Mirror Neurons & Nondual Therapy
The miracle of the human brain is only beginning to be understood: not least in its remarkable ability to attune to the environment and to reflect energetic resonance from others. When we are able to consciously allow this in therapy, the healing power could be tremendous.
A foundational premise of Nondual Therapy is that the concept of a definitively separate self is illusory. The belief in separation affects not only forms of thought but also patterns of stress, depression and energetic contraction throughout the whole psyche. We can perhaps release the idea that our consciousness is separate from the consciousness of others, but it can be hard to allow that also our bodies, minds, feelings and emotions are inseparable from the whole. This is because the intimacy of experience is clearly differentiated from the experience of another, and we believe that difference means separation and that this separation is absolute. On inspection, this belief is incongruous, although pervasive. Does the difference between the fingernail and the finger mean there is an absolute separation between the two? Does the difference between a mother and a child set them eternally apart?
In neuroscience, the discovery of mirror neurons has brought fresh scientific insights into the inseparability of experience. In the ‘eighties and ‘nineties a group of Italian neurophysiologists at the University of Parma comprised of Rizzolatti, Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, and Gallese, had the ventral premotor cortex of a macaque monkey hooked up with electrodes to study neurons associated with the control of hand and mouth actions. Each time the monkey picked up a peanut to eat, his brain would cause the monitor to go: “click, click, click”. One day, a researcher himself took a peanut to eat, as the monkey watched him. The same sound “click, click, click,” resonated through the monitor, although the monkey hadn’t moved an inch. The monkey’s brain was reacting as if the monkey had taken and eaten the peanut herself. Repeated tests showed that an observed action in another can signal the same brain response as first-hand physical action. The neurons that fired in response to actions taken by someone else’s body have been called Mirror Neurons, which display a phenomenon often referred to as: “Monkey see, Monkey do”.
We can recognize these mirror neurons at work: each time we clutch our heads in despair when the footballer misses the penalty; when we’re watching a drama on TV; or in any emotional engagement with second-hand situations. They are also at work where we empathize with ourselves through memories of the past or imagination about ourselves in future situations. We imagine the gourmet meal we’re going to have in the evening and our mouth salivates. We remember the death of a loved one years ago, and tears come to the eyes. Mirror neurons are at play in empathic resonance within and beyond the borders of the separate self.
As with all neurons, mirror neurons multiply according to use. If we don’t use them, we lose them. This is where meditation plays a fundamental role in opening the resonant connectivity of the psyche with its whole environment as well as extending the capacity for living experience. The control system over the free deployment of mirror neurons is found in the prefrontal cortex – which is the forehead area of the pineal chakra or the third eye. From this area, a quick check is made to the sense perception of the skin surface of the body to establish if emerging experience is local to the body or elsewhere, and based on this, the firing of mirror neurons is partially inhibited. Through our prevalent conditioning, if the experience is established as with the ‘other’, we tend to create distance and restrict empathy. Through bringing relaxation, stability and peace to the region of the prefrontal cortex, meditation will open the possibility of the ‘and-and’. Also, I know it’s not my body, but at the same time, I am able to share the experience. The duality of ‘me V you’ is no longer required.
In the words of neuroscientist Prof. V.S. Ramachandran to the Dalai Lama:
“Through practices like meditation, maybe you can temporarily suspend the inhibition (on mirror neurons), so you are able to genuinely adopt another person’s point of view and achieve genuine compassion.”
The functioning of mirror neurons is not hocus-pocus but a gift of nature. Perhaps you recall watching a dog moving its mouth in rhythm with your own chewing of food. Experience is a shared field, and it is the brain that filters how much of it we are ready to take in, and what kind of experience we choose to open up to. The possibilities of experience are limited, but we are so often limited by a combination of fear and belief. We are simply unable to perceive that which we don’t believe is there.
A large part of therapy comes with questioning the allocation of feelings and emotions. This means encouraging the client to take emotional responsibility for the experiences resonating through the psyche. For example, if we walk into a room full of grieving people, does it not affect us? Doesn’t grief awaken within our own experience? To make this clear, we are not responsible for the behavior of others, but we are 100 percent responsible for the effects of the environment on our direct experience. Often, we will want to blame other people for uncomfortable emotions, or we can get confused as to whether these feelings are ours or from the other people. For example, when a client is describing the anger of their partner, it is worth affirming that they also experienced that anger. Anger in the togetherness is experienced by both parts, even if one side is surprised by it. The couple is sharing a contraction of anger and fear. Just this experiential allowance can open the Nondual Quality of compassion.
Perhaps science will at some stage recognize that these mirror neurons – which are found throughout the brain – are about unconditioned consciousness. When mirror neurons are empathic to their own vibration of consciousness (when the brain becomes conscious of consciousness), an awakened freedom from form emerges which is directly conducive to neuroplasticity and the evolution of structures of belief. The experience of release, freedom and power that occurs when consciousness is liberated from the filtration system of the brain over the possibilities of experience is what many refer to as spiritual awakening.
This liberation is facilitated first by a deep relaxation of the control centers of the brain through a disinvestment from the absolute importance of thoughts, beliefs and the energetic web of personality. This disinvestment allows attunement and the emergence of one who can consciously attune to different fields of experience or different atmospheres. In this, attunement depends on the release of the grasping towards either-or structures. Only then can we turn the dial. For example, we can walk into a room full of frightened people and we can attune to the fear in the room. At the same time, and out of freedom, we can also attune to the care in the room, or to the anger outside the room, or to eternal peace. At a certain stage, control of the tuning system is surrendered as a trust develops in a higher form of attunement arising out of pure consciousness: the instantaneous attunement of perception according to the needs of the whole. This kind of liberation involves the surrender of the belief in being in control, as well as beliefs in judgement. There are no mistakes. Everything is of value in the play of experience.
The discovery of Mirror Neurons also introduces a scientific premise for the intuitive wisdom of transmission. Spiritual transmission is when an experience is passed between teacher and student without words, explanations or suggestion – simply through vibration. Transmission occurs when there is a strong resonance in a field and the context is safe enough to allow synchronization of the felt sense. Operating beneath the threshold of the conscious mind, it is the sharing of the deeper experiential layers of our true nature. This has direct relevance for Nondual Therapy as the foundational methodology is based on resonance, and on the understanding that the therapist can only awaken the Nondual Qualities of our true nature through being themselves consolidated in these qualities. For example, when a child abuser is confessing the agony behind his behavior, is the therapist able to relax in the resonance of purity? When sitting in a prison cell with a murderer, can the resonance of innocence breath freely, together with all the conditions of guilt?
The base-line of resonant transmission in a therapy session will be found in the ability to relax into the physical body in the here and now. This relaxation of the therapist will be transmitted to the client, modelling the depth possibility of healing. Despite the drama of the story, relaxation is possible in the here and now. This is where therapy becomes somatic: the body is literally learning new possibilities simply by being present with the therapist.
To take a common example, most people will experience contraction in fear and anger. An anxious client could have learned to repress her natural, boundary-setting reflex of anger as she has learned repeatedly that anger has terrible consequences: people get hurt, she gets punished, relationships get destroyed. This repeated conditioning can create a situation where anger reflexes are immediately translated into a combination of anxiety and self-destruction. The first time she gets angry with the therapist (even though it might be a form of passive aggression), the response of the therapist will give her the signal of whether it is safe to open. When the therapist can directly allow anger, in a relaxed and caring manner, a new depth of trust is born. There is an immediate modelling of a new possibility which can release vitality that has been habitually contracted, without devastating consequences. But words would not be enough. The body of the client is literally resonating with the relaxation within the body of the therapist, so the client could physically experience for the first time a relaxation in her own body, even when the charge of anger is moving through it. This shared experience can be revolutionary for the healing process of the psyche, without the therapist saying a word.
The Nondual Quality connected with the contraction of fear and anger is compassion, which is at the core of Nondual Therapy. Yet the implications of Mirror Neurons and the effect they have on our subjective reality through shared fields of experience can be even greater. Imagine you walk into football stadium in the middle of a match. How does your body and mind react to the roar of supporters in unison? Imagine now you walk into a sacred space such as a church where there are hundreds of people in deep devotion. How does this affect experience? Beyond the four eyes of the therapy session, the effect of synchronized experience can be magnified in group meetings. Here, at the intimate core of direct experience of the individual, the inner borders to the source can collapse, precisely because of the resonance in the shared field. What is true and essential has a powerful pull towards a brain that seeks stability. When we consider the science of mirror neurons, we truly are responsible for one another. In the words of the first President of the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) Willis Harman: “Because of the interconnectedness of all minds, affirming a positive vision may be about the most sophisticated action any one of us can take.”
Mirror Neurons play a key role in empathy, but equally they are also involved with introspection and self-contemplation. The ability to have compassion towards oneself, and to be able to take time and space to be curious about the patterns and phenomena within the individual psyche is critical to Nondual Therapy. Here, resonance and transmission are also at work. Yet confusion can ensue: for example, if there is a resonance around the contraction of betrayal and loyalty in our psyche, we will also easily attune to the same resonance outside of ourselves. Our consciousness will be directly attracted to the frequency. When the contraction is seeking resolution or relief, it will lead to a certain tunnel vision: we literally prioritize the resonance of betrayal, for example, over the resonances of love, peace, connection or curiosity that are also here.
A lot of work in Nondual Therapy involves the awareness of these resonant patterns of attraction, and the way that it narrows perception. This involves opening and trusting a deeper layer of perception – the unconditional space of free awareness – which precedes, underlies and outlives all content of perception. Impressions arise and fade, but this awareness remains, providing a neuroplastic position through which more possibility and greater freedom can arise within the field of view.
When Mirror Neurons resonate with Mirror Neurons, we begin to enjoy the liberation of being conscious of consciousness itself, (or aware of our own awareness) unhinged from the cruder contents of thoughts and feeling impressions. This mental aliveness occurs in the here and now, and liberated perception from the shackles of time (past programming) and context (a projected situation). The resonance of Beginners Mind, or pure clarity of mind, where consciousness is free of the burden of the story, is also passed between brains through the Mirror Neuron system. This awake-ness and disentanglement, is a fundamental part of neuroplasticity. When the resonance of unrestricted consciousness is accompanied with physical relaxation and a sense of safety, the possibilities for healing from neural networks through to habitual stress responses in the body increase dramatically.
This article is an extract from the upcoming book: Nondual Therapy: The Psychology of Awakening, by Georgi Y. Johnson. To stay tuned for pre-orders of the book, visit here.