parenting


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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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…)

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