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Zombie States: The Hidden Meaning of our Obsession with the Undead

His life is a jitterbug jumping bean that just won’t hold still. He suffers from anxiety, profound overwhelm, and dissociative states. He dreams of zombie hordes infesting his home, infiltrating his city, devouring his family. He lives in perpetual states of vigilance. He has trouble trusting others. He has insomnia. He is terrified of relationship, and angry at the world. He feels dislocated. He spends most of his free time a little drunk, video gaming, and surfing the net.

Do you recognize him? He is not alone. I know many others who suffer like this. There is a zombification happening in our culture. Carl Jung believed that the arising of potent cultural themes, media images came from the collective unconscious’s working-through of something. In short, we dream, vision, create, symbolize and broadcast to better understand things which are emerging from the deep recesses of the mind, the underworld, the unknown, the mystery, the dark matter, the Alaya.

I sit in my office listening to this client share another dream about zombie attacks. I imagine them stumbling down Chestnut street. In my next session, a woman speaks about her fascination with the white walkers from HBO’s Game of Thrones. This gives me shivers. I have lunch with a friend who raves about the new season of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Something is creepy here. This is too much synchronicity for me to ignore. The undead are trying to tell me something! I do a little research, read some articles, watch some films. I browse books. I join a zombie improv troupe and forage the midnight mission bar scene. I inquire internally. I spend time with zombies in my contemplative practice. This is getting weird. I am haunted by them. They won’t leave me alone until I decipher their code.

This is what they whisper to me: “I am simple, pathetic, uncomplicated, hungry, searching for something. I have heightened senses. I am a mindless wanderer. I am a victim and a follower. I bear symptoms of dis-ease. I am traumatized. I am catastrophic. I am psychic deadness, depersonalization, dissociative response. I am psychotic, disorganized, confused, scattered. I am instinctual, primal, organic, putrid, a reminder of bones and flesh. I am rage, desperation, numbness, the in-between states. I am transformative. I am apocalyptic. I am post-human. I am a bridge.

Here is my running hypothesis: zombie states are a reaction to systematic and cultural overload, traumatic overwhelm. These states are an adaptive response, an escape, an attempt to reorganize. They represent a strange, morbid stepping stone toward social, ecological and psychological wholeness, a rebalancing, a re-membering.

We live in a time of great over-stimulation. This is the deep shadow side of the Information Age. As human beings we are not quickly redesigned, rebooted, upgraded, revised, updated. We do not come with a dual processing mind. We are evolved hunter and gatherers. We depend on a profound and complex balance with the natural elemental forces of the planet. Ecological research claims we are reaching a tipping point. The disruption of wealth is growing increasingly one (percent) sided. Stress related diseases, anxiety based neuroses, and PTSD are on the rise. We are overwhelmed, exhausted, overloaded, overworked, and overlooked. We are caught in a web of the speed mythos. The center cannot hold: thus the zombie apocalypse.

Psyched Zombie

The zombie message is clear. If we don’t slow down, ground, become more resourced, embodied, relaxed, rejuvenated, aware, nurtured by the natural, soothed, softened, simmered, slept, sophisticatedly simple, we are in big, possibly catastrophic trouble. We will inhabit deadness and think it is alive. We will trade genuine vitality for virtual banality We will abandon our self-agency and become mechanized slaves. We will lose our humanity. We may lose the planet. That will be the ultimate horror show.

So what do we do when we find ourselves entering a zombie-state? Zombies bridge us from symptom to solvency. If a client is overwhelmed and entering zombie states to regulate, I offer alternative solutions. Take a breath. Slow down. Move your body. Shake a little. Take a short walk. Explore tactile sensations. Pull on your ear. Do a yoga pose. Look at a candle flame for 30 seconds. Soften your vision. Gaze at a something beautiful. Find a safe place. Put on something cozy. Touch your heart. Call a friend. Let out a little growl. Sing a little song. Pet your puppy. Tickle your kitten. Sip some tea. Braid your hair. Let the choo choo train of your runaway mind off the tracks. It is going to be okay. There is a path to being okay. Powerful tools will help you along. They are not all pharmaceutical or substance based.

On a macro level, there is a need for a deeper recognition of our humble roots. The undead tell us that our current stream of cultural consciousness is spooky, unsustainable. It is naive to think we can go back into the prehistoric wild. We can, however, embrace the knowledge that we are indeed natural, limited, social beings who suffer when our abstractions reach a level that is out-of-touch with our primal elemental make up. This will enable us to empower paradigms which offer more user-friendly ways of being. I’m not talking full scale revolution here. I’m talking about a conscious movement toward calming our nerves, relaxing our minds, caring for our bodies, reconnecting to natural landscapes, re-visioning work schedules, recreation and leisure: more vacation time please! You get the idea. Will corporate America let us go there? Probably not. But they’d be better served by folks who work less and have a sense of well being than the zombie hordes!

I suggest we attend to what the collective mind it trying to say. Zombies aren’t just random, gross, spooky, sepulchral spectacles created by the media to support your Netflix binge watching. They are timely messengers from the underworld. Zombie states are epidemic because we are overwhelmed. They are a liminal stop gap. We bridge this gap by mindfully moving into a more natural, connected, related, relaxed experience. The next time you find yourself zombified, take a breath and come back to your senses. Remember what makes you human.

Recommended reading: Better of Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie As Post-Human by Deborah Christie, Fordham University Press

Travis Robinson

Travis Robinson

Travis Ben Robinson is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice as well as Psyched in San Francisco. He has spend considerable time living in meditation retreat centers in Brazil and Northern California. He also worked as a white water river guide for over a decade in the Rockies of Idaho and the Central Sierra foothills.

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