Part Two: NeuroSpiritual Restoration

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When it comes to healing unresolved relational trauma – of which a violation, crime or destructive act of anti-social behavior is often both a cause and symptom – what does restoration have to say?

I’ve come to realize that I’ve had the question wrong.

What do both Native healing practices and the emerging neuroscience of relational trauma have to tell us about restoration?

In many tribal metaphysics, human beings are considered innately a part of a greater Spirit. To be restored in tribal terms is to be reintegrated back into a Greater Spirit from which we come. Sacred Restoration restores our relationship with a Greater Spirit, Source, Flow, or reality, by collapsing our perceived distance between us and “all of it.”

Deepest restoration is a reclamation of a transcendental birthright.

On an experiential level, this ideal condition is characterized by feelings of belonging, connectedness, inner-peace, well-being, emotional balance and psychological stability. For example, Navajo people have characterized their experience and awareness as Hozho (Beauty). To be in right relationship is to be cognizant of “Beauty all around,” in the landscape, in relations with others, in ourselves, and with the stages of life.

Beauty flows from the mind or inner form of the person. [1]

In this cultural context, Beauty is a way of being in relationship with all that is. When a person doesn’t believe or experience this, the effect is a feeling of isolation and exclusion. It’s as if we’re an exile in our own body. We might call it a “spiritual corporal dissonance.” Tribal traditions tell us that healing a person’s broken spirit – and returning her to a place of Beauty – is the whole point of the restorative process.

Through a Judeo-Christian lens, this original condition can be described as one of original blessing, and one that is ours by virtue of being born.

Our core is original blessing, not original sin. The great illusion we must all overcome is the illusion of separateness [2] 

The emerging field of research on what the brain is doing when engaged in spiritual experience is referred to as “neurotheology”. [3] I prefer the term neurospirituality because it widens the interpretive lens to include spiritual practices and experiences which may or may not include recognition of a God, Gods, or religion. Theology is the study of “a God” and/or religious belief. While neuroscientists have focused primarily on practitioners within a tradition, I don’t think it’s fruitful to exclude other forms of contemplative behaviors – not necessarily grounded in a religious tradition – that might engage neurological function similarly.

In simplest terms, neurospiritual restoration implies that as we pursue a relationship with an All-Loving Presence, the experience of this pursuit facilitates the restoration of the relationships between the various parts of the brain that keep us stuck in the past. The science of neurospirituality (or neurotheology) reveals how the restoration of an awareness of a sacred (all-encompassing) presence facilitates the restoration of relationship with the self on a subconscious level. It’s both neuropsychological, and spiritual.

Though ancient healers knew nothing about neuropsychology, it seems clear to me that they knew plenty about the necessity of spiritual encounter as the key to restoring a troubled person to a place of mental and physical health and well-being.

For adult sufferers of unresolved childhood relational trauma, it is crucial that this presence embody a depth of love, experienced as unconditional tenderness, compassion, consolation, acceptance and affection. These are the characteristic experiences of a child safely held in her mother’s arms, complimented by the admiring gaze and protective embrace of a loving father. It’s an interior space of welcoming. In terms of the combined restoration of brain and spirit, the science bears this out.

If you want to maintain a healthy anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and limbic system, by all means meditate and pray, but only on those concepts that bring you a sense of love, joy, optimism and hope. [4]

What Andrew B. Newberg and other neuroscientists are telling us is that as we pray and meditate, we enact the restoration of relationships between various parts of the brain; connections which have been compromised by relational trauma. These words from Richard Rohr are profound, and so restoratively true.

When we don’t know love, when we experience only the insecurity and fragility of the small self, we become restless, violent, and hateful. But in contemplation we move to a different space where we see the illusion of separateness.

Relationally traumatized children have no safe interior place of retreat. As adults looking for this place, contemplative prayer can provide this inner-sanctuary where we can surrender our false self, allow the anguish to surface, and release it into the loving Presence of a Divine Caregiver. When this happens, the brain continues to heal. New neural pathways are created, and old ones discarded. Our triggers get disarmed.

Our false self begins to fade, and a more authentic self emerges, one that realizes its irrevocable place in the Great Heartbeat of the World. Perhaps this is what is meant by the biblical verse Matthew 18:3 “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I interpret this to mean “unless we allow ourselves to become completely vulnerable, we won’t experience the emergence of a divine loving presence.”

We have to let go before we can be caught.

[1] See Laurence O. McKinney, Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century, (American Institute for Mindfulness, 1994).

[2] Newberg, (2009) p. 53

[3] Gary Witherspoon, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1977) p.191

[4] Richard Rohr, Scripture as Spirituality, (Franciscan Media, 2007) p. 29

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