Your brain on PTSD

December 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Stanley Park snowfall

Thought arises and falls within mind alone yet the majority of humanity believe their thoughts are actual things that exist in the real world.  Parents argue and their child, thinking they argue about her, becomes tense and agitated.  A teenager catches another glancing his way then spends the rest of the evening thinking a relationship has begun when no words have been exchanged.  Another goes through life thinking others will become angry if she is assertive.  A victim of violence or soldier suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder thinks he is still living the traumatic events of a war ended long ago.   Such examples as these illustrate how our thoughts are taken to be real with few in humanity ever waking from the dream thoughts have cast.

Buddhist meditation is designed to awaken us from the illusory thought world we have superimposed over the one perceived through the senses.  It is this illusory world that is destroyed when we waken to reality, not the perceptual one.  Meditation does this by first developing our ability to concentrate, much as an aspiring athlete begins by developing his or her muscle strength.  More refined techniques of detachment and mindfulness follow but success is dependent upon a mind strengthened through concentration.

Meditation techniques vary but I wish to share one specifically related to PTSD and the brain that I have found useful but first, a cautionary statement.  Anyone suffering PTSD should seek professional help.  If already in therapy, before trying any suggestions given here or elsewhere run them by your therapist.  Your therapist is the best judge of both the potential efficacy and danger of any technique, and any warning of theirs should be heeded.

The technique suggested here is actually quite simple.  It follows naturally from the assertion that what a thought represents is essentially an illusion but takes into account the role of the brain in sustaining this illusion.  It is suggested that whatever PTSD symptom arises, it be held within the awareness with the assertion it is merely a reflex activity of the brain.  It is just the brain shouting out warnings and alarms, becoming agitated when no threat is present.  Do not stress or try to force this realization, just hold the agitation in your awareness and exert your will in a gentle but firm acknowledgment that it is just “your brain on PTSD”.

Much research has been done on the role of the brain in PTSD.  The hippocampus and the amygdala are two parts of the limbic system often associated with it.  The hippocampus is said to store memory of time and space, ordering our memories and placing them in perspective as part of past events. Under traumatic threat, however, it is said the hippocampus becomes suppressed and it’s believed its function of placing memory into the past is also suppressed.  Traumatic events of the past are relived as events of the present.

The amygdalae is identified with the formation of emotional memories, especially fear-related ones, and is believed to store highly charged emotional memories, such as terror and horror. It is said that the amygdalae become very active when there is a traumatic threat allowing these emotions of terror to flood into awareness.  In some, however, the amygdalae fails to return too normal after the threat is past and PTSD develops.  The role of the brain in PTSD is becoming increasingly clearer but equally clear is the brain’s ability to alter it’s own neural pathways through a process known as neuroplasticity.

Simply put, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire and heal itself.  It is a change in the neural pathways and synapses of the brain that come as a result of changes in behavior, the environment or as a result of injury. Because of the evidence of neuroplasticity the formerly held position that the brain is an unchanging static organ has been replaced with one of a brain that is dynamic and changes throughout life.

It is difficult to ignore the brain when it’s sounding alarms of danger but the ability to rewire neural pathways shows we need not be at the mercy of a brain on PTSD.  We are able to reprogram our brain and the meditative technique outlined here is a step in that direction.

When hyper vigilant or having a flashback hold these in your awareness while asserting that they are just neurons firing in the brain.  After a bad dream or frightening thought look at these with the knowledge they are just neural activity.  When feeling the need to avoid a situation or feeling emotionally numb, simply be aware of these and assert they are just PTSD brain activity; that there is no threat.  You can even thank your brain for the alert, if you wish, because the brain is just trying to keep you safe.

As you hold these and other PTSD symptoms in your awareness and identify them as just neural activity, you begin to separate from the symptoms.  You begin to see that the brain is operating in the wrong context for the life you now lead.  You begin to waken to reality.

Over time the ability to recognize the PTSD brain will increase and your mind will become calmer.  This will not come immediately and there will be times when all you’ll want to do is escape the pain.  But I have found that persisting in this technique does bring definitive results.

Just thoughts. Not true, not real, but false and empty.  Not self, just the brain on PTSD.



December 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Waiting for the wind to fill my sails.

In “Magic and Mystery in Tibet,” Alexandra David-Neel wrote of some of her extraordinary experiences while travelling Tibet in the early half of the twentieth century. One involved an unexpected late night encounter with a practitioner of Chöd, a spiritual practice that uses visualization to see the true nature of thought and the ego.

From a hidden vantage point David-Neel reported she observed the Chöd practitioner as he went about rituals designed to produce hallucinations.  The man was frail and sickly looking indicating he had been practicing the discipline for some time.  At one point he began to shout, offering his own flesh to be eaten by demons that only he could see.  Through the rituals of Chöd the “demons” of pride, anger, lust and stupidity had become fully externalized to the man as hallucinations.  As she watched, David-Neel had no doubt this practitioner was indeed experiencing visions of demons entirely of his own making devouring his flesh.

I don’t know if Chöd practice is still undertaken in Tibet.  But in some ways there are unwilling practitioners of the discipline all around the world today.  These are the men, women and children who battle their own demons, demons that arise from trauma experienced during war, Indian Residential Schools, rape or other violent events such as that which transpired just recently in Connecticut.  These individuals suffer daily from anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but unlike Chöd practitioners they have no teacher to act as a guide through the experience.

It is important to seek professional help if you suffer from PTSD as it is a complicated disorder.  Like the Chöd practitioner in David-Neel’s account you must not shy away from your demons.  And like the Chöd practitioner your aim is to fully realize they are creations of your own mind and, as such, have only the power of your belief to sustain them.  But even if you do not suffer from PTSD the lesson is the same.

Thought is a by-product of mind and therefore does not represent any actual “thing” in the world, as opposed to a perception that is a representation of something in our environment.  The perception of a rock, for example, represents a rock in our environment.  But any thought about the rock, e.g., whether it is valuable or pretty, exists solely in our own mind.   Most people, however, believe their thoughts represent real things and therefore erroneously believe thoughts are real things.

When you believe thoughts are real you effectively supplant the actual world with an illusory one of thought.  You then interact with the thought world instead of the actual one.  Eventually, however, the actual world bumps into the illusory and a crisis ensues.  The resolution to this crisis comes when you abandon your illusions about the world and your self.  Unfortunately the ego makes it difficult to admit we’ve been wrong and so many suffer as they wait fruitlessly for the world to adapt to them.

Alexandra David-Neel tells us the essential point of Tibetan Buddhism is that the world is an illusion.  Chöd practice is designed to bring the practitioner to this realization.  PTSD brought about by trauma can also lead to this realization about thought and the ego.  But if having been traumatized appears too hard to bear while others seem to have it easier, then consider the words of the Chöd practitioner’s teacher.  Upon going to him to plead on behalf of the disciple David-Neel was told, “It is hard to free oneself from delusion, to blot out the mirage of the imaginary world and to liberate one’s mind from fanciful beliefs.  Enlightenment is a precious gem and must be bought at a high price.  Methods to reach tharpa are many.  You may follow another one, less coarse than that suited to the man whom you pity, but I am certain that your way must be as hard as that of my disciple.  If it is easy it is the wrong one.”

Today, there are many on a hard path.  Let us pray their hardship does not bring them down but leads instead to compassion and tharpa, the Supreme Liberation.

Bodhi Day, Dec. 8th.

December 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

White LotusUnder the morning star some 2,500 years ago Siddhartha Gautauma experienced enlightenment.  This day we commemorate that Great Recognition knowing that because of it we, too, can know our true nature.  So, take a moment to stop all thought, and become enlightened.

Happy Bodhi Day to you all.

Blind Men Crossing the Bridge

December 2, 2012 § 4 Comments

Hakuin Ekaku's painting titled, "Blind Men Crossing the Bridge".

Hakuin Ekaku’s painting, “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge”.

Hakuin Ekaku’s “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is often described as a visual representation of crossing over to enlightenment.   All Buddhists are familiar with this metaphor of crossing over through the Heart Sutra’s end chant that may be interpreted as, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone to the other shore, all hail.”  Hakuin wrote in his commentary on the Heart Sutra that, “The Chinese translation for this is ‘reach the other shore’.  But where is that? The place where the Treasure is lies near at hand—take one more step!  Is there a soul on earth who belongs on ‘this other shore’?  How sad to stand mistaken on a wave-lashed quay!”

A simple interpretation of Hakuin’s painting is that the blind men are moving from right to left and to reach the other shore they must make a leap of faith as the bridge does not quite reach all the way.  It is atypical of a Buddhist master, however, to represent enlightenment in the dualistic manner of “this” shore and “that”.

If we were meant to believe the other shore was on the left of the painting would Hakuin ask in his commentary where this other shore is and who belongs there? If the “place where the Treasure is lies near at hand” would we expect it to be at the end of some almost bridge, separate from us and not near at hand?

Examining Hakuin’s painting we see that all the artistic tension is in its centre.  The blind men are struggling to cross a bridge.  One holds sandals in his hands while reaching out with his staff, another reaches out with his fingers, the third is crawling forward with his sandals tethered at the end of his staff for balance.  Tension is added with the viewer’s knowledge that the men in their blindness will take that “one more step” and fall into oblivion.

In light of this tension; the left and right shore with the suggestion of pine trees, the mountains floating in air and Hakuin’s own calligraphy, these seem more like borders, frame or a vignette for the central image of the men struggling to cross the bridge.  It is the centre of the painting that holds our attention, not the “other shore” that the bridge fails to reach but, we may ask, is this really a bridge?

A bridge is a crossing that works to connect one side of a chasm to another.  But the log in the painting does not reach the other side, so it is more like a jetty or a wharf than a bridge.  And in spite of the painting’s title Hakuin identifies this log as a wave-lashed quay when he laments, “How sad to stand mistaken on a wave-lashed quay!”  So is the log a bridge or a quay?

Incongruities between Hakuin’s commentary and his painting can be resolved by understanding that this great Zen Master’s painting is an invitation to question and directly bring us face to face with reality.  If a log can be a bridge and then again a quay, then things truly do not exist independent of our concepts or from each other.  As the Buddhist says, all things arise together and have no independent self-existence.  Form, is the form of emptiness.

But “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is more than a statement of Buddhist philosophy.  It is a depiction of our own (thought) wave-lashed mind at those times when life presents us with chaos and change.  When we can’t decide if it is right to step into the unknown or better to choose the safe and the familiar.  When fear grips our next step.

To help resolve such dilemmas Hakuin presents us with a koan. “Is there a soul on earth,” he asks, “who belongs on ‘this shore’?”

The answer to Hakuin’s question is an expression that realizes emptiness is not separate from us, that it is here and now in the midst of form.  “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is such an expression showing that, like blind men struggling to grasp emptiness that is all around them, we need only stop thinking in the midst of thinking and emptiness in form is realized.

Where Am I?

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