Childhood Relational Trauma as NeuroSpiritual Violation: Part One

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© 2019 William A. Bledsoe, Ph.D.

NeuroSpiritual Violation

 We enter the world prepared to have a spiritual life – Lisa Miller, Ph.D., “The Spiritual Child”

With the extraordinary advancements in brain-scanning technology and neuroscience we can now identify what the brain is doing when a person is engaged in such spiritual practices as prayer and meditation, or experiencing transcendence. “Transcendence”, defined here, is the sensing or awareness of the existence of a unifying presence or reality both within and beyond the immediate.

In her groundbreaking book “The Spiritual Child,” psychologist Lisa Miller, Ph.D. (2015) references scientific evidence that we are born with an innate capacity for “transcendent knowing, relationship, and experience.” [1]  She explains –

Spiritual development is a biological and psychological imperative from birth. Natural spirituality, the innate spiritual attunement of young children – unlike other lines of development – appears to begin whole and fully expressed. [2]

Miller defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding” and that regardless of the name we give this power (e.g. God, nature, spirit, universe, and creator) “the important point is that spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with this higher presence.” [3] Fundamentally, spirituality is experienced as a relationship with something other.

She suggests that our innate capacity for transcendent experience exists prior to, and independent of any religious indoctrination or enculturalization. In other words, we’re genetically and biologically endowed to experience transcendence from the start. Religious practices may enhance and grow this spiritual capacity, but the capacity itself exists in the first breath (and maybe before).

From a scientific perspective, she explains “In neuroimaging scans, we have found synchronization of the regions of the brain when in spiritual or contemplative practice.” [4]

Research using MRI on people in active meditation shows activity of the middle prefrontal cortex, a central structure that links to and regulates other brain regions such as the limbic system, such that our emotions, governed by the amygdala, are eased; when we meditate we feel less revved up for fight or flight. [5]

While most of these studies were conducted of adults, Miller suggests that synchronization of neural pathways happening in adult spiritual practices is a natural process also occurring in brain development in infants and children, and which can be interpreted (observed) as happening in specific behaviors and relationships children engage in. This is why she concludes that “spirituality is experienced through a biologically based faculty” and that we are “born ready to use it.”

In addition to her important assertion that we’re biologically predisposed to spiritual perception, awareness, or experience, she emphasizes the relational aspect of transcendence and the crucial role parents play in cultivating a child’s innate spiritual capacity.

There are spiritually-based behaviors that parents can model and encourage in their children to nurture brain synchronization found in adult spiritual experiences. Like a garden, the soil of transcendent capacity needs to be consciously and lovingly cultivated to produce spiritual fruit which will nurture and sustain the child in their growth and passage from infancy through adolescence and into adult life.

This fruit is an inner resource that enables the child to navigate the inevitable tumultuous stages of enculturation, socialization, and individuation. The “spiritual brain” requires tending.

As the child grows, natural spirituality integrates with the cognitive, social, emotional, and moral development, as well as physical change, to create a more complex set of equipment through which to experience transcendence and spirituality. Ultimately, if maintained and integrated with these other aspects of development, spirituality supports the child through the challenging developmental passage of adolescence. [6]

One of the most powerful (and simple) illustrations of the criticality of sowing the seeds of spirituality in children is Miller’s table. [7]

Developmental Task With Spiritual Core Without Spiritual Core
Self Is Inherent Worth Abilities Based
Identity Meaning & Purpose Acquiring Success
Work Calling & Contribution Talents & Gains
Relationships Sacred, Share Love, & Grow Pleasing, Meet Needs
Path Buoyed Up and Guided Unsure, Instrumental
Place in World Always Connected Ultimately Alone
Existential Reality Purposeful World Random World
Nature of Reality Love, Life-giving Unknown
Good Events Blessings Deserved, Luck
Bad Events Opportunities, Learning Random, Failure

Miller’s observations of the lifelong impact of spiritual core development are significant. In simplest terms, nurturing a child’s inborn capacity for spiritual experience and perception builds a lifelong reference point, an interior compass that establishes a baseline of emotional and psychological resilience, and instills a secure sense of self with which to navigate the inevitable challenges of being human.

The strength or weakness of this spiritual core profoundly influences the child’s ability to nurture themselves, avoid self-destructive behaviors, and make healthy, life-affirming choices. A weak spiritual foundation makes a child vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction, depression, and abusive relationships in later life.

Childhood relational trauma not only obstructs this developmental capacity for transcendent experience, but potentially robs a child of inherent resilience. Without this inner resource, the child’s ability to ‘make sense of things’ from a more enlightened (wise) perspective and successfully navigate the ups and downs of life with an inner strength can be compromised.

If we follow Miller’s thinking, childhood relational trauma is essentially a violation of spiritual potentiality that can destructively impact all aspects of experience and those relationships that constitute a human life – physical, emotional, psychological, and social. In no uncertain terms, who the child thinks she is, why she belongs, and what she fundamentally believes about what is most important in life – the big existential “Why?” – is up for grabs.

Without a loving sense of self to orient by, a child is left to navigate the perilous journey of identity formation, looking for herself in distorted socially constructed mirrors. She is vulnerable to what popular culture tells her she should be, perhaps donning numerous masks in an attempt to fit in.

Religious Violation

For many children it is safer to hate themselves than to risk their relationship with their primary caregivers by expressing anger or by running away. As a result, abused children are likely to grow up believing that they are fundamentally unlovable; that was the only way their young minds could explain why they were treated so badly. [8]

One of the deepest wounds of childhood relational trauma is the instillation of a core belief that we don’t belong to what I call “the Great Heartbeat of the World.” We grow up assuming deep down that any Divine purpose, reason or explanation for life beyond our physical existence probably doesn’t include us. If it does exist, it is arbitrary at best, malicious at worst. People tell us there is an unconditional loving energy that permeates all of creation, but we don’t believe it. Call it existential woundedness.

Hell is not so much a place as a state of consciousness in which one feels rejected by God, abandoned by everyone, and hateful to oneself. [9]

Our mother and father are our first wholly or “holy” other. If these first sacred others abuse or neglect, our first experience of something/someone greater is threatening. We miss an initial experience which correlates “existence” with belonging and safety – an experience of welcoming and sanctuary. Our undeveloped child brains were too busy preparing for the next threat to experience, let alone trust, a baseline of security. The world is a dangerous place.

As we grew, if we were raised in a religious tradition or environment that compounded this angst by telling us we were one step away from hell, we might have lived in fear of an unseen wrathful God lurking in the shadows watching our every thought and action. In this regard, God is not safe. With such inconspicuous but pervasive threat, we might have turned our back on the whole idea of God or any type of spirituality.

Religions are designed to develop a human being’s capacity for experiencing transcendence in terms, language, story, images, archetypes and rituals that humans can understand. Judeo-Christian religions describe the experience of the transcendent as a relationship with God and offers suggestions (instructions) for how to consciously pursue an experience of the presence of God.

But when the experience of transcendence is claimed as an exclusive product or property of a religious narrative, or doctrine, then the experience itself gets co-opted. When this happens, the darkest side of humanity can rear its ugliest head – the capture of the promise of God, the exaltation of spiritual leaders who interpret doctrine, and the judgment and persecution of the non-believer in the name of God.

This is relational spiritual abuse. It’s a spiritual felony committed by people.

Miller’s research (and others) provides evidence that we are born hardwired with the capacity for experiencing transcendence from the start. It’s in our DNA. We’re genetically/biologically predisposed to recognize and experience something “Other” existing beyond the immediate, but which simultaneously includes us, and makes perfect sense of the immediate in a profoundly personal and sentient way.

This is where the restorative process achieves its deepest objective – to restore a person’s relationship with something profoundly other, but existing within us and imbued with characteristic human qualities such as love and compassion. 

As I’ve defined in other posts, to restore is to return someone or something (a relationship) to an ideal, original, or intended condition. What is this condition? I believe this ideal condition is the in-born capacity to experience a connection with a greater reality that encompasses all of life and transcends all conditions.

As neuroscience continues to reveal the relationships between experience, brain, and mind, the wisdom and methodology of ancient healing traditions are making more and more sense to the western psychotherapeutic community. A simple example is the use of prayer, chanting, drums, and rhythmic patterns in healing ceremonies, and its potential corollary with the current use of bilateral eye movement, sounds and vibrations used in EMDR.

One of the more recent developments in the field of neuroscience has been the revelation of how spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, yoga, and other modalities can restore as well as generate new neural pathways degraded by traumatic experiences.

We now can see what the brain is doing when it is attempting to process trauma (including trauma memory). More important we can also see the effect that spiritual-based practices have on restoring the relationships between various parts of the brain.

I cover this in Part Two: NeuroSpiritual Restoration.

[1] Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015) p.15

[2] Miller (2015), p. 29

[3] Ibid, p. 25

[4] Ibid, p. 28

[5] Ibid, p. 76

[6] Ibid, p. 29

[7] Ibid, p. 246

[8] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Viking, 2014) p. 279

[9] Thomas Keating, Manifesting God (New York: Lantern Books, 2005) p. 62

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