happy children


Watch this fascinating, if somewhat painful experiment. This video provides more evidence that the emotional development of children is dependent on the presence and loving attunement of those around them.

An interesting article from The New York Times Magazine, The Moral Life of Babies, tells us that research is now indicating that Mencius’s humanist vision was right. We are all born with the “taste for goodness.” Morality is not something that is learned. It is something inherent within us all, and simply needs to be cultivated.

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Ask any parent what they want for their children and they will say happiness. But what can parents do to insure their child’s well being?

Imagine a scene. Soft warm lighting, gentle sounds. A close up on two faces. One, a mother, the other, her infant. Mom holds baby securely in her arms and gazes into her baby’s eyes. She smiles. Baby settles into mom’s hold, gurgles and smiles back. This scene has been repeated endless times. But if we look beyond the surface, what is happening in mom and baby’s neurological system?

When the baby sees mom looking at her with attention and love in her eyes, this releases certain chemicals in the brain that make the baby excited and happy. The baby experiences pleasure. The mother has a similar neuro-chemical reaction. The baby begins to associate this good feeling with mom and her loving gaze. It is naturally built into the baby to seek out such good feelings, so it begins to want mom for another hit of euphoria. This is the beginning of a bond of attachment between mother and infant.

Evolution has done a good job of adaptation by fostering this connection between baby and mother for several reasons. One of the most obvious is that infants are completely vulnerable and need the protection of its parents to survive. The baby’s and mother’s need and desire for closeness keeps the baby safe.

But there is another reason why this look of love is important for the newborn. When mother and child share this gaze, the child’s brain is bathed in happy-making brain chemicals like dopamine. This triggers the growth of neurons, and neuron connections, in the brain. Neurons and their connections are what provide us with all of the abilities that our brains give us. When the baby grows neurons as a result of sharing a loving gaze with mom, this leads to the development of the baby’s ability to think, feel, imagine, act and connect with others. The full development and realization of these abilities are the wellspring of happiness. The baby wants to keep going back for more and more of this emotional meal, and each time they do their brain grows and develops in a positive way.

Imagine another scene. Cold lighting, loud noises. Mom is depressed, distracted and self-absorbed. She holds her baby limply. She gazes off into space. The infant sensing that she is not being held securely. The infant automatically goes into the “moro reflex,” which is the way a baby tenses its body when it feels like it is falling. The baby seeks out mother, but even though the mom is there physically, the infant “feels” abandoned. This causes the baby’s brain to be flooded with stress hormones like cortisol. It feels anxious, frightened, angry and despairing. These chemicals destroy neurons and neuron connections in the brain. The baby’s capacities for love and connection do not develop. The baby begins to learn that she is unlovable and the world is an unsafe place. If the baby experiences something like this over and over, the building blocks for anxiety and depression are put into place.

Neuro-biological research has now proven that the mother’s look of love is the first emotional sunlight, soil and water for the child to grow toward becoming what it is meant to be: capable, fulfilled and loving.

The foundation of adult happiness is very simple. If you are a parent who wants your children to be happy, look at them with love.

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Recently Charles Blow of the New York Times cited some studies suggesting that people between the ages of 18 and 29 are “moving away from organized religion while simultaneously trying desperately to connect with their spirituality.” I believe this is true for vast numbers of people of all ages. We find ourselves in a time when untold numbers are searching for a deeper sense of fulfillment in their lives. People everywhere are looking for answers.  From the spiritual cognoscenti, to those who regularly tune into Oprah and are committed to personal growth and change, to seekers looking for a way to solve a problem in their lives through the many forms of psychotherapy, to the many millions who fuel the self-help industry, lifelong learners everywhere are seeking something deeper and more fundamental than motivational tips and familiar nostrums.

Evidence that the quest for spiritual development outside of conventional religion has gone mainstream is all around us:  in the upswing of interest in the healing arts such as yoga, meditation, and holistic health practices; in the fascination with forms of mysticism such as Kabbalah; in the study of the traditions of the East like Buddhism and Taoism; in the openness to the melding of the most advanced science and the most ancient wisdom traditions as illustrated by Deepak Chopra’s huge following; in the renewed sense of personal responsibility brought on by the changes in our political and economic landscape; and in the nostalgia for the less materialistic values of the ‘60s.

I call this vast group Seekers. These are people who in addition to personal healing are also concerned about the environment and the fate of the earth.  They are parents who are feeding their children organic foods and working earnestly to give their kids the best start by applying attachment parenting techniques. They are couples who are devoted to having sacred marriages through using the dialogical techniques of teachers like Harville Hendrix.  They are baby-boomers going back to school after the kids graduate college, and thirty-somethings who have gotten off the fast track to become social entrepreneurs, using their business savvy to make a better world. They are open-minded and tolerant.  They are receptive to all traditions, philosophies, and wisdoms, whatever the source.  They read Eckhart Tolle and admire the Dalai Lama. They are connecting with old friends through Facebook, following politics on the Huffington Post and are interested in all types of social networking.  They follow the big thinkers on sites like TED.com. Every day they make an effort to become better people.

Where is this spiritual thirst coming from, and why are people looking in places other than organized religion? (more…)

We are all looking to end our emotional suffering and solve our life’s problems. We long to answer: How can I find love, stop being so anxious, lose weight, make money, have more energy, have a better marriage, be a better parent?

In this post I’m going to give you the answer to your difficulties and tell you how to achieve true fulfillment and happiness.

In order to do that, I will start with a short review of my basic philosophy of the heart.

As those of you who have followed my blog know, I am inspired by the great Chinese Sage of 2300 years ago, Mencius, who said,

“Pity the man who has lost his path and does not follow it, and lost his heart and does not go out and recover it.”

I believe that we have problems in our lives because we have lost our hearts. Since “essence,” — that which makes a thing what it is and no other — is known as “the heart of the matter,” our essential nature is what Mencius means by the term, “heart.” What this means then, is that we experience unnecessary suffering because we are, as theologian Paul Tillich stated it, estranged from our essential nature. This essential nature is what the Greek philosopher Aristotle called our entelechy, which is that which we are meant to be.

What is our essence? What are we meant to be? I believe that we are all meant to think, feel, act, imagine and connect in the best possible way. When those natural attributes are optimally developed we become wise, passionate, strong, creative and loving. This results in inner harmony, loving relationships, a productive social order and peaceful politics. This is an embodiment, and fulfillment, of the laws of human nature and universal nature. This is our evolutionary purpose and what is best both for the species and the universe as a whole.

A central way that we become distanced from that which we are meant to become is as a result of our relationships. When things go right in our earliest and most important relationships, we develop our potentials in the best possible way. As Mencius knew from observing nature, anything properly cultivated will grow. As we all live in a lost hearted world and each one of us is raised by flawed parents, we are all, more or less, and in different ways, emotionally wounded. When we do not receive the proper emotional sunlight, soil and water, we do not grow in the best possible way.

We become distanced from that which we are meant to be due to relationship failures in our upbringing. As a result of this, we are living in some way out of alignment with our own nature. When we are distanced from our nature, we live out of alignment with nature in general. We have, what Mencius would call, a lost heart. This results in our suffering and problems.

Science has now proved this to be true. When we get the proper love in early childhood our brain grows the way it is supposed to. When we do not get love in our early life, our brain does not develop to its full potential.

Though these early interactions leave very deep traces, we continue to grow and develop through life. Mencius said, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” This means that we can live out our entelechy, we can be what we are meant to be, we can realize our optimal potentials, we can end our unnecessary suffering and solve our problems, through working on ourselves.

The Answer to Our Problems is Finding the Lost Heart

The answer is that in order to solve our problems and get what we want in life, we need to find our lost hearts. And the way to do this is to live a life of self-cultivation. What does this mean, and how do we do it?

Throughout history, everyone has wanted an instant cure, a quick fix, a magic pill. Cardinal Richelieu, who lived in the 17th century, was prescribed a mixture of horse dung and white wine to cure his ills. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. He died. The instant cure doesn’t work. Whenever we try to take a shortcut, we never reach our destination. And even though I am a psychotherapist, psychotherapy alone is not enough to give us what we need.

The  wisdom of the ages tells us that to find the answer requires a quest. The method I propose may take more work then you’d like, but, unlike the Cardinal’s cure, it will work. It includes wisdom that has been proven by thousands of years of historical experience, and modern insights proven by cutting edge science.

The essence of finding one’s heart can be distilled into five basic steps. (more…)

The traditional Chinese character for love (愛)...
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Where does love come from?

Contemporary science tells us that love is built into us. As the great researcher, Allan Schore, proves, we enter the world pre-wired to love the first person who takes care of us. Once an infant is born it works like this. When an infant sees his mother gazing at him with love in her eyes, happy neuro-chemicals flood the infant’s brain. The child feels happy. He or she likes this feeling and wants more of it. This sets up an attachment to the source of this good feeling. Since the good feeling comes from mom, the kid starts to love mom. We are genetically set up so that when the brain gets a good dose of those happy-making chemicals, we grow neurons in our brain. These neurons form the basis of our feeling confident in the world. They enable us to create and sustain loving connections with other people.

As we grow into childhood, when we receive the proper emotional attunement from our loved ones, our brains continue to develop and we mature our natural propensity to love and be loved. It is when we get our emotional needs met that we grow the ability to love more and more people in deeper and deeper ways. John Bowlby makes a great case that this built in ability to love is evolutionarily adaptive. That is, it contributes to the survival of our species. Helpless infants and mothers need to be bonded because little babies can’t survive without that protection and care. Without love, we do not thrive. Those neurons that grow from love also contribute to the development of our ability to think, feel, create, imagine, act and care for ourselves in the best possible way. Our ability to love and connect is what is natural and adaptive. Our destructive aggressiveness happens when our natural emotional needs for a loving relationship get frustrated.

When we understand that our love is innate, we realize that children are not bad without a moral basis and need to be “trained” and restrained to be obedient. This view that children are evil and need to be broken has justified all kinds of abuse. We now know that this kind of child rearing leaves permanent scars. Instead, if our task as parents is to cultivate the love that already exists in our child by giving love, it makes our job clear.  Our children are precious with potentials that need to be nurtured, nourished and lovingly tended.

Our natural ability to love is our common human bond. Mencius, Confucius‘s disciple, said that every human heart is alike. When we realize this, this becomes our basis for living.  Since we are all alike, we must live our lives according to the golden rule, which has been understood in every culture and religion, including the philosophy of Confucius. The Chinese character for this reciprocity, that is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is shu, which is a combination of the characters for “heart” and “alike.” It’s common meaning is forgiveness.

Our central core of loving compassion is what Mencius called heart. This is what he believed defined what it meant to be truly human or humane. This natural empathy, or the ability to feel what others feel, is what Mencius used as the primary proof that man is essentially good. In order to be fully human, we need to cultivate and develop this heart of compassion.

If this is the case, then the best thing we can do for ourselves, the ones closest to us, and for the planet is to develop our ability to love. Certainly, as we understand the great chain of being, it is our love that helps grow love in our children. Though we understand this scientifically today, this wisdom was understood by Confucius and his follower, Mencius, 2500 years ago. Confucius’s main concern was human relationship. He understood that we were in alignment with our intrinsic purpose on this planet when we were able to have the best relationship with others.

The Confucians believed that our whole society needed to be built on this principle. Our leaders needed to run the state so that relationships would be in greatest harmony and there would be the ultimate conditions for the realization of love. This is a great model for our own leaders and one we need to encourage them to embrace.

As part of this societal imperative, learning about love needs to be central to our education. 70 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt, after seeing the catastrophe of a world war, said that schools needed to expand from the three R’s to four: reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships. He believed that the very survival of the world depended on us learning how better to love and connect through relationship and that it was the responsibility of society at large to provide this direction. In some ways we seem further from this educational goal almost a century later.

This common core of love also means that we do not need to look outside of ourselves for what we seek to become in life. Confucius also said, “the measure of man is man.” What this means is that we can all begin where we are, and by developing our best attributes, we can become wise, strong, passionate and optimally loving.

Confucius’s idea of this ideal person was captured by the Chinese character, Jen. This character is made up of the characters for “man” and “two,” signifying that the measure of an individual is his or her ability for good relationship. The ideal person is one who can connect with others, who can love.

Within each of us is such a fine person, because we can become one, given the proper cultivation. This begins with how we are raised. But once we become grown ups, we need to take over the task of cultivation. We must self-cultivate.

How do we develop our capacity for love and compassion? This is an especially important question because not one of us received the optimal nurturance growing up.

Confucius would say that this begins with tireless self-education. We must explore our great cultural heritage to understand what the pilgrims who have gone before us have learned about love and how to achieve it. We must imagine this ideal, and continue to develop this image so that we have a goal to aim for. We must immerse ourselves in the arts, because this is the food of love.

Finally, our heart of love and compassion is cultivated through our actions, what we do every day. Each day we must practice living up to our highest vision of love. We become more humane – we find our hearts – through giving. To be what we are meant to be, we need to open ourselves and passionately risk all for the sake of loving others.

Science has now joined philosophy and spirituality in understanding that love is our root, answer, and what we are made of.  Through a commitment and devotion to a lifetime of self exploration, you must travel within yourself to find the lost and hidden heart, because there you will discover that the source of love is within yourself. That’s where love comes from.

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Alan GreenspanStatistics like 10% unemployment and reports of 50% pay cuts barely capture the pain and Menciusanxiety that so many of us are experiencing in today’s struggling economy. How can we  get through this rough period and also figure out how to succeed in such troubling times? How can we set the economic ship of the world on a course that minimizes this kind of distress in the future? In order to find the solution we need to understand how we got here and what is presently going on.

Much has been said about the technicalities of toxic assets, the lack of regulation on exotic investment instruments and other incomprehensible economic arcana. Some has been said about a culture of short-term gain and greed run amok. Even a free market devotee like Alan Greenspan has had to admit that the market did not do its magic of self-regulating to the best possible outcome.

How did this happen? How did we get to a place where very smart people acted against their own interests? Are people dumb or evil? 2300 years ago the people of China found themselves in a similar situation. The world’s greatest Sage, a man named Mencius (Men-shus), devoted his life to understanding how things could go so wrong in a society and what to do about it. Observing nature, he recognized that there were laws by which the universe operated. Following what he observed in agriculture, if you understood and followed these laws of cultivation, you could increase your yield dramatically. If you went against them, nothing would grow. He called these laws the heavenly mandate, and applied this principle to politics. If leaders followed the heavenly mandate, that is the laws of nature and human nature, people would have peace, happiness and abundance. If leaders lived against this law, there would be discord, economic distress, anxiety and depression.

If we believe what Mencius says, it means that we are in this economic pickle because those in control of the levers of the economy have been living against natural law, and against human nature. Mencius believed that just as our eyes know the beautiful, it is our heart that knows the good, and so it is the faculty of the heart that can judge whether we are living in harmony with the heavenly mandate. When we do not realize that we are living against these principles, it means that we have a lost heart. Another way of saying this is that we have lost touch with our common sense, which was also considered throughout history to reside in the heart. This is based on the humanist belief that we are not stupid or evil. Rather, we all have a basic sense of the good and the right, if we can only access it.  Our troubled bi-polar economy, manic one moment and depressed the next, is a measure of the extent to which we live in a lost-hearted culture.

How have we been living against those laws? As Mencius understood then, and as all ancient peoples understood, simply getting the greatest yield, or amassing the greatest amount of wealth, does not mean that you are following the laws of cultivation. These laws have an ecology, an interdependence between all things that require balance and harmony and a consideration of the long view above all else. Nature tells us that rather than an economy that is geared to making the most money for the smallest number, it needs to provide the maximum well being for the greatest numbers on a sustainable basis.

In order to achieve the kind of harmony that will lead to this favorable outcome, we must understand all the aspects of our being, not simply the material ones. This emphasis on the concrete and away from understanding in depth has obvious consequences. We see evidence of our imbalance all around. The sharp contrast between the financial CEO who makes hundreds of millions and the plight of the average unemployed worker is only one aspect of this. We have seen in our culture a progression towards the greatest value being put on the work place. If young professionals do not spend 12 or 14 hours in the office, they fear that they will not advance. Others are made to spend 60% of their time on the road. As a result, people do not have time to develop relationships or spend time with their families. This can have terrible consequences, as research indicates that at least for the first three years of life a child needs the active care of their mother for their optimal development. If mom is a young lawyer and spends 60 hours a week in the office, her children are not getting what they need. This culture-wide dehumanization and workaholism is a major contributor to problems like addiction and depression. By living in a world where all of our hours are spent at the work place, we have lost our moral footing, or sense of what is of essential value.

What did Mencius propose to cure this problem? He said that in order to find the central harmony, or to live according to the good sense within us which is the inward manifestation of the universal law, we need to find our lost heart. In order to find the heart, we need to live lives of self-cultivation. In the same way that our plants need the proper sunlight, soil and water to grow, we need to give ourselves what we need to grow a truly abundant, sustainable, socially responsible and meaning-filled economy. That means that we have to put the full force of our intellectual, emotional and moral force into developing ourselves. We need to live from a place of devotion to our own growth and the well being of the world. We need to work very hard, but only toward the end of true meaning and purpose.

We do this, first and foremost by making a commitment to our own development, and doing something toward this every day. This is especially important for those at the top, who have a broader impact on our financial wellbeing, but is important for all of us, whether we are some small part of this machine that regulates our capital, or we are simply running the family economy. This cultivation is an act of what the Germans would call “Bildung.”  Bildung means growth through an immersion in culture. We must devote ourselves to learning the inherited wisdom of all time, so that we can learn the eternal principles. We need to explore literature, art and music as much as we learn about economics and business. We need to balance our concrete ways of thinking by enriching our imaginations by spending time in  the world of symbol through myths and tales. We all must learn how to best take care of our bodies, other people and our world.

We need to learn about ourselves. Without a penetrating understanding of human nature,  which begins  with a process of self-exploration, as Alan Greenspan was to learn all too late in life, we can make gross errors of judgment about how people will act and behave.  We need, perhaps most of all, to learn how to have intimate relationships. The only way to grow is to truly open ourselves to other human beings.

This path of self-cultivation which has been known for centuries, is especially necessary for the world today. Everything in our world of work is changing. The world where people found security by working for one corporation for a lifetime is gone. Technology is changing so rapidly that by the time a new business model comes online it is already obsolete.   Those people who will be lifelong learners and are most comfortable with change are the ones who are going to find success in this new world. The only security we are going to create is the control we take of our own work lives. We will be able to do this through continuously developing our intellectual and skill capital. Those of us who depend on old models will find themselves left behind. The people with the greatest imaginations, those who can envision the possibilities available in this new world, will be the ones who blaze trails and come out on top.

Much of what prevents people from being able to change in these ways are old emotional injuries, starting at the earliest phase of life. We now have evidence that our earliest interactions have a profound influence on our capacity for learning, personal growth, change, imagination and the emotional self-regulation necessary to thrive in a world of continuous new demands. The only way to free our natural abilities for adaptation is to work on healing those wounds thorugh a process of self-discovery. In order for our children to thrive in this new world they are going to need optimal upbringing because the most rounded, emotionally healthy and creative people are the ones who are going to have the skills needed in this new world. In order to give our children this kind of upbringing, we need to heal ourselves. We need to widely disseminate the knowledge and skills for self-healing so the greatest number of people can benefit from this understanding.

What will our culture look like if we develop ourselves in a way that brings us into greater harmony with the heavenly mandate? Actually, our technology can be a help in this regard. One great secret of this world where we are married to our work is that most people spend all too many hours in the workplace, but they spend very few of those hours actually being productive. For many, more hours are spent on Facebook than doing work. People hate being trapped in their offices, resenting time away from the rest of their lives, and act out by screwing around. We now have the technology so most people can do a great deal of their work from home. We need to re-vision work. People can work  from home, creating their own flexible hours so they can have time to drop off the kids at school, help them with homework, and tuck them in at night. People will be more productive because they will be happier and their spouses and children will be happier, too. This can also be a significant aid in shrinking our carbon footprint and reducing global warming. How much fossil fuels will we save if every single person who commuted to work eliminated one or two days of driving their car?

As a society, we show what we value by how much we are willing to pay for it. Another change that we will see if we cultivate ourselves is that we will give less value to the work of Wall Street. For our culture to be the richest it can be, more than financiers and lawyers, we are going to need transformation leaders, teachers, therapists, coaches and health counselors. These are the people who are going to give us the tools necessary to be life-long growers. We will put more of our resources into these areas because we will see that social value is economic value. People on Wall Street and in law offices will be paid less, and change agents will be paid more.

These difficult times are the result of great changes in our society. If we are able to recognize our mistakes and correct them, and see the great potential in this time of transformation, there is great promise ahead for better lives for all of us. It is going to take courage, optimism, faith, perseverance and tremendous effort to come through this transition. These are the qualities that reside in the heart. The good news is that we all share those common attributes. All we need to do is find our hearts through a process of self-cultivation and we will have everything we need to not only find personal success and well-being, but to make the world a better place as well.

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franciscogoya-Saturn-Eating-CronusAs we have learned in this series so far, fairy tales are ironic. They tell a truth so shocking that it can only be revealed in innocent children’s stories. 2500 years ago, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates said the truth exposed in these stories was so dangerous that they should not be allowed to be read by children at all!

Socrates spoke about one of the earliest Greek myths, the story of the origins of the universe. In this story, Uranus hated his children so much that he buried them in the darkest place. Then his son, Cronus, castrated him. Cronus received a prophecy that he would be dethroned by his children, so he ate them.

Socrates responded to these tales by saying,

“The doings of Cronus, and the sufferings which in turn his son inflicted upon him. . .ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence. But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the number of the hearers will be very few indeed.”

What these tales tell us is that the wounded parent has been wounding the child since the beginning of things. Our pain is not the fault of our immediate forebears, our parents, and the wounds that we inflict as parents are the result of a multi-generational pattern that goes back to the earliest times.

As parents, with this knowledge, we have the opportunity to break this cycle and to do our part in healing a broken world. As Confucius said,

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; to cultivate our personal life we must first set our hearts right.”

The creators of fairy tales were in touch with their own child-like nature and so understood things from the child’s point of view. The intent of the inventors of these stories was less to entertain the child and more to return the parent to the child’s world.  Parents need to read fairy tales so they can understand how their children experience them. The harsh lesson of the stories is not one that a child can say directly to the parent and so the story does it for them.  If we can listen to the hidden message, then we can understand what we need to do to become better parents.

From ancient times,  the creators and tellers of the tales were old women. What were the lessons these elders were trying to teach? These women were actually engaging in a subversive act. These crones were able to reach across the generations and communicate on a subtle level the hidden truths about life. They were saying, “Watch out for your parents, and don’t worry, there is a way out.”

These tellers of tales validated the child’s emotional reactions to their world. Children respond to the stories because unconsciously they feel grateful that someone acknowledges their reality, albeit in disguised, symbolic, form.

When the child asks about the story, “Is it true?” they are secretly saying, “Mom, I want you to know that the story is true. You hurt me and make me feel bad about myself, but I can’t tell you.” When the grown up gives their ironic answer by saying “No, this is just a fairy tale,” the secret message to the child is “I understand now what it is that I do, and I’ll do whatever I need to so that I won’t do it anymore.”

Before saying that children should not be exposed to the shocking truth of the murderous rage of the father against the son, Socrates had a hard time accepting the truth of such stories. He said,

“First of all, I said, there was that greatest of all lies, in high places, which the poet told about Uranus, and which was a bad lie too, –I mean what Hesiod says that Uranus did, and how Cronus retaliated on him.”

Before accepting the truth of their own destructive impulses, parents sometimes denigrate fairy stories because they confirm their worst fears about themselves. Denying the reality that we harm our children in big or small ways makes a significant contribution to the problem in the first place. By evading our responsibility, the child ends up believing they are the problem, and this is how they develop shame, or the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. The child comes to believe that if they are being treated poorly by their parents it must be their own fault.

The fairy tales are a way for the the true facts to be introduced to the parent without eliciting this denial and getting the child into trouble. Fairy stories try to make it easy on grown ups by critiquing them without the listener knowing what is going on. In this way, the parent can hear these important lessons about themselves.

For example, the modern story, The Emperor’s New Clothes says to the parents that they are self-absorbed hypocrites, and it is the “child” in the story who reveals this. The story itself symbolizes the process of confronting the parent with their character flaws. The child in the story is the only one who has the guile to reveal the naked truth about the king. Because the story is supposedly about someone fatuous and ridiculous, the parents are not offended. But if they are open to the message, they know the story is about them. Can we grown ups face the truth in these stories? This is the great task, because without it, we will repeat the crimes reported in the tales.

From the earliest times, these stories were told in groups, and adults listened and heard them as well as children. This is still the way it is today. Grown-ups bring their children to see plays like The Lion King, or movies like Coraline. The structure of these fairy tales are barely different than the stories told 5000 years ago. Parents may resonate with them more profoundly than the children, as we have a greater appreciation of the depth of their message. Parents were children once, too, and they had parents, as well. We know the ways we have been wounded by our predecessors and we intuit the ways that we harm our children despite our best intentions.

Here is the message we parents are offered when we enter the world of fairy tales. In a great chain from the beginning of time, you were hurt by your forebears and your society. This has resulted in your having a lost heart. This means that you have not fully realized your universe-given capacities for thinking, feeling, acting, imagining and loving. You are not fully being that which you are meant to be. The result is that you cannot give to your children all that they need to optimally realize these same potentials themselves. In some way, great or small, you are passing down the wounds to the next generation.

The stories then go on to tell us that this does not have to be. You can leave your old ways of being behind. You can liberate yourself from the constrictions imposed on you from without. You can free your capacity for growth become wise, passionate, strong, creative, and loving. You can heal. You can find your heart. The stories tell us that as parents, this is our charge and obligation. The stories demand this of us, because humanity is striving to end this cycle of wounding, shame and self-limitation. In order for the world to survive and thrive, we need to live a life of self-cultivation, where we heal our wounds, liberate our children, and fix a broken world.

The stories provide hope for all children and grown ups who are still spellbound by a giant ogre. The stories tell us that there is a force in the universe which will come to our aid if we show the pluck and courage to fight the demon within.  The stories are revolutionary in this way. The threatening giant may keep the land under a spell for a thousand years but eventually the child in each of us can grow up and save the kingdom. As parents, if  we can free ourselves, then we will not continue the cycle by becoming the tyrant, ourselves.

If parents take responsibility for their own imperfections by sharing the tales with their children, then there can be a relationship based on reality and acceptance. This can help move the child toward self-love and love of others. If parents can take the lessons of the tales to understand their own shortcomings, they can follow the heroic journey presented in the stories, and become King or Queen.  This means becoming a great parent.

When parents share fairy tales with their children, the parent conveys to the child that they accept what the happy ending of the story means. The parent’s main job is to surrender to the great chain of being, and enable their children to become King or Queen themselves. In the end, we need to accept our own death, and give the universe over to our children’s dominion.  Even though, this means, as sometimes happens in the stories, that the parents end up in a vat of boiling oil.

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PinocchioMax BaucusIn a previous post, I was accused of partisanship because I suggested that people were angry at Obama because of emotional wounds they suffered in their lives. In order to dispel the notion that I believe that only conservative Republicans have been damaged by their negative experiences, I offer a psychological interpretation of some of the self-destructive behaviors of our Democratic leaders in Congress, and to a certain extent, President Obama.

My contention is that these politicians are like bad parents. What do I mean? In order for children to realize their inherent potentials, they need parents who will consistently meet their needs. Now meeting a child’s needs does not mean meeting their wants. A child may say, “I only want to eat ice cream! I don’t want the vegetables!” They may scream, “I don’t want to share my toys! He’s going to take everything I have and I won’t have anything!” They may protest, “I don’t want to play with my brother because he is bad!” They may shriek, “I don’t want to go in my room because there is a boogie-man under my bed!” In each of these cases, (now don’t get all metaphorical on me — I never suggested that these are thinly disguised reactions of people to the health care proposals) the parent would not be giving their children what they actually needed if they succumbed to their child’s demand. The child may want to indulge their immature appetites, selfishness, cruelty, or anxious ignorance, but the parent is doing no service to the child by meeting these desires. What the child needs is for the parent to use their maturity and wisdom to make better judgments and set appropriate limits. They must help the child internalize such wisdom, prudence and courage themselves. They must teach the child that though it might seem fun to eat only ice cream, doing the harder thing — like eating a balanced diet and postponing gratification — leads to a better outcome. They must teach that our purpose on this planet is to share because we have the best individual lives when things are best for all. We must teach our children to see others with understanding and compassion and to recognize that under the skin we are all brothers and sisters. We must teach our children to face their fears and see reality as clearly as possible.

Because the world has a lost heart, in many ways the body politic is like a three-year-old. And so we hope that our leaders, while showing love, regard and respect for the mass, can also show it the love required of the good parent for a toddler. Unfortunately, all too often, Democratic politicians fail in this task. Rather than setting limits, and giving us what we really need, they become frightened themselves, and indulge their constituent’s unrealistic demands. The electorate says like a petulant six-year-old, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m not going to like you anymore!” Because we don’t want the kids to get mad, no one dare say there is a limit to what we have, and we must decide like grownups how we are going to pay for, and share, the finite pie. Democrats won’t just come out and say that the fair thing to do is take some money from the rich so that we can end the injustice of people living without basic health care. Democratic politicians all too often say, “Oh! Don’t get mad at me! We’ll do whatever you say whether it is good for the country or not.” When people cry that this country is going to turn into a Nazi, Communist, Socialist state if everyone has health care, instead of telling the children that they must eat their vegetables, share their toys and face the boogie-man, the Democrats start talking about removing the public option. This indulgence makes the kiddies happy for a while, but like Pinocchio teaches us, when we live in a land where every day is Saturday except for Sunday, we end up turning into asses. This is the kind of bad parenting that has prevented us from really tackling the kind of economic and political pickle we find ourselves in today. The only thing worse than the Democrats being bad parents is when the children actually run the show, like when the Republicans are in power –whoops I guess I got a little partisan there.

Now why would Democrats act this way, when clearly it is against everyone’s interest? Because we learn how to be parents through the parenting we receive. Parents who did not get what they needed growing up do not develop the skills required to give their own children what they need to realize their best selves. Many people enter a public arena, in part, because they didn’t get their basic needs for love and attention met when they were young. They are dependent on the adoration of the masses for some sense of inner fullness. Without it, they would face an empty void so terrible that they will do anything to avoid it. Alice Miller taught us that this often happens when parents unconsciously use children to get their own emotional needs met. This reverses the way of nature, where parents are supposed to be there for their children, not the other way around. When this happens the children rule the house. They know that they control the parents, because they recognize that their parents need them for emotional sustenance. Though the children may get what they want in these circumstances, they don’t get what they need to truly mature.

I can only assume that this was the case for all too many politicians. Many people who get used by their parents become highly accomplished, but at their core they are emotionally desperate for an authentic sense of self. This is one manifestation of what it means to have a lost heart. In an attempt to not be abandoned, these people will do anything to keep people loving them, even if it means lying to them, or capitulating to their destructive and unreasonable demands. Then, in a repetition of what happened to the politicians as children, the constituents become like spoiled children, knowing they can get whatever they want out of their leaders. But they end up sad, because they only get what they want in the moment, and not what they really need.

2300 years ago, the Sage Mencius spent his life trying to convince the leaders of China to cultivate themselves because he was certain that this was the key to the happiness of all the people in that country. He stated that if leaders had lost hearts, that is, if our political leaders were not psychologically and emotionally strong and healthy, then everyone would suffer. Our Democratic leaders could benefit from this advice.

Hopefully in the coming weeks our leaders will find it within themselves to stand up to their petulant children, the people of America, and do the right thing. Every parent knows that it may cause immediate protest, but in the long run, everyone is happier.

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Ann Coulter at the Time 100 red carpet.
Image via Wikipedia

Why do people act so stupid? Why do people believe absolute absurdities like the drivel spouted by the likes of Ann Coulter? Why do people believe that Obama is a Nazi? Why do Medicare recipients, who receive medical care through a government program fear health care given through a government program? Are humans that dumb?

Clearly, it is not simply in these areas of politics or public policy that we see humans behaving in ridiculous ways. People act against their self interest all the time. We believe lies and shun the truth. We move towards what is bad for us and avoid the good. We smoke cigarettes, go out with jerks, and invest with Bernie Madoff. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing we learn from experience is that we never learn from experience. What the hell is wrong with us? Are we selfish, evil morons at root? If we were left unchecked, without the threat of Dick Cheney’s punishment, would we all be ravaging each other? The answer is no.

Neuroscience and evolutionary theory are now proving what the wise among of us have understood since humans started trimming their nose hairs. We are essentially good. Historically, people who have believed this were called humanists. Many people use the word humanist as an insult to instill fear. Watch out, they say, there goes a humanist! Isn’t it odd that people would think so badly of folks who believe that human beings are intrinsically good? There’s that stupidity again. As it turns out, the humanists were right. We have everything we need inside of us to be wise, good, and loving.

The truth is, we are built to love. We come out of the womb this way. We all have brains that are meant to continuously grow and develop in order to optimize our ability to think, feel, act and connect. As Allan N. Schore brilliantly demonstrates in his deeply researched work, “Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self,” what we need early in life to get our brains to develop is someone else’s optimal brain. We become what we are meant to be through relationship. That means we need an optimally loving mom. Moms regulate the growth of their baby’s brains and nervous systems. If mom is in a good mood, she’s pumping luscious levels of happy brain chemicals through her own brain. When baby sees mommy’s happy mood, baby starts squirting happy brain chemicals in its own brain. When the baby’s brain gets showered with this yummy chemical soup, the brain grows. It grows the stuff inside of it that we need to be smart and good. When the baby looks at mom and mom looks at the baby with love, the baby gets high. The baby wants more of the good feeling and so becomes very attached to mom, because mom is the source of those good feelings. The baby’s ability to form this attachment bond with mom becomes the template for the baby to form attachments throughout life. Babies are predisposed to attach; that is, they are predisposed to love. When they get the right kind of love from mom, they become loving.

Now if Mom is not happy, and baby doesn’t get those loving gazes from mommy or anyone else, then the baby’s brain makes nasty neurochemicals. The baby gets stressed. Instead of growing neurons, neurons die. Instead of developing the ability over the course of time to be wise, motivated, courageous, self-confident and compassionate, we become dumb, bored, frightened, self-loathing and self-centered. People who are smart enough to realize that there is no threat of death panels were simply happier babies!

Now why wouldn’t mom give her baby everything that child needed? Why wouldn’t she be happy?  Well, moms and dads who don’t parent in the best way do so because they didn’t get what they needed when they were young and so they didn’t grow the ultimate brain connections when they were growing up. As a result they can’t give their kids what they need. Wounded parents make wounded kids.

We find the same kinds of problems in people who have been traumatized as those who didn’t get the proper nurturing as infants.  Adults who live through wars and other catastrophes can end up screwed up. As Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s authorities on trauma, noted in his classic, “Traumatic Stress,” the earlier and more ongoing the trauma, especially if abuse came from a loved one, the worse we get messed up and the less we grow in our natural capacities for learning, growth, emotional development, and love. So science shows us that whether you had a mom who wasn’t there for you in the right ways when you were a baby, or you went through some really bad stuff in your life, you have a much stronger likelihood of being cognitively and emotionally dumb.

Now some of you might say that you had a good childhood, you had a nice mom and you were never traumatized. But you still do really stupid things all the time. How could that be? I see this all the time in my psychotherapy practice. People who seem to have grown up in at least average households end up with a great deal of the same kinds of emotional suffering and problems that I see in those clients who went through obvious trauma or neglect. Some of this is because certain people are genetically predisposed to certain brain problems. But genes are never expressed in a vacuum. As Robert Sopolsky, a noted researcher on stress pointed out, human behavior is always a consequence of the interaction between genes and environment. I got a clue for the explanation for the mysterious reality of dumb behavior when I read about an experiment done in the late 1960’s by a guy named Goddard. He gave rats repeated low level electrical impulses into their brains. No single stimulation was strong enough to promote an obvious effect, but over time these impulses appeared to build on themselves and eventually the rats started having epileptic seizures as if they were receiving massive doses of electrical stimulation. After a while, the rats no longer needed any external stimulation and their seizures continued unabated. The researchers named this the “kindling effect.” By lighting a bunch of little sticks, eventually this would ignite the big log, and lead to a roaring fire. I believe the same thing happens psychologically. When we go through enough repeated, low level emotional wounds, we get what I call critical mass trauma or the rain-barrel effect. This is just like the kindling phenomenon. Enough small wounds build on themselves and eventually result in the same kinds of brain effects and dysfunction that we find with significantly poor attachment experiences in infancy or in trauma. In this way, many people who did not go through what could be considered really bad stuff can still end up with bad symptoms.

So how does this lead to people thinking that Obama is a nazi? When we are hurt in these ways we live in a chronic condition of anxiety or fear. Our ability to take in new information narrows. We tend to see things in the same way we’ve always seen them. We have a hard time trusting. We narrow our vision and only see the things that conform to our expectations. When we encounter something new and hopeful, instead of feeing good, we feel suspicious and frightened. We have a limited capacity for positive emotions and for tolerating and recovering from bad feelings, so we want to keep a tight control on what we feel. We fear that if we allow ourselves to hope too much we won’t be able to handle either the excitement of that feeling or the disappointment if things don’t work out. We don’t see our lives and the world as places where we can make mistakes, and grow and learn from them. If someone in the media frightens us by using bugaboos like humanism, socialism or Nazism, it triggers those parts of the brain that have been hurt, and like a reptile we want to go hide under a rock.

The name that I give to what happens to us when we suffer the consequences of these emotional wounds  is having a lost heart. People who believe bullshit simply have lost hearts. They have been hurt in their lives, and so do not have the ability to distinguish truth from lies. In fact, they prefer bullshit, especially if it promises relief from their suffering without effort. One reason Ann Coulter works is because she makes it simple. It’s all the other asshole’s fault!

Does this mean that we are hopeless? Are we are all destined to live lives far beneath our potential because of the millions of tiny wounds we all suffer in this wounded world? Is there no possibility of reaching the dumb, hateful and selfish? No. Just as the brain formed in the first place through relationship, it is always in a process of self-creation. The brain is plastic, that is, it continues to grow, through relationship throughout our whole lives. We have the ability to work on ourselves, and give ourselves what we need so that we can free the brain’s natural ability to develop toward its highest functioning. The great Chinese Sage, Mencius, called this self-cultivation. He said, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” What this means is that if we work on ourselves, and give ourselves what we need, we can realize the potentials that nature has given to us.

In order for us to have the happiest lives, to raise good and happy children, and to fix a broken world, we all need to recognize the ways that we have lost contact with our essence and commit ourselves to doing everything we can to finding our hearts again. Maybe if enough of us do this, we won’t be so damn dumb. If we uncover the natural potential for smarts in enough people, maybe the lost-hearted media will stop giving so much space to idiots like Coulter, Limbaugh and Palin, and instead give space to those people who are the only ones considered worse than the socialists: the humanists. Now that would be wise.

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