Why Neuroscience?

neuroscienceby Molly Keeton Parnell, PhD

 A few days ago I had an experience that has become quite familiar to me. I was reading Brene´ Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection” and she made the following statement: “Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions…” While she quickly moved on to talk more in depth about shame, I was stuck on her initial declaration and immediately wondered “Why? What purpose does shame serve?” I reasoned that if an emotion is actually primal, then it must fulfill some very basic function, and the most basic of our functions is our animal instinct towards survival.

It has always been my belief that people, on some level, make sense. I believe this despite the fact that it appears to be a nearly universal human experience to do things that do not SEEM to make sense. I see it in myself, and I see it in others. We constantly thwart our desires to do what is in our best good (exercise, eat a healthy diet, be more direct, have a less judgmental attitude, etc.) and then label ourselves unmotivated, lazy, or even masochistic when we do not reach our goals. I have always been curious about the underlying motivations that may not be apparent. If we say we want one thing but then do the opposite, surely there must be some reason for this.

In my fifth year of graduate school I finally came across an author who addressed this phenomenon. George Kelly says that humans prefer predictability – or a sense of control over the future – above all else. In protecting this sense of control, we may sabotage our efforts towards positive change to preserve the comfort of what is known. A person with a drinking problem may be well aware that quitting alcohol would help them in many ways (less tension at home, less trouble at work, lower chance of legal problems, feeling like a success instead of a failure everyday, etc.). Those things certainly sound good, but they are also unknowns. And sometimes the human mind will opt for a bad outcome that is guaranteed rather than an unpredictable outcome that might be good.

Kelly provided me with a framework that helped, but it was not until I met Jon Connelly and Courtney Armstrong that I really found my “A-ha”. Everything that I know about neuroscience I have learned from these two people. Understanding the way that our brains developed helps to explain what motivates them. Neuroscience highlights that sometimes what is driving us is very different than what our thinking minds are aware of.

Here is what you need to know for the purposes of this article: the vast majority of the mind’s processes – an estimated 98% – is out of our awareness and functions on the same level as a goat. The brain has evolved over time and can be divided into three main sections. The first two of these (reptilian and mammalian brains) have survival as their only concern. They control the automatic functions of the body (breathing, temperature regulation) as well as the control and expression of emotion, response to danger, and short term memory. The third and most recently evolved portion of the brain is the neo-cortex, which is highly developed in humans. The cortex excels at analysis, logic, and intellectual pursuits but is always overridden by the reptilian and mammalian brains.

Therefore, while our thinking mind may seem primary (due to our constant buzz of thoughts), it is absolutely NOT in charge. While you may find yourself pondering creative ideas, setting goals, or reflecting on an interesting book that you read, there is actually a goat behind the driver’s seat saying “danger bad, food good.”

This system works great for keeping us alive. If there is danger to our physical well-being, our more primitive instincts kick in, and we take action to increase our chances of survival. However, for humans things can go awry in two main ways. First, our brains are over-determined to notice threat, so we may mistake stress for danger or even perceive danger when none actually exists. While an argument with a good friend may deserve careful attention, it does not necessarily require the nervous system to go into overdrive, complete with racing heart and surging levels of stress hormones. Yet, we have probably all had the experience of noticing that our response is out of proportion to the situation.

A second way in which things get complicated for humans is our ability to remember, imagine, and interpret. We oftentimes look back on an event and draw conclusions based on the data we are privy to. But these conclusions are rarely accurate, especially if the situation was highly stressful.

Here is an example. One night in college I awoke to a very loud noise. A piece of the plaster ceiling in the bathroom next to me had crashed to the floor. I, however, thought an intruder was in the house and lay there frozen in fear. After some time passed with no further signs of danger, I finally felt brave enough to investigate. I quickly realized what had occurred and felt huge relief. However, over time I found myself frequently going back to the event and wondering “what if…” A situation that came only from living in an old house turned into fodder for worry. My anxiety came from knowing that in the face of perceived danger I had done NOTHING. I hadn’t hidden under the bed, run out the back door, picked up something to use as a weapon, or grabbed the phone and dialed 911. This experience created an uncertainty for me, a fear that I could not trust my instincts in the case of an actual threat. Many years later I finally learned that it had been my primitive mind that determined my response.

The human animal is so primed towards survival that it will employ one of the following responses when threatened: flight, fight or FREEZE. Because the noise was just 3 feet away on the other side of a door, my instinct determined that there was not time to flee the situation. And not having a weapon nearby, my chance of surviving a fight was not so great. But did you know that a mouse captured by a cat will just play “dead” in the cat’s mouth? By going limp, there is a very good chance that the cat will get bored and drop the mouse. Additionally, the mouse is much less likely to receive a puncture wound to a vital organ by letting its body relax rather than staying rigid (this is why people and animals instinctively void the bladder and bowels when in danger).

Our brains create emotion in order to cause an action to increase our odds of survival. We feel fear so that our bodies will become alert, and blood will go to our extremities to make it possible to run fast away from danger. We feel shame in order to prevent us from doing things that would have us ostracized from the safety of our pack and left alone in the woods (something Brene´ Brown apparently addresses in some of her other writings). We feel anger so that a surge of hormones will rush through our body giving us the strength and motivation to fight. But as humans, we look back on those emotions with judgment and label ourselves weak, needy, or overly aggressive. We tell ourselves a story based on only a fraction of the information. Part of the recovery process from a traumatic event is re-writing our interpretations to account for all of the data. This may include acknowledging that real danger existed (or even that the primitive mind believed that it did) and that we acted out of our instinct to survive.

I love neuroscience because I am in absolute awe of the human body. Learning more about the mind and its way of prioritizing seems to normalize many of our responses. I have found that this type of information gives my clients greater respect for themselves and greater compassion for their reactions. Neuroscience helps us to understand that we are programmed first towards survival and highlights the difference between choice and response. In the story I shared above, I did not choose my response. My emotional brain chose it for me, based on something I wasn’t even aware of (the freeze tactic).

If we are going to recognize the moments in which we did not have the ability to choose our response (traumatic events as well as post traumatic responses), then let us also acknowledge when we do have choice (the moments in life when we face stress but not danger). Our emotional minds prime us toward a certain type of bias and response, but we do have a degree of control. Think of it like driving a car – I don’t have power over the mechanics of the engine, but I do still determine where the car goes.

Better understanding the workings of the brain helps us to know about the vehicle that we are driving – or really the vehicle that is driving us. However, this is just a starting point because our ability to choose a reaction and then alter our brain’s response patterns is very real. In our daily lives, we can always employ techniques to help us respond in more desirable ways (commit to just listening when the boss criticizes your work rather than telling her what you really think, leave the room and take a few deep breaths when your child rolls her eyes at you). We can use our own creativity and support from friends to come up with a list of strategies that can really help in these moments of stress. There are also ways to change how our brain responds to stress. Meditation and mindfulness practice have been found to create actual structural changes in the brain. There are also certain types of psychotherapy that seem to better connect with and alter the messages from the emotional brain, such as hypnosis, Rapid Resolution Therapy, EMDR and memory reconsolidation, among others

Neuroscience may tell us why we feel unpleasant emotions, such as fear, shame and rage. And perhaps our ability to express love, compassion and altruism could simply be explained as mechanisms that connect us to our pack, better preserving our odds of survival. But what about joy, humor, creativity? I have not yet come across any scientific explanations for these uniquely human gifts, and I sort of hope that I never do. Because while you may be able to drive your car to the Grand Canyon, there are really no words to capture the experience of looking out on its vast beauty.

neuroscience canyon

Posted in 2014 Articles, Mind-body-spirit Integration, Molly's Articles | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Get on With Your Life!

becauseyouarealive

(Intro by Micky O’Leary, Ph.D.)

I’ve always been interested in death. What happens? Where do our souls go? How can death inform our living? Recently, a movement called “Death Café” has sprung up around the country. It started in Europe and is now in several U.S. Cities. Atlanta has its own Death Café where people meet to discuss life and death related concerns while sharing coffee/tea and cake. The purpose behind this movement is to provide a safe space where anyone can go to talk about different aspects of the death process, including end-of-life decisions, preparing for death, being with someone who is dying.

What naturally happens when talking about death is that people also start talking about life. As we consider our finite time on this planet, it stirs the question of “What do we do with our Now?” As a culture, we don’t like to look at death. But as we grow and age, it becomes more and more difficult to avoid it. A recent diagnosis and subsequent surgery of my own has led me to consider what I want to do with my (as poet Mary Oliver calls it) “one wild and precious life.”

So, instead of sharing the regrets of the dying –those things that are frequently cited as the life decisions which we come to realize have not served us—I’d like to share this posting which appeared on www.nextavenue.org last summer. Andrea Balt (co-founder/editor-in-chief of Rebelle Society, an online magazine) wrote these thoughts on the occasion of her 30th birthday. They are worth the read.

 

 Thirty Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Die

By Andrea Galt

I woke up this morning and my life clock marked 30. My first sleep-deprived idea was to pack a small suitcase, get on the first train, move to another country, change my name, change my hair color (or get plastic surgery if needed), and start from scratch. When I don’t know how to deal with life, I sometimes hide. Other times, I fight.

By now, I’m good at both fighting and disappearing. I’m old enough to be acquainted with life’s darkest and most elevated places, and young enough to take more. But there’s no merit to either, fighting or flying, if they don’t come as a result of one’s deepest truth. When fueled by fear both responses are cowardly, both are equally wrong.

So after I washed my face and considered the costs of running and those of fighting, I decided not to do either. I started contemplating a third alternative.

I decided to re-evaluate the meaning of life and knock on doors I don’t have a key for, to come up with 30 questions that we should all ask ourselves before we die. Many of us get to 30, 40, 50 or beyond spending our entire lives as strangers to ourselves.

1. How much have you loved? Count the people. When it comes to love, I’ve been so focused on the minuses, I have no idea how to answer this; and these minuses are all based on “not-enoughness.” So if you’re in the red too, let’s put the ball back in our court. How much have you loved? Have you loved even when it hurts, when you can’t, when you shouldn’t, when you wouldn’t, when you didn’t? If so, you’re richer than you feel.

2. What do you love doing that you aren’t doing? Furthermore, how could you get paid for doing what you love? Let’s brainstorm. It’s your right to be alive every second of the day. You’re not supposed to spend eight hours in chains and the remaining four getting high on mental and physical distraction to cope with the depression of not doing what you should, what you want, what you need to be doing.

3. What person or type of person would you choose as a life companion? A witness to your life? Forget the shoulds, the can’ts, the won’ts, the impossibles. Who would you love and who would love you back if you could have a say in it? Cause see, your say in this makes all the difference. When you say your dreams out loud, you turn on the engine. It’s like this whole life is waiting to come rushing out of you and in wishing it — out loud — you open the gates and give it permission to happen.

4. Where do you want to live? Are you happy with your life where you are? Could you be happier somewhere else? It’s true that you can be home wherever you are. But it’s also true that some places are more in tune with the kind of life that comes bursting out of you. There’s nothing more inspiring and motivating than good company and an environment that reflect and support your mission.

5. What do you want to accomplish? And most important, why — what’s your motivation? Be unrealistic. Life itself is unrealistic.

6. What do you want to be remembered by? Write it down. This is the man/woman who _______________. Take your time.

7. What kind of life would make you jealous? And why? If you could start over, what would your life look like, right now? (Psst … Don’t let your doubts in on this yet – they’re gonna’ ruin everything.)

8. What adventures do you want to have? Can you list five? Adventures aren’t just for children — or maybe the 10-year-old in us never dies. And it’s that inner child that really loves and lives life for what it is: the greatest adventure in the universe.

9. If you had to add something to humanity, what would your contribution be? List at least one thing. The world doesn’t owe you. You owe the world. The good news is that whatever the answer to this question, you’ll enjoy doing it.

10. What are your ghosts? Your unspoken demons? The stuff you keep in your closet under a lock? What are you most deeply afraid of? Say it out loud. Get real with yourself. It’s how you conquer them.

11. What are your favorite memories? Can you picture four or five instances in your childhood you are fond of? What’s the common denominator that lies at the core of them? There is usually only one or two life-altering statements that come up when you dig. How can you transform your current experiences so they begin with that same idea?

12. Who do you love the most? What 10 people would you put on a lifeboat in case of a universal tsunami, asteroid or any other realistic end-of-the-world event? Make a list. You can have a million friends on Facebook, but at the end of the day, you’re lucky if you can find 10 people you would die for and who would die for you. Email them as soon as you can. Remind them that if the world ends tomorrow, they’d be on your lifeboat.

13. What worries you the most? Worry comes from fear. And most fear is imaginary. So what are you worried about?

14. What type of people inspire you and make you come alive? What people at this point in your life add to the truest equation of you? Reach out to them, get closer, “touch” them, spend time with them, be around them. Aliveness is the one virus you always need to catch.

15. What type of people bring you down and make you hate yourself? Break up with them. Today. It’s not rejection, it’s just selection. You must not invest your love in people who don’t want it and who use it to deplete you. 
Love is the most elevated, beautiful transaction between two creatures. But it’s still a transaction. You are responsible for your heart’s investments.

16. Who are your mentors? What have they taught you? Can you make a list? If you know them personally, thank the writers, thinkers, teachers, people who’ve shown you the way. You owe them a mention on your lips and in your heart; and you must pay the inspiration forward. It’s contagious and fuels you.

17. What is your cosmic elevator pitch? Not your job description, professional bio, resume, About page. In short, who are you – raw, unedited, wild, ordinary and extraordinary you?

18. What issues can you help with? We’re in trouble as a planet, as a species, as a global community and as individuals. If you want to live here, you need to pay the toll of helping out. Don’t worry, others will help clean your mess, too. It’s how it goes with humans. They mirror each other, for better or worse.

19. How can you express yourself creatively? Starting with the belief that we are all creative animals by nature, what’s your medium? Art of any kind speaks directly to the heart. It doesn’t go through reason. You need to speak Art if you want to understand Heart. So pick a medium and start practicing.

20. How do you manage your time? What works for you? If you’re a mess, how can you get it together? Can you make a schedule, write down your routine (to help you stick to it), come up with a productivity credo of some sort?

21. If you were to leave the world today, what is your manifesto? What would you tell your children if you were forced to abandon them unexpectedly? Tell them what you would want them to know about you now.

22. What makes you come alive? What ignites you? What makes you forget time, and space, and love, and food and water and even why – if taken to extreme? As Bukowski put it, “Find out what you love and let it kill you.” (Or resurrect you.)

23. What are your most painful memories? Are you still replaying them in your mind and using them as an excuse to fuel your fear of getting hurt again? Do you think they might be keeping you from trusting your heart again?

24. Why do you eat the way you eat and the things you eat? What do you think you should eat that you’re not eating – and why? What can you put in your body that gives you pleasure and also respects and nourishes it? If you don’t know, find out. You can’t honor life if you don’t eat what cultivates it.

25. What ignites your brain? Can you add more of that to your everyday life? Get smarter? Train your brain? Evolve? Don’t waste your precious time on meaningless entertainment that numbs your mind and makes you smaller.

26. What physical exercise makes you sweat like you mean it and enjoy both the process and the feeling afterward? If you’re not currently practicing it, can you read more about it, surround yourself with people who practice it, sign up for a class, do whatever will motivate you to take it on?

27. What does your body need in order to function at its best? Can you make a list of what makes you feel healthiest and function optimally and try to practice it every day? If you’re not sure, start experimenting.

28. What feeds your spirit? What gives you goosebumps? What makes you fall down to your knees in awe? Is it God? Religion? The universe? Science? Starry nights? Music? Art? Animals? Whatever it is, it should surpass your understanding — there is no awe without mystery.

29. What are you proud of so far? What have you accomplished? Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be someone who’s done “more” and some who’s done “less.” But what can you, at this point in your life (your circumstances, your reality), give yourself a hug for? Do it.

30. Fast-forward to your epitaph. What does it say? As a place-holder, let’s paraphrase Jack Kerouac: “They lived and loved and asked, blessed and adventured … and they weren’t sorry.”

So, what is the meaning of life?

Being able to sit with it and realize that you’re rich because you have a universe inside you that you can reach at any given moment.

Your world is constantly being created through you and there is no meaning outside of you that won’t take your deepest, greatest truth in consideration. Skip love, money or fame if they don’t come as a result of your life-driving truth – they’re the roof to your inner house, and to add a roof you must first discover, understand and create that house. If you don’t know where to start building, just ask.

 

Death pic

 

 Poem by Mary Oliver: When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Posted in 2014 Articles, Career Planning & Life Direction, Micky's Articles, Mind-body-spirit Integration | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Growth of Soul

Claire N Scott, Ph.D.

“The purpose of life is … to grow the soul.”  So says author Christina Baldwin.  (1, p.47).  I agree.  That’s part of my personal myth.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and contemporary of Freud, said that whatever ideas there are about why we exist and what happens to us after we die are all myths.  No one can really know with certainty – in spite of claims to the contrary.  He says in his autobiography:

Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only ‘tell stories.’ Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth. (5, p. 3)

Jung also emphasized the importance of myth in general and each person’s obligation to come up with their own personal myth.

The need for mythic statements is satisfied when we frame a view of the world which adequately explains the meaning of human existence in the cosmos, a view which springs from our psychic wholeness, from the co-operation between conscious and unconscious. Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science. For it is not that “God” is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man. (5, p.340)

The idea that the purpose of life is to grow the soul is part of my own myth, developed over many years with countless iteration, but my myth as it is today.  Perhaps I should wait until I’m 83 before sharing it – no doubt it will alter again by then – but for now I’ll share my 67 year old version in the hope it might motivate you to think about your own myth as well.

Most simply, a myth is a story.  Story-making and story-telling are one of our species’ earliest forms of passing on knowledge and understanding.  People need their stories.  Stories are part of how we humans relate and share ourselves with one another – and help one another.  We share stories to explain how and why things happen, to describe how we came to be the way we are, how our country and our culture, even our planet, developed.  According to those who study myths, the stories of many different countries hold some surprising commonalities, demonstrating I think how similar human beings are to one another.  Stories are also a way to shares ideas with one other — to see what resonates, what rings true, and perhaps what can help us connect with one another to resolve our differences.  Whether or not the myth or story is absolute truth is not the issue; we all remember events differently, emphasize different things and change our perspectives over time.  More important is what truth or idea the story points to.  Most myths don’t even claim to be true, but rather to depict a greater truth.  I do not claim my myth as absolute truth; it is simply the closest I can come to my truth today.  I think my myth helps me to live more skillfully, more compassionately, and with more peace.  It also helps me make satisfying meaning of my life.  I hope that my sharing of it will stimulate you to want to think about your myth, your understanding of how the mystery of life and death make sense to you.  Although your myth will have no more claim on veracity than mine or anyone else’s, I think the exercise of doing it is one way of growing soul intentionally.

Growth of Soul

There’s not much of a way to talk about myth and soul, at least for me, without including the spiritual.  I know that’s a very loaded topic to bring into discussion, but this is my myth and the spiritual is integral to it.  I also understand that my spiritual beliefs and values may be very different from yours.  Great.  I will be talking only about my beliefs and my understandings and not trying to influence yours.  I will also be using the word God, by which I refer to the God of my understanding only.  To me God is a word for the creative force of the universe, the divine mystery, the ineffable source of all that is.  The God of my understanding does not have a religion, although I use many different religious traditions to help me think about God.

Soul is often defined as being the formless, unembodied aspect of a human being or animal. It is thought to be present in the body during a lifetime, but it is not a part that can be seen or directly touched.  In my myth the Soul is also the divine spark of The Creator within us, the spirit of God that enlivens us, the gift of life itself within us.  I believe Soul is eternal and will continue to exist in some way after one’s death.  The process by which Soul enters and leaves the body is a mystery, but I believe there is some Creative Benign Force (that I call God) that is responsible for and involved in the creation of the universe (or multi-verse) in an ongoing way.

human_body_and_soul

 

Pain and Suffering

I agree with C.S. Lewis (10) that the real problem with myth-making – or making sense of God and life — arises when one tries to deal with the issue of pain and suffering.  Pain is where the rubber hits the road, the s___ hits the fan, and all one’s highfalutin ideas are ground to dust.  If there is a Benign Creative Force as I claim, why does he/she/it permit pain and suffering?   My myth help me transforms pain FOR ME into disagreeable but manageable and purposeful pieces.  You may shake your head when you finish this article completely unsatisfied with my perspective.  Great.  That’s a wonderful reason for you come up with a myth that works for you.   How do you make sense of pain of suffering in a way that helps you live your life?

Eckhart Tolle said that there is actually nothing wrong with life if we would just give up our insistence that it exists to make us happy (14).  How true.  In my myth, what makes most people, including me, so unhappy is that life and/or God don’t give us what we want.  In fact life/God thwarts us rather a lot.  Often just at the moment when things seems to be going the best, God deals us some dastardly blow that knocks us off our feet.  The economy crashes, or we’re in a horrible wreck, our farm floods, our best friend dies, we get cancer, a spouse leaves us, a child lands in jail, a tsunami happens.  Life seems designed to present us with challenges and suffering.  Why is that?  Doesn’t God care about us?  That’s the crucial question.  Tragedy and suffering are part of our existence.  Why?  What does is mean about life and about God that suffering is so inextricably woven into Life?  Answering questions like that is the purpose of our personal myth.  Many religions try to answer that question for us, but I encourage you to think and question and form your own opinions. Christina Baldwin also says that life will reveal itself to you in proportion to the kind of questions you ask (1). If you don’t ask the big questions, your answers tend to stay small and formulaic.

So pain and suffering are the big dilemmas.  How do we reconcile the seemingly capricious infliction of suffering on human beings with the injunction that God loves us?  That brings us to another important element of our personal myth.  What do we decide about the issue of love?  How do we answer the question of whether or not we are loved by whatever force created us?  Robert Frost, the well-known American poet, has inscribed as his epitaph that “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”   I so understand that sentiment.  Life on this earth deals us the most wonderful joys and the most horrible tragedies.  We both love it and hate.  We cherish life and we curse it.  We don’t want it to end and we can’t wait for it to be over.  We live in the midst of these paradoxical feelings, in this mystery of life, every moment of every day.  Sometimes we consciously know that; other times we do all that we can to avoid knowing it.

I think beginning to consciously know and accept our lover’s quarrel with life more of the time is a crucial developmental stage of maturation, for individuals, for humanity and for our individual and collective soul.  While there is a certain comfort in mindlessness/ignorance – as in ignorance is bliss – the opposite is, in my myth, even more true — the unexamined life is not worth living.  You don’t have to examine very closely to become aware of the inevitability of pain and suffering.

Tears

Asking the big questions, grappling with issues like why are pain and suffering inherent in life – how does love fit into the equation – what is the purpose of my short, fleeting life – these questions are much less comfortable, but grappling with them can be much more rewarding and enlightening.  I think our soul is forced to grow when we are forced to sit with questions that are bigger than our current answers.  Pain bigger than our heart can bear is what forces us to that threshold. Tibetan Buddhist and Oxford scholar Chogyam Trungpa said, “Enlightenment is just one insult after another.”  (8)  From this perspective, however, pain and suffering can be gifts; they can act as the darkness that forces us to grow more light so to speak.  I’m not so sure we would undertake the trials that force us to face these important issues if it were not thrust upon us.  Trungpa asserts that if you can allow yourself to have a direct experience of the pain you’re in, it can be a great teacher for you.  The real problem arises when you try to escape the pain or develop a negative attitude toward it.  Jung made the same point when he said that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering” (6). It’s the mess that we create when we try to avoid our suffering that can create a worse misery (e.g., guilt, addiction, self-loathing, abuse, neglect, suicide, etc.).  Facing our suffering head on is a teaching that’s difficult to embody in the heat of the moment.  Believing you’re loved makes it a little easier.

Love

 In his effort to explain why God allows suffering, C.S. Lewis, British Christian theologian, talks about Love.  He says:  “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” (10) His point is that if we truly love someone, we want what is best for them – not just what is easy.   We may feel protective, but at some level we also know that each individual needs to learn to listen to their own heart, make their own choices, and live with their own consequences in order to grow.  We want our loved ones to live out their dreams, to “go for it” and experience life to the fullest.  To deny our “beloved” these opportunities in order to “protect” them from suffering is to infantilize them and disrespect their individuality and potential.  My sense is God wants no less for me, and part of the refinement and transformation of me occurs through my exposure to the alchemical fire of suffering.  To put it in Buddhist terms, sitting in the fire of discomfort burns away the seeds of “shenpa” (our repetitive destructive patterns) (9).

In my myth evolution is an on-going event, and currently humans are undergoing an evolution of consciousness.  Not just consciousness in terms of our cognitive capacities and reason, but consciousness of heart and soul as well.  The growth of soul is the growth of our capacity to hold our place, our sanity, our compassion in the mysterious vagaries of life — to somehow learn to manage with some equanimity the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

It is precisely in those places where the s___ hits the fan, the rubber hits the road, the places of being tested and tried to our very limit, where we must grow or die.  Or said less dramatically, where we either grow to meet the challenge or the challenge diminishes us.  There is a saying that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% what we make of it.   That 90% is determined by our personal myth:  how we make sense of our life and what happens to us – and the choices we make in response to it.

To me pain and suffering, as much as I may hate them, are part of God’s loving call to me to stretch beyond my preconceived ideas and ways of coping.  God seems to relish dismantling my preconceived ideas, my “shenpa”.  Believing in my myth may seem delusionally self-serving to some.  I choose to believe as I do because to the best of my limited understanding, it’s the only thing that makes sense – and the only thing that makes what life asks of me tolerable and purposeful.  It is also my experience of God.  Over and over again my experience is that I am greatly loved and gently but relentlessly guided to greater depths of understanding and a more encompassing experience of The Divine in my life.  It is my nature to want to imbue things with transcendent meaning; perhaps the God of my understanding is also my projection of what I want God to be.  That’s certainly possible.  On the other hand, perhaps we all have a God gene, as Greg Braden says, that helps us discern God in a way that works for us (2).  Perhaps God is different for each person.  I love that idea.  I am choosing a myth that is validated by my experience, but I also admit that believing as I do is highly self-serving.  It helps me get up each morning and face another day of sometimes gut-wrenching challenges and fire-sitting.  It helps me function, feel loved, find purpose in suffering, and be a better person in this world.  Why would I choose a myth that served me less well?

Seeing underlying meaning helps me step back from life, see things from a broader and deeper perspective.  Taking the time to do this intentionally helps me to stay in some semblance of balance and cope with day-to-day challenges.  It also helps me to transcend the harsh realities occasionally in order to accept and appreciate the awful beauty of life.  I think life and God ask both of me, i.e.,  to immerse myself in the guts of life, to form a deep and evolving and often messy relationship with it, but also to be able to detach myself from it from time to time so that I don’t drown in it or lose touch with its deeper meaning.  My myth gives me, and yours can give you, a way to understand life and God that makes my soul sing.

I have included in the bibliography some resources that I hope might help you to conceptualize your own myth.  In a way I think I should probably include every book I ever read in the bibliography.  I offer the best advice I have in the form of the following quote:

Be still.  Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.

Lao Tzu

 

 

Bibliography

  1.  Baldwin, Christina.  (2002).  The Seven Whispers:  Listening to the Voice of Spirit.  Novato, CA:  New World Library.
  2.  Braden, Greg.  (2004).  The God Code:  The Secret of our Past, The Promise of our Future.  London:  Hay House.
  3. Chodron, Pema.  (1991).  The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness.  Boston:  Shambhala.
  4.  Jones, Alan.  (1985).  Soul Making:  The Desert Way of Spirituality.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  5.  Jung, Carl.  (1961).  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffe.  New York:  Random House.
  6.  Jung, Carl (1960).  Psychology and Religion (The Terry Lecture Series).  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.
  7.  Keen, Sam & Valley-Fox, Ann.   (1989).   Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling.   New York:  Tarcher.
  8. Kornfield, Jack.  (2000).  After the Ecstacy, the Laundry:  How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path.  New York:  Bantam Books.
  9.  Kullander, James. (2005).  Sitting in the Fire:  Pema Chodron on turning toward Pain.  The Sun, January 2005, 5-11.
  10.  Lewis, C.S.   (1994).  The Problem of Pain.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  11.  May, Gerald G. (2004).  The Dark Night of the Soul:  A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  12.  Moore, Thomas.  (1992).  Care of the Soul:  A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  13.  Peck, M. Scott.  (1993).  Further Along The Road Less Traveled:  The Unending Journey Toward Spiritual Growth.  New York:  Touchstone.
  14.  Tolle, Eckhart.  (2005).  A New Earth:  Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.  New York:  Plume.
  15.  Tolle, Eckhart.  (2003).  Stillness Speaks.  Vancouver:  Namaste Publishing.

 

Poem 

The GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

 

 

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Grow Up!

growth

By: Elizabeth Eiland, LMSW

What does it mean to be an adult? And does age have anything to do with it?

I would guess that most of us, as children, wished at some point to be grown up. For some, that may have been eagerly anticipating being tall enough for a theme park roller coaster, big enough to ride in the front seat, or old enough to make our own choices. For others, perhaps, childhood is marked by pain or grief – the end of childhood come too early.  Personally, I can remember a time I was upset after a youth soccer practice (for a reason I’ve long since forgotten), sitting on a curb with my head heavy in my hands.  To comfort me, my father said tenderly, “It’s hard being seven, isn’t it?” To which I replied earnestly, with a sigh and the weight of the world on my seven-year-old shoulders, “I just can’t wait to grow up.” How many of us wished the same?

Now that I find myself on the other side of childhood, I wonder what’s been lost in this transition to adulthood.  I am cognizant that something in us changes – not just biologically, of course, but in the way we see ourselves and the world – when we leave childhood behind to enter adulthood. We can experience this change as a loss that tends to be followed by a vague longing, nostalgia, or just plain confusion.  In fact, for most of the people I talk to, there seems to be a near-universal reluctance to fully embrace adulthood despite the promises of freedom, choice, and ownership.  It turns out adulthood is harder than we thought!

This longing for youth is certainly not a new concept. Nursery stories and cultural archetypes like Peter Pan or Mr. Toad have long been capturing this reluctance to enter adulthood and longing for innocence, abandon, and childlike joy.  Indeed, in the mental health field, we see these concepts scattered throughout our texts – Freudian thought, attachment theory, developmental psychology, work with addressing the inner child, play theories, and countless others. Perhaps authors and psychologists alike know that this reluctance and vague longing points us to a greater truth – that there are pieces of a childlike perspective that are meant to be retained, nurtured, and protected – and other pieces that should be left behind. What is lost in this transition to adulthood? What should be retained, and what pieces do we need to let go?

Perhaps wrestling with these questions marks adulthood.  Adulthood, rather than an age or a developmental stage, is embodied in the moment-by-moment choice to learn how to be the most integrated – our most grown, matured, and best – versions of ourselves.

grow up

Cultural Confusion

This idea of adulthood – as a choice we encounter in each moment to be our best self – becomes especially relevant in light of the mixed messages we receive about adulthood.  Are we adults when we can enlist in the military (18)? Drive or rent a car (15, 25)? Buy alcohol (21)? Age-out of the foster system, be tried legally as an adult, removed from parents’ health insurance plans (18-21, 18, 26)?

Our culture’s social scripts about growth provide even less clarity.  Here’s what we hear: Better not grow up too fast! Ugh, GROW UP. Never, ever grow up. You’re being a baby. Act like an adult! Be forever young.  Here’s what we see: countless anti-grey and anti-wrinkle products, yet marketing for video games and electronic toys targeted at adults; ageism in the workplace despite unparalleled numbers of aging baby boomers and a commitment across the disciplines to meaningful aging. We see more and more media coverage of sociological concepts like emerging adulthood, generational theory, and those pesky, self-and-technologically obsessed Millennials (said with the ironic pride that only a Millennial herself could muster).

Surely, an alternative way to conceptualize adulthood becomes relevant in this context.

 

The Myth of Adulthood Knowing, and a Call to Curiosity

How many of us have looked around and wondered, “Who’s the adult around here?” (most often heard following an unexpected expense, an emergency repair, or a large mess), only to realize that the adult is, in fact, us? This moment of realization highlights a common myth of childhood: that adults are the ones who should always know what is going on, know the answers, know what to do.

However, many of our wisest teachers admit the very opposite.  For example, in Socrates’ famed text, The Apology, the philosopher writes, “I am very conscious that I am not wise at all.”  Zen monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, seems to agree: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”  Therapist Ron Siegel echoes this paradox in therapy’s context, in an article entitled Wisdom in Therapy: “When I conducted a poll asking experienced clinicians to describe a wise therapist, one of the most commonly mentioned attributes was awareness of the limitation of one’s own understanding.”

These thinkers, and a myriad of others, point to a common truth: there appears to be an unexpected relationship with how much we think we know, and how much we actually know. The more we think we know, the less wise we actually are; inversely, an awareness of how little we really know seems to be a marker of true wisdom.

This leads us to a piece of childhood to be retained, protected, and practiced: the open-minded curiosity and humility of a beginner.  A place with many possibilities, this adulthood knows that adults don’t have to know everything, after all.

 

kid

 

Choice and Childhood

Embracing this not-knowing opens the door to making choices about what kind of adult we want to be.

For example, the idea that we hold the capacity for both childlike and adultlike versions of ourselves is probably familiar.  Certainly, anyone who travels home for a family holiday, and suddenly feels like their 16-year-old-self arguing with a sibling at the dinner table or letting someone else do their laundry, knows this to be true.

Sometimes, we find ourselves playing out our childhood selves in other ways. Perhaps we are far too reliant on other people to solve problems for us. Maybe we stay stuck in familiar family roles – the baby, the responsible oldest, the rebellious one, the overlooked child – well into adulthood.  Others of us perhaps play out our childhood selves by avoiding responsibility, acting selfishly or impulsively, being fearful of independence, or hesitating to assert ourselves.  Maybe we want to assert our autonomy and independence but feel stuck, or are missing something from childhood that we want to find.  Each of us has our own brand of how this childhood self looks and acts.

As kids, we learn about our world (is it safe? will my needs be met? am I lovable?) and develop ways of thinking about our relationships and surroundings that are usually quite adaptive.  In adulthood, however, these strategies can become automatic – or, as interpersonal neurobiology expert Dan Siegel writes, reactive – and can hold us back in developing to our adult potential.

As adults, we don’t have to re-act automatically; we can choose how to think about ourselves and our world based on who we are and what we know, now, as adults. In his book, Mindsight, Siegel outlines three skills as central to this kind of self-awareness:

  1. Openness, or “receptivity to whatever comes into our awareness, without clinging to preconceived ideas about how things ‘should’ be.”
  2. Observation, or “the ability to perceive the self even as we are experiencing an event.”
  3. Objectivity, or, “permission to have a thought or feeling and not be swept away by it.”

So here’s some stuff from childhood we can let go: reactivity, automatic ways of responding to situations, old patterns of interaction, assumptions of the way things should be, fears of experiencing ourselves differently.  Instead, we can choose to act with the openness, observation, and objectivity of an integrated adult.

 

puppy

 

Shaky, but Deeply Courageous

There is an entire YouTube meme dedicated to videos about “puppies going down stairs” (Google this immediately for an instant warm, fuzzy feeling). Usually, these videos start with a tiny puppy, standing at the top of an enormous, daunting staircase, perhaps with a barking, whining, or pacing that can only be anthropomorphized as fear.  Then, amazingly, with the bravery of a much older and taller dog, these puppies take their first step down one stair, and, upon realizing that they can do it, they find themselves conquering the entire staircase.  Does this sound familiar?

Developmental psychologists talk about scaffolding – the idea that we grow by slowly expanding our comfort zone to include more and more of what was initially unreachable. This kind of learning requires meeting challenges, making mistakes, and allowing ourselves to learn from these mistakes.  A therapist and researcher Scott Miller said at a recent workshop, the bravery required in seeking this kind of transformation is “the same bravery it takes a baby to walk her first step.” Or a puppy to go down the stairs.

Here’s yet another childhood trait to be retained, then: a courageous – albeit shaky –  determination in meeting challenges, and taking the risk of falling flat on our face.

 

courage

Own It, and Do Something Different Next Time

The childlike willingness to make mistakes becomes adultlike when adults actively seek out ways to learn from these mistakes. It takes deep vulnerability to take ownership of a mistake. Further, allowing ourselves to do something different the next time is a profound act of adulthood.  Allow me to offer an illustration from my own experience.

It is no secret that I am a young therapist.  I remain unsurprised when clients and colleagues show curiosity about my age, and, although I have practiced clinical social work in a variety of settings with a variety of client populations in a variety of U.S. cities over several years, I don’t blame the curious.  After all, most of us assume that age is associated with competency. Indeed, it is quite natural and oftentimes accurate to equate life experience with increased expertise in any field.  Surely, more time spent practicing a craft should make us grow.  Right?

Actually, the research consistently shows that it’s not just practice that makes perfect, but also a certain kind of practice that makes perfect.  Specifically, it’s the kind of practice environment in which we own our mistakes, and intentionally practice trying something different next time.  For this reason, I consider my age to be my most powerful asset as a therapist – a constant, built-in reminder to remain a courageous learner.  I believe that my therapist heroes embody this trait, at all ages along the spectrum.

And so it is with us adults. Regardless of age, growth continues to happen in those shaky but courageous moments, when we dare to take a brave step in the direction of learning something new.

_______________________________________

Works Cited:

 

Scott Miller (2013),  Achieving Clinical Excellence workshop; Atlanta, GA.

Ronald Siegel, Wisdom in Pscyhotherapy,. Psychotherapy Networker March/April 2013.

Daniel Siegel (2010), Mindsight.

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Protecting and Preserving the Innocent One Within

 

carousel

By Metta Sweet Edge, LCSW

Since I’ve been practicing psychotherapy, no other societal event has been so present in my clients’ sessions as the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.  For the weeks following, nearly every client came in wanting to talk about it to some extent.  I was struck by the depth and breadth of this tragedy’s reach for people.  Some expressing grief, others fear, and many exploring existential/spiritual questions.  Many diving into the details of the news reports to try to make sense of it—even while admitting that nothing they could learn would really suffice.  And others purposefully avoiding the media because it was just too painful.

Something in our collective consciousness seemed to have been breached.  A line crossed.  A “bottom” to use the language of recovery.  What happened in Newtown seemed to be for so many an assault on Innocence itself.  On a precious part of our humanity and consciousness that we all, regardless of background and creed, seem to have a tacit agreement about: that childhood innocence has inherent value and deserves protection and preserving.

As I continue to process the impact of this in my life and work, I return again and again to the Jungian concept of The Shadow—of looking to our outside world as a reflection of our inner world. While participating in dialogs and taking action to reduce these tragedies is critically needed to produce change in the outer world of our society, it is often difficult to believe that we, individually, can do anything.  If we stay with Jung’s idea, though, and participate in dialog and action to reduce the tragedy of assaulting our own Innocent One within, we would not only feel more hopeful of having impact, we but could begin to see that change reflected in the world.

 We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.

~Dalai Lama

Developing a Personal Practice

Consider that the innocent child who you once were lives within your mind and heart as a part of you.  This Innocent: this precious one who has inherent value and deserves protection and preserving.  This part of you who is full of wonder, creativity, joy, freedom, trust, and [insert one of your favorite childlike attributes here].  This part of you who also has mischievous curiosity, self-centered focus, a naïve sense of power, and [insert one of your least favorite childlike attributes here].  You don’t have to picture yourself as a child if you don’t want to (although it can be very powerful to do so), just pick the characteristics and focus there.

When you do, see how it feels to acknowledge this part of you.  A part of you that over time, external instruction, and often shame-based experience has been silenced, dismissed, or cut short from participating fully in your life.  How often do you criticize and shame yourself for being joyful, trusting, much less to focus on yourself and daring to wonder about how powerful you really are?  Imagine if you let that part of you have a say, have a life inside you?  No, not as the ultimate “decision maker,” but as a valid voice to be heard and taken into consideration instead of silenced.

Part of what pains us about the Sandy Hook tragedy is that young children’s lives were cut short.  Allow yourself to feel the sorrow and compassion for them and their loved ones and send them the energy of love and healing.  Then, imagine that energy of sorrow, compassion, love, and healing, making a circle back to you.

While feeling that, commit to valuing, protecting, and preserving the Innocent part of you each day.  And when you fail, instead of shaming yourself with cutting criticism, try the following: 1) admit that you failed, 2) feel the regret, 3) forgive yourself—remembering it’s a shame-based defense that has become habit—and then 4) choose to re-commit.  Allow the Innocent One Within to participate more with your daily life and you just might find that your life becomes more full of wonder, creativity, joy, freedom, trust, self-care, and empowerment.

And the world outside just might follow suit.

What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

~Plutarch

My Moving Meditation: A Magical Carousel Ride

Before heading into the park for my midday run, I watched President Obama announce his plans to help reduce tragedies such as Newtown in the future. Standing behind him were four children who had written letters to the President asking him to help.  Sitting in front of him were the parents of a girl named Grace who died that day in her classroom along with her classmates and teacher. The President shared that he placed Grace’s artwork in his private study in the White House.  Feelings of sadness and anger surfaced in me anew as I watched and listened, but the stirrings of hope now swirled in with the mix.

As the President shook the children’s hands and began signing the paperwork, I took to the sidewalk and started jogging toward the park.  The January day was gray and damp.  That seemed alright and somehow fitting to me as I put in my earbuds and set my iPod to shuffle.  I jogged along feeling grateful to be outside in the world moving free and breathing deep.  On my exhales, I released the heaviness in my chest and upon inhale, I invited the shuffled songs to guide me to thoughts and feelings that would feel right to me on my “moving meditation” that my runs have become.

Toward the end of my run, an upbeat song began playing, instantly bringing thoughts, feelings, and images of my family—especially of my three children.  The song’s beat brought the gift of a rush of gratitude and joy.  That gift, though, was quickly threatened to be revoked by pained thoughts of the families who lost their children that December Friday in Newtown.  I firmly held on to my gratitude, though, as Brene Brown teaches in her work on vulnerability and shame resilience.  I then eased into a trust that somehow my love for my children somehow honored those lost at Sandy Hook.

As I rounded a bend in that moment, my eyes scanned the corner of the park looking for the carousel that had been set up for the holiday season.  It was gone.  Clearly, the season now over, it had been taken down.   It seemed to have vanished into thin air, leaving an empty space at the foot of the hill with only an imprint in the grass.

My heart filled with the ache and loss of Newtown’s children again as I approached the empty space.  But in a spinning rush of momentum and spontaneity, I turned off the paved path and leaped onto the carousel’s flattened grass imprint.  Shaking off my self-consciousness that onlookers might consider me strange, I resolutely ran the circumference of where the carousel once stood.

While making the round, I imagined the carousel there with Newtown’s children aboard riding, laughing, and carrying on as kids do.  At the moment I reached the point of completion of the carousel’s circle, it started to rain.  Hard.  As if the gray day could not hold its tears back any longer, the sky burst open above me.

The synchronicity of that timing stunned me so much that I stopped running and looked up.  I have never particularly enjoyed getting caught in the rain, but this time I instinctually welcomed it.  I slowly opened my hands toward the sky and then, with a child-like impulse, I leaned my head back to catch the rain in my mouth—just as the lyrics to the next song playing in my ears sang of catching tears.

Stunned again in the synchronistic mystery, I felt a profound connection to Mystery and Oneness with All That Is.  My singular and symbolic experience felt beyond the bounds of me yet I also sensed my personal and particular participation provided a key ingredient.  The synchronicity of sound, imagery, and elements served as a reminder of the interconnection between our individual and interconnected experience.  A reminder of Belonging—to ourselves, each other, and to our world.

As we move forward in this world that does indeed break our hearts, I hope that we can more and more use that brokenness as an opening.  An opening to more love than our heart could have held had it stayed together in the first place.

Book Recommendations:

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

The Shadow Effect by By Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, and Debbie Ford

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