So what is this concept of wholeness that we are talking about? What does it mean to grow up in an environment that helps you preserve your wholeness? Are any of us really not whole?
It is true that at one level of perception — the perception that some meditative traditions refer to as the non-dual — we are all whole and perfect exactly as we are. From this state of awareness, the entire world is experienced as one singular Consciousness. This underlying field of Presence is referred to by many names: Nature, Life-force, Spirit, God, Consciousness, True Nature, the Tao, and Love to name a few. From this perspective everything exists in a perfect Oneness and concepts like growth, change, and maturation have little importance.
And at another level — sometimes referred to as the dual level of perception — we see that human beings do seem to enter into a process of maturation, which can be defined as the development of increasing degrees of complexity over time achieved through a process of integration. Dan Siegel defines integration as the linking of differentiated elements of a system into a functional whole. If this process of integration is disrupted, we can lose conscious awareness of certain elements — like memories, feelings, desires, capacities, and talents — that continue to exist in an unconscious region of our minds. Without conscious awareness we remain influenced by these unconscious processes without understanding why we are engaging in behaviors that don’t serve us and our deepest intentions. This is an example of dys-integration and the result is a diminishment in our experience, functioning, and enjoyment of life.
If there were events in your past, particularly traumatic events, and your family did not know how to deal with them out in the open in a conscious way, then it is likely that you will have traumatic memories stored in your nervous system that cause you to “over-react” or even “freeze-up” in certain circumstances. This is a loss of wholeness. If your family told you — implicitly or explicitly — that certain feelings were not welcome in their company and made it clear that the relationship with them would be disrupted any time those feelings arose and were expressed, you learn real quickly how to repress those “dangerous” feelings. Because these feelings still are part of the functioning of our mind and brain, though now banished from consciousness, we are left without the full repertoire of who we really are and the tools life tried to equip us with; again, a loss of wholeness. If we started out our lives really interested in music, but our parents were very clear that ‘there is no money or value in music and you will not waste your time with it’, then we will likely put that part of our development on the shelf and limp our way along in life selling insurance for 30 years (until, with any good luck, some mid-life crisis strikes and puts us back in contact with the Real).
Another way we tend to lose our wholeness is in believing our unconscious mental models of relationship. In the first 18 months of life we have to rely on our amygdala, a key part of our limbic system, to assess the environment as “safe or unsafe” every moment of the day. This is an unconscious assessment center that continues to operate throughout our lifespan, and is responsible for most of our especially strong negative reactions in life. From repeated interactions in early life with our caregivers, our amygdalas pool the data into a mental model to help us assess situations quickly and respond in a way to get the food, to get the love; to feel safe again. If our parents are generally responsive to our needs, then our predominate mental model is something like: “When I have a need, I express how I feel and my daddy responds by providing the nourishment my system is desiring.” This is all implicit (alters our perceptions without the sense that we are re-calling a memory), but it affects our nervous system in a way that is soothing and frees up our faculties to perceive what is really happening in the here-and-now rather then superimposing a historical shadow of fear onto our current relationships.
If the environment is inconsistently responsive to our needs, or is consistently not responsive to certain needs (ambivalent attachment and avoidant attachment respectively; both are forms of insecure attachment. See attachment for more details.), then children create a mental model to match that environment so they can change what they feel and how they express those feelings in order to increase their chances of feeling safe; again, adaptations to get the food and get the love. These patterns of interacting have been shown to remain remarkably consistent throughout ones life unless these mental models are modified by new relationships that supplant the old models. For example, a person with an insecure attachment history who is in relationship with a secure partner can become secure over the course of about five years. Similarly, time spent with therapists can also support this conversion from insecurity to security, primarily because of the relationship between them.
Additionally, these implicit mental models seem to get cemented in by a whole host of judgments, rules, and protocols by which the world should operate. These rules are contained in a mental structure that is referred to as the superego. Remember the second agreements? These are the introjects — the values we directly absorb from our parents and other authority figures — that may have been wise to follow at one point in time, but may no longer serve us. When we start to become reactive, these judgments tend to predominate. In states of reactivity, we become rather righteous and believe we know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. We know how people should behave (including ourselves) and we use all kinds of tactics to get them/us into line. When we are being judgmental, rest assured, we have momentarily lost some of our wholeness, and suffering is sure to follow.
Take home: Here we are looking at maturation from the perspective of integration and preserving wholeness. Research has shown that the more dys-integrated we are, the slower we are to mature. In children, many limitations of integration are provoked by parents who have not become re-integrated in certain areas themselves. If we want to help our children become fully themselves, we need to take on the arduous, yet highly rewarding task of becoming re-integrated. We need to look into our shadow elements and help re-integrate them into our conscious awareness, and develop relationships that are healing.
See a therapist, a life-coach, or sign up for some workshop that helps you know your own unconscious terrain more explicitly. Enter into relationships that are respectful and nurturing. I promise you that your life, and your parenting, will feel much freer and more fulfilling if you do.
Click here for an article on the brain and just how much unconscious activity is going on all the time.