There are natural disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis all express the fiery aspect of Mother Earth. Sometimes, she needs to let off steam, perhaps do some violent housecleaning. If people are in the way, they suffer the consequences. Perhaps, other more natural creatures do not experience these acts as violent, but we humans do.
Some earth fires may be natural or unnatural. Forest fires, for example, may be started by human carelessness or ignorance. Then, Nature uses the event for her own purposes.
Some violence, however, is clearly unnatural. Like the hunting of wild animals for sport, when hunger is not an issue. Like the massacres of innocent children, and their families, because of differences in beliefs. Like the killing fields of war. Like the murder of 85 young people recently in the Norwegian youth camp. Like the riot in Vancouver in June when the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup.
I was in Vancouver at the time. There had been signs saying, “Go Canucks!” all over the city for at least two months, since my previous visit. Even the control tower at the airport displayed one. Although I am Canadian by birth, I tend to be oblivious to hockey activities. I found out the game was that day when someone I was arranging to meet with told me we had to be done by 5 p.m. when the game started. He explained that he had been waiting for forty years for this moment! Vancouverites were convinced their team’s time had come, and they were ready to celebrate.
The Canucks’ loss to the Boston Bruins came as a huge shock. Then, a riot broke out. Losing was humiliating enough, but now the news went out to the world that beautiful Vancouver was the scene of burning cars and broken windows.
What was not as publicized was the moving response of thousands of Vancouverites who showed up the next morning to clean up. The city provided the tools, and the volunteers got to work. Perhaps even more touching were the poetic expressions of remorse and love for Vancouver that appeared on boards coving the windows. Vancouverites wanted to show who they really are.
Word came quickly that the riot was started by a few anarchists who had planned the event beforehand; it was essentially unrelated to feelings about the Canucks losing.
Now, this is unnatural violence. Or is it?
What is Natural?
What does it actually mean for something to be natural or unnatural? We see that we humans have devised extremely artificial lives for ourselves, but does this make us unnatural? When a baby is born, is it an expression of culture or of nature?
The question of nature vs. nurture has raged for years in the worlds of genetics, education, and society. How does a child, apparently born in innocence, become a cold-hearted criminal? Or politician? Or military general? Or businessman? We have all encountered examples of what we consider immoral behavior. We have all heard of the accused showing no remorse, perhaps even being proud of whatever horrendous act they have committed. Psychopaths and sociopaths are known to be short on empathy. How did they get to be this way?
And how did the people of Vancouver come to be people who care about their city and each other? We tend to only hear the bad news, but what of the millions of people doing good in the world? How did they come to be this way? In the riot, what determined who joined in the violence and who called on the city via Facebook to come and clean up?
I consider these questions incredibly important. As I sit with them, I am reminded of my years of Vipassana meditation. I remember the teacher, S. N. Goenka, explaining that there are no evil people; they are either ignorant or ill. We are asked to practice compassion. I believe it is also valuable, however, to ask, how illness and ignorance have become so rampant.
My own search for sanity and health in this often insane, sick world, led me to my body. In studying Somatic Psychology and Dance/Movement Therapy, I learned that what we consider evil acts are impossible for someone aware of sensations in the body. It is simply too painful for us to hurt another person. In order to do so, we must be dissociated from our body sensations.
Dissociation is a common state in our modern, western world. You could say it is characteristic of our culture. I remember in first grade as a six-year old having to sit at our desks with hands clasped in front of us. This torture was intended to enable us to listen better, without moving.
Anyone familiar with child development knows that little children cannot learn without moving. As little ones we learn through our bodies. It is only as the brain and nervous system matures and we become more left-brain dominant, that we can integrate verbal, intellectual information. Being forced to function in this way before we are ready creates a split, characteristic of the modern world. This is a natural reaction to an unnatural situation…
Where Did My Body Go?
In our cultural experience, mind and body are separated. Without access to our sensations, we lose our ability to know directly through experience. We stumble blindly out of Eden. We are then directed by external sources, whether we conform or reject their edicts. Acting in reaction to an outside demand is just as externally referenced as is conformity. Neither involves the guidance of an internal knowing.
Unfortunately, this severance from our own bodies often starts before we go to school. Truthfully, I don’t remember the sitting with hands clasped as torture. I remember needing to do what the teachers wanted, to be accepted. I couldn’t fathom acting in a deviant way at that age. It felt too dangerous. Survival depended on conformity.
Dissociation was already familiar to me by the time I entered school. I believe I learned about it as I was being born.
The Initiation of Birth
Birth is perhaps not meant to be entirely easy. I believe it is intended to be an initiation, for both mother and baby, and perhaps for father, siblings and others in the family. I have heard that women can have orgasms while giving birth. I have witnessed babies being born smiling and curious. This was not at all what my birth was like.
My mother describes how she was enjoying the contractions because they told her the baby was coming. Then, the doctor gave her a “whiff of something,” and she was gone. I was gone, too. She thinks this was near the end, but my sense was that the whiff was closer to the beginning, and she just doesn’t remember what happened after that. She thinks they might have brought me to her right after the birth, but she doesn’t really know. She wasn’t really there. Neither was I.
Starting life in a drugged stupor is now known to establish a strong imprint for how we live our lives. Research has shown that the rise in recreational drug abuse correlates to the rise in use of birth anesthesia in the 40s and 50s. These babies were reaching adolescence in the 60s. The drug imprint at birth includes a message for life: when things get stressful, take a drug!
Fortunately, I didn’t go the route of drug addiction, but I did live the first twenty-something years of my life with minimal awareness of my body sensations. Anesthesia is designed to cut us off from sensation.
Drugs are not the only source of separation from our senses. Trauma and shock can also have this effect. When we feel threatened and are not able to fight or fly, we withdraw. Nature supports us in not having to feel the pain of being eaten by the saber-toothed tiger. Babies who are terrified, including at birth, are not strong enough to fight or fly. They try to get help by crying, but, if they are not responded to, their overwhelm causes them to withdraw. They may then become quiet, good babies, like I was. Often such babies are in shock, or dissociated from present time. You can see a glazed look in their eyes.
When I was little, it was considered normal for babies to be floppy and unresponsive little vegetables. We were far too drugged and shocked to be able to respond to what was occurring around us. All people seemed to notice was that we were cute.
I was amazed at the first birth I attended. That little girl lifted her head almost before the rest of her body was born. She clearly wanted to see what each of us in the room looked like. She carefully looked each of us over before settling in to her mother’s arms to gaze at that special face. She was born at home with no drugs and plenty of loving support.
Initiated to What?
So, lets come back to those who commit violence and those who go home and contact everyone they know by Facebook to invite them to clean up their city. Of course, birth is not everything. We all have lives and experiences after birth, as well as before. We can encounter trauma at any time. We can encounter love and support at any time. These all have their effects.
In my own healing process, I was fortunate to spend ten years studying Prenatal and Birth Psychology, culminating in a doctoral degree in the subject. This is the study of the time before and around birth and how it affects us throughout our lives.
One of the books that influenced me most deeply through these studies was Ghosts from the Nursery, by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley. This book outlines how neglect and abuse, including at birth, affect the child’s ability to self-regulate emotionally, and contribute to acts of violence later in life.
Those studying early attachment emphasize our need to be met by our caregivers, to have eye contact, smiling faces, reassuring touch. This enables us to feel safe. Then, we can be settled enough to interact with and learn from our environment. If we are not met in this way, we learn on a deep, physiological level, to be hyper-vigilently prepared for threat at any moment. With our sympathetic fight-flight nervous system on guard, we may perceive the need for violence and act accordingly.
Even before birth, our genes are being turned on or off depending on our environment. Cell biologist, Bruce Lipton points out in The Biology of Belief that the mother’s perception of her surround as safe and nurturing or as threatening profoundly affects this genetic process in her unborn child. The baby prepares for the world he or she will be born into. The mother, through her experience and hormonal responses, provides information about that world.
Epidemiological studies demonstrate that babies growing in the womb during times of drought prepare for this world by developing more efficient metabolisms. If their world turns out to provide plenty of food, they tend to be overweight. Similarly, babies whose mothers live in violent household or in war during pregnancy, tend to have different brain proportions than babies of more harmonious environments. In preparation for surviving in a threatening environment, brain development emphasizes structures needed to detect and respond quickly to threat. A nurturing prenatal environment is linked to having a larger frontal lobe, with emphasis on verbal and reasoning skills.
Fortunately, as psychiatrist, Thomas Verny, pointed out in the Secret Life of the Unborn Child, a fetus who is loved "is an amazingly resilient being.” I would expand this concept to say that love can help at any age. Our social engagement system can be rekindled at any time within an appropriate relational holding field.
A Larger Context
Violence is not so simple. We learn early in life about trust. An individual living in violent ways may not be open to the possibility of anything else. There may have been many different kinds of influences to this person’s behavior. How they were received at birth and before can have a profound effect, as can their early childhood attachment history. These are not acting in a void, however. The child arrives with his or her own tendencies. Karma. We haven’t even looked at the possibility of choosing or being drawn to a particular family for reasons science is only beginning to explain.
We all exist within a larger vibrational field. Within that field, the watery cells of our bodies develop, interact and express themselves. This is natural. If the field around us connotes violent, would it not be natural to develop our own forms of violence? If love is our context, we naturally tend towards love.
Perhaps our question is not about what is natural or not. Perhaps the question needs to be about the field that generates us, the field that nurtures us, and what are our natural gestures and actions within such fields.
From this place, do we even need to remind ourselves of compassion? As observers and inquirers into the nature of our field, we need not engage in judgment, preference or other separative attitudes. Instead, we discover we are all expressions of the same field. We are all one. We are all responsible. We are all influential. We are all important. We are all nature. We are all nurture. Perhaps, there are ways in which we are violent, and perhaps, this is the place to begin our search for change.
I leave you with a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh from The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Call Me By My True Names
Don't say that I will depart tomorrow --
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his "debt of blood" to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.