Dr David Dybdal, Boston Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist

David Dybdal, MD, PhD

Compassionate, Effective Psychotherapy and Medication Management

Awareness: A New Creation Story

Living in a modern society is no easy task. A deep undercurrent of unrest, sadness, and isolation flows just beneath the crust of conscious attention, intermittently spilling over to dominate our minute to minute experience. Many of us live blindly and automatically, rarely, if ever questioning the duties and obligations put upon us, by ourselves or by others, except to make sure that we have gotten our fair share of what’s due us. Vaguely, we perceive a sense of longing, yearning to be connected to another, to feel a part of a larger whole, to be harmonious with one another, with our environment, and with our universe. How did we end up here?

Self awareness is perhaps the one most unique, and defining characteristic of humanity. Self awareness necessitates a knowledge of self as an entity that has the power to freely choose, to make mistakes, to love or hate, to live or die. Freud grasped this idea in his notions of ego (“I”) and id (‘that”). That is, this wonderful and magnificent self aware entity, “I,” arose from and is made from the matter of the universe, “that,” which we see all around us. 

The universe itself pushed forward and created an “I” to reflect back upon itself, to see and fall in love with its own beauty. The joy of this endeavor was followed not far behind by a sense of fear. This “I” was such a special and precious thing, so there was much to lose if we were not careful. For as nurturing and loving as the universe could be, so too was it violent and vicious. This “I” was vulnerable to earthquakes, fires, floods, famine, and fierce predators with sharp tearing teeth and claws. 

More so than all other creatures, this “I” realized its weakness, that it could easily be injured, made to suffer, or even die.

The story of Adam and Eve resonates strongly with this theme. Indeed, it was upon eating from the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge” that they were cast out from blissful ignorance. Once aware of the dichotomy of good and evil, of pleasure and pain, of self and other, of life and death, they could not help but recognize their own vulnerability and move quickly to cover their nakedness. Threatened not only by the violence of the environment in which they lived, but also by the violence within themselves, they became ashamed of their selfishness, their hatefulness, and even murderous impulses, which they so desperately tried to hide from themselves and those around them.

The gift of such vulnerability, however, was the ability to experience its opposite, POWER, to come to know dominion over all creation, to hunt, to work the soil, to cut trees and build homes to shelter from the rain and wind, to burn wood and oil to give warmth and light on even the coldest and darkest night. “I” had really become someone. And GOD saw this and it was good!

This process of empowerment in the face of adversity is woven into our very being. Indeed, evolution has provided us with a wonderful mechanism, the sympathetic nervous system, which is an intricate part of biological make up. This “fight or flight” system, reflexively and automatically readies us for action in the face of threat. 

When it is activated, our body goes into overdrive; our heart races quickly, blood vessels dilate to supply nutrients to crucial muscles and tissues, lungs take in more oxygen to support the increased exertional demand, and sweat glands secrete water to cool the body and maintain maximum efficiency, all to allow us to respond to any situation with speed, strength, and if necessary, deadly efficiency.

Our brains, and necessarily, our minds, are likewise recruited into this response. In the face of perceived danger, our attention and focus become sharp, our senses acutely tune into and scan the environment for possible threat, anger and fear predominate our emotional state. Our sense of self becomes condensed to a very narrow and focused perspective, an “I” that will fight to the death, if necessary, to prevent itself from being killed.

This self-condensing property of the mind is no less beautiful, efficient, and necessary for survival than the physical fight or flight response with which it is intimately associated. Indeed, confronted with a hungry shark circling around us while we are swimming in the water, at least at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much advantage to contemplating the meaning of life, the beauty of a flower, or how we are all made of the same stuff in the universe.

But this is where our beautifully complex brains get us into a bit of trouble. For along with the ability to be self aware in the moment, we also have the ability to remember a past and to project a vision of the future. Many of us choose to sustain an image of a shark’s fin on the edge of, or perhaps even in the center of our awareness, keeping ourselves in a more or less constant state of “yellow alert.” Unfortunately, as the fight or flight response is designed for transient, moment by moment, rather than chronic stress, our bodies and minds are thrown into a state of dis-balance. The very same adrenaline that so effectively prepares our bodies for an acute threat over the long term becomes a liability. 

Chronic activation of the fight or flight system interferes with healthy immune function, making us susceptible to infection and illness, disrupts digestion and metabolism, making us susceptible to ulcers, diabetes, and obesity, and raises our blood pressure making us susceptible to hypertension, stroke, and heart attack. At the same time it hurts our body, this chronic stress response also damages our brains, it destroys neurons crucial for vital functions such as memory, attention, and pleasure.

Perhaps worst of all, it makes us afraid of each other, afraid to show ourselves and to become vulnerable, ultimately leaving us isolated and alone. And last but not least, and perhaps with some degree of irony, long term activation of this system leaves us poorly equipped to deal with any real threat. Like the boy who cried wolf, our body/mind is not sure when it really needs to listen to its warning system, and even when it does decide to listen, it is too tired and sluggish to do anything really effective.

So how did we move from enjoying our power and dominion, to the state of affairs we face today? The answer is simple; we have become too good at what we do. We have become so skilled at protecting our fragile “I” that we have forgotten that we are from the “that” of the universe, that we belong to and are a part of each other, of the world, and of the universe, that when we express the power of our “I” over each other, we hurt each other, and ultimately hurt ourselves. And it is clear to see that we are indeed destroying our earth, destroying each other, and destroying ourselves. 

It is certainly possible, and maybe even likely that we will continue in this direction, which from the perspective of the infinite universe simply means that the path of self awareness and reflection will be continued in some other way. Our choice of path, beyond morality or judgment, consists simply of the question’ “Do we want to be in this play or not?” We certainly do have the ability to choose a different path if we wish to do so. 

One exciting, and fun choice might be to choose to grow beyond our old concept, or perhaps more accurately to embed our old concept into a newer and flexible model where our sense of “I” grows to include not only our individual, defended small self, but also each other, the earth, and the universe itself.

As any important concept in nature, this theme of growth from blissful unawareness, through integration of a strongly defended sense of “I,” into a larger more incorporated, tolerant, and open sense of self is echoed over and over. 

It is my hope that this article, as well as the healing journey we may take together, will be a catalyst for this process, both for you and for me; that the awareness of how we are inexorably embedded in this process will itself allow the process to emerge in each of us more easily and naturally, so we may be able to find the sense of connection, fulfillment, and contentment which we so desperately desire.

David Dybdal, MD, PhD