By Brian Luke Seaward
The next time you glance at the digital watch on your wrist, the one connected to an App that can monitor your heart rate, respiration, or blood pressure, give a nod of thanks to Elmer Green. Known as a pioneer in the study of biofeedback, Green popularized its use for the practice of self-regulation, a practice that affects our bodies through conscious awareness and focused intention. At the Voluntary Controls Program at the Menninger Foundation, Dr. Green’s team demonstrated the usefulness of having electronic devices designed to feed back information to people about their physical state so they could learn to control aspects of their biological systems: bio-feedback. They used it, for example, to help people struggling with migraine headaches or high blood pressure.
During the 1960s work was advancing in several fields – psychology, medicine, neurophysiology, and systems theory along with the development of new kinds of technology. Research discoveries were overlapping and enriching each other as the new interdisciplinary field of mind-body treatment was emerging. In 1969 several seminal papers were published including two in which Elmer Green was the lead author: “Self-Regulation of Internal States” and “Feedback Techniques for Deep Relaxation.” The first meeting of what became the Biofeedback Research Society took place in October, 1969 in Santa Monica, California. Gardner Murphy, Barbara Brown, and Kenneth Gaarder worked together to organize that first meeting and Barbara Brown became the Society’s first President. Along with the organizers and Elmer Green, the conference included some presenters whose names you might recognize: Joe Kamiya, John Basmajian, Les Fehmi, and Charles Tart.
Rigorous scientific approaches were presented along with humanistic or transpersonal psychological views, studies of human potential, and information from Eastern religions. One writer said,
“The image of electronic equipment guiding human beings to a greater awareness and control over their own physiology and consciousness appealed to both white coated experimental scientists and the white robed gurus of the higher consciousness movement.” *
In the following years biofeedback evolved to include brainwave biofeedback, and then Elmer, with his wife Alyce and the group at the Menninger Foundation, developed Theta Brainwave Training or Theta Reverie Training. Elmer’s work became more and more involved with states of consciousness and spiritual growth. Having taught us to self-regulate the body, these researchers were working with the mind and encouraging us to go beyond the individual self to reach the higher levels of what Elmer called the Field of Mind.
“Standing on the shoulders of giants” is an expression I first heard used by Edgar Mitchell, the 6th astronaut to walk on the moon over 40 years ago. In a moment when he was reflecting on the age of air and space travel, he remarked that his lunar legacy was a direct result of the gallant efforts of the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong. Edgar Mitchell was more than a pioneer of space, like Elmer Green, he was also a pioneer in the study of consciousness, founding the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) after his return to planet Earth. I first met Edgar in 1993 at the second annual IONS conference; and cultivated a relationship with him over the next several decades when I was an invited speaker. Over the years, I learned from Edgar to appreciate listening to different perspectives on the states of consciousness: from personal consciousness to nonlocal consciousness, from quantum/physical to the spiritual/mystical.
I first encountered the work of Elmer Green while completing my doctoral studies in psycho-physiology (the emerging field of mind/body science) at the University of Maryland (College Park) in 1983. Especially striking was learning about his research with the yogi, Swami Rama, a man who, while sitting on a bed of nails, could not only dramatically lower his heart rate and breathing, but move the flow of blood in his body. Eight years later, I took a class with renowned energy healer Mietek Wirkus who suggested that I attend a conference in Boulder on energy medicine at ISSSEEM (the International Society for the Study of Energy and Energy Medicine). It was there that I met Elmer and learned not only of his insights and wisdom, but benefitted from the safe space found in this Conference that he created along with three other people. Some of my family, friends, as well as a handful of professional and academic colleagues, thought that my work involved “fairy dust.” It was a great support to learn of the rigorous scientific work being done by the presenters and attendees and to discover ISSSEEM as a resource. It was a place where curious minds could come together to discuss the mysteries of consciousness as well as to pose serious questions that led to a better understanding of the big picture of reality.
While some people take delight in the spotlight of recognition, others, like Elmer, preferred to share the spotlight. From the annual retreats at Council Grove to those ISSSEEM conferences in Boulder, Colorado, he and his colleagues increased the strength of the foundational base for the understanding of consciousness. Elmer understood that no one person has a monopoly on wisdom, nor can any one person take credit for the unfolding of ageless wisdom. Rather, those in a position to illuminate wisdom must help raise others up to a greater understanding, a greater vision, and a greater potential. Whether we know it or not, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Elmer Green not only understood this, but dedicated his life to supporting others to climb further themselves.
In an age where information can become as disposable as tissues and where facts can be summoned instantaneously with a few keystrokes on a smart phone, it is easy to lose sight of the many people who paved the way for us to sit in positions of comfort taking what we know for granted. I don’t. I count myself among the many lucky individuals who have been fortunate enough to stand on Elmer’s shoulders. In 1993 my college textbook on managing stress was published. It was the work of Elmer (and his wife Alyce, and their daughter Patricia Norris) and the many people touched by the ripples of their research that gave me the credibility to write a textbook that included the concept of the human energy field, the chakras, the meridians, energy healing, spiritual health and so much more.
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* Quoted by Donald Moss, Ph.D. in “Biofeedback, Mind-Body Medicine, and the Higher Limits of Human Nature” on The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback website.
Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D. is the author of bestselling books and the award-winning collegiate textbook, Managing Stress (10E). He is the Executive Director of the Paramount Wellness Institute in Boulder, CO and can be reached via his website, http://www.brianlukeseaward.net.
The image that heads this post is from iStock.