Ralph struggled for years digesting childhood trauma, because he never could reconcile a repeated tug of war between two mind states that kept painfully repeating themselves in everyday life. Either he reflected on his trauma and he felt like he was intellectually examining someone else’s experience from afar without much details of experience, or he got plunged into reliving the trauma in all its details and felt he was drowning in a tornado of unbearable pain. This left him at a loss as to which view point is the truth.
Our organism is fundamentally energy flow organized into a temporarily well orchestrated collection of interrelated energy flow processes of different kinds and complexities. As such we are energy flow processing machines capable of modulating this energy flow in different complex ways that manifest as different organismic structures, from cells to organs, organ systems and minds. As energy enters our organism through its senses, it first flows in an unencumbered way, only limited by the structure of each sense organ that specializes in capturing a limited aspect of the universe’s energy flow. For example, our eyes only capture the energy flow of light between the wave lengths of 400-700 nanometers. X-rays, infrared or ultraviolet light with wave lengths outside this visible spectrum are not captured by our eyes. This energy that flows unencumbered from the environment into the organism gives rise to what we call ‘direct experience’, and is referred to as ‘bottom-up processing’ or ‘conduit’. Direct somatic sensations in your body are an example of this. When you are fully immersed in the conduit, you feel you are in the middle of direct experience like being in the middle of the market place with all its noises, smells and other sensations, like being in the streets of Paris or in the process of eating a meal. In the midst of the traumatic tornado of his past, Ralph is in the conduit.
This energy then flows through the peripheral nervous system into the central nervous system up the ladder of increasingly complex elaborations by the different levels of the brain. In this process this ‘pure’ energy gets mixed in with and influenced by memory and organization of prior experience, thus turned into a constructed energy form we call ‘top-down processing’ or ‘constructor’. This constructed energy form manifests in different ways, one being thoughts about the direct experience of conduit, experienced as a distant intellectualized conceptualization of direct experience, like looking at the market place from a hill top afar, like looking at a map of Paris with pictures or reading the menu before a meal.
What’s important is to realize that both conduit and constructor are essential aspects of human experience, none more important than the other. The problem arises when we get locked in either place. Ordinarily we get locked into a life lived from the point of view of the constructor, without access to the conduit, thus losing access to a tremendous amount of information necessary for a fully embodied, alive and healthy life experience. People with trauma like Ralph often experience the distressing opposite of getting locked into reliving the trauma in the conduit, thus losing the necessary perspective for living a balanced life.
For Ralph the revelation came when I pointed out the pros and cons of each view, and the fact that far from being contradictory or conflictual views of different realities as he saw it, they are complementary and convergent views of the same reality. Imagine walking a trail in the jungle, experiencing nature in all its full and impactful glory, and experiencing this same jungle viewed from the space station with all the context of this marvelous blue planet in a cold, vast and scary universe.
While abstract and virtual, the constructor is also immensely flexible, capable of tremendous creativity in developing new maps, viewpoints, stories and understandings. The constructor makes human civilization and culture possible. The conduit is much more fixed and concrete. While the constructor can easily appear stale, dead, cold and not nourishing like a menu in comparison to a meal, the conduit is fresh, vibrant, alive and nourishing like the meal itself. The conduit is always just freshly emerging in the present moment, presenting reality by conveying the sense of presence that the constructor, always only re-presenting reality, is unable to. Through the presence of the conduit we live and relive direct life in all its infinite details in a constantly new and fresh process of emergence and recreation. Meanwhile, the constructor roams the far-away times of non-existence, the past that is no more except in the form of its repetition in the present, and the future that is not yet except in the form of anticipation in the present. The uniqueness and specificity of conduit experience contrasts to the averaged, invariant experience of the constructor, giving the conduit the power of presence and directly lived life, and the constructor the power of re-presentation, planning and problem-solving. As such, in the conduit vibrancy and aliveness come with excitement or fear, while in the constructor abstractness and virtuality come with calmness or numbness. Through the conduit we dig up memories that are locked in our bodies in their implicit form, making them available to the constructor in their explicit form. The conduit allows us to tap into the richness of moment-by-moment energy flow, the constructor helps us use this information to develop coherent narratives about our lives. In short, we need access to the conduit to feel alive and access to the constructor to gain perspective. Through the conduit we feel, through the constructor we learn. Mastering access to both in a balanced way is what wisdom is all about.
Ralph needed to learn how to freely navigate with his attention and awareness these shifts between conduit and constructor. His organism was like a dysfunctional orchestra with corners of rigidity and chaos everywhere that impeded him to function harmoniously as a whole. He needed to harness the power of a central integrator, of a good orchestra director so to speak, to bring those parts into harmonious collaboration. The medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) is what has this function in our brains, and through meditation and psychotherapy we harness its power of master integrator.
Each time he moved into the conduit, aided by the tools of mindful inquiry he was learning, he faced the fear of re-experiencing old traumas in real time by holding the experience in the loving embrace of his MPC’s awareness. Then, instead of being re-traumatized by simply reliving the trauma on autopilot, the relived experience and its correlated neurofiring patterns became a bit more reconnected with the whole organism that he is, a bit more integrated. This made it possible for him to be a bit better able to meaningfully interact with the rest of his mind, instead of remaining sequestered in dissociated chunks of energy flows. Conversely, each time he moved from the conduit into the constructor, equally aided by the tools of mindful inquiry, after having relived and reexamined another chunk of dissociated conduit experience in more detail, he could develop a more coherent narrative of his life’s story, a more coherent map of the scary jungle of his energy flow, a more comprehensive view of the conduit terrain. Toggling back and forth like that, from danger to safety and back, from immersion into the jungle of direct experience to the perspective on the wide context of his existence and back, his picture of reality became increasingly complete, differentiated and complex (as opposed to ‘complicated’, the way it was before when he was caught in chaos).
Such evolution comes with an increased sense of relief from suffering, a decrease of symptoms and greater health. It is important to mention that the techniques and tools necessary to deal with the conduit and the constructor are partly different, which is why the combination of psychotherapy and meditation is so crucial. This may be a little too simplified, but roughly speaking the constructor is only fully accessible through psychotherapy, while the conduit only through meditation. Ultimately, Ralph discovered that both conduit and constructor show an aspect of the same truth; both your expedition into the jungle and your space walk at the space station reveal different aspects of the same truth, aspects we need to lovingly and wisely hold in the great arms of our awareness with openness and acceptance, without excluding any view. Only then do we discover how these different perspectives are not conflicted, but complementary, and that TRUTH beyond this truth or that truth, can only be intuited by embracing all of its different manifestations into one whole.
Copyright © 2017 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.