Little Teachers

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The Neurology of Wholeness

Probably, the loss of wholeness is not all socially caused. Growing brains change. According to The Physics Factbook, the brains of kids younger than 5 years mostly operate in theta waves. “Cortical theta waves are observed frequently in young children,” they write. “In older children and adults, [theta waves] tend to appear during drowsy, meditative, or sleeping states, but not during the deepest stages of sleep.”

So perhaps toddlers’ subconscious, open, minds are closer to the surface than ours. It’s like they’re meditating all the time. As they get older, they start to have the grown-up, faster, beta waves that move them from their high-energy meditation into “alertness and focused thinking,” which might be another way of saying separateness and fear about the world.

The ego or sense of “self” appears to gradually develop through childhood as the left prefrontal cortex (LPC) and associated areas grow. According to neuroscientists Rick Hanson PhD, author of Buddha’s Brain, our adult “selves” are programs run by parts of the brain, mostly the LPC. This self-program holds our sense of separateness, our doubts, fears, and concepts about the world. According to Dr. Hanson, this self evolved to help us be safe, not happy. So it worries about everything. When it is running our consciousness, which is nearly always, it is hard to keep a sense that all is right with the world.

It seems the little ones have much more access to their right brains and other non-self areas, but tend to lose it as the left brain takes over. I think we’re seeing this process happen with our toddlers. Week by week, the “anxious self” brain programs gain strength. Although their beautiful, joyous selves are still their primary features, we can see those innocent selves starting to be hidden under more grown-up layers.

There’s a more spiritual way of looking at this process. Several people have told me that little children tend to be whole because they “remember where they came from.” They say kids still know they are part of a greater whole where they are always loved and there is nothing to fear.  I don’t know. Perhaps that’s another way of saying they are in their right brains. Perhaps we can get there, too.

The travel writer, environmental activist and Buddhist priest Peter Matthiesen summed up this story in the following beautiful paragraph: “Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day, we become seekers.”

Has this happened to you?

Whether socially or neurologically caused, it certainly seems that something changes within the young ones. As they gain the ability to navigate the adult world, they lose some of their wholeness, enthusiasm and innocence. It happens to all of us. Then we spend much of our later lives trying to get it back.

When did you begin to forget that you were whole? When did self-doubt and anxiety start to creep in and at times take over? As I watch Anaya and her friends play, I don’t think it comes from physical wounds. They fall down and hurt themselves; they scream for a few minutes, and then they are happy. Even if they have ongoing pain from a birth defect or cancer, they seem to get used to it.

It seems the interpersonal wounds are more damaging. These wounds can happen at any time. A traumatic wound, like loss of a parent or sexual abuse, can bury wholeness under a thick layer of pain. Less dramatic wounds hurt, too. Any time love is withheld; any time pain is deliberately inflicted, we lose some of our inborn assurance. Any time we believe we have failed at something important, or any time someone we love lets us know that we are not who we should be, some wholeness is lost.

Next page – Finding your inner toddler

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4 Responses to Little Teachers

  1. Pat Gray says:

    Thanks for the invitation to come along with you as we seek to be more honest and childlike. It has been very fortunate that you have the children to watch and study without being the person in charge. You position as a spectator may be really good for us who want to go along in seeking a new way of experiencing our lives.

  2. Betsy Bannerman says:

    I don’t really think immersing the adult self back into the inner child would work, except for very short periods of time. Since adults are the caretakers, the adult-turned-child would go missing in action as a caretaker, or even just as someone who needs to be responsible for him/herself. Perhaps the adult-turned-child would need caretaking him/herself from a world that might frown on “immature” behavior. Plus, I think that noticing people’s needs and wanting to fulfill them is part of what makes people interesting. trustworthy and lovable. But I do love children, their freedom, their innocence, their trusting natures, their enthusiasm, the way they “get” the world. Childhood is special and children do need to be safe and loved in order to keep as “whole” as possible. Thanks, David, for giving me something to think about today!

  3. M.A.K. Spero says:

    This is my fifth rewrite. Thanks for spending as much time as you have giving me reasons to live.

    I felt horrible the first time I made Anaya unhappy. In part because my toddler Matty is still unhappy.

    I want to help future generations develop in to loving, engaged adults who can help transform the obsessively LFC world we have helped make for them. It seems re/gaining a positive loving relationship with myself is an important step to being helpful. Especially if helping does not mean trading one hurt (forced value) for another.

    Of course, it takes a village, or at least the resources of a village, to raise such children. Sites like this and the people who appreciate them are that village.


  4. Will Fudeman says:

    Yes, spending time with children (especially if we are free to be with them without major responsible ongoing caretaking roles) provides great gifts to us. I’ve so grateful for all the times I’ve spent with Kenzey, Teo, and Ani- my friends who shared play times with me over the past 12 years.

    Thanks, as always, for noticing, appreciating, and writing.


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