Presence For The Past

“Given sincerity, there will be enlightenment.” –The Doctrine Of The Mean.


I began my day like many others: sitting in silence, a little exercise, some writing, and tracking of the endless vertical trail of emails.  While I was on the computer, Melody came down and began her day, picking up the silence where I had left it in the living room.  After a while I went into the kitchen and began preparing some breakfast.  Melody called from the living room and asked if I would like to join her for some mantra meditation.  I was hungry and had work details floating around in my head, but I was also drawn to joining Melody.  Without slowing down to connect to my needs, I said yes, joined Melody in the living room, kissed her good morning, then sat down and asked her what mantra she would like to sing.  I was preparing to begin the mantra we had chosen when Melody asked me if this wasn’t a good time for me.  I thought I heard a slight edge of either irritation or disappointment in her voice and her face was not quite relaxed.  My torso flinched as if I had just been yelled at, and a fleeting hint of anger passed through me.  However, I replied that I was fine.  After a moment, in an attempt to be more honest and transparent, I added that I had breakfast and work details on my mind.


We began to sing but my experience was far from meditative.  I could feel my body processing the stress hormones released from my reaction to Melody’s question.  I could hear the judging and blaming thoughts gathering steam, “She is so sensitive.  Why can’t she just relax.  I’m walking on eggshells here.”  I tried to keep my focus on what I was singing, which I believe saved me from getting too caught up in the vortex of my thinking.  The longer we cycle through reactive thinking, the more difficult it is come back to a place of connection in ourselves and with another.  And sometimes it takes only the slightest stimulus to get the reactive thinking started.


By the time we were done singing and in the kitchen preparing breakfast together, I was able to see my thinking for what is was – not the truth, just part of my unconscious reaction in a dynamic we had been through several times before.  However, I was not yet back to a relaxed state in myself or with Melody.  Instead of defaulting to my old habit of getting on with things as if all is fine, I decided to express what was going on for me.  I really wanted both of us to find freedom from our reactions in this dynamic.  I told Melody that I had gotten tense from our interaction and that I would love for us to practice more of a process we had been developing for transforming reactive triggers.  I went on to explain that I wanted us to have freedom from how the past was influencing our present reactions in this dynamic.  I had hoped that Melody would enjoy exploring this with me; instead, she seemed to tighten and withdraw.  Rather than sharing transparently and taking full responsibility for my part of our interaction, I was turning to solutions.  Furthermore, on a subconscious level, I was attached to Melody changing because part of me believed my reaction had been caused by her – by the edge of tone and expression she had used.  No surprise that Melody wasn’t connecting to the intention behind my words.


As we sat down to eat I went back to the moment of flinching and became curious.  Why would I have such a reaction to a relatively harmless stimulus?  If others had seen our interaction they might have described Melody’s tone and facial description as gentle, curious, or perhaps concerned.  And even if others agreed with my version, why would I have such a reaction to a slight edge in tone and facial expression?  I began to look for my needs and came to a need for ease.  It made sense to me that I would need ease in this situation, but I didn’t feel my body relax so I guessed there was a deeper need.  Again I went back to the feeling of my body flinching and asked myself where I had felt that before.  Memories of being rebuked, punished, and yelled at as a young boy came to the surface.  I felt my body relax as I got in touch with my old needs for safety, autonomy and to be accepted as I am.  (For me, acceptance does not mean that my behaviour is accepted as just fine no matter what.  It means that I have acceptance for my needs and that I am seen as doing my best to meet my needs, not judged or punished for who I am or how I am behaving.  With this experience of acceptance, we have much more inspiration to change our behaviour.)  My response was not about Melody or the present circumstances, as it often isn’t.  Old unmet needs were the cause of my response, and the hint of anger reminded me of how I sometimes felt after being rebuked or punished by my parents.  Having teased apart the past from the present, I was ready to speak honestly and responsibly about my experience and behaviour.


When I told Melody about the old needs had come up for me, she seemed to relax.  I went on to say that I wished that when I had joined her to sing a mantra, I had told her that I had a few things on my mind and needed a few moments to become present.  This would have met my needs for self-connection, connection with Melody, and integrity with my spiritual practice.  Melody shared that she had had a flash of thoughts about my state of busyness having something to do with her.  These thoughts were some version of, “I’ve done something wrong and he is not happy about it.”  These thoughts were not about the present; rather, they were part of her survival system activating from past trauma and responding to a look on my face or a tone in my voice.  The thinking that goes along with our past traumas can be so imbedded in our unconscious mind that it can be difficult to be aware of.  Melody said she recognized that the way she expressed her question did not come across as an empathic inquiry towards connection.  She went on to explain that her need in that moment had been for presence, but the deeper old unmet need for safety was behind her thoughts and the energy of her expression. What Melody offered was that she could have taken a moment to connect to her needs and then either expressed them transparently, or empathized with me from an intention to connect.  A warm sweetness began to flow between us as it usually does once we have both shared transparently and taken full responsibility.


Just like many others, Melody and I grew up in homes where there were times when we learned to be on guard and protect ourselves from judgements, anger, threats, and punishment from our parents.  Nonetheless, I have understanding and compassion for my parents; they were doing the best they could do, given their upbringing and life histories.  However, without support to heal our childhood challenges, we carry them into our adulthood, and they continue to affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.  The limbic system, the part of the brain that is focussed on survival, plays an important part in how our past affects our present.  The amygdala, a key part of the limbic system, stores images of extreme or recurring threats to our physical safety and, especially for children, to our bonds of love.  Unless we are able to process and release the emotions and stress from our threatening experiences, our amygdalas will instantly notify the limbic system of danger each time we see a behaviour or stimulus that looks similar to an original stored image.  The limbic system then puts the nervous system in survival mode – fight, flight, or freeze.  This survival response can continue to happen long after the original threatening experience has past.  The degree of intensity to which we go into survival mode can depend on the stimulus and the state of our inner resources – our awareness and vitality.


Once our limbic system moves us toward survival mode, it becomes difficult to access the present oriented, rational, problem-solving part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex.  There is literally less blood in our prefrontal cortex as blood moves to the limbic system for focussing on survival.  Furthermore, our amygdala was designed to act instantly to keep us safe and alive when danger appears; it is not well designed for discerning what actually is physically threatening to us and what just looks similar to something that once was.  Therefore, the amygdala might instantly notify the limbic system when presented with a relatively harmless stimulus, one that looks like something that was threatening long ago.  These stimuli may be things such as a facial expression, a tone of voice, certain words, a type of touch, a smell or taste, and so on.   Although the amygdala acts before we realize what has happened, there is a short window of time before the limbic system starts a cascade of hormones and chemical reactions that put us into survival mode.  If we become familiar with and learn to watch for the stimuli that tend to activate our survival response, and we learn to notice the beginning signals of survival response in our bodies, we can more likely make a conscious choice to respond honestly and responsibly. 


To free ourselves from the effects of our past, our old unmet needs and associated feelings need to be processed.  There are many ways to support the healing of past challenges. Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, Somatic Therapies, and Attachment Theory processes are some examples.  Dr. Bruce Lipton, who has done ground-breaking work on epi-genetics (the study of how our genetic make-up and our perceptions of reality determine the type of people we become) suggests that energy psychologies, hypnotherapy, and Buddhist mindfulness practices are effective strategies for releasing our past challenges and the inhibiting reactions and beliefs that go along with them.  There are NVC processes for mindfully transforming our old patterns and Melody and I are developing a process that we are excited about. 


Whatever process or strategy you use to work with issues that arise, it is always helpful to take full responsibility for your part by looking for your needs as the cause of your reaction, instead of blaming another for your reaction.  It is also very helpful to be transparent about your feelings and deepest needs.  Ask yourself what piece of your past is affecting you in this moment.  When have you felt a similar reaction before?  What needs of yours were not met back then?   Asking for a pause so that both of you can get connected to your needs and take responsibility can do wonders if both are willing.  The sooner you become aware that you are in a reactive or survival mode, the easier it will be to shift towards connection.  There may be resistance to taking the time to slow down and look deeper at what is going on.  However, much greater amounts of time and energy are saved by not going into a downward spiral of judging, blaming, and interlocking old pain, especially in the long run.  If things do spiral into unconscious, reactive arguments that end with both sides angry, hurt, or upset, please find compassion for yourself and the other as it can be quite challenging to transform old trauma patterns.  Also, there is always the opportunity to do the inner work needed, perhaps with support from another, to get to a place where you can take responsibility and express transparently.


Even with my understanding of how the past affects our present, it is not always easy for me to admit that I can get easily triggered and have old unmet needs affect my present behaviour. I sometimes block myself from looking more deeply or sharing more transparently because I want to be seen as strong, equanimous, or “together”.  It’s easier to look at how Melody can change, how Melody could become more easy going, than look at and accept the part in me that flinches from a relatively harmless stimulus – the young me that is still trying to meet needs that weren’t met as a child.  Also, because we can sometimes slip into a survival mode quite easily in response to subtle stimuli, transforming recurring and challenging relationship dynamics can be difficult work, even discouraging at times.  One of the things I am very grateful for in my relationship with Melody is that we work together and take time to look at how well we are managing the issues that arise, especially the recurring issues.  We celebrate what worked, look at what didn’t work, and explore what might work better next time.   With this approach the issues can be seen as pieces of a puzzle that are very rewarding to solve together. 


Any type of ongoing relationship can improve and evolve when both involved are committed to collaborative and supportive growth.   Find simple and effective strategies for working out challenging dynamics in a way that does the least amount of harm and guides you back into connection.  Then, during other times when you are already in a place of connection, assess how well the puzzle-solving is going and how the strategies can be improved upon.  Following this approach can bring more inspiration to grow in your relationship, as well as confidence that you can free yourselves from your past and thrive together.


Eric Bowers

(My special thanks to Melody for her support with this article, particularly for her input on the limbic system, which comes from her training in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy.)