The first time when romance wasn’t involved and all the barriers completely fell away and revealed a profound fundamental energy which we commonly identify as love, I was sitting in a room alone with a woman I barely knew. She was crying inconsolably as she told me the story of how her estranged husband had taken their six-year-old son against a judge’s orders. Before the police could arrive and bring the boy back, her husband’s ex-girlfriend threw a Molotov cocktail into the apartment where father and son were sleeping. Both died in the ensuing blaze.
As she told me this story Kathy sat before me emotionally raw and wide open. Not a single shred of psychological defense was anywhere to be found. On either of us. The depth of her helplessness and despair, along with the finality of her loss, covered us both like a suffocating fire shelter.
And then, just like that, with absolutely no warning, enormous waves of sweet energy suddenly began washing over us. It was a familiar feeling. Somewhat like the feeling of falling in love for the first time with another person, only without the red-herring arising of genital distraction. And it was much wider, deeper and profoundly palpable. Only it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Kathy. Instead, it was something that just arose between us out of a simple, authentic meeting in kindness.
Since then, I have experienced that flow often enough to know quite confidently that Rumi was absolutely right – “Your task is not to seek for love, but to seek and find all the barriers you have built against it.” I have frequently found those barriers – mostly neurophysiologically constructed – and often moved beyond them: while working side by side with the intended homeowners of a Habitat for Humanity house; while mentoring any number of graduate students one-on-one; while helping a friend (who would later be convicted of murder!) put a new roof on his house; while repairing a leak under another friend’s kitchen sink; when I held my daughter in my hand a minute after her long-awaited birth. Each time I wasn’t particularly looking for love; I wasn’t looking for anything. I was instead simply doing my best to be fully present and of kind, heartfelt service.
What I’ve noticed over time with each of these instances, and many more as well, is that there is a single common thread. And that common thread is me. Or rather, me as the object of my cherishing. Or rather, me with my brain thinking self-concerned thoughts about me: “What should I wear today?”, “Does this hat make my head look too pointy?”, “Where did all that gray hair come from?”, “Am I doing enough?” Those kinds of self-absorbed concerns it turns out do not promote optimal health, or much else of real value when I think about it.
Survival of the Thoughtiest
The work of the brain, of course, is to do its utmost to insure my survival. Those thoughts and hundreds more like them are what the brain works overtime to become very good at generating. In fact, better than good. If left to its own devices, it will look out weeks, months and years down the road and try to arrange things so that the probability of survival, at least through the reproductive years, is maximized. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bad thing is continually leaving my brain to its own devices. Except that it may actually BE a bad thing, it turns out. Hedonic pleasures – and self-absorption could be considered one – are the equivalent of empty calories. Or so the “2.0 Love Lady,” UNC research psychologist Barbara Frederickson asserts. Continually being concerned with serving self turns out to correlate with – wait for it – increased expression of genes involved in inflammation. In the long run, self-centeredness makes us sick; getting over ourselves promotes well-being.
Mindsight Makes Me unHappen
Which leads us to the topic of mindfulness, or more specifically, what UCLA interpersonal neurobiologist Dan Siegel has authoritatively labeled, “Mindsight.” He identifies it as our Seventh Sense, describing it this way in his book of the same name:
“Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in. It lets us ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them. . . .A uniquely human ability, mindsight allows us to examine closely, in detail and in depth, the processes by which we think, feel and behave. And it allows us to reshape and redirect our inner experiences so that we have more freedom of choice in our everyday actions, more power to create the future, too become the author of our own story. Another way to put it is that mindsight is the basic skill that underlies everything we mean when we speak of having social and emotional intelligence.”
The writer Annie Dillard once observed: “It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator, our very self-consciousness, is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It is a bitter birthday present from evolution.” And it is that bitter birthday present, in my experience, that inevitably ends up being the greatest of Rumi’s barriers. But the good news is my mind is a thing my brain can amplify and reorganize in ways that can significantly diminish self-cherishing. That possibility provides a muscular kind of hope.