In the mid-sixties, the comedic actor, Peter Sellers played the role of hapless French  detective Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the popular Pink Panther movies. In those movies, when he would least expect it, Clouseau would be unexpectedly attacked by his man-servant, Cato Fong (Cato has since been replaced in the 2006 Pink Panther remake by Gendarme Ponton). Coming home from a long, hard day of detective work, Clouseau would never see Cato pressed up against the ceiling in the foyer, for example, until he was fully pounced upon. A ferocious mock-battle would then ensue. pink_pantherCato’s role was to help train Clouseau for the unexpected, unpredictable events destined to befall him out in the real world. (One of my favorite real-world stories: Special Forces martial arts trainer, Richard Heckler tells of a similar, real-life attack on him at a detention camp for teens in northern California. When Heckler quickly subdued the attacking teenager, the kid jumped up and earnestly pleaded: “Wow! Will you teach me how to kill people!?” Heckler immediately agreed, provided the teen do everything he was told. As you might guess, when the training in aikido was complete, the kid was no longer driven by the fear that made him want to kill people in the first place).

Invasion of the Attack Thoughts

Most of us carry around our own version of Cato-Mind inside our body and brain. It is much like the taste of Banzo’s Sword and shows up most often in the form of unwelcome, surprising thoughts that are triggered by people and events we encounter at home, on the job, or on our computer screen; or by things we might see on TV, or when we open our bank or brokerage statement. They are just like Cato, seemingly coming out of nowhere, attacking our peace of mind. Often, we may not even realize we’ve thought any thoughts at all – we simply find ourselves inexplicably overwrought by bodily sensations or images very likely originating from their storehouse in implicit memory. These stored memories, often traumatic with few or no words associated with them, are what attachment researchers call “the unthought known.” We’ve all had our first three years of life working to generate such memories. Finding ourselves upset for good reason can be challenging enough. Being upset for “no good reason” can literally drive us crazy.

Whatever thoughts or non-thoughts that might be the drivers lying at the root of our experience, the end result is what mostly matters – the upset we feel in response. The familiar feeling of amygdala-triggered adrenaline and cortisol running through our bodies and brains, the sense of ominous threat all around us, the inability to think clearly or focus sharply – all of these can make life more than a little stressful. In my experience, knowing the unthought known is alive and well in what University of Virginia professor, Tim Wilson calls the Adaptive Unconscious – that knowledge alone brings appreciable relief. It’s not me, it’s my brain!

Email Assassins

These days, at the same time that I’m upset, I’m also simultaneously curious. For example, I get an occasional email from someone really hating this column. That’s often good for an adrenaline rush – email threats are often good triggers. Within seconds though, on a good day, I simply smile and move on. At home, safe in my cozy office, little black symbols on my computer screen can’t really hurt me. These words, often sent to me by someone I don’t know and probably wouldn’t want to spend much time with if I did, don’t really pose much of a real threat. I can assure Amy (my pet name for my amygdala) that it’s okay to relax and that it’s safe to return to sentry duty.

Amygdala LeDoux

amygdalaThe amygdala, primarily responsible for memory and emotional learning, has been extensively researched in neuroscience. Joe LeDoux at NYU is one of the nation’s leading authorities on this part of the brain. He likens Amy to the smoke alarm in your house, sounding at the first sign of real or perceived danger. Since it’s better evolutionarily to be safe than sorry, very often – as in the case of a grumpy email assassin – Amy sounds a warning unnecessarily. My work, and I think this is primarily a work of spiritual direction, is to not immediately form what nonviolent communication expert, Marshall Rosenberg describes as “Enemy Images.” (This is not really name-dropping here – my intent is to refer you to people whose work I really respect). Any time we find ourselves upset about anything whatsoever, there’s a good chance that Cato-Mind has been busy at work forming Enemy Images. Our work then, and it is work I think we need to also model for friends, family and children, is to find ways to compassionately turn towards such images, either in ourselves as they appear in the form of self-condemnation or self-loathing, or as they appear out in the world as politicians or bill collectors or citizens of “foreign countries.” Quelling our own Cato-Mind is where the first work of peace on planet earth needs to begin in earnest, I think.