Recently Charles Blow of the New York Times cited some studies suggesting that people between the ages of 18 and 29 are “moving away from organized religion while simultaneously trying desperately to connect with their spirituality.” I believe this is true for vast numbers of people of all ages. We find ourselves in a time when untold numbers are searching for a deeper sense of fulfillment in their lives. People everywhere are looking for answers.  From the spiritual cognoscenti, to those who regularly tune into Oprah and are committed to personal growth and change, to seekers looking for a way to solve a problem in their lives through the many forms of psychotherapy, to the many millions who fuel the self-help industry, lifelong learners everywhere are seeking something deeper and more fundamental than motivational tips and familiar nostrums.

Evidence that the quest for spiritual development outside of conventional religion has gone mainstream is all around us:  in the upswing of interest in the healing arts such as yoga, meditation, and holistic health practices; in the fascination with forms of mysticism such as Kabbalah; in the study of the traditions of the East like Buddhism and Taoism; in the openness to the melding of the most advanced science and the most ancient wisdom traditions as illustrated by Deepak Chopra’s huge following; in the renewed sense of personal responsibility brought on by the changes in our political and economic landscape; and in the nostalgia for the less materialistic values of the ‘60s.

I call this vast group Seekers. These are people who in addition to personal healing are also concerned about the environment and the fate of the earth.  They are parents who are feeding their children organic foods and working earnestly to give their kids the best start by applying attachment parenting techniques. They are couples who are devoted to having sacred marriages through using the dialogical techniques of teachers like Harville Hendrix.  They are baby-boomers going back to school after the kids graduate college, and thirty-somethings who have gotten off the fast track to become social entrepreneurs, using their business savvy to make a better world. They are open-minded and tolerant.  They are receptive to all traditions, philosophies, and wisdoms, whatever the source.  They read Eckhart Tolle and admire the Dalai Lama. They are connecting with old friends through Facebook, following politics on the Huffington Post and are interested in all types of social networking.  They follow the big thinkers on sites like TED.com. Every day they make an effort to become better people.

Where is this spiritual thirst coming from, and why are people looking in places other than organized religion? (more…)

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StAugustineHow do we change?

Change takes one tiny step, but to take that one step can require a journey of a thousand miles.

So many of us can dream of the life we want to have and the person we want to be. It can be especially frustrating when we get to the stage in our adventure where we acknowledge our problems and have agreed to do the hard work of self-cultivation and still find change slow in coming. Despite our efforts, which may include years of therapy, we may still suffer from shame and self-denigration. Perhaps we still feel socially anxious, can’t find a lover, procrastinate or binge eat. For those of us who experience unremitting emotional suffering, being told to have patience provides small solace.

The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, which is so popular because it makes change sound easy and simple, tells us that if we just imagine something it will come to us. Unfortunately, what we discover when we try to implement this program is that though this is a necessary condition for change, it is not sufficient. We do need to imagine a better life, but sometimes we find it impossible to truly believe the vision. The Work of Byron Katie provides us with the wisdom that if we believe our thoughts we will suffer. Her solution, then, is to question, and modify, our thoughts. This too, is good and true, but all too often we find that our thoughts grip us with such a rigid tenacity that they won’t let us go.

The truth is, change is hard.

We find the archetypal story of the longing for transformation in St. Augustine’s Confessions. St. Augustine was a pagan who felt compelled to drink and screw around. He was exposed to Christianity, and understood the value of the virtuous life that Christ represented. But he also knew that if he took on the behaviors that he knew were good, he would be a hypocrite, because they were not congruent with where he was in his heart. He knew that if we was to change his behavior it had to come from the true center of his being. He would have to discover this good person within, so that he wouldn’t want to behave in the ways that he knew were wrong. If he stopped himself from those behaviors by forcing himself to, it wouldn’t be authentic, and it wouldn’t work. His book is his struggle to figure out how to truly transform.

At the key moment in this story,  St. Augustine’s struggles and suffering reach an unbearable point. He is overtaken with shame. He fights an inner battle between two aspects of himself. One part wants him to continue his self-destructive behaviors. These parts do not want to surrender their power over him. These parts  want him to stay as he is and do the things that, though they provide momentary relief, keep him miserable. On the other side he hears the voice that entreat him to a better way. These parts hold little sway. Unable to tolerate this struggle, and the pain of his existence, he finally  surrenders utterly. He throws himself under a fig tree and allows his tears to flow. He cries in a profoundly deep way. The measure of the length and depth of his struggle to change is felt when he asks God, “How long?” How many of us have asked this question about our own suffering?

At this moment Augustine hears a young boy chanting from a house near by, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He had never heard this particular chant. Believing that he is receiving the direction of an oracle, he determines to follow the direction of the boy. He opens the gospel to any random page and reads what he finds there. In the instant that he reads the passage, his suffering falls away. He is absolutely transformed.

What happened to Augustine in that instance and what can it tell us about the essence of transformation? Augustine’s story has many of the classic elements of the process that leads to transformation. These include a long period of struggle with no success, an inner battle that has no solution, total emotional surrender, a connection with a mythic symbol like the tree, the voice of an oracle that provides direction, a connection with a text of the heart, and total transformation in an instant.

But isn’t this just a 1500-year-old myth? How can this apply to our life today? Though aeons have passed since this moment, something similar happened to an acquaintance recently. He wrote me about the experience. Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.

“This spring, I had an experience which I would like to describe here, if you don’t mind. One day, I went to a museum. I went alone, and I was generally having a good time. At one point, however, I was overcome by some extremely strong (and possibly long-suppressed) feelings of anger. These feelings could have been directed at people who have harmed or betrayed me in the past, or at myself; I was not sure. In any case, my anger was not directed at anyone in the museum! Nonetheless, I had been feeling such upwells of anger quite regularly at that time. And the anger I felt in the museum that afternoon was potentially explosive, and I needed to confront it–although I did not want to act on it, and I certainly did not want to unload it onto anyone around me! So I stepped aside and let myself consciously experience these explosive feelings of anger. All of a sudden, the words “I hate you” entered my mind and–silently–passed my lips. These words, like the feelings, could have been directed either towards tormentors from my past, or towards myself; I did not know. As soon as I acknowledged those three words, a large amount of my anger quite literally melted away. I could actually, PHYSICALLY, feel much of my anger melting away. After that happened, I felt much more relaxed, peaceful and calm. I was astonished. It was an unbelieveable experience, quite visceral and soul-cleansing. Before that night, I had been feeling physically stiff and blocked in some parts of my body, especially around the middle region of my back–it was as if all the cells in that part of my body had been tightly crammed and jammed together; after experiencing, acknowledging and (silently) articulating my anger, I began to feel like many of those “crammed and jammed” cells were suddenly being set loose (although still connected to one another) and were allowed to breathe again. I suppose that this is one of the more physiological consequences of successfully confronting anger and other extreme emotions resulting from traumatic experiences. I still feel some blockages, but they are nowhere nearly as great or as powerful as they once were. Since then, I have been experiencing fewer upwells of anger, and these upwells are nowhere nearly as intense as they once were. Even so, I continue to confront them whenever necessary. In any case, this experience confirmed one thing which I already knew: There is a major difference between experiencing a feeling and acting on a feeling! I would very much like to know your thoughts on all that I have described here. I’d be grateful for anything you have to say on this matter.”

What had happened to this person in this situation that was so like what Augustine experienced? Very often, what causes us suffering is not our emotions themselves, but our struggle against our feelings. One way that so many of us have been chronically hurt as children is that we are taught that our emotions are unacceptable. We then experience our emotions as bad things, not to be felt. We learn how to get rid of our emotions when they come up, either by suppressing them or acting them out. These unlived emotions transmute into shame. Rather than feel our anger and sadness about what was done to us, we blame ourselves and see ourselves in a negative light.

We may not only learn that our negative feelings are bad. We may also learn that we shouldn’t have our excitement. Then, if we are excited around people, we feel shame. We want to hide this feeling. We experience the danger of the exposure of these feelings as anxiety. This anxiety is correlated with all kinds of distorted thinking. We assume we will be judged and hated for who we are and what we feel, as we project our self-loathing onto others. Wanting to avoid our emotions and listening to the voice of shame, we act out compulsively, with drugs, drink, food. Just like with St. Augustine, an inner battle goes on between parts of the self. One side shames us for our behaviors, the other side agrees, but says we’ll deal with it tomorrow. And so it goes on.  In this way our unfelt emotions lead to the symptoms of our life.  Often we are not aware of the deep suppression of feeling that is under our compulsive behaviors. We are just aware of the suffering the behaviors cause. If we simply did not avoid these feelings we wouldn’t need our destructive behaviors, and we wouldn’t have the problems that plague us.

We want the suffering to end, but we won’t do the thing that will bring us eventually to the place of transformation. We will not feel the core emotions that are underneath our anxious, depressed, misery. How do we do this? The first part of the journey is the realization that we must search for an answer. This may require a long period of being lost in the woods. During this time we come to an experienced realization of where we are in the moment. We need to journey within as St. Augustine and my friend did. There we discover our early wounds, our patterns in the present that hurt ourselves and others, our underlying shame, our physical and emotional restrictedness and the unresolvable inner arguments that go on within us.

As we come closer to our hearts, we then feel our longing for that which we never got. As the inventor of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, would say, we reach the “hurt child” layer of the personality. This is a time of protest and complaint where we feel our unmet needs acutely. This takes us one step closer to our authentic pain but it is still not enough for transformation.

Finally, when we have traveled along the yellow brick road long enough, we slay the witch. We can no longer hold ourselves together, and we feel all the feelings that we have contained for a lifetime. We experience our pure sadness or anger at having been hurt in the ways that we were. We may not be able to articulate it in that moment, but our longing for getting unconditional love in our childhood turns into grief. This comes with the recognition that we will never get that which we never got. We cannot go back in time, we can never relive our childhoods, we can never get our parents to treat us differently than they did because we will never be two-year-olds again. Once we surrender  this hope and fully grieve our loss, change happens automatically. Once we allow ourselves to feel the totality of our feelings and penetrate to our core of emptiness that which keeps us spellbound magically dissolves. The inner battle ceases to rage. What seemed impossible a moment before become inevitable. All Dorothy needs to do to get home in the Wizard of Oz is click her heels, but it takes her the whole movie to figure that out.

When we grow up being shamed for who we are, including our feelings, we store these wounds in the cells of our bodies. We learn chronic habits of muscular restriction in order not to feel. Our unfelt experience then lives outside of our awareness in our bodies. These traumatic experiences also live in our brains, unprocessed, alive like they are happening presently. Our natural ability to realize the fullness of our potentials remains restricted until we can free our bodies and our minds. When we face what we fear, and reown all of our feelings, we experience a tremendous release. We find access to the lifestream of energy, our ch’i. Just like in Einstein’s formula, E=mc2, there is almost an infinite amount of energy in every atom.  When we free this energy that is bound up in our muscles and psyche, we are wholly changed and we are motivated for a lifetime to accomplish all we want and to become all we want to be. We find an alignment with our own nature, and the nature of the universe.

As the great psychologist, William James discovered in his exploration of the change phenomenon, The Varieties of Religious Experience, an absolute recentering of personality is almost without fail preceded by a time of absolute emotional despair. But by the testimony of endless pilgrims who have made the journey of the heart before us, this suffering itself is reason to hope. If we let ourselves fully go into this feeling, without resistance, change will happen.

We discover in the end  that our very desire for wanting to change, for being something other than what we are, means that we are still stuck in the shame of negative self-judgment. When we free ourselves from the bonds of our emotional wounds we realize we do not need to change. Instead, we simply become what we have always meant to be. We become ourselves. We find the lost heart.

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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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FAIRY TALES AND THE INNER MALEFICENT

nielsen-scheherazadeIn the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, at the party that celebrates the birth of the new princess, an evil witch named Maleficent shows up and ruins the whole event. She puts a curse on the infant that destines her to a painful existence. Who is this nefarious character that makes an appearance in many different guises in endless stories?

The truth is, there is a Maleficent who lives in each of us. All of the explorers of the human condition have recognized that we are not a unity. We are not simply the singular “I” that we imagine ourselves to be. We possess multiple sub-personalities. There have been countless names and descriptions for these inner part-selves and how they work. Freud divided us into three, id, ego and super-ego. John Bradshaw named the “inner-child.”  Jung named these parts complexes and archetypes. Fritz Perls described the relationship between the parts by calling it the topdog/underdog game. Eric Berne, in transactional analysis, named three interacting parts, the parent, the adult, and the child. The purveyors of the object-relations school split what they call internal representations into at least four parts, the good and bad self and the good and bad object. Watkins describes ego-states, a family of coherent sub-personalities that live and compete within us. Historically, it has been known as the cosmic battle between good and evil. In cartoons, we see an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Whatever name we give it, it is apparent that we are a multiplicity within a singularity, we are many within the one. Our search is for that oneness within our many-ness: like our money says, e pluribus unum, within the many, one.

Freud’s profoundly disturbing discovery is that we are not masters in our own house. Strange as it may seem, these part-selves, sub-personalities, or ego-states, though they exist generally outside of our awareness, have a tremendous influence over our thoughts, feelings, imaginings and behaviors. That person that we think of as “I,” who we believe is in control of our lives, is actually oftentimes not in command of what we do. Despite the fact that this has been well known for well over 2500 years, having been described by Plato, we still have a hard time grasping this fact and accepting it. But the truth is told by fairy tales. Maleficent, the troublemaking fairy, lives inside of us. We know this because we set an intention, but all too often don’t live it through. How many times my clients have said, “I know what I want to do and what I should do, why don’t I do it?”

Some fear when they hear that we have hidden personalities that this means we are crazy and have multiple personality disorder. What we now understand is that this syndrome is merely one extreme end of a long continuum. Only the most wounded of us risk such a complete shattering of personality.

The extreme can illuminate what most of us experience in a far more subtle and integrated way. A schizophrenic may hear disembodied voices that tell the person they are worthless and should die. This does not happen for most of us, but all too many of us, when we dig deep within, discover that there are parts of ourselves that undermine our good intentions by telling us we are worthless and that nothing will work out for us anyway.

These parts of ourselves that sometimes can act against our own apparent self-interest are not evil, or necessarily intend harm. Rather, they serve a protective function. The ways that they protect us may be far outdated and no longer help us, but those parts still think they are aiding us. In this sense, there are no irrational acts. If we can understand the motivation behind the act, we can see the rationality in it, even if they are operating out of wholly false premises. For example, whenever one particular client of mine makes any kind of mistake, he punches himself in the head. Now this is what his father did. His father believed that this was the best way to teach his son not to make mistakes. He did not recognize that what he was doing was completely harmful. He thought he was doing the right thing. Now this client does not want to do this to himself, but feels compelled to. This internalized father behaves autonomously, outside of my client’s control, and he continues to do what he believes is the right thing, even though one day it might kill him.

Very often these parts of ourselves are our own unrealized potentials. Hiding our potential selves is one way of describing what it means to have a lost heart. These unrealized potential aspects not only remain in an unmatured state within us, they corrupt, putrefy or distort through a long period of non-acknowledgment, lack of support and lack of conscious use. They become vitiated. They corrupt because they have gone so long uncultivated. That is what makes their influence negative. They may be enraged, and are protective in the sense that they are seeking revenge on our behalf for a lifetime of neglect and hurt.

The tales reveal this as well. In one fairy tale, a fisherman frees a genie from a lamp. The genie says to the fisherman that he will grant him one wish and that is to choose the method of his death. The fisherman says that is not the way the story is supposed to go. Genies are supposed to give those that free them three wishes of anything they would like. The genie says he would have done that had he not been trapped in the lamp for 10,000 years. After being in there so long, he was too enraged to do anything but destroy.

Oftentimes we battle against these inner demons with our conscious will, but we often lose the battle, because the part of us that we fight with is not invested with sufficient energy to win the battle. We identify with the part that fights, but that is not really our source of greatest strength. All too often, the ogre rules the kingdom.

Fairy tales speak to this outer battle which has become an inner battle. It speaks to those undeveloped parts within ourselves that are hurt and afraid. It speaks to all the lost children within us who feel so all alone. It speaks to those children within grown up bodies who don’t want to come out and grow up, because of the fear that the pain will be too overwhelming if they get abandoned again.

180px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_7_(Beatrice)FAIRY TALES INTRODUCE US TO THE WISE ONE WITHIN

There are also parts of us that are wiser and stronger than we are aware of. In order to counter the power of Maleficent, we need to call on these good powers within us.

One of the most significant collections of tales is the ancient book, “The 1001 Nights.” In this cycle, the Sultan is so troubled by being betrayed by his wife that he plans to marry and then kill a new woman each day. Scheherazade comes up with a plan to save the women of this realm, but in order to do so she needs to put herself into the ultimate peril. She herself will marry the Sultan. She convinces him to let her live each day by telling him a different story for each of 1001 nights.  By telling him these tales, the Sultan becomes cured of his condition. He finds his heart, falls in love with Scheherazade, and eliminates his decree to marry and kill a woman a day. The cycle tells us that in this first recorded course of psychotherapy, the cure was fairy tales.

Scheherazade was an extraordinary woman. She had studied the wisdom of the ancients. She had followed the travels of past pilgrims of the heart. She was a fine poet. She had mastered science and philosophy. She was verse in stories and folk tales. In other words, she had lived the life of self-cultivation that is necessary for finding the lost heart. This gave her true courage in the sense that Paul Tillich described in The Courage to Be.  She did not avoid her destiny, even though she risked death. She was willing to risk all for authentic being.

Scheherazade is what Jung would call an anima figure. This is that great source of wisdom and power that lives deep within each of us. If we can get past the limitations imposed on us by our own woundedness, we will find her, and the great riches she offers. She is our Beatrice, our guide out of hell and into paradise. We need this wisdom figure if we are to counter Maleficent. In the tale “The Sparrow with the Slit Tongue,” after the man journeys in a dark forest, he comes upon a garden. In the garden is a beautiful house. In the house is a magical princess. This house in the garden in the center of the wood is our heart. This is the home of the divine within. As The Upanishads tells us, the heart is the home of Atman, the great source of all.

The stories tell us that if we are to overcome impossible obstacles we need supernatural help. In order to access our “inner Scheherazade,” we need to do what she did. We need to live a life of self-cultivation. We must study the world’s wisdom, be creative, become knowledgable, and immerse ourselves in tales. By taking this outer journey of studying the collective wisdom of human kind in its multifarious variations, we call on the power of the magical princess. With her aid we can overcome our shame, and render our demons powerless.

The life of self-cultivation described by the stories combines this outward journey with the inward one. We need to feed ourselves with everything we can from the outside to awaken our inner guide, and then we turn inward and hope for communication. The way to discover the answer to our problems is to enter ourselves the way we enter the story. We look inside, and with patience we wait. If we listen carefully, something eventually bubbles up to the surface. This is the way to find a pathway to our heart. The stories tell us that the inner guide will give us all we need, if we are willing to do the work of finding her. She is the guide to our innermost being, where the world and our nature are one.

To understand ourselves is to understand everything.

Ann Coulter at the Time 100 red carpet.
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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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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.

Yesterday, one of my clients was expressing his regret at the opportunities he missed 20 years ago when he was 17 years old. He said that he wished that he could go back to that time and speak to his teenage self from his perch as the wise 37-year-old. I asked him what he would say.

He said, “Don’t be afraid! Sing! Dance! Kiss the girl!”

I imagine we all have such regrets. As my Dad used to say, “Too soon old, too late shmart.” The adolescent has no way of having any kind of perspective. But with age we begin to experience the epic sweep of life, and we can apply our learning from our past to our present.

So I asked my client, “When you are 57, 20 years from now, and you look back at the 37-year-old, what will you regret then? If that 57-year-old could speak to you now, what wisdom would he offer?”

If you could receive advice from the person you will be in 20 years, what advice would he or she offer you right now?