Higgins)
In Indigenous territory
Silence is ancient wisdom
We learn from the elders
To listen more than to speak
With my arrow's silence
I resisted, I wasn't conquered
From silence I formed my weapon
To battle the enemy.
You must grow quiet
To hear with the heart
The voice of Nature
The cry of our earth
The song of the Mother of the Water
Who in her dance with the wind
Asks we respect her
As the source of sustenance.
You must fall silent
To consider a solution
To halt the white man
And defend our dwelling
Source of life and beauty
For us, for the nation!
Being fully embodied -- freely and safely experiencing the full range and intensity of our somatic sensations/embodied cognition -- is a formidable task in contemporary social life. This is for manifold reasons I won't detail here (that could fill many books). So, if you embark on a journey of re-connecting with your somatic sensibilities, please know that this can be a difficult, unsettling experience -- NOT because somatic sensations themselves are bad or unsafe, but because we have all been thoroughly conditioned to form unhealthy, distrusting relationships with our embodiment, and our social ecologies frequently discourage us from fully experiencing the profound intensity of our emotions, which makes us (mistakenly) think that our emotions are dangerous, untrustworthy, unreliable, unsettling, and therefore worthy of repression, denial, or neglect.
As you begin a process of re-connecting with the intelligence, sentience, and perceptive abilities of your somatic mind, please take care to do so in as safe a setting as possible. Find a trusted partner in this endeavor, whether a friend, family member, romantic partner, or medical/therapeutic professional. In addition, one of the best sources for helping us feel safe (for the most part) is nature. Obviously, the wilderness isn't a safe place for everyone (no setting, context, situation, or experience is purely, universally safe for everyone: such a place simply doesn't exist, as everyone is so deeply, complexly unique). But, I believe this has less to do with the inherent nature of nature, and more with how modern humans have been misleadingly conditioned to think that wild nature is primarily a dangerous, threatening place.
If you don't have easy access to a place of natural quiet (as many city parks are still very noisy, even if they're more quiet than a city street), there is an easy alternative: simply get a quality pair of headphones and listen to nature recordings wherever you can feel safe enough to sit or lie back and allow yourself to practice the "open, somatic listening" that I describe in this blog post. You can find some of Gordon Hempton's recordings on YouTube, and many others on YouTube and elsewhere online.
Our social worlds are chock full of chaotic, dissonant, hyper-stimulating, triggering, threatening noise. We adapt to this, of course, but this comes at the cost of being able to safely and fully feel into our somatic sensations. So, when we do extract ourselves from such a hyper-stimulating, threatening ecology and step into a radically different ecology such as a natural wilderness area dominated by natural quiet, the very lack of stimulation can feel unsettling. For myself -- who has spent lots of time in such places -- I savor the experience of quiet, silence, and stillness in wilderness. But if you are unaccustomed to this, you may have very different experiences. Again, as I've emphasized throughout this website, human cognition is non-linear, spontaneous, and thus unpredictable. I cannot say exactly what your experience of any given situation or somatic practice may be: nobody can perfectly predict this in advance. I have endeavored merely to describe some of the basic, universal principles of human cognition by enumerating the neurophysiology of our nervous systems, our experiencing of threat/danger and/or safety, and how we heuristically respond to various experiences.
The eternal irony of detailing the "principles" of process-ontologically emergent autopoietic quantum systems (i.e., "humans"), however, is that the heuristic patterns or principles of human experience ultimately reveal only one universal constant within human experience: there is no universal constant within human experience. Indeed, this insight can be extrapolated to the entire multiverse/manifest reality: The ultimate principle of the multiverse is that there is no -- and cannot be -- any ultimate principle.
There ya go -- The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Free of charge! You're welcome! ;)