Neurofeedback and the Physics of Spirituality
Presented in Asheville NC February 2018
Ed Hamlin’s invitation to share my thoughts about our neurofeedback clinical work
provoked my own curiosity about how my listening and perceiving has evolved over the
years, and what it is I listen and look for.
It’s true that we focus on an impossible number of tasks:
All in 60 minutes or less.
With all this, in the last several years I’ve noticed that my mind has added a new reference to my mental conversation about neurofeedback. Without knowing exactly when it began, I noticed I had begun talking to myself about the wave-particle fluctuations that were happening in sessions with several clients.
This realization sent me looking back farther in time for where those thoughts had originated. That question landed me in memories of a deep experience I had about 3 years ago which lasted for approximately a month. Because the experience itself and the perspectives born from it have evolved over time, I decided it could be interesting to offer them as part of our shared conversation. My hope in doing so is to learn how our collective shared experiences and perceptions may overlap, and also, to contribute to our collective perception of the nature of the work we do.
It is my belief that the contexts and constructs we have when we are with our clients intimately affect the outcomes that are possible. The experiences I note here have certainly expanded my horizons in an unexpected way and in doing so I believe, expanded the possibilities for those who come to work with me.
My 30 Day Experience
One morning I awoke to find myself organized very differently from how I’d gone to sleep the night before. The first thing I noticed was that my mind was quiet in an unfamiliar way. I was generating thoughts, but the thoughts were not competing with one another as is too often the case. In fact, they didn’t seem to have the ability to compel my attention at all.
I felt very solidly in my body. At the same time, I was permeated by a distinct sense of energy or presence within the cells of my body that seemed to extend out beyond me. I felt as if my body and everything in my environment were made of a kind of aliveness that resonated in and around me.
Through the course of the month my experience unfolded. Some elements of it seemed paradoxical. As I moved through my days rest and movement appeared interrelated, as if action had a self-generating or regenerating quality to it. I was not expending energy in the same way. The regenerative aspect to movement left me feeling more a participant in my actions than a separate originator.
It also seemed that cause and effect were not in play in quite the familiar way. Neither was past or future. I felt myself a distinct being in my own right with my autobiographical history intact. At the same time, the ‘me’ that I was had no sense at all of being a product of that autobiographical story.
From time to time during the month I looked around curiously for my old experience of self. Whenever I did, I saw it in my mind’s eye like clothes I had taken off and left lying on the floor. Like a balloon that had lost its’ air and was no longer animated, it held no interest for me. I wasn’t surprised at my lack of interest in the things about myself I had not liked. It did surprise me that what I considered my hard-won achievements & positive attributes were also of no interest.
The most radical element of this reorganization was how completely simple and effortless it was. As if everything non-essential had been removed. It was not dramatic or intense. In an unfamiliar way it seemed quite ordinary because it was so natural and unembellished.
As time passed I was primed to go deeper into this experience. And then just as unexpectedly it ended, landing me back into my old self experience while leaving something fundamentally changed in my body and awareness. During that month it was as if I had seen behind the curtain, and contrary to the Wizard of Oz, there was definitely an intelligence there.
I don’t have information about the organization of my brain during that month. I didn’t look at my brain on a training screen although I suspect it was highly coherent. Sometime after this experience I did 40 sessions of Dr Robert Coben’s 4 channel coherence training and found some reflections of my experience in that type of neurofeedback. I suspect both orient toward an underlying coherence in the brain and central nervous system.
In attempting to further digest my experience I went deeper into materials on the psychological/spiritual interface, on flow states, and a bit into the complexities of the quantum model. I was searching for reflections that further illuminated my experience. For the purposes of our conversation, I’d like to recap several quantum perspectives and from there offer my thoughts on the integration of my experience relating to the field of neurofeedback.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is now part of our common vernacular. We know that electrons and all matter have both a wave and particle nature, only one of which can be known at any given time. We also have the principle of the Conservation of Energy which clarifies that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed into matter and then back into energy.
We have the contribution of Neils Bohr with his term ‘duality paradox’ which challenges the concept of cause and effect. Because a quantum object, (anything having a form) only exhibits one aspect of its’ nature at a time, Bohr believed we don’t know enough to assume cause and effect as an absolute phenomenon.
Then there is David Bohm’s holographic universe composed of layered levels of information accessible only through our expanding awareness. He believed that awareness itself is actually light in wave form. He perceived that the ‘light forms’ of our growing awareness penetrate the universes’ holographic layers of information as we grow in our capacity for consciousness. Hence light or awareness, penetrates darkness or unconsciousness.
The primary message of quantum theory seems to be that our seemingly solid universe is actually energy in flux, with the true constant being the ever-present organized and I would offer intelligent relationships that organize wave-particle reality. Or as I now like to think of it, Relational-Intelligence in Wave Form.
In looking at intelligence in wave form let us look more closely at the properties of waves, the stuff of our work. We know that for waves to propagate, the medium they are moving through must not be infinitely rigid nor infinitely pliable as neither will allow wave motion or oscillation to occur.
A too rigid system can entertain no flow and a too pliable system cannot communicate within itself to support organized wave motion. As we come to understand the properties of wave propagation we can see it take us directly into the principles of our arousal model in action. With our arousal model goal of cultivating stability and flexibility in the human nervous system I’ve come to believe we are directly interfacing with the quantum field.
My Two Sides of the Line Comparison
So how does what we have just considered lead us to an understanding that enhances the application of our neurofeedback work?
For several years after my experience I entertained a number of questions. One of the most significant questions for me was how the fundamental change in organization I experienced in those 30 days could be so different from the expanded or altered state experiences of consciousness I’ve experienced at various times in my life. Like many people, since early childhood I’ve had expanded moments of awareness arise, especially during challenging times, as if to help me navigate the difficulties of the moment.
When I use the term expanded or altered state, I mean the experience of physically, psychologically, and relationally shifting into a state during which we are open to something greater than our everyday awareness and isolated sense of self.
For me this type of state shift, however positive or interesting, always took significant energy to navigate, both in the moment and afterward in my attempts to integrate them into my understanding and experience of self. In truth, I was never entirely successful in my attempts at integration. The ‘too bigness’ of the experience always exceeded the limits of my ordinary consciousness, leaving me with constructs that in some measure reduced the experience.
My month-long experience on the other hand was inherently organized and accessible to my immediate awareness. Nothing was too big or too complex to grasp, just different from what I was used to. If I questioned something I could shift my attention and open to the experience further. There were layers to this opening of my attention, and I sensed I was in an initial stage of accessing this way of knowing and experiencing reality. Still, it never required effort on my part to know or understand, just interest and a shift in my attention.
I had other questions? Why was fear not present in the familiar way? What did it mean that my mind was undistracted by competing thought processes? How did I have a ‘me’ without a historical experience of self?
For some months I did an exercise imagining myself on each side of a central dividing line. I took turns organizing myself in reference to my familiar everyday consciousness on one side, and in reference to my experiences and questions about my 30-day experience on the opposite side. I went back and forth comparing each side to the other, feeling and thinking my way through each of the sides many times.
Ironically, as I wrote this last paragraph with the tv on in the background one of the characters voiced the same thought I had some months ago as a realization arose that completely reorganized my experience. The character in the tv drama said, ‘If I was going to hide something I’d hide it in plain sight’. That was the thought I’d had, about the nature of my experience, ‘It’s been in plain sight’.
What I understood was that during those 30 days, my primary organization had shifted from an organization around my separate particle/self nature, to an organization around my unified wave nature. With all my capacities for thought, feeling, sensation, insight and action intact, I had reentered the unified field of my own wave nature.
Looking back now and remembering my experience it seems entirely true to me still that, during that one month, throughout the multiplicity and flux of my everyday experience, nothing had obscured or distracted me from a direct experience of my primary nature.
How These Perceptions Influence My Work With Clients
My simplest thoughts on how the perceptions I’ve shared have affected my work is to say the obvious. In supporting self-regulation, we support the properties of efficient wave propagation. Waves need a stable and flexible medium in which to move. And if we are as is now thought, more energy and empty space than matter, wave propagation is our home territory.
I believe we are inherently in this territory whenever we put a sensor on someone’s head and support an increase in their optimal frequency organization.What is different for me now is the ultimate outcome I hold in my mind for us as human beings and for each person who comes to my office, whether they take a small but important step forward or someday surpass the experiences I’ve shared here.
Some years ago, I read the book, Becoming Attached by Robert Karen which lays out the history of human attachment theory. At the end of the book, I closed the cover and said softly to myself, ‘So that’s who we are. We don’t yet know ourselves.’ The second time in my life I’ve had the same clarifying thought occurred after the experience related here. Then also the thought arose, ‘We don’t yet know ourselves.’
I attune in sessions in all the ways I always have. I suppose it’s also true, that I now notice what we might call, ‘the development of greater permeability to wave nature’, which may be just another way to say increased stability and flexibility. In connecting this with our neurofeedback work I think it could be useful to look at a few clients reflecting different places on the continuum of rigidity and flexibility, or ‘wave permeability’. It would be easier for us to focus on this if we look for qualities that I associate with this development.
One quality would be openness to change as an expression of flexibility. Another would be a belief in the possibility of positive outcomes, especially under conditions of uncertainty. For me this bespeaks the unified field we’ve been considering. And lastly, a stable but receptive self-particle structure, (sense of self) which I think makes us ultimately available to a larger shift such as the one I experienced. I don’t view moving on this continuum as a linear process, especially not for those of us who have sustained trauma. Despite that, I do think there’s a progression that can be considered as we assess overall progress.
I asked each of the three people we will be hearing from, about their experience of trust before and after beginning neurofeedback. I asked them about trust in themselves, in life and in others as a way to identify baseline fear, and also to identify their readiness and ability to engage in change which by its very nature brings uncertainty.
To start with we will hear from a 38-year-old female client with developmental trauma who has received 26 sessions collectively of EEG and Play Attention (PA) neurofeedback. At the beginning of our work she presented with inarticulate terror due to unstable life conditions in regard to her work & her primary relationship.
She shares, ‘I’ve never felt truly safe in my body. I’ve definitely never felt that my life would turn out ok’.
When asked if she had ever experienced herself as a trustable being, she replied. ‘I’ve never had any real faith in a core sense of self.’ She also reported no significant change in feelings of trust since starting neurofeedback, adding that this may not mean there hasn’t been any.
What I can report is at 5 months into treatment she now consistently differentiates herself from her partners’ labile mood states and communicates her needs to him in ways that often evokes a non-defensive response. Professionally, having received her certificate as a language interpreter just before we began, she was able to resume studies necessary for obtaining a paid position while also working her first paid translation job at a US State House during one of the recent Women’s Marches. Despite loud, cold and extremely chaotic conditions, her biggest surprise was her lack of anxiety. ‘I waited for it and waited for it and it just didn’t come.’
Her major leap in an increased capacity to resume her studies came after her first session with PA neurofeedback which was her seventh overall neurofeedback session. At her 8th appointment she stated, ‘I can move forward now in my language interpretation work. I had the thought I might fail but if I do, I’ll be ok!
That was a moment for me that we get to have in being neurofeedback providers. We think we’ll be working with someone for long months to help them make a change and suddenly we’re playing catch up to their progress. In this instance, I think we can endorse an increased openness to change and belief in positive outcomes, but not yet a stable and receptive sense of self.
Our next person is a 68-year-old well educated male, very successful in 2 career fields after 38 EEG neurofeedback sessions. Before neurofeedback he reported, ‘I distrusted my ability to tolerate acute anxiety with distressing sensations in my legs and chest, fear of being unable to sleep and of waking up with nightmares. I was concerned and confused as to what I should do and become as I continue to age, which caused me much existential angst.
I feared increased anxiety if I came off my medications, and harming my body if I didn’t.’
‘Since starting neurofeedback I’ve regained trust & hope in all the things I have been distrustful about. I’m less afraid that moments of anxiety mean a regression. I am better able to surrender to the contingencies of life. The treatment helped me process who I was and who I want to become in my remaining years.’
I can report him as successfully discontinuing his daily use of 2 mg of a benzo since beginning EEG neurofeedback. He has also cut his sleep aid in half while reporting consecutive days with 0 anxiety. Concurrently, he has also begun to modify his quality of life. After working literally every single day for 20 years he’s preparing to limit his business role and ending his work day earlier.
Changes again include increased openness to change and the ability to expect positive outcomes. Also, a more stable and receptive sense of self as he began to plan a life based on his preferences and less on his drive to be continually active and in control of his environment. It seems that he is a bit farther along the wave permeability continuum than the first person who shared their story with us.
Lastly, let’s look at the experience of a 72-year-old female artist with disabling monthly migraines after 8 sessions of HEG neurofeedback. She reports, ‘Prior to our work I had a deep trust in myself, my family and friends.’ Through my work I have learned to trust my instincts, choices, and ability to face and solve problems as opportunities for unexpected solutions. Neurofeedback has deepened my trust in my body and brain.
I don’t know why or how it’s working but it has built a kind of floor under me so I’m no longer wary of being waylaid by migraines which was a kind of mistrust.”
‘Your questions & comments in our sessions initially took me by surprise since I’d assumed a mechanistic orientation. They gave me a sense of the larger purpose of our work together. To generate trust in my body/brain and my capacity for change, to help me create a place where all the parts of my life connect, make sense and talk together. To create an overview place with perspective that offers freedom from entanglement and self-orientation while generating trust in much larger forces.’
What I can add is that her migraines have discontinued. It is also clear that she came with a pretty solid sense of trust, openness to change and the ability to believe in positive outcomes in the face of uncertainty. Now that her system is less under assault her sense of self seems more stable and receptive. Of the three people we have considered in regard to openness to wave permeability, this person seems farthest along our wave-permeability continuum.
I think in looking at these 3 people we see quite remarkable movement in my identified markers for ‘Permeability to Wave Nature’, AKA, stability and flexibility, in a relatively short period of time. Each came reflecting different places on this continuum and each made their own forward movement.
Of course, we know from our work in neurofeedback that increases in capacity such as those described are entirely organic expressions of each person’s body and being. Each of these people as a unique human organism, took a leap forward at a time they originally found fraught with some type of threat or instability. They were supported in doing this because we can assist people in reflecting their brain activity back to itself so the brain can elect to change it. How can we not be speaking of our work as relational intelligence in wave form, the very stuff of our quantum universe?
Ending Beach Story
I’d like to end with a sunny beach story because that’s what we need on this cold February day. Some years ago, I spent a wonderfully long afternoon playing in the waves on a Florida beach. I love the ocean but with a tendency to hyperventilate in deep water I don’t ordinarily go out past my comfort zone.
The waves were particularly strong that day and I was drawn to the pull of them. The floating rope-line showing the edge of the swim area was quite a distance out, much farther than I thought to venture. As I rode the waves, I noticed a loan swimmer out near the farthest parameters.
Seeing this swimmer in my peripheral vision kept me relaxed as I chased bigger and bigger waves that drew me farther and farther out. It seemed like hours had passed when suddenly I realized I could almost reach out and touch the rope. I looked around to see where I was and froze. What I’d thought was a swimmer in the deep was actually a round red buoy tossing about in the rough water. I realized I was completely alone in the deep and had been the entire time.
I fought for the friendly world I’d been inhabiting to stay open. I told myself that nothing had changed. I turned to look back to the shore and saw its unexpectedly small figures. It was no good! There was nothing for it but to turn back. My panic didn’t dissipate till I felt the ground of the shallows under my feet.
I think about this story when I think about my clients. It’s not that I played out in the depths because I thought the other swimmer was close enough to save me if I went under. It was that the depths were habitable because I was not alone. I could follow my experience and my desire because I thought there was someone else farther out who knew something of the territory.
My neurofeedback teachers and colleagues, my wonderful, collaborative consult groups, and the years of training my own brain and those of my clients, all create the parameters of the ocean my clients swim and ride the waves in. My context and understanding evoke a shared response in the people I work with and together we venture to learn what is possible.
I hope that my thoughts and my sharing have added to your neurofeedback parameters and by default, those of your clients. Each time we train someone’s brain we touch the edge of infinite possibilities. Whether we are walking on the beach getting splashed by waves or swimming in the depths, it’s all the same water in the same vast ocean.