Originally published in the Cranial Wave journal of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy Association, Winter 2016.
A series of advanced trainings that I have been teaching to BCST graduates in several countries has led to dynamic interaction among many accomplished professionals in different allied health professions who share in common the practice of Craniosacral Biodynamics as part of their clinical work. Particularly in Eastern Europe, my seminars are regularly attended by neurologists, psychologists, medical doctors, osteopaths and physiotherapists who are readily applying what they learn in their practices.
The interaction of these different professional specialties that all understand principles of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy cultivated an awareness of energetic, physiological, and behavioral harmonics that can be recognized in therapeutic practice. What I learned with the osteopaths in Russia was a deeper appreciation of Dr. Sutherland’s emphasis: “Think osteopathically.” Hopefully what they got from me is the ability to think Biodynamically! What I learned from the neurologists and psychiatrists in Prague is how they are using our work with mental and emotional conditions. The neurophysiotherapists in Australia demonstrated the effectiveness of their work using biodynamic principles with significantly compromised patients.
In many cases, the work of these diverse professions, each within the context of its own specialty, often pointed to the nervous system as the link between any bioenergetically oriented work (including Biodynamic CST) and measurable changes in the physiology or structure of the body. In some cases, specific work with the nervous system was essential for clearing facilitated pathways or other inertial patterns before therapeutic progress could be made more globally. The fact that so much therapeutic progress frequently hinged upon dynamics in the nervous system and therapies that can work with those definitely piqued my interest.
Echoes of some professor in my graduate school for psychology started reverberating. At the time, biological psychology was the furthest thing from my mind. I was studying to become a psychotherapist; I really didn’t care what happened in a person’s physiology!
And yet I had been working with clients’ neurophysiology for a long time, but did not yet understand it in those terms. I would do well to bear in mind the three years of running a sensory isolation tank cooperative where hundreds of people contributed to a very creative phenomenological database; the early awareness groups I led and meditation halls I visited; the professors who had been Leary and Alpert’s graduate students; the early experiments in human potential.
Of course, in the therapeutic arts it can often be recognized that the body is the final frontier. Things that may have been dealt with earlier in a different form of therapy often resurface to be processed at the level of the body. Sooner or later, receiving some form of bodywork therapy is likely to be good for almost everyone. It may be axiomatic that only when the embodied patterns of stress, trauma, injury, or neglect are dealt with at a physical level that they are able to fully heal.
Craniosacral Biodynamics has a simple and clear way of understanding these embodied stress patterns. Whatever energy is added to a living system that cannot be processed and integrated shocks the system and it must find ways of dealing with that added energy. The first choice of an organism is to dissipate added energy back to the environment, or to process it and integrate it. (An example of dissipating energy is when the force of an injury is pushed back out to the environment.) When experiential force cannot be dissipated or integrated it remains active in the organism’s biofield, thus likely active in its physiology as well. This leads to Dr. Becker’s idea of potency centering the disturbance.[i]
The living system will do everything possible to maintain the greatest overall balance and functional expression of health. A functional balance is achieved in relation to the conditions that affect the organism. This relative balance is expressed or held in all levels of function, including the physical body, the emotional realm, the psyche, and the bioenergy field. Any added energy not intrinsic to the organism’s biodynamics will be stabilized as much as possible within the broader dynamics of the biofield. Dr. Becker referred to the added energy as biokinetic force, the presence of which affects biodynamic potency.[ii] I would extend the definition Becker gave to also include “force” of strong emotions, thoughts and attitudes, and even belief systems.
Anything that challenges the living system can become an embodied stress pattern. The challenge is either met successfully, i.e., processed and integrated; or the disturbance is centered in some way, so as to limit the aberrant effects of the challenge. Essentially, the overwhelm of systemic resources at the time the added energy or challenge is experienced creates a state of shock. In this discussion, we can define shock as an overwhelm of systemic resources. The response to this shock or overwhelm is that potency expresses a protective function.[iii] This is evident in Dr. Becker’s statement about potency centering the disturbance.
Potency becomes inertial in order to express a protective function. This process is necessary in order to center the disturbance created by the added energy encountered by the living system. Because the added energy experienced by the organism was overwhelming to some degree, inertial fulcrums have a relationship to shock and the protective function of potency.
Let us return to the idea that once the disturbance is centered, the inertial pattern is expressed or held in all levels of function, including the physical body, the emotional realm, the psyche, and the bioenergy field. Because of the action of the inertial fulcrum and the effects of the pattern around it, conditions are created that affect the biofield, limiting the free movement of energy through it. This limits the organizing function of potency. The relationship of the organism to the energetic matrix that supports it becomes disturbed. Associated with the inertial pattern may be thoughts, emotions, and structural embodiment of the stress pattern.
The effect of shock is global, never limited. Understanding shock only through the lens of its effects on the nervous system is too narrow a view.[iv] Acknowledging that the genesis of an inertial pattern begins with the overwhelm of systemic resources, at this level the entire biofield is affected by the challenge. Thus, everything that participates in the biofield—that is to say, everything that is affected by the biophysics of the organism—is affected by the inertial fulcrum established in the field to center the disturbance. The nervous system is only one dimension of this more comprehensive view of how the effects of shock permeate the living system.
Nonetheless, the nervous system will always have its relationships to inertial patterns held in the biofield. The nervous system holds the critical position of translating the field dynamics to the physical organism and, paradoxically, the unenviable position of communicating the stress and strains, and growing pains of the organism to the larger field. Sometimes it gets caught in the middle. We would do well to remember the Taoist aphorism that human life takes place between heaven and earth. Our existence is equipoised between the pressure of larger field forces being concentrated into physical form, and the pressure of conditional forces obscuring the essence of that larger field.
The nervous system is especially sensitive to both the field dynamics and the conditional patterns as the primary resonator between the two domains of experience. Perhaps, this accounts for the historic attributions of shock to the nervous system. Even as it participates in the wider phenomenon of an inertial pattern, it is valuable to understand the specific relationship of the nervous system to the inertial pattern overall.
One application of this awareness is the osteopathic understanding of facilitated pathways in the nervous system. This can happen at many levels of process (classically called orders of facilitation), but it is not the purpose of this article to explain the physiology of nerve facilitation, which is sufficiently discussed elsewhere.[v][vi] It is important, however, to recognize the widespread phenomenon of facilitated nerve pathways that are commonly associated with most inertial fulcrums.
Ideally, a craniosacral therapist has skills for recognizing and attending to nerve facilitation. My clinical experience suggests that nerve facilitation typically shows its activity through one of three dynamics that are recognizable through practitioner palpation: activation (inability to settle, chronic stimulation); lack of motility (essentially, a freeze response); or a sense of thickness or density (as if that area of the nervous system is holding a lot). Stillpoint processes directed toward the nervous system in its entirety or specific regions or areas of the nervous system can help to reset the neurophysiology.
This possibility for modulating the neurophysiology—and thus changing the neuroendocrine regulation of the entire organism—is what I will focus on in the rest of this article.
Dr. Mikhail Kogan gave insights to this in a speech to the graduating class for Craniosacral Biodynamics in Washington, DC last May. Some background for his comments includes his position as director of Integrative Medicine at George Washington University. Dr. Kogan is also a graduate of Craniosacral Biodynamics foundation training. In addition to his regular clinical practice and responsibilities as a medical professor, Dr. Kogan carves out half a day in most week’s schedules for the practice of Biodynamic CST. In the graduation address, he said about Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, “We don’t know how it works. But we know that it works. Sometimes it’s the only thing that works.” His comments prompted me to remember Sutherland’s message, “Is it really necessary to know what moves the cerebrospinal fluid? I want you to visualize a potency…”[vii]
“Most of the serious health conditions are in some way related to autonomic dysregulation,” Dr. Kogan continued. “We know we can help with that! In fact, craniosacral therapy may be one of the best ways to help rebalance the autonomic nervous system.” Listening to this point made me recall that Stephen Porges, MD, PhD, said essentially the same thing at the Spanish Biodynamic CST conference, where he and I were both presenting in 2014. Porges’ polyvagal theory makes straightforward sense when you hear it from him directly. The evolution of the nervous system and the nuanced physiology that regulates autonomic functions helps us understand the nervous system’s potential and its pitfalls.
The nervous system’s potential for self-healing, transformation, and personal growth is studied by a new science focused on nervous system resiliency. The physiological aspect of this science is called neuroplasticity. Research on neuroplasticity shows how the nervous system makes changes to its own physiology, for better or worse, depending on the conditions. The study of neuroplasticity reveals that the nervous system is much more changeable than previously believed.[viii]
It has only been slightly more than a decade that we have had combinations of imaging and processing systems capable of watching neurophysiology in real time. The results of these studies are surprising. An extraordinary number of the neural connections made in any given process are temporary. The neurons literally modify their expression according to the processes they are involved in. This modified expression is both morphological and physiological. Within the cells themselves there are metabolic changes responsive to the conditions at play. Even more surprising is the behavior among large networks of neurons participating in a given process in the neural landscape.
What the neurophysiologists are observing more and more is that temporary synaptic connections are commonly made among neurons involved in a given process. These new synapses among neurons arise at the beginning of a neurological event, are maintained for the duration of the event in the neurophysiology, and later the synapses dissolve when the event is no longer held in active memory.[ix]
It is the dissolution of these synapses that is especially interesting. These observations are so new in neuroscience, no one has fully considered their potential implications.
First of all, we must recognize these neurological patterns are temporary. In many cases, synapses are temporary agreements among neurons. Every action in our experience creates a pattern in the nervous system. Our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our mood, and our activation level or baseline rest are all events in the nervous system. Direct perception is the most honest of these, and commonly runs in pathways that are hardwired in the nervous system. Thinking about your perception is a different story. The limbic system generates affect, seemingly to add weight to perceptions. The brainstem’s intricate balancing act for the autonomic physiology is both a moment-to-moment experience and generates longer wave cycles involved in the maintenance of the organism. All of these processes create patterns in the neurophysiology. (I think it is interesting that the neurophysiologists are using the word pattern to describe processes they observe.) The news is that many of these processes are held in temporary neurological connections—synapses that will dissolve when function is no longer a neurological event.
The duration, magnitude, and apparent significance of any event is modulated by other variables. How enduring an experience is depends on how much it gets reinforced by other neural activity. How important an experience feels gets amplified by specific pathways of neural activity.
Thinking about your experience is very different from simply perceiving the experience as it is. Thinking about experience creates elaborate structures in the neurophysiology, even if many of them are temporary. Many of these thoughts (your conscious awareness) run in dopamine driven circuits that radiate throughout the cortex, with the thalamus as their central hub. Importantly, the neurotransmitter dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter involved in reinforcement of behaviors. Recognizing that the prefrontal cortex (the area immediately anterior to the third ventricle) is involved in present-time orientation and also forward planning/executive functioning may be valuable. Also, just anterior to the thalamus and third ventricle is the beginning of the cingulate gyrus. This structure follows the inner curve of the lateral ventricles and has important connections among the thalamus, cortex, hippocampus, and limbic system.
Feeling experience, emotion, affect and mood are patterns that run primarily in the limbic system. Different from the neocortex and the thinking parts of the brain, the limbic system is a loose collection of mainly midbrain structures that are highly interactive. Two of these structures that are often cited are the hippocampus and the amygdala. Given the evolutionary history of when these structures were added to primitive nervous systems, and supported by real time observations of neurophysiology, the purpose of the limbic system is interpreted as adding significance to certain perceptions. The common associations of the limbic system to a sense of meaning, affect (feeling tones and emotions), mood, and nociception seem to occur in the physiology as an amplifier to experience. By increasing the impact of an experience there is a stronger, and sometimes quicker, response or reaction.
For example, I was hiking last summer and without seeing it I stepped on a green aspen branch that was flexible and soft. As I stepped I felt it twist into a semi-coiled shape under foot—I immediately jumped high in the air with a 60 pound pack on, expecting to see a snake slithering away from where I had trod! This reaction was hardwired into my nervous system by the experiences of my prehistoric ancestors. Those who survived (my forbearers) had quick reaction times and significant responses to serpents and other dangers.
This is both a blessing and a curse for modern humans. In order to keep our ancestors safe, the nervous system gave greater emphasis to the perception of threats compared to other activities. This leads to a negative bias potential in the modern nervous system. It is easier to give more attention to signs of danger than to symptoms of joy and well-being. This is the very root of depression, anxiety, IBS, autoimmune diseases, and so many other conditions in terms of the neurophysiology.
An especially reactive part of the limbic system is the amygdala. In strongly charged emotional states the amygdala is highly active. This is true for most emotions, but it is especially true with the emotion of fear. In nociceptive states—whether the threat is external, like the sabertooth tiger; or the threat is internal, like the body sensing a repetitive strain pattern—the amygdala is operating. The purpose of fear, at the level of neurophysiology, seems to be to amplify nociception. When the organism is threatened, you want to really know it is threatened!
The amygdala and the hippocampus are strongly interactive. Each reacts to the other’s input, and they can create reinforcement loops between themselves. One problem is that the hippocampus is constantly reconstructing memories and the amygdala doesn’t know what time it is. As a signal amplifier, the amygdala responds as if an experience is happening now. This is equally true when the amygdala is responding to sensory perceptions, and when it is responding to memories. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference. This is the very basis for why cathartic therapies work for some people and not for others. The difference is that relatively resourced people can take advantage of the catharsis and integrate change using higher parts of the nervous system. For people who have significant trauma history, abreactive therapies are often not a useful approach. Abreaction means to call up the memory and to work with it. We can see how the hippocampus and the amygdala could get into trouble here!
The hippocampus is the structure involved in short-term memory. When an experience is actively running in the nervous system, patterns related to this experience are generated in the hippocampus. The hippocampus, through its relationships with other brain areas, creates a representation of the experience in the neural landscape. It is important to note that this is not the experience itself—direct perception—but is an edifice that represents the experience. This is true in the moment when the experience actually occurs, and it is true later when and experience is recalled, that is, brought back into the short-term memory of the hippocampus. Temporary connections are created among neurons to generate the pattern of the memory.
The neural mapping is showing that when the memory is stored, or transferred to long term memory, only bits and pieces of the experience—the salient details—are stored. If every detail of every experience were stored, it would simply take up too much neural real estate. So highlights of the experience are tucked away, and when there is a recollection of the memory (note the literal aspect of the word recollection), it is literally created out of thin air, assembled via temporary neural connections in the hippocampus. This can lead us to important questions about things like false memory syndrome and eye witnesses to crimes.
We must recognize that it was very adaptive for our evolutionary ancestors to become particularly vigilant for signs of threat. It was more important and fundamental to keep the body and the tribe safe than to think about building libraries or pondering the possibility of conscious evolution. It is because of this priority that we are here today. At the same time, we live with the curse of our ancestors’ vigilance.
The real question, then, is: How can we transcend this inherited need for safety, while acknowledging that it is fundamental in the survival equation? How can we transform ourselves and manifest human potential? The secret is twofold. One aspect is that fact that higher centers in the neurophysiology super-regulate lower centers in common functions. The other aspect is neuroplasticity.
Higher centers in the nervous system basically means more recently evolved additions to the nervous system. Let us remember the upward growth of the neural tube in the embryo. The cerebral cortex is the newest (most recently evolved) of the three vesicles, or broad functional neurological areas created by the early folding of the upper end of the neural tube. The prefrontal cortex is the first level of neocortex immediately rostral to the thalamus, third ventricle, and lamina terminalis. This area of the brain is involved in present-time awareness (be here now), and forward planning. At the other end of “the ram’s horn”, is the temporal lobe. This is the area of the cortex associated most strongly with memory. Interestingly, the temporal lobes are associated with spiritual experiences and meditative states as well.
There is good evidence that the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus can super-regulate the limbic system. This process starts with a decision. Staying centered in the present moment is a supportive practice that helps the PFC express this function.
Recognizing that the limbic system function seems to be to add emphasis to things, and also that it can become patterned into memory loops associated with emotional charges, can help us more consciously navigate the personal melodrama. A sense of self is a culprit in maintaining this drama because we identify with the effects of our experience. Challenging this sense of self helps us not take everything so personally! When we uncouple identification with experience and self-referential patterns, the meaning of Buddhism’s discussion of impermanence is revealed.
A next step, then, is appreciating that many of the neural connections supporting this whole process of what we think and how we feel are temporary connections among neurons, ephemeral agreements that may dissolve as simply as they arose. There might be work involved to accomplish the goal, but time honored practices have proven their benefits here. The rest of this discussion will focus on what we can do for ourselves to promote resiliency in the nervous system. Nervous system resiliency, in turn, leads us to develop functional efficiency and higher levels of personal growth.
We have already discussed these things as described in recent advances in neurophysiology. At the same time, there have been parallel developments in psychology, that lead to practices for health, well-being, personal growth, and even happiness. These practices allow us to harness the inherent potential of neuroplasticity, allowing self-improvement by fine-tuning the nervous system. A new specialty called Positive Psychology has recently developed, largely based on the lifetime work of Martin Seligman, PhD.[x] The principles of Positive Psychology have been repeatedly demonstrated in rigorous studies with very large sample sizes. The practices have been taught in elite private schools, corporate boardrooms, wilderness therapy programs, and more. Interestingly, many of the practices validated in modern research are similar to practices described in the oldest traditions for personal development.
William L. Mikulas, PhD is a behavioral and transpersonal psychologist. In an eminently practical way, he describes how spiritual practices, once disrobed of their religious context, are essentially the same cross-culturally.[xi] When viewed at the level of the practices themselves, their essential features are relatively universal. These practices create a recipe for self-improvement. The practices can be useful for ourselves and our own personal growth, as well as incorporated into our work with clients.
The practices occur in four domains: Concentration, Mindfulness, Opening the Heart, and Reducing Attachments. To these broad arenas, I would add the importance of recognizing when we are safe enough to trust our experience. On this foundation of trust, we can begin to concentrate the mind, start letting go of attachments, cultivate awareness, and open the heart.
Keep a wide perceptual field. Relax your awareness, rather than narrowing your attention. Be able to perceive the specific within the context of the whole. Keep an open awareness. Simply notice. Resonate with good will. Receive the other being with an open heart. It is for all these reasons that I love the practice of Craniosacral Biodynamics, as a meditation in action.
About the author: Roger Gilchrist, MA, RPE, RCST® is a psychotherapist emphasizing transpersonal/spiritual dynamics, as well as practicing energy medicine and Craniosacral Biodynamics. He teaches an advanced training series that includes Nervous System Resiliency internationally; as part of the integrative approached called NeuroEnergetic Therapy™.
Basic Practices for Nervous System Resiliency
Make a decision. The first step is to decide to do something about your situation.
Use positive thoughts to infuse your nervous system with hope and an orientation to what’s going right. It turns out that the power of positive thinking is one of the best things we can do to support our overall physiology.
Express loving kindness. Doing something kind for someone or receiving kindness activates certain neural circuits that improve health and open our hearts. Even simply thinking kind thoughts or wishing someone well is nearly as powerful as doing the action.
Plant seeds, and pull weeds. Like tending a garden, the weeds or invasive species must be pulled, the less vital growth pruned back, and new seeds full of potential planted. Literally taking responsibility for how much attention we give to certain areas of our lives, things we think about, feelings we hold, etc. can completely change our neuro-affective landscape.
Weighing in. It’s a proportion thing: how much energy do you give to the positive stuff compared to the negative or challenging stuff?
Taking in the Good. Similar to connecting with resources, internal and external, spend some time giving attention to the good things in your life. Start with just being alive and breathing! Then continue by appreciating more that is going right. This practice actually tunes your neurophysiology to resonate more with good experiences.
Mindfulness. Take time to be aware of your experience. This includes the thoughts that arise, the feelings that are generated, and the sensations in the body. Take time to be aware of your experience. With enough practice you can be aware of the root of experience itself.
Compassionate communication. Something happens in the neurophysiology when you communicate kindly. Mirror neurons and other structures enter deep states of coherence during compassionate communication. This deep coherence corresponds with improvements in physical health, emotional balance, and self-awareness.
Equanimity. Equanimity is balance in all things. This is the profound practice of nonattachment. Events take place. Experience occurs and perception takes place. Is it possible to simply perceive without interpreting the perception? Without judgment, without analysis, without adding any emphasis whatsoever, can we simply perceive? Equanimity is a very special neurophysiological state. As measured on an EEG, high levels of gamma waves occur. Gamma waves are indicative of deep entrainment throughout vast regions of the nervous system. Entrainment, like coherence, has beneficial effects on health and well-being.
As I view it, many of these practices are analogous to ones we utilize in Biodynamic CST. Become Present. Negotiate contact. Orient to the Health. Perceive directly. Keep an open and relaxed awareness, or wide perceptual field. Notice what is breathing and what is not. Allow the inherent treatment plan to reach a state of balance. And in that equanimity, the world is transformed.
Therapeutic Applications for Nervous System Resiliency
Keeping in mind that BCST practitioners neither diagnose nor treat, but that we support inherent health to better express, consider the possibilities of improvements in nervous system resiliency in relation to these conditions:
PTSD: Post-traumatic stress disorder is documented to improve with craniosacral therapy. Beginning with a clinic established at Upledger Institute for this purpose, and currently used by Biodynamic practitioners in the VA’s Walter Reed Medical Hospital, craniosacral therapy commonly reduces symptoms of PTSD. This likely occurs through reducing inertial patterns in the nervous system, reinforcing beneficial ones, and increasing nervous system resiliency.
Fibromyalgia: The research shows that physical pain and emotional pain runs in many of the same neural circuits. Imagine the potential of spinal cord defacilitation or the value of helping a feedback pattern in the limbic system become suspended in the state of balance. In many cases, fibromyalgia responds to CST.
Depression: The pharmacology of antidepressants uses one of three pathways to increase serotonin levels. Most sertonergic pathways in the CNS have the brainstem as their core. We should consider if there may be positive effects related to stillpoints in the brainstem, or the implications of any neurophysiological reorganization here. Also, unburdening the limbic system from cycling patterns (as above) may be helpful. Many of the practices in the other sidebar will yield benefits for depression, as well.
Anxiety: Like depression, anxiety is likely rooted in the brainstem. However, anxiety runs in completely different circuits. We would do well to learn about the reticular activating system, other parts of sympathetic arousal patterns, and their translation into the HPA Axis, affecting whole body physiology. Biodynamic work involving the connection between the brainstem and the adrenal glands can be useful.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS is one of many conditions related to autonomic nervous system imbalances. Learning specific bodywork contacts for the two branches of the ANS can be beneficial in any therapeutic practice. In particular, there are parasympathetic contacts for supporting vagus nerve function, and other contacts that deepen parasympathetic function systemically, like holding the sacrum in relation to the occiput, back of the neck, or vagus nerve.
Certainly, there is a wide array of conditions in physical health and psychoemotional well-being that can improve with nervous system resiliency. The above is a sample to point out the possibilities.
“There is suffering, and it must be understood.” —the Buddha
About the author: Roger Gilchrist, MA, RPE, RCST® is a psychotherapist emphasizing transpersonal/spiritual dynamics, as well as practicing energy medicine and Craniosacral Biodynamics. He teaches an advanced training series that includes Nervous System Resiliency internationally, as part of the integrative system called NeuroEnergetic Therapy™.
[i] Becker, R. E. (1997). Life in Motion. Portland, OR: Rudra Press.
[iii] Sills, F. (2015). The three functions of potency: organizing, protective, healing. Breath of Life seminar. Boulder, CO.
[iv] Zamurut, S.K. (2015). Defining Shock within the Biodynamic Paradigm. Newsletter of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy Association.
[vi] Sills, F. (2012). Foundations in Craniosacral Biodynamics, volume 2. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
[vii] Sutherland, W.G. (1990). Teachings in the Science of Osteopathy. Sutherland Cranial Teaching Foundation.
[viii] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
[ix] Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Okland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
[x] Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: a visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Simon and Schuster.
[xi] Mikulas, W. L. (1984). The Way Beyond: an overview of spiritual practices. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.
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