The good, the bad, and
the visceral reaction



A visceral reaction is generally defined as an unthinking response, an absence of thought, a knee-jerk comeback, a fear response and more along the same lines.

The very idea of a visceral reaction generally has a negative reputation in the discourse of most intellectuals, spiritual gurus, non-violent activists, and mental health specialists among others. A reaction is seen as inferior in value and effect to an action. What’s more, a detachment from our physical reality is often advocated to the point where one has “arrived”, spiritually at least, when they no longer react to anything.

I remember reading a rather convoluted explanation to explain away the fact that Jesus reacted with anger at the money-changers’ who were plying their trade in the Temple. The author argued that Jesus was not reacting---God forbid!---but rather his reaction that actually was not, was an “action in response to His Father.” Call me crazy, but isn’t an “action in response” a reaction?

Some are quick to remind us that this so-called violent incident was the only one recorded in Jesus’ human life, as though one needs to justify Jesus’ behaviour as he faced the desecration of the Temple. Jesus was rightly angered by the fact that they had made God’s temple a “den of robbers”---Mark 11:15-17. In my opinion, anger should not be excluded from God’s creation. It is an emotion that has its place, like the others.

Being emotionally remote also means not reacting to what is fundamentally wrong. An acquaintance of mine was marvelling about a prominent religious leader having “finally” (my word here) taken a stand against an ongoing devastating war, until I reminded her that this stand was part of his job’s functions.

Why should we throw the baby out with the bathwater? A reaction is at its source an energy of ours, and thus it has something to offer us or teach us about our Self. Why dismiss or deny forms of our energy that most human beings hold inside, such as one’s own gut reactions to life? Why would we be born with the innate ability to react, if it were only to forego its use?

Taking medication for a normal human reaction to a loss deprives an individual of one of the most important emotional experiences.”
In “Bereavement Doesn’t Equal Depression, and It’s No Disease for the DSM” By T. Byram Karasu, thedailybeast.com, January 27, 2012.

Author T. Byram Karasu wrote an article, referenced above, about the ongoing debate at the American Psychiatric Association around the issue of bereavement. They are trying to determine whether grief is a form of depression, a disease or a pathological condition. Why this desire to measure grief you might ask? Well, they are wondering if bereavement should be added to the ever-growing list of mental disorders. Of course, if this comes to pass, the mere act of mourning the loss of a loved one would be sufficient grounds to be diagnosed with an illness and given a medical prescription. While this would be good news for the pharmaceutical industry, it is also absurd. Karasu affirms what I have always thought was obvious: grief is a healthy reaction to loss.

This debate within the world of psychiatry is symptomatic of the kind of society in which we live in. Human reactions, from expressions of affection to painful ones, have to be classified medically or framed in legal terms in order to be either numbed or sanctioned.

To Re-Act, we need a catalyst: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

Our modern society is increasingly geared towards keeping us busy and numb with trivia, boring useless jobs, celebrity gossip, taxes, prescription drugs and so on, with the end result being that we react even less than we used to.

"We live in a world in which things have to look like an action movie for us to react. We have become desensitised and have to see houses crumbling like in Haiti." Vava Tampa, director of Save the Congo quoted in “Unwatchable is just that – is it doing anything to help Congo?” by Jane Martison, guardian.co.uk, 28 September 2011.

Ms. Martison, the Guardian journalist who wrote the article referenced above, argues that the film “Unwatchable” (a video produced for Save the Congo to raise awareness about conflict minerals and rape in the Congo) triggers such visceral reactions that she didn’t dare send the film’s link to her contacts. Notwithstanding, the video did provoke the journalist enough for her to want to stop the nightmare in Congo.

I do agree with the Guardian reporter when she writes that some charitable organizations, sympathetic to the cause, would not back the film because of its scenes of sexual violence. However, at the end of the day, I am inclined towards moving people to have a visceral reaction to human suffering wherever it is, including and especially their own. In some cases, we have become so accustomed to NOT react in the face of an injustice or abuse that we have “made sense” of such injustice, rationalised its existence and need for being.

the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who self-immolated in protest of the Diem's government persecution of Buddhists

When AP photographer Malcolm Browne’s iconic photo of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire and burned to death, circulated all over the world, people everywhere reacted, right up to the Kennedy administration. JFK himself declared that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

People around the world started to react and question the persecution and religious inequality under the American- backed government of Diem in Vietnam at that time, brought vividly to the world’s attention by the Buddhist monk’s suicide-protest. Subsequently, the US government reacted, and by November of that year, the CIA orchestrated a coup to remove Diem from power.

The recent Arab Spring was set off in Tunisia when a young man Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. In the following weeks that same fire of sacrifice burned through the streets of Tunisia, and then the rest of the Arab world, as protesters shouted in unison against oppression and dictatorship. By January 13, 2011, the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali had to flee the country and escaped to Saudi Arabia; the people had finally toppled his regime.

A visceral reaction has the potential to activate our life force, that is our own power to really bring about positive change in our life. It is in allowing the expression of our emotional reaction that a solution, or the change needed, to what we are reacting to will come up, or at the very least the beginning of a solution. In my article on Emotional Intelligence, I discuss at length how emotions can be just as cognitive as our minds, but their knowledge takes on a different form.

“So don't be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don't know what work they are accomplishing within you?” Rainer Maria Rilke

A healer friend of mine referred to
self-healing as erasing our own internal cassettes, AKA changing the record. The same is true for our reactions; they can change for the “better” in that they can be grounded in the context of our here and now, and hence in the best position to evolve and change for the better. Our reactions have been playing the same old tunes because we have not been healing them.

Many of the visceral reactions I have felt within the course of my life were more instinctive reactions, in the form of unconscious energy trapped in combative scenarios I have been replaying since time immemorial. Many of my reactions, mainly the emotional ones, were coming from a not so distant past in my selective and traumatised memory. This, however, does not mean those reactions should have been ignored, numbed through drugs and antidepressants, denied, hated or judged against. These very reactions were part of my Self, meaning they also had the potential to grow and become part of the enlightened Selfin me.

Our
perception of our own reality is the one that ultimately impacts us. It is our subjective experience that makes us act and react to life one way or the other. And if our actions need to change or evolve because they are not yielding the desired results, we need to be aware of their source, which more often than not is the very visceral reaction we had in the first place, and shoved down and denied.

In addition, applying value judgments to our different
organic responses, be they emotional or physical, is comparable to having a pecking order with our body’s organs who all have a purpose in our body’s functioning and well-being. We don’t pick and choose what organs or parts of the body we like or dislike; we instinctively know that we pretty much need all of them, and that they all work together for our health. I would suggest that the same goes for our reactions and feelings: we have them for a reason---they have something to teach us. That is why I believe that the best strategy, as always, is to seek a balance point between our visceral reaction and our rational response.

Our physical body focuses on the organs necessary to survive and shuts down the rest when its survival is at stake. In fact, the only situations where one has no time to integrate reason into their decision is when faced with a survival threat, in which only then the survival instinct responds. This type of reaction is called the
fight or flight response.

The big problem is not the fight or flight reaction in and of itself, it is that our subconscious is tattooed, branded with false impressions and misunderstandingsof what is actually dangerous to us, and therefore the corrupt, in this case, fight or flight response rises up way too often inside of us. We have a wider range of behaviours during the fight flight syndrome than in our cavemen ancestors, but the unconscious imprints ruling our visceral reactions are still
frozen, for the most part, unevolved and unchanged.

The importance of learning to process our reaction to anyone and anything cannot be overstated. This is not only because it will take a while to start having the appropriate reaction to any given context naturally, but also because unprocessed and unrecognized reactions get unconsciously internalized by us and start dominating and corrupting our lives from the background, hidden and unbeknownst to us.

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past.
George Steiner

A visceral reaction as we know it is often based on the voices of the pain and suffering from our unresolved past, and there are also visceral reactions to witnessed injustices and abuses of the authoritative figures in our lives, from parents to governmental institutions. We don’t necessarily often have the proper visceral reaction to the context or person in front of us, but self-healing can help us get there.

To have the right visceral reaction, the one that is alive, truthful, and grounded in your present, we need the time and space to feel and reflect on ourselves. That time and space is of course created by our firm intention to heal and have time and space for our evolution.

Our first reaction can often be the one that needs to evolve, so that it can be based on the real present without
re-enacting some old beliefs or traumatised knee-jerk reaction in our minds and hence in our bodies. The only way we can mature our direct responses to ground them in what is here and now. It means to become aware of them and accept them for what they are when they first rise---in the raw, so to speak.

Becoming conscious of my visceral reactions, and what was going on inside of me when such and such situation would happen, gave me more alertness while I was trying to accept the realizations. I have an example of how I reversed atypical victim scenario of mine in which my visceral reaction evolved from fear and denial of fear to firmness, determination and steadfastness.

I was walking back from work, late at night, in the streets of Montreal, Canada, when I heard men’s voices behind me, walking and talking aggressively, or so I felt. I immediately felt threatened by them, but I decided that I would not change sidewalk this time, nor would I walk faster. The men came closer to me, and I still felt like walking strongly on my own, for the most part, to show them they were not threatening to me. I was not 100% aligned with my “no fear” behaviour, but I was
more than 50% ready.

Within minutes, they surrounded me, and two of them grabbed my coat and shoulder and arm. I looked at who seemed to be the leader, and I said calmly and strongly: “Don’t even think about it. You will regret it.” I finally took my resolve seriously there, and they reflected it to me. I must stress that this willpower did not come about overnight, but came naturally as I processed in a healing way my pain, negativity, denials and lies to my Self.
The leader felt fear, and persuaded the other two to leave me alone. They left, and I walked back home “owning” both sidewalks this time!

Getting to know your reactions in a conscious way will bring forth with intent, time and effort, a more mature set of reactions on your part. In a way our reaction is more important to our healing process than what brought it forth, for many of our visceral reactions have been around forever.

The more I get to know my reactions consciously, the more real understandings I get about

Visionary ayahuasca painting by Pablo Amaringo

the layers of my Self.

First, I was defensive, and living in the past

I went from being unconsciously on the defensive to being consciously on the defensive for the first part of my life. Today I spend time feeling, understanding and becoming conscious of my defensiveness, and I focus on distinguishing reactions of mine which are prisoners of the past to instinctive responses grounded in the present.

At the same time I was on the offensive, and living in the future

In the name of prevention and planning, I lived in unconscious fears and mistrust about my innate abilities to respond to life. Today, I gradually trust that I need not prepare myself in fear, and I know I will have the right reaction while I keep in mind that tomorrow never comes; when it does, it’s called today.

Now I am alert in the here and now

Working with our visceral reactions, understanding them, accepting them as they are, but also as a work-in-progress will help us get a broader view of life and our trajectory through it. If we can let go of old reactions, frozen in our timeline, to react more spontaneously and contextually to the present, we will naturally distance ourselves from tunnel vision and being apprehensive about the future or prisoner of our past.

It is part of life to be triggered and challenged. Without these seemingly unpleasant experiences, we won’t have the reactions we need to heal and move forward.

As a final thought, here’s a little piece of trivia: in chemistry, most reactions that occur in living cells require catalysts called enzymes, without them, life would be impossible.


SUGGESTED READINGS:

Emotional Intelligence

Here and Now

Healing Power of intention

Rape





KA Healing Retreats, between Caponga Beach and Cascavel in Ceara, Brazil