insight


Many years ago, when I was searching for the answer to life, I thought I’d find it by going to the end of the world. That was the instruction I found in all the stories. You climbed the mountain, found the guy with the long beard, and he’d give you the secret. You’d come down a changed man, everything clear, all the doubts gone. You’d know what to do and how to do it.

So I got on a plane and I flew to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I figured if I was going to go to the end of the Earth, it should be warm and beautiful. After what felt like days on a plane I landed in Tahiti. The thick warm air and the smell of gardenias from the lei that was put around my neck made me nauseous in a swoonish kind of way.

But Tahiti wasn’t going far enough, I knew, if I wanted to meet the guru. I’d read in the Lonely Planet Guide about one of the remotest of the Society Islands. It was referred to as “picturesque,” and promised “quiet and solitude” which I knew meant it had little to recommend it. Just what I was looking for. The island was called Huahine. Even travelling to that postage stamp in space still wasn’t as far as I could go. Apparently, there was a guest house in a small village on the back-end of the island. That was my goal.

I got on a cockroach-infested ship that travelled to the out islands. After a few uncomfortable nights on the boat we got to the island. At the dock I found a bus headed for the village mentioned in my guide book. I was in luck!

The bus sat at the dock most of the day. A few local workers, naturally muscular golden-brown fellows with long, shiny black hair covered in baseball caps and big, toothy smiles sat on the bus, goofing around with each other, drinking beer. No one seemed to be in any kind of hurry and no one could provide information about the bus’s departure. The entire concept of “information” suddenly felt so western and embarrassingly out of place. Hey, who promised that it would be easy to get to the end of the world?

Before the sun started its precipitous plop into the water, the bus finally rumbled off. I asked about the village, and the driver told me it was the last stop. Perfect. After a few hours of adrenaline-pumping hair-pin turns, I remained the only passenger when the bus bumped to a halt. The driver signaled that we were at the end of the road.  Literally.

I got off the bus. Just me and my backpack. The bus turned around and this time didn’t wait. In moments, my only escape was a dusty dot on the horizon. I found myself in a ratty little village, with dilapidated tin huts, the streets riddled with crab holes. It sure was quiet and I sure felt the solitude. I looked around in vain for any sign that signaled a place for a poor pilgrim like myself to stay.

Eventually, a young woman, barefoot, wearing a wrap-around skirt called a pareu and tee-shirt, sauntered up to me with her two small children. She spoke English and asked what I was doing here. I said that I was looking for the guest house. She looked at me with a scolding look as if I had made a terrible mistake.

“No guesthouse here,” she said, shaking her head.

“When does the next bus arrive,” I asked.

“Four days,” she said.

She looked at me, I looked at her. “Is there any place around here I could stay? I’m willing to pay.” In a moment of anxiety, I stuck my hand in my pocket and grabbed my wad of Polynesian Francs just to make sure I did have the money.

With a condescending shrug, she said I could stay in the empty house next to hers. I expressed my gratitude.

The house had a bed and a chair. The toilet housed a dead fish. But it was a place to stay, and there was no doubt about it: I had gotten to the end. Or so I thought.

The woman invited me to share meals with her family. All meals turned out to be the same. Poi. It was perhaps the most putrescent food I have ever eaten. It was a glutinous, snot-like concoction, that should have been coming out of my body instead of going in. Meals were hard, smiling as I forced the spoon into my mouth, making rudimentary conversation with this woman, her husband, and kids.

I suffered my days alone pacing the short beach. I fell into a bone-crushing despair. I had done what I was supposed to do. Now that all of the distractions of modern life had been scrubbed clean, and I entered the emptiness, what I found there really depressed me. What I found was — nothing.

Sunday came, and the family said they were going to Church. I could come, or I could take a row boat out to the motu. They told me that Grandpa lived out there. He liked having visitors on Sunday. Here it was! The wise old man at the end of the world! It hadn’t all been for nothing! He was here! I quickly chose the boat to the motu.

What is a motu, you might ask. Have you seen those cartoons of the guy on the desert island, a circle of sand with a palm tree in the middle? That’s a motu. You couldn’t possibly get more remote than this and still be on the planet Earth. I got it now: the problem had been that I hadn’t gone far enough.

I got into the boat and glided across the lagoon to the speck of sand in the infinite sea. I got out and saw the one hut on the island. I walked to the door. Inside, there was a wizened brown man with white hair and milky-cataract eyes. He had a big smile, and greeted me as if he knew I was coming. He sat in a metal chair. Another chair sat empty, next to him. He patted the seat, signaling me to sit down. He faced a table. On the table was a small television with a built in VCR player. The screen was filled with gray noise.

I sat down and he nodded with anticipation. He smiled and pantomimed, pointing to the TV. I nodded, too, and smiled. He reached over and hit the play button. The video snapped to life. What I saw on the screen were three hula dancers: attractive, smiling Polynesian women with long black hair, garlands of flowers, coconut shell bikini tops, and grass skirts. They moved in unison, waving their arms, with undulating hips.

I looked at the wise old man and he looked at me with a big smile and nodded. Then he nudged me with his elbow, pointed at the screen, and said, “Vahine! Vahine!”

Which loosely translated, means, “check out the babes.”

I could have hailed a cab on Seventh Avenue and for $7.00 gotten this message. But no, I had to spend thousands of dollars, and travel to the butt-end of the universe to receive this wisdom.

For some time I chalked it up as a cosmic joke. But as the years passed, I realized that I got what I was looking for. The old man at the end of the world did give me the secret to life.

If you haven’t gotten it already, here it is. It’s not only about searching and finding, it’s about recognizing it when it is right in front of your shnozzola. I had to go to the end of the world to figure out the secret is available wherever you look. It’s all about how you look. It’s about being passionate about what is, embracing desire, finding the deep beauty, inviting in the stranger and giving away your heart to them. It is about a willingness to share every little thing you want to hold onto. It is about the daily practice of finding harmony and connection, having a giggle together, crossing the endless abyss to recognize each other. It’s about singing, dancing, and kissing the girl. It’s about knowing that the only thing worth traveling around the world for is true love.

Or in Polynesian, vahine.

Visit Shrinky at http://shrinky.net.

My psychotherapy client, David, is 32 years old. If anything, David is neat. His blond hair is closely cropped. He wears a Banana Republic iron-free shirt, pressed pants, and shiny black shoes. This is the uniform of a mid-level guy at a major law firm.

His eyes are wide and confused. “I just don’t get it,” he tells me, “I think I’m doing everything right but my wife, Cindy, tells me she just isn’t getting her needs met.”

I ask him why he hasn’t been able to attend his psychotherapy appointments with me for the last three weeks. He tells me he couldn’t get out of work. Then he stops and says, “I know. I keep saying that time just keeps going on and things are not resolving. I was saying the same thing a year ago.”

I find out that David and Cindy barely see each other from Monday to Friday. They both work 70 hour weeks. Cindy is in finance. She is stressed and anxious. She has trouble sleeping.

“By the time the weekend comes, we’re both exhausted,” he says, “and we don’t want to talk about our issues. Then before we know it we’re back at work again, and another week has passed.”

He fears they are headed for divorce.

After David leaves I see Lucy. Lucy was just rejected by a 47-year-old guy who bounces from relationship to relationship because he can’t seem to find a woman who is “right” for him. Broken hearted, Lucy, at 39, is convinced she will be alone and childless for the remainder of her life.

Then I see Dierdre who complains about how much time Richard spends gaming. Next comes Alex who is upset that Jane never wants to have sex. Paul feels like there must be something wrong with him, because none of his friends answer his emails. Charles tells me that he can’t stop binge drinking and having random hook ups every weekend. He tells me he does this because that’s what everyone in his peer group is doing and he doesn’t want to be alone. Stephanie can’t get a date on Match.com.

The stories go on and on. Certainly, as a therapist working in the city, the sample of people that I encounter is a skewed one. But I wonder, is there a pattern here? Through my lens, it appears that though 500 million people are now members of Facebook, people aren’t connecting.

When researchers talk about relationship problems in the post-industrial world, they usually refer to marriage statistics. And these numbers are painful. More than 50% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The rate of marriage around the world has fallen precipitously and the number of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed.

But these well-known facts only tell part of the story. We have many different kinds of relationships beyond our marital ones. In fact, throughout our whole lives we are inextricably intertwined with others. None of us is, as Paul Simon said, a rock, or an island.

Our life of relationship may be the most important dimension of our lives. Yet, if what I am seeing in my practice is true, and the statistics about marriage and family are any indication, we are facing a connection crisis. Does my sample indicate a larger trend of people feeling increasingly isolated, alienated, lonely, and empty? Statistics bear out this trend. In 1950, less than one in ten people lived alone. Today, fully 25% do.

Where is this connection crisis coming from? None of us knows for sure. But we do know that we are in a period of massive technological and cultural transformation. As a result, many of our institutions are fracturing and this is leading to a great deal of personal dislocation. Though these changes can be painful, the results have both positive and negative aspects. Certainly, much about the old models of relationship needed improvement.

Anybody who is a fan of the hit TV show, “Mad Men” can attest that in many ways things are better for both women and men since the time of that show in the early 1960’s. At that time, men drank and smoked their way to heart attacks and cancer, and women were relegated to roles like secretary and housewife. The notion of an equal, healthy partnership between the sexes had not entered the common consciousness.

The traumatic life stories of all too many of my clients tells us that physical and emotional abuse and neglect were all too common in the child rearing practices of the past. Unfortunately, these practices still continue, but at least we are beginning to expose this behavior as wholly destructive and many, many people are changing their child-rearing approaches to a more positive one.

The transformation in relationships that is occurring as a result of technology is unprecedented and no one knows what the results of these changes will be. On one hand, the new technologies can be a lot of fun. The ability of Facebook to reconnect people who have been out of touch for decades is extraordinary. At the same time, workers are losing downtime to be with their families because of the demands that they remain tethered to their smart phones 24/7.

For all the good that the changes over the last decades has brought about, the connection crisis tells us that they have also created enormous problems that will be with us for many years to come. For example, at least 1 out of every 5 children are living with one parent, which ample research indicates can have lifelong negative effects. Even if children are living with two parents, the economy and parent’s lifestyle choices are keeping many parents of both genders separated from their children more and more.

Out of an awareness of these down-sides and the fear of change itself, many people are reacting to these transformations with a wish to return to the old days and ways. But returning to the past is impossible. Though we know we cannot return to a former time, the connection crisis tells us that what we have now is not the complete answer. We have been throwing over the past without having found something better to replace it with.

Rather than succumbing to hopelessness about the negative consequences to relationships and connection that we are experiencing today, we must look upon this time as one that offers tremendous opportunity. We must envision this as a time when we can advance the cause of human progress toward living in a more loving world.

How are we going to solve our connection crisis?  By improving the way we relate to others, whether it is with close family members or people from the most far-flung lands.

In fact, creating new forms for relationships is the most important task of our time. In order to do this, we need to foster a relationship fitness movement. We need to redefine the meaning and nature of relationship itself and find ways to teach humanity how to have better, deeper, more fulfilling, relationships.

This relationship fitness movement must begin with a positive vision of the world of relationships as we would like to see it and to propose methods for achieving this new vision.

Our times demand that we recreate long standing institutions like the family, marriage, religion, schoo,l and the work place. It is up to us to do what we can to improve upon these institutions, rather than to either throw them over completely or to suffer the effects of living with them in an outmoded form.

Not only will this relationship fitness movement improve our personal lives, but it is the only way that we will be able to truly live in a safe and secure world. We are not going to bring about this safer world through military might, which only serves to divide us more. When we truly learn how to listen to one another, and we ourselves feel heard, we become compassionate. And true safety will emerge in the world when we most fully develop our compassion towards one another.

In order to create this vision, here are some of the questions we need to answer.

What is the present condition of our relationships? How are we being affected by the ways we are relating now? What is the impact of our culture, institutions and the new media on our relationships?

What does it mean to have a good relationship? What skills are necessary to have good relationships? How can these skills be taught? How can we teach these skills to the greatest number of people? How can we recruit our schools, religious institutions, the work place and social media to foster better relationships?

The changes that need to be made do not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The new needs to be informed by the wisdom from the past. More than ever, we need what the Akan people of Africa call a sankofa, a reconnection to ancient truths to ground us in a more promising future. What can we learn from our great cultural heritage to help us become something new?

What all of my clients need – what every one of us needs — is basic to human nature and has been primary for people since the beginning of time. Through changes upon changes certain eternal truths remain. In the end, both for our personal fulfillment and the very survival of the planet, we need to figure out how to move humanity ever closer to the realization of universal love.

If we are to survive and thrive in this new world, we need greater and greater numbers of people to learn how to authentically connect in deeper and more sustaining ways. This idea of a relationship fitness movement hopes to contribute to this end. We can only transform our world of relationships if we start doing it here, ourselves. I am very interested in your ideas of how we can bring these kinds of ideas into reality. Please share your thoughts.

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This week I was interviewed for the second time by Michael Carroll on his quirky, funny, and intelligent alternative radio show, The Mikie Show. Mikie constructs the whole show himself and it sounds wonderful. I think I get to say some good stuff, too. Give it a listen. I hope you enjoy. The Mikie Show Episode 20 featuring Glenn Berger

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Victor Frankl, a profound human being and one of the great existential psychotherapists of the 20th century, was a concentration-camp survivor. An author of dozens of books, his most renowned is Man’s Search for Meaning. He captures the sum of my philosophy and approach to psychotherapy and life in this short video. It is beautiful and worth watching.

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The next quality that is central to the Mencian conception of heart is ch’i. (For those of you who are just joining this conversation, Mencius was a great Chinese Sage who lived and wrote 2300 years ago. Central to his philosophy was the notion of “heart.” See other posts.) Ch’i is the prime energy of the universe. This can be correlated to “the sacred fire” of the Upanishads. The Indians, too, located this energetic source in the heart.

“I know . . . that sacred fire which leads to heaven. Listen. That fire which is the means of attaining the infinite worlds, and is also their foundation, is hidden in the sacred place of the heart.”

Buddhists located their equivalent, prana, a concept they borrowed from the Sanskrit, in the heart, and also saw the unity of heart, energy, and the cosmic reality.  Ch’i has also been named tejas, mana, or by Jung, libido.  It is found in Norse mythology as the mead from the world tree of Ygdrasil.

The Chinese posited two kinds of ch’i, the gross and the subtle. The body was the home of the grosser ch’i and the heart was the home of the subtle ch’i. To cultivate the heart means to cultivate our subtle ch’i. This would not only bear on our moral health, but our physical well being as well.  Mencius unified his concepts in a moral vision, where right living, as determined by heart, resulted in maximum ch’i. Health, wellbeing and courage were related to living in harmony with the dictates of heart, which emerged from its connection to universal nature.

Mencius believed that this general energetic principle of the universe was something that “ran through” humans.  When we achieve an optimal alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, we have the greatest access to this primal energy of the universe. We then possess what Mencius called flood-like ch’i, which is the ultimate energetic capacity.

Mencius himself admitted that explaining flood-like ch’i was difficult. A disciple asked, “May I ask what this flood-like ch’i is?”And he replied,

“It is difficult to explain. This is a ch’i which is, in the highest degree vast and unyielding. Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way. Deprive it of these and it will starve. It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness. Whenever one acts in a way that falls below the standard set in one’s heart, it will starve.”

This means that our energy, mood and motivation, is dependent on our integrity, of acting from our highest moral understanding, which is in our hearts. This places us in alignment with universal forces, which gives us courage. Depression and failure can be likened to a lack of moral attunement. This does not only mean not doing the right thing toward others, but also toward the self. The condition of shame, or treating ourselves from self-hatred instead of self-love, will lead to a diminishment of ch’i.

Through the manifestation of flood-like ch’i we develop the virtue of imperturbability. This means being true to oneself even without external validation.  As Mencius stated it, “Only a gentleman can have a constant heart in spite of a lack of constant means of support.”

When we have imperturbability, our motivation for action must be on rightness, and not dependent on outcome. (more…)

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The heart, as the great Chinese Sage Mencius defines it, is the sense organ that knows the good just as the tongue knows the delicious and the eye the beautiful. The good is beautiful to the heart. Here’s what Mencius said:
” . . . all palates have the same preference in taste; all ears in sound; all eyes in beauty. Should hearts prove to be an exception by possessing nothing in common? What is it, then, that is common to all hearts? Reason and rightness. The sage is simply the man first to discover this common element in the heart. Thus reason and rightness please my heart in the same way as meat pleases my palate.”

What Mencius means is that the heart ‘knows’ what is reasonable and right, the way the eye knows what is physically beautiful. When we embody, or live out, what is reasonable and right, the heart is pleased. Through a devoted practice to being reasonable and right, we find the heart. When this inherent sense is optimally cultivated this ends in the ultimate moral development, which means becoming a Sage.

For Mencius, the heart is the seat of compassion. Mencius describes compassion as the “unbearability of suffering of any creature.” This natural reaction to the suffering of others is Mencius’s primary proof of the inherent goodness of people. The universality of this empathic faculty is captured in his statement, “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others.” He uses as proof the argument that any sentient human would react with horror if they saw a child about to fall into a well. This feeling would occur spontaneously, and not for any extrinsic purpose. He suggests that this natural attribute is the most important aspect of humanness, and is what needs to be cultivated in order for one to achieve jen, or to be truly humane.

(more…)

“Every man has in him that which is exalted,”  Mencius tells us, and that is the heart, the best within the person. The heart is a symbol of our greatest aspirations. As Tang Chun-I, (1880-1978) a contemporary interpreter of Mencius stated, this symbol of heart inspires us to reach “supreme humanity.”  Mencius stated that our moral nature has four essential aspects. The first is ‘the heart of compassion’. This is proved by our natural abhorrence of the suffering of others. Second is ‘the heart of shame,’ which is proved by our disgust at atrocity. ‘The heart of courtesy and modesty’ emerges from our reverence. Finally, the ‘heart of right and wrong,’ emerges from the heart being the sense organ of goodness.  Each of these four aspects has its virtue, or optimal realization of its capacity.

The cultivation of the heart of compassion leads to the realization of benevolence or jen. This notion of jen represents the achievement of our ultimate humanness, or being humane.

The cultivation of the heart of shame, leads to rightness or dutifulness known in Chinese as yi. Our healthy shame leads us to take the right action even when no one is looking.

The heart of courtesy and modesty, when cultivated leads us to have the virtue of decorum or li. This means following the right form of behavior and an observance of rites.

Finally, the heart of right and wrong leads to wisdom or chih.

Though Confucius concerned himself deeply with what was called, li, or external, ritualized form, the felt experience was what was essential for aligning with the ethical value. He tells us that symbolic actions without embodied emotional qualities are meaningless. In this sense, for the outside to have meaning, it had to derive from the inward, the heart. Confucius said, “In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.”  Authentic feeling is our goal, not fulfilling some outer ritual.

In the same way, the virtue, the integral quality of the person, is what is of significance, not some external marker like station, wealth or success. “The Master said, ‘High station filled without indulgent generosity; ceremonies performed without reverence . . . wherewith should I contemplate such ways?’”

For each of these virtues to be authentic, they must emerge, as Augustine also asserted, from the heart. To simply follow the form of jen, yi, li or chih without an intrinsic, natural motivation for doing so, is merely to have the conduct, not the virtue. Authentically embodying these virtues means that we are in harmony with the principles of nature. Living by the dictates and form rather than the intrinsic principle inevitably leads to inner, and outer, conflict.

Without proper cultivation, these incipient capacities can be easily lost. This is tantamount to the loss of our original heart. Since for Mencius these potentials are the defining characteristics of human beings, to not develop them to the utmost is to lose the heart, where heart means essence. To be distanced from our essential nature is to go against the principles of universal nature which inevitably leads to an unfulfilled, unhappy and unsuccessful life.

The extent to which we live out of harmony with universal law or the heavenly mandate is revealed through symptoms both individually and collectively. The laws and principles of nature are not explicated magically, where the result proves the cause, like in the early Old Testament view, promoted by the likes of Pat Robertson even today, who claimed that AIDS and the hurricane and Katrina were examples of God’s retribution against sinners. In this view, any disastrous event proves in some way to be God’s punishment for some unrelated wicked deed. Instead, in the Mencian view, there are natural consequences to living out of harmony with universal law. If we can see the tragic lawfulness behind occurrences, we come to understand principle or the order of the cosmos. Natural law is proven by our inability to escape the consequences of living out of harmony with nature.

Despite the fact that we can lose touch with these aspects of ourselves does not mean that they are destroyed or that they are not natural.   They can be found again. They can be cultivated, which is defined as the act of searching for the heart.  Mencius focused on our own efforts as the path to finding or retaining the heart. To find the heart means accessing the right way to live according to universal principle and human nature, as exemplified by an ideal inspired by a timeless, ancient form. This defined the moral. By pursuing the good, we could find the heart. The way to find the heart was to seek it. As Confucius put it, “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.”

Keeping the original heart is a defining characteristic of the Confucian ideal of the profound person. Mencius says, “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart.”

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