I did not intend for my next blog to start with a poem. I had a plan of sorts-- a general direction of where to head next—and then I heard this poem and that shifted. Kind of how life tends to work, isn’t it? When plans change we get to choose whether we move with the flow or get stuck in the ruts and ditches of a forced agenda and failed expectations.
MAGDALENE–THE SEVEN DEVILS by Marie Howe
“Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out” —Luke 8:2.
The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
The third — I worried.
The fourth – envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too – its face. And the ant – its bifurcated body.
Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer of skin
lightly thrown over the whole thing.
The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living
The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.
The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that was alive and I couldn’t stand it,
I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word – cheesecloth –
to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside everyone else that
entered me when I breathed in
No. That was the first one.
The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened? How had our lives gotten like this?
The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it – distinct, separate from me in a bowl or on a plate.
Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.
The second was that the laundry was never finally done.
The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was
Someone using you as a co-ordinate to situate himself on earth.
The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
Historians would assume my sin was sexual.
The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.
The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.
The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying.
The sound she made — the gurgling sound — so loud we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.
And that I couldn’t stop hearing it–years later –
grocery shopping, crossing the street –
No, not the sound – it was her body’s hunger
finally evident.–what our mother had hidden all her life.
For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.
The underneath —that was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you— if I told you – would understand any of this -
* Published in the July/August 2011 issue of the American Poetry Review (Vol. 40 Issue 4, p48)
So I was walking and listening to Marie Howe read this poem during her interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being (to fully appreciate it really must hear her read it in her voice!). I wept. I passed neighbors and still I wept. I wept for this woman hiding the “underneath” so others could not see. There was no word or phrase in particular that held me. It was the experience of the poem. My brain heard the words but my body felt them. It was like awakening from a dream-- already having forgotten the plot and details, yet the experience lingers, and with it the faint awareness of an important remnant distantly remembered.
It occurred to me that poetry is a form of mindfulness, a meditation that causes us to pause and notice and remember what we have forgotten in the busyness of day to day life. This is not a new thought, just one I’d forgotten!
Then I started thinking. I thought about this woman in the poem, who would, in my profession, be simply labeled Obsessive Compulsive and started on an antidepressant, or, perhaps, also labeled with attention deficit disorder and started on a stimulant, so she could focus better and make it through her list more efficiently – her insight, creativity and idiosyncrasies lost.
I thought about what these symptoms of OCD or ADHD, or any other label, mean-- really. What I believe it means is that she—like us-- is all too human. That she copes with her emotions and her fear of the “underneath” by trying to control simple mundane things. That her busy worried brain goes back and back over her lists, and each time gets lost in her own stories of the pains and losses in her life, and the more often she does this the more deeply that pattern becomes ingrained in her brain, like the rut in an old record player. It is these pains and losses and her stories that connect her to me – to all of us. Yes, that is the beauty of a magnificent poet and poem, but it is also the gift of emotions and even suffering. They allow us to connect. They allow us to look at another and see ourselves--if we allow ourselves that vulnerability.
We lose this connection when instead of sharing emotions as a ubiquitous human bond, we pathologize emotions. Now I become different from you. I feel abnormal because I do not know that you share the same pain and so I keep mine buried inside so you cannot know:
“ — I was different from you: whatever happened to you
could not happen to me, not like that.”
These labels serve to separate us, to cast others apart as broken and unfixable -- not wanting to see that we too share fragments of these broken pieces. With suffering we have a choice –we can open our hearts or build concrete bunkers. I know I have done both, and I would imagine, if you are honest, you have too. Building these walls and numbing our emotions, whether it is with food, alcohol, sex, drugs, relationships, work, medications, or whatever we prefer—these lessen the possibility of healing and transformation.
Emotions are not like a cut that can be covered with a band-aid until healed. They must be aired and acknowledged. The work, ultimately, is not to build higher walls or find larger band-aids, but to slowly, carefully, gently break down the walls and unpeel the band aid, with the support of others who have been down the same path. In the poem, Mary did this by expressing her most feared thoughts to others despite her reluctance to do so. She spoke her truth and exposed her vulnerabilities. Warning: This path requires courage and persistence, but it leads to true healing.
So how do we do this? There are many ways, but all begin with the intention to do so. One place I like to start is with mindfulness of the breath and the body. It is a powerful, well researched tool with no known side effects, but the repeatedly demonstrated ability to rewire the brain and create healthier, more functional grooves in the vinyl synapses there.
I like to use Dr. Daniel Siegel’s hand model of the brain to explain how mindfulness can change the structure and function of the brain, rewiring the deep grooves that no longer serve us. If you fold your four fingers over your thumb you will have created a simplistic model of the brain. Imagine the forearm as the spinal cord coming up to meet the base of the hand at the wrist. This is the primitive, reptilian part of the brain—the brainstem. It is the regulator. It maintains the heart rate and respiration. It also is responsible for mobilizing a response to threats.
The thumb in the middle of the hand is the limbic system where our emotions and memory are centered. This system acts as a security guard, constantly scanning the environment looking for anything that could possibly go wrong based on sensory data from past experiences. Anything that is perceived as a threat leads to a “Code Red” alerting the brainstem and body of danger. Cortisol and thousands of other neurochemicals are released through the body warning each and every part of a possible threat.
This is a very useful system evolutionarily. If we found ourselves face to face with a tiger we would quickly respond by running like hell, fighting or freezing and hoping we might yet go unnoticed. But in the modern world this poor guy is way overworked and stressed out. He has to filter non-stop data from our phones, TV, computers and environment, on top of the data spewing in from our body, emotions, thoughts and behaviors at any given moment. He does the best he can, but without some awareness and mindfulness, this system becomes overloaded and hypervigilant under the best of circumstances, and if you have a history of trauma, this system is even more hyperalert and hyperactive.
When this part of the brain is under Red Alert, the pre-frontal lobe in the cortex, the top part of the hand folding over the thumb, essentially gets turned off. When there is a threat it is not the time to start analyzing the situation – oh, my gosh a bus is heading right at me…what should I do? freeze? move backwards? forwards? moving forward makes sense but what if the driver speeds up? …I might not have enough time to get across… so maybe if I moved back.. but then I could hit by the car behind it?...maybe I should just stand still and hope it goes around me…
While you are busy deliberating, as the pre-frontal lobe loves to do, you are likely to be smashed by the bus. To avoid this the “evolved” cortex takes a back seat to the security guard, which is great if we actually are in the path of oncoming bus, but not so great if we are merely obsessing over a text from a friend about whether the emoticon was meant to be taken seriously or sarcastically, and suddenly wondering if she is mad at you and what you might have done wrong and if maybe she misread your text from yesterday and so on and so on and so on over what turns out to be absolutely nothing.
When we get caught in catastrophizing thoughts like these our body responds as if there is a threat even if it is only in our heads. If you are unaware of how often your brain loops through negative thoughts about all the things that might happen but likely never will, or things that already happened, that you wished you’d done differently, take a few minutes to try and be quiet and just breathe and see how often you get interrupted. Notice what the thoughts are that are doing the interrupting. There is a good chance that most of thoughts are not great insights of profound value but repetitive loops – much like Mary’s in the poem, although almost certainly less “poetic”!
If we do not learn techniques to rewire and balance this ancient protective system we are at its mercy. Fortunately, mindfulness can help us do this – whether it is the form of reflective yoga, qi qong, tai chi, seated meditation, standing meditation, or even mindfully writing a poem. The techniques serve as tools to literally rewire and balance the brain so it is less rigid and reactive and more flexible and reflective. Ideally these tools are not just practiced for a set period of time during the day or week, but incorporated into everyday life – washing the dishes, driving in traffic, waiting in line and the countless other moments we often spend just trying to get something done as quickly as possible so we can move on to something else.
There is a wealth of fascinating research for another blog, but studies have shown that meditating thirty minutes a day for eight weeks causes the brain to rewire significantly enough that the changes can be seen on a MRI scan. The security guard part of the brain becomes less active, and there is greater balance between the limbic system and the frontal lobe. We retain the ability to react to urgent threats, but are able to return to equilibrium once it has passed. We develop an increased capacity to recognize the daily threats that only exist in our minds-- and shift our focus back to the present. It allows us to reassert some control over our lives and our emotions, so we do not get stuck in the ditch when life does not move according to plan or get trapped by our fears and expectations.
When we are less reactive and less at the whim of our security system then we can feel safe enough to stop building such thick high walls around ourselves and others. It allows us to connect rather than disconnect. It allows us to be present rather than numb. It allows us to actually notice our lives as we are living them with greater equanimity. It allows us to be less fearful of acknowledging our “underneath” for fear of not being understood:
“The underneath —that was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you— if I told you – would understand any of this –“
I hope you understand.
Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36–43, January 30, 2011 “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density"
Marie Howe reads Magdelene and the Seven Devils on podcast, On Being: