Mending the Mind of Childhood

alchemy in actionMending the Mind of Childhood

by Stephen Larsen, published in the Chronogram, 1997

Our world is split by many divisive currents. There are cracks in the world as it grows — its growing pains perhaps — and the cracks run through our societies, our racial and ethnic divisions, our economic inequities, and our flawed souls. What wonder, then, that the children show little incipient cracks; that they bounce off the walls a bit, act hysterical, defiant, or — mimicking their elders — manipulative.

Small wonder that the children are flawed. Weren’t we all once small, flawed children? In Japanese aesthetics, it is said that the pot has to be flawed to be completely beautiful. But neither may the flaw consume the vessel, for that would give no place for the authentic beauty that also belongs to life. The wholeness of something, small or large, includes its flaws.

I think about beauty and flaws as the children come to our center for their once or twice weekly visits. As a healer, I think as sculptors have been also known to think — somewhere in the raw material lies the true person, the true form. If you discover a knot in the wood or a deformation in the stone you had better use it, not ignore it; and some of the most exquisite art works show a dialogue with the material as if it were alive, and worthy of an almost sacral attention to do justice to the beauty of nature’s intrinsic art. For the artist and for the therapist, it is necessary to do a kind of tai chi with the flaw — dance with it!

Take young Noah: I have been on the phone with his teachers and principal every week. He is bright and charming, but can’t really focus for long. Sometimes he alienates the other kids with his intensity, his fear of being controlled by them and his consequent controllingness; at his worst he is like a little Napoleon. He attends a school for children with problems, and he is their biggest. He carries the ominous label ADHD, Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity.

The school sent his mother, a single parent, to a doctor who prescribed Ritalin. When she tried it, she said, he went “bonkers” for three days. “Why didn’t they tell me it could do that?” A vegetarian and practitioner of yoga, now she’ll have nothing to do with it, even though the doctor said if she had just hung in there “it would have levelled off.”

I do a diagnostic in the sand tray. Noah, 8, plays like a five year old — the objects are disorganized. He bangs figures together and makes explosive noises. Then he buries everything. Then he unburies everything. He takes a tremendous amount of time pouring the sand from one container to another.

On the EEG spectrum analysis, his Delta waves look like the “Cordillera Blanca”, huge sharp Delta spikes looming over a relatively flat topography, then another moderate sized mountain range betokening the anxious frenzy that accompanies hyperactivity. It’s really not that he won’t, this boy can’t slow down! I recall my graduate courses in brain physiology. When you produce Delta waves, you should really be asleep; but he’s awake. Sleepwalking? There are also streamers of Theta and Alpha, the next two higher brain frequencies coming over the top of his head, betokening that he’s dreamy and spacey at the same time. Of the Beta that he needs for concentration and appropriate behavior in school, there is almost none. We begin treatment.

Noah quickly settles on a favorite videogame: To change his brainwaves, he has to fly balloons over a mountain — with his mind! He must sit still in the reclining chair, his hands in his lap, sensors attached to small wires to his ears and scalp. In order to fly the balloons he has to do three things: relax his muscles, lower his Delta and Theta, and raise his Beta. The machine hums a happy three-tone chord; the balloons fly.

Sometimes we reach our limit with the Beta training; he gets too wound up; talking incessantly and pontifically to his mother the entire hour of the drive home. We switch to SMR, the rhythm cats produce when they are waiting for mice to pop out of their holes. The cat is absolutely immobile, but rapt, ready to pounce! When I tell Noah about the cat, he likes the image. He sits so still we can almost see his whiskers twitch. He gradually learns how to make SMR. It is after session number ten that the miracle happens; Noah marches into the therapy room with the sandtray and announces: “I want to make a world!” “Well, what do you need?” The sand begins to fly as he shapes his world. “Here is an island with a citadel,” he announces, “the bad guys, they don’t have any respect for anyone, they’re on that side of the moat. these farmers and animals are just trying to have a nice life here.” He arranges the figures neatly. “The wizard guy standing on the tower of the castle, he is really powerful, he makes a good magic that makes everybody in the castle happy. These other guys guard the bridge.” Noah is consumed in the story.

Afterwards he wants his mother to come into the therapy room to see the sandtray–which I allow. When she sees it she meets my eyes. Her wordless look says, “Do you see what I see?” I nod. She begins to cry. Noah’s psyche is re-organizing itself.

The conversations with teacher and principal decrease in intensity and finally cease altogether. Noah has always been smart, now his intelligence is beginning to become useful.

We who do EEG biofeedback think of a computer analogy for the human brain. The brain is the hardware; symbols and meaning, even personality, are the software. Here we used the sandtray as a symbolic mirror for Noah’s mind — to tell us about itself — as software can diagnose hardware problems. We knew his mind was now sitting more comfortably in a nervous system that had become quiet and stable. When the “inner noise” level dropped, the psyche began to listen to itself. This is the “feedback” of biofeedback: learning to listen to yourself. In this way the flaw becomes the teaching. There is something that is not right. Shall we cloak or hide it? Or mend it skillfully, and learn in the mending, thus enriching the soul?

by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D.