When I was a senior in college, I met the woman I would be married to for many years. It was not easy going. I was still very early in my process of just beginning to comprehend the impact of my mother’s mental illness on our family and on me, together with my father’s drug addictions and all the ways he enabled our family’s dysfunctions. I was still very early in starting the journey of recovery.
Every day my heart was burning. You don’t emerge from the trauma of a life-long chronically threatening environment in any other way. I was anxious, cranky, and judgmental. Wherever I went, there I was! Others could have been totally welcoming to me but I couldn’t feel that welcome. I couldn’t feel the feeling of belonging. I felt like an outsider, I felt like a bother. I felt unworthy.
I was 22 years old.
I did have one friend, though, who never failed me. My journal. Though every day my heart hurt—though every day it was burning—the act of writing about it soothed me. Words were like a cloak I wrapped around the flames within, dampening them down for a time.
But just for a time. My journal was my friend, but it wasn’t enough. I wish it could have been. It would have made everything simpler. But the deep craving for live human contact persisted. I could not shake it. I was like Vincent Van Gogh when he said, “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” I wanted someone to see beyond the wisps to the great fire! I longed for that! It did not matter that from my earliest years I had learned over and over again the lesson that people are dangerous and the ones you love and most depend on hurt you.
Still, I craved.
Invariably I’d find my way to busy places: entrances to buildings, or inside coffee shops and cafeterias. I would be alone: standing or sitting. Sounds of conversation washing over me, sounds of crowds and sounds of laughter. Deeply satisfying, just being near. But protected too.
I was in it but not of it. Almost like a ghost.
And the one thing I rarely did was look people in the eyes. I shied away from eye contact. I kept my face flat, I kept my face closed, I kept my face cold. Nothing to see here. Just walk on by. I don’t need you.
Even though in truth I was hungry to be seen like Vincent Van Gogh!
One day, Laura, the woman I was to be married to for 20+ years, found me in the university cafeteria. I had met her in one of my classes. She came up to me, and though I was scribbling furiously in my journal, eyes trained on the page, I could sense someone. She just stood there. I kept writing, hoping she’d go away. She didn’t. She just stayed there. I wondered what was happening. Finally I looked. Laura. Irritation flashed through me. Then I did what I normally didn’t do: look her in the eyes. And what I saw was this: that she saw beyond the wisps of smoke, to the fire. She saw that! She saw me! I was seen!
It was the start of feeling like, after everything, I might yet belong to something actually good…
This is my story.
And this is how and why I come bringing a deep ambivalence to the question before us today, which is the question of belonging.
Maybe my story resonates with you, and you come bringing ambivalence too…
On the one hand, we have all been hurt before—to one degree or another. We’ve all been let down, especially by people we’ve loved and counted on the most. But on the other hand, the deep craving for human contact persists. It does not matter how much we might have been hurt. We cannot shake the deep craving.
This fascinates me: the impossibly deep and irresistible desire to feel like you belong.
So, I want to go a little deeper here. Exactly why is the longing for beloved connection indestructible?
And before we go any further, I need to point out something obvious: that this is not just any church. This church is special. This is a Unitarian Universalist church, which means that (among other things) we believe that spiritual inquiry into healing and wholeness can go hand in hand with science. Science and spirituality don’t have to be enemies. They can even be best friends.
That’s what this church believes.
So, to explore the question of belonging—of what it takes to truly feel like you belong—we’re going to look into a scientific discipline known as “relational neuroscience.”
Right now, look at the person beside you. Say to them, “relational.”
And now turn to the person on your other side, say “neuroscience.”
That’s right! Relational neuroscience! Here we go!
Dr. Amy Banks M.D., in her book Four Ways to Click, says that relational neuroscience shows “that there is hardwiring throughout our brains and bodies designed to help us engage in satisfying emotional connections with others. This hardwiring [she says] includes four primary neural pathways…. [W]hen we are cut off from others, these neural pathways suffer. The result is a neurological cascade that can result in chronic irritability and anger, depression, addiction, and chronic physical illness.”
And right there you have it. The longing for beloved connection is undeniable and indestructible because it’s not a choice. It’s an intrinsic part of our evolutionary design as human beings. We can’t NOT long as Vincent Van Gogh longed. Of course private journaling can never be enough. Of course I positioned myself at entrances to buildings and inside coffee shops and cafeterias so that I could be among people, even though I was also afraid of them…
Of course ….
Dr. Banks explores four neural pathways, and because they are integral to the feeling of belonging, it would be good for us to know all four. It would be good for us to study them intently as though they were a kind of religious scripture in biological form, written into our very bodies….
Briefly, they are
1. The vagus nerve (spelled v-a-g-u-s NOT V-e-g-a-s which is another thing entirely!!!). This vagus nerve is responsible for turning off the “fight or flight” reflex, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, and inducing relaxation and calmness. It is linked to some facial expression muscles, to hearing and speech, and to swallowing. It is the longest nerve in the body and wanders everywhere, among all our organs. When your vagus nerve is working right—or as they say, “has high tone”—you are able to hear and see what people are actually saying and doing. If the situation is safe, if people are friendly, you go calm.
2. The second neural pathway is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is essentially a complex alarm system telling you that you’re being left out and that you are in danger. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, social banishment was literally a death sentence—survival required community—and so evolution favored the formation of this inner alarm system. Note especially that this inner alarm system triggers a kind of pain that is literally physical. The pain of a broken heart is a physically felt brokenness. As for when the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is working right: the alarm goes off only when you really are being left out and not at any other time.
3. The third neural pathway that is integral to the feeling of belonging is the mirroring system. Do you know what it’s like to see someone else yawn, and soon enough, if not immediately, you can feel a yawn stirring within yourself? It’s mirror neurons that make this sort of thing possible. Mirror neurons reflect the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. This is what it means to experience empathic connection with another human being, and that’s what happens if and when the mirroring system is working right. Your hands feel warm when another person is rubbing the cold out of theirs; you can sense a friend’s sorrow before they even tell you about it.
4. The fourth and final neural pathway that is integral to the feeling of belonging is the mesolimbic pathway. Dopamine is involved here, one of the many neurotransmitters in our brains that enable communication, but dopamine is special in that a shot of it feels amazing. When dopamine happens, the message that’s sent to one’s body is: this experience is worth repeating. Do it again and you’ll be rewarded with more pleasure! When this mesolimbic pathway is working right, shots of dopamine are paired with growth-fostering relationships and other kinds of positive human contact and not something else.
There they are: the four neural pathways which give biological structure to the human feeling of belonging. And did you notice that, with each of them, I said, “when it’s working right”? This returns us to ambivalence. Because when a neural pathway’s functioning is out of whack, as it was for me, given the circumstances I grew up in, belonging becomes a problem.
Relational neuroscience shows that when the vagus nerve is underfunctioning (or has “low tone”) what happens is that a person has a hard time seeing and hearing what is actually happening around them. They can misinterpret neutral behavior or even positive friendliness as aggression. They also add to their social troubles by avoiding eye contact and behaving in ways that come across as uncaring and even hostile. They are chronic blamers. They have a short fuse.
Low vagal tone is like always being in flight or fight mode…..
Or take the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Problems happen when it overfunctions and the “I’m being left out!!” alarm is constantly screaming. Doesn’t matter that you might be surrounded by love. The alarm screams, the alarm digs a deep hole in your heart until you could swear to God that you are completely unworthy of belonging and fated always to be left out. Often the result is living a paradox: you hide whatever parts of yourself you feel you need to hide so that you can be more attractive to others; but by hiding anything about yourself you just trigger more of the pain of feeling unlovable. But (you counter) if I just let it all hang out, I’d drive people away, and that’s also pain.
You go back and forth like this, in your head. It’s an insane paradox to get stuck in. But it’s because your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is messed up.
Equally troublesome things happen when the mirroring system and the mesolimbic pathway aren’t functioning right. With the former–when the mirror neurons aren’t firing right–you feel cut off from others; with the latter–and its squirts of dopamine–your brain has learned to separate feeling good from being with other people. Feeling good is paired with gambling instead, or drinking, or workaholism, or Facebooking, or some other kind of addiction. You’ve learned that, if you want to generate good feelings, the last thing you’re going to do is go to real, live human beings.
Now at this point you might be wondering whether this is a sermon or a lecture in neuroscience. I get it. Preachers are not often guilty of preaching neuroscience. So let me go straight to a big part of today’s sermon message: that you are not to blame. You may have a hard time recognizing the friendliness of friendly people and your nonverbals are so off-putting that you can make friendly people less friendly, even unfriendly. It’s not your fault. The soul crushing feeling of being unworthy and a bother may never seem to stop for you, and hiding parts of yourself makes it better and makes it worse. It’s not your fault. You may not feel the mirroring effect with others; you may feel a chasm between you and them and you may feel despair that you will never close that gap. It’s not your fault. Long ago you may have stopped relying on other people to be a source of pleasure, and you go elsewhere, maybe to unsavory elsewheres. It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
There are things to do to make it better—there are ways to exert personal power and to take personal responsibility–and I am about to get into that. But I really want you to hear what I am saying right now. Trauma has consequences. Some of you are survivors of family situations as bad as mine, or maybe even worse, and it’s not your fault that you bear the scars in nothing less than your neural pathways.
It’s not your fault.
But this is about all of us too, whatever the experience of your family of origin. The four neural pathways are impacted not just by that but also by the larger culture. Some of us, because of our particular race or sexual orientation or class or some other identity, have been born into an abusive relationship with the world, and we have known terrible struggle from the very beginning. This is, for example, the reason why the message of Black Lives Matter matters so very much…..
For myself, something I can directly speak to is what it’s like to be born into the patriarchal world as a man. I mean, what’s a man’s vagus nerve going to be like when, as a man, you have been gendered to never show weakness or need? That is, after all, what it means to “be a man.” But everyone has lots of feelings and lots of worries and men are not exempt. So there you are, a man, and all your life you are in constant defense mode, in a constant fight-or-flight space, and this gives you the fragility of very low vagal tone. A person can come to you and they are truly friendly and truly open to experiencing you as you truly are but because of your fragility, you can’t see it, your brain is in a rut, you actually interpret their friendliness as aggression, and nothing good comes of it.
And then there’s those “we need to talk” moments in a relationship. Ever had one of those? You hear your partner say, “We need to talk.” Did you know that, statistically speaking in heterosexual couples, the vast majority of these conversations are started by women, and the vast majority of men stonewall, retreat, try to flee? Right there, that’s the fragility of a low-toned vagus nerve. We’re not talking about men being bad. We’re talking about the consequences of living in constant “flight-or-fight” space and how that can fry anyone’s emotional circuits.
Please know that I’m not meaning to indulge in victimology here. I’m just wanting us to re-imagine what it means to live in our world, and how deeply we are all affected by all the forms of oppression in our world. All the deep, deep scars that are caused, which can make it so very hard to feel the feeling of belonging.
It is not your fault.
When we’re struggling with feeling like we belong, it’s so easy to go to a place of shame. To wonder, what is wrong with me? But what I want to say is this: Don’t blame. Reframe! Don’t blame. Reframe. Wrap around the feeling of shame this language—say this to yourself: One or more of my neural pathways is in a rut. We all know that our brains are sculpted by the early environments we grew up in, as well as by the larger cultural environment. But we also need to know the genuine good gospel news of neuroplasticity, which means that old ruts are never permanent. They aren’t like sins which require supernatural blood of the lamb to erase, otherwise they persist into all eternity and condemn us to everlasting hell. No. Hear the gospel of neuroplasticity, which says that brains can change. It takes time, but they do change. Just work at it.
“Where attention goes,” says Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine Daniel J. Siegel, “neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”
This is what the neuroplasticity gospel says, and I say hallelujah to that!
To this end, Dr. Amy Banks and other relational neuroscientists offer any number of ways to heal and strengthen the four neural pathways that support a feeling of belonging. Here, I’ll suggest just a few, and as I do this, I am asking you to reimagine what West Shore might mean for you: nothing less than a partner in your neurobiological health and a place where the neuroplasticity gospel can directly touch and transform you!
It only happens when you engage this place, when you get directly involved in this Stone Soup miracle we have going on here.
Taking our congregational covenant seriously. This is our covenant which describes a promise we each make about how we are going to show up to each other. The longer form is on our website. The short form goes: In order to most authentically live our faith in our relationships with each other, we covenant to CARE for each other by acting with: Courtesy, Acceptance, Respect, and Engagement. This is just another way of saying: we are going to make sure that our West Shore space is emotionally safe so we feel supported in doing all that we are called to do.
And this has neurobiological benefits. IF “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows,” and IF we center our CARE Covenant, THEN our attention will more readily go to moments of creativity and joy and less to moments of mutual disrespect and disappointment.
That’s a rewired brain, amounting to a strengthened vagus nerve.
What I’m trying to say is that our West Shore community is Beloved exactly because it goes deeper than words. It acts upon our bodies and helps to literally resculpt our brains!
Here’s another example: getting involved in a Connection Circle. What Kelly spoke to a moment ago. Connection Circles are places where you can know others deeply, and be deeply known in return. The neuroscientists say that one of the ways of soothing a hyperactive dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (which is constantly ringing the painful alarm of “I’m left out and in danger!!!!”) is to progressively unveil hidden parts of yourself—to take the risk of revealing who you really are, one piece at a time. To risk that, and to experience what it is like to be accepted as you are. For this, Connection Circles are ideal. In time the hyperactive dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is soothed and quieted. And something else might happen, too. You start to experience the pleasures of compassionate company, so much so that you start to experience shots of dopamine even at the thought of meeting with your Connection Circle. One more shot of dopamine that’s paired with live, human contact means one less shot of dopamine that’s paired with drinking, or gambling, or workaholism, or some other addiction.
This community that we are creating together with our time and energy and money literally changes lives.
Yet a third example of how West Shore puts people in contact with the gospel of neuroplasticity is through participation in worship rituals. You know when, during our meditation time, I ask you to breathe in deeply with me, then exhale all the way out? Sometimes I also invite you to put a hand to your heart. Neuroscientists tell us that such physical rituals are key to strengthening your vagus nerve and also calming down a hyperactive dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that’s screaming you are unworthy, you don’t belong… But every time you slow down your breathing—breathe deeply in and exhale all the way out—and every time you put hand to heart, your body senses the kindness and responds. The more you consistently do that, the greater inroads you make to healing a neural pathway in your brain.
This also applies to singing. Singing will heal your brain! Join the choir and experience this tenfold!
Dave Blazer, can I hear a musical amen?
And don’t forget hugs. Hugs during the greeting, the “For All That Is Our Life” time, or in the receiving line after worship, or elsewhere. Hugs given and received heal neural pathways. And they are absolutely safe. They come with simple love and no strings attached.
This is your Beloved Community. And I want you to know that the meaning of that is fundamental. Belonging to this place changes our brains for the better. You can’t do it all by yourself, all alone. No one can. I couldn’t. Didn’t matter how faithful a friend my journal was to me. My body wouldn’t allow for it, because of its basic evolutionary design. Our bodies won’t allow for it, because we are wired for community.
30 years ago, as a young man of 22, I had no clue. Now, all these years later, I have come to understand how engagement with community can heal our brains and enable a person to feel the feeling of belonging—and how this, in turn, is what allows a person to walk the path of personal and spiritual fulfillment.
So look someone in the eye today. Let them know that you see beyond the wisps of smoke to their fire. Let them know you see them.
And let yourself be seen. Believe that you are worthy, and loved. Loved by a love larger than you know.
Lift up your face,
look back at the person looking at you,
see and be seen.
Because: Relational neuroscience.
Because: The Gospel of Neuroplasticity.