The Knight of Swords, Fight or Flight, and Getting Frumious Bandersnatches Out of Our Heads

Ending the endless cycle of stress.

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?

The Ten of Swords, the Death Card, Child Abuse and Forgiveness

It’s hard to put an exact figure on it because child abuse tends to operate in the darkness, but most statistics indicate that about one in five people were abused as children. That abuse can, of course, be a broad spectrum of behaviors from physical abuse to emotional and social abuse to sexual abuse, or a combination of all of those. And therapists will take different approaches in treating those abuses, depending upon the type and severity.

We can simplify that by just lumping it all under one word: trauma. Victims of child abuse suffered severe trauma at a point in their lives when they were totally ill-equipped to process it intellectually or psychologically. Child abuse is normally committed by those who are closest to us – our parents, siblings, uncles, teachers, priests, pastors – and so it involves a deep betrayal of the most basic sense of trust. It leaves its victims with an enduring, often unconscious, feeling that the world is NOT a safe place and that we can never feel secure or at peace, even in our own homes. To use a current phrase, we suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, just like people who have been in combat for extended periods of time.

Eventually, that lack of trust in life, that basic inability to ever really relax into safety, will cause us to build impenetrable walls that destroy the quality of life. We are so wounded that we just can’t let other people all the way into our lives because they might hurt us, too. Very much like the figure in the Ten of Swords, the battle is over and we lost. And how could we not? We were just children when the battle took place.

We may seek help through therapy or spiritual resources in an attempt to remove the toxins, to tear down the walls of distrust and fear. If we’re blessed with a really good therapist or a wonderful teacher, we may actually make progress with our issues and begin to engage in life in a more open, loving way. We still feel wounded, though, pierced with countless swords of pain when we recall what happened to us as children.

And then an odd thing happens somewhere along the journey: our abusers die. Abusers, like everyone else, are ultimately mortal and they age and die like everyone else.

When that happens it can be a very odd time in our lives. There may initially be a real feeling of catharsis, a sort of a joyful crying out into the world: “I’m still here and you’re not, you son of a bitch.” Or there may be a total numbness and lack of grief. After all, they taught us the value of learning to feel nothing again and again and again while they beat us. Later, if we go into therapy, there may be a deep regret: “Why didn’t I confront him when he was still alive? Why didn’t I ever ask her why she couldn’t love me?”

At the end of the day, though, they’re dead. As the coroner in Wizard of Oz put it, “She isn’t simply merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.”

Or is she?

The terrible truth of the matter is that, for most of us, they go on living in our own heads and hearts long, long after they’re physically dead. There are constant inner dialogues with them, sometimes dozens a day, that we carry on as if they were right there in the room with us, instead of lying in a grave. There are the critical, shaming voices that intrude on our every activity.

“That was stupid.”

“Can’t you do anything right?”

“Well, THAT was typical. You screwed up again.”

Many times these inner critics have become so natural to us, so much a part of our existences, that we don’t even realize that they aren’t us. They’re the disembodied voices of our dead abusers.

So how do we ever get rid of them? How do we ever get to a point where we can say, “You know what? You’re dead. Go away now?” The answer for me came in the form of forgiveness, but not forgiveness in the normal sense of the word. At least not the way I’d ever thought about it.

At first, the idea of forgiving your abusers feels grotesque, even outrageous. “Wait a minute . . . I was a little tiny, helpless kid and this person beat me (fucked me, fondled me, burned me, shamed me – fill in the blank with your particular form of abuse.) Why in hell should I forgive them? Just because they’re dead?”

Well, there are two reasons and, oddly, neither one of them has a thing to do with the abuser.

First of all, yes, they’re dead. Yes, in a physical sense, they really ARE most sincerely dead. Whatever they are now, they aren’t any longer the specific person who abused us.

And that means that, as Louise Hay pointed out, all that they are right now is thought constructs in our heads. That’s it: they are literally just our memories now and they have no existence beyond that. When that really hit me, when I finally GOT that, my first thought was, “Wow! I’m CHOOSING to live with my abusers. All they are is my thoughts and I’m in charge of my thoughts. This is a choice to continue the abuse.”

And once I got that, I realized that if I continued to keep those thought patterns alive, it was a CONSCIOUS choice to live with abuse.

That’s where forgiveness comes in. Louise Haye also pointed out that forgiveness is, ultimately, an act that takes place in our own minds. We don’t tend to think of it that way. We tend to think of it as always involving another person and it usually has a lot of drama attached. It goes something like this:

“I forgive you for the fact that – even though I was deeply in love with you, had your three children, and was a good and faithful wife who adored you with all of her heart – you just couldn’t keep your dick in your pants and you screwed my best friend. That slut.”

In other words, we’re SAYING that we’re forgiving the other person, but we’re really not. What we’re really doing is pointing out what a total piece of shit the other person is and saying that we’ll live with that, as long as they feel good and guilty about what they did wrong. It’s a power thing disguised as a kindness thing.

Real forgiveness, though, is truly letting it go, not choosing to live in it, and that’s why it’s so important in healing the wounds of abuse. It means recognizing that we’re keeping the abusers alive in our own minds, acknowledging what they did to us and honoring ourselves as survivors, and then just . . . letting them go . . . for once and for all . . . back into Universe. “If hating you means I’m keeping you alive, then I can let go of that hatred. I forgive you, I bless you, I release you.” And in doing that, we’re really blessing ourselves. We’re really releasing ourselves from the prisons they built in our minds.

You can invent your own rituals for doing that. I like to use Nick Ortner’s Meridian Tapping with three rounds of what they did to me and three rounds of letting them go. You might prefer to build a Day of the Dead Altar with their picture on it. Talk to the picture, tell them what they did and how it felt, and then throw the picture away.

Light a candle, meditate on the abuser and then release him or her as you blow out the flame.

Do a Buddhist Sur Ceremony and release them with love and compassion.

They don’t exist anymore. We’re free.