imagination


The Unifying Thread

Everyone has problems. People everywhere, and for all time, have been searching for an answer to the great mystery of human folly and self-inflicted suffering. As a psychotherapist, people come to me to provide them with some wisdom, knowledge, expertise and direction on how to find their way out of the darkness and into the light of peace, confidence, success and fulfillment.

In an effort to help myself, my clients, and to do my part in what the Hebrew tradition calls tikkun olam, or fixing the broken world, I have devoted my life to trying to find what Confucius called “the unifying thread” or the psychological theory of everything. Is there a common, underlying, root cause to the unnecessary human pain that plagues us individually and as a society?

After decades of research I have found the answer. The reason for our struggles is that we have a lost heart. In order to understand this defining psychological syndrome and how to fix it, we need to answer four questions: What does it mean to have a lost heart? What is the heart? How did we lose the heart in the first place? And most importantly, how do we find the heart again?

In the next several posts I will answer these questions. In this post  we begin with the first:

Part One: Life With a Lost Heart

We know we have a lost heart when we find ourselves suffering with problems that we cannot solve. We might wake in the middle of the night gripped with terror, or find ourselves smoking pot every day rather than achieving our aims. Maybe we eat too much or do not know the purpose of our lives. Perhaps we can’t get out of bed in the morning or we are lonely and can’t seem to forge loving relationships. We may face a reversal of fortune; a setback in our lives. Our partner asks for a divorce or we’re stuck in work we hate. Where once we found success we now fail.

Whatever the symptom, we may avoid the reality of our situation for a long time. We wander in a somnolent state, as if lost in a dream, stumbling in confusion. Sometimes we make excuses and play the victim, finding the cause of our distress in others. This is the most dangerous phase of the crisis: we don’t yet know the trouble we are in and what we are to face when we try to escape our difficulties.

Whether we suffer a vague sense of dissatisfaction or a total anguish of being—we ignore these signs at our peril. The bells ring. We hear the clanking of chains. The sound gets closer and closer. Despite the danger foretold when things go wrong in our lives, we try to minimize the experience, saying the problem will pass, or it’s just a matter of luck or chance. Yet even as we deny impending doom, the ghost of dreadful consequence looms before us, demanding our attention. The universe, working its mysterious ways, always finds the means to awaken us to our lost condition. Until we recognize that the maze we find ourselves in is a call to confront the truth of our lives, living will continue to bring us pain.

“What do you want with me?” we ask when the ghost enters our room.

“Much!” the voice answers.

When first we confront such conundrums in our lives, we usually discover that the answers are not easily found. Opening our eyes from slumber, our vision remains obscured by sleep. We find ourselves caught in magical binds, ensnared in seemingly insoluble dilemmas.  Trapped in depression, lost without love, riven by anxiety, we want to know why we are being tormented by the universe but we can find no apparent cause. Our mind’s limitations stop us from fully grasping the true nature of our condition. Nothing makes sense. We are bewildered.

The code of life’s problems is inscrutable. What is the secret message they are trying to reveal? (more…)

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Fortitudo, by Sandro Botticelli
Image via Wikipedia

As I have said, in order to solve our life problems and find true fulfillment, we must find our hearts. What is the life we will have when we find our hearts?

Every human heart has the capacity to know the laws of nature, and by living in accord with them, we can achieve our life’s purpose.  We can know universal nature if we understand human nature. By understanding ourselves we can live in harmony with the laws of the universe.

When we embody our hearts, we live out our human nature. This means that we continuously  strive to develop our human potentials. Our potentials are for thinking, feeling, acting, imagining and connecting. Another way of saying this is that the blueprint for the mighty oak tree is written in the acorn. We, too, enter the world with a blueprint for what we are meant to become. If we grow toward realizing our virtues, –what Plato would call our arete and Confucius would call jen — we live out this plan, fulfill our human nature, and embody the heart. This process is the meaning of human nature, and this is what nature intends for us. To continuously grow toward becoming wise, which is the virtue of thinking; passionate, which is the virtue of feeling; strong, which is the virtue of action; creative, which is the virtue of imagination; and loving, which is the virtue of connection; is to have our heart.

The lodestar of existence comes from within, from the heart. By accessing our essential self, which is found in the heart, we can know and live the good in our lives. From this perspective, to have our heart means having a connection to our essential capacity and taste for goodness. Mencius said that just as the eye knows the beautiful and the tongue knows the delicious, the heart is the sense that knows the good. The good is beautiful to the heart. When we develop our capacity for thinking, this brings us in touch with our hearts and we find wisdom. As Paul Tillich put it, “wisdom . . . is the universal knowledge of the good.” When we live in accordance with this innate knowledge of ideal goodness, we are able to be truly fulfilled. (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…)

StAugustineHow do we change?

Change takes one tiny step, but to take that one step can require a journey of a thousand miles.

So many of us can dream of the life we want to have and the person we want to be. It can be especially frustrating when we get to the stage in our adventure where we acknowledge our problems and have agreed to do the hard work of self-cultivation and still find change slow in coming. Despite our efforts, which may include years of therapy, we may still suffer from shame and self-denigration. Perhaps we still feel socially anxious, can’t find a lover, procrastinate or binge eat. For those of us who experience unremitting emotional suffering, being told to have patience provides small solace.

The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, which is so popular because it makes change sound easy and simple, tells us that if we just imagine something it will come to us. Unfortunately, what we discover when we try to implement this program is that though this is a necessary condition for change, it is not sufficient. We do need to imagine a better life, but sometimes we find it impossible to truly believe the vision. The Work of Byron Katie provides us with the wisdom that if we believe our thoughts we will suffer. Her solution, then, is to question, and modify, our thoughts. This too, is good and true, but all too often we find that our thoughts grip us with such a rigid tenacity that they won’t let us go.

The truth is, change is hard.

We find the archetypal story of the longing for transformation in St. Augustine’s Confessions. St. Augustine was a pagan who felt compelled to drink and screw around. He was exposed to Christianity, and understood the value of the virtuous life that Christ represented. But he also knew that if he took on the behaviors that he knew were good, he would be a hypocrite, because they were not congruent with where he was in his heart. He knew that if we was to change his behavior it had to come from the true center of his being. He would have to discover this good person within, so that he wouldn’t want to behave in the ways that he knew were wrong. If he stopped himself from those behaviors by forcing himself to, it wouldn’t be authentic, and it wouldn’t work. His book is his struggle to figure out how to truly transform.

At the key moment in this story,  St. Augustine’s struggles and suffering reach an unbearable point. He is overtaken with shame. He fights an inner battle between two aspects of himself. One part wants him to continue his self-destructive behaviors. These parts do not want to surrender their power over him. These parts  want him to stay as he is and do the things that, though they provide momentary relief, keep him miserable. On the other side he hears the voice that entreat him to a better way. These parts hold little sway. Unable to tolerate this struggle, and the pain of his existence, he finally  surrenders utterly. He throws himself under a fig tree and allows his tears to flow. He cries in a profoundly deep way. The measure of the length and depth of his struggle to change is felt when he asks God, “How long?” How many of us have asked this question about our own suffering?

At this moment Augustine hears a young boy chanting from a house near by, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He had never heard this particular chant. Believing that he is receiving the direction of an oracle, he determines to follow the direction of the boy. He opens the gospel to any random page and reads what he finds there. In the instant that he reads the passage, his suffering falls away. He is absolutely transformed.

What happened to Augustine in that instance and what can it tell us about the essence of transformation? Augustine’s story has many of the classic elements of the process that leads to transformation. These include a long period of struggle with no success, an inner battle that has no solution, total emotional surrender, a connection with a mythic symbol like the tree, the voice of an oracle that provides direction, a connection with a text of the heart, and total transformation in an instant.

But isn’t this just a 1500-year-old myth? How can this apply to our life today? Though aeons have passed since this moment, something similar happened to an acquaintance recently. He wrote me about the experience. Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.

“This spring, I had an experience which I would like to describe here, if you don’t mind. One day, I went to a museum. I went alone, and I was generally having a good time. At one point, however, I was overcome by some extremely strong (and possibly long-suppressed) feelings of anger. These feelings could have been directed at people who have harmed or betrayed me in the past, or at myself; I was not sure. In any case, my anger was not directed at anyone in the museum! Nonetheless, I had been feeling such upwells of anger quite regularly at that time. And the anger I felt in the museum that afternoon was potentially explosive, and I needed to confront it–although I did not want to act on it, and I certainly did not want to unload it onto anyone around me! So I stepped aside and let myself consciously experience these explosive feelings of anger. All of a sudden, the words “I hate you” entered my mind and–silently–passed my lips. These words, like the feelings, could have been directed either towards tormentors from my past, or towards myself; I did not know. As soon as I acknowledged those three words, a large amount of my anger quite literally melted away. I could actually, PHYSICALLY, feel much of my anger melting away. After that happened, I felt much more relaxed, peaceful and calm. I was astonished. It was an unbelieveable experience, quite visceral and soul-cleansing. Before that night, I had been feeling physically stiff and blocked in some parts of my body, especially around the middle region of my back–it was as if all the cells in that part of my body had been tightly crammed and jammed together; after experiencing, acknowledging and (silently) articulating my anger, I began to feel like many of those “crammed and jammed” cells were suddenly being set loose (although still connected to one another) and were allowed to breathe again. I suppose that this is one of the more physiological consequences of successfully confronting anger and other extreme emotions resulting from traumatic experiences. I still feel some blockages, but they are nowhere nearly as great or as powerful as they once were. Since then, I have been experiencing fewer upwells of anger, and these upwells are nowhere nearly as intense as they once were. Even so, I continue to confront them whenever necessary. In any case, this experience confirmed one thing which I already knew: There is a major difference between experiencing a feeling and acting on a feeling! I would very much like to know your thoughts on all that I have described here. I’d be grateful for anything you have to say on this matter.”

What had happened to this person in this situation that was so like what Augustine experienced? Very often, what causes us suffering is not our emotions themselves, but our struggle against our feelings. One way that so many of us have been chronically hurt as children is that we are taught that our emotions are unacceptable. We then experience our emotions as bad things, not to be felt. We learn how to get rid of our emotions when they come up, either by suppressing them or acting them out. These unlived emotions transmute into shame. Rather than feel our anger and sadness about what was done to us, we blame ourselves and see ourselves in a negative light.

We may not only learn that our negative feelings are bad. We may also learn that we shouldn’t have our excitement. Then, if we are excited around people, we feel shame. We want to hide this feeling. We experience the danger of the exposure of these feelings as anxiety. This anxiety is correlated with all kinds of distorted thinking. We assume we will be judged and hated for who we are and what we feel, as we project our self-loathing onto others. Wanting to avoid our emotions and listening to the voice of shame, we act out compulsively, with drugs, drink, food. Just like with St. Augustine, an inner battle goes on between parts of the self. One side shames us for our behaviors, the other side agrees, but says we’ll deal with it tomorrow. And so it goes on.  In this way our unfelt emotions lead to the symptoms of our life.  Often we are not aware of the deep suppression of feeling that is under our compulsive behaviors. We are just aware of the suffering the behaviors cause. If we simply did not avoid these feelings we wouldn’t need our destructive behaviors, and we wouldn’t have the problems that plague us.

We want the suffering to end, but we won’t do the thing that will bring us eventually to the place of transformation. We will not feel the core emotions that are underneath our anxious, depressed, misery. How do we do this? The first part of the journey is the realization that we must search for an answer. This may require a long period of being lost in the woods. During this time we come to an experienced realization of where we are in the moment. We need to journey within as St. Augustine and my friend did. There we discover our early wounds, our patterns in the present that hurt ourselves and others, our underlying shame, our physical and emotional restrictedness and the unresolvable inner arguments that go on within us.

As we come closer to our hearts, we then feel our longing for that which we never got. As the inventor of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, would say, we reach the “hurt child” layer of the personality. This is a time of protest and complaint where we feel our unmet needs acutely. This takes us one step closer to our authentic pain but it is still not enough for transformation.

Finally, when we have traveled along the yellow brick road long enough, we slay the witch. We can no longer hold ourselves together, and we feel all the feelings that we have contained for a lifetime. We experience our pure sadness or anger at having been hurt in the ways that we were. We may not be able to articulate it in that moment, but our longing for getting unconditional love in our childhood turns into grief. This comes with the recognition that we will never get that which we never got. We cannot go back in time, we can never relive our childhoods, we can never get our parents to treat us differently than they did because we will never be two-year-olds again. Once we surrender  this hope and fully grieve our loss, change happens automatically. Once we allow ourselves to feel the totality of our feelings and penetrate to our core of emptiness that which keeps us spellbound magically dissolves. The inner battle ceases to rage. What seemed impossible a moment before become inevitable. All Dorothy needs to do to get home in the Wizard of Oz is click her heels, but it takes her the whole movie to figure that out.

When we grow up being shamed for who we are, including our feelings, we store these wounds in the cells of our bodies. We learn chronic habits of muscular restriction in order not to feel. Our unfelt experience then lives outside of our awareness in our bodies. These traumatic experiences also live in our brains, unprocessed, alive like they are happening presently. Our natural ability to realize the fullness of our potentials remains restricted until we can free our bodies and our minds. When we face what we fear, and reown all of our feelings, we experience a tremendous release. We find access to the lifestream of energy, our ch’i. Just like in Einstein’s formula, E=mc2, there is almost an infinite amount of energy in every atom.  When we free this energy that is bound up in our muscles and psyche, we are wholly changed and we are motivated for a lifetime to accomplish all we want and to become all we want to be. We find an alignment with our own nature, and the nature of the universe.

As the great psychologist, William James discovered in his exploration of the change phenomenon, The Varieties of Religious Experience, an absolute recentering of personality is almost without fail preceded by a time of absolute emotional despair. But by the testimony of endless pilgrims who have made the journey of the heart before us, this suffering itself is reason to hope. If we let ourselves fully go into this feeling, without resistance, change will happen.

We discover in the end  that our very desire for wanting to change, for being something other than what we are, means that we are still stuck in the shame of negative self-judgment. When we free ourselves from the bonds of our emotional wounds we realize we do not need to change. Instead, we simply become what we have always meant to be. We become ourselves. We find the lost heart.

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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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FAIRY TALES AND THE INNER MALEFICENT

nielsen-scheherazadeIn the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, at the party that celebrates the birth of the new princess, an evil witch named Maleficent shows up and ruins the whole event. She puts a curse on the infant that destines her to a painful existence. Who is this nefarious character that makes an appearance in many different guises in endless stories?

The truth is, there is a Maleficent who lives in each of us. All of the explorers of the human condition have recognized that we are not a unity. We are not simply the singular “I” that we imagine ourselves to be. We possess multiple sub-personalities. There have been countless names and descriptions for these inner part-selves and how they work. Freud divided us into three, id, ego and super-ego. John Bradshaw named the “inner-child.”  Jung named these parts complexes and archetypes. Fritz Perls described the relationship between the parts by calling it the topdog/underdog game. Eric Berne, in transactional analysis, named three interacting parts, the parent, the adult, and the child. The purveyors of the object-relations school split what they call internal representations into at least four parts, the good and bad self and the good and bad object. Watkins describes ego-states, a family of coherent sub-personalities that live and compete within us. Historically, it has been known as the cosmic battle between good and evil. In cartoons, we see an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Whatever name we give it, it is apparent that we are a multiplicity within a singularity, we are many within the one. Our search is for that oneness within our many-ness: like our money says, e pluribus unum, within the many, one.

Freud’s profoundly disturbing discovery is that we are not masters in our own house. Strange as it may seem, these part-selves, sub-personalities, or ego-states, though they exist generally outside of our awareness, have a tremendous influence over our thoughts, feelings, imaginings and behaviors. That person that we think of as “I,” who we believe is in control of our lives, is actually oftentimes not in command of what we do. Despite the fact that this has been well known for well over 2500 years, having been described by Plato, we still have a hard time grasping this fact and accepting it. But the truth is told by fairy tales. Maleficent, the troublemaking fairy, lives inside of us. We know this because we set an intention, but all too often don’t live it through. How many times my clients have said, “I know what I want to do and what I should do, why don’t I do it?”

Some fear when they hear that we have hidden personalities that this means we are crazy and have multiple personality disorder. What we now understand is that this syndrome is merely one extreme end of a long continuum. Only the most wounded of us risk such a complete shattering of personality.

The extreme can illuminate what most of us experience in a far more subtle and integrated way. A schizophrenic may hear disembodied voices that tell the person they are worthless and should die. This does not happen for most of us, but all too many of us, when we dig deep within, discover that there are parts of ourselves that undermine our good intentions by telling us we are worthless and that nothing will work out for us anyway.

These parts of ourselves that sometimes can act against our own apparent self-interest are not evil, or necessarily intend harm. Rather, they serve a protective function. The ways that they protect us may be far outdated and no longer help us, but those parts still think they are aiding us. In this sense, there are no irrational acts. If we can understand the motivation behind the act, we can see the rationality in it, even if they are operating out of wholly false premises. For example, whenever one particular client of mine makes any kind of mistake, he punches himself in the head. Now this is what his father did. His father believed that this was the best way to teach his son not to make mistakes. He did not recognize that what he was doing was completely harmful. He thought he was doing the right thing. Now this client does not want to do this to himself, but feels compelled to. This internalized father behaves autonomously, outside of my client’s control, and he continues to do what he believes is the right thing, even though one day it might kill him.

Very often these parts of ourselves are our own unrealized potentials. Hiding our potential selves is one way of describing what it means to have a lost heart. These unrealized potential aspects not only remain in an unmatured state within us, they corrupt, putrefy or distort through a long period of non-acknowledgment, lack of support and lack of conscious use. They become vitiated. They corrupt because they have gone so long uncultivated. That is what makes their influence negative. They may be enraged, and are protective in the sense that they are seeking revenge on our behalf for a lifetime of neglect and hurt.

The tales reveal this as well. In one fairy tale, a fisherman frees a genie from a lamp. The genie says to the fisherman that he will grant him one wish and that is to choose the method of his death. The fisherman says that is not the way the story is supposed to go. Genies are supposed to give those that free them three wishes of anything they would like. The genie says he would have done that had he not been trapped in the lamp for 10,000 years. After being in there so long, he was too enraged to do anything but destroy.

Oftentimes we battle against these inner demons with our conscious will, but we often lose the battle, because the part of us that we fight with is not invested with sufficient energy to win the battle. We identify with the part that fights, but that is not really our source of greatest strength. All too often, the ogre rules the kingdom.

Fairy tales speak to this outer battle which has become an inner battle. It speaks to those undeveloped parts within ourselves that are hurt and afraid. It speaks to all the lost children within us who feel so all alone. It speaks to those children within grown up bodies who don’t want to come out and grow up, because of the fear that the pain will be too overwhelming if they get abandoned again.

180px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_7_(Beatrice)FAIRY TALES INTRODUCE US TO THE WISE ONE WITHIN

There are also parts of us that are wiser and stronger than we are aware of. In order to counter the power of Maleficent, we need to call on these good powers within us.

One of the most significant collections of tales is the ancient book, “The 1001 Nights.” In this cycle, the Sultan is so troubled by being betrayed by his wife that he plans to marry and then kill a new woman each day. Scheherazade comes up with a plan to save the women of this realm, but in order to do so she needs to put herself into the ultimate peril. She herself will marry the Sultan. She convinces him to let her live each day by telling him a different story for each of 1001 nights.  By telling him these tales, the Sultan becomes cured of his condition. He finds his heart, falls in love with Scheherazade, and eliminates his decree to marry and kill a woman a day. The cycle tells us that in this first recorded course of psychotherapy, the cure was fairy tales.

Scheherazade was an extraordinary woman. She had studied the wisdom of the ancients. She had followed the travels of past pilgrims of the heart. She was a fine poet. She had mastered science and philosophy. She was verse in stories and folk tales. In other words, she had lived the life of self-cultivation that is necessary for finding the lost heart. This gave her true courage in the sense that Paul Tillich described in The Courage to Be.  She did not avoid her destiny, even though she risked death. She was willing to risk all for authentic being.

Scheherazade is what Jung would call an anima figure. This is that great source of wisdom and power that lives deep within each of us. If we can get past the limitations imposed on us by our own woundedness, we will find her, and the great riches she offers. She is our Beatrice, our guide out of hell and into paradise. We need this wisdom figure if we are to counter Maleficent. In the tale “The Sparrow with the Slit Tongue,” after the man journeys in a dark forest, he comes upon a garden. In the garden is a beautiful house. In the house is a magical princess. This house in the garden in the center of the wood is our heart. This is the home of the divine within. As The Upanishads tells us, the heart is the home of Atman, the great source of all.

The stories tell us that if we are to overcome impossible obstacles we need supernatural help. In order to access our “inner Scheherazade,” we need to do what she did. We need to live a life of self-cultivation. We must study the world’s wisdom, be creative, become knowledgable, and immerse ourselves in tales. By taking this outer journey of studying the collective wisdom of human kind in its multifarious variations, we call on the power of the magical princess. With her aid we can overcome our shame, and render our demons powerless.

The life of self-cultivation described by the stories combines this outward journey with the inward one. We need to feed ourselves with everything we can from the outside to awaken our inner guide, and then we turn inward and hope for communication. The way to discover the answer to our problems is to enter ourselves the way we enter the story. We look inside, and with patience we wait. If we listen carefully, something eventually bubbles up to the surface. This is the way to find a pathway to our heart. The stories tell us that the inner guide will give us all we need, if we are willing to do the work of finding her. She is the guide to our innermost being, where the world and our nature are one.

To understand ourselves is to understand everything.

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