Initiation... is an inner pilgrimage where you free yourself from that which ties you to habitual and even harmful ways of being.
— Julie Tallard Johnson, Wheel of Initiation
The intimate connection we have with family gets embedded within our very being long before we can utter a word. Much of this initial wiring occurs in the right hemisphere of our brain in the first ten to twenty-four months of life. That’s when our brain begins to develop an emotional and social program, or template, as it syncs up, or attunes, with our mother, father, and other caregivers.
As limiting, harmful, irritating, and downright confounding as family clutter can be, there’s still something oddly comfortable about it. It is, after all, a representation of our earliest experiences of home and attachment to others.
For this reason, your journey into clearing family clutter can be understood as a powerful initiation. By gaining deeper awareness, compassion, and insight into your family, you can shift into how you will manifest your future.
Exploring Our Initial Programming
Let’s begin the journey by exploring how the young brain receives its initial programming for how to manage emotions and relationships.
Essentially, if our caregivers are responsive, caring, available, and attentive and provide a secure environment, then our brain mirrors that. The program that gets downloaded into our brain’s hard drive says,
“I feel confident and convinced that I can get my needs met. I feel secure because others respond reliably, predictably, cooperatively, and generously. The world is a safe place where I can trust others, and I can feel protected and believe that I can thrive in the presence of others.”
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But suppose our caregivers are confused, frustrated, anxious, neglectful, or emotionally unavailable. In this scenario, our right hemisphere sets up its initial download very differently. The resulting social and emotional program says,
“Getting my needs met is frustrating, scary, and confusing. I feel insecure because others react unpredictably, hurtfully, erratically, and selfishly. The world is a dangerous and strange place where I can’t trust others, and I better be on high alert in order to survive.”
Our caregiver’s ability or inability to relate is mirrored in our own mind. As a result, we may grow up feeling either mostly secure or insecure in relationships. But this brain program may have sources that go far beyond our immediate parents or caregivers. And this holds the key to letting go of family emotional clutter.
Epigenetics: A New Context For Change
It can be disheartening to witness the repetition of cruelty and brutality that erupts and reenacts in society during our lifetime. We often attribute this to bad dictators, lack of democracy, survival of the fittest, or socioeconomic reasons. Some propose that humans are just violent by nature and it’s in our genes.
The new science of epigenetics paints a radically different picture. It suggests that our very behavior and environment can alter our genes. This means that impulses like violence, for example, are not necessarily hardwired into human nature — but they may actually be predispositions that can be changed.
The word epigenetics translates as “over” or “above” the gene. Basically, our genome is like the hardware of a computer — the DNA. The epigenome acts as a software program that instructs our genes what to do, such as whether they should turn on or off.
Research illustrates how our daily experiences — the foods we eat, how we breathe, how we respond to stress, and how we interact with the environment — deliver the instructions that tell our genes how to express themselves. In some cases, these new instructions will be passed along to the next generation — without requiring any genetic mutation. Epigenetics may hold the key to making the sage advice from Einstein a reality: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
Food Acts As An Epigenetic Software Program
Research at Duke University, conducted by scientist Randy Jirtle, examined how food acts as an epigenetic software program. Jirtle tested how diet affected a particular health-related gene — the agouti gene — in rats. Because the rat’s coat color was also controlled by this same gene, Jirtle could visually distinguish if the agouti gene was actively turned on (and rats had a yellow coat) or shut off (and they had a brown coat). When the agouti gene is turned on, rats feature a distinctly yellow coat as well as suffer from obesity and a drastically shortened life span.
To shut off the obesity-producing gene, yellow-coated rats were fed a diet rich in methyl groups (a molecule of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms). The methyl groups attached to the agouti gene and deactivated it. Here’s the amazing thing: this methyl-rich diet also altered future generations by producing thinner and healthier rats. This next generation also had brown coats — a tracer telling the scientists that the agouti gene remained turned off and had been deactivated by diet.
However, if the now-healthy, brown-coated rats were fed a poor diet, the agouti gene got turned on again — and this was also passed along to offspring, who sported yellow coats, obesity, and a shorter life span. Jirtle’s work shows that nutritional and environmental factors can alter how our genes get expressed. And it proves that these factors are inheritable. There are even epigenetic medical interventions that turn off genes that cause some kinds of cancer.
Nurturing, Or Lack of Nurturing, Can Alter Critical Brain Development
Other research using animal models shows how being nurtured (or not being nurtured) can alter the development of critical areas in the brain — and that these epigenetic changes are then passed along to the next generation. In The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy, child development researcher Allan Schore writes,
“We know that massive increases in stress hormones have a detrimental effect on brain development. This represents the psychobiological intergenerational transmission of a predisposition to violence and to depression.”
Keep in mind that a person’s DNA is not mutating or changing. It’s the expression of the gene that is changing due to interaction with the environment.
This is a powerful and hopeful message. But with greater hope comes greater personal responsibility with regard to our life choices. Thoughtless choices or toxic behaviors might not only affect our own health but the health of our children and grandchildren.
We Are Not Fated To Follow The Genetic Footsteps Of Our Family
Still, the question remains: how do we live with the pain and suffering that exist in our family — even from those who may have no interest in acknowledging or changing their hurtful behaviors?
If we keep blaming others, healing will be difficult. But the epigenetic context paints a different picture. It asks: How is blame really helpful? How far back in our family history should we point an angry finger? A hundred years? A thousand? A better approach may be to compassionately recognize that when we look at faded photos of our relatives, we are really looking at ourselves. Our personal struggles are connected to the larger, universal web of our parents, grandparents, and all of humanity.
If we learn anything from epigenetics, it is that we are not fated to follow the genetic footsteps of ghosts past. With the power of aware choice, intention, and attuned attachment, we can alter our behavior, if not provide a more enlightened genetic expression — and enriched life — to those who follow.
©2016 by Donald Altman. Used with permission of
New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Donald Altman, MA, LPC, is a psychotherapist, a former Buddhist monk, and the award-winning author of several books, including One-Minute Mindfulness, The Mindfulness Toolbox, and The Mindfulness Code. He conducts mindful living and mindful eating workshops and retreats and trains mental health therapists and business people to use mindfulness as a tool for optimizing health and fulfillment. Visit his website http://www.mindfulpractices.com.