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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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.

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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The traditional Chinese character for love (愛)...
Image via Wikipedia

Where does love come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Nazi communistObama claims to want to help Americans by improving health care. He states that he wants to create a system where health care would be available to the 50 million people in this country who don’t have it, and reduce costs for the rest of us. He says that he wants to insure the long term viability of Medicare and Medicaid. He wants to provide more preventative care so that we live healthier, longer lives, reducing the need to manage debilitating diseases like diabetes. He makes the case that all of this would improve our long-term economic outlook. Now what could be wrong with all of that? Well, then, why has he provoked such anger with this plan?

I believe the most significant reason is a strange phenomenon that I have recognized through doing couple’s counseling, which I call “couple trap number two.” Here is how it works. One of the partners has a long standing need that has gone unmet. Let’s say the wife wants her husband to say “I love you.” For years, she has railed in pain and frustration about how he never says those words. Utilizing my techniques, the husband finally softens, and says the magic words, “I love you.” Now we would expect that the wife, having finally gotten what she wanted, would be grateful, thrilled, excited. Oh, no. As soon as he speaks, I start counting backwards from 10. By the time I get to 7, almost without fail, the wife gets furious. She says, “You didn’t say it the right way! You didn’t mean it! You’ll never say it again!” and the like. The husband gets angry and says, “You think I’ll ever say that again? You’ve got another thing coming!” It is as if I tipped a see-saw out of balance, and within a few seconds everything goes right back to where it had begun. The status quo is reestablished. The wife returns to complaining, the husband to withholding. Why do people get mad when they finally get what they want?

When we are emotionally hurt enough times, we not only learn that we shouldn’t trust the world, but we also come to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with ourselves. The feeling that goes along with this belief is shame. This feeling and belief may be so pervasive that we are barely aware of it.

Let’s say we are a child and have an alcoholic father who treats us cruelly when he gets drunk. We know we can’t fight him, and so we simply hide the terrible humiliation we feel. This humiliation festers within us. This results in us feeling like there must be something wrong with us. That is why Dad treats us so bad.

Finally, after 8 years, mom gets rid of this guy and marries someone who is sober and really nice. This new guy wants to do good things for us. He makes big promises. The promise of getting what we want brings up not having had our needs met in the past. All the buried anger that we have kept inside comes bubbling up to the surface. We feel the kindling of hope within that we are finally going to be treated well and get what we need. This hope brings up fear. If we allow ourselves to want, we risk being disappointed again. We must reject this hope and tell ourselves it is all a lie. It will never come true! Our dad always made promises he never kept. Why would it be different now? We get angry at ourselves for being such a fool.  Since we have become convinced that we are bad, we know that we don’t deserve good treatment anyway. When someone offers us something positive, we can’t take it in, because it doesn’t conform to our negative view of ourselves. Why would Obama really want to do anything good for me? It’s all a sham! Irrespective of the treatment we may have received from our cruel father, we are also loyal to him. To accept this new, loving treatment is also to betray our rotten father. Out of loyalty, we would rather suffer than change.

So, when we are presented with a man who is offering us a positive change that will improve our lives, instead of responding with joy, many of us respond with fear and anger. Underneath that fear and anger is shame. This means that all too many of us have been continuously hurt and disappointed both in our personal lives and in our political lives. Seeing the possibility of good makes us feel things we would rather bury: our humiliations, our hurt, and our disappointment. Rather than feel those things we reject in anger. Since on a deep level all too many of us loath ourselves, we would rather destroy ourselves with obesity than accept the help that Obama’s new plan would provide. We find all the good reasons in the world why it just won’t work. When we have been so badly hurt in the past, our reaction to something good is to reject it. When people get angry at Obama, it is like the old story of the tiger who has been beaten in the circus. When the poor animal was finally offered food and kindness he attacked the giver.

If we want to gain people’s trust when they have been so wounded and feel so badly about themselves, like the tiger, we must approach them very gingerly. Until they can heal their shame their likely reaction will be to snap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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