What might the Brain Root of all suffering be? In two words: unfinished business. And how do I know if I might have any business unfinished? Quite simply, I can take a moment to pay attention and check to see if I’m still walking around on Planet Earth in a flesh, bone and blood body.
Assuming I am, what might be the nature of my own unfinished business? Pretty much the same as yours in my experience: ungrieved loss. I’ve written here and here and here about how I put off grieving a lifetime of losses large and small all through my 20s, and how they just kept piling up, making the load heavier and heavier until one day they all eventually came crashing down, one trailing on the heels of another.
The Search for Loss Unknown
And what is it that I lost exactly? Laura Munson, whom I mentioned here last week sums it up nicely: “When (my father) died … the grief was crippling. I knew the task at hand: that old fucker Self-Love….Most everything is about fear of lost love, actual lost love, or residual pain from … yep – lost love.”
So what exactly is the nature of loss and how does lost love, and especially lack of self-love, actually affect body, brain and heart? Some people think social media like Facebook and Twitter are yet more creative ways Americans have invented to avoid loss and the spiritual requirement to grieve it – by keeping our connections broad and weak, rather than strong and deep, we create a broken-heart workaround. Good luck with that one.
The nature of loss and grief are an inquiry that has been driving much of my own life journey for more than half a century, mostly without me really being all that aware of it. If you were to ask me, I would say I was mostly just following my heart. I either resonated with people, places or situations or I didn’t. That search took me into and out of four primary relationships; drove me to drop out of two undergraduate and four graduate psychology programs. It took me back and forth across America five times, to and away from a half dozen spiritual teachers, and into and out of four different formal spiritual paths. It took me to all kinds of extended searches at places like The Mohonk Mountain House, Feathered Pipe Ranch, Esalen, The Omega Institute, Zen Mountain Monastery, and The Whidbey Institute exploring things like Conscious Living/Conscious Dying, Tibetan Buddhism, Insight Meditation, A Course in Miracles, Fischer-Hoffman, The Enneagram, etc. The search also inspired me to develop programs for helping adults and children alike find support for trying to finish unfinished business here and here. That same desire is what gets me up each day and has me researching and writing this blog every week.
The Neural Nature of Loss
As for the answers to those questions: what is the nature of loss and lost love and how does it and lack of self-love affect body, brain and heart? – one answer might be that it affects all of them uniquely in each of us. We are individuals one and all. Just as our fingerprints and toeprints and irises and brain configurations are uniquely ours, so are our losses and how we embody them. And so loss inevitably requires each of us to live into the answers for ourselves. But my own personal answer to what loss is and how it affects body, heart and brain might serve as one possibly useful guideline.
My brain is a social organ. So is my heart. They have made wired and wireless connections to other people, places and things throughout my lifetime. These connections ended up changing my neuro-cardio landscape for better or for worse.
In addition to being a social organ, my brain is also a novelty-seeking organ. It quickly acclimates to new people, places and things and then goes to work seeking more of them or newer still, or working to arrange the present people, places and things into novel and surprising patterns. We’re all creationists in the best artistic sense of the word. Our brains, our bodies and our hearts demand it.
Good Death/Bad Death
There’s a creative, natural process for brain neurons to disconnect. It’s called apoptosis. It comes about gently and gradually as the result of reduced use and lessened interaction with people, places and things. It’s why we tire of Holiday toys and gifts almost before the wrappings hit the recycling bag. It’s also the mechanism primarily responsible for us being able to move through and integrate lost love.
A completed round of apoptosis might look like the illustration on the right, above.
Abrupt loss and lost love, however, immediately sever the connections to people, places and things. Where once my brain (and heart) sent out electro-chemical impulses that were received and readily responded to (contingent communication), suddenly those same signals are being sent out, but nothing’s coming back. This is a much different cell death and disconnection than gentle cell death by apoptosis. These deaths are more akin to necrosis. Necrosis is an unexpected and premature cell death. It results in lots of bad things happening to body, brain and heart. Here’s what a popular science site has to say about it: “In contrast with apoptosis, cleanup of cell debris by phagocytes of the immune system is generally more difficult (in necrosis), as the disorderly death generally does not send cell signals which tell nearby phagocytes to engulf the dying cell. This lack of signaling makes it harder for the immune system to locate and recycle dead cells which have died through necrosis than if the cell had undergone apoptosis. The release of intracellular content after cellular membrane damage is the cause of inflammation in necrosis.”
So where does finishing unfinished business come into play? I believe it cleans out the psychic debris from our heart, brain, mind and body. It may be an actual neurophysiological and cardiological cellular cleanup process as well (It might also result in the telomere shortening that ages cells, and in microtubules unraveling in neurons which produces tau tangles that results in Alzheimer’s Disease). I would not be surprised to discover that grieving ungrieved losses begins to send a cleanup signal similar to the signal apoptosis sends after the healthy death of cells. Finishing unfinished business and ending up in a place of self-love and authentic forgiveness might begin to reduce inflammation throughout the body and work to restore overall health. While the process I’m describing might not be exactly right – I’m mostly theorizing here – the beneficial results of completing unfinished business are more than true in my three decades of experience.
Business Note: If you live in, or have friends in the Seattle area,it would be great to hang out with you all at this daylong event a friend and I are offering on January 12th: Body, Brain and Spirit.