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You Can’t Help Your Past, You Can Help Your Past

In Dan Hurley’s article in the May 2013 edition of Discovery Magazine “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes,” he summarizes some interesting, scientific observations about genetic inheritance influencing not just our physical but emotional and mental traits:

“According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.

[ . . .] If it is true that epigenetic changes to genes active in certain regions of the brain underlie our emotional and intellectual intelligence — our tendency to be calm or fearful, our ability to learn or to forget — then the question arises: Why can’t we just take a drug to rinse away the unwanted methyl groups like a bar of epigenetic Irish Spring?”

Hurley explains that “The hunt is on. Giant pharmaceutical and smaller biotech firms are searching for epigenetic compounds to boost learning and memory. It has been lost on no one that epigenetic medications might succeed in treating depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder where today’s psychiatric drugs have failed.”

Nevertheless, he raises important questions that reflect our current concerns about pharmaceuticals’ side effects:

“How could we be sure that epigenetic drugs would scrub clean only the dangerous marks, leaving beneficial — perhaps essential — methyl groups intact? And what if we could create a pill potent enough to wipe clean the epigenetic slate of all that history wrote? If such a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?”

Hurley, here, asks the jack-pot question. Knowing from the TV ads for all those pharmaceutical drugs how many side effects you can suffer when actually taking them, would you take it? After all, we also know from plenty of exposure to studies on the news, TV, and of course the sources holistically minded people especially feel drawn to that less invasive methods, such as meditation, can ameliorate, if not heal, physical, mental, and emotional ills. See, for instance, this example:

“Specifically, meditation training seemed to shift activity in the frontal regions of the brain towards a pattern indicative of greater positive, approach-oriented emotional states,” claims Sian Beilock, Ph.D. in her blog post “Meditation: Small Doses, Big Effects” as a follow-up to her earlier blog in which she discusses new findings on the effects of meditation on human’s white brain matter. In that earlier blog, she explains “What the researchers found was that, after only 11 hours of meditation training, there were changes (for the better) in a white matter tract that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. The ACC is part of a network of brain regions involved in regulating our emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Simply put, after meditation training, the integrity and efficiency of the connections with the ACC – a major player in our ability to regulate our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions – improved.”

Despite the medical jargon the message is clear: we humans can actively change the way we think, feel, and act. With this knowledge, scientifically proven, one can arrive at two conclusions that may facilitate multi-leveled healing for all of us. First, whatever happened to us in the past or whatever genetic predispositions influence us, the ways to attain a holistically healthy self are to be found in the present. Second, the key to healing the past in the present is compassion. We are not always responsible for our current state of being, despite the theories of pre-determined lives for lesson-learning’s sake. In the current moment, we can hardly fathom why we are in the state in which we are, but beating ourselves up about it inhibits healing. Therefore, the keys to becoming whole again are living in the NOW and feeling compassion – for yourself!

Without compassion for ourselves as aggregations of past and present components, we start feeling angry, frustrated, resentful, jealous, sad, depressed, unforgiving, and eventually ill. Therefore, we must accept ourselves in the present moment as well as the present moment itself and come to a place of peace. From there, we can start our journey to wholeness. What better way to inner peace than meditation? Whatever you do, begin a relaxation technique, one that gets you in touch with yourself. Thus, instead of just enjoying a massage, also choose something that allows you inner stillness. Only there can you find your whole and healthy you.