That Sense of Annihilation

May 2, 2024

Humans don’t realize the cost that self-awareness brings with it. In the wild, the animal brain has many functions that support their survival. The oldest region of the brain helps regulate breathing, body temperature, all the basic functions that keep a body running on a day-to-day basis. These run on automatic so the animal does not have to think about making its heartbeat or its diaphragm move to breath. That would be a 24-hour-a-day responsibility that is unnecessary and unsustainable for the animal. It would never get any sleep, which is also one of these functions.

When we move to the mammalian brain structures, those that developed later in evolution we come into a complex structure called the limbic system. This multi-layered brain network is geared toward monitoring the environment for dangers and taking any actions necessary for survival. These actions are the flight-fight-and-freeze responses that we’ve always heard of. The limbic system also is relatively automatic. That makes sense. If an animal has to think about whether that lion over there is dangerous, it’s probably already too late to run.

The limbic system does its job by pumping a huge energetic wave through the animal’s brain, usually in the form that humans would call fear. But mainly it’s a neutral energetic surge that overtakes the consciousness of the animal and either causes it to run as fast as it can or fight for its life. Freezing occurs when those two options aren’t feasible. Sometimes playing dead or going limp is the best protection. Once the energetic wave is past, the animal returns to its everyday sense of awareness, shakes off the trauma of the energetic wave and continues its day.

When we are born, we live from the limbic system because our higher brain functions aren’t developed enough yet. We don’t have the ability to communicate other than by crying so when something is amiss, we cry. An energic wave moves through our brains and we cry. This brings our caregivers to us to see what is wrong and to remedy the distress. At this age, we are still merged with our mothers psychologically and don’t yet have a sense of our own identity independent of hers.

Around 2.5-3-years of age, we begin to develop a sense of identity. Though it cannot be pinpointed in the brain at this time, there is a movement into our prefrontal cortex, one of the more recent structures that arose in the brain and that is well-developed in humans. The National Institute of Health (NIH) says “the prefrontal cortex is the ‘personality’ center and it is the cortical region that makes us uniquely humans.” Other mammals have pre-frontal cortices, but they are not as well-developed, there is something special about this region in the humans that allows a sense of self-awareness, “me-ness,” to arise.

This early sense of “me-ness” is very fragile, that is, whenever the huge energetic / emotional waves come surging through the brain from the limbic system, those waves tend to annihilate or shatter the sense of “me”, and just like the animal, there is an indication that some protective action wants to be taken. If we have to think about the situation in the wild, we would probably not be alive long. Once the energetic / emotional wave is done, the sense of “me” comes back. This  sense of annihilation or shattering is important. The animal doesn’t feel the annihilation, it just responds, but the young child’s sense of identity / self-awareness is taken away for a short amount of time. This is terrifying and can be very traumatic.

In an ideal world our parents would be there at these times to help the us through the energetic / emotional wave in what is called the process of co-regulation. What most people don’t realize is that there are more brain connections going from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex than there are connections going in the reverse direction when we are very young. Due to the neuroplasticity of the brain, the ability to create new neuronal connections over time, emotional co-regulation develops the connections from the prefrontal cortex back to the limbic system to regulate the energetic / emotional waves when they arise. This allows us to maintain our sense of “me” and our ability to think rationally and respond during emotional waves. We can respond rather than just reacting. Over time, the co-regulation provided by our parents turns into self-regulation of our emotional waves.

Unfortunately, most of our parents cannot self-regulate themselves, as most humans don’t. This means that most adults have the prefrontal cortex to limbic system neural hardware of a 3-year-old. The consequence of this is that when energetic / emotional waves move from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex in adults, that sense of annihilation still comes along with it. For an adult this is even more terrifying. Our parents weren’t there to help us develop our self-regulatory pathways when we were young, they didn’t have the capacity themselves. This means that most likely, this experience is still going on within you, especially if you haven’t ever had any form of emotional self-regulation training.

You can witness this in our society. Emotionally self-regulated people can be with their emotions when they arise and can maintain a level of identity and talk with you about what is happening in their body-mind now. Compare this to what we witness in our society at this time, people shoot each other, they yell at each other, they hurt each other when there are disagreements. This is the result of an unregulated fear-based energetic / emotional wave surging through their system and the body-mind doing whatever it can to survive.

Also, as children, because we were not emotionally self-regulated, we learned to suppress the emotional wave as best we could, in essence, stop it before it created that sense of annihilation which is so terrifying. The act of suppression, however, takes a terrible toll on the human body and mind. If we don’t immediately dissipate the energy, then it has to be stored in our bodies somewhere. Emotional self-regulation can dissipate the energy, but suppression shunts it off to our internal storage center. Most humans have a reservoir of suppressed emotional energy. The more energy that is in it the more energy it takes to keep it suppress. When release happens, it tends to be explosive and again annihilating to the sense of “me”. People become blind with rage or anger, temporarily insane or are showing signs of extreme emotional disturbance.

Fortunately, techniques like meditation are specifically designed to enhance the self-regulatory pathways from the prefrontal cortex back to the limbic system. Also, just sitting with someone who is emotionally self-regulated allowing your emotions to be there and recognize that you aren’t being annihilated helps develop those feedback neurons. This is one of the huge benefits of greenlighting in our work. Sitting with what is and not being overwhelmed. The human body is a magnificent self-healing mechanism, but we need to get out of its way.

So, this is what I mean that self-awareness has a huge cost to it. By having a sense of “me” we experience the limbic systems functioning as an assault against the sense of who we are. It’s not but it feels that way and we get angry with ourselves, because there is nothing we can do to stop emotional waves from arising, they’re part and parcel of the animal body. But we can move beyond reaction to responding and feel a little more in control of our body-mind, at least until we are ready to transition into the “I Am” state where it’s okay to feel that sense of local “me” disappear. Then it’s not a sense of annihilation, but of a coming home to our sacred nature. Our Whole-Being Realization initiates us into this sense of coming home. It still takes some time for this to become fully embodied, but that sense of “Home” is typically there when the realization happens.

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