I had a, “learning dream,” about the Knight of Swords last night and it was very interesting. Learning dreams – for me at least – are quite different from ordinary dreams. They’re dreams that answer questions that we really need solutions to, and sometimes we don’t even know it. In my world, they’re instructions from Spirit Guides and Mentors who are helping me along my path. In your world, you may see them as a sort of intuitive understanding of truths that have eluded you in waking life.
The Knight of Swords shows a Knight in full armor, sword extended, in a balls out gallop. It’s a totally concentrated, furious charge toward whatever he or she means to conquer. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the eyes of the horse are rolled backward, as if to say, “Okay, you’ve got the spurs, you’re in charge, but WHAT IN THE FUCK are you doing?”
Now, aggression is a perfectly normal part of human life, so much so that the Tarots suit of swords can be seen as representing a variety of aggressive ego states. Aggression is, after all, one half of the famous Fight or Flight reaction. There are times when it seems that we have no choice but to fight to defend ourselves or to stand up for what we consider to be right.
But what happens when we get, “stuck,” in that reaction? What happens when we live in a state of Fight or Flight?
Well, we start to break down and fall apart. Our bodies are constantly flooded with stress hormones and we develop high blood pressure, heart problems, and sleep deficits. Our minds become paranoid, habitually anxious, and we start to feel increasingly isolated and alone. It’s not pretty.
The revelation that came to me in my dreams last night is that there are really two elements operating in concert when we get stuck in Fight or Flight. The first is the internal dialogue. Buddhists refer to that as, “monkey mind,” the constant, chattering thoughts that will really mess up your meditation sessions. Eckhart Tolle discusses it quite a bit in terms of, “ego,” which he views as a sort of an artificial construct of the mind that was a result of a wrong turn in our evolution.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s there: an endless stream of thoughts that tend to operate just below the level of our conscious control. And we really can’t do much about that. As Emily Fletcher says in Stress Less, Accomplish More: The 15-Minute Meditation Programme for Extraordinary Performance the mind thinks involuntarily in the same way that the heart beats involuntarily. Thoughts are a natural by-product of the mind, in the same way that waves are a natural by-product of the ocean.
The second element in a stuck Fight or Flight reaction is the body, that wonderful amalgam of proteins and hormones and electrons that’s constantly whizzing around creating and recreating our physical selves. More specifically, we’re talking about that part of the body that’s intimately connected with Fight or Flight, the amygdala in the brain and the stress hormones.
When we’re confronted with something that the brain interprets as being dangerous, the amygdala jumps up and screams, “Holy Shit! Watch out! It’s a Frumious Bandersnatch!” And then our brain dumps about 80 million gallons of adrenaline and cortisol into our systems, our blood pressure shoots up, we become hyper-focussed and we’re ready, by god, to fight!
All of that’s good when we’re confronting Bandersnatches and Jabberwocks and we need to stay alive. But we were never meant to live in Fight or Flight for extended periods of time. We were meant to engage in intense physical activity – fighting or running – that burns up the adrenaline and the cortisol rapidly and allows us to return to a normal state of consciousness.
When we live through an extended period of stress – military combat or a marriage from hell or taking care of a loved one who is dying by inches for years – then the Fight or Flight reaction becomes habitual. It becomes our normal way of behaving and of perceiving the world.
It becomes a self-feeding cycle that operates independently of what’s really going on in our world.
The first thing that happens is that the quality of our internal dialogues change. We begin to see the world, “through a glass darkly,” and it shows up in the quiet chatter at the backs of our minds.
My life is so fucked up.
I can’t get a break.
I’m such a loser.
Why does this shit keep happening to me?
The kicker is that the Fight or Flight system in our brains is so ancient that it’s literally pre-verbal. It evolved long, long before we developed speech or nuances in thought. So it’s not hearing, “the world was a dangerous place,” or, “I’m having obsessive thoughts about something that’s over.” All it’s hearing is, “There is danger,” and it’s continually dumping more and more stress hormones into our bodies so that we can respond to the danger.
And there’s a feed-back loop that starts up. Our bodies are incredibly stressed from the hormones and our brains pick up that stress and interpret it as, “Something’s wrong. Something’s dangerous.” Which in turn makes the amygdala jump up and scream, “Holy Shit! It must be another Frumious Bandersnatch! Dump some more stress hormones!”
At a certain point it really does become almost like an independent, autonomous personality that we can’t control any longer. Our circumstances may change completely. We may be OUT of combat, we may have divorced the horrible, abusive spouse, we may have gone through the death of a partner and emerged on the other side of the grief. But that Fight or Flight personality just keeps on trucking.
The problem is two pronged – the inner dialogue and the body – and so the solution needs to be two pronged. First of all, we need to be very, very conscious of our inner dialogue and start transforming it. It’s like a radio operating at a very low volume that we only half hear. TURN IT UP. Listen to it. Start flipping every negative thought into a positive affirmation. When we can turn that constant stream of negatives into a constant stream of positives, it interrupts the self-feeding cycle and starts to shut down the stress reaction.
Second, soothe the hell out of our bodies. I mean that literally. If we’ve lived through years of stress, our bodies are pretty tortured by it. Take the time for hot baths, listen to quiet, peaceful music, take naps, lie in the grass, visualize beautiful scenes, masturbate or make love, BE GENTLE. The more we soothe our bodies, the fewer stress hormones we’ll have. The fewer stress hormones we have, the more our inner dialogues will change to healthy, grateful thoughts.
Like any big change in behavior, it can feel very complicated at first, but it’s not. It’s really just a matter of transforming ourselves into the kinds of people that we’d LOVE to live with. Because . . . you know . . . we are the people we live with, and who wants to live with a depressed roommate?