“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.” - Buddha -
I refer to schemas as our mental map or cognitive GPS which we unconsciously use at all times to successfully navigate our external world. Without this map, we would be unable to get out of bed let alone walk out the front door. Getting out of bed and walking out the front door becomes possible from the first time we crawled off the couch and felt our feet touch the ground. At that moment our schemas began to develop around the understanding that we can count on having solid ground under our feet and the memory of that experience becomes recorded. As a result of that memory, we are able to successfully navigate our external world by unconsciously inferring that our feet will also touch solid ground when we crawl out of our strollers, step off the curb, or walk down the stairs.
All of our unconscious assumptions, perceptions, and beliefs about ourselves, our external world and those who inhabit it are informed by our schemas. They are the interface between the cellular memories of our experiences and the beliefs and subsequent behaviors that stem from those experiences because our schemas organize those experiences in such a way that allow us to take ‘short-cuts’ as we move through the world based on what we’ve come to understand we can count on; what we have inferred about our future experiences without even thinking about it.
During infancy and early childhood our schemas are constantly changing through an ongoing process of new experiences being successfully ‘assimilated’ into our pre-existing schemas. Those experiences are then ‘accommodated’ when the schemas are re-organized and modified to include those experiences.
This process of ‘accommodation’ has the individual continuously creating and recreating new theories that he or she relies on unconsciously to successfully navigate his or her external world. It can be as simple as coming to the understanding at the age of 2 that when Dad goes to work every morning Mom feeds me breakfast. As we get older our schemas become more advanced and can also include more sophisticated theories such as it’s not safe to interact with Dad when he comes home from work because he’s been drinking.
Cognitive dissonance is the experience we have when interacting or engaging with stimulus or information from our environment that is incongruent with our pre-existing schemas. I casually reference this experience as being consistent with the oft-used expression ‘mind-blowing’. ‘Mind-blowing’ experiences initiate a mental and emotional process in which we are attempting to create mental congruency and emotional equilibrium in response to something that is occurring in our external world that we have never personally experienced before and is outside the parameter of what we would have unconsciously inferred was possible.
This is what happened for all of us in 2001 as the horror of 9/11 unfolded before our very eyes as we sat in our respective living rooms or offices fixated on our computers and TV’s. We struggled in disbelief to assimilate what was happening into our pre-existing schemas. The disequilibrium was so great in response to the unimaginable series of events that we were witnessing in real time that we went through a cascading series of disorienting and debilitating responses cognitively, physically, and emotionally. In order to return to some state of equilibrium, we needed to re-organize our personal and collective schemas to include this experience, inferring that similar experiences could and would be possible in the future. While this process of assimilation and accommodation was happening, I remember feeling extremely dissociative and unable to process much at all other than to connect to a very deep awareness that everything that I knew to be true and counted on as evidence that I was safe and secure was up for review somewhere in the very depths of my being.
This is why historical events such as Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK, the massacre at Columbine, and the attacks of 9/11 are seared not only in our collective, conscious memories but also at a much deeper, more archetypal level of personal, social, and cultural identity because in those moments, the world as we knew it ceased to exist when everything that we thought we knew and could count on became far less predictable.
Our ability to re-organize and modify our schemas around stimulus that is beyond our ability to process or comprehend is vital in determining our capacity to function moving forward. In the absence of being able to accommodate challenging new stimulus, the potential for having your ‘mind blown’ increases. If this were a movie, it would be the scene in which the light bulbs start to pop and the floor beneath your feet begins to buckle. In the real world it would be the moment in which a psychotic break or dissociation from reality occurs both of which are common in response to unimaginable and unexpected trauma.
When we grow up in safe and secure environments, we are able to maintain a sense of equilibrium when assimilating new experiences into our pre-existing, mental map because these experiences are not overwhelming or threatening but rather gentle enough that they ensure our sense of safety and security while affirming our right to exist.
However, when we live in an environment that is infused with unpredictable stress, chaos, and abuse we spend most of our time trying to restore balance to the cognitive disequilibrium that results in response to these chronic threats. This is achieved by replacing the current, outmoded schemas with qualitatively different and more advanced and sophisticated schemas.
When our childhood experiences are gentle, we are able to develop more expansive world views in response to our environment becoming larger and less secure. The more secure our environments and attachments are growing up, the greater our ability will be to explore outside of the predictable safety and security of those environments including what we were taught to believe was true about ourselves and the world we live in.
The quality of relationships we form with friends, colleagues and significant others are always a reflection of our schemas because they were formed around experiences we had growing up regarding what it looks and feels like when we love and care about someone. As you can imagine, these experiences can cover a very wide spectrum of expressions of ‘love’ depending on how safe, secure, and loving our childhood environments were.
If, during childhood, our primary caregiver became enmeshed with us in an unconscious attempt to get their emotional needs met in ways they were unable to while in relationship themselves, their friends or significant other; our schemas would have developed around the unconscious belief that we exist for the sole purpose of ensuring the well-being of others. This in turn puts into motion all sorts of pre-determined outcomes including the specific style and patterns inherent in our dysfunctional relationships as well as the need to constantly apologize or explain ourselves because it is understood that our right to exist is always conditional on the other’s well-being.
- Our schemas are the interface between the cellular memories of our experiences and the beliefs and subsequent behaviors that stem from those experiences.
- All behaviors make perfect sense when we understand the schemas or mental constructs that are informing and influencing those behaviors.
- Our schemas have developed around our personal experiences which are infused with the social and cultural conditioning inherent in the current dualistic, mechanistic paradigm.
- We unconsciously participate in the belief that we must conform to this conditioning in order to ensure our survival.
- The fact that we are the only organisms on the planet that are aware of our own mortality is what makes us receptive and vulnerable to this conditioning.
- This informs all of our beliefs and perceptions about ourselves, others, and our environment and determines how we attempt to get our emotional needs met including the unconscious need to control or be controlled in order to feel safe and secure.
Whether concrete or abstract, our schemas develop in response to our curiosity with the external world and our desire to make sense of our experiences in order to ensure that everything in our lives is much more predictable.
The younger we are, the less developed our schemas are allowing us to be more fluid in response to whatever is occurring. This is when ‘magical thinking’ and creativity is at its best because we live in a world full of infinite possibilities.
Much of the healing I facilitate for myself and my clients is designed to re-organize and modify our schemas to include the awareness that we are fundamentally safe and secure even while living in an unpredictable world. From this awareness we can now begin to successfully navigate our environment and the people who inhabit it from a place of unending curiosity and spontaneity thereby increasing our capacity to experience love, joy and fulfillment in all that we do.