The Unifying Thread

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

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

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

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

Part One: Life With a Lost Heart

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

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

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

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

“Much!” the voice answers.

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

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

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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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PinocchioMax BaucusIn a previous post, I was accused of partisanship because I suggested that people were angry at Obama because of emotional wounds they suffered in their lives. In order to dispel the notion that I believe that only conservative Republicans have been damaged by their negative experiences, I offer a psychological interpretation of some of the self-destructive behaviors of our Democratic leaders in Congress, and to a certain extent, President Obama.

My contention is that these politicians are like bad parents. What do I mean? In order for children to realize their inherent potentials, they need parents who will consistently meet their needs. Now meeting a child’s needs does not mean meeting their wants. A child may say, “I only want to eat ice cream! I don’t want the vegetables!” They may scream, “I don’t want to share my toys! He’s going to take everything I have and I won’t have anything!” They may protest, “I don’t want to play with my brother because he is bad!” They may shriek, “I don’t want to go in my room because there is a boogie-man under my bed!” In each of these cases, (now don’t get all metaphorical on me — I never suggested that these are thinly disguised reactions of people to the health care proposals) the parent would not be giving their children what they actually needed if they succumbed to their child’s demand. The child may want to indulge their immature appetites, selfishness, cruelty, or anxious ignorance, but the parent is doing no service to the child by meeting these desires. What the child needs is for the parent to use their maturity and wisdom to make better judgments and set appropriate limits. They must help the child internalize such wisdom, prudence and courage themselves. They must teach the child that though it might seem fun to eat only ice cream, doing the harder thing — like eating a balanced diet and postponing gratification — leads to a better outcome. They must teach that our purpose on this planet is to share because we have the best individual lives when things are best for all. We must teach our children to see others with understanding and compassion and to recognize that under the skin we are all brothers and sisters. We must teach our children to face their fears and see reality as clearly as possible.

Because the world has a lost heart, in many ways the body politic is like a three-year-old. And so we hope that our leaders, while showing love, regard and respect for the mass, can also show it the love required of the good parent for a toddler. Unfortunately, all too often, Democratic politicians fail in this task. Rather than setting limits, and giving us what we really need, they become frightened themselves, and indulge their constituent’s unrealistic demands. The electorate says like a petulant six-year-old, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m not going to like you anymore!” Because we don’t want the kids to get mad, no one dare say there is a limit to what we have, and we must decide like grownups how we are going to pay for, and share, the finite pie. Democrats won’t just come out and say that the fair thing to do is take some money from the rich so that we can end the injustice of people living without basic health care. Democratic politicians all too often say, “Oh! Don’t get mad at me! We’ll do whatever you say whether it is good for the country or not.” When people cry that this country is going to turn into a Nazi, Communist, Socialist state if everyone has health care, instead of telling the children that they must eat their vegetables, share their toys and face the boogie-man, the Democrats start talking about removing the public option. This indulgence makes the kiddies happy for a while, but like Pinocchio teaches us, when we live in a land where every day is Saturday except for Sunday, we end up turning into asses. This is the kind of bad parenting that has prevented us from really tackling the kind of economic and political pickle we find ourselves in today. The only thing worse than the Democrats being bad parents is when the children actually run the show, like when the Republicans are in power –whoops I guess I got a little partisan there.

Now why would Democrats act this way, when clearly it is against everyone’s interest? Because we learn how to be parents through the parenting we receive. Parents who did not get what they needed growing up do not develop the skills required to give their own children what they need to realize their best selves. Many people enter a public arena, in part, because they didn’t get their basic needs for love and attention met when they were young. They are dependent on the adoration of the masses for some sense of inner fullness. Without it, they would face an empty void so terrible that they will do anything to avoid it. Alice Miller taught us that this often happens when parents unconsciously use children to get their own emotional needs met. This reverses the way of nature, where parents are supposed to be there for their children, not the other way around. When this happens the children rule the house. They know that they control the parents, because they recognize that their parents need them for emotional sustenance. Though the children may get what they want in these circumstances, they don’t get what they need to truly mature.

I can only assume that this was the case for all too many politicians. Many people who get used by their parents become highly accomplished, but at their core they are emotionally desperate for an authentic sense of self. This is one manifestation of what it means to have a lost heart. In an attempt to not be abandoned, these people will do anything to keep people loving them, even if it means lying to them, or capitulating to their destructive and unreasonable demands. Then, in a repetition of what happened to the politicians as children, the constituents become like spoiled children, knowing they can get whatever they want out of their leaders. But they end up sad, because they only get what they want in the moment, and not what they really need.

2300 years ago, the Sage Mencius spent his life trying to convince the leaders of China to cultivate themselves because he was certain that this was the key to the happiness of all the people in that country. He stated that if leaders had lost hearts, that is, if our political leaders were not psychologically and emotionally strong and healthy, then everyone would suffer. Our Democratic leaders could benefit from this advice.

Hopefully in the coming weeks our leaders will find it within themselves to stand up to their petulant children, the people of America, and do the right thing. Every parent knows that it may cause immediate protest, but in the long run, everyone is happier.

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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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FTLH cover picture

If you’d like to read an excerpt from my book,

Finding the Lost Heart: A New Path to Growth, Love and Wisdom,

please click on one of the links below.

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PDF excerpt from Finding the Lost Heart.

Word excerpt from Finding the Lost Heart.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902
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I stared into my paella. I felt myself swirling around, just one more piece of sausage in a chaotic stew. My friend Abby was jabbering about how, at the ripe old age of 23, she had just published a novel. She’d blown into New York less than a year before and was already one fourth of the town’s most notorious performance quartet. She tossed back her beet red hair and laughed, but I didn’t think much of anything was funny. Laurie, on the other hand, looked worse than I felt. She lay unconscious, her head sprawled on the white tablecloth, deep in a migraine.

This is some way to celebrate my 37th birthday, I thought. Clearly, my best days were behind me. My drawer was filled with rejection letters from every record label in America for the singing group I was producing. I had just failed in resurrecting my fourteen-year marriage, which I had screwed up over the previous few years with a string of infidelities.

I was relegated to composing jingles for toy commercials. Now that was something to have engraved on my tombstone: brainwashed small children into buying plastic for a living.

My hair was just about done with the tortuously painful process of falling out. I had been the “wunderkind,” the “child prodigy” once, but now I was just Uncle Glenn, smiling at my young friends’ successes, but grimacing underneath. I felt like J. Alfred Prufrock from the poem by T. S. Eliot:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)

I looked up from my paella. I looked at Laurie: her mouth was open and she looked rather green. In her normal, lucid moments, Laurie bore an uncanny resemblance to my mother when she had been in her twenties. I was sure she was a reincarnation. Looking at her reminded me that I was an orphan, without connection to a single family member, as both of my parents had died and I had lost contact with the few other family members I had. I recalled a song lyric I had written:

All the love that’s gone forever
I don’t understand
how it slipped through my hands

“I’m lost,” I mumbled to my friends. “What should I do?”

Laurie opened her eyes, raised her head and said, “Go to Ellis Island.”

The next day, on a crisp October New York morning, under a cloudless sky the color of sapphires against gold and ruby leaves, I went down to the seaport, bought a ticket, and walked on the boat that swung past the Statue of Liberty on its way to Ellis Island.

At sixteen, without a dime in his pocket, my grandfather, a Russian Jew, had come to America through Ellis Island, the port of embarkation for many immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s. Nearly a century later, as the ferry sailed through New York Harbor, I imagined I saw Manhattan as my grandfather had seen it the day he arrived in America.

I leaned against the ship. Children, with the sun gleaming on their faces, played and screamed noisily around me but they seemed as remote from me as my own innocent past. Something gave way deep inside. I could no longer defend against my feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and grief for all the love I had lost and destroyed. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The front that I was strong, in control, powerful and all put together came crashing down. I plummeted into emptiness, suddenly facing a void.

Landing on Ellis Island, I walked through the halls where countless immigrants had made their way into this country. As I heard old folk songs my mother had sung to me as a child, old feelings half-buried in the rubble of my life began to stir.

Reaching the sea wall, I read the names inscribed there, of all the travelers who had passed through this door into freedom. I found my grandfather’s name: Chaim Pollack. Wiping back tears, I looked up into the heavens and asked, “Grandfather, what should I do?”

As though the voice spoke from the center of my being, the answer came — one that Jewish elders have been giving since the beginning of time:

“Devote your life to study, and tikkun, fixing the broken world.”

How could I, a flawed man who had hurt so many, help to heal the world? How could I devote my life to study? I had bills to pay, clothes to buy, places to go, people to meet.

Again I heard my grandfather’s voice: “I traveled across the sea knowing full well that I would never reap the rewards of my journey. I knew that I would not enter the Promised Land. But I came for you, for the promise of my grandchildren. My hope lay in you. If I gave up my home, and made my way around the world to start a new life, I am certain you can find the time, the money, and the way to do what I have commanded you to do.”

I knew that I wanted to change. Was I finally ready? As the Talmud said,
If not now, when?

Humbled, I left the island.

When I returned to New York, everything was transformed. The city of dreams glowed with the primal vibration of life. Everywhere I looked, I saw meaning and beauty. My senses were all amplified and enriched. I felt love for all that I saw. I felt my grandfather’s inspiring hand gently on my back, whispering in my ear that it was time to fulfill my destiny — I could do it.

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