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The drive behind self-consciousness

Where does self-consciousness stem from?

It is so prevalent in our western societies isn’t it? It goes hand in hand with a lack of embodiment, a discomfort around our skewed presence in the here and now.

It curtails a full expression of who we are as we hold back, afraid of being judged and ashamed.

It most likely has its roots in a past trauma (or a series of past traumas) that caused an expressive shutdown, a numbing of one way or another and a dissociation.

Yet when you travel in Africa or South East Asia, there is hardly any such thing. People go about their daily business apparently un-bothered by what other people think of their appearance or actions even though trauma has very much been part of their journeys too.

So what lies beneath?

A client of mine once surprised me during a biodynamic cranio sacral treatment when she said as I was sitting by her side that she did not feel safe because I could look at her while her eyes were closed.

One of the major consequences of a past trauma (or traumas) was her profound shame which led to a fear and guilt of being seen as an anxious person.

This resulted in a self-consciousness, an undue awareness of her self or of her ego, and manifested during the treatment as a particularly heightened alertness when she felt watched while her eyes were closed; when unguarded.

You could say that this was very much a vicious circle as the very fear of being seen fuelled her anxiety and shame which in turn drove her fear: the shame/guilt-anxiety-fear cycle.

Just before she told me how she was, I could sense her whole facial complex contract and her brainstem, from which the vagus nerve stems, was particularly compressed. There was also a sense of numbing absence in her torso.

Actually revealing this part of her ‘guarded self’ caused the first crack into her defensive wall. Shortly after this and following some reassuring, resourcing words and an increased spaciousness or energetic distancing on my part, she allowed herself to slowly let go and safely feel beneath this endless cycle.

Potency surged where the amygdala( our alarm bell) was previously on alert and along her entire midline; a beautiful midtide fluid rhythm settled her system.

The vagus nerve, the longest nerve of our autonomic nervous system, plays the part of messenger between the viscera and the brain and is the major component, conductor in our social engagement system as well as our fight, flight, freeze reactions to what we perceive as life or safety threatening situations.

According to Stephen Porges, the acclaimed author of the Polyvagal Theory, Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation, “Most therapeutic strategies attempt to engage with direct face-to-face eye contact. Working with traumatized individuals creates a great challenge to therapists, since the normal social engagement behaviors of the therapist may trigger fear and reactive defensive strategies.”

Have you noticed how we stare, how we gaze at one another in the West? There is very little sense of space, of respect of boundaries and safe containment in busy cities in Europe.

Every person I’ve talked to that has been in Africa, South East Asia or South America shared my experience of much greater spaciousness and ease.

We did at times feel stared at, but it was mainly out of simple curiosity, it was not the gauging, inquisitive, and even critical stare one can feel subjected to when standing in a queue in a European country, when sitting in a cafe in France or when simply walking in an Italian street.

This could definitely trigger a fight/flight or freeze in someone who is traumatised and cause a further curling up of the self, a guarding.

Well what if this quasi-invasion of other people’s spaces was a cultural trait deeply rooted in European history.

Yuval Noah Harari in his brilliant Sapiens describes how European world mapping radically changed once Columbus discovered what he thought were the Indies in 1492.

World maps did exist before that point but, “unfamiliar areas were simply left out, or filled with imaginary monsters and wonders. These maps had no empty spaces.”

This accidental discovery of an entirely new continent radically changed this outlook: “During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces. (…) The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world.”

He later adds that, “Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were magnets, and promptly started to fill them in.”

These kinds of expeditions had never happened in the past, Harari says that,“The European project was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their views of the world.”

The Chinese for example, also sent out large fleets to explore the oceans in the 15th century, but "Zheng He"(...) "did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited."

"What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer." (Sapiens, A brief history of humanity, Yuval Noah Harari)

So I will venture that on a physiological and emotional level, we Westerners, inheritors of this deeply entrenched cultural mindset, are still world-mapping and filling in empty spaces except we do this both with and against each other and ourselves.

We do this naturally to map out safety zones but we also do this out of a sheer need to know and make familiar/control…and if it feels alien and/or threatening, we may socially engage, but we could either turn aggressive and hostile, or run away and build up illusory defensive walls behind which we withdraw, we guard ourselves.

Alienation in turn is often experienced as feeling empty within, incomplete.

Biodynamics (like other therapeutic forms which lead to more embodiment) is a mapping out that also seeks empty spaces in order to help you ‘fill’ them naturally, at your own pace.

It is interesting that Stephen Porges argues that gentle music, or calming sound “provides a special portal to reengage the social engagement system that does not require an initial face-to-face interaction. “

The verbalising of her safety map helped my client to touch the terrifying empty space behind and beyond her closed eyes and this reconnection through sound helped her to drop within and surrender to the expression of her fluid self.

Craniosacral biodynamics facilitates a gradual reconnection of estranged internal lands, to ideally return to the blissful state of the sleeping infant: a safety template which all of us can potentially return to if we actually let go of this need to know and control.

Remember ever watching a baby sound asleep? How completely symbiotic with the air and surrounds, trusting in this holding and yet consciously unaware of it.

The grace of this stillness, the purity of this oxytocin-filled peace may have emerged thanks to the sound of a gentle lullaby, a music box or the comfort of story-telling.

'A little Buddha', you may have heard yourself think then, conjuring a typical South East Asian cultural reference and major philosophy.

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