FAIRY TALES AND SHAMEimages-cinderella-g

The true cause of the problems in our lives is revealed in stories like Snow White. When the queen discovers that Snow White is more beautiful than she, she determines that her heart should be cut out. Mothers can be so envious of their daughters that they will do all they can to prevent the child’s beauty from emerging. One client of mine was shocked when her mother tried to undermine her new love relationship by suggesting that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She said, “I can’t believe it, but I’m sure she is jealous!”

In endless stories the child ends up being adopted by a family where they live well beneath their station. In Cat-Skin, the story of the princess whose father wanted to marry her, the young girl escapes into the forest and finds another castle in which to live. She hides her dresses of gold, silver and diamonds in a walnut shell, covers herself in rags and ashes, and lives underneath a staircase as the scullery maid.

What this means is that in order to protect ourselves from the dangers presented by our parents, we develop a pervasive sense of shame. This is the feeling that goes along with the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed about us. We learn to hide our best attributes because they threaten our parents. Instead, we play the scullery maid. That is, we act like we are inadequate. Our screwed-up lives are our way of hiding our true nature.

Our hearts go out to characters like these because we have suffered like her. We live in rags, unrecognized as the princess we actually are.

THE TALES REMIND US OF OUR ESSENCE

Once we live in rags, hiding under the staircase for a long time, we almost forget that there is more to us than our surface appearance. This part of us is so far buried that we may despair of our authentic self ever finding its way to the surface to be realized. Fortunately, the tales remind us that there is more inside of us than we are aware of. We learn from the tales that the forces of nature are stronger than our individual wills. We cannot stop the circular flow of time. The stories tell us that the child can prevail and gives us the way to do so. When we follow the rules of the tales we can transcend our shame, come out of hiding, and become the glorious beings we are meant to be. In the end, the princess takes her dresses out of the walnut shell and lives happily ever after.

The plot of the fairy tale emerges from the struggle to claim our birthright, to become all we are meant to become, to realize our true nature in the face of the dangers we all face. The stories tell us that our goal is to live from the heart despite all the forces that stand in our way.

ADULTS WHO HAVE NOT GROWN UP NEED FAIRY TALES

In many stories the child who has been hurt by his parents lives in hiding for a long time. This is the next painful truth that the tales reveal. Many grown ups have not achieved true adulthood. They have yet to live out the path to dominion that is laid out in the tales. A child will develop their capacities for thinking, feeling, acting and loving which are the mark of true maturity if they are given the proper emotional sustenance in childhood. Our grown-up struggles are the results of the ways that we have been wounded and shamed.  This is part of what it means to have a lost heart.

The messages of fairy tales are for the wounded children that grown ups all too often are. Grown ups need the message of the tales more than any child, because they have yet to go out on adventure and fulfill their destiny. It is not something that is meant to happen in some future time as it is for the child. It is meant to happen now.

FAIRY TALES HELP US TO IMAGINE

Fairy tales help us to cultivate our imaginative faculty. Along with thinking, feeling, acting and connecting, imagining is one of humanity’s five essential potentials. There is no better source for cultivating our imaginations than stories, and no better stories for this task than fairy tales and myths.

When we lose connection to our imaginations, we no longer develop our creativity and moral aspirations. We end up living in our heads. Research now confirms that cogitation without feeling, intuition and creativity does not lead to the best decisions. We do not fully develop our capacity to envision, to see the impossible, which is central to achievement in life. We do not see into the world in depth, and so we lose the ability to fully appreciate our world and ourselves. The world loses its beauty and enchantment. We don’t see the elf or fairy in the forest, we do not trust in the mysterious and half-seen. We have lost spiritual consciousness, the faith in the power of that which we cannot know directly. We lose the humility of recognizing that there are unknown, and perhaps wiser, parts of the self than we know. Without this ability of imagination we do not have the suppleness of sensibility to understand ourselves and the world on a deep and profound level. When we approach the world in a shallow way, we see a shallow self and a shallow world. We end up wanting simple prescriptions for our lives, but this is not the way that life works.

Without the world of symbol embodied in tales, life lacks magic. As Paul Simon said in the song, “My Little Town,”

“All of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back
In My Little Town”

Thus we have become estranged from our inner life and we are left depleted. We are left feeling incomplete. In order to reawaken and cultivate our imaginations, grown ups need to read fairy tales. The way to overcome our stuckness is to engage the forces that connect us to the deepest layers of our being. We must let this deep part of us hear the stories, because it is this part that can hear the truth, and put the answer into practice. This is one way to find the lost heart.

FAIRY TALES HEAL US

Fairy tales should be used by adults the way they have been used traditionally for centuries in Hindu cultures. People who were faced with psychological difficulties were given a folktale to study. Through this meditation the person would come to understand the nature of his or her difficulty, recognizing that the problem is within, and point the way to a solution.

Grown ups need to read fairy tales because, as G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis felt, fairy stories are “spiritual explorations” and hence “the most like life” since they reveal “human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside.”

The stories teach us how to be what we are meant to be, how to fulfill our greatest potentials, in a world that hurts us by stultifying and vitiating our greatness and capacity for love. This is our greatest spiritual challenge, and the one that fairy tales address. It is not a battle against our lowest nature, as the Freudians would have it, but a struggle to realize our highest nature.

Thanks to Bruno Bettelheim for some references. Look for Part Three, soon.

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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.

All feedback is greatly appreciated.

PDF excerpt from Finding the Lost Heart.

Word excerpt from Finding the Lost Heart.

ObamaIn President Obama’s ASU commencement speech on May12, 2009 he said,

“In all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven’t yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one’s title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one’s life has been led – and that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.”

In this statement, Obama achieves the ancient Chinese Sage Mencius‘s definition of the worthy leader. The Confucian project, of which Mencius was the greatest mind, was to cultivate virtuous leaders by teaching them that they needed to work on self-cultivation, on improving themselves, ceaselessly. These philosophers believed that the good of all was dependent on the good of the individual — especially our leaders — and that this required continuous effort and learning.

Obama goes on to encourage every student to use this as their guiding principle in life. Rather than getting caught up in the shallow rewards offered by materialism he inspires them to commit themselves to the harder, nobler path of the new Bhakti Marga, a devotion to the daily work. He goes on to say,

“That is what building a body of work is all about – it’s about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It’s about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star – because one thing I know about a body of work is that it’s never finished. It’s cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation. You may have set-backs, and you may have failures, but you’re not done – not by a longshot.”

The wisest human beings to have graced our planet, from Mencius through Obama carry the same message. Will we listen? It all begins with you. With working on yourself. Are you willing to commit to working on yourself every day for the rest of your life? What are you going to do today to improve yourself? What are you going to do today to make the world a better place?

Jesus on the mainlineOn the website, personallifemedia.com, Brian Johnson’s podcast tells us about the obscure New Thought guru, Wallace D. Wattles. Wattles suggests that in order to be great we need to be able to read the thoughts of god, and we can only do this when we do not feel fearful or anxious.

This parallels the wisdom of the Chinese classic, The Highest Order of Cultivation. This is the text that tells us that in order to live in harmony with the intrinsic order of the universe we have to cultivate  serenity. It is only when we do this that we find our hearts, which means that we live out our potentials for wisdom, passion, strength genius and love. Through finding inner peace, we do our part to bring our relationships, our culture, our politics and the universe into balance.

The only part that Johnson gets wrong is that all we need to eliminate our anxiety and fear is to do something in the moment, like take a bath, or have a run.

If it were that simple, we’d all be enlightened, and Brian and I would be out of a job. To overcome the intrinsic wiring and life-long conditionings that lead us to experience fear and anxiety require a life-long commitment. As Mircea Eliade explains it in his book of the same name, this is the definition of the word yoga (see page 4-5), which is any intensive, ongoing practice that leads to liberation from our conditioned existence.

In all likelihood no one of us will be wholly freed from that which keeps us from that mainline with god. But it is our life task of seeking that brings us, and humanity, ever closer to that goal.

Why Students Don't Like School by Daniel T. WillinghamThe way of devotion, or the bhakti marga, is getting some publicity in The Economic Times from the latest discoveries of neuroscience.  In Daniel T. Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School, published by Jossey Bass, he provides evidence to prove that we grow through practice beyond the point of mastery. We best learn through symbol, story and immersion, processes of the heart, rather than the head.

Whether we are seeking love, sex, money or purpose, the problem is within. When we find our hearts, we can find what we want in life. So in order to get what we want we have to devote ourselves to the daily practice of  self-cultivation. This, the Chinese sage, Mencius, tells us, is the way to find the heart.

This heralds back to the wisdom of Shankara, an 8th century advaita philosopher who deeply influenced the development of Hinduism. In his masterwork, “The Crest Jewel of Freedom,” he said:

Chief among the causes of Freedom is devotion, the intentness of the soul on its own nature. Or devotion may be called intentness on the reality of the Self.

We actualize our potentials through the sacred undertaking of devoting ourselves to the discovery of our heart.

In the end, the purpose of our quest is not to get something. The goal is not some end point, or even some final success. The goal is an immersion in the process itself. The finding is in the seeking. This is what gives us strength, courage and self-confidence.

david_und_goliath_michelangeloIn my work as an ADD coach, I often hear my clients bemoan the fact that what comes easily to others is hard for them. The harsh reality is that they speak the truth. As no one of us can measure the suffering of another or truly compare it to our own, each person deserves the full measure of compassionate understanding. So it is important to my clients that I recognize that this is a painful frustration.

I tell them that naming this difficulty is a good thing, because the first step in overcoming an obstacle is acknowledging it. I then remind my clients of the words of the great Chinese sage, Confucius, who said,

What other men may master in a single try, you yourself must strive to attain with efforts increased a hundredfold;
and what others may master in ten tries, you must strive to attain a thousand times over.
For, one whose efforts reach fruition in the mastery of this path,
be he of limited intellectual capacity, he will gain clear understanding;
and be he of weak disposition, he will enjoy great strength.

What this wisdom tells us is to not be held back by failure, or self-perceived limitation. No matter what we have suffered in our lives to this point or what we haven’t yet been able to achieve, we can succeed. All that is required is the absolute commitment to learn continuously, and apply the lessons learned in how we live our lives in every moment.

This view was backed up this week in the May 11th New Yorker article, “How David Beats Goliath” by the brilliant researcher and synthesist, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is the author of “Blink,”published by Little Brown and Co and “The Tipping Point” published by Back Bay Books . In this article, Gladwell shows that underdogs win by trying harder than everyone else.

Underdogs also succeed by doing what is societally unacceptable. You have to be audacious. David used a slingshot against Goliath. People who live on the ADD end of the spectrum are usually creative, eccentric, unlikely types who live, think and dream outside the box, making them well suited to doing things unconventionally.

If you are willing to put in the extra work, and use your uniqueness to your advantage, you may not be approved of by the powers that be, but you can succeed in life and win.