A few years ago, I spent several days at my brother’s house in Lyons, Colorado.
He lives on 22 acres (that back up to thousands of acres of National Forest…can you say paradise?!). But because there’s so much land, he has to make sure the dogs, Rama and Tandi, don’t wander off.
Enter the “invisible fence” company who installed an electronic fence that allowed the dogs to run freely over three acres. The dogs quickly adapted to their “shocking” parameters.
Then Peter expanded their territory; he moved the fence line to include an additional three acres. More space. More exercise. And access the river. But the dogs wouldn’t cross over the previously established line. They “knew” what was ahead—shock and pain—and so they sat in the dirt staring at us urging them forward.
“Come on Rama. Come on Tandi,” we called in our most encouraging you-can-trust-us voices. But the dogs wouldn’t move. They were held in place by…memory.
Your memory of past meetings, projects, and interactions creates invisible fences that shape your present thoughts, speech, and actions. And limits.
Sometimes these memory-based fences are useful.
They provide a sense of reliability, consistency and coherence. You know who your allies are—based the memory of past collaborations. You know who you need to be wary of—based on the memory of past difficulties. You don’t have to assess every situation or interaction in the moment.
You can rely on your memory to guide you.
And the more you rely on memory, the more those patterns are encoded into your neurology.
The more these patterns are encoded into your neurology —the less you have to think about them. They operate on reflex, automatically governing your behavior.
This reflexive way of engaging with your world, works well—as long as the world doesn’t change. But when the world changes—like when my brother moved the electronic boundary line—the memory remains. And it’s the memory that continues to automatically react to the world, even though those reactions no longer make sense.
Then relying on memory is no longer efficient—it’s limiting.
Because even when situations change, when your conscious goals change, when you want to think and act in new ways, the encoded patterns persist. And because they operate at a level of functioning that is faster than conscious thought, the patterns of the past assert themselves before you know it.
Your memory-based reflexes seem to have a mind of their own. And in a very practical sense, they do. Having been deeply encoded and streamlined into your neurology, these reflexive programs of thought, speech, and action don’t have to waste time “thinking” before it reacts.
These reflexive patterns are somatic—woven into the your neurology and psychology at the deepest levels.
To communicate with this somatic mind, you need to use “language” it understands; wordy-words and logic won’t communicate to this somatic mind. You can’t argue with it. You can’t lecture it. It doesn’t respond to that kind of persuasion.
You can communicate to your somatic mind through the breath.
But first you have to make contact.
You do this by intentionally approaching the invisible fence. You do this by activating a memory of a person, situation, event where you’re reflexive habits no longer serve you. Where you want to show up in a new way, but where you keep falling, reflexively, into patterns of the past.
You activate the memory just enough to “light up” those reactive neural pathways. Just enough so you start to feel the burning in your stomach. The narrowing of your eyes. The clenching of your jaw. (Or whatever your body does when it tightens and tenses).
Bring your attention to the “hot spot.”Focus your awareness on the obvious point of tension in your body. The place where you feel the reaction percolating. If you can, place your hand there. Place your hand there in a gesture of care and attention.
Feel the gently warmth and reassuring touch of your hand.
Now, communicate to that part of you via the breath.
Let your breath find a natural, gentle rhythm. If it feels comfortable, slightly extend the exhale.
Let the message of your hand and the rhythm of your breath communicate care, safety, and acceptance. Notice how the touch and the breath allow the tension to relax.
Again, bring the “challenging memory” to mind; notice how the reflexive response has changed. And again, place your hand and breathe. As the tension relaxes, feel the energy that has been locked up in the reflexive pattern spreading through your body.
Feel the power that’s been bound up in the reflex, being released into your body.
It’s now available for you to conscious focus into new ways of being, new ways of thinking, new ways of acting. This method works because the somatic-mind can’t really distinguish between a “real” external event and an “imagined” internal event.
The same neural pathways will light up, either way; the same reflexes get triggered.
But the difference is that you can purposefully calibrate the degree of “activation” via your imagination.
You have your hand on the dial, as it were. So you can gradually condition your somatic mind to stay open, present, and resourceful—rather than to become tense, memory-based, and reflexive. By communicating regularly to the places of tension/reactivity in your body—using touch and breath—you free yourself from the confinement of your own invisible fences.
Then when challenges arise in your environment, rather than revert to automatic (out-dated and unconscious) behaviors you can respond creatively and in ways that reflect your highest values.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise