An Intimate Conversation with Anger: “But she knows I’d never hurt her!”

(Image is court-crimson-king from

We human beings experience a wide palette of angry feelings, sensations and behaviors. Have you ever known frustration anger, righteous anger, jealousy anger, resentment anger, sexual anger, helpless rage, fear anger, impatient anger, unworthiness anger, self-diminishment anger (can’t remember, can’t climb stairs, can’t lift the table), unfairness anger, derisive anger, group anger?

When speaking about complex emotions we often use single words, like ‘anger,’ to describe a constellation of aspects that express our unique experience. Of course, each of our experiences of anger occur at a certain time and place. Each experience is embedded within a matrix of confluent variables that influence that experience—how well we have slept, how sober we are, momentary or chronic stressors. These variables also include the reservoir of painful experiences from our past. Sometimes, our most deeply painful experiences seem to have a common theme, such as arousing the fear of abandonment or rejection, or of reiterating traumatic betrayal. Sometimes, the concurrent pressures of our present circumstances–interpersonal, environmental, economic, and otherwise—overwhelm us and we can longer contain this surfeit of emotion.

Anger shares with other feelings, an atmospheric readout on how we interpret the impacts of our interactions with others as well as the trajectory of our current circumstances into the future. For example, when we assume that our angry interaction with our spouse predicts only future angry interactions.

Because feelings energize us, for better or worse, they tend to motivate action. Angry feelings can motivate actions that cause harm, to us as well as to others, even when angry expressions are “only verbal.” Although we utilize differentiating concepts like ‘verbal’ and ‘physical,’ in our actual experience with angry exchanges, anything verbal is really a subset of what we call physical. The tone, volume, pressure, proximity, and other “hits” of angry verbal expressions are, and produce, physical, bodily changes in ourselves and in the recipients of our outbursts.

There are many useful approaches to taming the lion, anger. Anger management strategies range from deeper therapeutic approaches that delve its origins and function to those that strategically utilize behavioral methods. Some approaches utilize the application of a 12-step model, where anger, like an addiction, is out of control. Some approaches relate stress to the expression of anger and utilize methods to develop the management of stress in productive ways. Some approaches emphasize learning assertiveness training and communication, to eliminate unproductive aggressiveness. Mindfulness strategies, when employed on a regular basis—meditation and yoga, or therapeutic writing for example—tend to calm down the nervous system and increase the capacity for acceptance of life’s slings and arrows. Other bodily approaches help to increase one’s awareness of precursor sensations that will inevitably build toward an angry outburst so that they can be headed off at the pass. Even more powerful somatic approaches work directly to unlock body armoring, holding and breathing patterns, thus freeing up possibilities for different kinds of emotional experiences. Cognitive behavior therapies help to identify irrational thoughts or narratives that tend to evoke angry feelings. ACT emphasizes behaving in counterintuitive ways that override angry feelings. Cultural and gender sensitivity can also play a healing role. Men, even today in the US, are often encouraged to keep a lid on “soft” emotions so that anger, a more “masculine” emotion, becomes the vehicle for expressing sadness, frustration, disappointment and other feelings. Angry expressions and how they are tolerated or interpreted, may also differ by country, ethnic group, religion, and other parts of self-identity.

This essay enters the discussion from an empathy training perspective and focuses on the relational aspects of anger expression. While one can take out anger on objects or on oneself when alone, the most obvious and ubiquitous need to manage anger occurs because of its interpersonal impact. In fact, understanding the impact of our anger on others helps us to consider the impact on the relationship we have with ourselves.
Emotions move us, razz us; make us gorgeously perturbed humans. What a gift to feel so intensely and passionately. And yet the heat of emotions can burn so brightly as to escape containment. Our frustration, disappointment and anger can lead us to take destructive rather than corrective actions. Most great gifts, such as our emotional intensity, come with the need for great responsibility.

Jay had a wife and two daughters. After serving in the army as a medic, and performing life-saving measures in a war zone that would have been reserved for only doctors in a hospital stateside, he felt frustrated with his civilian job as a paramedic. His boss frequently shot down his ideas and his natural command of situations, even though he had received awards and acknowledgements for his great service as an emergency responder. Not only did his medical experience serve him well, but he had a sympathetic, straightforward way in dealing with families, especially when there was a severe injury or fatality.

Often Jay would do a double shift. His sense of identity, coupled with the responsibility of being the major provider for his family, reinforced his working long hours. When he got home, his stress and irritability immediately converted to annoyance, even anger, with his wife and daughters. The second he walked in, if there was anything out of place—dishes not cleared, toys on the floor, homework not done, etc.—he would yell and make angry gestures, often huffing off to his room to shower and cool off. Several beers later he would want some companionship, but by then his wife tried to avoid him and tended to protect the children by hustling them into baths and bedtime.
Finally, his wife Cindy said, “I can’t do it anymore. This is not living. This is not a marriage. Not a family. We’re afraid of you. We dread every time you walk in the door.” Jay was shocked. Absolutely shocked. How could he, someone so good with other people be the person his wife and young daughters feared? It didn’t make sense to him.”
I asked Jay to suggest an image for how it felt to come home after a long and particularly frustrating shift. He said, “It stinks. It’s like carrying a big bag of sh. . on my back.” I suggested he literally imagine hauling a huge heavy sack of manure into his house. And further, imagine dumping it out just as he saw his wife and daughters.
The two most prominent rationalizations for yelling, screaming, and insulting someone that I hear are: these expressions were provoked or deserved, and that they cause no bodily harm because they are verbal.

Jay believed that his wife and children should have accomplished things in the time frame he saw as fit and believed his anger and criticism justified. He also admitted to feeling some relief when he unloaded on them. “Just venting some steam” didn’t seem like a big deal to Jay. After a shower he had “gotten over the anger and forgiven” these infractions, which he could see as small, so why weren’t his wife and daughters feeling equally relieved?

To Jay’s credit, he had no intention of losing his family, and the critical interaction with Cindy, and her mandate that he take steps to change his behavior brought him into therapy. When we work on our own anger management, it does not matter whether someone else deserves or provokes our wrath. This is completely irrelevant. The reasons to manage anger have to do with the benefits of feeling in control of one’s behavior, of meeting one’s standards for being a good, upstanding human who treats others with dignity and respect, regardless of how they treat us; and to be able to defuse or deescalate potentially harmful, even dangerous arguments or other interactions, interactions that will hurt others in multiple ways.

Self-respect, a sense of personal empowerment, and a sense of integrity partly derive from self-control. Emotional self-control involves the ability to feel our feelings, while considering if or how we wish to express them appropriately. Major problems result from such action-justifying thoughts like “others deserve” our wrath, or “made us act” aggressively. Laying the blame for our angry outbursts on others puts us in the judge and jury seat, first, and then in the role of punisher. It is difficult to draw limits on the harshness that seems justifiable based on our angry feelings. Can you hit someone but not maim them for life? Can you punch a hole through a wall but not demolish the house? Can you shove someone, but not down the stairs? You get the gist.
Paradoxically, the underside of blaming others for our angry outbursts disempowers us. Though we have judged others at fault, we also imply that we, like marionettes with strings, get easily pulled to act in ways we do not feel good about and would not otherwise want to initiate. “I didn’t want to hit him, but he wouldn’t listen. He made me do it.” To employ self-control in provocative situations means to have the highest personal agency and empowerment.

Like many people who get angry with family members and trivialize, or are unaware of the impact on them, Jay felt utter surprise that his wife truly feared him. He assumed that because he had “never laid a hand on her,” Cindy would know it could never happen. In Jay’s mind this granted her immunity from fearing him. Because Jay had been through highly traumatic experiences, as both a medic and as a paramedic, he did not see his own angry, but unpredictable outbursts as producing traumatic experiences for his wife and daughters at home.

When we yell, scream, insult, or threaten others with our voices, facial expressions, and gestures, we do indeed produce harmful physical, neurological, and psychological reactions in the recipient(s). The verbal and physical share more in common than do they differ when it comes to anger. And when expressions of anger erupt frequently, not to mention inconsistently, it can result in traumatization of the recipients.
Unfortunately, even when someone knows that their partner’s anger will not result in a broken bone, the more primitive wiring of the brain alerts the victim of angry outbursts to danger. The appearance of threat mobilizes protective mechanisms. The so-called flight, fight or freeze reactions of the brain and body all come into play, even when we supposedly “know” someone will not make overt body to body contact.

We human beings have a miraculous body and brain and every second of our lives, awake or asleep, our bodies and brains receive impressions. We receive sounds, sights, pressures, temperature altering influences, hormonal influences, health status influences, nutritional influences and so forth. Loud noises pierce the structures in the ears, angry faces terrorize the musculature as shoulders creep up around the head and stiffen and affect breathing patterns, speed up the heart and raise the blood pressure, affect the adrenal glands which start pumping out adrenalin–a stress and mobilizing hormone. When someone suffers the unfortunate impacts of multiple anger outbursts by someone else, they may turn hypervigilant, a term that describes what it feels like when one awaits the proverbial shoe dropping at any moment, even when things seem presently calm. Hypervigilance expresses a never-safe status.

We find it difficult to ignore potential threats. To ignore them often means shutting down the body and brain, numbing out, succumbing to deep depression with its consequent narratives of hopelessness and helplessness, or using drugs or alcohol to mask the pain.

Alternatively, we can learn to aggress in retaliation and by our personal expressions of aggression, imagine that this diminishes the likelihood of our being harmed. Whether one learns to numb, collapse, or aggress, the results cause bodily harm and diminish our capacity for trust, for joy, and for healthy exchanges about the situations or events that result in our feelings of anger toward others or theirs toward us.

Recently, a female client of mine who charged her ex-husband with rape, shared a court experience in which he said he believed he had the right to sex, whenever he wanted, because he was her husband. Although an ignorant view of another human being as property to be used regardless of consent, it illustrates the power of what we believe about the prerogatives of our roles in relationship. These beliefs directly lead to our notions of allowable behavior.

My approach to intervening with expressions of anger involves empathy training and an exploration of relational beliefs, that, at their core offer a central hub from which a person can gain skills and mastery over behavior that best represents their beliefs and/or their reevaluated beliefs.

Emotions, sensations and actions constellate and co-occur closely. But as concepts, and as manifestations, they differ. Mastery over our behavior requires the ability to separate what we feel from what we do. The word, ‘emotion,’ means ‘movement outward.’ Strong feelings highly motivate action. That means, in order to separate strong feelings from actions, we must be able to use most of our brain power at the same time. We must deploy our executive functions of logical thought—like thinking through the consequences of our actions before we do them—decision-making and asking ourselves whether our future action aligns with our notions of principle and purpose.

Taking ‘psychic distance’ is another phrase to describe the activation of brain power that serves to move us from inside the lion’s cage of anger to the outside, so we can survey the context in which our angry experience is embedded: fatigue, work stress, hurt feelings, built up frustration; as well as our, often incorrect interpretation of others’ intentions with regard to us.

When we think our feelings are justified—feelings are the barometers of how we interpret our interactions—then we too often feel justified in the actions generated by those feelings. It stands as a hallmark of maturity and self-mastery to do inquiry on our interpretations of the intentions and agendas of others. Our narratives and interpretations of why others do what they do, says more about us than about them. We each have our own lenses through which we see everything. If my green sun glasses are stuck to my face you might have a hard time convincing me that the “real” colors differ from what I see. But if we use our curiosity to ask questions, to find out what moves or matters to those with whom we find ourselves in conflict—when we try on their glasses–then the understanding generated often yields amazing results.

Jay found it fascinating and sad to think that angry outbursts do hurt other people, whether anger gets expressed as verbal or gestural or physical ventilation. These expressions always hurt other people, as well as potentially destroying objects that belong to them. These acts violate others emotionally, physiologically, and interpersonally.

Whether an angry person would or would not drown or break someone else’s body, the constant threat hovers like precursors to earthquakes or tornadoes. Everyone around that person goes on alert, using their radar powers to scan for signs of developing turmoil. Everyone feels untrusting and stressed. Hypervigilance exhausts them because they do not know what to expect.

Breaking or drowning someone’s object, say a phone, is a conscious or subconscious threat to someone’s actual body. Things we own are extensions of our bodies. The threat, when drowning or breaking someone’s object reads: “Watch out. I can take, break or drown your body just as readily as I can take, break or drown your things.”

Curiosity about others, and the understanding that generates, open the door for empathy. When we can retain our own wants and needs, while simultaneously finding compassion for the wants and needs of others, perhaps in conflict with ours at times, then we will also develop new skills for mediating issues.

In a recent question and answer talk with the writer and surgeon, Atule Gawande, author of “Being Mortal” and “The Checklist Manifesto,” he told a story about treating a prisoner who had swallowed a razor blade and done other self-harm just short of taking his own life. The man was verbally brutal to him and to other staff and Gwande found him not very likeable, though he proceeded to treat the man with best medical care. Finally, he said, “You seem very angry and like you don’t feel respected?” At this point the prisoner let down his guard a bit and said that was true. He had been in solitary confinement and felt treated less than humanely. From there the medical treatment went better and Gawande’s understanding allowed him to proceed without feeling so personally attacked and without feeling so much dislike for this individual.

In Gawande’s article for The New Yorker, “Curiosity and Equality,” he writes: “Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care. . .To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.”

In empathy training we must, as Gawande suggests, put on our curiosity hats and inquire about what matters to others with whom we find ourselves angry or in conflict. And we must refresh personal inquiry as to how we want to show up as human beings. What behaviors, what values, and what principles lie within our moral compass? What standards for ourselves do we employ in our dealings with others? What behaviors represent our best selves?

Today, the climate in our country, the USA, seems saturated with divisiveness and bifurcation, as if citizens’ basic needs and wants were so different as to constitute extreme polarities. Anger and fear continue to fuel outrageous acts of inhumanity. As Gawande says in the latter part of his article, “We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth. . . We are not sufficiently described by the best thing we have ever done, nor are we sufficiently described by the worst thing we have ever done. We are all of it.”

After several sessions, Jay returned to share the good news that his relationship with Cindy had improved greatly. It even felt like a honeymoon. Although she had often told him he scared her, for the first time he took in the information and let her know that he truly understood. I utilize a concept of “Back listening,” a way of refreshing what complaints about ourselves we have heard but not heard in the past, and revisiting those with a curious mind and an open heart.

Jay had devised a plan for returning home from work through the back door and heading straight for the shower before entering the living room or kitchen, where he immediately gave everyone hugs. He found himself able to drink less and engage more. Cindy had prepared some of his favorite meals and given him more affection, which warmed up their relationship quite a bit. On occasion, when he did snap or found himself feeling frustrated, he apologized, and things resolved more quickly, without ongoing silences in the aftermath. He found himself thinking more ‘other-mindedly’—better predicting the impact his presentation would have on others. He even felt that his already excellent work as a paramedic improved to a point of confidence where he started to consider further education toward a nurse practitioner degree.
When we experience the personal power generated by having control over our actions, in conjunction with a profound belief in the power of understanding to help us resolve conflicts with others, then lots of things can seem possible.

Cleaning up After Yourself: The First Radical Act of Empowerment

October 14, 2018  (picture–Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Davinci))

Keeping your own body alive requires power and independence. All acts of power start with those actions we perform on behalf of the survival and health of our bodies. All our bodies have the same necessities: we must eat and hydrate. We must eliminate wastes from our bodies and brains, we must sleep, we must exercise, we must clean our bodies free of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other dirt.
When babies or very elderly or frail, we cannot always perform these functions for ourselves and we therefore depend on others to take care of our survival and health. But if we have reached old age or ill health, having lived a powerful life to that point, and beyond that contributed to the survival and health of those around us, then we may enjoy in gratitude those performances of service by others for our benefit.
As ingenious human beings, we have produced many tools and other material things to be used as extensions of our bodies and our bodily functions. Those extensions of our bodies, in aid to our bodily functions, include utensils like knives, forks and spoons, as well as toilet paper and toilets, washing machines, bath tubs and showers, trash receptacles, etc.
Just as our bodies are the center, like the hub of a wheel, the tools and machines mentioned are like spokes in the wheel. The spokes are connected to the hub and to the tire which surrounds the hub and spokes as its circumference and boundary. When we act powerfully in life, the expression of our most significant and fundamental power gets exerted within the entirety of that wheel. It means, not only do we prepare food and eat it, but we also wash and clean the tools we have used to accomplish this task in total. When we live an empowered life, we bathe our bodies to take care of the wastes from perspiration, digestion, hormonal output, and the residue from the places in which we have worked, gone to school and played. To complete the functions of bathing we must launder the towels used, and contribute to the cleaning of the basins in which we wash our bodies. We must also launder our clothing. All these individual tasks are essential parts of the powerful action of cleaning our bodies and refreshing our spirits. When we give our bodies and brains reasonable hours of sleep, we allow the detritus in the brain to clean out, because of cerebrospinal fluid that washes wastes from the brain only when we are sleeping. Staying up all night to play video games leaves waste in the brain and may literally drive us crazy!!!
Our bodies constantly interact with the environment. In fact, the environment constantly flows through us in lots of ways. Light entering our eyes helps us see. We breathe air, we eat food from the ground. We get covered in dirt and dust from our environment. Sounds from the environment run through our bodies and affect our ears and our moods. We stand on the planet due to the forces of nature such as gravity.
When we do not power up to take care of our bodies and the extensions of our bodies—bedrooms and houses are spatial extensions of the body also–then, consciously or inadvertently we disempower others. When we depend on someone, without asking them, to clean up after our bodies, then we disempower them. We treat them as if they were our servants and butlers. We steal their energy and time, so that instead of spending that time and energy on pursuits they would otherwise choose, they need to devote that to tasks that keep our bodies—not theirs–thriving and healthy including the environment (the whole wheel and wheelhouse) in which our bodies live and from which our bodies benefit.
Often parents tell me their kids are lazy. When I ask if they are lazy all the time, they generally say, “no.” We humans generally power up when we enjoy or are interested in things and in accomplishing something. Most young people who seem lazy about chores do not have the slightest clue that they have missed opportunities to get incredibly powerful. And it is up to parents to teach their children how to cook a meal, make a bed, put in a load of laundry, wash a toilet, because without knowing how to use these tools and how to function on behalf of our bodies, we go out into the world weaker and less prepared than we might be.
If you are interested in larger matters in the world, like saving the environment from disasters like global warming and clean energy, or reducing poverty and increasing jobs, then you cannot do nearly as well if you do not connect the basic power of keeping your own body alive and healthy with the power required to make a positive difference between your wheel.
We live in families, in communities, in states, in countries. We each of us does or does not do makes an indelible impact on those around us. We can choose to live an empowered life and empower others, or we can choose to exploit others, make messes on little and grand scales that we do not clean up, and leave for others to do, and remain disconnected from the source as well as from appreciation by others as well as the self-confidence we might develop as we learn to navigate the ins and outs of living our part of the whole.
By the time you do not need someone to accompany you to the bathroom, you have arrived at an age where you can begin to take on power and achieve independence. Power and independence fuel good feelings about yourself as a person, as someone in relationship to others, as well as boosting your likelihood of succeeding in this world as you define that.
Every time you clean up after yourself, remember that you are exercising your fundamental power, developing your independence, and growing into the kind of strong person who takes care of business from beginning to end. And wakes up and does that again. And again.

Embodiment: The Accident of Birth and Consequent Grievances

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

(Picture from Youtube body painting artist Johannes Stoetter)

“Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it.” –Epictetus

I name.

I name objects.

Names construct objects.

The corpus arises from an infinity of sensory, and sensational material.

Body.  One of my names.  One of the names for you.

My body:  With two words I create and own this object.

My language, my naming construes and constructs ‘my’ and ‘body.’

As object: I claim ownership of this body self, and that separates this body from


As object, my body may be subject to commoditization, to consumption by


As object my body may acquire multiple social labels and cultural bar codes.

My body may be packaged, handled, used, returned, and delivered in multiple


My body may become damaged or diseased or discarded or denigrated or


My body may die alone, and with its death, the death of my other, given names.

This body will never resurrect; will deconstruct into the nameless infinitude

with  yours.

Namer and name—this duality—narrates many stories:  of my ‘body’ and ‘me,’ of me and you, of me versus you; of those afterlife kingdoms of godly real estate owned by Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Bahؘa, Krishna, Elohim.

Delivered, cleaved, swaddled, handed to our mothers, we also rock in the cradle of that capricious embrace of mother country and culture—those who cut our cords and read our palms.  Symbiotic, nascent, wordless–we emerge howling our first vowels into a blanket of language. Named, we will live our lives separate even from those whom we love most.  We can have no relationship to anyone or anything that is not separated by its own name; and yet by names we call—by, to, and for each other, which makes us familiars.  And the richness of the world in which we will eat and think and meander and work and dream depends on words.  Underprivileged children hear thirty million fewer words than privileged children.  Language is the most important currency of the human world.  And we are word-woven into story, our story within a family’s story, within larger nested stories of neighborhoods, states, nations, and the planet.

The exquisiteness with which language articulates and specifies a body’s experiences of the world is matched by an equally powerful dullness with which one can perceive the body’s living interior with its pumps and bellows, with its pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, with its harvesting and waste removal systems, with the moving of limbs in complex choreographies, with the neuronal tick-tick-booms of thinking.

We do not know our indwelling microbiome colonies, their winds and weathers, the degree to which the leg must bend, and with what force to heft us from the bed at morning’s behest or the inconvenient dictate of the bladder.  We experience our inner world of organ systems as foreign as any lands or peoples we have never met, and with whom we do not share a common language.  I preside blind, deaf, and with limited tactility over a mysterious body-world I call mine.

Perception is the province of poets; introspection the bailiwick of psychologists, philosophers, memoirists, and navel gazers.  But the details of interoception lie behind closed doors, barred by a brain who reserves its energetic hustling, with more, or less sensitive equipment, to the business of thinking and feeling and doing and belonging to its village.

The notion of dualism derives from my ability to name, and from my inability to feel my cogitation so as to explicitly describe my interoceptions:  my emotions, the processes of my organs, including the incredibly sophisticated workings of my brain.

Because I am separated from the details of my inner workings—this filtering necessary so that I can pay attention to what most needs my attention—I experience the inner self, including what I call ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ as differentiated from my body.  My body seems material, and the unknowable inner world seems, by inference, immaterial.

If I experience my spirit or soul or mind as immaterial, then the illusion of a heaven or afterlife seamlessly and logically unfolds.  As do the mysterious narratives of eternity.

In our lives we occupy multiple roles as expressions of our multiplicity of selves.  At least two prominent selves, as John Haidt analogizes, in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, constitute both the large bodied “elephant” of feelings, desires, and the complex and involuntary running of our biological systems, as well as the much smaller “rider” on that elephant, who sometimes justifies, sometimes tries to persuade, and sometimes succeeds in disciplining the behavior of the elephant.  Haidt suggests that we often suffer from an illusion of rational decision making when we really create stories to justify what our “elephant” wants.

In a more pedestrian than mystical sense we straddle the worlds of knowledge and experience every day.  We know that the quality of ‘delicious’ belongs to a chocolate ice cream sundae, or to great sex, or to loving deeply, but we would rather experience ice cream, sex, and love, than to merely know about them abstractly.

“Those who know do not say; those who say do not know.”

When the Master entered, they asked him exactly what the words meant.

Said the Master, “Which of you knows the fragrance of a rose?”

All of them knew.

Then he said, “Put it into words.”

All of them were silent. (Taoist Story)

We accumulate all kinds of knowledge, including some knowledge about experience:  What it is like to have a baby, to parachute from a plane, to go off to college, or to interview for a job.  Mindfulness meditation experts call our constant cogitation ‘monkey chatter.’  The refreshment of being in the moment, of full presence, relies on opening our eyes, our ears, our noses, and our sense of touch, to the incoming colors, sounds, fragrances and breezes in the surround.  Without naming.  Without objectifying. As much as possible for us human language junkies.

But we love poetry too, for it circles, titillates, and tantalizes us by producing its own kind of experience, one that stirs those impressions our senses and our emotions offer up of the world, while incorporating ideas to compel our attention, shift our perspective, or advance our appreciation.

Ahs and Ahas.

When we engage our senses fully, we vitalize our world, with openness and curiosity.  When someone gently presses our faces into the roses, says ‘rose,’ says, ‘mmm,’ asks, ‘can you smell that?  Breathe in deeply,’ then thought marries feeling.  Naming unites and separates.

If naming gives us duality, and duality the separateness of self from all others, then our human differentiations by hue of skin, by shape of feature, by gender, by culture or ethnic background are vulnerable to the potential meanings assigned to them, and to the parameters of our relationships with others.  In our world mere differentiation, by one characteristic or another, apparently suffices—with doses of adult ‘stranger danger,’ or economic greed, or power mongering–to justify the application of different statuses; to justify differences in rights and privileges; to sanction exploitation, subjugation, even violence.  The powerful assign status differences which apply to bodies, human bodies; our human bodies.

Those who name the recipients of privilege hold power.  Those who lay claim to applying meanings associated with differences hold power and extend this power to ownership over the bodies of others—where those bodies can travel, how they may be treated, whether they may be dominated, subjugated, negatively objectified, or denied opportunity.

We can even justify poor treatment of animals by claiming that we are more intelligent, have a superior language, that because we appear to be built with greater complexity, we are kings of the planet.  We have better bodies.  We have talking bodies.

The social, professional, and cultural contexts for how we treat each other’s bodies hold the structures, policies, traditions, and etiquette for that which we deem appropriate or inappropriate, as defined by a boundary or crossing a boundary, as violating or servicing.

Clothing, hats, scarves, habits or robes, decorations of the body or hair growth, certain movements or expressions are all at one remove from the body itself. These are the immediate expressions—the shells, the fur, the feathers and the variations in ambulation with eye gaze up or down or retracted or piercing—that clue others to this body and its interior rooms and social affinities.


When my mother-in-law lay dying, the hospice nurses came and repositioned her, massaging cream into her hands and feet.  She had not spoken in sentences for years, the most prominent decline her loss of words, and then of the meaningful use of her hands for holding her books, hugging her friends and relatives, and eating on her own.

Still, we spoke with her, caught her up on all the details of family laments and successes, talking her into that final silence.  Even when she could not name herself.

All cultures with which I have any familiarity utilize rituals to prepare the bodies of their dead.  It would be unthinkable to throw a human body out like trash; and we feel horrified by the appearance of mass graves in a genocidal or maniacal war.

Ritual accompanies the treatment of human bodies, dying or dead.  We dress or wrap or shroud bodies accordingly and this preparation brings reassurance and comfort to those most closely linked by family, by shared experiences, by love.

What the bodies of our beloveds have worn or touched or lit lamps to read, have meaning beyond their lives as heirlooms, mementos, legacy pieces, reminders, holders of memory. In some sense, and however briefly in the ascent of generations, we poetically immortalize the bodies of our dead.


“We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree,

and the tree is all humanity.

We cannot live without the others, without the tree.”

Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973) Spanish cellist and composer


Bodies of the living connect as do leaves on a tree, each a unique expression of the sunlit climbing, branching, and rooting of the whole.  When we construct thoughts or beliefs about status differences, we separate ourselves too much, we cease to feel our connectedness; we die a little bit.  But when we sense each other’s radiance along energetic pathways that circulate and intersect, we can lift and be lifted by others.

“If you’re standing at the bottom of a hill with friends, it will appear less steep and easier to climb than if you are alone,” writes research psychologist Lisa Feldman Barret, in her book How Emotions Are Made (pg. 71). “If you grow up in poverty, a situation that leads to chronic body-budget imbalance and an overactive immune system, these body-budgeting problems are reduced if you have a supportive person in your life.  In contrast, when you lose a close, loving relationship and feel physically ill about it, part of the reason is that your loved one is no longer helping to regulate your (body) budget.  You feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself because, in a sense, you have.”


Words have power to obscure truth as well as to illuminate; to blur and to distinguish.  Try the word, ‘race.’ Since the rise of slavery in this country, this word, race, has regrettably differentiated our bodies, not only by skin color, but by associated meanings glued to this epidermal variation.  It has blurred our connectedness intellectually.  It has barred our connectedness by the application of differences in opportunity and treatment. We have treated our collective as composed of different races, with powerfully different implications for social equity, while academics–anthropologists, sociologists, and biologists–know we are one human race:

“. . . More recently, molecular techniques have developed to examine genetic differences between individuals and populations, including karyotypes providing chromosomal number and patterns, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) hybridization, protein sequences, and nuclear and mitochondrial base sequences from ancient and modern DNA. From all this evidence, it is clear that populational, but not racial, differences do exist within the human species. Race should not be equated with ethnicity, which has a sociological meaning. Ethnicity is a self-described category that has three components—ancestry, language, and culture—that all have affinities to certain ancestral groups.” (Read more:

In their book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, John Marzluff and Tony Angell write, “The ability to transmit culture through social learning equips social species like humans with a dual inheritance system.  We obtain many physical traits, actions, and behaviors from the arrangement of nucleic acids on our chromosomes—that is, through inheritance of genes from our parents.  But we also inherit a vast array of cultural traits from our society through social learning.  Some researchers call the social units we learn memes. . .At any point in time, human culture is composed of memes that reflect genetic, individually learned, and socially transmitted information.” (pg. 15)

Our micro-absorption into consciousness of genetic and socially transmitted information surfaces for reflection through individual learning, and it is here that we can all utilize our capacities for positive influence.  As mentors, teachers, friends, parents, sponsors, doctors, and so forth, we can all shine the beam of our attention on someone who will benefit by such encouragement and expansion through relationship.

We can talk to others about injustice, inequality, inequity.  We can validate complaints of abuse, exploitation or discrimination.  We can stand together awakened. We can take our awakening to the streets, to our extended families, friends, neighborhoods, workplaces, as well as to publications and polls.

We can bear witness.  We can be willing to hold sorrow, rage, frustration, and determination in the face of obstacles, whether they are current and societal or their residual introjects that emerge as self-limiting narratives.

As a therapist, also trained in Ericsonian hypnosis, I am informed by the power of word repetition to hypnotize and to suggest.  Like a chant, every time we discuss the “race” issue, we instill within our minds the fiction that we live in a world of different races, and assigned meanings associated with that fiction get strengthened.  Repeatedly, discussing the injustices done to those whose bodies have darker skin or whose features, including gender, do not look like the bodies of those in power, as a “racial” problem, strengthens the unintended consequence of embedding the misconstrued idea that people are differentiated by race.

This false notion that plural human races exist has fueled discriminatory differentiation; has been used to substantiate prejudicial treatment of some humans by others based upon trumped-up proof, based on nefarious research that there are superior/inferior races. Those characteristics which visually differentiate us, do not in fact differentiate us into races.  We must address inequality and inequity.  We must close the thirty-million-word gap, and all other opportunity gaps.

But our language will need to e-race ‘race’ in the process.  This is not color blindness, not a refusal to listen, nor to trivialize the sufferings caused by prejudice and hate.  As long as we continue to talk about ‘race’ relations, we embed ever more strongly, a set of negative associations threaded through the prevailing power-majority of the light skinned, that have historically ascribed lesser statuses—in intelligence, talents, contributions, appearance, and so on—to persons whose skin is dark or whose features bear resemblance to peoples from a number of other continents.

Lack of social, educational, and/or economic equity and equality, within the country, state, town and neighborhood where one grew up has a profound impact on the degree of ease or difficulty with which any human being enters doors of opportunity in the present, and/or psychologically has the resilience and confidence to knock.  Ancestral genes have no direct bearing.  As Ta Nehisi Coates so eloquently writes, “Racism is the parent of race,” as an issue, not the other way around.

In an article picked up by Flipboard, an online digest of articles on many topics, a piece from by Nitasha Tiku, demonstrates how intelligence and education can coexist with ignorant bias.  She quotes from a blog run by a Google employee: “Blacks are not equal to whites. Therefore the ‘inequality’ between these races is expected and makes perfect sense.” WIRED was not able to confirm the identity of the employee.”

At the core of discrimination, subjugation, inequality and inequity lies an inherited belief among the powerful and the ignorant that some kinds of bodies are better than others and are therefore entitled to take more of the resources, more of the available opportunities, and to deny others in the process.  Of course, way beyond the scope of this essay, many factors foment greater or lesser degrees of these outrages.  Fears of war, competition for scarce resources, fears of losses—land, income, a way of life, the freedom to pursue one’s religion or traditions–and pure greed, are examples.

A body I have never met, different than my body, puts me on alert.  My curiosity may hold hands with wonder, or clutch fear in a death grip.  When we encounter a person’s differences, often visually at first, those differences link immediately and unconsciously to anticipatory anxiety about what other differences might disadvantage us.  We fear experiencing incompatibility, or competition for dominance—in tradition, language, belief, values, and behavior.

Affiliations by ethnicity or religion or national origin have meaning for us.  Parts of our personal identities get constituted by what is familiar, customary, and includes beliefs, affects and behaviors associated with the reinforcement of those potent identities.  The performing of specific rituals, the eating of preferred foods, the use of turns of phrase and associated idiosyncratic language or references, as well as music, fashion and other art forms, all contribute to a sense of belonging.

The construction of identities, by virtue of our embeddedness and embodiment within communities that look like us, speak like us, dress like we dress, believe and behave like us, proves problematic in larger conglomerate cultures where the prevailing psychology, belief system and behavior treat some bodies, and some communities, as less worthy than others.

The epitome of hostility toward some bodies, makes them invisible—untouchable, inaudible, ignorable entirely.  This is the societal analog of homicide.  To kill off another human being’s presence; to make them virtually nonexistent in one’s own world. Those with marginalized bodies either recede into the shadows, deliberately hide, or rebel.

There’s a powerful episode on an Australian Netflix show called, ’Wentworth,’ about the governing and inmate populations in a woman’s prison.  The former governor of the prison, Joan, now a murderess inmate, is temporarily shunned by all the women.  Isolated, she has no power and no one to influence.  An isolate is in a dangerously disconnected position, without associates for protection, collective bargaining or reciprocally beneficial arrangements.

Preferred identities, while important to our sense of who we are, can become aggressively dominant and eschew participation in the larger arms of a broader and more complex community comprised of many subgroups.  There is currently a counter tension between the desirability and comfort of belonging that comes with the affiliation afforded by preferred identities (such as African American, or Asian American or European American, etc.) and the thrust toward globality with its deemphasis on identities that describe limited common denominators, even when those denominators.  When a common denominator like skin color has no more association with discriminatory practices and lack of access to positive social networks from birth, perhaps the tension will resolve.

When no negative associations are brought to a meeting of people whose bodies have prominently different distinctions, what can happen?  A woman I know, Rosie Russell, in her mid-fifties and light skinned, traveled to visit a relative in a small city in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest African countries.  She brought soccer balls to poor villages outside the city. All the children ran gleefully toward her, calling her “opoto” and touching her light skin.  Within about five minutes they were all playing ball and joking and laughing.  She told me that most of these children had rarely, if never seen a light skinned person.  The main mode of transportation outside of walking, were a few bicycles and the occasional bus.  In spite of looking intriguingly different, Rosie neither scared nor disgusted the children.  They had no preconceived notions about her and some joyful bonding happened quickly.  The children allowed themselves to be informed about Rosie by experiencing their interactions with her, and she them.

In a context of curiosity, engagement, and wonderment there is only the miracle of particularity; the strangely different as attracting, and interesting.  In this context, free from fear, from greed, from negative objectification, we can find appreciation and connection possible.

Bodies are fancy, miraculous, surprising, with ‘mini brains’ learning and training everywhere in satellite stations of the gut, the muscles; and memories residing like citizens of this complex body-country even to the most outlying regions of fingertip or hair follicle, telling their stories of delight or trauma, of strength or overuse, of triumph or breakdown.

When my body meets your body, I want to figure out how to orient myself to you.  I may already have a prescribed role—as your potential therapist, your colleague, your social acquaintance, or your fellow rider on the bus—so whatever concepts allow me to place you within or outside my realm of experience help me scribe my place beside you.  I want to discover who you are, at least a little bit, so I can discover who we are to each other, at least a little bit.

On page 233 of his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, “All human beings today are the products of a co-evolution of a set of genes (which is almost identical across cultures) and a set of cultural elements (which is diverse across cultures, but still constrained by the capacities and predispositions of the human mind). . . We are out for our own personal gain but tempered by our impetus to promote the group with which we identify.“ Haidt says, we are “not mere apes. . .we are also part bee.”

As eloquent human beings, with neuronal and imaginative plasticity, we must find, beyond apes or bees, that capability–sometimes found in animals living in the wild as well as in domestic households– of loving beyond shell or fur or hoof or paw.


“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997), Ethnic Albanian Roman Catholic nun


Bodies develop over time. Some bodies are genetically and anatomically male or female, and some bodies express genetic variation; but beyond the organic assignments of pregnancies and nursing to women, and mostly the greater size and strength to males on average, it is the gradual sculpting of prerogatives, privileges, realms of knowledge and congregation that generate, not only limitations, but cruel differences in social status, in access to ownership of goods, services, voice, vote, turf, and occupation, not to forget health.  It is the meta-level umbrella of discriminatory, disrespectful, and corrupt meanings, values and practices that attach to and pervert our different strengths.

Our personal pronouns in the English language hypnotically emphasize a binary view of genders. The meaning of gender results from a co-construction of language and culture.  Until recently, aside from the term ‘gender queer,’ we had no mainstream language for a third or alternate gender identity.  The term ‘non-binary’ (female non-binary, male non-binary) had not entered our vocabulary, yet for the Juchitán village of Oaxaca, Mexico, Muxes, a third gender, hold a social role of importance.

In an interview with, Ivan Olita, a Los Angeles based Italian director says, “Though Juchitán is not the paradise of tolerance it might seem, and there are still episodes of discrimination, the Muxes are absolutely part of the city’s cultural landscape. They are cherished by the people of the village and most families see having a Muxe as a blessing, especially since they rarely marry and will most likely take care of their elders. . .

Juchitán Muxes do not need to be dressed as women to be considered such. It is simply a person that is born male but displays certain female characteristics, or some of each, and fills a certain role between men and women, a third gender. The whole dressing thing is not really relevant, it is more about the social role they play.”

In his documentary, Olita makes the point that in the ancient language of Zapotec, “la-ave” refers to another person without the bifurcation of “him” or “her.”  This changed after the Spanish conquistadors.

Muxes do not wish to change their bodies as do many transgendered individuals in the United States.  Muxes have an integrated sense of their (anatomically male) bodies housing characteristics defined as typically belonging to females.  In contrast, the transgendered experience generally includes an experience of disintegration between embodiment and internal sensibility.  To fix the problem and create a sense of personal integration some people choose to alter embodiment hormonally and surgically.  In a sense, many transgendered persons still experience life in a context of male/female bifurcation and want to have their gender identity consistent with their embodiment.

From an article in Zeit Magazin Nr. 1/2018 29. Januar 2018 by Von Annett Heide, we read: “Last November, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled that official documents must add a third gender choice, such as ‘other’ or ‘various,’ arguing that the lack of such a choice is discriminatory. It was a revolutionary ruling. . .’Societal acceptance cannot be mandated by a court ruling, but it is a step in the right direction,’ said Vanja, the plaintiff in the case, who was supported by the campaign Dritte Option, or ‘Third Option.’”

The article discusses the case of a person whose sexual indeterminacy at birth results in a series of sex assignment surgeries which one can only see as butchery now; as the result of the idea that a human being is required to be either male or female, and perhaps the associated notion that psychological adjustment to an atypical presentation of embodiment would be impossible.

As tempting as it is to assign blame to those doctors, they were operating within societal directives and beliefs about characteristics a body must have to thrive and to fit in. New ideas and ways of thinking, just like new developments in technology, in energy resources and life sciences, in literature and art, thrive within historical periods where opportunity, imagination, and fomentation co-occur and disseminate through media and other sources of accessible information.  To sensitize ourselves to others who feel, because of maltreatment, disenfranchised, insulted, or devalued, we must first try on new lenses which only make sense when operating within a new or meta-perspective.

Intentionality must count for something.

Ignorance and innocence have something in common, until they part company at the crossroads of available sources of enlightenment, where the defiantly ignorant continue unwilling to consider new, non-traditional ideas, and the innocent move bravely and openly into the light.  Newer ideas are, of course, not always better, but are generally more expansive and powerful because they better explain social and scientific phenomena that have previously been less well understood.

Intentionality and sensitivity come into play with a great deal of nuance in a recent situation at the NYU dining hall.  According to some online editorials, there was a menu in celebration of Black History Month that included southern “soul” cuisine—ribs, collard greens, mac and cheese, as well as red Kool Aid and watermelon flavored water. Apparently, some vocal students and faculty found this culturally insensitive, highlighting negative associations, as well as excluding food from other places within the black diaspora.

Apparently, African American employees suggested the menu items and Aramark, the company subcontracted to supply the dining hall, made it available.  Aramark later apologized for the offense, and according to what I read, an employee or two may have been fired or reassigned to a new location.

It seems most plausible that the employees who suggested the menu items had good intentions.  But they were castigated and shamed by highly educated, perhaps more sophisticated persons at the university.  Skin color may most obviously mark a divide in privilege in this country, but by no means constitutes the only divide.  Bodies of the same skin color are not equally educated or sophisticated.  If an ignorant person intends something meant to honor a holiday, then is not insensitive to call that person insensitive when there is an equal lack of understanding by both parties—the more and the less educated?

Perhaps we must generalize about insensitivities to push the agenda of greater social equity and equality at large.  But within the larger groups of embodiment identifiers such as skin color or sex, there are a greater number of subsets of persons whose experience and awareness differ greatly.  Conversation, not castigation, must bridge those gaps.


In our digitized world of bytes, we will no longer need to meet in the flesh.  And perhaps our words and our worlds will come together differently, more abstractly, and with fewer hurdles than how we relate body to body.  A client of mine, Sadie, imagined a presidential debate in which the candidates were hidden in booths and only their answers on debate questions were read out loud by the same third party, while a teleprompter transcribed their answers.  Minus bodies, what kinds of ideas would garner the most votes?

Today, our images and words—instagrammed, snapchatted, texted, Facebooked, Linked, emailed, web-paged—suggest but flatten who we are.  And 3D glasses, however the brilliance of their virtual technology, do not even begin to offer the energetic connections we can only experience embodied, hot and personal, in the skin. The beauty of in-the-moment virtual connectedness also distances. . .and at the extreme we can ‘ghost’ one another, kill off our connection by our sudden absence on a screen.  And we adapt.  We get used to nullifying others by never communicating with them again.  And we get used to being annihilated as well.  I worry about this desensitization; a diminishment in our ability to make hellos and goodbyes mean something.

Words of the flesh, embodied words, wear color and texture and punch.  We can feel them, try them on, even imbibe them, and therefore experience empathic responses to them.  Concrete language, as writers of fiction and poetry know, show rather than tell us.  Abstract words like racism and sexism are conceptual, academic, head-in-the-clouds words.  It is, in our real lives, more important than “are you or are you not racist,” to query how and in what ways you embody the stories and beliefs that have oppressive feet on the ground, and in what language you tell them; cast spells with them.

In my experience, people who hate, keep those they hate at a distance.  Face to face proximity gives everyone a human face, breath, and a heartbeat.  It becomes more difficult to keep hate alive when we gaze, face to face, into each other’s eyes and share our stories.

Religious and political affiliations prove very powerful aspects of identity and, unlike more loosely constructed friendship, school, sports or neighborhood groups, religions and political groups have more explicit beliefs which often get reiterated by speech, sermon and slogan.  More emphasis on insider and outsider statuses apply including, at an extreme, shunning—an intragroup shaming and extruding of a former member to an unwelcome outsider status.  It is hard to avoid the notion that for one to be right in one’s beliefs, others have to be wrong.  When others are wrong they require saving, or slaying—figuratively or literally.

I may not be able to live in your skin, but I can live for some moments in your story.

The limits to all human understanding go back to abstract knowledge versus experience.  Empathy is the bridge.  We are amply supplied with mirror neurons and good listening skills.  We can watch movies and read novels and suspend our disbelief so that we may enter a story and feel enveloped in the fabric of its crimes and triumphs.

Even in the publishing world today, it’s a no-no for writers to draw protagonists whose bodies are different than their bodies.  But the world of science fiction and fantasy, in which characters have very different, imagined bodies, lies open to interpretation by anyone. We are equally free to explore the unknown apparently, but not allowed to claim ownership of any relevant ability to understand, let alone describe, the experiences of fictional bodies different than our own.

Objectification—the ownership of bodies of experience–both real and imagined, continues to separate and denigrate our humanity.  We move further from what Martin Buber, a twentieth century philosopher explored in his book, I and Thou, translated from German into English in 1937.  Relationships between people occur in a realm of “I and thou,” as opposed to “I and it.”  And real relationships invite, not only our skins or our parts to talk to each other across differences but also our hearts.  Relationships live, organismically, both beyond and encompassing of each component self.

Neural plasticity allows for simulating future possibilities.  According to Lisa Feldman Barret, in How Emotions are Made, “simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. . .Your brain uses past experiences to construct a hypothesis—the simulation—and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses.” (pg. 27)

From there we go on to make predictions, sometimes in error, and make course corrections along the way.  Simulation underlies play as well as social engagement.  My three- year-old granddaughter Lili hands me a stuffed dog.  She wants me to make it talk so she can have a conversation with it.  In my best ventriloquist’s canine-speak I begin a conversation, during which she tells me to be patient, gives me a kiss, and asks if I want to have a small piece of her toast.  Of course, I do!  We move on to the next activity without a further concern about this stuffed animal who, but a moment ago, moved and gestured and spoke animatedly. Our inter-mentality allowed for the co-creation of a mutually understood and felt imaginary experience.

The porosity of our beings offers us synergistic communication and understanding, insofar as it is possible for one human being to get inside the skin of another human being.

I do not accept that I cannot understand you.  And it’s not the merit of having worked as a therapist for over thirty years.  No, not at all.  We achieve understanding because you allow me into your world, because I check in with you and ask, ‘So, is this how it is for you?’ And I ask you how things were done and what was expected and accepted in your family, your community, your religion, your culture, your nation, your time in history.  And we work on the filigree of your experience until we have co-created a narrative that means something to you, at least in the present, in this room, in this conversation that we have produced together, inter-mentally. We are in each other’s minds and hearts through the pores in our skin and the portals of our eyes and ears.

When you speak of your life, your story is now happening through me, like a fish swims through water.  The medium of me, of the river, are part of your story, the journey of the fish.  And when we go to the movies together we suspend our disbelief and cry as if the unfolding of events in this story-world are happening to me and my beloveds, to you and your beloveds, and to our relationship because, in this moment, we are one sea, and in this one sea the story rises and falls.

That I cannot learn you or you cannot learn me is just an idea, like any other idea, and sometimes an intransigent belief that holds us back. Your body has lived experiences different from my own, and yet I feel sensations in my body that resonate with your story, as if, right now, as you tell me, it happens inside me, like a cellular infusion; homologous.


My mother is gone.  My mother-in-law is gone.  I think often these days that all ownership, even of my body’s address, yields to the surround wittingly, willingly, or anyway.  I can but borrow and share what I have. We all dress in the dust of have nots for most of eternity.


Are we not all influencers and illuminators?  Grassroots movements that resulted in the women’s marches, though the events happen on a singular day, illustrate the potency of word of mouth influence.  There is someone whose opportunities—to realize their personal strengths and aptitudes and interests, as well as to accessing education, career, and other concrete paths—will benefit from a relationship with us.   Reach out.  Develop a friendship, a mentorship, a connection of some kind with someone who can benefit from whatever you have to offer.  Help close the opportunity gap.  Not only does bias damage our relationships with others, but also to ourselves.  How easy we find it to hate our own bodies when they differ from cultural ideals:  we are too dark skinned or too light, too fat, too short, too old, too disabled, our noses or lips or ears are too large, our heads are too small, our hair too curly or too straight. And from these self-limiting narratives we derive others:  No one will love me, I will never succeed, I can’t, I can’t. . .

As poet ee cummings, wrote, “yes is a world.”  Each body is a world.  Every body is a ‘yes.’


Sunday, March 18, 2018 (First posted on Solstice blog July 2015)

Yesterday in Brooklyn, NY I saw young mothers strolling their own children, and Jamaican women strolling other women’s children.  Mothers and nannies walked, did errands, negotiated cease fires between siblings, bartered lollipops for patience, tickled and explained the teaming stimuli of the surround.

I thought of the ease with which people, beginning as strangers to each other, proceed to bend and twist, adapting like a tree to the turns and swallows of the river alongside its bank, reaching toward the nourishing light.  We reach beyond our strangeness and otherness toward familiarity, love and intimacy.  We want to insinuate ourselves into family, village or social group.

Our particulars present themselves like exquisite phrases of poetry to be savored—the exotic not-me of you; the beautiful not-you of me.  There is a strangeness to everything beautiful.  Its power to compel our curiosity and wonder both attracts and scares us.

                                                                 Our skins

 Our skins do not constitute the great divide, but rather the great connect.  Our skins breathe us into one another when we come close enough to talk, to touch, to share a coffee or a confidence or to watch the flowers brush against the scrubbed pillar of a gated driveway between brownstones.

Skin deep is plenty of ‘deep;’ deep as the heart, deep as the connection between my daughter and her new baby.  Each cry of the baby speaks to my daughter’s breasts and her milk rains down.  The baby’s noises penetrate my daughter’s sleep and mine, a room away with the door open.  These are sounds of thriving, of adjusting, of digesting endlessly it seems—the milk train stopping at its tiny stations in Minna’s body, imbuing her blood with both sustenance and waste–emptying with our great anticipation into her diaper.

We read the diaper for its hieroglyphics: how well did she eat?  Did she get enough? How profitably did her body work its alchemy?

What is it like for the black women changing the diapers of the white babies in their care?  And did the children from their own loins remain at home with grandmothers or aunties awaiting money or opportunity?

                                                 The first act of diversity

 A mother bearing a child is the first act of diversity.  Before a child you are your uni-verse.  After a child you occupy a di-verse.

On Facebook my daughter wrote:  “My sweet little hedgehog. She pooped in my arms today and I started sobbing with joy. This intense desire for someone else’s happiness and comfort …it’s utterly insane and transformative. Or maybe I just need another nap.”

I know the root of the word ‘diverse’ does not, in fact, come from ‘di’ and ‘verse,’ but I take poetic license to bring these meanings together.  A verse is a metric line, and two lines together harmonize, elaborate or contradict each other.

I think of the book, ‘The Help,’ and of the brilliant portrayal of the love between a slave and the girl she raises.  Theirs is a bond built skin to skin and eyes to eyes.  The very marrow of the girl is her nanny’s wisdom.  The intimacy and importance of their relationship thrives in a context hostile to its fulfillment in adulthood.

Think of the word, ‘cleave.’  It means to join and to sever.  It means itself and its opposite.  The intimacy of the slave-mother and her master’s child joins them initially and severs them later.

                                  Let the DNA decide who’s a stranger

 Recently a client of mine took her theatrically minded daughter—whose DNA is half Middle Eastern–to a casting company in Boston where she learned that the Hollywood look right now for female protagonists is one of slightly indeterminate ethnicity.  My client’s daughter might look Native American, or Latina, or from the Middle East, or even slightly Asian with her dark almond eyes.  Ethnic is in!

Anyone who is not me is you and you are a stranger until I know you.  I fear you will bite me. I am wired to protect myself.  “But to know you is to love you,” said one of my clients.  I know what she means. As a therapist I sit across from human beings whom I come to love.  The more I know someone the more I love them. The more I love them the more beautiful they become.  And as they become more beautiful they become more strange.  Strangely infinite, strangely fascinating. Like “cleave,” what is deeply familiar is also deeply, strangely particular.

I am too old to feel afraid of asking anyone a question and to ask if it is a polite enough question or if it is all right to seek information and insight about a topic not typically discussed in a person’s family, culture or country of origin.  I am no longer afraid to ask when I am ignorant or uninformed.  I am curious.  Curiosity, like love, is a bridge over the rivers of experience that run between me and not-me.  If I learn how you make sense of your world and you learn of my sincerity, then our understanding holds us like we would a baby in the most essential di-versity.

When enough bridges cross the river between us, our banks will be joined as will our collective DNA.  We will all be mutts and mongrels, and, as in the case of dogs, stronger and hardier because of it.  We will have our legacies and ancestry documented in millions of digital bytes on Snapchat and Facebook and recorded for posterity.  Our mixed backgrounds of race, nationality, culture, and so forth will constitute the ingenuity and curiosity and love from which we are all born.  We will not erase race or religious belief out of hate or fear, nor aim for some kind of false purity of race or soul. Our particulars will constitute aspects of interest and will tell part of our stories.  Increasingly we are globe dwellers, living in concentricity rather than behind battle lines, though the world is full of those now, and they are all losing battles.

                                                     The DNA of villages

When my daughter fell apart last night, crying with weakness and fatigue and sore nipples and the overwhelming love she feels for this tiny daughter who takes up all the room in the apartment, the City, her world, she said, “I can’t imagine doing this alone.”

To Hilary Clinton’s “village,” we cannot tell the story of our humanity alone.  Not in our homes, not in our cities and towns, not in our synagogues, churches and mosques, nor in our countries nor our world.  There is me and there is not-me.

We do not need to speak of diversity as if it needs to be built or made room for.  Diversity is already the composite nature of the bricks that make our world.  We need to see ourselves as diverse because we are, and to love ourselves for it.

Recently some friends and I took our kayaks down the Bearcamp River into Ossipee Lake in New Hampshire.  The bigger, stiller body of the lake had already warmed quite a bit in early July, inviting our own bodies into it for swimming and cooling off.  The less inviting icy cold river twisted and bent, hosting a number of tiny beaches below campsites where pop-up tents, RVs and trailers sheltered lots of folks over the July 4th weekend.  From the Native American center, strains of music played by a wooden flute melded into Latin pop and Country Western.

Everywhere, we steered around flotillas of river rafts, some housing caches of beer and wine as well as children, adolescents and grandparents tied together by ropes and laughter.  No one revolted against the goose bump raising cold of the river.  Whether blue-lipped or numbed, everyone loved the river because that was where they were; no choice to be made about the river being cold.  The river that carries you is the one you have to love.  This life in many verses is the music we make.

As we kayaked by the rafters, making jokes about our poor steerage and debating the likelihood of rain, we all said “Happy Fourth!”  Even those for whom English is an additional language.  I don’t think any of us were so much celebrating independence as a nation from Britain as we were stirring around in our “melting pot,” chillin’ out; not boiling in the cauldron we’ve made for ourselves out of a hatred that comes from fear:  fear that you are not me, not like me, are against me.

                             Here’s where I meander like the river and then land

Once I saw the parents of a young woman who was dating a man twice her age.  They drove for four hours to my office to convince me of his evil motives so that I would “help” their daughter break up with him.  They contrived for him to lose his job.  But when I met with their daughter—a young woman with an educational and career trajectory for her life—it seemed clear that this relationship was part of her love story.  And she had not been harmed.  Her parents refused a meeting with all parties present.  After all, it is hard to demonize someone with a human face.  It is hard to demonize someone skin to skin, eyes to eyes.

I know a woman named Rozzie, who is proudly “all Italian.”  Also a geneology fan, she recently sent a tube of saliva to for DNA analysis.  Full-blooded Italian grandparents notwithstanding, she delightedly reported some rogue DNA from Germany and Great Britain and Jewish regions in Eastern Europe with a small percentage of “unknown.” “Give me the pizza with everything in it,” she laughed.

Skin does not divide but joins us.  We will tie our rafts together and choose each other because on this planet we are whom we have to choose.  The literature of Bearcamp River is one of interwoven stories while rafting camp to camp on Independence Day.  Minna’s first stanza cries out before there is an “I” to sing it.  She cries at the moment she is cord-cut and held at the same time.  Cleaved. Di-versed.




The Love Byte of Affirmation

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Affirmations, a subspecies of thought, have the power to attract and to constellate our affects, bodily sensations, postural alignment, how we move, availability of energy, and sensory utilization as well as neural circuitry.  The entirety of our bodyminds responds to affirmations, just as they do to denigrating thoughts about ourselves, other persons or situations.   We can learn to harness the potential of affirmations to program ourselves to operate or run in a desired way.

If we borrow the vocabulary given us by software programming, we might think of the use of affirmations as essentially downloading bytes of code into our wetware.  Self-affirmations are thoughts, and specifically the kind of thoughts we call beliefs. When encoding beliefs works best, these beliefs must dovetail well with the programming that already runs.  This explains why potent affirmations must underscore narratives about ourselves with which we can agree, at least for the most part. When we grow up in households, and communities, we imbibe the predominant beliefs on a daily basis—about ourselves and our communities and those outside our immediate neighborhoods, towns, states, and even countries. As children our minds are open and curious.  Our permeable cells and senses saturate with the thoughts around us—happy, encouraging, worried, condemning, complaining, illuminating, or dismissive?  Particularly, when we hear over and over again, thought patterns, or belief subscriptions, we often incorporate those rigorously reinforced bytes of code as unquestionable.

Yet, we retain the capacity to construct and utilize affirmations purposefully: to increase our courage in tough situations, for comfort when we have suffered insult, rejection, or when we have disappointed ourselves or others, and to bolster new behavior, thought patterns and their consequently more uplifting affects.  Affirmations, when practiced diligently, can shift our perspectives, bolster our endurance, and prime us to gather our wits or our energy in order to behave or make progress on our goals in a desired way. Due to their newness in our thought-repertoire, affirmations must be repeated often enough to achieve the reiterative familiarity of second nature, and to dominate the multiple narratives that we maintain within ourselves.

Robert Sopolsky writes, in his fascinating book, Behavior, about the concept of automaticity, an alternate word to describe what happens when someone studying a piece of piano music, for example, now gets through the complicated trill “without thinking.”  In terms of the brain science, the neural activity moves from prefrontal cortex to a reflexive part of the brain.  With mastery in sports, in music, in a second language, in all types of activities, this geographical migration within the complex landscape of the brain takes place over time with practice, practice, practice.

Louise Hay reiterates that every piece of inner monologue is an affirmation or endorsement of beliefs, whether useful or unproductive.  She says that the deliberate use of self-constructed affirmations serves to eliminate unproductive thoughts or to create new ones which can offer us help in changing.

When we construct self-affirmations in a specific use of language that speaks to us and sounds like us, and hones our awareness of exceptional stories from our lives to lend support, then these affirmations help to shape our supportive behavior around them.  As an example, when fearful of learning something new, if I affirm that I can learn most things by studying them enough, then constructing time and effort to study the materials I have collected for the purpose, both buttresses and benefits from my affirmation.  The term, “exceptional stories,” taken from Narrative Therapy theory, refer to the moments in our lives when, even if shy, we have spoken up and voiced our concerns; or when, even if we feel prone to procrastination and avoidance, we just up and do something without over-thinking it.  It is much easier to affirm behaviors or thoughts that we have actually experienced, even if more rarely than our commonly held thoughts and typically produced behaviors, than to affirm foreign thoughts and behaviors that do not ring true.

From an online article in Psychology Today by Ray Williams, (May 5, 2013), called, ‘Do Self-Affirmations Work? A Revisit,’ we read: “There are other researchers who question the validity and utility of self-affirmations. Canadian researcher, Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo and her colleagues at the University of New Brunswick who have recently published their research in the Journal of Psychological Science, concluded repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

The researchers asked people with and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.” They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves. The low-esteem group felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not. However, people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive affirmation–but only slightly.”

This research is helpful in our understanding that wholesale affirmations, a one-size-fits- all concept, does not work as well as affirmations that support our main or exceptional narratives about ourselves.  For our affirmations to work, they must fit criteria of authenticity, and customization in our own use of language.  They must be consistent with our deeply held beliefs.

Williams goes on to write, “These findings were supported by previous research published in 1994 in the Journal of Social Psychology, showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better.”

And it makes sense.  We feel like frauds when people compliment us for something we do not think we deserve.  But when we feel truly seen for what we do, and noticed for that, and when the acknowledgements are “right-sized,” a phrase used in 12-step programs, then we can accept and feel boosted by such social recognition and support.

Sometimes self-affirmations actually amount to a rewriting (and neural rewiring) of old stories about ourselves with which we have been inculcated to our detriment.  In the excavation-level explorations that sometimes occur in psychotherapy or self-reflection, we can uncover these artifacts and recognize who planted them there.  All of these narratives may form part of our multifaceted identities, and we can exercise the right to revoke, reverse, or debate these no longer warranted narratives.

As an example, Joseph felt depressed a lot of the time and tended to sleep a lot now that he had some good recovery time from drinking accomplished.  He had moments of happiness when his kids visited, when he took long walks in the woods, or prepared a meal for friends.  But he expressed to me his exhaustion at not being able to “fix” himself.  Joseph said, “I know I’m all screwed up, and I just don’t know how to fix myself.”

“How do you know you’re all screwed up?” I asked him one afternoon.

“Well, my mother never stopped telling me how I’d ruined her life and that of my sister, the goodie-two-shoes.”

As we continued to talk, I proposed that Joe contemplate the possibility that, if by some miracle the thought that he was “all screwed up” disappeared, would there be anything to fix?  Would there be any exhaustion around such a project?

“I guess I’ve carried that belief around for a long time“, Joe considered. “Maybe way too long.”

How relieving to become aware of self-negating beliefs as just beliefs; and not ultimate truths.  As Joe worked through the notion that he might think otherwise about himself, he came to the conclusion that he could revoke all-screwed-up-ness from his list of identifiers.

In a University of Pennsylvania article, published November 20, 2015, called ‘The Neural Mechanics of Self-Affirmation,’ “led by Doctoral Candidate Christopher Cascio and Associate Professor Emily Falk and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” (incorporating research out of both UCLA and the Michigan Center for Excellence in Cancer Communication Research), the team “used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find that self-affirmation activates well-known reward centers in the brain. These areas — the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) — are the same reward centers that respond to other pleasurable experiences, such as eating your favorite meal or winning a prize.”

This research underscores the notion that for affirmations to feel good, then they must sync with our motivational/seeking and reward/redemption emotions and behaviors.  If I want to run a really good half marathon, am both motivated, and self-affirmative (“I know I give this and all races my best”), then I will feel rewarded by both the affirmation as well as by the solid completion of the race.

If I had never run a half marathon then such a self-affirmation would not do much good.  But if I had to get 13 miles down the road, I might successfully utilize the energizing potential of an affirmation like this:  “There is some pace by which I can keep going; even if it is a slow walk, I can keep going.”

One client, Jim, said that for him, trying to be perfectly on a diet doomed him to frequent failures.  In contrast, the willingness to eat modestly well on a holiday, for example, felt freeing.  Within freedom one encounters all possibilities—not only poor choices, but great choices.  Whereas, perfection has as its painful bedfellow, only failure.

Affirming ourselves can help us stay afloat during tough times.  Sometimes affirmations are actually rationalizations. Rationalizing is a psychological defense mechanism that protects us from feeling weaker, smaller, less competent, less than. . .And sometimes it is helpful, in order to keep on truckin’, to indulge in affirmative self-talk:  ‘So she didn’t go to the dance with me;  she’s probably stuck up and wouldn’t want to be seen with me anyway.  It’s better to go with my neighbor.  We’re friends and will have a good time.’  Or, ‘So I didn’t get that promotion.  It would have made for a lot more work without a lot more pay. I’m glad I dodged that bullet.’

In summary, positive self-affirmations work when they meet these criteria:  authenticity, believability, align with some other beliefs about the self, reflect exceptional stories in our own lives, are well practiced, sound like our own language, are specific and not inflated.  And most importantly, learning how to accept the genuine acknowledgement and recognition of others—learning to absorb that on a cellular level—helps us rework our narratives, rewire our brains, and open doors to greater freedom and new possibilities.

Writing Prompt:

What are some your self-limiting beliefs?  Do these sound like people you know?  Or derive from painful experiences you can remember?  What would you like to believe about yourself that will lift you up?  When have you experienced yourself as that (belief) courageous, assertive, open, persistent, etc?

Web Camel Transport 51

The Orange Question

July 23, 2017 (Image Breaking Out by Sally Tharp)

If you and your spouse or partner had to live in a rustic cabin for a week, with little variety to eat, just predominantly oranges, and you had an hour to pick all of them out from a large orange warehouse, what qualities in the oranges would you select, in order that you optimize your satisfaction that week?

 I developed The Orange Question as a strategy for inviting couples, coming in for therapy, to imagine, envision, and feel empowered to select, from all existing possibilities, those qualities which would most satisfy their desire for a good week together.

In a literal sense, oranges satisfy nutritional needs for survival.  But, in a metaphorical rendering of the perfect selection of oranges, we want additional qualities, such as deliciousness, fragrance, juiciness, that move the common orange well beyond its status as mere staple.

Surviving together as a couple, for five, ten, or twenty years, already represents a meritorious level of success in many things, like task-sharing, negotiation, cooperation, financial stability, co-parenting if there are children, communicating about logistics, and so forth.  But, unless one is a Zen master, most of the mundane business of everyday life generates little that feels romantic, imaginative, exciting or inspirational.  We humans, ever restless in our metronomic swings between the desire for familiarity, and also for novelty, for security but also delightful surprise, can get stuck in ruts of boredom or anhedonia when we just subsist, lazily plotting how to kill time between requisite efforts.

Couples, other than those living in extremes of substance dependence, psychological chaos, abuse or criminality, come apart when their multiple modes of connection have atrophied and only a narrative of cohabitation and complaint remains. When couples seek therapy, we often make efforts to untangle the morass of complaints, in order to achieve a better understanding of how each party interprets the behavior of the other.  And misinterpretations account for a vast number of exchanges that escalate into angry outbursts and emotional skewering.  While processes for coming to understand each other better, and developing one’s emotional IQ about the other person are very useful, therapy sessions may devolve into a swamp of despair if they do not also introduce the imaginative rendering of future chapters that, if not bursting with flavor, yield at least some mellow opportunities for satisfaction.

The Orange Question, and other questions like it, invigorate the muse that most of us house, garbed in hope, playfulness, curiosity and inventiveness.  Hypothetical questions, just like a Rorschach test, throwing the I Ching, or responding to a poem or a piece of music, extend to the responder a reflective template upon which to project the self as a character in a different story—sometimes the exceptional tale that’s poised on the bottom lip ready for launch.

Rina wanted juicy oranges, some ripe and some ripening, and oh so sweet.  And Joe said they must be easy to peel.  No pits; neither dried out nor mushy.  Rina added succulence and freshness; that they must find the best ones.

Another couple, Rose and Shep, offered their collective responses:  Make sure to get enough for survival, some ripe, some ripening, no bruising or flattening, flexibility to cut or peel, nothing in a bag, everything exposed, round, undamaged, big, bright color, tastes good, appealing to look at, juicy, colorful.

Having congratulated each couple for coming up with so many desirable characteristics, I then asked them to listen to my reading of the qualities they mentioned, and as they heard each one, to then ask themselves whether that quality, now abstracted from ‘oranges,’ had any relevance to the marriage they wanted to experience.  Were, for example, juiciness, sweetness and ripeness relevant?  Did a sense of freshness appeal?  Were there aspects of their relationship in which being “easy to peel” or “without pits,” served to boost satisfaction?  How relevant was ripening in the relationship as an engine driving better partnership?

This morning I read this quote:  “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” written by the poet, Muriel Rukeyser.  Of course, ‘atoms’ are also story-words, our lenses for what we can know of these unnamed phenomena. Do we not marry the universe with verse because we know how to love in language?

Steve Gaddis, a masterful Narrative therapist speaks of very careful, effortful “scaffolding” or “laddering” questions by the therapist that lead the client deeply into her own experience, both emotionally and thoughtfully.  Instead of enactment therapies, like Psychodrama or Internal Family Systems or Gestalt therapy—which can be cathartic—narrative therapy asks detailed questions including those of a sensory nature—Where was he sitting?  How old was he?  What were you feeling?  What were you hearing? Was he looking you in the eye? Are there other remembered stories like this?

When we examine and tell the tales of our past or present experiences in a holistic and detailed way, or hear those of others in all the specifics, then, as under a microscope, a world of possibilities emerges that, perhaps, we had not seen or utilized previously.  These in-the-moment experiences of re-seeing, rethinking, and re-considering, wake us up from soporific assumptions and desiccated stories that have lost all vitality.  The asking of “laddered” questions, much like utilizing the Socratic method, function like an electron microscope, or at least a magnifying glass to reveal what has previously been glossed over with the cataract of complacency or defensiveness.

In spite of my therapeutic orientation as a more relational than solution-focused (alone) therapist, there’s a similarity between the Orange Question and Steve De Shazar’s famous Miracle Question, developed for Solution Focused Therapy. It was called, in 1988, a “thought experiment.”  It goes something like this:  If, by some miracle, you go to sleep tonight and wake up with your problem(s) already solved, how does your life now look without that problem?  How do you now act and feel? What is now amazingly different?

Byron Katie produced her famous four questions to unlock the stories that bind us in self-torture, stuckness, and helplessness.  First, write down the evil thought, the harsh judgment, the worst-case scenario and then ask these questions about it:  1) Is it true?  (that your spouse hates you, or that your boss always has unfair expectations, that your sister is nothing but selfish, that none of your kids appreciate you., etc.) You need to sit with that question and let the experience of it circulate through your whole body.  2)  Can you absolutely know it’s true?  Is this something that you have the authority to know, as in the contents of someone else’s mind. This second question plumbs downward past our vast lachrymatory, through our layered onion skins of interpretation to arrive at the translucent membrane through which the relevant reality shines as a nascent, as-yet-untold tale. 3) We are asked to experience the turbulence, the shuddering, the precipitous feelings and quickened sensations that arise as we sink into the quicksand of our demeaning, damning stories.  When we believe these are our only stories, they hold us hostage in an airless chamber.  This is the embodiment question.  4) We imagine ourselves in the same place with the person or situation that troubled us, now unshrouded by our stressful story about it.  “Who would we be without that thought?”  How would this freedom feel?  Do our lives feel better with or without our damaging story?

Finally, Byron Katie asks us to perform a “turnaround,” when we examine and experience within our minds and bodies the “opposite” of what we believed.  And we find three or more examples of the truth of the “turnaround.”

Katie’s “turnaround” is kin to Narrative Therapy’s “exceptions,” as well as to De Shazar’s morning-after-the-problem-is-solved.  And, also, to Gestalt’s awakening of the dance between foreground and background in which positive and negative configurations can tickle our senses—blend and blur or alternate the capture of our attention.

The Socratic Method teaches by questioning. Although we absorb so much knowledge in school and from our parents via the lecture method, from infancy on, we learn most robustly by co-generated actions on, and in our world. At first, we learn our world as the barely differentiated landscapes of our body and our mother’s body. Later we question the acorns, stones, grapes, Tupperware, brushes, and sister’s long hair by picking up and dropping, pulling, mouthing, carrying these objects, and later still we question intention, motive, cause and effect.  We develop associative thinking, make connections, and construct the nature of the world in which we live.  We open it.  We close it.  Sometimes we close it too prematurely and our ideas go into isolation and lockdown.  All thinking is relational—name to object; co-development of ideas between persons; isomorphically related concepts from one field to another via cross fertilization of knowledges in our own minds; even gossip.  The end of our questioning marks the end of the road where, as pickings for its teeth, death consumes what’s left of us.

“This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This ‘belief’ fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.” (Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Online at website:  and excerpted from Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips) A fine laddering of questions in which a belief, and its believer must run an obstacle course of unusual circumstances, situations embedded in complex contexts or hypothetical counter-explanations, offers that exquisitely painstaking and painful knife edge of differentiation that renders the outcome of such questions both hard won and prized.  Upon this kind of parsing we pivot, perhaps in relief for letting go of self-damning explanations for our failures and unhappiness, but also in pain for shedding the protective wall of our decay and indifference.  Detailed questioning of our limiting beliefs creates psychic distance from them.  The experience creates breathing room between a sense of self and one’s problems.  A stuck problem, once opened to viewing from multiple vantage points, opens itself for solvability or even solubility as it dissolves completely within the context of a newly imagined story.  To a large extent we author our own lives, develop our own troubles, and yet, enjoy the capacity to imagine our way to juicier, sweeter oranges.

Guest Saddle:  Upon what resistant problem would the light of questioning shine most brightly in your life?  What dried up ‘orange’ in your life could use an infusion of juiciness and sweetness?







Web Camel Transport 50


Friday, July 7, 2017

Christine sorts through Mari’s things for the 11th time since I started seeing her 17 years ago.  We have known each other longer than her daughter, Mari, lived, dying at age 15.  Christy has moved twice since Mari lapsed from consciousness.  Each subsequent house has felt temporary, and each had a bedroom in which Mari should have gone to sleep and awakened every morning. The final retirement home will have no empty bedroom for Mari’s ghost.

Most of us worship at the shrine of a unified self. We remember, and by inviting memories—sharp or vague, garnished with fear, humiliation or gladness–build a chronology, a through line for ourselves.  See, here we are at the beach, Mari and me.  And at every Halloween she wore a different witch hat; and there I sat, typing up my poems on an IBM Selectric word processor.

We develop into multiplicities; layered versions of our mythological, monolithic notions of me.  Our various selves, in different moments, or linked to different people or places or passions or defeats form a crowd that sometimes coheres and sometimes conflicts; occasionally a self sits alone, isolated from the rest. The crystalline Christine has lost a main facet.  For years she has obscured that lopsidedness by shoring up Mari’s things, even as they, too, desiccate, shred, fade, attenuate, turn transparent as a dying butterfly’s wings.

After 17 years and 11 times sorting through Mari’s belongings, Christy has yet to find a satisfying sense of completion.  The new retirement house, the empty nest and the one floor maintenance-free manifestation of success in living long enough to slough off unnecessary accoutrements helps though.  This weeding has got to be the last.

An archaeologist, fingering relics of infinite sorrow, Christy has done the work of grievers:  Lit candles at the shrine on Mari’s birthday and the day she died; sat in groups for parents whose children have died, read the library of self-help books, journaled, written commemorative stories, scanned pictures into Shutterfly books, testified and won the malpractice suit, and talked with me.  She as she is, Christy refused the settlement offer in favor of telling her daughter’s story, and perhaps, year after year, she comes back to sit with me every three or four weeks, to tell her daughter’s story again.  This is what she has left of motherhood.

That Christy cannot “move on,” a capstone phrase of our culture, might presuppose a narrative of failure, in life, and perhaps in therapy.  As I talk with Christy, I brush away some cobwebs of occupational failure myself; that she still comes, still needs me.  How my helping has never arrived at an outcome we imaginable as complete, or successful.

I have offered her an ‘out’ on occasion, a kind of graduation from therapy, but she wants to come back.  Perhaps, like an omnipresent and patient dog, no matter for how long, I am simply willing to hear again her story, Mari’s story.  To tear up each time she tears up.  Most people “don’t want to hear,” she tells me.  Her mother, her sister and brother, her friends, even her husband who shares a parent’s loss.

So, my willingness, and my diligent witnessing, surpass any analytical intelligence or interventional strategy I might employ to pull her from the abyss of inconsolable, and as the literature has it, “complicated grief.”  I honor Christy who has an unparalleled capacity to bend and gaze and breathe and remember, and replay and ruminate and touch her daughter’s decomposing things and tell, again and again, her story.  Together we reconstruct this dinosaur of grief from bone fragments and shards of information, with slight but significant differences.  But there is no return to Christy of her own person, and certainly not of Mari.

The thing is, Mari died because of a confluence of medical negligence.  And not because of any lapse on Christy’s part. But as a mother, she needs to hold on to an alternate reality in which, if she discovers the necessary details of omniscience and omnipotence, she could have, and would have, saved her daughter.  This seeking and puzzle solving keeps Christy alive.  And who am I, in the service of mental health, to disabuse her of this problem?  The one that knots her up but also tethers her to the planet.  Byron Katie notwithstanding (Who would you be without your story?), Christy would be dead without her story. Even for a woman of faith, the Catholic story of heavenly reunion has not sufficed, because love is a flavor of mortal connection.  This is how things, like Velveteen rabbits, start twitching their noses, and cell phones become homes away from home. So, we are working on saying goodbye to Mari’s things, sorting out rabbits from vegetation.

Our things define and describe the spaces in which we live and work as places.  Things are also place holders and prompters.  Like pearls on a strand, things help to chronologize our days, our months, even our family legacies.  I move from the pantry where coffee sits, to coffee maker and faucet, to cabinet for a mug to the fridge for half and half, to the table where the computer awaits the tap dance of my hands and the phone sits a bit removed, just out of the circle of temptation. And I’ve opened the sliders so I can feel the air move as it fans the branches of the hundred-year-old White Pine, against which my kayak leans, reminding me of the benefits, for the external obliques, of circulating the torso in a figure eight pattern.  And as the washer rinses towels and spins for the last time, sadness rinses and spins me too, as this signals my aloneness.  My dear guests have recently left and, though I looked forward to my solo time, I miss them already, those who have taken their sandals and bathing suits and beach toys and books which had marked their presence these last few days.  Dr. Christian Jarrett, in an article from The British Psychological Society, entitled, ‘The Psychology of Stuff and Things,’ quotes Karen Lollar, whose house burned down: “’My house is not “just a thing,”’ wrote Karen Lollar in 2010. ‘The house is not merely a possession or a structure of unfeeling walls. It is an extension of my physical body and my sense of self that reflects who I was, am, and want to be.’”

While the ‘thinghood,’ of my things is an extension of myself, it is also, necessarily, a distinguisher of otherness.  I cannot, after all, acquire or consume myself.  A toddler will think it funny if you ask, “Where’s Tommy’s nose?” as you look around under couch pillows, because by shear development he knows his nose is inherent to his being. The building blocks of myself exist in the world as influences, whether nutritional, intellectual, affectional, physical or moral.  Objects in the world, living and inorganic, magnetize me like a compass, or repel me.

Some psychologists say we grow more attached to the things we anthropomorphize.  But this imbuing of human characteristics to inorganic objects is the same process by which we relate to other persons who, in an important sense, are also objects in our world.  The more we humanize other humans, the more curiosity, empathy, compassion, identification and gratitude can lubricate the stubborn viscosity that has prevented us from fully embracing our own tenuous humanity and ability to relate.  On the other hand, the more we objectify other human beings, the easier it is to use, abuse and discard them.

As my mother lay dying in her bedroom, light through the blinds dappled the bed, the bookshelves, her dresser, catching occasionally on one of the delicate gold chains that spilled from a ceramic cup in which she kept them next to perfumes, all sitting on a hammered copper plate from Lithuania.  It reminded me of Mico Kaufman, a sculptor in Tewksbury, who said to me, as he showed me his studio and work, “I love to see the presence of the hand.”

Hammers extend the hand’s power to attach materials, to build, to impress design.  Phones extend our power to communicate plans, feelings, ideas.  Planes give wings to the imagination’s delight in travel.  Grandma’s samovar extends the memory of a family’s story across a continent and languages and through the ravages of war.  Russell Belk, mentioned in many articles for his work on the meaning of things, says things are “extensions of the self.”  But within and outside our own kinespheres, our extensions-of-self serve the purpose of anchoring us, as do bridges, across divides between our panoply of selves, and between ourselves and salient others.

Above the dermal layers of being, few objects seemed important to my mother but for the cheap digital clock which she demanded to see, that she might orient herself, in clock time, during these last few days without meals or errands or defined periods of sleeping and waking.  Behind the blinds silhouettes of leaves trilled, and beyond the fading room our voices, mine and my sisters, and those of our mother’s few remaining friends rose and whispered and coughed and sighed and sobbed and quieted, as do voices among the living.

My mother pared down her belongings years before she died.  Still, she had more than my sisters and I could use or treasure or shepherd into the future.  My sister Lynne took on stewardship of the Grand Dame, the Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano my mother played her entire adult life, but inherited from my father’s mother, Fannie, who won it during the seventh annual student competition at the New England Conservatory of Music, on Saturday, May 13, 1916, at 2:30 PM in Jordan Hall. The program was Beethoven’s 1st movement of Sonata in C major, opus 53, Chopin’s Nocturne in F major, opus 15, no. 1, and Debussy’s ‘L’isle Joyeuse.’ According to the Boston based Mason & Hamlin website, they went from making organs to pianos in 1881. “With Mason & Hamlin’s innovations, use of only the finest materials and expert craftsmanship, its pianos were the world’s costliest to produce and widely accepted as the world’s finest.”

Julie Beck, in an Atlantic Monthly article from 12/10/14 quotes, “’Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,’ write Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book The Meaning of Things. ‘Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.’”

So what does it mean to do justice to an object so meticulously honed, and so momentously won for the artistry and craftsmanship of its musician, which has now survived all relevant owners in a family?  To honor the piano, it must be played, lovingly and by someone whose connoisseurship recommends them.  The piano must feel the presence of a devotee’s hands.

Like pimps, the piano resellers trivialized the worth of our older and less than furniture quality, but well-tended instrument.  However, they would take it off our hands.  My sister would not give up so easily, and the long tentacles of Craig’s List brought a sale close, and even closer, as successively, potential buyers tendered, not only their checkbooks but their stories.  And the most closely aligned story won!  Though there were several in the running:  The woman who, widowed young, made it on her own with three daughters, one of which with musical inclination.  We are four sisters whose mother was widowed at 42.  There was the young man studying at the New England Conservatory for a Certificate in Composition and his parents would house the Grand Dame at their Cape Cod house, just down the street from my sister’s house.  Synchronicity there.  And then there was the Frenchman, a concert pianist who needed such a piano on which to prepare for his summer concert series. And betwixt and between, the Grand Dame’s piano tuner’s client, a semi-retired lawyer, who like our mother, played all the time.  He had already driven fifty miles several times to play it, and, like our mother, had his own bucket list of compositions he wanted to accomplish before he died.  He was selling his Steinway to have this Mason & Hamlin, and our mother’s piano tuner of 40 years would continue his service to the Grand Dame.  Driven by divine discontent, he reminded me of my mother who, ever curious, ever ludic, would place her diminutive arthritic fingers on the keyboard and start a new piece, or play from ear some jazz, some ragtime, and a rock song or two.

I went to the home of a client in trouble for hoarding, and thus endangering her child.  The abundance I saw held, somewhat obscured at first, both order as well as overwhelming love.  Books, toys, clothing, art supplies, and every paper with a hand drawn doodle piled up, a growing hedge against forgetting even a single kiss.  Every day is a keeper.

I keep the word ‘omphaloskepsis’ written on a piece of paper from a receipt in my main glasses case, housing the fourth iteration lenses for my deteriorating eyesight.  It appeared ten years ago in a Balderdash game and I married it, Las Vegas style, love at first sight.

In a world of mass manufactured things, I recommend Gerard Bertrand’s Cote des Roses wine, in a bottle topped with a glass stopper and standing on an irregularly whorled rose petal bottom.  However reiterative, perfume and flavor and color and design coalesce in perfect harmony.  I sit here with my pale coral wine in a warm air that gently condenses the glass, a momentary lebenskünstler watching the water chuff at the shoreline while the wind chime dances its pentatonic dance and the kayak collects pine needles.  These are vacation things.  And next week work things will welcome me back, the plants thirsty, my dear clients ready to story and re-story.

Guest Saddle:  What are your favorite things?  What things are metaphors for who you are?  What things connect you to others in your favorite circles?  What things are you willing to do without?  Without which things would you feel sad to live without?







Web Camel Transport 49

The Boundary Puzzle

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


We require a behavioral and verbal repertoire to define boundaries because we came from oceanic enmeshment. We humans start our lives as symbiotes and remain pack animals, who crave connection as badly as do our furry friends who, in the absence of their own species (read cats and dogs), will curl up to us for warmth, soothing touch, play and loving affection. Remember Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book, Touching? Our skins, our persons, fail to thrive without bodily connection.

The psychological and self-help literature on boundaries often treats personal and psychological boundaries as analogs for territorial ones, lines in the sand.  But boundaries have vastly more vagueness and movement, and are frequently negotiable.  They do not have exact placements because of the ways in which social, psychological, professional and even global contexts define, and redefine them.  The interpersonal and larger social contexts in which we speak of intrusion, inclusion, extrusion, or codependency and isolation, selects the meanings that calibrate, with great nuance, the boundary crossings that construct or deconstruct us.

Body boundaries:  A woman’s body has housed us. For the invited or intruding indweller, her startup body had all the equipment necessary to provide shelter and sustenance, but quickly scaled up to a highly sophisticated industrial complex, whirring and whizzing, exponentially massing up and sloughing, weaponizing us for combat and cooperation in many arenas of survival: development, individuation, choice making, emotional connection, and social embeddedness.  The walls of this body-house expanded, the supporting beams flexing at their joints, an ocean lapping at its shores, while outside in the neighborhood birds sang, traffic hummed, a relative yelled, televisions dulled their watchers or interrupted their dreams with reiterative sensory blitzes.

And then the first goodbye: a cry, a slap of air opening our lungs, the blood-cord severed.  This first move–the expulsion from indweller to out-dweller–already a shift in worlds, would otherwise destroy us but for the porches, swings, branches and floors of our mother’s body, our second home.  No wonder those of us who grew up in the country loved tree houses so much, the model of our mother’s exterior home for us—the one we climbed, rode, sucked, and upon whose pillows and bones we slept our deepest sleep.

From blood to milk, from cord to mouth, attachment shifts.  Still, a baby’s cry sounds the mother’s alarm; the bald-headed baby’s sleep a maternal sedative, a baby‘s suckling, some relief for her mother.

Men and women, whatever our hue—peach, tan, almond, olive, or mahogany—all swam in a woman’s interior sea, surrounded by the continent of her body, and fed by her bread and wine.  Her blood traveled through our tiny tributaries, her music became the dance of our bones, her hopes and dreams and touch our eyes and skin. But our very essence, an explosion of DNA from two tribes, from two stranger camps, caused each of us, as crisis, to proliferate, cell by cell, synergizing our parents’ differences until they could function as one.  We have it in the very core of our nature to make a family of strangers.  In fact, the idea of purity—of race or ethnicity or family lineage—never works out well.  Inbreeding makes progeny fragile, prone to illness and oddity; even the single trait overbreeding of animals, such as dogs, can cause serious health problems.  Our sturdiness, our very survival, concerns the story of our making family out of strangers.  We are all mutts, and over time will become less distinguishable by feature and hue. Boundaries between strangers in language, ethnicity, and nationality will look more like zippers or ebbing and flowing tide lines than straight ones.

Women’s bodies house babies, as do jungles their wild beings or apartment buildings in East Boston their renters, and all reiterate the fundamental question of ownership between landlord and tenant.  The frequent misalignment, regarding ownership of house and home, and their analogs shows up everywhere, every day: between parents who own the house and their adolescents who claim ownership of their bedrooms and rights to messiness; between landlords who own the apartments and tenants the psychological space, between women and fetuses, between nations and residents, between our planet and the nations that, though squatters, we mythologize as subdividing it.  Even slavery, the owning of one human by another, though legally disallowed in our country, rears its head ubiquitously in the fuzzy ownership rights within marriages and parenting (and step parenting) relationships, as well as between employers and workers regarding human energy and time.

Our experiences of boundary trespasses also presuppose the existence of clear, separate domains of ownership.  With some exceptions, these domains have so many exceptions as to create frequent misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and sometimes felicitous surprises. A kiss, an investigative probe into our past histories in areas of money, taxes, employment, medical and mental health, and the law, may seem invasions of privacy in many instances, but we make exceptions, or exceptions are made by powers greater than our own, for these boundary crossings.  Sometimes these invasions will benefit us, and sometimes cause detrimental actions.

Boundary nuances are more psychological than physical.  When human beings are very young, parents take care of toileting, feeding and cleaning.  And when mom was dying, my sisters and I took care of her toileting and intimate personal care, with love and respect.  Our roles with regard to each other, and the understanding that defines those are far more powerful at creating comfort than whether someone’s hands are on our bodies.  We do not consider pap smears, colonoscopies, or cardiac surgery to be intrusions or abuse because the expertise and role of physicians, and the location of these practices, defines these intimate contacts as helpful and healthy.

Perhaps, paradoxically then, the need for vagueness, even infringement of boundaries enhances survival:  Susan Brown, a new mother, eloquently articulated her view of the way in which women get cultivated into an essential caretaking role with regard to other people’s lives, starting in utero and reinforced continuously after birth.  Like a surgical mesh, the conjunction of a mother’s life with that of her newborn sees the two growing into one another, their fibers of being overlapping and interweaving in a way both inextricable and impossible to articulate.  Susan said about her husband, “He is still who he is with the addition of a baby.  He has a quiet ride to work and can stop for a coffee or get breakfast.  He can get up from his desk and take a break whenever he wants to, can pee when the urge arrives, get a drink, get food, chat with colleagues. My old life is totally gone.  I often have to choose which one of those—eating, drinking or peeing—I will be able to manage after I put the baby in her crib for a minute.  I’ve lost my old freedom entirely.  He’s still living his life, but I’m living her (the baby’s) life.”

Sharon stayed married to Roy—whose body and brain fell apart from his alcoholism—for 30 years.  A “codependent,” she took care of everything—his and her finances, what he ate, when he ate, made his doctor’s appointments, woke him for his part time jobs, when he had them, organized their social calendar, communicated with his extended family, washed his clothes, set them out for him, took their dog to the vet, took him to get his excise tax paid. She was living Roy’s life as well as her own, as if he were still symbiotically attached.  Even after their separation, at long last, she still takes care of some things, fills in some gaps in his limited capacities. She even found him an apartment, still pays his more separate bills online. The leash has lengthened to the extent her guilt will allow.

Mark’s story, an alcoholic–in recovery too late for his wife to endure– reveals the importance of connection, within which our sense of self thrives.  Connections and boundary separators coexist in all relationships, even between warring troops talking across trenches during a truce.  Spouses, parents and children, friends and coworkers interact within a complex, pulsating, expanding and contracting microcosm of intentions, desires, directives, etiquettes and power differentials that formulate and reformulate the minute to minute shapeshifting of boundaries.  We dance with each other.  Come close.  Step apart. Gaze.  Shut our lids. Mark and his wife sold their house.  She took their son to live with her.  “I just want to go home,” he cried, “but there is no home.”  A man without a home, a family; a man freefalling into an undefined, borderless space, utterly disoriented, stared at me across the coffee table, hoping that I might point the way out of the Town of Temporary and the State of Despair.  Completely severed from our connections we are strangers in our own lives.  Strange, estranged, unbound.

Within our own persons we might describe degrees to which we experience connection and boundary divides.  That we play multiple roles in life, that we express different aspects or facets, does not surprise.  Some theorists speak of persons as having parts.  As Philip Bloomberg write, “the mind (is) a configuration of shifting, nonlinear, discontinuous states of consciousness in an ongoing dialectic with the healthy illusion of unitary selfhood.”  When our selves experience conflict—I am on a diet so can’t have dessert; but I want that chocolate cake—we negotiate with ourselves.  If a self occupies an intolerable status within our collective of selves, then that self might get cut off from consciousness, banished to a borderland internment camp where its voice gets silenced most of the time.

Sometimes we drift in and out of each other’s thoughts and dreams and creative foment.  Our inter-mentality gets mobilized when we brain storm or empathize, our mirror neurons firing up their engines.  Together we put pieces of puzzles together, retrace steps, find things, discover or invent new processes, mobilize and coordinate skill sets. The creative fuzziness of our intellectual and creative boundaries—this imperfect but glorious mind-reading and attunement—works often to our benefit.  In the kitchen with my sisters, and with my mother when she was alive, all of us would seamlessly move around and, without any words exchanged, manage to cook a large family meal and bring it to the table, hot and enticing, with exact timing.  And all of the cooking pots and pans cleaned up along the way.

Intentions, even ignorance, often hold sway over the sanctity of boundaries, and this can sometimes make you laugh.  Remember?  While your toddler, utterly enthralled, reads her board books on the kitchen floor, you sneak into the bathroom, silently close the door, and sit on the only throne you’ll ever know.  And then, as if the world has suddenly gone dark, the door barges open.  There’s your two-year old with that beaming face of discovery, relief, and adoration. “I’m here mama!”  Grabbing the toilet paper she pulls at least six feet of it off and hands it to you.  And what does a polite adult say in that situation, but thank you?

And if at the theater with the short intermission, you rush into your stall in the women’s restroom, with the unfortunately broken lock, and another woman pushes the door into your head, while saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ you easily forgive, underpants down at your calves, in mid squat over the dewy toilet rim—previously sprinkled on by the former temporary owner of the two foot square space where the relevance of your noggin seems to be in question.

In a hostage taking situation, a negotiator comes in peace, hands raised to signal no weaponry.  An exception might get made for talking which, yes, offers more nuances than gunfire.

And speaking of talking, of words, those brash culprits, poets, dash across the boundary of the everyday numinous: claw, pry, slip through the wall of dumbness our very existence applies. Words, even piles and piles of them, can but refer to the unutterable coldness of a vernal pool, stepped into as snow still melts, the heart racing dare of it, the uncertainty of its nascent, translucent eggs. Poets plunge head first through thickets of tangled unknowing with flashlights, illuminating the unsaid—the impossible to say—so that our marvelous mirror neurons can fire us up, embroider our surfaces with pleasure, and distract us from the breach.  Words in all of their intriguing combinations, live in neighborhoods on the other side of the tracks from our bodies—breathing and hungry and laughing or dysphoric in an orchestral wonder of grunts, grabs and expulsions of gas.

For us, boundaries protect, confine, clarify, mystify.  We decide when to negotiate them or we flail at the mercy of their violation.  But in other than the human world, migratory birds don’t give a fig through whose air space they fly.  And stars throw indiscriminate fistfuls of light.

Camel Saddle:  What boundaries do you need to feel safe?  How do you tend to react when others breach those boundaries?  Do other people ever complain to you that you’re stepping over a line with them?  What boundaries were clear or vague in your family of origin and do you subscribe to those now? How do you believe we as a nation would do well to treat our borders?


Web Camel Transport 48

Facing Our Beliefs Eye to Eye: Courageous Happiness

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A decade and a half ago concerned parents from New Jersey called me to request that I see their daughter of 20, a student at a college local to my therapy practice.  They were worried about her because she was now dating a man twenty-three years her senior.  Most importantly, they described him as a demonic character exploiting their daughter and threatening to derail her college education.

When a high school student, their daughter Sara had met a local official who was often stationed at the school, giving student workshops and often intervening in student conflicts as well as advising the student body about resources for alcohol and drug abuse. Sara herself had chatted with Ben, but according to her there had not been so much as a hint of any potential future personal relationship while she was still in high school.

After Sara graduated, she was working in a coffee shop Ben frequented and over the next month or two they got to know each other better and began dating.  Sara went off to college as planned but during her vacations and summers off, and with an occasional visit with her while she was in college, the relationship deepened.  Sara’s parents found out about the relationship and demanded to speak with Ben.  Ben agreed to meet with Sara’s parents, but not to stop seeing Sara; not unless Sara wanted to end their relationship.  Sara’s parents consulted with their parish priest, and other close friends, and threatened to remove financial support for Sara’s college education if she refused to stop seeing Ben.

I met with Sara four or five times, and then met with her and Ben.  While I could sympathize with Sara’s parents, because of the vast difference in age and experience between the couple, I also came to know Sara as a strikingly mature person who had no intention of letting her relationship stand in the way of completing her education and pursuing her career goals.  Honestly, she said, she didn’t know whether her relationship with Ben would last, but she did not want to terminate it because of her parents’ irrational condemnation of Ben.  She neither felt exploited nor derailed.  She respected Ben and felt that she had chosen to move forward in exploring this relationship of her own accord.

Even though Sara’s parents initiated contact with me, once Sara became my client, the therapy session confidentiality belonged to her.  I asked her if she would like to invite her parents into our session for a family therapy meeting.  And I also invited her parents to meet with Sara, me and Ben.  Sara’s parents refused all group meetings.

Sara’s parents believed Ben was evil, exploitative, and destructive.  They had taken steps to see that his employment in their small hometown was terminated by accusing him of sexual harassment.  They determined to stick by their story, and keeping Ben, as well as Ben and Sara,  at a distance, they did not have to consider any points of view that competed with their own.  In their story, evil Ben had stolen their daughter and threatened to ruin her life.  As I came to understand Sara, this was her love story.

When we cut people off emotionally, we can continue to demonize them.  Letting ourselves face someone “up close and personal” tends to give the “evil” person a human face.  We all for the possibility of feeling empathy for that person.  Perhaps we might even understand their point of view.  But if we do allow ourselves to truly understand someone else’ point of view what then? It may mean softening our sense of rightness or the superiority of our perspective.  It may even mean giving up our own agenda or now seeing our own story as flawed.

There are certainly circumstances where someone may feel that their own well-being depends upon “divorcing” themselves from a certain relationship—with a significant other, a friend, a parent, a child, and so forth. At the very least, this is a loss of the relationship one hoped to have. It is sad when this seems the only way to get any kind of resolution on problematic relating.  But in the case of Sara’s parents, they did not want to challenge their belief about Ben’s intentions toward their daughter, nor their belief that no one should have a relationship with such a considerable difference in age.  To them, the unusual was tantamount to the unthinkable.

This small example of one family crisis is exemplary of ways in which, by insulating ourselves, by closing all the curtains in our rooms, we can shore up our beliefs and keep a variety of other narratives from shaking us up.  When we feel very comfortable with our beliefs, and with the connections and communities with which we bond around those beliefs, it can feel very frightening to consider other perspectives on the nature of being human, on how we might live together in this world of strangers as well as familiars.

By their very nature, beliefs are often not scientifically evidentiary.  But we consider our experiences in life evidentiary.  The problem is that when I hold to a certain belief, I view my experiences through the lens of that belief, filtering in experiences that buttress my belief rather than contradict or point to exceptions.  This is similar, in its filtering process, to how a pregnant woman sees “so many” other pregnant women.  “Wow, these days there are more than the average number of pregnant women.  They’re everywhere,” she thinks.  Or, you buy a new pair of brand named sneakers and see them as ever more popular than you thought.  If I believe that some group of people are criminal, then every news item that is exemplary seems like more evidence to support my view, whereas other news stories that extol members of this group go unnoticed by me, or relegated to a rarity.  In this way, I bolster my preconception.

Sometimes only a real crisis in my life will produce enough power to make me question a belief.  As an example, though today parents would be far less taken by surprise to find their adolescent children questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, in past generations some parents had to face their fear and rejection of the non-normative in their worldviews or religious contexts.  For parents and their children whose relationships survived such challenges, parents had to reflect upon and rethink their views, their priorities, and their capacities for overarching guiding principles.  If a parent believed homosexuality to be “wrong,” rather than a biological, emotional, social or political opportunity, then love and kindness may have had to become overarching beliefs, as an example.

Beliefs mostly involve taking things on faith.  Faith bonds us to the thoughts we call beliefs because we cannot scientifically prove them.  Beliefs get linked to a sense of rightness in our minds which fosters our adherence to them.  Sometimes we cling to our beliefs as to a life raft and when powerful experiences shake us to the core and cause us to question our long-held beliefs we may feel cut adrift and disoriented.  Occasionally, in my therapy practice, clients question their religious faith when starting a long healing process after the untimely, or unanticipated death of a child.  “How can there be a benevolent God if my child was taken?”

Many people return to their long-held beliefs, after a period of time, during which a fitting narrative develops.  For some, the notion that an afterlife is better than this planetary life helps; or there is the promise of rejoining one’s loved ones.  Or “God has a reason or a plan,” or “only gives you what you can handle.”  Or the death transforms one’s mission in life, in honor of their late child, and to help others in a similar situation come to grips.

The more beliefs get bonded to notions of rightness, the less flexible our thinking; the less able we find ourselves to consider alternate beliefs or perspectives.  This may cause exclusivity behaviors on one hand—we who share the same belief are insiders and others are outsiders—or on the other hand we may take on a missionary role, becoming zealous about persuading others to believe what we believe.  This gets more apparent the more a sense of rightness turns into a sense of truth.  Not only is it right to believe what I believe, but what I believe is the truth, and if you believe something different, then you believe a falsehood. As a self-appointed ‘knower’ of true beliefs, it is my mission to persuade you to the rightness and truth of my beliefs.

From rightness and truth comes ‘the good.’  We are right to believe the truth, and therefore we are good.  Others who believe wrongheadedly, follow falsity and are bad.  At the extreme end of this linked chain of notions—my beliefs are right, true, and good—sits extremism.  Because we get inculcated into many of our beliefs from early childhood, they feel self-evident because our development has been shaped around those beliefs.  They become part of who we are, and the social community with which we identify.  Beliefs—those powerful ideas that inform us over a long time–function as organizing principles for our identities and for the ways in which we relate to other people.  And when we feel we must do something with our extremely polarizing notions, then friction with others–who think, feel, and act according to a different set of beliefs, whether religious, or in terms of political governance, or concerning our interpersonal freedoms and obligations–can amount to battle.

It is everyone’s prerogative to believe whatever thoughts one wants to believe.  However, it does not presuppose that we are entitled to use whatever means we want in order to achieve the outcome of converting others to our beliefs.  The means-to-ends constitute our behaviors and actions in the world—the way we treat others within and beyond our borders.

Like Russian nesting dolls, some beliefs exist within other sets of values, and sometimes those beliefs and values create ambiguity if not extreme ambivalence.  If, for example, one believes in treating all human beings with love and kindness, then that may seem antagonistic to aggressive persuasiveness or a lack of mercy.  Human society is full of laws and etiquette which recognize the need to mitigate our strong emotions and even our powerful beliefs in order that the behavioral expressions of those emotions and beliefs do not threaten chaos.

Some people will willingly die to defend what they believe, and some people will die by the hand of those who believe that their beliefs are preeminent and must be perpetuated, even globalized.  There are many complex situations that a country like the United States faces when contemplating whether, aside from protecting our own borders against hostile attacks, we must protect innocent people in other countries from regimes different from our own, or overthrow those regimes.  It is a question of values and beliefs to define to what extent we have global responsibilities, and what agendas our interventions will support—economic, political, etc.

It is a challenging awakening to expand our circles of awareness such that we might view our own beliefs and values systems within the larger context of multiple belief systems.  And to consider which human beliefs and values have the most universal power to bridge other differences.  Tolerance of others who subscribe to beliefs different from our own comes with understanding that complex social, economic, cultural, and geographic structures embed those beliefs.

Camel Saddle:  What are your top five beliefs?  The ones that guide you in your life and relationships?  How well/poorly do you deal with others who espouse religious, political or social beliefs that are very different from your own?  Are you able to listen and understand?  Do you try to argue others from their positions?  What beliefs have you ever had to question in your own life?  Have you ever pivoted from a deeply entrenched position or belief to another?  And if so, in light of what information, circumstance or outcome were you so inspired?

Web Camel Transport 47

Beginner’s Mind Revisited

Friday, May 12, 2017

Looking back, I chose a beginner’s way with clay when I had multiple small children at home and worked a couple of nights a week.  Unusual for me, because I mostly opt for classes, conferences, instructional books, and informal teachers when I want to learn something new, I decided to let the clay teach me.  Almost every day, sitting at, or standing by the clay table, I discovered the differences in clay’s malleability based on its water content and the temperature in the room.  The clay showed me how thinly or thickly it could bend or support, what details might impress it, and what shapes emerged from my contact with it.  I learned that by extending my hand with ceramic tools I could develop more details in the skin of the clay, giving its texture a more tooled look.  I hand sculpted fan bowls, fountains with figures embedded in them that emerged and submerged, as if from the bedrock of life.  I made free form bowls and urns, and other shapes that had utility or just played.

Lots of things didn’t work:  would tear or break apart completely, collapse or crack, shrink too much, or even explode while firing.  Some pieces simply looked awful or I abandoned.  But in the longer run, I began to acquire some facility which I had not possessed at the beginning of my acquaintance with clays.  Each type had its own personality as well as its optimal expressions as hand built objects.  As a complete novice, I would greet the clay that awaited me in its moist plastic bag with interest and curiosity, never knowing what the process of discovery would yield—a masterpiece in the making or a total disaster, or something in between.  But I recall the way in which, seamlessly, one idea, interacting with the clay, would yield another and another, as if carrying me along on an exciting journey.

During the hours that I moved my hands in clay, I felt refreshed, honed, concentrated, joyful, excited.  The rest of my responsibilities, worries, and schedule receded.  At the end of each session I felt strangely accomplished.  In discovering an aesthetic object “hiding” in a lump of clay, I also discovered and fabricated myself.  It did not matter if anyone else saw or admired these pieces, because the process itself provided so many rewards.

Perhaps those couple of years of clay-making provided me with pure self-indulgence.  Although I sold a few pieces and exhibited a couple of them, I certainly didn’t make the kind of money one would have to make to legitimize such an enterprise.  I did not become either a sculptor or a potter.  But a curiosity and fearlessness when engaging with something new stayed with me.  And a trust in the abilities of all things, living and inorganic, to reveal something about themselves to those who remain open and curious.

In a Psychology Today online article from November 8, 2008, Jay Winner, MD, considers the popular notion of ‘beginner’s mind.’  He writes, “Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning beginner’s mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. . .It’s an old Zen term made popular by Shunryu Suzuki. In his book he says, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.’”

Both my experience, long ago, with clay, and my contemporary experiences, watching my two year old granddaughter explore piano keys and tricycle pedals for the first time, or play outside with a small square bucket of water, extended my thoughts about beginner’s mind.

With a larger bucket of water, Lili played with two differently shaped plastic cups and small rocks that fill my driveway.  Every way in which a cup can turn—upside down, right side up, side angled—and enter water, with and without rocks, and for water to be poured from cup to cup to bucket to step to driveway, and to be recaptured or emptied (“More wahwer Gwama!”) enthralled her for a long time.

Over and over she repeated the variety of obtainable results, with slight alterations in how she manipulated water, cups, bucket, rocks.  More amazingly, she had been sick with a cold and very cranky all morning, but her beginner’s fascination virtually eliminated her symptoms.  Her eyes no longer hurt and her nose stopped running as fluently.

Lili opened my eyes to the realization that, as beginners, we don’t know what we don’t know, which removes a huge barrier to operating on an ambition or problem.  We don’t see failure as an option.  By persisting in our exploration, we often achieve some alternative results to just plain failure.  I realized that the qualities of beginners go way beyond open and engaged awareness.  Novices share an openness to new experience, awakened minds and senses, curiosity, fully operationalized capabilities unhampered by anticipatory worries, an experimental outlook, and potential which is activated.  Beginners are pioneers and discoverers, connecting proactively with interpersonal, natural, material and other environments or contexts.  As beginners, we make connections between ourselves and our world that enjoin us, creating new entities. Beginners are not only open and curious. Beginners act.  Beginners operate on the world, and the connection between actor and that which is acted upon, co-creates new possibilities and new results.

How might we recreate the exciting experiences of beginner’s mind?

Thinking about a baby, whose mind is still pre-verbal, we see the desire to ‘speak’ of an object with hands and mouth.  The first discovery of every baby’s world:  Is it edible?  Babies’ first naming involves discerning in what way an object may be taken into the body.  The stomach?  The eyes, the ears? Babies activate themselves to connect with ‘objects’ in the environment, both people and things, because forming relationships is fundamental to survival.

Around two years old, the intimate pleasure of knowing someone or something, of making it familiar (making it part of the family) announces itself verbally.  ‘This is mama,’ ‘this is an apple,’ this is an owl, hoo, hoo!’  So beginner minds not only possess traits of openness and non-judgment, but are also powerfully potentiated. It is efficient for a mind gathering more and more information about the world to relegate what already has a name to a less active corner of consciousness.

The difficulty for us, later in our lives, if we do not want to sit saturated in boredom, glued to the TV, requires us to re-pleasure or to newly savor the familiar.  Neither the novel nor the familiar are good or bad.  We love both, the coziness of those people and places we know so well, and the stimulation of our senses with fresh vistas and new conversations.

As young children, our curiosity and ambition propelled our lips and tongues to tap or slither along our palettes and little teeth to taste the power of language; of words that bridged our eyes and noses to the rose in the garden, to the ocean, to the orange hat.

Try, now, to say a common word one hundred times.  Watch it dance back into sounds.  Taste it again as music, those consonants and vowels that bonded for the first time when we learned the word.  To see and hear and experience things in their namelessness, to get lost in them and find our way out again. . . that is the dance the child, the poet, the artist does.  To re-experience without presumption.

We are shape makers, translating whatever essences things have into identifiable or stranger sounds, sights, words, concepts.  We make shapes with our mouths, our hands, and our imaginations. As beginners, we do not stand idly by in passivity. The leafing trees flirt with our senses and sensibilities and we flirt back with a refreshed mood, a line for a poem, a desire to share our delight with another person.

Our beginner’s minds are open, activated and operational, at work on the world in a second moment of brilliance.  The first moment of brilliance, like an eye opening, receives the rose, the breeze, the wave, the roar.  In this moment, a relationship is forged.  The essences of a rose or a breeze can never be known as they really are, but we can be with them. Even nonverbal apprehension by sight or scent filters the essence of the as-yet-unnamed rose through our humanness, and more specifically through human embodiment.  Whether we name, define, or classify a rose, or mindfully enliven our senses with its perfume and softness—leaving monkey chatter to its quiet corner in the back of the mind—our bodies—senses, feelings, conceptual minds—have consumed it.  We have eaten and breathed in and touched to our hearts its gifts.  We feel moved, awakened, aware, inspired, refreshed.

A phrase much quoted, by French novelist Marcel Proust, aptly describes this phenomenon of beginner’s mind: “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

As beginners we tend to feel optimistic because we don’t know how much work is involved, we don’t have familiarity with the barriers to success; our expectations and standards may remain high for a while.  New teachers expect a lot of their students and sometimes impact their classes by getting better results.  New therapists bring zest and enthusiasm to their work with clients, young engineers believe their inventiveness can overcome knotty problems.

As we progress from eager and naïve beginnings to greater and greater mastery, we may take some things for granted, seeing with old eyes instead of with new eyes.  But there exist ever new-within-the-old possibilities, which only a master’s eye can detect.  These “new” elements constitute the nuances or variations on a theme that only those who know the theme intimately can detect as slight differences, unexpected outcomes, exceptions to rules, all the delicate filigree that only a master hand or mind can generate.

Camel Saddle:  What are the most refreshing, fresh-eyed experiences you count on when everything seems stale or stressful?  What can you challenge yourself to view from an open perspective, as if for the first time—your significant other?  Your work?  Your surroundings?