Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How we connect, spiritually

If you have ever watched a flock of birds prepare to migrate, they start chaotically, but eventually, they begin to operate with one mind.  Hence the addage: birds of a feather, flock together. 

How this works is very subtle, varies in mechanism from species to species, but in all cases, there is a subtle nonverbal communication between them whereby the individual bird connects nonconsciously with the flock.  And, because the mechanism and signals are species specific, only birds of the same species recognize and are comfortable with these signals.

Humans are no different.

There is within us and birds another mind, located and driven by the brain's limbic system, that is capable of communicating and connecting with others at an emotional level, without our conscious mind's awareness.  I am going to call this other mind "our spiritual mind", because it really is about something our conscious mind cannot do.  It's like having a full-time companion with you.
So, when we interact with others, sometimes we 'connect', meaning that we really do communicate together, and other times we don't. When we connect, the reasons for connection are not obvious to us. What's really at play is that our spiritual, limbic mind is actually having a non-verbal conversation with the spiritual, limbic mind of the other person. 
How does this happen?

Within the limbic mind is the amygdala, the seat of our emotions.  Our eyes, ears, and olifactory are connected to our minds in two distinct neural pathways: one connected to our cerebrum--the seat of our conscious mind, and the other to our limbic system, the seat of our spiritual mind.  As well, our facial muscles are dually controlled by parallel pathways to both our conscious and nonconscious processing centers.  The center of primal emotion, our amygdala, uniquely manages our hypothalmus, the master control center of our body's internal systems.

Our conscious minds are connected with our limbic, non-conscious minds through our senses (sharing sensory input through dual paths), through our memories, and through our emotions.  Through these three means, our two minds can 'talk' to each other, but not really in 'thoughts'.  Ideas may present themselves, and emotions tell us that something going on with the other person is right or wrong by your own emotions. 
But our limbic minds do more than just express feelings within our brains.  Because the limbic system is connected to our face, eyes, and to our entire endocrine system through the hypothalmus connection to the pituitary gland, it communicates outward our innermost feelings.  In effect, when we feel stress, our body rhythms change, we sweat, we emit odors, we express emotions in our face -- the vast majority of which cannot be controlled by the conscious mind.  Our internal feelings about the other person and things we're talking about are being expressed to the other person through our very subtle signs.  And the other person is not consciously recognizing these subtle signs, but his or her own limbic mind is.  In other words, no matter what we might try to hide, we are going to reveal our emotions to the other person, and vice versa.  Our limbic minds, operating completely independently from our consciousness, will betray us, if we are not authentic and connected within ourselves.

The key to this communication is recognizing our own feelings, and to be centered in our emotions.  We might say the amygdala has a set of positive emotions: love, certainty/the feeling of knowing, and joy.  It also has a set of negative emotions: hate, cognitive dissonance, anger, sorrow.  Emotional intensity is often very closely matched with both sides: great love often turns to virulent hate when a person feels betrayed.  While it is not feasible to be emotionless, Confucius advised for us to be 'centered' in our emotions, to find the peace in the center, and from there, authentically emote as indicated.  When we are feeling strong emotion, and it is driving us to a place we don't want to go, then it's time to sit back, meditate, center the mind and heart, and then choose more cautiously the emotion that fits the situation.  While this may seem hard, through training and meditiation, it's possible.

So, when we connect with another person, we can choose to be authentic, to know our own feelings, and to express them as appropriate to the situation.  As well, we need to listen to our own emotions in the conversation.  Our limbic mind may be telling us that there is something amiss in this person, and if we follow the subtleties of feeling as our gut indicates in a conversation, real connection between people is possible.

The Wenzi text says there are three types of listening: one, listening with the ears, which is just hearing what is being said without understanding.  Two, listening with the mind, which is understanding what is being said, but does not fully embrace it.  Three, listening with the spirit, which is to really feel what the other person is feeling.  How do we do this? by recognizing that our 'spirit' is really our non-conscious mind, that is communicating with the other person, and by centering our mind, really allowing our spirit to tell us what the other person is feeling.

When we connect spiritually, we feel something amazing.  We feel a comfort with the other person, we feel happiness, and we feel love.  These are the primal positive emotions of the amygdala, the core of our emotional being.  And when we feel these things, our brains, our senses, our hearts are capable of truly understanding and being 'one' with another person. 

As I look at the flock, and the unity with which the flock seems to have a 'spirit' together, so also, when humans spiritually connect, they are one.



  1. Love the last line. There are some days that I think empathy is more of a curse than a gift, but when I feel like that, I know that's just me being jaded.

    Do you meditate when you're angry? I honestly can't imagine doing such a thing. Deep breathing is similar I guess and sometimes I do control my breathing when I'm angry in an attempt to calm myself down. That works a lot of the time. The other things that work are punching a punching bag, yelling at an empty chair, or expressing my feelings in writing.

    Perhaps you're more centered than I am. That would not surprise me. You're quite intuitive and I'm still working on trusting my own intuition. It's an interesting journey.

  2. thanks angela. It's not very useful to compare centers. in one moment, I might be centered, in another you might be. It all depends. I've seen some pretty amazing writing from you, stuff that really touched my soul, so please give yourself the credit.

    we are but wayfarers. when I first was able to comprehend a tiny portion of the Way, I saw eternity in that moment. I think we've all experienced this, but perhaps we've forgotten, or don't recogize it when it is there right before us.

    Not only is meditation possible when angry, it's necessary. breathing is part of meditation, because in chinese terms, it recycles good qi. Anger itself is a normal human reaction, and it's ok to be angry in a moment. almost unavoidable. But is that a moment we need to dwell in?

    The Way is about returning -- returning to center. If we're at the center, we are capable of being angry in a moment, but then we return to center. Always to the center. think of racquetball or tennis, the best position is to be in the center: it allows you to handle all the crap shots that the opponent sends you. Get caught in the extreme, and the oppponent plays a crap shot over to the other extreme.

    That's why we play. It's a game, not serious. God is happiest when his children are at play. (Legend of Bagger Vance)