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Mindful Thoughts

Disassociation and the human condition

By December 29, 20112 Comments

Everyone knows that the holidays, in addition to being a time of great joy and celebration, can also be a pretty sad time for a lot of folks. Rates of depression increase during the holidays, and suicides along with it. Why? Because people feel left out of the holiday cheer and more alone than usual? Or because the holidays are a time of intense pull into the future and the past? Christmas leads you to think about the past, loved ones who are no longer there. Or just to remember a happier time. And New Year’s is a holiday all about the future. What did I do wrong this year? What will I do better next year? The holidays, it seems to me, are fertile ground for disassociation.

This year I learned a bit about disassociation, something that often happens to victims of trauma. Disassociation happens when trauma victims believe that the traumatic event is happening to them again. When it’s very severe, they can’t distinguish between what happened to them in the past and what’s happening to them right now; they believe that they are being traumatized again, because it feels like they are in their bodies. They have all the same physiological sensations they did during the trauma. And their consciousness cannot convince their body that the trauma is not happening again. The Wikipedia definition of disassociation describes it as a “compartmentalization of experience”; when you disassociate, your consciousness, memory, emotions, sensory awareness and affect become compartmentalized, operating separately from one another rather than being unified as they are under “normal conditions.”

To put it very simply, when trauma victims disassociate, they lose touch with the present moment. They re-live their traumatic experience. They become trapped in a past where frightening things happened to them or in a future where they imagine those things happening to them again.

Maybe it’s just me, but does this sound eerily familiar to anyone else? You might substitute “anxiety-producing” or “frustrating” for “frightening,” but how many of us spend a lot of energy replaying unpleasant events from the past and imagining what might go wrong in the future? Is disassociation, in a milder form to be sure, actually the “normal conditions” under which many of us live?


Most of us, but not, I think, my cats. I don’t think my cats disassociate. I’m not an animal behaviorist, or a vet, or an anthrozoologist, but I think my cats spend most of their time pretty firmly grounded in the present moment. Look, there’s food in the bowl. Ah, here’s the toy that smells odd and makes me feel quite nice. Yes, an available lap to sit in. Damn, there’s another cat in the window and he’s pissing me off. Or if you have a dog, and have seen the movie, Up, simply, “Squirrel!”

We laugh at the dog in that movie, and at the flitting nature of his thoughts, but what would it be like if we could truly only live in the present? Each sighting of a squirrel would, in fact, be incredibly exciting. Worrying would become impossible because worrying is based on being able to project your mind into either the future or the past.

Which is not to say that animals don’t feel things; I believe that’s contentment I see on my cat’s face when she’s stretched out in a patch of sunlight. But think about how much complexity gets added to emotions with that ability to remember and imagine. With the addition of conscious thought our emotions develop a radioactive half-life; we can spend entire lifetimes experiencing emotions that date back to our childhood over and over again, like a feedback loop from hell. And then ask yourself whether that complexity is a good thing?

Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin suggested that certain features of an organism can be thought of evolutionarily speaking as spandrels. A spandrel in architecture is the curved space around an arch that results from decisions about the shape of the arch, but then gets used for artistic purposes. The beautiful designs that go into spandrels are not what they’re there for originally, but the architect thought, well, might as well fill in this space. In biological terms, a spandrel means that not everything about an organism is due to adaptive selection. Some things are just byproducts of the evolution of some other characteristic. They may later obtain some adaptive value, but initially they just, so to speak, look pretty without any other clear purpose. They’re spandrels.

The concept of spandrels is not without controversy, but Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, suggested that perhaps language in humans is a spandrel. Some adaptive mechanism caused our human brains to get bigger and more complex; language is just a byproduct of that change. If you start reading into the research that’s being done on things like decision-making in humans, the idea of spandrels starts to make more sense. In a great book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes how the parts of the human brain to evolve most recently–the parts that allow us to think about our own thoughts and therefore be conscious–are nifty, but not without their kinks. They can’t help you say, hit a baseball, because they’re too slow; the gap between when a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and the time it takes a batter to initiate his swing is one-tenth of a second. The batter has one-tenth of a second to decide how to swing, and under perfect conditions, it takes the brain about twenty milliseconds to respond to a sensory stimulus. There’s not enough time. So what does the batter do? The part of the brain which we don’t have conscious access to makes the decision for us, based on a complex set of “anticipatory cues” that happen before the ball ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. And so a lot of our decisions get made by the older part of our brain, the emotional part of our brain. We do something because it “feels right,” and this includes hitting a baseball, figuring out patterns and probability, and making moral decisions.

So what if not just the ability to use language, but also this ability to imagine the future and the past, is just another spandrel? Maybe our brains got bigger so that we could figure out which foods would kill us and which would not (suggested in The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Maybe our brains evolved to help us navigate our increasingly social world (an interesting twist on the nature vs. nurture question). Maybe our brains got bigger when we started moving around as a species and had to figure out how to live in new environments. And with that bigger brain came the spandrel of consciousness. And then disassociation.


When someone is disassociating, one of the best ways to help them is to try to bring them into the present moment. You try to help them become aware of their present surroundings so that they can realize that they are safe in the present, and that their traumatic experience is in the past. One good way to do this is to make them aware of their body through their senses. What do you see right now? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you hear? How do you feel right now inside your body? Not surprisingly, I think of handing someone a ball of yarn. Feel this. Doesn’t this feel nice? Or spraying some of my lavender spray. What does that smell like? Or looking out the window at the trees and the birds, seeing the play of sunlight and shadow.

You might also encourage them to breath, to become aware of their breathing. Why breathing? Quite simply and beautifully because it’s always there. All of us can breathe. Or to say a mantra or a prayer over and over again in their head. Om mani padme hun. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. If they’re at all able, you might encourage them to meditate.

I read a great book a few years ago by Michael Gruber called Tropic of Night. It’s a mystery, but at its core is this idea that magic is nothing more than the result of the accumulated wisdom of what we now think of as “primitive” societies. Hunter/gatherer societies have a lot of free time. Whose to say that their explorations of the nature of existence and consciousness didn’t lead them in some very interesting directions? Whose to say that modern science isn’t just now catching up to truths that some cultures and societies figured out ages ago, but explained in a language that now looks to us like folklore or mysticism or religion?

The modern psychological definition of disassociation focuses on compartmentalization, the whole becoming fragmented. Our consciousness, memory, emotions, sensory awareness and affect cease to work together. In Buddhist practice, your five skandhas (“aggregates”) are your body, your feelings, your perceptions, your mental formations and your consciousness. The purpose of meditation and mindfulness is to bring all five of your skandhas back together as one, like a happy family all singing together. The purpose of meditation and mindfulness is to help us stop disassociating and to live peacefully in the present moment.

A lot of people in the Western world seem to struggle a great deal with the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism–life is suffering. It sounds so very grim to our upbeat view of the world. But think of it this way–life is disassociation. Your cat, or her distant relative in the wild, may have to face being eaten alive or going hungry or losing one of her young. Your big brain may help you avoid some of those things, but unlike your cat, you will not be able to walk away from those events and into the calm light of the present moment. Our big brain threatens to exile us to a life lived always outside of the present, when the present is all we ever have. Our big brain is capable of fracturing, fragmenting, and falling apart in ways that cause us incalculable damage. That is the suffering to which Buddhism refers. It is an internal suffering, a suffering that even the most privileged and pampered of us will inevitably face.

Why did we ever develop the ability to suffer in this way? It seems patently stupid from any perspective–biological, theological or philosophical. Perhaps it is a spandrel, a curious side-effect of evolution. With our big brains, it is interesting to speculate that the very thing that makes us feel so very superior to our animal family might also make us so much less…content? But Buddhism also suggests that the reasons–the why–is less important than the facts before us. The first of the Four Noble Truths describes reality simply and matter-of-factly so that we might be able to move on. This is how it is. Now what do you do? You figure out how to end that suffering. You figure out how to stop disassociating. Here’s how. Start with the fact that we breathe. In fact, just start by breathing.


  • Patrick says:

    Hi! I stumbled across your blog from the website… I live in the Columbus, Indiana area, but I sometimes make trips to Madison and Clifty Falls with my boyfriend. It really is beautiful, and he would say magical.

    I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot lately, or I guess I should say I’ve been thinking about my own problems and trying to get back to peace, and trying to remember how Buddhism and meditation fit into my life. Dissociation as an idea resonates profoundly with me, and I love the way you unpack it here. Consciousness feels like such a burden, but to deny it seems like foolishness…

    I don’t quite know what to say, other than your words make sense to me and I’m going to read more of them. Thank you for shining a light.

    Love from another corner of rural Indiana.

    • Robyn Ryle says:

      Thanks so much! Glad you found me and glad this post resonated with you. It’s true, consciousness does feel like a burden at times. Lately I’ve been trying in my meditation to get to a place where letting go becomes effortless and habitual, rather than holding on, which is what feels easiest now. Not there yet!

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