Shortly after I completed my terminal graduate degree, it was time to put it to use. I was 42 years old and had been a homebuilder for almost 25 of them. But now the body was tired and needed to cut back on the rough and tumble work of daily construction. But what to do next? I didn’t have any interest in following the traditional trajectory and becoming a job superintendent – telling other people what to do has never been something my brain and body much resonate with – so that was out. I didn’t care to become a developer/producer. Too much stress and I couldn’t see where the juice might be for me in that role. Besides, I had a newly-minted Ph.D. that would let me work as a clinical psychologist. But the unfortunate truth was … sitting in an office all day long listening to people’s problems and trying to help, didn’t get the juices flowing either.

The Next Step of the Journey

“You really should put your degree to work,” friends and family consistently reminded me, as if I somehow forgot to remind myself. All the time and money and study should be put to the best use possible, right?

What to do? While pondering this question, one day I happened to spy a small help-wanted ad in our weekly newspaper. The ad was for a maintenance man position at a Stanford Think Tank. Stirrings small, slight and quivery began moving in me. I’d driven by the think tank sign at the bottom of the hill on the edge of campus thousands of times over the years: Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. “I’ve always wanted to see what’s up the hill behind that security gate,” I thought. I decided to go up on the pretext of applying for the job just to take a look around.


And so I did. And it was fabulous, gorgeous, breathtaking. The private think tank sat high on a hill overlooking the main campus and all of Silicon Valley. Deer foraged along the sides of the hill. Rabbits, raccoons and Hooty, a huge white owl, were openly in residence. And most surprisingly, the people were relaxed, engaging, fun. The interview done, I considered it a successful, information-gathering adventure.

And by the time I got back home there was a call on my answering machine offering me the job.

There’s a great line in one of the Indiana Jones movies. Harrison Ford is deep underground in a cave when suddenly he hears rustling and hissing. He holds his torch down into a deep pit. “Snakes,” he says. “It HAD to be snakes.” The equivalent for me was: “Self. It had to be a job offer requiring me once again to get over myself.” And then the “shoulds” started showing up, desperately trying to tout me off taking it. “There’s no way you can thrive in that job.” “Think of the lost opportunity costs.” “You’re SO overqualified for that job – you’ve managed crews and built multi-million dollar homes.”

“I can quit in 6 months,” I rationalized to myself. Bill Kreutzmann (one of the two Grateful Dead drummers once held the job years before) didn’t keep it forever. Long story short, I ended up taking the job and staying there 10 whole years. It turned out to be the perfect place, with the perfect people to begin an extended, informal, self-directed post-doc in social neuroscience – something that wasn’t even on my radar at the time I applied. Over those ten years I got to see how Nobel Prize winners, Guggenheim recipients and MacArthur Fellows live and work up close, day after day (hint: they grew up in environments that wired their brains very differently than yours and mine; most have an extraordinary, developed ability to maintain laser focus for decades. For example, Eric Kandel studied two neurons in the California sea snail … for 30 years!).

Word Damage

But my conscious mind with its army of “shoulds” would have had me decline that hidden opportunity had I not listened to the “still, small voice.” And in my estimation, that’s what makes “should” the most brain-damaging word in the English language. Let me explain further.

When you open up a human skull you see a collection of brain cells approximating 17 billion (69 billion more are contained in the cerebellum). That collection of neurons makes trillions of connections which are absolutely unique to everyone of us. Not only that, but many of them are in a constant state of flux. Here’s how science writer, Bob Berman tries to help us understand that complexity:

Your Neural Net on Life

Your Neural Network on Life – Imagine it in constant, dynamic flux

The brain … is the crown jewel of our nervous system. It has 86 billion neural cells and 150 trillion synapses. These are its electrical connections, its possibilities. This figure is nearly a thousand times as great as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

The number of brain neurons is impressive. To count them at the rate of one a second would require 3,200 years. But the brain’s synapses, or electrical connections, are beyond belief. Those 150 trillion could be counted in 3 million years. And that’s still not the end of the matter. What’s relevant is how many ways each cell can connect with the others. For this we must use factorials. Let’s say we want to know how many ways we can arrange four books on a shelf. It’s easy: You find the possibilities by multiplying 4×3×2 — called “4 factorial” and written as 4! — which is 24. But what if you have 10 books? Easy again: It’s 10! or 10×9×8×7×6×5×4×3×2, which is — ready? — 3,628,800 different ways. Imagine: Going from four items to 10 increases the possible arrangements from 24 to 3.6 million.

Bottom line: Possibilities are always wildly, insanely greater than the number of things around us. If each neuron, or brain cell, could connect with any other in your skull, the number of combinations would be 85 billion factorial! This winds up being a number with more zeroes than would fit in all the books on Earth. And that’s just the zeroes after the 1, the mere representation of the number, not the actual count. The brain’s connection possibilities lie beyond that same brain’s ability to comprehend it…

So, anytime we’re operating under the direction of a “should,” whether it’s internally generated or externally imposed, there’s a high probability that we’re honoring neither the complexity, the uniqueness nor the incipient emerging needs of our own personal neural network. To fully understand the workings of our brain or the universe, it doesn’t look like any of us really has enough … brain power. While at the same time, it seems like a “creator” must, and does, and without “shoulding” on herself. And in my experience, she rarely uses words – she tends to use small, slight, quivery feelings instead. Best to ignore “shoulds” and instead pay increasingly, ever-close attention to the tender stirrings.

I can’t recall a single time I’ve tuned in over the last few months when weather hasn’t been a front page story on the nightly national news – tandem tornadoes, baseball-sized hail, furious flood-waters, drought-generated forest infernos – the world’s wild weather is in a significant transition phase, promising only to get wilder. As I watch these news accounts I can feel my breath stall and my body tighten as I imagine the stress of suddenly being homeless, with all my worldly possessions destroyed in a heartbeat. I could simply decide to stop watching such accounts, but as systems thinker, Margaret Wheatley once reminded me: those people had the great misfortune of having to live through the actual suffering. The least I can do is manage my hyperarousal sufficiently to bear respectful witness in the aftermath.

The More Things Change, The More Things Change

Below is a heat map showing how we can anticipate things to unfold going forward. As the temperatures go up, as this research suggests, we can expect both the number and the severity of weather events to increase.


We know from many other studies that the stress of poverty adversely impacts the brain. I would argue that the recurring, implicit stress of possibly having your house flooded, burned to the ground or blown away – or to have that event actually happen – adversely impacts the brain as well. Losses that we helplessly and inevitably suffer end up disorganizing the neural connections in the brain. Usually the disorganization is only temporary. Once the loss is over and integrated, the brain eventually returns to previous functioning. But what if, like war in the Middle East, the threat remains ever-present? What if changing meteorological reality is in the process of becoming a constant, subliminal threat to our safe survival?

If you offer a healthy child the free choice between living in a temperate, safe, predictable climate, or one where oppressive heat, humidity, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes could come crashing through your life on a moment’s notice, few of them would choose the latter after the novelty wears off. But that’s exactly what adults choose in the wake of overwhelming environmental events. The title from an old Bob Dylan song comes to mind: “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.” Rampant weather might just turn out to be that train. In an attempt to deal with the train that is climate change, organizations like the International Transformational Resilience Coalition have come into being. Part of their mission is to proactively prepare for things to get worse and to help people build resiliency skills ahead of time. Without that advance training, it’s going to be very hard to make skillful decisions in the midst of a crisis.

The brain is organized and constantly changing in order to do what it can to help us survive and deal with the environment that surrounds us during the days of our lives. Like the constant stress of living in poverty, unpredictable, dangerous weather imposes a stress load on our bodies and our brains. When threats recur and are unpredictable, the emotional, limbic structures of the brain are favored for growth and connectivity, often at the expense of the cognitive centers. We need all the resources we can put together to be able to act fast in dangerous environments. Not only that, but there’s a significant opportunity cost for having to rebuild your life over and over – that cost is all the things you’re not doing and not able to do that you might otherwise prefer to be happily engaged in were it not for weather stress.

The Rainfall Theory of Female Brain Development

A Supercell Preparing for Work

A Supercell Tornado Preparing for Work

So, that’s the situation in America. But weather also affects neural development in other countries in other ways. In poor countries, the amount of rain that fell during your first year of life affects your education, your health and even how much money you can put your hands on – if you are female. Below is an edited account from reporter, Aaron Retica describing this weather-related research:

Dry times are hard times in poor countries, especially for girls, especially in postwar Indonesia. In 2000, for example, rural women between the ages of 26 and 47 who were born in areas with 20 percent higher rainfall than normal the year after they were born were more than half a centimeter taller than their luckless (and drier) counterparts. These women also went to school for 0.22 grades longer and had more assets. That means a year more of schooling for every five girls in those rain-enriched areas. And for every five girls in an area with 20 percent less rainfall than usual, a year of school was lost. Men showed no rainfall effect either way.

I would argue that the coming climate challenges are going to be much harder on women in all World cultures than they are going to be for men. A safe and secure home is a powerful arousal-regulatory mechanism for many women – safe, secure places are important bases for raising children who will survive. I think it’s a good idea to begin building resiliency practices long before we need them. I personally have chosen the Geography Cure – moving to a temperate (at least for n0w) offshore island in Puget Sound. Unfortunately, island size and groundwater limitations preclude the whole rest of the world from moving here. But there’s still plenty of room on neighboring islands in the Sound. Welcome, one and all.

You would think that jumping out of an airplane 2 1/2 miles above the earth would be a crazy, dangerous thing to do. But you would be not only wrong, but wrong on any number of counts.

Statistically, you’re more apt to be injured on the way to the airpark than you are jumping out of the plane. Not only that, but you’re more likely to be stressed for a much longer time than it takes you to return to earth, and … you don’t feel anywhere near the same sense of exhilarating relief when you do finally reach your destination.

Jumping On an Impulse

A couple of weeks ago my friend Rebecca was here visiting. On the plane ride up from Texas, she made the decision that she was going to do a tandem skydive. I volunteered to chauffeur her (chauffeuring is a great, relatively safe way to do reconnaissance ahead of any jump I might want to do :-)).

When we got to Skydive Snohomish, we discovered that even though it was housed in an old airplane hangar, the office was immaculate – a place for everything and everything in its place. There were 10 laptops arranged on a table just so to be used for registering; there were four lines of cushioned folding chairs set in straight rows for viewing the preliminary instructional video; the carpet where clients would be laying, practicing their “freefall” posture was spotless.

One reason that cleanliness is next to Godliness is because it sends an unconscious, neuroceptive message to the body and brain – this is a safe place. People have the time to pay close attention, to care. When you’re jumping out of an airplane at 13000 feet, you want people caring and paying close attention. Cleanliness also has the implicit ability to help us regulate our stress hormones, which, as you might suspect, are already in quite a heightened state before we even walk through the school’s front door. Cleanliness also helps to reduce crime as the New York Transit Police happily found out (see here).


As I sat on the clean, new sofas in the waiting area, I watched as the tandem divers began arriving. They were mostly male and each had their own locker where jumpsuits and parachutes were neatly stored. They unceremoniously changed into them, bought an energy drink from the vending machine, and then sauntered purposefully out to the staging area.

Packed ParachuteOut in the staging area I watched as the first jumpers landed on the grass without incident. Each instructor then gathered up his chute and brought it back to the packing area where they began meticulously repacking it, arranging the small pilot chute which releases first and pulls out the main canopy. Then they precisely folded the main canopy, followed by all the suspension lines gathered up and wrapped with rubber bands around the perimeter of that packed canopy. A chute carelessly repacked could end up being your last.

Caring Makes It Happen

Throughout the two hour experience, client care and service were unquestionably at the top of everyone’s priority list. From making sure all questions were answered, to assuring each person that their safety and well-being were paramount, to personally fitting each jumpsuit, goggles and helmet. After landing, debriefing and removing and putting away the equipment, a personalized DVD of the jump, complete with a picture of the jumper on the DVD cover free-falling at 12000 feet was already prepared.

Much of our growth and development in life is about managing risk well. It’s about caring for ourselves and the others in our circle with the same care as a skydiving school does. It’s about identifying The Places That Scare Us – as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron reminds us – and doing whatever we need to do in order to turn towards those places, rather than away. Over and over again. It’s about letting go of the person we are, and being open to the possibility of becoming the person whispered inner impulses continually invite us to become.

Whether we realize it or not; whether we agree with it or not; whether we believe it or not, the human race is on a developmental trajectory. Individually, or as a species, we’re not fully cooked yet. Below is a list, borrowed from former Hospice of Seattle director, Rodney Smith’s book, Awakening, indicating the direction that your development and mine is generally taking, even if in our day-t0-day living, we may feel far removed from this reality…

From form to formless

From noise to stillness

Rodney Smith

Rodney Smith

From self to selflessness

From divided mind to unified mind

From unconscious to conscious

From relative to infinite

From denial to surrender

From restlessness to absolute contentment

From separation to nonseparation

From morality to basic goodness

From knowing to not knowing

From doing to nondoing

From suffering to the end of suffering

From contraction to love

From then to now

~ Rodney Smith, Awakening, pg. 136

The basic work for each of us is to simply notice where we’re hanging out along any continuum and expect that we won’t be remaining there for very long. Change is the basic nature of things. Continued blessings during the change-ups along the journey.


Cartoon by Gahan Wilson


NOTE: Just a reminder about the upcoming 6 month Social Neuroscience training.

If you’re interested in one of the few remaining spots, click HERE.

Like many things in life, my brain acquiring language at around age 2 had some pluses and some minuses. On the plus side of the ledger, I could use words to let people know what I needed, I could understand that they used words and took actions differently than me, and I could use words to socially connect with people (although many other things can connect us to others much more powerfully than words. Things like similarities of experience, humor, kindness, well-matched, interlocking trauma histories, simple proximity, energy intensity and resonance, for starters).

Those are a few of the pluses that accrue from language-learning. Turns out there are quite a few negatives acquired along with language as well. Most of them we usually don’t speak about. However, we know from anecdotal reports that taking a vow of silence – refraining from the verbal use of language – has powerful impacts upon the brain. A few years ago, John Francis gave a TED talk recounting his 17 speechless years out on The Ragged Edge of Silence. Some of the things he discovered were … he could earn a Ph.D. degree without speaking; he could travel the country on foot silently; he could teach college students without using language. Simply walking and not talking can make a profound difference in the world, John discovered. Frequently, when we talk it profoundly limits our capacity for listening.

The Silent Guru

Baba Hari Dass – The Silent Guru

Baba Non-Speak

We also have this account from Baba Hari Dass, founder of the Mt. Madonna Yoga Center outside Watsonville, CA. For more than 60 years Baba has remained speechless. If the “use it or lose it” theory of neural organization generalizes, it appears that what begins to happen as a result of going silent is that neurons in the areas of the brain that generate speech – Broca’s area – begin to wither and their connections become significantly diminished. Along with that withering goes a lot of mostly unneeded discursive thought. In addition, along with discursive thought happily dissolves the “narrative of me” – the story that simply unfolds as a by-product of attaching language to experience.

One example of such a story: I can readily recall as a kid the great excitement my brain and body would generate when I’d return home from a Great Lamprey Eel Hunt, regaling my friends with the harrowing accounts of how one of the eels almost latched onto my hand or leg, where it would be impossible to pull off in order keep it from sucking all the blood and guts out of my body! Gradually, over time, experience after experience results in story after story, up until the present moment defining (and greatly limiting) in my own mind, who my brain and my body think I am. Who am I if I am not my personal narrative?

Increasing the Stillness-to-Noise Ratio

As Broca’s Area begins to diminish in size, it appears that other areas of the brain naturally begin to grow more robust. More specifically the areas that move us away from the direction of self-referencing and self-concern. As these areas grow new cells and make more synaptic connections, we simply begin to lose interest in our own storyline, our own drama. Now what the brain and body begin to find much more interesting are how disorganized brains and bodies operate in the world in ways that contribute to great suffering for self and others. Much of it is the result of … discursive thought or what I call reactive, Bully Word Brain. Bully Word Brain, for example, is what Steve Jobs used to intimidate Apple employees in the company’s early years. He used the power imbalance of his position as company head to diminish, disrespect and dismiss the people in his care. That karma came back around when he found his own board of directors using Bully Word Brain to diminish, disrespect and dismiss him – betrayed by the very people he’d placed into positions of power. Steve possessed quite a powerful Narrative of Me.

The Thought Space Amusement Ride

Unfortunately, we can’t simply decide to “still the Narrative of Me” and tomorrow become completely focused on working to alleviate the suffering of others. It appears to be something most of our brains and bodies have to gradually grow into. It most often operates as a developmental unfolding. cingulatepartsAnd we now have brain-scan evidence of just which areas of the brain lose connections, and which gain connections. The internal rewiring mostly seems to move connections from the posterior part of the cingulate cortex to the anterior part (See illustration at left). And like anything we grow into, it takes dedication and practice. For me, the practice mostly involves observing the multiple times throughout the day discursive thought thinks up painful thoughts of self-concern: “it’s raining and I’m bored,” “I’m hungry and there’s nothing good to eat,” “the dogs have left a ton of poo for me to clean up again,” “I can’t believe I spent good money on a putting green for the john.” Thoughts like these and 10000 others flow through my thought-space day after day. Over time I have gradually grown increasingly able to diminish self-concern and pay them little mind. The discursive flow centered around The Narrative of Me has essentially lost its compelling draw; at this late date most of the thoughts I have throughout any day are actually pretty repetitive, dull and boring. I’ve thought them all before. Yawn. And as my friend, Kathleen Singh reminds us in her wonderful new book, The Grace in Aging, “Lightening our attachment to self is the only thing that is going to get us through the decline, illness and loss that we will inevitably face from now until we die, with some equanimity and peaceful sanity …”

Way back in the day, the days of free love and the back-to-the-land movement, I was particularly enamored of the freedom and flexibility of a lifestyle like the one being lived by Scott and Helen Nearing. No bosses, no schedules, nowhere to go and nothing to do. Except by personal, deliberate intention.

I didn’t need a lot of external motivation to set my own intention to work toward getting some of that freedom and flexibility for myself. First on the Freedom List: I would have to learn to build my own house. Since I was working a minimum wage job at the time and knew next to nothing about buying property or housebuilding, the road promised to be a long and winding one. Twenty years worth of long and winding, in fact. Eventually though, I acquired the skills and got the house built (here’s the first page of a story run on the house by the San Jose Mercury News).

Unforeseen Forces

At some point during those 20 years I found a quote by William Hutchinson Murray, a member of the Edmund Hillary party who first climbed Mt. Everest. It really spoke to me about pursuing dreams of freedom and independence:

whmurray-portrait“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Though rarely proceeding with anything close to the feeling of boldness, my intention remained strong throughout. But what is intention exactly? And what’s required to set one, and to sustain it. Merriam-Webster defines intention as: “in·ten·tion – noun \in-ˈten(t)-shən\ 1. the thing that you plan to do or achieve ; an aim or purpose; a determination to act in a certain way; resolve; what one intends to do or bring about, the object for which a prayer, mass, or pious act is offered.”

Two things are interesting to me about this definition. One is that intention is generally considered a noun. In my experience it’s more a verb. An action verb. The second interesting thing about the definition is that pious acts are often involved. That certainly seems to be the case with my house getting built. From the mortgage banker who gave me ridiculous, below-market financing, to the retired county engineer who volunteered for free to draw the plat maps and shepherd me through the subdivision process, to the Town Manager who worked behind the scenes with individual city council members on my behalf out of the goodness of his heart (imagine!).

Intention as Magic

But along with those pious, magic acts, something additional was going on – unremitting changes in my heart and in my brain.

An artist looks inside your brain!

Brain cells were coming into being through the process of neurogenesis. And new connections were being made between those new cells as well as with the old. Learning was happening (along with unlearning). And it wasn’t just learning about housebuilding, back-to-the-land, and freedom and independence. It was learning about … me. It was me, without realizing it, continually allowing my life to be drawn towards those things that had great heart and meaning for me. In other words, I was using The Two Perilous Questions as my guiding North Star.

My dream-pursuit wasn’t so focused and single-minded, of course. It was more the way jet airliners, because of air currents and other factors, fly off-course 90% of the journey. The Inertial Navigation System on the plane constantly course-corrects, until the destination is reached. And that’s pretty much how it has turned out that I have been living on an off-shore island for the last seven years with my days pretty much structured the way I wake up and feel they need to be – the result of an intention set nearly 40 years ago!

May the forces of Providence, pious acts and intention be with you. And me.




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