Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bringing the Catatonic Chicken Back to Life: The Power of Compassionate, Heartfelt Presence

The ways professors choose to illustrate big concepts during college psychology classes can be rather dramatic. And in one of my big lecture freshman psychology classes, a demonstration made a lifelong impression on me. What I learned is NOT what the professor intended to teach me. However, what I learned went far beyond my mind, penetrating my heart and soul.

I think the concept the professor was trying to illustrate was "learned helplessness." For many years, I could not remember this because of the impact of the "demonstration." The professor began by bringing a young chicken into the classroom, and placed him on top of the marble slab at the front of the classroom, attaching an electrode to the chicken's head.

He then proceeded to zap the unsuspecting chicken with an electric current. The chicken started to shake all over. His eyes started to get really big. And before the chicken had a chance to acclimate to what was going on, the professor zapped him again and again until the chicken froze.

5 minutes went by and the chicken was still frozen. 10 minutes went by and the chicken was still frozen. The class ended and the chicken was still frozen. The class ended and I was still frozen. And everyone except me left the room. I sat in my chair feeling catatonic with tears streaming down my face. I was devastated that the professor had just zapped the chicken into a catatonic state. And I was also upset that the professor just left the chicken there frozen on the marble slab and left the room.

I started to ask myself what was going to happen to the chicken now? Was a janitor going to come along and just scoop him into the garbage? That did not feel right or fair. I began thinking about what it would take to bring the chicken back to life after the experiment. And this question became a key teaching point as I started giving workshops and keynote presentations around the country after my first book, LIVING WITH VISION: RECLAIMING THE POWER OF THE HEART was published.

Some of the answers people responded with included: take the electrode off of the chicken, put the chicken into a safe environment, perhaps with other chickens, zap the professor, and perhaps most commonly, hold the chicken. After the traumatic experience with the electrode, respectful, present compassionate touch was probably needed to let the chicken know that he was safe in the moment, and that the human present with him now was there to help and protect him. Likely the chicken would be pretty frightened of humans after his encounter with the professor!

Watching for non-verbal cues would also be important. If the chicken started to slightly blink his eye, or shake a little bit or make any kind of physical movement, it might be a sign of slightly unfreezing. It would certainly be a message from the chicken's body that deserved respectful witnessing, presence and emotional contact. One would need to be very very patient with the chicken. Establishing trust or starting to unfreeze would take time over time. And caring for the chicken's basic needs, including warmth, food and water, and comfort would be important should the chicken start to unfreeze.

As I looked at my own response to the experiment I realized that many of us feel like catatonic chickens internally, even if some part of us is walking around, working and conducting life as usual. And that the kind of attention and care needed to help the chicken was the very same kind of attention and care needed to help people who have experience trauma unfreeze and come back to life.

Unfortunately, we are more often to be educated to think like the professor, who used the unwitting chicken as an object for his scientific demonstration, with little attention to or care for the impact of his experiment on the chicken's well-being. And once something really traumatic happens, we often don't see what has happened at the levels that really matter, much like the professor. So, people who have been traumatized are left frozen--especially emotionally frozen and spiritually frozen, since emotional and spiritual well-being often miss our day to day radar.

Developing more awareness of emotional and spiritual experience would bring us a long way in recognizing the often too invisible impact of our actions. And this awareness is a necessary foundation for cultivating compassion and heartfelt presence.

We need to become more emotionally embodied and grow our compassionate presence both to prevent people from being traumatized into the "catatonic chicken" state, and to help those who have been traumatized in this way to come back to life.