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Ghostly Accruements

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

This essay was initially published in an edition of thirty, commisioned as part of Isaac Willis's exhibition at Worlding Project in Elephant and Castle, London. The publication was sealed with wax and upon opening folded out into a long strip, reflecting the arrangement of Isaac's paintings in the show. Included in the original publication were four drawings made by Isaac, which are also reproduced below.


When I was six, my right arm gave me the power of memory. By focusing on it I could recall details (a name, a face, an object) that were otherwise hidden. Now my remembering arm is itself a memory – a hazy image of my Dad’s amused excitement as I told him of my ability, sat shotgun in his car – but the idea of a physical, embodied correlate to stored remembrances has become important to me once again.

And memory storage provides an interesting route or question into Isaac’s work. His paintings wrap across the wall as an illuminated manuscript; a repository where memories have been collected, interrupt each other, and yet methodically co-exist. Here are celebrations, riches, and sunlit auras. And here also are eddies of danger, poisonous flowers, the pathetic fallacy of a tumbled column, hubris, and people being squashed by a giant foot.

I have been squashed by a giant foot recently. As a result of long illness and now tentative recovery I have been forced to discover new things about my body and to adopt new practices of slowing down. I have discovered my illness was perpetuated by a malfunctioning nervous system, a result of the environmental and social conditions that confront us all in different ways, and pushing too hard for too long.

Trauma-informed praxis is having a renaissance currently. I hadn’t done more than dip my toe in (listened, but with slack attention, to the books that are most prominent – Gabor Mate’s 'When the Body Says No' and Bessel van der Kolk’s 'The Body Keeps the Score') until a few months ago. The word trauma had provoked resistance, I couldn’t connect to it as something I had personally experienced. Partly this was because I had conflated trauma with traumatic events. As the formulation, ‘the body keeps the score’ intimates, trauma really refers to the imprints left upon the brain, the body, and the nervous system (a triad it is difficult to parse, as we’ll see). And partly this was because I hadn’t yet found polyvagal theory; both the map and path that I needed to find my way back to health.

Where, or how then, in the body is memory stored?

This is a contentious question that divides opinion, ranging from ‘it isn’t’ (only in the brain) to the concept of cellular memory – that memory is stored in the cells. The model I like best is Peter Levine’s. Generally (and this is accepted by most) we divide memory into explicit memory – conscious recall – and implicit memory – something more mysterious happening beneath the surface. Levine then partitions implicit memory into procedural and emotional. A simple example of procedural memory is riding a bike: once we have learned, our body remembers. Another, is the way our bodies respond instinctively to a certain event, situation or person, based on past experience. Emotional memory – present as a somatic pattern in the body – is then interwoven into this. Therefore (from the back of Levine’s book), ‘much of what we think of as memory actually comes to us (often unconsciously) through our felt sense.’

The autonomic nervous system is named because it automatically – without conscious effort – regulates many of the processes we rely on for survival, such as breathing or digestion. However, we can bring conscious awareness in many ways to the caverns of our bodies, and in doing so directly affect our nervous system. The most straightforward example is consciously changing our breathing pattern. This has an immediate effect on our physiology, which in turn affects our brain. The expression for this is bidirectional communication. It is almost as if the brain extends into the body to such a degree that in some sense the body is itself a brain. Memories of my high school biology involve thinking about organs as separate and independent, as well as making scratchy drawings of robot-like viruses latching onto cells. This left me with an image of the body as something that can be neatly and endlessly divided (not untrue per se) as opposed to a magical interconnected array.

The wandering vagus (vagrant) nerve – the tenth cranial nerve and our longest nerve – arcs down our spine, branching throughout the body gathering information. It forms a core part of the two way communication between the body and the brain, and most – 80% – of the messages are travelling upwards. Van de Kolk explains, ‘Until recently this bidirectional communication between body and mind was largely ignored by Western science, even as it had long been central to healing practices in many other parts of the world, notably in India and China. Today it is transforming our understanding of trauma and recovery.’

Body-based integrative treatment models, such as Somatic experiencing, EMDR, or Focusing, develop the ability to sense and feel the body. This experiential awareness, or interoception, enables us to tune into and tend to our needs. We can discover places where we are stuck and gently work to get ourselves unstuck. As a meditator I am especially fond of Deb Dana’s formulation for this process – befriending our nervous system – because it sits hand in glove with the Tibetan Buddhist instruction that we sit on the cushion to ‘make friends with ourselves.’

Polyvagal theory – the map and path that I mentioned earlier that continues to be so helpful to my own recovery – identifies three key states that form the core patterning of the autonomic nervous system, and through which we are always operating at any given time. These states colour our experience – even hijack it – dramatically shifting the way we respond to our world. The first (called ventral vagal) is an open, socially engaged state. We know this from times we feel safe; in social situations, intimacy, happy solitude, or play. When we perceive threat, our system tightens, the sympathetic wing of the nervous system is activated and we enter the infamous fight or flight response. This is the second of the three states (called sympathetic arousal). As a further survival strategy, if the fight or flight response is ineffective, the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system responds by braking hard. This puts us into a state of shutdown, the final of the three states (called dorsal vagal, and sometimes dubbed ‘freeze’). We transition between these states many many times in the course of a day, and when the system is working well, these transitions are fluid and adaptive. However, these responses, more often than not, have become untethered and maladaptive in our modern environments, with the effect that many of us spend much too much time stuck in the stress response, or in shutdown.

Another core concept of polyvagal theory is co-regulation – that our nervous systems are shaped by those around us. This foregrounds the importance of interpersonal relationships as an integral part of healing. Not only are our minds and bodies deeply interconnected with each other through bidirectional communication, but, through the process of co-regulation, our nervous systems are intermeshed with the nervous systems of other human and non-human beings. This is so much the case that Van der Kolk has said, ‘at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms.’ More broadly then, the question (as Maggie Nelson puts it beautifully in discussing interdependence) is, ‘how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.’

Isaac’s work also poses this question. The titles of his paintings gesture at the collective trauma and body-memory lurking beneath the surface: ‘Stomach knots and side glances,’ ‘Fumbling,’ ‘Paroxysm,’ ‘Skin,’ ‘Gnash,’ ‘Chatterbox,’ ‘Frolics.’ Words that remind me of nothing more than the troubled town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in the year 1951 as it exploded into psychedelic convulsions – the result of over 250 people unwittingly eating ergot-laced ‘cursed bread’. But perhaps more apt in this context, might be some of the wilder stories of medieval carnival that have squeezed down to us through the ages.

In speaking of bodies and minds and especially the connection between them, it would be remiss not to throw a jab at Rene Descartes. All the more so because it is Descartes' era primarily that forms the great fermentation pot for Isaac's paintings; themselves an exploration – gentle mockery? – of the argument between rational and supernatural that has troubled us since the Enlightenment. My bias is due to my allegiance with the Eastern nondual traditions to which Cartesian dualism is anathema. Descartes’ view shifted throughout his lifetime, had nuance, and was written within a particular paradigm; my complaint, therefore, is really with the ossification of the mind-body split in the Western consciousness, that has developed and persisted in the centuries since his writing. A philosophical model that conceptually dissects body from mind has the tragic and harmful consequence of dividing us both from our feeling selves and from our environment.

There is much good work being done now to challenge and address this mistake. As I've touched upon briefly in this essay, neuroscience and trauma-informed somatic therapies are throwing these assumptions into cold and sharp relief. Current Western models of the autonomic nervous system have revivified my own meditation practice, reminding me that I have a body (!) and leading me back to models of the ‘subtle body’ in Eastern thought.

Colloquially we say something leaves an impression. We have all had the experience in which a sensation – hearing a song, perhaps, we haven’t heard for a while – can cast us momentarily into some other time, some other place, until the present is once again reassembled around us. And all meditators know that we spend more time away than here by no small margin, engaging with our constructed thoughtworlds as a substitute for direct experience.

The Indo-Tibetan traditions use the word ‘samskara’ for these subtle impressions. Samskaras are energetic imprints in the body-mind left behind by past actions, thoughts and emotions. In turn these imprints then impact future action, arising unexpectedly to propel us into habitual response. Our samskaras include the trauma held in our bodies but also, more broadly, the wider patterning of past experience, both pleasant and unpleasant.

These samskaras then are etched into the mysterious landscape of our body-minds each time we respond to a stimulus, external or internal. Over time they shift and merge, intermingling to form larger patterns of behaviour. (This links well with Levine’s thesis that ‘persistent maladaptive procedural and emotional memories form the core mechanism that underlies all traumas.’) From a Jungian point of view it is through these samskaras that the unconscious shadow aspects of our personalities might be detected and unearthed. Outlining the connection between these undercurrents of habit and our dreaming minds at night, the Tibetan teacher Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche provides a helpful metaphor: ‘Any reaction of grasping or aversion to any experience – to memories, feelings, sense perceptions, or thoughts – is like snapping a photo. In the darkroom of our sleep we develop the film.’

There is a process then of alchemy through which our samskaras intermingle, shift, and converge. This same process is alluded to in Isaac's work, which is dependent upon juxtapositions that can only be formed through care, humour, time and hazzard. Tias Little describes how, ‘through deep, internal listening and by exploring the threshold places – between inhalation and exhalation, night and day, sun and moon, real and imaginary – we connect to a sense of intuition.’ Isaac’s images have been dredged from these same threshold places. Caught and collected by his senses, dwelling in brain, nervous system, and subtle body, ordered and reorganised, and then tumbled back out of the body, to be carefully etched and painted across metal. Now it is our task to regather these same images back into our own nervous systems, letting them form stories as they intermingle with our existing body-mind patterning.


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