Theodore Usatynski – Instinctual Intelligence Part 1
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello, and welcome again to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay, and my guest today is Theodore Usatynski. Hi Theodore, we’re going to call you Ted during the interview. Ted has written a fascinating book which is called “Instinctual Intelligence – The primal wisdom of the nervous system and the Evolution of Human Nature”, which I’ve enjoyed but also found very valuable because there are things about the nervous system that I didn’t realise. There’s the book (showing to camera). Basically, we’re going to cover obviously, the nervous system, how it affects us more than we realise in terms of it governs our instincts, which in turn affects very much, our personality, and anchors our personality in place. And that can restrict the bigger picture of us realising who we really are. And to find that out, who we really are, is of course what Conscious TV is ultimately about. So, Ted you gave me lots of notes to read, and it’s quite a thick book so there’s lots of material, so we’re going to do a second programme were Renate will join us, and we’ll broaden the discussion and go into certain things in more detail. This programme is basically an overview of instinctual intelligence, and one thing that I really liked and which you sent me in your preamble some notes… you did some teachings and classes with the Dalai Lama, and he talked to you about “changing the mind is easy, changing our hearts and feelings is harder, but transforming the instincts is hardest of all”. So, let’s start by you explaining briefly, what are the instincts?
Theodore: That is a great question, and a good place to start. The easiest way to think about the instincts in terms of what your programme is about on Conscious TV, is to think of instincts as the first thing that arises out of our natural primordial awareness. Think back to the simplest animal form, an amoeba, a single cell animal, when they are poked or prodded in anyway, they have a contraction. Their body tries to protect itself. It’s the most basic self- protective response, the most basic form of organisation in the nervous system of any living being. So, you could say that the instincts are the first and most primary way that awareness begins to be organised in a living being on the surface of the earth. Naturally it gets more complex from there, animals evolved with multi cells to becoming eventually living on the land, to mammals, to humans. Our instincts have developed sophistication and complexity, but they still are a natural part of us, and very much linked to our basic, most primal forms of awareness.
Iain: So how do we get instincts in the first place? Is it genetic? Is it through the programming of our parents in our early life?
Theodore: A bit of both, but in the way I generally think of instincts it’s kind of the evolved heritage of living beings on this planet, specifically animals that have evolved on the surface of the earth primarily, that have these sophisticated programmes to respond to primarily external stimuli in the environment. Things that either frighten us, or that we’re attracted to. As Freud said, the most basic ways… the two primordial impulses of aggression and sexuality to help us to survive and, also reproduce. We can branch out and discuss in more detail, but that’s the kind of basic outline.
Iain: It’s interesting how you first got interested because I know from what you were telling me earlier was that when you were quite young, your sister got very ill, and that she had a brain disease, and that kind of opened something up in you, didn’t it, to start this line of inquiry.
Theodore: It really did. I was 15 years old, and living a very comfortable suburban life in the United States, not that aware of spirituality or the reality of death, and when my sister had this severe illness, she had brain surgery and was left quadriplegic for the rest of her life. It really hit me” oh my God, it isn’t just a story on TV, people get sick, they die”. Particularly brain damage is a very real phenomenon, that can dramatically affect people’s lives in irreversible ways, and that I think really shocked me. You could say, woke me up at a very deep level. I became intensely interested in philosophy, and anthropology. What does this all mean? What does human life mean?
Iain: It often takes something to kind of shock us from our path as it is, so we start to question, we start to ask the bigger questions, don’t we?
Theodore: Yeah, questioning, and in our own particular way, too. The event that triggers our passion to discover more about our own consciousness, often in almost everyone I meet, it’s a unique, personal thing, just for them that opens the doorway, isn’t something that affected you in the same way, or anyone else.
Iain: So, I know when you went to university you got interested in shamanism, and you did some studying in that. How did that take your journey a little bit further?
Theodore: My study was in anthropology. I was intensely interested in the process of spiritual and psychological transformation. How do people become more aware of the depth of their soul? But at that time, in the United States, formally studying religion, didn’t seem that attractive. I was brought up in a Roman Catholic environment, and kind of the general attitude especially where I was going to graduate school, religion was kind of something of the past, a bit lost in its original intent, a form of social control. So anthropology afforded me the opportunity to both study and live with these practitioners, of these different traditional shamanic practices, and also have broad range of access to the complete ethnography of these studies. First hand reports of what for most part now is a dying art, being marginalised even in traditional societies under modern influence. So encountering all these ways that humans all over the world, in different ways from Australia to Siberia to South America, all had these commonality of ways they were learning to investigate more deeply into what it is to be a human, to explore consciousness itself, that there was an underlying human commonality. I thought there must be something organic and innate about our desire to know about consciousness, and what’s behind the ordinary given world.
Iain: What was driving your desire to know, do you think? Where did that come from? I guess it’s an instinctive force in a way, is it?
Theodore: It could be. I think that’s one way to look at it, that our instincts are what propels our drive to not only survive on this planet, but also to have the wherewithal to learn more about ourselves, into our consciousness, into subtler realms.
Iain: Not everyone has this. You have it, I have it, a lot of people I know have it because they are the people I choose to spend time with, but a lot of people don’t seem to have that drive, and I wonder what the difference is. In your case, you had the experience with your sister, and that triggered something.
Theodore: Yes, it triggered something – meeting The Dalai Lama early on, and also, I think it can sometimes be happenstance. You are in the right place at the right time. We were talking about the first time I saw Dan Brown teach, I was in graduate school at Harvard, just sitting around. I think it was at a friend’s house in Cambridge and he said there’s this guy… or he’s associated with the university, and he’s doing some research on meditation, and the scientific study of meditation. I went over to that lecture. It was just a handful of people, no one knew who he was back then. He started saying “hey, we could start to study meditation in a scientific way”. I’m just a young kid in my twenties that really resonated with me – wow that’s like a possibility, and it moved my whole career in a different direction than if I hadn’t happened to be there. So, I think there’s some luck, but there’s some innate drive also, a combination of the two, really help.
Iain: We should say at this point that this Dan Brown who is not the famous author, it’s the Dan Brown who has studied Tibetan Buddhism and who has written about that.
Iain: We did interview Dan Brown on Conscious TV. Yes, I think that was quite a revelation to you that the effects of meditation could be studied and quantified.
Theodore: That got me particularly excited. That was like some instinctual resonance with me. That in the future would be the thing that’s going to help people take it out of some mystic, esoteric formats, and make it universal. We all have brains. We all have nervous systems, and they’re pretty much exactly the same in every culture, every society across the globe. That to me… I thought what is the unifying thing that we all share in common, not just the esoteric, very kind of obscure, almost impossible to learn very advanced techniques of any one particular tradition.
Iain: I know that another turning point was you went to, I think it was a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in New York, and you had a wonderful time at the retreat, and you found deep places of meditation, peace in yourself. You came out of the retreat, and let’s say your neurotic programming, your human personal programme returned and challenged very much straight away the peace you’d found in the retreat, then you had to look somewhere else at that point.
Theodore: I don’t think I was alone in that type of experience. Many people who are devout meditators often reported to me- certainly it’s been part of your experience also. It was stunning to me how we would leave the meditation hall, and then just in the process of getting in the lunch line, by the time I’d walked from the meditation hall to the lunch line, all the bliss, all the insight all the sense of peace, somehow disappeared. It was almost like something else came in like overtaking my mind. I could viscerally feel that, and I began to wonder, why doesn’t it stay why doesn’t it remain. These insights, this sense of clarity I’m having all of a sudden is overwhelmed, and I’m thinking I want food again. This person over hear is bugging me. What happened to my compassion, that insight? A friend of mine from Belgium, I just turned to him and said, “Is it my imagination, I feel in a bad mood. Everyone else seems to be in a bad mood, what happened? He said, “my friend, I want to show you something”. That’s when he introduced me to the work of Hameed Ali, and A.H. Almaas, founder of ‘The Ridhwan Diamond Approach’ , which really takes a very strong look at the personality structures, and how they’re involved in spiritual transformation. This made so much sense to me. I was like “oh, finally someone can explain to me this neurosis that overtakes my mind so quickly after meditation.
Iain: It’s as if you have to do the two things – well you don’t have to, but for most people, the two things- you do the meditation, you find the peace, you set some time every day to have that practice, but you also need be very aware and understand the dynamics of the process of the programmes of the mind…
Iain: …which is so powerful
Theodore: And to me that’s really where instinctual intelligence you could say began to arise for me as an understanding, that not only are we influenced by early development during infancy, childhood – incredibly well articulated by The Diamond Approach, but I became interested with passion and precision about what are our instincts? What are these evolved qualities that the nervous system is born with, and are so deep in, that it’s almost impossible to see them, unless we really begin to pay attention to them and recognise them operating in our day to day life? And it’s also through the use of modern neurology and the studies of neuro- biology that are coming out, that we can start to see how the nervous system is put together. How different parts of the brain interact, the higher brain, the mid brain and the lower brain and more and more instinctual areas are providing us with a scientific road map to explore these things further. It’s one of the great joys of my life to read a description of parts of the brain and how they’re connected. I think “oh wait a minute, I know what that is. I can find that in my own subjective experience”. So it opens up avenues for exploration of the immediacy of our instincts, our primal consciousness, in ways that in ten years or twenty years are really going to be of greater and greater interest to a larger number of people.
Iain: So maybe you can give some practical examples because everyone feels they know in their own way their nervous system. They feel when they get nervous, probably when they’ve over done it a bit, and people also feel that they probably know their instincts, talk in a little bit more detail of how that connects, instincts, with the nervous system.
Theodore: First of all, most people when they hear the word instinct to them, it’s either something associated with violence, power, aggression, sexually, and for a lot of people then it becomes something that they want to separate from, overcome, or rise above. We want to rise above our primitive instincts is a common term I hear.
Iain: You’re right, people think of instincts as primitive.
Theodore: Right. The first thing I want people to understand about the instincts is that they are incredibly sophisticated, and intricate, and complex, and well developed, and have an innate intelligence. Most people don’t want to put those to words together – instincts and intelligence. They think that they’re kind of the opposite. If you look closely at the instincts, everything from the most basic self- protective instincts, to our sexual mating instincts, to social bonding and the way we relate to other human beings, there is a wealth of intellectual knowledge, like cognitive awareness of things that help us think more clearly, accurately, and act strategically about the world. They give rise to sets of feeling that help us make good common sense decisions in business, in relationships, and many practical things. They also inform our body how to move, how to hold oneself. Do you need protection in a scary situation? Is it a situation in which you really have to feel your own naturally instinctive power?
Iain: So, in fact our instincts are taking over from our mental thinking process a lot of the time and because the body… we are reacting as such without necessarily being aware of the thought process to do that.
Theodore: Exactly, and the thing is we try to fight. We say I need to think about this first, and we supress our instinctual energy, but in reality it’s that uprising of instinctual energy that is actually sometimes giving us more accurate information, and decision making capacities that are better than our conscious thoughts, because they’re so reasoned out, and reasonable. It’s the interaction of the two that really make for the most successful adaption to reality that human beings have. Most of the people you see in positions of success, leaders in the business world, people who are effective with raising children, mothers who are confident and happy and their kids feel the same way, it’s usually a combination of this friendliness of one’s instinctual energy and a dose of common sense that goes along with it.
Iain: So, what would be an example of a good healthy instinct that everyone could recognise in their day to day life?
Theodore: Well, let me give a most recent example I was thinking of this morning before you picked me up. I was standing in Sloane Square, because I’m flying out later today, I had my suitcase with me. Here I am dragging around my suitcase in a very crowded rush hour at 9 o’clock in the morning time, and I realised I felt a bit uncomfortable. Why was that, I was wondering. Here I am, I have a bunch of stuff that I’m kind of gathering along, in a crowded situation. People are running into it, and I’m feeling…picturing myself back, say a hundred thousand years ago on the African savannah, if I’m a man that’s just captured an animal, killed it or something like that, and had to drag it back to my home tribe, I would probably encounter animals trying to take it away from me, or perhaps members from other communities, men, trying to steal this food that I had just gotten. So, there’s a natural sense that, oh I need to protect my stuff. I need to protect my resources. I’d better gather it up more closely to me, and just hold onto my things a little better, so that in this whole crowded situation, which probably isn’t that dangerous - but you never know - that I’m a little more together, a little more conscious of what I’m doing, and how I can function better in this particular situation.
Iain: So, I would say, that was common sense but, what you’re saying is that common sense is an expression of a healthy instinct.
Theodore: Exactly, yes, yes.
Iain: Ok, and what’s an example that people can relate to of an instinct that’s bad, or has gone wrong or isn’t balanced?
Theodore: Well, one of the ones I’m writing about now in a book about men, and men’s development, that we’re working on is, how does the sexual instinct get out of control? For many men that’s of great concern, a world- wide epidemic you could say now – addiction to pornography. So, knowing a bit how the human mind works, especially the male mind, is very predisposed to visual perception of attractive females. Every time we view an attractive woman, someone we find attractive, especially if they are not wearing much clothing, a little burst of dopamine goes off in the brain and says that’s good. That’s going to bring you…
Iain: Maybe a little or a lot…
Theodore: Yes, maybe a lot in some cases. This pornography takes advantage of this natural system and delivers these images that a man can sit there alone and just click away, however he wants to get these images. He’s delivering dopamine, over and over to the pleasure centre of his brain. And what actually happens is that it gets a bit depleted, the brain tries to compensate, so he needs more and more, and eventually… I’m finding men I’m working with spending four, six hours a day sitting alone with a computer, masturbating, watching pornography…
Iain: Really! Good heavens!
Theodore: They want to stop but they can’t. Their brain has been hijacked by this instinctual, evolutionary mechanism.
Iain: Ok. That’s really I suppose a product of our modern society that these things are available because when you used the first example – the man who has killed his prey and is taking it back to his family or his tribe, obviously all that wasn’t available. So, there are extra challenges in our modern society in terms of balancing the instincts.
Theodore: Absolutely, and you could say also that our handy I phones, and all our electronic digital media, often when we check that, it’s another form of you could say, social bonding, and out instincts, and our neuro chemicals that are released into the brain, even when we receive an email friend. So no, whenever we want that that little hit, little burst of energy, we just take a little break, or sneak off, it’s readily available right on our mobile devices.
Iain: Ok. One of the things you have in quite a big part of the book is based around the whole stress situation, burn out, and nervous system exhaustion, we’ll cover this in more detail in our second programme together after this, but let’s just take us through the outline of that. So more and more we’re finding, certainly in the research that you’ve discovered, people are getting to the point where they’re burning out, and they’re not realising it before hand, it’s creeping up on them. Can you explain what’s happening in the brain and the nervous system that’s causing that?
Theodore: Yes. In a very real way our modern world is set to deliver little bursts of adrenalin, and human beings find that arousing and uplifting. It’s almost the reason why we get up in the morning. We want something to help us wake up a bit, be it a cup of tea or coffee, or just stretching, or getting a breath of fresh air. The modern digital media, in particular from TV, the headlines, and the news is always kind of shocking, provoking, getting your attention. The demands of our life start early. Almost all of us… everyone I know within an hour of waking up is going to get online check the emails, and check what’s going on in their world, what they need to do. The demand of raising a family, children - most people have to generate some form of income for themselves. They’re up probably by nine o’clock needing to go to work, get in that frame of mind to be able to compete for economic resources. There is almost no break during the day – lunch we’re on our mobile phones talking, making plans for later, finishing work, picking up children, and then at the end of the day, there’s always more to do, something around the house. So, we turn to, with this busier and busier schedule, we turn to artificial stimulants, like caffeine or other types of things to kind of energise our nervous system. The human body wasn’t really designed to operate that way day in day out. Our ancestors at most times had to go to extreme bursts of energy or adrenalin to avoid a predator, to deal with an emergency situation, or maybe go on an extended hike for a few days to search for food or something, then they relaxed. They sat around for a couple of days and didn’t worry…
Iain: They had a balance, didn’t they?
Theodore: Much more of a balance. If they didn’t have an emergency thing, they didn’t think “hey I feel guilty. I’ve got to exercise more, go shopping, improve their home, all the things we’re caught up in. Find a better car. All the things we do as modern human beings. So, now with this adrenalin cycle running constantly throughout the day, a lot of us are caught up putting out this effort, that we were never really designed to do day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It slowly accumulates, the level of stress. We become more and more depleted. Our adrenalin glands are called more and more to put forth all this energy while they don’t have any more to give. It’s almost like the adrenalin doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, more and more to keep us going.
Iain: Adrenalin is like the back up, so when we’re over stretching ourselves they kick in and give us that extra kick.
Theodore: Exactly, and they were more designed for emergency situations, not as a day to day level of function. So a lot of us find ourselves completely and utterly exhausted in some almost profound way which can lead to a life crisis to begin examining, hey what’s going on in my life. How did I get to this point where I’m so exhausted? Everything seems overwhelming, and it’s too much. Often, we recognise it in friends before we see it in ourselves. That’s one of the things I noticed the most – “hey I saw so and so, they look exhausted, what’s going on with them”?
Iain: So, what do we do about it. Here we are living in this modern society, and you’ve described it very well. I think many people can relate to what you’ve being talking about. So what’s the first steps? I guess the first step is to recognise…
Iain: You’re seeing it in your friend but, actually you may need to hold up a mirror and have a look at yourself
Theodore: Absolutely. And that’s where I always start with my clients- recognising and understanding what’s actually going on, because it helps to know what’s actually happening in the body, how that works. Through educating ourselves about the reality of this, is kind of the base line to start. And I think that gives people more incentive, they don’t feel like there’s something wrong with them, not something about blaming people or making them feel guilty. Giving them one more thing to do- “oh no you’ve got to start being less stressful, here’s a whole programme”. It’s really understanding the origins of it, and then beginning with simple ways that are know immediately to start to alter the way the brain functions and leads to a less stressed level. For most people, for all my clients basically we start with breathing and understanding about how the breath works. How to stop charging the sympathetic system, and start activating more, the peri- sympathetic system is kind of the primary place to begin.
Iain: In the book, you have… you talk about four things that are really important in the twenty first century. There is the optimising health – that’s optimising the physical health and well- being. Emotional and spiritual satisfaction -turning neurotic conflict into spiritual confidence. The embracing of cultural change – change is a big thing. And adapting to the accelerating evolution that we have – realising human thought, feelings and behaviour are directly linked to the universal matrix of evolution. They are all very helpful things, and we can’t really go into that in a lot of detail now, but let’s just cover it briefly the four things. First of all, optimising health- the well- being. I guess that’s fairly obvious isn’t it?
Theodore: I think it is, and that’s the primal place where we really need to start, as if we don’t have our physical health, it’s really hard to do anything else. So, in a very practical sense learning to reduce the level of stress that you have, and learning to let the instincts function in a healthy way that’s not over- escalated, not too ramped up to let this natural energy we have, do its work for us, as opposed to fighting against it, or trying to amplify it too much. One of my goals for clients is how do I get them to do less, and more efficiently. In some ways starting with instincts kind of satisfies both the needs of their health, their psychological and spiritual desire to learn more, and it has a lot of practical benefits also.
Iain: The thing about the accelerating evolution, when we lose connection, we feel disconnected, just talk briefly about that.
Theodore: Well in some ways we are increasingly divorced from our natural environment. Modern technology – everything from our cars, to where we live, the environments we live in, that’s always- the temperature is always kind of stable, the type of foods we eat; the type of social inter-reactions we have, are increasingly made into digital format. We lack human to human inter-reaction sometimes, and we don’t often, especially for people who live in urban environments, get enough natural stimulation, enough sunlight, and the natural cycles, the weather and so on that we’re kind of divorced from, and so that leaves the nervous system a bit confused because it has evolved over millions and millions of years through our animal ancestors to us now, living in those types of environments. It has adapted to that type of natural cycles and natural energy. So, you could say that the pace of human evolution in cultural terms, and technological terms is accelerating rapidly in a way that we’re not all that equipped to deal with. So more and more we need to understand how our instincts how they help us function, how they help us sustain our health, and to bring ourselves more in touch with that is a primary way of coping and helping humans deal with this accelerating change. Because if we get too far divorced from it, the degree of imbalance we have in our lives is unsustainable.
Iain: Just moving on to what I was saying in the introduction to the programme, the more we move away towards this unsustainable human living, the more we’re moving away from being who we really are, and that’s one of the most interesting things you say in your book towards the end, you were talking very much about how, in a way we’re all traumatised. Trauma is normally thought of as something extreme, like some kind of abuse, somebody witnessing something very dramatic that’s very horrific, but in a way we’re all traumatised through our lives because there’s always going to be things that’s going to happen that’s going to be difficult for us to digest and process. In a way we’re all addicted to some degree. Ok we don’t all have the extremes, addiction to alcohol or drugs, or sex or whatever, but we’re addicted to certain patterns that we’ve learnt. And those patterns I understand form what you’re saying in the book, are held in place to a large extent by an imbalanced nervous system.
Theodore: I think that’s actually very well stated. I’m impressed that you’ve learnt so well from the book (laughing).
Iain: Well I’ve read your book (laughing).
Theodore: That’s absolutely true. What we call the ego, or our personality structures can also be seen as established patterns and networks in our brain, in our nervous system that maintain a kind of homeostasis, a status quo. A limited range of experience that only if we understand how they got formed, and how to begin to unwind them, to allow more flexibility in the nervous system do we really have a chance to grow and expand as human beings.
Iain: And the thing is going back to what we talking about meditation, your own realisation from this retreat you did, you meditated and had great peace or whatever. You come out and you’re having friction with somebody in the queue for the food. If we actually look at that as a very simple example, and we magnify that many, many times, it just shows that it’s imperative to have these two sides if we’re on a spiritual path, if we’re trying to deepen our realisation we have to have the meditation, the quiet side – the quietening down of everything, the mind the nervous system, and we have to have the investigation, the understanding of why we have the mental programmes and the conflicts. You talk towards the end of the book about “embodying emptiness, meditation and emptiness, cleansing of the void”, these are all very important terms, and I know it’s a huge subject, but maybe just take us through, how once the nervous system does start to calm down, how once the mind starts to relax, how we’re able to more start that real journey of discovery within, beyond the obvious conditioning.
Theodore: Well in almost all meditation or spiritual practice that I’ve ever studied, almost all of them through the world, the tradition starts with some type of awareness of the breath, it’s kind of … beginning to contact and to embrace our physical sensation, that is the starting point you could say for greater self- awareness. I was curious as to why all spiritual traditions use that. What was the communality, the common thread? It turns out that there is a part of the brain in the frontal lobes that directs our attention and so on, that we can direct to pay attention to the sensations of our body. In doing so, that area when it’s activated, can make ourselves, force ourselves to say “ok when I’m breathing I can feel my belly, my chest, my arms and legs”, that part of the brain sends signals to the more primitive emotional areas “calm down, relax its ok”. It’s a basic connection that’s now been confirmed by a lot of studies in different laboratories throughout the world as this basic means of initiating calm. It’s only through this calmer space that we can have the frame of mind to begin to investigate more closely. If we’re always running forward, chasing after something, involved in our email, whatever it is that portion of awareness can’t relax, and begin to look around and ask questions. Why do I do that? Or why do I react to this guy in the food line, and so on.
Iain: Yes, but it can be uncomfortable at first if we start to do this, and we’re coming out of our habitual mind processing at a certain speed. We’re sitting and starting to realise what we’re doing, because it can challenge our identity.
Theodore: Challenge our identity is a great way of saying it, and also people feel like they’re really missing something. If I’m not on top of those things, if I’m not doing that all the time there’s going to be a disaster. There’s going to be a consequence. So, people if they don’t start, and enter into and give themselves an opportunity to just try it for 5 minutes and observe their breathing they’ll never know what kind of doors that can open for them.
Iain: Can you give some examples of yourself where this has kind of helped you in terms of, there’s the basic breathing - for people watching on the internet, we are going have a little exercise afterwards at the end of the programme, so you can see how Teddy recommends you do the breathing- but how has that affected you personally in terms of your life?
Theodore: Well you could say right here, right now there’s a way when I’m breathing now I’m trying to engage more, the lower part of mine lungs. This deeper breathing helps to activate peri- sympathetic fibres, more relaxing fibres. So when I’m out teaching, or in stressful situations in my own life, I think breathe more deeply in the lower part of my lungs and that automatically calms me down. When our breath is way up here in the upper part of our chest, we’re kind of telling ourselves there’s something to be panicked about, we should be alarmed about, and our awareness is just a kind of frenzied state. It doesn’t really pay attention, looking for danger basically. So, it can be that basic of a practice for people.
Iain: So what you’re saying is when you’re looking for danger, previously when you went into a situation you would be looking for danger, and then after you’ve done the breathing, and you’ve integrated, it might be a bit more peace in your life, you don’t see the danger in a situation when it doesn’t necessarily exist.
Theodore: Exactly. I begin to ask myself is this a situation that is actually dangerous, probably not. Occasionally it is, but for the most part I don’t live in an area in California where day to day there are realistic threats to my life. For many people, if we going around believing that, this instinct is over charged, the self- protective, tactical survival instinct, it’s unrealistic, it’s unproductive. It burns an incredible amount of energy, it just stresses us out, and it doesn’t help us deal with the realistic problems we’re facing. It’s a kind of over-blown threat of danger that doesn’t really exist.
Iain: And the instincts become intelligent which they were in the first place, but they got out of balance.
Theodore: Exactly. Part of our instinctual intelligence is to assess the realistic potential of danger, but if one instinct is dominating, and there are also instincts to relax and to connect with other people, that bring our nervous system down into a more regulated area, if that’s not operative, then you could say the instincts get very unbalanced. One dominates the other and wreaks all sorts of havoc in our lives.
Iain: So you talk about towards the end of the book about the “dissolution of consciousness beyond existence and non-existence”. What does that mean?
Theodore: Well, I became very interested in how to apply what I was learning about the instincts, the neural biology. How is this applicable to out spiritual journey? I don’t see them as really separate. We need to establish a practical base for living that supports and is aligned with our spiritual journey in whatever form that takes for different people. So, from the beginning I didn’t see them as separate, and I go back to the words I heard The Dalai Lama talk about – that was quite a long time ago- how he impacted me. He was saying how some type of change is easy but changing your body and behaviour is more difficult. So I began to look at my special area of study Tibetan Buddhism, taking it out of the forms, the way they describe it, the subjective the interior experiences they were meditating on. For example, in the Vajrayana practice, you start out by visualising a geo metric form and letters. I thought is that just something from their tradition, some strange idea they had as a ritual or something like that. I began to ask, what is the neurological basis for that? What happens in the human brain when we visualise a letter? Does it have to be a Tibetan letter, a Sanskrit letter? Any human being visualising a letter or a geo-metric form. It turns out there’s a lot of research on that. People have been studying these things, not in a spiritual context, but just in a pure neurocognitive context. So, I began to draw a lot on that research, putting together, asking myself, why are they visualising their guru? What happens when we visualise someone we really love? And even more complicated questions like, why do they visualise themselves as deities? What’s called Deity Yoga. What’s the importance of that? How does that affect the brain if you’re doing that? So, there aren’t a lot of studies yet on a lot of these advanced practices, but we’re beginning to pull bits and pieces from other research that can describe to us what happens as they go through this, these meditation practices. So the key thing to me in relevance to the emptiness and so on, that’s such a big a part of the Tibetan tradition, and the tradition that I studied within ‘The Diamond Approach, our understanding of inner space’ and so on, to why does the brain begin to have less activity, and how did certain familiar forms, ways of knowing ourselves, when they disappear, it feels like emptiness. There’s a space where something that was there is no longer there. So, I began to look at that, so what about these processes, neurological processes that can begin to change the wiring of our brains, neuro-plasticity in contemporary terms. How do these practices really evoke change? Not only building new connections like positive attitude, or more compassion, but take away those old dysfunctional habits that we have. The beliefs about ourselves, the images we have about ourselves, the things about our bodies, the ideas and limitations about it, and begin to erase those. So, in a sense you could say in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and in many spiritual traditions letting go of what’s familiar, going more into these places of emptiness where there’s nothing in the mind, no emotion, no sensation in the body, appears to be a very important mechanism, of what I call cleansing, cleansing the nervous system of its dysfunction, it’s patterns that just don’t work anymore, in favour when we do arise out of this emptiness, what’s left is something more organic, more instinctually intelligent, more human.
Iain: More balanced.
Theodore: More balance you could say.
Iain: So, what are the main things you do when you work with people. You work with people in the school you have. You do individual sessions and you also do some teaching, some training. So what are the fundamentals of that work?
Theodore: We do a lot of education because it’s really important for people to see how their nervous system works because one of the most difficult things in the initial phases of this work for people, is the amount of self-judgment, blame, guilt and shame people have about their own embodied energy, the way that they are functioning in the world. So by putting it in the context of, here is your nervous system, this is a picture of your brain, these are the kind of things you’re evolved and predisposed to do, it helps people take that sense of judgment away. So if there is something wrong with me, we can say, all human beings do this. We all have these tendencies. So we make it universal. These are difficulties you’re facing, I guarantee you’re not alone, pretty much every other human being at one time or another has felt the same thing. A lot of people feels it’s something wrong with them, and everyone else is doing really well. That’s one important thing. Another one is working with the self-judgment, and helping people recognise how that is inhibiting their natural instinctive intelligence. People feel a lot of shame in the area of sexuality for example. I work with a lot of young men, who really have a lot to offer relationships whether they are gay or straight, really want to be better at connecting with other human beings, explore more dating opportunities in relationships. A lot of them are seriously inhibited by shameful responses that they either learned from their parents, or there are also evolutionary mechanisms that suppress our sexual instincts. Educating them, they begin to recognise it, for me it’s satisfying to see that, “oh you mean other guys feel that way, really”. “Oh my God, I thought it was just something wrong with me”. So, working with the education and self-judgment, are the two primary areas, I begin with because it’s really hard for people to investigate their instincts if they feel a lot of shame and embarrassment talking about their body. It can be sexual inhibition, but a lot of people, they don’t want to get angry- I don’t get angry, I don’t get mad, I don’t get violent- and they lose all that energy, that access to it. It’s not about going around hitting people, killing people, obviously that’s not what we do, but it’s about getting access to that energy.
Iain: It sounds to me that you’re helping people find more of their potential.
Theodore: Absolutely, yes.
Iain: And in their potential, they’re also finding, more of an expression- these are my words here- of who they really are.
Iain: Again, in what we were talking about earlier, it’s about how this imbalanced nervous system and incorrect thinking, is keeping us tight, keeping us contracted. And we’re not opening up, not only to our potential as human beings, but our potential to be part of an expression of the oneness, as we like to say on Conscious TV, more and more. We’re all come from the same source. We’re all unique expressions of that source. It seems that your work is a very important key to help us to see where we are restricting ourselves.
Theodore: Absolutely. Not only in our practical day to day life but also in our interior spiritual world. To me, understanding the instincts, getting in touch with them, and getting a live, visceral feel for them, is inseparable from our fundamental awareness. When I really fully understood at least in my view, and this is somewhat controversial about Tibetan Buddhism especially about the tantric practices, the Vajrayana as a way of literally transforming their instinctual wiring as a means of spiritual practice I found when I really began to look at it in that light, their wisdom, their accuracy and their understanding of our basic instinctual impulses, how to contact them , work with them , and transform them is stunning. You could almost say that The Budhha was also a master neurobiologist in his understanding of methods and techniques that would be needed to transform our conscious awareness to levels of change both in ways that we relate to human beings, becoming more empathetic, but also exploring the subtler esoteric frontiers of consciousness. The instinctual intelligence needed to navigate to explore those realms of consciousness, is quite sophisticated. We can’t just come in with ordinary habits and beliefs and patterns, not only on a mental level but on a physiological level. At some point the very adaptive ways that human beings have learned to function on the surface of the earth, in the view of achieving complete enlightenment at least in the Buddhist tradition, become a bit of an obstacle. That attachment to the human body, to the human form to our ordinary experience, can be seen as something… that there are other possibilities for consciousness. There’s no need to be bound just to our body. It can include our body but there’s also more.
Iain: That’s a great summary. Ted we need to finish off now, but I want to thank you very much for coming along and talking to us on Conscious TV. We’re actually going to do a part two now, where we’re going to go into more detail, and more the practical side of working to maximise instinctual intelligence which is the title of Ted’s book which I found as I said at the beginning, it really provided me with something new, another way to look at who we are, and the detail of how the nervous system affects us. Thank you very much for watching Conscious TV, and if you’re watching on the internet, and you’ve got the time, do check out part 2. I hope we see you again soon. Goodbye.
Iain: Hello, and welcome to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay, and I have with me Renate McNay on my left.
Iain: And we’re both going to interview Theodore Usatynski, who we’re going to call Ted, as Theodore’s a bit of a mouthful. Ted has written a book that we both really enjoyed called to give you the full title “Instinctual intelligence- The primal intelligence of the nervous system and the evolution of human nature”. This is a part two. We’ve just done one interview with Ted, but this time we’re going to go more into how if the instincts are not evolved, if they are not balanced, can hold us in trauma and addiction which keeps the personality really tight and contracted, and that in itself doesn’t give us the potential to live our human life as we could, and also limits us in how we see the bigger picture of who we really are. So Ted, one thing that interested me from the notes that you gave me, and we’ve covered some of this in the first interview, you were saying that standard forms of psychotherapy did not always you found have lasting change. People would have psychotherapy, do a lot of work but would revert to their old patterns, and instincts. Just explain what you mean by that.
Theodore: If we look at the history of psychotherapy over the course say, beginning with Freud, and over the last hundred years or so or more now, many of the forms of therapy are about talking. Te person telling the analyst about their problems, difficulties in childhood and so on was very helpful in alleviating some of their neurotic symptoms they were suffering from, but there was a whole class of people who had different types of shall we say more intense, or now we use the words traumatic experiences, that didn’t really seem helpful to talk about it or understand. People could see and acknowledge it, but it didn’t seem to make a difference in their day to day behaviour. They seemed to have the same kind of inhibitions, anxieties, stress and so on, and they really have a hard time functioning, even at the most basic levels in their life, especially as we discussed, people coming back from war, World War One, World War Two, they really did not know how to help those people with any significant forms of therapy. It’s only in the last ten to fifteen years that the scientific research on trauma and the development of it as a field, a speciality within psychotherapy that has really begun to help people understand what’s going on in their nervous system, how it became dysfunctional and how it can be restored to its normal healthy functioning.
Iain: I know you did some work with Peter Levine and Pat Ogden which is the somatic experiencing work which is very much for working with trauma, but the interesting thing that I find more and more, is that we’re all traumatised. Certain people have the extremes that are obvious, but in our own way we’ve all had some trauma that is unresolved somehow, which has restricted our development.
Theodore: Yeah. You could say that anything that impacted and influenced the nervous system to function in less than an optimal way, we could say is a traumatic experience. A non-optimal experience for the human being that forces the natural healthy vibrancy of our instincts, emotions and cognitive patterns to function in ways that are not realistic, or adaptive to the current environment. So that’s a good way of characterising it. We’ve all had experiences that have somehow limited the natural vibrancy and health, that is the birth right of a human being.
Renate: What was so interesting for me in my own experience that I had a few months ago. I had this feeling that I wanted to know whether there was a trauma in my body, whether I’m holding some kind of trauma. I wasn’t aware of a trauma. I called a trauma therapist, and I said I don’t know if I have a trauma, I just feel interested in finding out. She said if there is a trauma in your body, the body will show us. It was so fascinating because she just said “just stay with your body, what do you feel”. I started feeling certain things, and then I would talk about it and with certain things- I had a few sessions- I got a picture of what it was related to, but with certain things, I didn’t get a picture. Then I actually experienced, with her guidance how my body started to discharge. It’s just wonderful to experience, how it is in the body and the intelligence of the body once you bring your awareness, and you allow it, it will tell you. It will tell us what is going on.
Theodore: It sounds really beautiful. It had a change for you.
Iain: I think that was what was missing in the old type of psychotherapy.
Theodore: Right. It was more about what you were thinking, or even about what you were feeling, but not so much about a normal verbal wisdom about the body that might not be articulated in words. That’s been the movement in the past ten to fifteen years. Really training therapists about how to look at the body, and understand what’s going on with the other the person, and to learn to ask the right questions to really help them in in their embodied experience, so as you said beautifully the natural healing process of the body comes to express itself naturally, without the inhibition of our mind, doubts and fears that we might have about it.
Iain: You talk about in the book about how emotionally intense experiences send the nervous system into a shock. So what’s basically happening as I understand it is that every time something happens that is outside our comfort zone, somewhere that is registering in the body. Somewhere the body is contracting, and that shock is somewhere in us. It may be a major thing; it may be quite a minor thing. From the little I know about the somatic work, the trauma work is that there is actually a process that animals go through, like a release process that we as human beings are not used to doing. Can you just talk us through how that works? You call it the polar bear experience.
Theodore: Yes. That’s one of Peter Levine’s great insights- an American researcher and therapist, really quite brilliant- and is really responsible I think for the whole shift in treatment of trauma. He was watching one day a film about a polar bear that was captured in the artic for a scientific study. They shot it with some kind of tranquilising substance and it fell over asleep. They manipulated it, testing inside its mouth, doing all these things. Finally, it started to wake up and they all started to run away because this was a large dangerous animal. The polar bear promptly stood up, sat there- you could see it was disorientated. It started shaking and shaking for two or three minutes just vigorously and then it stopped, and started walking as if nothing had happened. So he saw this as a natural capacity to shake off, or immediately discharge this energy and the memory of it from their nervous system in a way that wouldn’t affect them anymore. I think over the course of evolution animals particularly individuals of any species that had that capacity really survived, thrived and reproduced, and the ones that couldn’t discharge that trauma tended to hang on to it, didn’t survive and eventually died off. So, in a way that’s why we see the extraordinary resiliency of the animal kingdom in that way.
Renate: How does it actually feel in a body who is traumatised?
Theodore: Well that’s a great question. It doesn’t feel, that’s part of the problem. What happens is the fundamental mechanism of disassociation takes people who have experienced traumatic events in their life, or it can be loss also, anything that was painful or harmful to the nervous system, and one way of protecting the human nervous system from being over whelmed with this experience, is not to sense one’s body anymore to bear aware of that pain. The tension that can come from it, the complete inhibition, the frozenness that can come from it, the emotional pain that is associated with it, to be largely more aware of thoughts and not so aware of feelings, or the sensations of the body. So, for a lot of people they don’t experience their body as having this trauma. They just experience a lot of rapid thoughts. A lot of concerns with maybe safety, or for people who have suffered some kind of sexual trauma or abuse, they are preoccupied with sexual thoughts. Some of the behaviours that they go through have a feeling but its largely unconscious. It’s really not something that they are aware of. It’s much more the compulsive mental activity that dominates many people, or a feeling of depression, or a lack of emotional vitality.
Iain: The word you use is disassociation in the book and that seems to me to encompass what you’re talking about in so far as we don’t really feel. We don’t really embody the feeling in a healthy way so there’s a dissociation, a removal from the event be it a shock or a trauma or whatever, and because of that somehow it doesn’t complete itself. That’s where the example of the polar bear is really good. I’m going to tell a story now. Because we’ve got snow in England today and when the snow happens everything seems to break down, even though it’s not very much snow. So, we had to cancel one of the guests that were going to come because the trains were not running. But he was telling me a story last night about what happened to him. He works as a trauma therapist and he gave an example of a situation which was incredibly traumatising but he wasn’t traumatised because of how he was. He was caught in the 2004 Tsunami with his family in a beach hut. They were inside the hut and it started to slowly fill up with water and there was less and less air. He and his two sons who he was holding onto, had to get higher and higher up the hut to get the air that was left. It was like he was fighting, he was moving. So, in the end his decision was he would sacrifice himself for his two sons because he didn’t want his sons to die, and he to live. So, he put his sons up, they were quite young and his head came down in the water. At that point miraculously the hut kind of collapsed and they were then thrown out onto the beach, and of course they survived. He survived to tell the story. I said that must have been very traumatic. He said “it was but the trauma didn’t stay with me because of the movement I had”. I was fighting. There was a natural flow, and he didn’t need to clear anything afterwards because his body had cleared it. I thought that was very interesting how if we follow through. If we don’t freeze in fright or helplessness, then the body can act naturally.
Theodore: I think that is a great example of the basic theory underlying the treatment of trauma, is that when we’re in a dangerous situation in cases of abuse, violence, there are many cases where this is true, it’s not always the case. The body wants to engage in defensive actions to protect ourselves, and if we’re not able to do that especially children who experience violence or abuse of some kind. They are not able to either run away, the flight mechanism, or fight back, the fight instinct. Usually the only response they have is either a kind of protective freezing response or they have to actually work with the person that is tormenting them, called an attachment response in that situation. So they develop a way to keep safe by befriending their tormentor. Those are brilliant human mechanism of surviving incredibly dangerous situations. The only problem is that there is a need to suppress these more active flight or fight responses, the body wants to complete some action. So that in the way of speaking about it in trauma therapy is to help guide our clients back to these scenarios were their actual action was supressed, and allow the body to complete whatever it wanted to do in that particular situation. You never know what form it’s going to take. In your example of this man struggling to keep above the water, protecting his sons, that’s exactly what the instinctual action that he needed to do. So, in a sense he was complete. The intense experience wasn’t traumatic for him. It wasn’t inhibiting on his nervous system. It could have been different given a variety of circumstances.
Renate: And yet there are probably other people who in a similar situation freeze.
Renate: What decides in us to move, and what decides to be frozen? I can imagine his desire, his love for his children…
Renate: …Was the very force that kept him moving.
Theodore: Yes. Sometimes for our own protection we might be more inhibited, but we find sources of courage to protect loved ones. There are a lot of stories of humans doing extraordinary things for the sake of others that they probably wouldn’t have found the energy for themselves. So, it’s really quite touching that instinctual capacity to protect and defend one’s children can kind of supersede everything else.
Renate: I was reading several years ago, this story that happened in America. A small child got run over by a car, and one of the wheels was actually standing on the child. The mother in this situation was able to lift the car to get her child out. It’s incredible the force, the power.
Theodore: Extraordinary. It turns out that the mechanism for that is really what prevents a lot of humans from lifting a heavy object. It’s not the lack of strength, it’s the incredible pain that one experiences in one’s joints and muscles actually ripping and being damaged. So women have an instinctual capacity because of child birth and so on sometimes, to override pain in ways that some men can’t tolerate. Women have an instinctual mechanism especially when their kids are at stake to override that pain and actually do these almost super human feats.
Renate: It’s all about surviving, isn’t it (laughing).
Iain: Not only our own survival, but our children’s survival (laughing).
Renate: It has to go on.
Theodore: It does yes.
Iain: So, if we were to move on to addiction which is slightly different in form to trauma, but it’s almost quite dramatic what it does to the nervous system. Just talk us through not just the obvious addictions we think of as drugs and alcohol, but how we’re all addicted in some way, to our life style, to our programmes.
Theodore: That’s a good way to put it I think. If you look at our modern culture, or modern society, certainly just arriving here in London, it’s really no different from my life in San Francisco. People walk around quite busy with their digital mobile devices and so on. You could say that addiction is anything that kind of captures our attention, focuses our awareness in a pattern that really excludes other things to the detriment of our own life. It’s one thing to be focused on a task that you need to support yourself and so on, but there’s a choice when you’re done with that task, let it go. But what for the addicted mind, for whatever we’re addicted to, there are so many things, substances, pornography that we spoke of. Some people are addicted to being on Facebook, their computers, relationships. It can be a drama, we’ve talked about also, but it’s the repetitive pattern that focuses awareness in a way to the unhealthy exclusion of everything else. For all our modern sophistication, our world is quite good at making products that capture attention. Whether it’s the news presenting the latest terrorist attacks…
Iain: It’s always drama on the news.
Theodore: In America, yeah. It’s always overblown and designed to galvanise your awareness to pay attention to something, that everything else drops off. It takes advantage of the evolved predisposition of the human mind to focus on elements of danger in our lives briefly to the exclusion of everything else to help us to survive. But if we’re always doing that, that one way of classifying addictive behaviour, so the rest of your life is not really getting the attention it needs.
Renate: So are we actually addicted to something outside, or do we get addicted to this chemical rush inside?
Theodore: That’s a good question. From that point of view, you could say it’s more of an internal process. In our modern world advertisers, people who make all these products are quite skilled at knowing exactly how the brain works, and delivering that in a way that has the potential to be addictive. It’s also extremely helpful. It’s a balance each person has to find with what’s truly helpful and productive. But again balance, is the word I think we keep coming back to.
Renate: Yes, it also keeps the economy balanced (laughing).
Iain: I just get the feeling when we talk about this, the more I look at this, is that what is actually happening is we’re losing more and more our ability to tune in to the intelligence in the body. So with the addiction you were talking about the chemical rush here (pointing to head), with the trauma we were talking about the disassociation in the feeling of the trauma, and when we were talking earlier in our first interview about the balance between meditation and understanding how we work in terms of our mind, the key seems to be coming back to how we feel in our bodies. And that doesn’t mean “oh, I feel energised because I’m racing to do something”, it’ going beyond that, coming back to what is more of a depth of feeling in the body.
Theodore: We talked about that in the other programme the mechanism of paying attention to one’s physical sensations especially the breath. It triggers neurological programmes inside the brain that tell the areas that are secreting stress hormones, or telling us to be on alert, it tells them to calm down. It’s a very effective mechanism used by traditional cultures in the past, and now as a core part of treatment of trauma and addiction is to begin to sense the body as a starting point. But it’s hard almost to break that addiction to the outside world. We think that we’re going to miss something, almost like a desperation.
Iain: I know, I had that. You think you’ve got this one life… I know some people think there are lots of past and future lives, I don’t know about that- I know I’ve got this one life, and I want to live that life. I want to experience, I want to learn, all those things. The lure, the attraction of all the things you can do on the outside gets more, and more, and more. So, there’s always this seduction from the outside, were as of course as you’ve mentioned it’s the balance of enjoying the outside, but not at the expense of the balance of the inside.
Theodore: And even more so when people have trauma in their system, it can predispose them to be monitoring the external environment for some signs of danger, or the possibility of being harmed again in such an intense way, that it’s really hard to begin to bring them in to their own body, and that’s why usually we start with the inter personal connection, helping them feel attached and secure in the presence of another human being. There’s a lot of innate mechanism that calm the nervous system down. Often a starting point of building that relationship with them takes time.
Renate: When you (indicating IM) talked about feeling the body, and how important knowing what’s going, we never really learn as children to feel what’s in our body. I became aware recently, I was visiting my grandchildren, and my little granddaughter was really sad over something. My son took her and said “it’s ok to be sad”. I remember when I was sad my mother tried to make me happy, or if I was angry my parents did something to stop me from being angry. So, we learn it’s not ok what we feel in our body, that’s what we learn. Then of course, our senses go outside, and we look I guess, for all this pleasure outside and disconnect.
Theodore: As you say that, I think to myself what are we always teaching our children in school. It’s always about the alphabet, or science, all great things to learn. I don’t remember a class room ever where a teacher stopped a child and said what does your heart feel like, where are your feelings even about the most basic…
Renate: And it’s fine to be that way. The problem with that is we learn… we forget who we are, because that is who we are as a human being. Sometime you get angry, sometime we have bliss, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, and so we lose all that. And now we’re trying so hard to relearn it.
Theodore: …As adults what kids already know (laughing).
Renate: What do I feel now (laughing).
Theodore: …Kids are running around, just have them stop even for 30 seconds, and just feel their bodies. What kind of children would that produce? It would be interesting to see how that affects them.
Renate: Probably with a calmer nervous system.
Theodore: Maybe, self- aware in some way.
Iain: You also talk in the book about the adaptability and the evolution of the nervous system, and so in a way we are adapting to the challenges of modern society, but of course that adaptation to some extent has to be integrated in terms of how we’re able to move, not too fast to allow our body to catch up, to evolve. So, how do you see the nervous system? It’s obviously changed a lot for the human being since we were living very simplistic lives, how do you see the potential for our nervous system to develop over the next few years?
Theodore: You mean like future generations of human beings?
Iain: Yes. Life is not fundamentally going to change, and we’ve seen so many cases were… let’s take somebody two hundred years ago, there was no way that they could drive a car, and be on their mobile phone at the same time (laughing), people can do all this now…
Theodore: I’m not sure that that’s true actually.
Theodore: The human nervous system basically is at least the same as it was ten thousand years ago, if not more. Genetic change it is thought, generally takes about ten thousand years for some kind of environmental pressure to act on the process of natural selection to result in enough genetic mutation and selection over time to produce a new trait that’s more adaptive. So, a few generations won’t do it. So in some sense we’re dealing with… human beings in the modern age are stuck with a nervous system that’s much more suited to living ten, twenty, thirty thousand years ago than it is now. Especially in the last century with all the enormous change we’ve had. Our nervous system hasn’t really had any chance to adapt to that. One of the ways we see, we talked about it, is in diet. Human beings aren’t designed to eat lots of sugar. We never had access to wheat and everything before ten thousand years ago, so we’re flooding ourselves with all this so- called nutrition, substances anyway, that the human body isn’t really designed to digest, or make proper use of. So that’s one example, in some sense are basic body structures aren’t that adaptable without a lot of deliberate practice and training. It won’t happen genetically very quickly.
Iain: So, what is surprising to me was that I’ve meditated for many, many years. I’ve done a lot of work on myself, had many realisations, and then about eighteen months ago, I had some somatic experience sessions. The guy I had them with just showed me the basic breathing which is being aware of your breath. Breathing from here (indicating lower abdomen) and slowing the breath. Actually, I realised over breathing, I was breathing in too much oxygen. There wasn’t the right combination of oxygen and carbon dioxide, so the oxygen wasn’t effectively getting into my cells as much as it could do, because I was over breathing. What was very interesting was, being someone that is a type six in the enneagram, who can be sometimes quite a nervous person, a fearful person, I found that doing the breathing regularly, it improved my sleep at night. It improved how I felt in the morning, and it certainly improved my ability to respond to situations which could have been challenging beforehand, let’s say, weren’t always challenging, but could be. It’s just that simple process of changing your breathing. I found if you do that as much as you can, being aware of your breathing when you’re sitting at home, meditating, driving your car, you can be aware of how you are breathing. If appropriate you slow your breathing down, everything slows down, and of course through that, I found you get more and more in touch with your body, in touch with the feelings in the body. That I found, and still find overrides a lot of the chemical activity here (pointing to head), because it’s bringing me to something more of a grounded base. Ironically through that grounded base, I start to feel more of who I really am, which is the human being, but also the expanded awareness. And so, the more attention on the breathing, the more the ability to feel the body brings about an opening. It brings about… it takes me away from the dramas here (pointing to head) to reality, and makes me feel more balanced. I was just surprised it had so much effect, after 35 years of meditation, which I do most days, and a lot of investigative work. It’s like understanding is very important from the mind’s point of view, but it has to be for me and I think many people, combined with the ability to feel what’s really happening in the body.
Theodore: Yes, it’s like a doorway to all the unused rooms in the mansion of our consciousness almost, to find out that there is so much more there. We think it’s outside of us but really by grounding our awareness in that way, and it’s not just about paying attention to the breath – it doesn’t end there- but that’s where it really begins in many ways.
Iain: Well it’s where life begins in a way, well it’s not true that life actually begins there, but it’s the first thing we do when we’re born, we breathe, and without the breathing, we’re not going to survive. It is such a fundamental thing and you were saying (indicating Renate) earlier about teaching in schools. Well I wish they had taught me how to breathe at school. I know it sounds a silly thing to say but it’s so fundamental, if you breathe properly then your body functions a lot better.
Renate: Do you think… you were telling in the first interview the story of you were in a Buddhist monastery meditating, how you had experience of bliss and expansion and so forth, and you were queuing up in the food line. Your greed, food and instincts came back to be satisfied. Do you think if you had been in the same situation connected to your breath and embodied what you just experienced, what would have happened to your instincts?
Theodore: That’s a really interesting question. I wonder in part if … a lot of it has to do with when we say meditation, or Buddhist meditation and things like that, as Americans, or westerners in general we’re divorced from the cultural context of those practices where I’ve learned in hearing Dan Brown talk there’s much more emphasis on the emotions, the feelings, in some ways they weren’t body psychotherapists, but that was more included overall in their practices and so on. So, I think in some ways when we learn about meditation we learn only bits and pieces of the tradition divorced from some of its broader contexts, so for me I think that’s what turned my attention toward the feeling that something is missing. The meditations I was doing involved a lot of invoking compassion, things like that, or calming or disciplining, focusing the mind, the concentration meditations. I found them wonderful and effective but divorced from my body in some way that might not take place in ordinary Tibetan culture. At least in my culture I was largely disassociated from my body, so learning to pay attention and to be open to the sensations of my body, to all the flood of emotions, to things I didn’t understand why it was happening, as you said. In the trauma work sometimes, movements, feelings would come that you have no conscious explanation for, but nonetheless, that’s the wisdom of the body expressing itself. So, I wonder if I had known about that… I do feel very different in lunch queues now (all laughing).
Iain: It depends how hungry you are.
Theodore: Yes, it depends how hungry I am of course.
Iain: You also talk in the book about the Dalai Lama. You had some contact with him many years ago, and you did some classes with him. You feel that he is someone who has overcome the drama if you like of the instincts. You feel he’s pretty balanced. Just talk us through how you feel with him, and some of the practices you know he’s done.
Theodore: It’s one of the striking things I noticed the very first time I saw him; it must have been 30 years ago. He was giving a speech somewhere, and I was fairly close to him. I remember he was laughing, and on his way out, even before he started speaking, there were all these kids that went up to see him. He started talking and playing with them. At some point they had an announcement “would His Holiness please come to the front of the room and make the speech”. You’ve got to stop playing with the children basically. And there was just something… and I thought he’s different than I am. At some fundamental level, even just his body alone seems to be different. There’s a discrepancy between the way I feel most of the time and the way he feels. And so just been around someone who’s had that level of realisation -that’s not unique to Tibetan Buddhism or anything like that – you can viscerally feel that in their nervous system something is different. You feel a sense of calm, peace or happiness, or clarity with these great teachers. One of the things that he spoke of was how easy it is to change your ideas about things but to change the way you feel, that took more practice. But to really change, I don’t know if he used the word instinctual because some of this was through his interpreter, but that’s kind of what I heard, but change your behaviour, your body, your basic instincts, that took the most advanced practices Tibetan Buddhism had. He was making a case that in these initiations and tantric practices, this is really a powerful means of transforming your entire body, your entire being all the way down to the deepest cellular attachments, and predispositions to the instinctual mechanisms of the human body. That really impressed me how seriously he took it, and how dedicated to the practices one has to be. As I began to investigate them more I saw so many things that they did. For example, some of your viewers might be familiar with the practice of Tummo meditation, inner heat meditation where one generates a great deal, by meditation practices these Tibetan monks and Tantric practitioners, tremendous levels of heat within their body. At first it was dismissed, it’s really cold in Tibet up in the mountains, they need to keep themselves warm. There’s far more to it than that. There’s an extraordinary instinctual intelligence at work. They have learned to harness certain aspects of the instinctual structure of the human body and using them as a way to transform their consciousness. It’s really extraordinary the technology they’ve developed, what we’ve developed I don’t think is anything close to what they’ve learned on an inner scale, and I think over the next 10 or 20 years it’s going to be fascinating for our culture to learn and start to take a part. We’ve begun to study the brain at a basic level of the effects of meditation, but to delve down deep and see how they are reprograming the deepest levels of the brain stem and the mid brain is really going to be a frontier. It will be fascinating for us as explorers of consciousness to learn these universal mechanisms that really allow us to apply it to every culture, not just the exclusive domain of traditional spiritual practice, including the education of children.
Renate: I was fascinated reading in your book how the Dalai Lama, you start out saying “The Dalai Lama practices every day dying” (laughing), and working on the dissolution of his body, only if he manages that, can he reach Buddhahood”. I thought that is fascinating.
Theodore: I saw a beautiful picture once of the Dalai Lama meditating once, without his glasses and everything when I was younger. I thought, what is he actually doing? What is his experience? Surely it’s different from mine, and it peaked my curiosity to learn about the practices that someone at his state of evolution of consciousness, still does. Every morning from what I understand, he’s up at 4am. If he has the time he’ll meditate to 8am or even longer. I think he’d like to meditate more, and do less work, being the Bodhisattva that he is, he has to help us also. To delve into the sophistication, the complexity was quite at times incredibly discouraging for me, because every time I went to an initiation and learned and learned about a new practice even at an introductory level, I would feel, “oh my God, this is so complicated’. It’s going to take years to learn. I remember one of my first Buddhist teachers, I went in there after a couple of weeks of meditation – you give an interview with one of the senior teachers there, a Lama- and I kind of complained, that this seems really basic. I was just starting out and was thinking I’m quite a great meditator. All I’m really doing is visualising these letters and these blocks, all these pictures of the past teacher and everything. I’m ready for a much more sophisticated practice now, this is pretty easy. He would talk with the translator and they would converse back and forth and he said “well, we don’t have anything easier for you” (all laughing). I was feeling like I was in kindergarten, the child school and so on. He was, “that’s just about right”. He wasn’t mean or anything, I didn’t realise what was involved. The extraordinary dedication it would take and ongoing practice just to learn about, much less practice, much less develop any proficiency whatsoever in these meditations.
Iain: What does this mean practically for us in the west? We have our busy lives. We have to earn a living like everyone else. People have families to look after, lots of details, lots of distractions. I know one thing you also talk about in the book is how there is an art still to come of distilling down – you have your work in The Ridhwan school , you do a lot of Tibetan Buddhism, many of the things you’ve explored, the trauma work, shamanic work at one point- and yet it’s taken you so many years to do all this work, and we have all this knowledge form the east and the west, and its bringing together, and certainly with The Ridhwan school, AAH Almaas does a wonderful job of bringing east and west together, but where is it going in terms of taking this knowledge, distilling it down? So that it’s something practical and realistic, that somebody in the west can do in their lifestyle, still living a life, earning some money. Not going off living in a cave or whatever, and also balancing and transforming their instincts so they have intelligent instincts.
Theodore: It would be multiple full time jobs (laughing). Think about everything we’ve talked about already, the vast diversity of fields, from psychotherapy, the treatment of trauma, meditation, more advanced Buddhist type complex meditations, the psychological aspects, learning about the neuro – biology. It’s taken me years and years to develop some level of expertise in each of these, and now beginning to synthesize it and put it into a more integrated fashion, that’s more appropriate. How do we take all this knowledge and put it in a way that people can understand it and implement it in their lives? One of the things it’s forced me to do in terms of being an educator is to find ways to convey all this information in a more integrated and compact way, that’s why I developed with the help of my digital friends in the Bay area of San Francisco, Apple headquarters and this type of media environment, is to produce 3D animation that explains what’s happening in the brain, how these meditation practices are done because people need a way to learn about it. They’re not going to become experts in all these different fields, but they do need to have a picture of how this information works in their own bodies. I found that instead of just writing books about it, which is important for specialists, but for the average person to see visual depictions of all this, in an integrated condensed way, really accelerates their own willingness to try these practices and their own understanding. It’s almost like an accelerated form of learning that’s needed in today’s modern digital world, especially for the younger generation. There are just too many books, in too many specialities. They need a more integrated education system. So, that’s step number one, just learning about it, as the Tibetan’s would say “Moisten the mind stream” to be open to it. Finding what are the key universal human principles of how the nervous system works, and designing meditation and different practices for people that are very attuned to their own cultural environment. If you take a lot of people and show them some kind of Tibetan system, or Taoist tradition, or all the different ways we have, the great ethnic cultural diversity, it’s simply going to be too alien to a lot of people, but to get them to start with their breathing, and just paying attention to the breathing, is a start. I’m hopeful that all this vast studying we’re doing about psychotherapy, in trauma treatment, meditation, will lead to more and more universal principles of how the human mind…
Iain: It’s a synthesis of all of them.
Theodore: Exactly… functions, and how we can make that accessible to more and more people, translating it into the universal language of the human body. I think it’s going to be a great starting point. I’m very hopeful that that can actually happen.
Renate: One thing our teacher said, we have the same teacher in The Ridhwan School – Hammed- I was actually reading from his latest book, and he says that after writing 15 books, and has probably one of the biggest spiritual schools on the planet, he says “I’m writing all these books, and I’m teaching you all these things, only for your mind to relax”. Because that’s the only thing that needs to happen. I guess breathing is the start (all laughing).
Theodore: I guess it is.
Iain: Well it is. What I discover more and more for myself it’s the simplicity that is really the breakthrough. Understanding is great, and understanding has a lot of value, especially for someone like me who has a relatively strong mind. It’s important understanding, but the real quantum shifts are to do with simplicity, and just the breathing, and the mindfulness of being aware of what the body’s feeling, and the impact that has on me. That provides a lot, and I think I would go along with Renate somehow maybe the simplicity and the synthesis of what we were talking about, all the different traditions, and maybe they meet somewhere. I think for anybody watching this programme- I shall ask you the same question in a minute. I think my answer to the people watching this programme and wanting to know how to start, is to start with something very simple, but make that, a kind of a commitment- Discipline is not a great word I know, not a pleasant word, but commitment they honour. They say well I’m going to start. Its only 5 minutes a day, 10 minutes, whatever, then it starts to be a journey. It starts to be an adventure. It starts to be something actually can be very exciting at times. It can be very stimulating, but not over stimulating, and then the world starts to open. Then you get…there’s whole chapters we haven’t touched on in your book, how the instincts can be tuned to really bring out our potential, in a certain area of life. Very quickly just run throw the main chapters on different people. You have one on Abraham Lincoln, one on Madonna…
Theodore: Oprah Winfrey.
Iain: Oprah Winfrey.
Renate: Tiger Woods.
Theodore: Yes, even Abraham Lincoln who is the subject of a new movie now. I quite enjoyed that. Stephen Spielberg’s understanding of his capacity for persistence in the face of adversity was really quite extraordinary, not just his own perseverance but the fact that he was trying to free slaves – an abominable American tradition but that was so engraved into our society that he had to carry out this fight, and hold this will and persistence in the face of opposition, bloodshed, probably the worst point in our history. To bear that burden and represent something even more than yourself is one of the highest forms of instinctual intelligence that I can imagine.
Renate: I just have a question. Sometimes in the most relaxed situation, I’m sitting there completely chilled out after meditation, this grabbing feeling – probably a grabbing instinct coming up- and it feels like for action, for life. Is this something healthy or unhealthy? It’s like something in me, this instinct wants to leave this place of rest, and just wants to go out there and experience things (laughing).
Theodore: Judging by the way you are laughing and smiling, it seems pretty healthy to me (laughing).
Renate: I don’t know. It’s that just and addiction to some sort of chemical…, that’s trying to seek attention.
Theodore: The only way to find out is to live it. And what is this? Your hand is going like this (grabbing motion), feeling the sensation of the grabbing itself. That beautiful smile on your face, what’s that feeling like, to fully inhabit it, explore it?
Renate: Really Ted, just listening to you, and this book helped me so much to understand …
Theodore: I’m glad to hear that.
Renate: …a completely different level in myself.
Theodore: Hopefully more accepting. The question is not so much, is it bad, is it good, more, what is it like?
Renate: It just wants to be there as well. Be recognised, be in the light.
Renate: And seen.
Theodore: I’m very happy to hear you say that.
Renate: Me too.
Iain: So, we need to draw to a close. There is so much more we could talk about. As you rightly say in the introduction to the book, the world of the instincts has not been really explored in a contemporary way very much, and certainly Ted’s book “Instinctual Intelligence” is a great start. Some of it can be a little bit dense, but other parts… because the chapters are built around various personalities, famous people you would know, give it much more of an accessible feel. I think there is something for everybody in this book whatever stage they are on their journey as such. Ted, you’ve flown over especially from Norway for the interview, we appreciate that.
Theodore: You’re welcome.
Iain: I thank Renate for joining me here. This was an impromptu one as there were two other guests that were going to join Ted on the panel but were stuck in the snow. Hopefully we’ve filled the void and I certainly enjoyed it anyway.
Renate: Is there not also something else to come?
Iain: Well on the internet what we are going to do, is after this programme both a meditation and a presentation both of which Ted has put together.
Theodore: Covering animation.
Iain: Yes, the animation. Thank you for watching Conscious TV, and hope to see you again soon. Goodbye.
Hi, I’m Theodore Usatynski. As a follow up to the interviews we’ve done on Conscious TV, I’m going to be introducing you to a brief meditation practice involving paying attention to your breath. It’s quite simple, and can be used as a means of reducing stress in day to day living. Also as an introduction into more extended meditation practice but let us beginning simply by sitting down, and finding a posture that is comfortable for you. Ideally, we would like the spine to be as straight as possible. So for some of you that will involve moving up in your chair a bit, perhaps sitting on your sixth bone, and also finding some kind of support in your back, or taking your back a off the back chair in order to have your spine a little straighter. Not sitting to far back or too slumped over in some way, but one that feels natural without too much effort to keep your spine aligned, as if there were string running through your spine, coming out the top of your head, and just pulling your head up also, so your head is not heavy and sitting on top of your shoulders too much. The important thing is to be comfortable, and this posture may change over time also.
The basic technique is to on the in breath, breathe in through your nose into your lower belly. The idea is to breathe more air into your lower lungs especially the area that kind of pushes out your belly, is to invite the activation of what are called peri-sympathetic fibres that are more predominate in the lower lobes of the lung. This will help induce a relaxing calming response, and help take away from many of the habitual familiarity that many of us have of breathing too much into the upper part of our lungs, gasping for air in a way that activates our sympathetic nervous system and can produce more stress in our system. So it’s simply taking a fairly full big breath through your nose, down through your nose and into your lower lungs in a way that pushes out your lower belly (demonstrates). Some people like to breathe… they exhale through their mouth, in many ways it’s better to do it through your nose. It helps better with carbon dioxide regulation ion the body, and that in turn will produce more balanced oxygen levels. So the basic meditation is to simply begin by breathing through your nose (demonstrates). Notice the sensation of the air going through your nostrils, through your windpipe, and its effect of pushing out your lower belly. In fact, it might be helpful to exaggerate that at first, helping your belly push out a bit, and letting it extend, an inch or two (demonstrates). Either breathing out though your mouth, or through your nose.
Now in order to sustain your awareness of the breath and especially on the physical sensations of breathing, what I do and encourage my clients and students to do, is to notice the sensations that are actually occurring in your belly and lower chest while you are breathing (demonstrates). So, for example on that breath right there, one of the things I feel first is like a stretching of the skin on my stomach. It’s important not to breathe to quickly, just at a pace that’s natural. In this breath I could feel the air coming more intensely through my nose, hitting my nostrils. In a way you’re just noticing the sensations of the breath whether they are occurring in your nostrils, maybe your windpipe, but especially in your belly. Now as I’m sensing, I’m noticing I’m feeling a little bit constrained. I have my pants on, my belt on, pressure against the front of my belly. Again there is no right or wrong way to do this, or that your clothes should be loser or more tight. It’s simply a matter of noticing the sensations. If you’re doing this out in the real world, or at work, or with your children, you might not have time to set up the ideal conditions. The whole object of it is to pay attention to the sensations. On that breath I could feel a sense of expansion in my stomach, as if I’m pushing out an internal pressure. I’m also noticing a bit of a down ward pressure as I really let more air come into my lower lungs. I’m also hearing the sound of my own breathing, noticing this light kind of high pitched tone, almost a whisper of a tone as the air passes through my nostrils. I’m also noticing I’m a bit hungry, my stomach feels a bit empty. Again, these are just sensations, just to pay attention to them. There are no good sensations, bad sensations, right sensations, or wrong ones. None of them are more enlightened than the other, simply sensations and the very active paying attention to them, begins to exert an effect on the nervous system of calming, relaxing awareness settling the mind. So as I took a few more breaths I noticed there was a bit of tension in my legs that I was using to hold myself up a bit. I’m able to relax that, relax under the weight.
So that’s all there really is to it. Just keep watching your breath, noticing the sensations in your belly and in your body. Slowing down. If your mind has thoughts, distractions, you find yourself thinking about what you’re going to do later, emails that you’re going to answer, what you’re going to eat later and so on, they’re ok just to notice them to, come back to the breath. The truth is, if you’re pinched for time and can only get a few breaths in, that too can be very helpful in just lowering the feverish pitch of our nervous system in stressful situations. If you have more time to continue the exploration, continue watching the breath, watching the sensations, paying attention to how the volume of air is coming into your belly, how big it feels, how small it feels, the size, the pressure. Sometimes you feel the temperature of the air coming in, if it’s cool or warm. Just start to notice more and more the sensations and the perceptions that are arising directly in your body. Continue with this as long as it feels comfortable or for as long as you like, or you want to. See how it goes, and where that leads you. Thank you very much and I wish you luck with this meditation.
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