In Times of Uncertainty and Grief

Below is an older and new blog post about the 8th domain of integration (the brain making sense of time, uncertainty, and mortality) and a link to a related video, just posted on my neuroscience YouTube blog. This post is inviting you to think about what painful experiences in your life have caused you to grow and the tools you learned from those experiences, then how those resources can help you now during the Coronavirus. The terminology of an “initiation” is a way to frame prior painful experiences and think more deeply about them.

APRIL 28, 2020

UPDATE TO THE ORIGINAL POST

Frances Weller writes about grief being a “faculty,” which relates to this skill of achieving the 8th Domain. I emailed him and asked for his definition of the word “faculty,” just to be clear, he replied, “What I mean by faculty, when speaking about grief, is that grief is more than an emotion, it is a core skill, a capacity woven into our psychic and physical being. But like any skill, it can become dulled, deadened through neglect. The natural response to loss, is sorrow. Self-consciousness, shame, feelings of not mattering, all congest this natural movement and block the expression of this energy. To relearn this skill, is one of the key invitations in this time. Much is dying, is leaving, is suffering. The proper response includes grieving for these losses. I hope this gives you a sense of what I mean by faculty.”

See this 2 minute video where Weller describes his definition of an “initiation,” which is an encounter with death. The writing after the video is what I have written under the video on YouTube :

***UPDATE: Weller is offering a 4 week group on Saturdays in June if you’re interested: https://www.francisweller.net/an-apprenticeship-with-sorrow.html

I wanted to post this description of a “rough initiation” from Frances Weller for people to reflect on the implications for the Coronavirus and any initiations they’ve had or are going through. The original interview is here https://tns.commonweal.org/podcasts/francis-weller/. He has published a new book, “In the Absence of the Ordinary,” that is a collection of essays that I highly recommend, see it here: https://www.francisweller.net/ For those going through grief, here are blog posts of my favorite resources when I was in my deepest sorrows with the death of my husband: https://greenlightheidi.com/2011/07/affirmations-for-grief/ And a meditation known as “strong back, soft front,” here: https://greenlightheidi.com/2011/07/meditation-for-grief/

May we find the inner resources to be present with our sorrow, including all 5 gates outlined by Weller.

May we be honest with ourselves and others about our experiences of suffering and loss. It has been and continues to be a journey for me, not only when losing my husband to brain cancer in 2009 but as I face intense physical pain due to a rare, congenital back condition. Please feel free to make a comment below.

ORIGINAL POST:

If you are grieving and trying to make sense of death…the meaning of life is probably on your mind.  It was on my mind when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, throughout his treatment, and still continues long after his death.

Recently, I’ve come across some science on brain health that helped me to understand my grieving process better.

Instinctively, the threat of death (your own or others) can bring up the need to control.  This is natural: our brain is wired to seek permanence and continuity.  It’s why when we blink, our mind makes it seem like one steady flow, even though it’s NOT.

Yet, besides this instinct, another part of our our brain allows us to contemplate the meaning of death (and life).  This part of the brain, primarily located in the prefrontal cortex, deals with more complex reasoning including morality and empathy.

In neurobiology there are nine domains of integration, (see nine domains chart here). Together these are part of the definition of  optimal health. (For those who have heard me lecture, in neurobiology “Integration = Health).   Temporal integration is the 8th domain out of 9 domains; it is the integration of the two very different brain functions that I just mentioned.  Essentially, temporal integration is a coming to peace with the fact that we all want and need certainty yet we also must acknowledge that everything dies. 

Temporal integration is the brain making sense of time, certainty and uncertainty, and mortality and immortality.

To mature and reach our full potential, we must learn to live with the inherent uncertainty of being alive.   Joan Halifax in her book, “Being with Dying,” calls this practicing “not knowing.” Since the domains are progressive in neurobiology, the skills that come from achieving integration in each domain are required in order to help achieve temporaral integration. One small example is the 2nd domain: bilateral hemispheric integration. When our two hemispheres are well integrated, the corpus callosum, (the bridge that connects the two hemispheres,) contains more integrative fibers. This leads to greater affect regulation, (the ability to calm down strong emotional intensity).** Since grief brings intense emotional intensity, the more someone has bilateral hemispheric integration, the easier it will be to calm down their amygdala and move into reflective states that require higher functions like morality and empathy.

When I’ve co-facilitated grief groups in the past, Mona Taylor, LCSW, has a sentence that to me, represents the thought of a person who is grappling to attain integration:  “I am learning to be a vulnerable person in an unpredictable world.” We must possess the ability to calm our emotions, the ability to reflect deeply using executive functions like empathy and insight, and many more skills, before we can truly hold grief in our hearts and minds in a way that becomes both grounded and meaningful. Like the mind in neurobiology, (which is an embodied and relational process that regulates energy and information flow,) grief is a process and I encourage everyone to be gentle with themselves as they work with it. I think it’s like shame, too, in that it is a social emotion and requires an involvement with others as part of the integration process.

I’ll end with an appropriate quote by Pema Chodron:

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

By cultivating all nine domains of integration including temporal integration, we are better able to “let there be room for all of this to happen.”

**Note: While trauma shrinks the corpus callosum, loving-kindness meditation grows it* (Research from Naropa Institute, 2004).

I have a $5 recording on bilateral hemispheric integration, it’s like an 18 minute mini science lecture combo guided meditation, email me for info at HeidiCrockett at gmail.com

A final grief resource that I want to mention is opentohope.com, they divide losses by 4 categories (if you’ve lot a child, a parent, etc.) and have lots of personal stories that really touch me.

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