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After 17 years of marriage, one day it became apparent that the mere sight of my daughter’s mother would send my adrenal glands into hyper-overdrive. The main way I was able to regulate those organs was mostly to avoid her – to go missing in action. My avoidance/abandonment would then do the same thing to her adrenal glands. And round and round we’d go. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of psychotherapy had failed to help. The idea of actually being able to work with and repair the networks holding stored traumatic memories in each others’ brain and body was a completely foreign concept to therapists at the time (and for many, still is). Consequently, no therapist ever taught us anything useful about our neurobiology or offered regular practices to help manage the childhood-conditioned, threat-detection neural circuitry we were each triggering in the other. The only workable solution seemed to be for us to separate.

Image result for couples separating

How best to accomplish this separation in a way that would cause the least amount of harm for the three of us? For me it was a sincere dilemma. The larger culture didn’t offer many models to look to. I thought we might simply separate emotionally while continuing to physically live together in the same house. It was large enough for each of us to have our own bedroom and work spaces.

Before I could broach that possibility however, my daughter’s mother informed me that she had taken a family loan and gone out and bought another house and would be moving her and my daughter into it. Less than a week later I came home from work to find both of them gone and a realtor’s For Sale sign in front of our house. I immediately broke it into bits and tossed it in the trash. 

The Jesuit Perspective

Malcolm Gladwell recently offered up a three-part Revisionist History podcast on “Thinking Like a Jesuit.” Essentially, Jesuits practice casuistry. As Gladwell defines it, casuistry means: “resolving specific cases of conscience, duty, or conduct through interpretation of ethical principles or religious doctrine.” Image result for jesuitsThe Jesuits begin with broad ethical principles and religious doctrine, but then morph and adapt it to fit particular cases. Gladwell presents a compelling case of how the Jesuits applied casuistry to convince the Church to accept birth control. It was ultimately accepted as a means of reducing Catholic suffering that comes from birthing too many children into the world that two parents alone can’t sufficiently care for.

Minimizing suffering in the wake of my marriage dissolution was also high on my list of ethical, spiritual and neurobiological principles. One day while out walking the trail around Crystal Springs Reservoir in Hillsborough, California I was delivered a message by vox divina. Two older men were walking towards me on the trail and when they got within earshot, I heard one say to the other, “No matter what else you do, by all means, avoid the lawyers.”

If my intent was to reduce suffering in THIS particular instance, avoiding lawyers sounded like divine instruction to me. And so I did. Rather than pay a lawyer, I could contribute those fees to my daughter’s support. My ex-wife hired a high profile, Silicon Valley lawyer, however, who charged her a small fortune. In the end she pretty much ended up with what she would have gotten had we both hired a mediator. In the wake of the separation – with suffering-reduction as my overriding concern – I agreed to co-sign for the mortgage on her new house; I installed a skylight and new dishwasher in her kitchen; and I mounted a brass nameplate on the door to her home office. Through it all we each had the well-being of our daughter paramount as our concerns, and to this day we are on amiable speaking terms where Amanda is concerned. 

Ultimately, in my estimation, there is only one good reason to cultivate Jesuit Brain or any other kind of brain, for that matter – in order to do what we can to reduce human suffering. Out of that cultivation we very often surprisingly find ourselves able to take human suffering … to heart.

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If you live in America, odds are about even that you are indeed poor and don’t know it. How could that be you might ask? Well, in very much the same way that a large number of Americans are rich by comparison and don’t know it. First of all, their brain doesn’t have a standard, stable metric to measure against. But even it it did, that wouldn’t provide the embodied network connectivity necessary to actually feel rich or poor. Related imageTo grow that capacity takes growing the awareness and realizing that reality over and over. Inside the brain learning how rich and poor feels works in much the same way that learning multiplication tables or the fingering on a musical instrument works – it requires repetition. We need neural networks to make many new and repeated connections over and over and over to be able to actually grow embodied into either a poverty or an abundance mentality. Virtuoso musicians don’t need to think about where to place their hands or fingers while they’re playing; their hands and fingers have simply become massively innervated with that learned connectivity. Actual physical wires (axons) in the body and brain have to make actual connections (to receiving dendrites). And so it must be with learning to feel rich or poor.

Poor and Don’t Know It

In this Medium article by research journalist Umair Hague, we discover just what it means to be poor and not know it in 21st century America:

43% of American households can’t afford a budget that includes housing, food, childcare, healthcare, transportation, and a cellphone. Translation: nearly half of Americans can’t afford the basics of life anymore.

Hard to believe, right. If you’re reading this blog post, might you be an … ALICE and not even realize it? ALICE is an acronym for: Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Which basically means you’re working one or two jobs, you have few or no appreciating assets, your monthly expenses likely exceed the income you earn, you’re saving little or no money, and have less than $400 of ready cash available for an emergency. You’re also a planetary citizen who is carrying $220,000 of the world’s debt (and you’re also probably NOT reading this blog).

Shifting the Balance

Okay. Now that we’ve got poor out of the way, what’s it going to take to grow the neural connectivity in our brains so that we can actually begin to feel rich in body, mind, spirit and bank account? Essentially, it’s all a matter of perspective, and frequently meditating on it.

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Massive Intelligence at Hand

Even when I was living on welfare in the housing projects as a kid, or when I was in graduate school living off of student loans, I was enjoying way more wealth and privilege than any of the 108 billion humans who have lived on planet earth before me. How many of the people who have lived long before us ever had phones, or asphalt roads, or electric bicycles, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or dentists?  (imagine having to tie your tooth to a doorknob and have someone open the door fast and yank that tooth out of your mouth! Talk about traumatic interventions). By comparison to prior eras, humanity has never enjoyed such prosperity. And yet …

We’re Golden, Jerry

Many of us were born of parents (and grandparents) who were victims of war, disease and poverty. What neuroscientists tell us is that those conditions take up residence in the very fabric of our brains, bodies, bones and genes and can become unwittingly passed down from generation to generation. These stressors that permeated the lives of the people in our genetic lineage are literally residing in the marrow of our bones. Being poor (or wealthy) is not our fault – it’s greatly a result of structural and developmental limitations of our neurobiology. That, and the people, places and connections our neurobiology allows us to make in our lives.

Related imageIf it’s true, as motivational speaker Jim Rohn is often touted as claiming – that we are each the product of the five people we spend the most time with – then one way to begin to move out of our poverty genes and conditioning is to begin spending more time with people who are different than us in the way they operate financially in the world (Note: spending time with such people will often not feel all that comfortable, since … such people are different than us!). As we do, the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience will begin the work of rewiring and reorganizing our brain. It will accomplish that in much the same way that a master music teacher or martial artist will changes the brain wiring of their students – by practice, practice, practice. Try it. There’s everything to gain and a lot of less-than-ideal neural connectivity we would be well-served to prune out of our neural network.

 

 

                        Silver

“How many years of beauty do I have left?”
she asks me.
“How many more do you want?
Here. Here is 34. Here is 50.

949513B6-EF6D-40CA-8139-6ED3A6ED7331.jpegWhen you are 80 years old
and your beauty rises in ways
your cells cannot even imagine now
and your wild bones grow luminous and
ripe, having carried the weight
of a passionate life.

When your hair is aflame
with winter
and you have decades of
learning and leaving and loving
sewn into
the corners of your eyes
and your children come home
to find their own history
in your face.

When you know what it feels like to fail
ferociously
and have gained the
capacity
to rise and rise and rise again.

When you can make your tea
on a quiet and ridiculously lonely afternoon
and still have a song in your heart
Queen owl wings beating
beneath the cotton of your sweater.

Because your beauty began there
beneath the sweater and the skin,
remember?

This is when I will take you
into my arms and coo
YOU BRAVE AND GLORIOUS THING
you’ve come so far.

I see you.
Your beauty is breathtaking.”

    ~ Jeannette Encinias

My friend Jeanne has some ideas about why this video was viewed tens of millions of times in less than a week. One of her ideas is: the Plague of Screens all over contemporary planetary culture has so starved humans for real contact – Image result for Empire tv showi.e. Contingent Communication – that anytime a small smattering of it show up, it presses our Yearning Button – our yearning to be clearly seen, deeply heard, fully felt … and lovingly responded to. To watch the video, hit the words “CLICK HERE” right above the picture in this link:

Co-enjoying the Empire finale

I have some additional ideas. That video demonstrates the exact opposite of the pain elicited by the Still Face Experiment. It also answers a resounding “Yes” to the Big Brain Question.

When the Nervous System Rejoices

Wisdom teacher Jeff Foster seems to have a good idea about what makes this video so compelling to so many people as well  (it’s also why I’ve written six “instruction manuals” for personal practice). Here’s an excerpt from a recent post of his …

LOVE: WHEN THE NERVOUS SYSTEM REJOICES

The most beautiful quality of all in a human being, in my humble opinion? 
The ability to listen deeply to another.
To listen from Presence. From stillness. 
To listen without trying to fix someone, or change them, or ‘save’ them. 
The ability to allow another to be exactly as they are.

Rejoice.jpegNot giving unsolicited advice. Not lecturing them about the latest psychological research or the “most true” spiritual teaching. Not trying to mold them in your own image, manipulate them into matching a concept of who they “should” be. Not projecting your own trauma – or traumatic answers – all over them. 
Just listening. Listening with an open mind and an open heart and a receptive nervous system. Allowing them to breathe, to express, to weep, to question, to be completely unique, to expand into the space, to discover their own truth.

I have met world experts in intimacy, relationships and honest communication who are unable to do this. 
I have met spiritual gurus, so-called “enlightened masters,” expert psychologists and life coaches who are utterly unable to do this. 
I have met popular teachers and authors on “listening from the heart,” “holding space,” “pure awareness” and “embodied spirituality” who are completely unable to do this.

It is a rare gift – the ability to allow others to be exactly as they are. 
Broken. Whole. Sad. Angry. Afraid. Lost. Awake or asleep. Whatever. 
To listen to them with every fiber of your being. 
To receive them through the senses, like the wild animals of the forest. 
To swaddle them in undistracted, fascinated attention. 
To envelop them in a silent, warm Presence. 
To make them feel – in those precious moments that you are together – like they are the most beloved One in the whole Universe.

When you sense this kind of sacred listening from someone, it’s unmistakable.
It cannot be manufactured. It cannot be faked. It is utterly rare and holy. 
It is nothing less than unconditional love.

Your nervous system senses it, and rejoices.

What’s your own sense about why this video might have gone viral so quickly?

Many years ago, in my early 40s, I took one of the first online courses in the country. It was entitled, simply: Manifestation. David Spangler, one of the “practical mystics” involved early with the Findhorn community in Scotland (the arid, rocky place where they grow monster vegetables), was the instructor.

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A monster Findhorn cabbage

I had a lot of things I wanted to manifest. Like a ton of money, so I wouldn’t have to worry about my financial survival any longer. I could also fund things I thought the universe was doing a poor job supporting – like pre-and perinatal parent education and secular spirituality and creativity in public schools and social safety education, and, and, and …

Needless to say, the amount of money I was looking to manifest – a cool $5 million – never showed up. But since that time, and even before – even while living on welfare as a kid – my life has been lived with more financial abundance and material wealth than 99.9% of all the people who have ever populated planet earth. The only problem is: it rarely FEELS that way to me. Even, perhaps especially, when I had a documented net worth in excess of $2MM.

What’s up with that? Very simply: my conditioned neurobiology, that’s what.

To Trust the Universe or to Think Magically?

If you’re like me, you probably have at least a small inclination towards the magical thinking side of the life-living spectrum. After all, people do buy lottery tickets and win. Wealthy friends and family do die and leave surprising fortunes behind for their beneficiaries. Serendipity does sometimes seem to bring the perfect helpmate into our lives. 

But lottery winners often die broke, heirs go “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” The perfect helpmate somehow manages to morph into my mother (or father, depending upon whom I have the most unfinished business with). 

Neuropsychiatrist David Kreuger has something interesting to say about such morphing and magic and manifestation as he discusses the Law of Attraction:

The Law of Attraction is based in neuroscience. Your mind is an energy field and responds to focus. Where you focus your attention creates brain connections. Quantum physics tells us that each of us generates energetic frequencies or vibrations. We project energy in our emotions and thoughts that are the source of what and whom we attract, as well as the basis of our sense of well-being.

Image result for law of attraction(Attraction and manifestation), rather than being about wishing for something and getting it, is about understanding and refocusing personal energy.

There is a subtle but significant difference between this principle and the notion that where you place your attention you manifest in reality. Magic is the backdrop of the latter concept. Your mind is a powerful goal-seeking mechanism. When you focus on a goal, your mind begins to figure out how to get it. Your mind takes the focus as instruction to attend. The difficulty is not a lack of ability to focus, but a difficulty with intentional and conscious control over what you focus on. Your mind is preset to focus on certain things, and it deploys that focus unconsciously and unintentionally. The automatic pilot of your mind—what it is preset to focus on—has to be consciously redirected.

The mental act of focusing attention activates brain circuitry. Paying attention over time keeps the brain circuits open and active. Focused attention plays a crucial role in actually altering the structure of the brain. With repetition, these electro-chemical links actually become stable changes in the brain’s structure.

This concept explains at a brain level why a solution focus is more effective than a problem focus. Focusing on possibilities creates new neuronal networks and pathways, while focusing on problems deepens—further etches—the already existing circuitry. 

The real secret behind (manifestation) is to ask the question, “How can I create X?” This “How can I?” question focuses attention on precisely what you want and enlists your full energy to find answers and pathways to achieve it. Thus (manifestation) moves from imagining and wishing to doing.

To Function Executively or Not, That Is the Question

Astute readers will readily recognize that Dr. Krueger is using a More Beautiful Question to primarily point to … Executive Function. But what happens if we don’t already have strong Executive Function? How can we develop it? Good news: it’s Learning No. 11 in the “Ten Most Life-Impacting Neuroscience Learnings” program I’ve recently put together. Email me at: floweringbrain@gmail.com and I’ll send you the program gratis.

 

There are certain teachers whose wisdom resonates immediately upon encountering it. Their words deliciously activate the pleasure centers in my body and brain. This week’s Enchanted Loom features two such wisdom teachers. The first is by clinical psychologist and best-selling author, Mary Pipher. Image result for Woman rowing northI’m sure many of you are familiar with her book on female adolescence, Reviving Ophelia. With her current book, Women Rowing North, Dr. Pipher has leapfrogged the developmental spectrum and taking us directly into the depths of women’s experience navigating Act III. Having grown up in a family filled with only women, I feel comfortable with the issues and concerns she presents and explores at this time in human history. Click HERE to view my Enchanted Loom review of Women Rowing North.

The other wisdom teacher who’s got my reward neurotransmitters reverberating is Dr. Bonnie Badenoch. Her book, The Heart of Image result for the heart of traumaTrauma turns out to be a very deep dive into many the challenges contemporary life presents to our brain, essentially unchanged since we roamed the Serengeti Plain. That brain struggles in its capacity for sustained, healthy human connection and much of what Bonnie addresses are many of the reasons why and what we can actually begin practicing to foster healthy relationships. We live in a left brain dominated world and unless we learn ways and means for beginning to shift that neurobiological hemispheric imbalance, our lives together are going to continue to be filled with struggle and suffering. Click this Enchanted Loom link to begin exploring the heart of your own trauma

It was 11 years ago this month (Holy Cow!) that I struggled to write my first blog post trying to explain Polyvagal Theory. It wasn’t very illuminating, given what turned out to be my limited understanding of plain, vanilla biology. Needless to say, a number of readers were pointed in their criticisms and let my ignorance be forcefully known in the blog comments (to which I only responded privately). While I didn’t necessarily have all the details 100 percent accurate, I did get right the importance of applying the theory as a real world practice: it’s skillful to be aware of the need for people to feel safe in our presence. When we’re working mindfully to actually make the world safe for us, other people and other living creatures in our lives, we recognize that there are myriad ways of making people feel unsafe that we frequently fail to recognize. Critiquing people’s blog posts, for example. That’s not something so easily accomplished without triggering a defensive reaction. Unsolicited criticism often makes people feel unsafe – a central tenet of Polyvagal Theory.

Image result for bliss and gritLast month, my friend Valerie sent me a podcast of two women, Brooke Thomas and Vanessa Scotto (Bliss & Grit) who not only understand, explain and discuss Polyvagal Theory in easy, everyday language, but they also recognize and speak to the importance of actually practicing making yourself someone that others feel safe around. For those of you already practicing, you know that this is NOT something so easily accomplished. Often, our best intentions can go sideways, especially if we aren’t fully knowledgeable about another person’s trauma history.

Is the Best Defense Defenselessness?

Byron Katie is fond of saying, “Defense is the first act of war.” If we look at how that declaration might play out in our nervous system, what we find is that defense – in response to the brain’s subcortical circuitry constantly monitoring and detecting threats – activates the sympathetic nervous system, significantly elevating stress hormones in the process. Elevated stress hormones tend to take our “Wisdom Circuitry” offline and activate our fight, flight or freeze neurobiology. If we’ve learned to be dominant in defense, we are more likely to fight. If not, then hitting the low road in getaway mode is what most likely happens. Either way, human connection – our birthright and a biological imperative – is nowhere to be found.

War, in any form, is not good for living breathing beings. It’s not good for their brains, their bodies or their hearts. When I look in my own personal life at those times when I have “gone to war,” they mostly have taken place in the absence of operational Wisdom Circuitry. For example, years ago when I hyper-extended the hinges and ripped the door off my girlfriend’s VW Rabbit in a fit of rage, there was no Wisdom in sight (in my “defense,” my rage was in reaction to her having just tried to run me over with that Rabbit. Ain’t love grand!). 

Something similar happens when countries go to war, I suspect. In those instances, the collective Wisdom Circuitry of a country’s leaders and citizens becomes sub-operational. Collective elevated stress hormones propel a course of action devoid of any clear, creative, integrated thinking. It’s all self-protection all the time, unless and until it isn’t. Here’s my favorite elegant example of Wisdom trumping reactive hyper-arousal in ways we might all aspire to.

Tipping the Bliss/Grit Scales

At some point in human evolution, I can imagine that the scales of Bliss and Grit are going to tip to the defenseless, Bliss side of the balance beam. Related imageThat will likely begin to happen when children are raised by parents who have a granular understand- ing of the nervous system and are able to provide accurate cues for safety throughout childhood. They will also be able to refrain from non-contingent communication and “digital neglect” (paying more attention to their cell phones than they do to their kids). Parents will also intimately understand Developmental Trauma in order that later interpersonal relationships won’t become playing fields where we hook up with partners who somehow magically reflect back layer upon layer of early unmet safety needs. We will meet and greet other humans on planet earth with politeness, kindness and care, because with expanded awareness we know we are meeting a fractal reflection of ourselves. Until then though, might we actually benefit by spending some quality time with Bliss AND Grit?