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.

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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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…)

Listen to this inspiring story of bad turning to good, that I heard on NPR from the StoryCorps project.

Going From Ex-Con To Lifesaver.

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…)

chi imageIn order to accomplish our life goals we need self-confidence. What is self-confidence, where does it come from, and how do we cultivate it?

Mencius, my favorite Chinese Sage, believed that confidence comes from “ch’i,” the universal source of energy. This power that moves through us has many names — eros, elan vital, libido, kundalini.

The brilliant philosopher, Paul Tillich, called self-confidence “the courage to be.” Possessing this courage means being your authentic self in the face of any danger.

Tillich believed that if we lack such confidence it means we are distanced from our essential nature. Mencius believed this, too. His name for our essential nature was heart. This definition of heart as our essential nature has been found around the world throughout history. In one example, St. Augustine said, “The heart is where I am whatever I am.” Mencius said, “pity the man who has lost his heart and does not go out and recover it.” He, too, believed our lack of strength came from being distanced from what we actually are.

Mencius said that when we are connected to our hearts, we have “free-flowing ch’i.” This means that when we are our true selves we have the ultimate connection to the endless and powerful supply of energy from the universe. It is when we are in touch with this source that we can do anything we set our minds to.

Having this power and confidence is another aspect of our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. We grow this power and self-confidence through being properly parented. When we get what we need from the world, our brain is pumped with chemicals like dopamine, which fills us with energy and confidence. When we are disappointed in life, our dopamine levels drop and we feel like the air has been taken out of our balloon. Getting sufficient positive reflection growing up is the real Popeye’s spinach. When we do not get enough positive support growing up, we chronically have low supplies of dopamine. This can lead us to feel enervated and insecure. We learn that being who we truly are is no good, and so we hide those essential aspects of ourselves. We come to believe that we are not the glorious beings that we are. We live in shame, which is the opposite of having “free-flowing ch’i,” or self-confidence.  Having problems with energy and confidence are sure signs that we have a lost heart.

With self-confidence, we believe in our value and capacities. We can face any obstacle. We can handle the risks of rejection, failure, and mistake. When we live in shame, we believe we are less than, and incapable.

How do we recover our hearts, develop the courage to be, reconnect with our essential being, and find access to our ch’i?

In the fairy tale, Maid Lena, nothing grows in the center of a farm. This is a symbol for a disconnection from heart and ch’i. When we are disconnected from this source of power, there is something in our center where nothing grows. The youngest son, Esben, lives a life mooning about. He is put down by his brothers. He lives in shame, and has no motivation or confidence. After his brothers fail at the task of figuring out why nothing will grow in the center of the farm, Esben determines that he will find out. When his father tries to dissuade him from going, he says, “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going!” When he gets there, he feels fear, but he keeps his feet on the ground, breathes, and determines to face whatever happens. A horrific storm begins. He sees three demons flying straight at him. He looks the demons right in the eye. As they get closer they turn into three swans. Then, just before they reach him, they transform into three beautiful princesses. One of the princesses promises to marry him if he spends the following year completing three impossible tasks. When he returns to the farm he looks completely different. He is filled with power and beauty. After fulfilling the princess’s wish, they marry and he becomes king.

What does this fairy tale have to tell us about recovering our hearts and finding our self-confidence? First, despite the lack of confidence shown in him by others and his own lack of energy,  he determines to find the source of his problems. No matter how frightened he is about facing his demons, he doesn’t run away. When he does, he discovers that what he had been avoiding actually becomes the source of his inspiration. By going to the empty place and staring down his fears, he becomes transformed. This doesn’t mean that his task is complete. In fact, it means that his work now begins. But he now has enough confidence and power to complete the impossible tasks he is given, and in the end he gets all that he desires.

To find our hearts and cultivate our self-confidence, we need to follow Esben’s path. We need to begin by devoting ourselves to a life-long process of growth. Just like Esben, we must say, “I’m going!” We need to go to the empty place within ourselves no matter how scary that seems. We need to learn how to go within, explore and come to understand ourselves. When we do, what we usually find is that we need to heal the wounds of our childhoods that have resulted in the formation of shame.

We must complete the impossible tasks. This means mastering our present. We need to commit ourselves to self-improvement, learning continuously, immersing ourselves in art, spending time in nature, caring for our bodies. We must practice the discipline to recognize and end our negative thinking.

Central to finding self-confidence is acting impeccably. As Mencius said, every time we do the right thing, we come into greater contact with our ch’i. We must take responsibility for our destructive behavior patterns and  surrender to getting help with our addictions and compulsions. We discover that when we do the right thing, we feel good about ourselves and this is the greatest fuel for the growth of our self-confidence.

In order to grow our confidence, we need to have reciprocal, authentic relationships. Like Esben, simply meeting the princess does not win her. He must work to gain her love. We must learn how to communicate and connect with others in true intimacy. This must include both giving and receiving positive validation. Start telling people you know and love that they are extraordinary and you’ll find your own confidence growing.

Another step in growing our confidence is envisioning a better future. By using the examples of the courageous who have gone before us, we call on them for inspiration and help. We must cultivate an image of ourselves as being that which we desire to be. We need to read stories of heroes like Esben, because when we do we realize that we are potentially kings. To fulfill our nature we simply have to follow the path of the heroes who have gone before.

This plan for self-cultivation which provides us access to the “free-flowing ch’i” which is the core of our self-confidence, is known in Asian philosophy as “the Way,” or the Dao. When we live in accordance with the way every day, we find our hearts. By living according to our core truths, we will grow in self-confidence until we can overcome any obstacle, face any fear, achieve any goal, and find true fulfillment and happiness. As Esben learned, that which we fear turns out to be the source of our power. When we follow the way, transformation is guaranteed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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