I have an 8 foot by 8 foot bookcase full of books that I haven’t read. What I’ve recently realized is that the way my brain’s reward circuitry is structured is primarily responsible for this situation. My brain operates with book-buying in much the same way that many drug and other addictions work. Here’s how. I’ll use a recent book purchase as an example.

New Yorker CoverI come upon a review of a new book. In this case let’s use Daniel Levitin’s, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Immediately, I feel this excited, pleasurable feeling in my brain and body as my “liking” and “wanting” reward circuitry begins firing action potentials (electro-chemical signals). “This is great. A book I can really use. I’m constantly feeling overwhelmed by all the information that bombards me day in and day out. This book will probably not only help me with that, but I’m sure it will provide additional benefits as well.” These and other thoughts keep the reward circuitry zinging, which adds to the excitement. Now, I’ve got to have that book. And the anticipation of ordering it and waiting for it to arrive – much like the rituals around scoring and using drugs (so I’ve read) – adds even further to the feel-good process going on in my brain and body. Each day now holds some bit of anticipatory excitement awaiting the book’s arrival.

But then – much like the anticipation and letdown after the long-awaited coming of Hannukah or Christmas morning – the book arrives. Wow, it’s a … Big Book. Almost 500 pages. Where am I going to find the time to read all those pages? What about all the other books? Books with fewer pages? Books written by some of my other favorite writer-researchers, like V.S. Ramachandran, or Lou Cozolino, or Gabor Mate (who has confessed a similar compulsive buying addiction to … classical music CDs)?

Can you feel the excitement dying? Feel the reward circuitry going dark? Three guesses where The Organized Mind is going to end up, as tomorrow I discover new books and get all jazzed up and “rinse and repeat” this liking-wanting-anticipation process all over again.

… But Thinking Makes It So

We do not benefit from labeling addictions and compulsions as either good or bad. Essentially, they are ways that human beings learn to do something that has been subverted or compromised in our brain’s early development: the network capacity to easily manage arousal. There are people whose early development has allowed them to build out self-regulation brain networks such that managing arousal takes very little energy. These are people who don’t drink, smoke or overeat (or compulsively buy books or CDs) because they have no need to solve life’s arousal-regulation management requirement in this way. Their brains do it naturally and effortlessly, mostly because early Adverse Childhood Experiences haven’t compromised the connections running between their emotional and cognitive arousal-regulatory brain networks.

The rest of us are forced to creatively devise energy-intensive neural work-arounds. Some workarounds (books and CD-buying) impact our lives and health less adversely than others (smoking, drinking, over-eating). But they are each a part of the very basic human need to keep our life’s energy in some kind of manageable regulatory balance – whatever gets us through the night. And day.

Overt Versus Covert

So that’s the overt part of this work-around process. But there’s a covert part as well – the part where I’m getting juiced by the process of buying and anticipating delivery of Levitin’s book subverts the possibility for me getting all fired up about … planning, designing and writing my own carefully-crafted 500 page book (which few people might read, but my brain and body will definitely benefit from actually organizing and writing). Big BookAnthony Richardson, writing in the online magazine, Medium, makes a compelling and provocative argument that less than one percent of us will actually take up the work of writing such a book, or any book for that matter. He makes a distinction between what he calls Skilled Creators (SCs) and Replication Creators (RCs). SCs take center stage; RCs sit in the audience. Skilled Creators “use the space between their ears like a muscle and produce something new with it without the help of someone else.” Replication Creators take their inspiration from others – me, for example, reading Levitin’s book and using it for inspiration to write my own. Richardson further argues that the ready availability of “awesome sauce” (dopamine – the brains’ feel-good neurotransmitter) for RCs as we read and do research, subverts any drive or inclination we might have to become SCs. Richardson’s solution? Read and research less; think and create more.

And while it doesn’t have to be either/or, or so black and white, Richardson has a point. The ease of doing computer-mediated research and discovering and buying things online and the hits of dopamine they provide are significant factors resulting in my having this bookcase full of unread books. If you want to become the next internet gazillionaire, create an easy way for people to readily remedy this significant brain design limitation.

Last month my wife stepped into a hole, fell and twisted her ankle while I stood by and did nothing; never offered her a helping hand or asked after her well-being. Nothing. Which seems totally out of character for someone who thinks of himself as kind, considerate and compassionate. Even rats trapped in a cage will help one another. Not only that, but I’ve personally treated rattlesnakes better than I did her. We were out together walking our dogs at the local dog park, and as you might expect, my response – or really a lack of one – was not especially well-received. To put it mildly.

We’re Rarely Upset for the Reasons We Think

Before I go any further with this story, I want to talk a little bit about the dynamics of learned helplessness and dissociation. Often when we encounter new or unexpected situations in the world, our brains tend to scope them out for dangers as well as for creative possibilities.

Learned Helplessness (on the left) - The Result of Decreased Neural Firing

Learned Helplessness (on the left) – The Result of Decreased Neural Firing?

If our body – using the polyvagal nerve network – neuroceptively senses even the slightest hint of danger, several options become available – social engagement, fight, flight or freeze. Without training and repeated practice in moving towards dangerous situations, e.g. the training that soldiers, police or firefighters receive, most of us would prudently choose the flight option. If fleeing isn’t possible, and social engagement doesn’t work, then fighting becomes the next option (Never corner a wild animal in a cave or a professional football player or a rap mogul in an elevator). Take away those two options and all that remains is dissociative freezing – i.e. learned helplessness.

Everything changes when an unfamiliar situation triggers a traumatic memory. Frequently the neurons holding the memory will take center stage, often without language attached – all dissociation is pre-verbal. Whatever behavioral dynamics were present during the earlier, overwhelming situation – fight, flight or freeze oftentimes going all the way back to infancy – will tend to show up.

Dreaming in the Service of Healing

The day after the episode at the dog park, I took a nap and had a dream: I’m a small boy – around 6 or 7 years old – hanging out at McGowan’s Tavern, a beer bar in the Westville section of New Haven, Connecticut. My mother’s there, completely drunk. She begins walking towards the lady’s room because she has to throw up. On the way there she stumbles and falls. I feel great waves of shame, embarrassment and disgust. I also feel totally helpless. In reality this is more of an actual childhood memory than it is a dream.

At the dog park the day previously with my wife, the moment she stepped into the hole and fell, those very same feelings flashed through my brain and body almost below the level of awareness. Along with those feelings came a whole host of blaming and sarcastic thoughts at the sight of her on the ground, which I thankfully had the impulse control not to utter. Beyond that however, no other action potentials seemed to be firing in my brain. A stranger without my traumatic history, would have very likely rushed to my wife’s aid and immediately helped her to her feet.

As you might expect, it took several days for all the elements of “healing wanting to happen” to surface and be worked through between us.

Unlearning Learned Helplessness


Lindsey, what’s WRONG with you?

No matter how ideal our childhood, we all have traumatic experiences buried in the unconscious, implicit memory fibers of our neural network. None of us escapes childhood unscathed. By virtue of the simple fact of being children, with stress-regulating mechanisms still developing, we inevitably encounter experiences where we feel overwhelmed and helpless. Our first haircut, a playground bully, a visit to the dentist – any of them can turn out to be more than a stress match for our developing neural network to be able to easily emotionally regulate. Because the body and brain are primarily built for movement, anytime as children we find ourselves feeling stuck and unable to move, the risk of forming a traumatic memory is significantly increased. Assemble a large collection of such memories and we end up with a brain severely compromised in its ability to process energy and information, especially under stress.

And reliably doing so skillfully, can sometimes make for a challenging walk in the park.

*** Free Offer at the Bottom ***

When I turned 40 years old I made the decision to transition from being a carpenter, mostly working for wages, to become a spec builder. I would take on the building responsibilities of the whole house, from foundation to rooftop. In order to finance my transition into what was essentially a significantly different business, I periodically ran up bills on any number of credit cards and then paid everything off once my projects were complete and cash flowed freely. I always felt uneasy about this way of operating, but my brain struggled to come up with any better creative financing options.

One day I opened a bill from Chase Bank and took a look at the interest rate. It was 29%! I assumed there was some kind of mistake. While reading the fine print I realized why it’s “fine” – it’s shameful and they don’t really want anyone to read it (much like the Terms of Service tech companies force us to agree to). I grew up in an era where there were actual laws on the books against such usury. To think that my government had somehow allowed usury to become legal when I wasn’t looking went against everything I believed to be right, true and just about America.

Debt Machine

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about usury:

Usury is the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury. Someone who charges usury can be called an usurer, but the more common term in English is loan shark. When Cato the Elder was asked what he thought of usury, he responded, “What do you think of murder.”

Over the years the nation’s banks have conspired with our elected representatives to – if not directly murder America’s citizenry – seriously compromise our health. Here’s how it happens.

Anxious Uneasy Feeling

While he probably didn’t understand the neurophysiology of stress, Cato clearly was able to trace the implications of being saddled with debt and being forced to pay interest on money borrowed. Many religions and spiritual organizations forbid the charging of interest on loans for very good reasons. Habitat for Humanity, for example, provides interest-free home mortgages to the families receiving their houses. I suspect it’s because spiritually realized beings, paying close attention to how interest-charging and paying feel in the body, could clearly see how it adversely impacted optimal health.

Uncertainty - Isolation - Control Loss - Conflict

The Four Horsemen of Stress: Uncertainty – Isolation – Control Loss – Conflict

One of the primary ways debt damages the brain then, is through neuroception. Neuroception, remember, is “threat detection without awareness.” Because the debt we owe rarely shows up as a living, breathing, in-your-face entity, our brain can frequently fail to consciously register it. But, our body rarely fails to feel it, usually beneath the radar of awareness.

There are four elements that contribute to increased stress and they frequently only register somatically – in the body – rather than consciously in the brain: uncertainty, isolation, loss of control and conflict (see, The Four Horsemen of Neuro-Annihilation). Being saddled with debt of any kind, to the extent it raises our stress levels – for example, being uncertain about where the money’s going to come from to pay off our debt, or feeling all alone under the burden of excessive debt – adversely affects our brain. Stress hormones in large numbers have been shown over and over to contribute to an increase in the death of existing brain cells as well as a reduction in the creation of new cells (neurogenesis) and to a decrease in the connections our existing cells make with each other (synaptogenesis). A primary critical factor is not whether or not we feel stressed, but how long that stress continues unabated (like say, over the length of a non-dischargeable 30 year school loan!?). The simple fact that a loan can never be discharged in bankruptcy can add unconsciously to our stress load. And the more we’re stressed, we become even more vulnerable to the further effects of stress, as this research shows. But here’s an important aspect: as our brain gradually becomes neurally compromised, few warning signals initially show up. But they do down the road.

Another insidious aspect to the debt stress so many of us are carrying is how it can frog-in-hot-waterishly increase over time. While we’re fully employed and able to manage the monthly loan payments, the stress load rarely goes allostatic on us. But what if we get laid off from our job? Or what if we become disenchanted with the ethics of our company and want to quit? Now suddenly the debt load we’re carrying becomes significantly heavier.

A Mountain of School Loan Debt

Cultural critic Thomas Frank, writing recently in Salon, goes into great detail about how higher education has transformed into a punishing predator by adopting many of the worst practices of the banking industry and consumer capitalism. And this past September, social commentator John Oliver, on Last Week Tonight, did a very disturbing segment on school loan debt that not surprisingly went viral. Turns out that student debt has tripled in the last decade, resulting in 7 out of 10 college grads leaving school in serious hock. For the first time in history, school loans have surpassed consumer debt, up past one trillion dollars. To paraphrase the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, “A trillion here. A trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about … the seriously compromised health of our country’s citizens”… as a consequence of the stress load that debt places upon us.


Debt Stressed Brain Cover MayaI research and write this blog for one main reason: to help reduce suffering in the world. Understanding how my brain works and how it’s impacted by the people, places and things in my life has profoundly reduced my own day-to-day suffering. To my mind, understanding how debt adversely impacts neural functioning definitely falls under the category of suffering-reduction. Toward that end I have put together a 160 page book detailing the many different ways debt stress adversely impacts us, our brains and the people we love; but also what we might do to skillfully remedy it. I’m giving the book away this week, not because I’m so thoughtful and generous, but because I can readily connect the dots to see how I will benefit from living in a world where great numbers of people are skillfully managing money stress. Here’s the link: The Debt Stressed Brain (or you can simply fill out the form below).

I hope you’ll pass this blog and the LINK (http://www.committedparent.com/DebtBookFree.html) on to at least three people in your circle who might benefit from it. You know who they are. And it’s alright for them to get mad at you for trying to help.

I believe it’s a mistake to think about the brain and brain science in any kind of reductive fashion. That said, our brains are involved in every aspect of ours and our clients’ lives. Might we be well-served to keep these 7 qualities of brain function somewhere in the forefront of our own brain?

1. The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe

I suspect it’s a rare neuroscientist who hasn’t been filled with awe and wonder at both the complexity and the beauty of how a healthy brain is organized and operates. Reposting from a recent blog, here’s how science writer Bob Berman describes that complexity:

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 86 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…

It’s truly humbling to come face to face with the fact that our own brain is probably NOT sufficiently robust enough to fully understand its own workings. Let alone fully understand the workings of our clients’ brains. We can try, nevertheless.

2. The brain is in a state of constant, dynamic flux

While the analogy isn’t perfect, I tend to think of the brain as being similar to the sun at the center of our solar system. Sun GIFViewed up close, the sun is a seething cauldron of energy (and most likely information, which we haven’t developed many tools to interpret or measure) in a constant process of transformation. Here on earth, change is not only a given and a constant, but barriers that show up to block or inhibit the impulse toward healthy, organic change in ours and our clients’ lives tend to have adverse consequences for the brain. Here’s a 2 minute pictorial video where you can see the irrepressible, dynamic movement of living cells: Brain Cells Embracing.

3. The majority of the cells in the brain are dedicated to moving the body

You won’t find this claim supported in any text or journal more than a year old – it’s been slow filtering into the brain science community. But as this research shows, some 80% of the cells in the brain are compacted and pressed down into service in the cerebellum, our “little brain.” What the Cerebellum is most associated with is … moving the body, mostly coordinating all the fine motor movements we make (like my fingers being able to type this post without my eyes having to look at the keyboard). Add in the cell collections in the motor cortices and it starts to look like Cambridge computational neurobiologist Daniel Wolpert’s assertion that the real reason for brains is to move the body is dead on.

Many people show up in the offices of helping professionals as a consequence of the adverse effects on the brain from experiences that resulted in the body being unable to move, e.g. the freeze response in the wake of a traumatic experience(s). Might the most effective therapeutic work involve devising ways and means for helping them to “unfreeze“?

4. The brain performs most of its operations below conscious awareness

Reading books like David Eagleman’s Incognito or Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion or Tim Wilson’s Stranger’s to Ourselves offers up overwhelming evidence that what cybernetic research and information theory claim is very likely true: the brain operates as a powerful filter in our daily experience of the world. Up to as much as 99% of the energy and information bombarding our senses day in and day out is registered by the brain non-consciously. This simple fact has huge implications for our ability to be accurate, authoritative reporters of our own experience. It also holds implications for the reports we receive from the clients whom we see and attempt to treat. Add in all the defensive strategies we acquire over a lifetime, and how many of us turn out to be confabulators of the first order and rarely realize it?

5. Brains are designed to work in whatever environment they find themselves

In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – a powerful account of his work with street addicts – Gabor Maté offers up a wonderful analogy: Sad Plant“Think of a kernel of wheat. No matter how genetically sound a seed may be, factors such as sunlight, soil quality, and irrigation must act on it properly if it is to germinate and grow into a healthy adult plant. Two identical seeds, cultivated under opposing conditions, would yield two different plants: one tall, robust, and fertile; the other stunted, wilted, and unproductive. The second plant is not diseased; it only lacked the conditions required to reach it’s full potential….The same principles apply to the human brain.” If we’re going to skillfully work with clients, we need to effectively work with the environments they live and work in when they leave our office. Anything less fails to honor an essential brain function.

6. Many of the challenges people seek professional help for involve the brain’s compromised ability to skillfully regulate arousal

75% – 90% of all visits to doctors’ offices are the result of stress-related illnesses and complaints. What that means, looked at through the lens of brain function, is that “what we have here is … a failure … to self-regulate.” When we fail to regulate arousal, we end up flooding the brain and body with stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Stress hormones in large numbers adversely affect the growth of new brain cells and the connections the cells we already possess are able to make. They promote inflammation. Inflammation compromises immune function. And the more we fail to skillfully regulate arousal, the more we will continue to fail to skillfully regulate arousal unless we break the cycle by deliberately developing some personally relevant, skillful stress management practices (If you’re going to click on only one link in this post, click this previous one!).

7. The root arousal-regulation challenge for the brain (and body) is its inevitable, impending evaporation

Most of the human defense mechanisms, from avoidance to distraction to denial, operate with the intention to keep mortality awareness under close wraps. The success of many religions the world over, including the religion of Oprah, is rooted in their promise of afterlife salvation. Even neuroscience seems to hold out the promise of an afterlife, as presented in this documentary: The Day I Died. Nonetheless, the fundamental buried awareness – that we are all going to die (often signaled by losing our sense of smell) – unconsciously directs a great deal of the shape and direction our own lives and the lives of our clients. As we work with body and brain to get our own mortal coil in great good order, the people we live and work with in our lives may all reap the benefit.

Note: Might someone you know benefit from learning this information? Feel free to copy and paste This Link7 Essential Brain Features All Helping Professionals Need to Know (http://floweringbrain.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/7-essential-brain-features-every-helping-professional-needs-to-know-including-parents-teachers-and-business-leaders/) and pass it along. We all need as much help reducing suffering as we can get.

When I was in my early 20s I traveled to Ojai, California to attend a public lecture by the spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Seemingly through the luck of the draw, I had become unexpectedly successful selling profitable airplane hardware to the U.S. Military, and I found myself plagued, as many financially successful people are, with the recurring question, “Is THIS all there is?” I was hoping Krishnamurti would answer that question in inspiring, heartful ways.


“This is my secret: I never mind what happens.” ~ J. Krishnamurti

What mostly drove my interest was what K had to say in his transcribed public talks about fear. As a Point Six on the Enneagram, fear is my primary “Vice” and one of my central life drivers, and so I was looking for some way out of that seemingly perpetual, internal discomfort. Krishnamurti seemed to have the answer:

The action of fear and the effects of fear and its action is based on past memories – such actions are destructive, contradictory, paralyzing. Right? Do we see that?…That when you are afraid you are completely isolated and any action that takes place from that isolation must be fragmentary and therefore contradictory, therefore there is struggle, pain and all the rest of it. Now, an action of awareness of fear without all the responses of memory is a complete action. You try it! Do it. Become aware, as you are walking along, going home, your old fears will come up. Then watch, watch, be aware whether those fears are actually projected by thought as memory.

It turned out that I didn’t really resonate with K, the man much. I found him to be overly severe, rigid and authoritarian. He seemed to be exasperated that the folks in attendance could not clearly understand what he was claiming was a very straightforward and simple notion: Thought, unmonitored, produces fear. Stop letting yourself become emotionally high-jacked by your fearful thoughts.

The Curse of Knowledge

Well, easy for him to declare. His 40 years of meditation centered around a sheltered, protected life turns out to have changed connections in his brain so that being effortlessly able to observe fearful thoughts and dismiss them easily was mostly a result of his robustly connected Executive Function circuitry. And that circuitry was constructed in part with the great help of the community that operated around him for decades (he never mentions that part in his talks, even though Buddha clearly identified spiritual community as an essential element of developmental practice). Richie Davidson’s whole neuroscience research career at the University of Wisconsin has repeatedly found evidence for such unique neuro-developmental change in the brain, and Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight details much of that contemplative practice research and how it neuro-physiologically changes the brain as well.

Thought-monitoring is an essential requirement if we are going to spend any great degree of creative, unstructured time in the present moment. Anytime we wander unsupervised away from the present moment however, there’s a high probability that we’ll end up in … Confabulation Land. Confabulation is a great word. Kids do it all the time, and it’s fascinating to witness both their earnestness and their certainty. And it seems to be a necessary part of their organic, developmental unfolding. But confabulation doesn’t just stop when we’re no longer kids. Confabulation seems to be essential for creativity.

Here’s the definition from Webster’s: Confabulation – memory distortion, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive. Confabulation is distinguished from lying as there is no intent to deceive and the confabulator is unaware the information is false. I think of confabulation as “creative ignorant innocence.”

By its very nature then, any kind of creativity that imagines something interesting and/or novel and/or complex about the future, takes us away from self-awareness in the present moment. We forget ourselves in service to our creativity. Almost. Except for the part about how the body’s neuro-muscular memory remembers so much more than our explicit memory-mind does.

Creativity’s Double-Bind


Click the Photo for the Answer

Essentially, if you plan to live the creative life, a requirement is that you must spend a lot of time with your thoughts – all those creative stirrings that repeatedly motivate, inspire and invite you to bring them into full artistic expression. Because both creativity and trauma take up residence primarily in the memory circuits of the right hemisphere, it’s not uncommon for trauma-based, fearful feelings to find their way to conscious awareness in the course of any artistic exploration. But without a network sufficiently strong enough to easily switch into witness or Mindsight Mode, we can find our body repeatedly flooded with stress hormones. Stressful, disorganizing dissociation can then begin to have its way with us. Fear, sometimes experienced as undifferentiated or free-floating anxiety, permeates our creative experience. In trying to make sense of this somatic ordeal, we often tell ourselves a story – we now confabulate in service to stress management.

The good news/bad news is that neuroscience is potentially removing the dark, downside of creativity by developing increasingly effective interventions that can remedy these distressing experiences. The drug propranolol has been available for quite some time, and seems to be an effective remedy for some people. But before too long, as scientists at MIT have demonstrated, we will be able to use optogenetics – a “Breakthrough of the Decade” – to physically disconnect the specific trauma “wiring” which joins the emotional centers in the amygdala and the memory centers in the hippocampus. Which, I suspect, is essentially what happens when we successfully “work through” the traumas of our lives using things like therapy and intimate, interpersonal relationships. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is within our reach. Will we reach for it? Unless our traumatic history is overwhelming and debilitating, I suspect most of us won’t.

Simply put, using word and picture metaphors, our brain wants to help us turn Image-Z:

Your Neural Net on Life

Your Chaotic Image-Z Brain Neurons


into Image-Q:

An Image-Z Brain

Your Organized Image-Q Brain Neurons

An Image-Z brain is dizzy and disorganized, easily emotionally hyper-aroused. Image-Z brains struggle with sustaining attention and most are excellent at making up wild and crazy stories about the future and the past and then cunningly convincing us that they’re true. Except, at any moment our Image-Z brain is serving up those stories, 99.9% of the time everything around us in our immediate environment is generally, A-OK. Our Image-Z Brain does things that make us later scratch our head and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?” It also is the reason we find ourselves becoming quite practiced at offering apologies to the people around us.

Shaping Up the Q

Image-Q is how the neurons in your brain look when they’re integrated and organized. An Image-Q brain allows us to Be Here Now, to hang out in the Precarious Present completely awake and fully engaged. It also allows us to make real-world plans for the future and successfully carry them out, while playing well with others. An Image-Q brain shows us with the qualities that neuropsychiatrist, Dan Siegel identifies with the acronym, FACES. An Image-Q brain is … Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable. This integrated neural network produces energy flow similar to a river flowing easily between chaos on the one bank and rigidity on the other. It’s perhaps best characterized by Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If,” which begins, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ….” Psychiatrists and psychologists make diagnoses using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Essentially that manual is describing either excessive rigidity or excessive chaos, i.e. an Image-Z brain.

When our brain is organized and integrated in Image-Q fashion, life is good. We have little need for things like drugs, alcohol or addictive sex to enhance or motivate our life experience. We end up spending many of our days towards the far right on the continuum of things like unconscious-to-conscious, restlessness-to-contentment or contraction-to-love that I borrowed from Buddhist teacher Rodney Smith and presented here several weeks ago. It’s challenging for an Image-Z brain to consistently manifest love in the world.

Getting Where We’re Going

So, how do we transform our Image-Z brain into an Image-Q brain? Answer: Practice, practice, practice. Mostly through noticing all the times when we end up emotionally washed up on the river bank of rigidity or chaos. Another way to think about that energy flow is as a Window of Arousal. The practice is working to easily open our window wider and wider. As we do, things that used to upset or depress us begin to lose their power to emotionally toss us away. We no longer need to “seek shelter from the storm.” We are the shelter. It lives in us as an expanding ocean of serenity and harmony.

Chaos Rigidity Image

Finally, here’s a well-known story I have my Listening Practice students read and actively work with, which dramatically illustrates what that Wide Window might actually look like in the real world. It’s worth reading (or re-reading) and remembering:

“Sit down here and tell me about it.”

The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty – a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.

I was young then, some twenty years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. The trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

a-life-in-aikido“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard. I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet. “People are in danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt.”

Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson in Japanese manners.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.

A fraction of a second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”

I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little, old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentle-man, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.

The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer. “What’cha been drinkin’?’ he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.

“I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.


“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife – she’s seventy-six, you know – we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected, though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It’s gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons, too.” His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife. I don’t got no home. I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “That is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair. As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle…had been accomplished with love. ~ Terry Dobson

If you’re like me, most of you probably have at least a mild case of ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It seems to be a built-in cost for pursuing freedom, independence and autonomy. Not ODD all the time, but often enough. For me these days, it often reactively emerges when I watch the silly stuff that’s supposed to pass for “governance” by our elected officials.

But if I tell the truth, I’ve been pretty oppositional and defiant since I was a kid. I was on a first name basis with Bob, the district Truant Officer – the odds of me showing up at school on any day were about 50-50. I got expelled the first time in fifth grade for stomping 30 foot high profanity in the new snow on the hill behind the school. In high school I was given the Kid-With-the-Most-Days-Absent-But-Still-Graduating Award. I never bothered with the SATs, and I had absolutely zero interest in college.

ODD KidIn kindergarten 98% of the kids recognize themselves as creative and by the end of high school they morph into 98% who don’t. That kind of school system – as international educator, Ken Robinson points out in his TED Talk, viewed almost 28 million times – is something any healthy kid with half a brain is smart to be defiant and oppositional about. Or else that’s pretty much what they’ll end up with: half a brain! Much less in fact, at least where creativity is concerned.

Expanding Contractions

In addition to finding school pretty stultifying, I also found New England culture pretty rigid, authoritarian and repressive – a deadly neurological combination in my experience. To my young brain, it was like the collective congregation of excitatory neurons in the brains of the people living there had all unwittingly turned inhibitory. Not a lot of life energy pulsating there in my world. So as soon as I was done with school, even before I legally turned 18, I left New England and hit the road for California. It was 1964.

That move had its ups and downs. If New England was constricting and rigid, Los Angeles showed up at the other extreme. It was there I got introduced to sex and drugs (I was already corrupted by rock and roll); one time I ended up at a “private night” at Disneyland high on LSD. Mickey, Goofy and Pluto have never been the same for me since. Disneyland turned out to be anything but a Small World Afterall.

Glass Half Smashed

It was in Los Angeles I realized that on the Glass-Half-Empty/Glass-Half-Full Continuum, I often tended to show up ODDly on the empty side. My brain just loved a juicy Doomsday Dystopia Scenario.

I say “my brain” loved it, because I recently came across some yummy new research that clearly implicates it, and not me for my ODD world view. It turns out that when you grow up in an especially dangerous and oppressive neighborhood, stress hormones go to work building out structures in the body and brain required to help you manage things in the ‘hood. Adrenaline and cortisol make the brain powerfully imprint memories of trauma and threat onto the network in order to be able to steer clear of similar dangers when they show up later down the road. In other words, you become “street smart.”

But those smarts come at a cost, and it’s a high one at that. My brain and yours have a finite capacity for resource allocation. If we allocate resources to insure safety in the “low-income” areas, e.g. the limbic structures, and build up the fear and trauma memory centers, we are neurologically mandated to reduce the resources we allocate to the “uptown” neighborhoods – the higher order cognitive centers corresponding with the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Those would involve things like kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, generativity and such. The inner world of an ODD-fellow too often shows up as just the opposite of those things.

The Bad News is Not All Bad

Habenular Structures

Fortunately, through the grace of evolutionary design, the brain is “plastic.” It operates in a constant state of change and flux, doing its best to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. Place it in Disneyland on drugs and it will adapt to that Magic Kingdom. Place it in a safe, stimulating environment with other healthy brains and it will begin to trim down structures like the habenula, which is constantly on the alert for and trying to predict nasty life events. It’s an unhappy habenula which tends to make me oppositional and defiant and makes my glass frequently show up half empty (and that jack-of-all brain parts also turns out to be responsible for making me a couch potato! Which makes sense, since there’s usually little danger found in my living room with me curled up on the couch).

And now we both know what our work in the world is – it’s to create environments and relationships that will allow us to dismantle the fear/stress wiring and increase the kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, and generativity wiring; to take on the task – clearly at odds with the dominant world culture – of increasing the wiring of love.


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