Several years after I’d successfully established myself as a Bay Area builder, a friend approached me to explore the possibility of doing a spec house together. After a number of discussions we agreed we would take on the rough-and-tumble world of Palo Alto real estate. We would find an old house with tons of deferred maintenance and either remodel it or tear it down and build anew (teardowns could actually be found in Palo Alto in those days).

After many frustrating weeks of fruitlessly searching together, one morning I discovered an empty lot for sale while driving my daughter to school. An empty, buildable lot; a perfect fit for our needs! I’d probably driven by it previously a dozen times or more. welcome+to+palo+alto4.jpgIt was located at 720 Seneca Street in Palo Alto – within easy walking distance to Steve Jobs’ house on Waverley Street and just a few blocks off University Avenue, affording a straight shot onto the Stanford Campus. Stan immediately put an offer on the lot (he was the Money Man in our partnership), and we closed the purchase less than a month later.

I really liked partnering with Stan. He took a lot of the pressure off in working with architects and designers and the Palo Alto building and planning department. He was smart and creative and very good at problem-solving. He also picked all the kitchen and bathroom fixtures for the house and worked with the landscape architect. The actual building of the house was primarily left to me and my crew, with Stan sharing the stressors and providing the investment capital (which is often a major stressor for spec builders, since banks invariably want to yoke a construction loan to a builder’s personal residence). The Seneca House was a joy to build. Until it wasn’t.

Dual Relationships: There Be Monsters

Dual Relationships are something that the fields of therapy and coaching tend to pay a lot of attention to, and for good reason. The potential for personal exploitation and/or ethical violations, when such relational dynamics exist, is exponentially increased. But there’s another significant factor that is seldom considered in dual relationship dynamics.

I’ve written extensively over the years about how on some level, mostly unconsciously, our brains are very often trying to get The Big Brain Question – Are You There for Me – answered “Yes.” A Yes answer results in secure attachment, robust neural connectivity and integration, ease with prudent risk-taking and self-regulation. Secure Attachment is a wondrous thing.

And all of these elements and more were present in Stan and my partnership. Until they weren’t.

Here’s how The Big Brain Question unwittingly turned from a “Yes” into a “No” for Stan and me without either of us realizing what had taken place.

Leaving the Partnering World

As the finishing touches were being put on the house, real estate brokers began coming around looking to secure the sales listing. I disliked dealing with them, especially in the middle of the workday, and so I would refer them to Stan. One day he called me up and suggested we get together and have a meeting to discuss selling the house. It was at that meeting that Stan broke the news: he was actually interested in buying the house himself!

My immediate reaction was mixed. On the one hand, selling to Stan would take the pressure off of getting the house sold. It would also cut out half the realtor’s fees (Stan insisted that he should get to deduct 3% of their fee, since he was going to half to pay 6% whenever he sold.

il_340x270.817013724_4vod.jpgOn the other hand his offer caused me a great degree of difficulty. Whereas, through the whole process, I’d had a trusted partner and we had each other’s back, now suddenly my partner was gone and with him went the possibility of getting the absolute best price we could for the house. Stan handed me a list of bank appraisers and said, “We’ll each freely pick an appraiser from the list and we’ll split the difference in the value they each determine.”

If I was smart and had advisors who had my back, I would have been well-served by going to them at once and asking them to represent ME in the transaction. But with my history of betrayal and abandonment, that wasn’t something actually available to me. I ended up doing as Stan asked, but never felt good about anything that happened from there on out. And for good reason.

It was only years later that I learned there’s a significant difference in types and kinds of real estate appraisers and how they work. Fee appraisers are much more thorough and work only for their client to try and get the most accurate valuation possible. Bank appraisers work for banks, and appraise properties very conservatively so as to best protect the bank’s interest. The list that Stan suggested we select from was a list of local bank appraisers, of course. I have no doubt that Stan knew the difference.

Money knowledge is power, and without a doubt Stan used it greatly to his advantage. He ended up holding the house for three years and sold it for a little less than double what he paid for it. Stan and I never did another project together again.

My daughter completed a graduate degree in social work this month. She invited me to her graduation of course, and I gave considerable thought to going. I reluctantly attended the ceremony for her undergraduate degree. Facing extended family that I’d been separated and out of contact with for years promised to be more than challenging than I realized. I was going to do my best to attend the after-party where her mother and her new husband and all the extended family were going to be gathered. In the middle of her processional, however, I was overcome with a panic attack, leaving me little recourse but to flee the scene in order to self-regulate. At the time that it happened I had absolutely no clue what a panic attack even was.

Learning How I Work

My body and brain took great learning away from that experience – biasing me towards avoiding a repeat at the current graduation ceremony. Still, a large part of me wanted to attend. graduation-ceremony-ideas.jpgI’m proud of my daughter and how hard she’s worked to overcome all kinds of difficulties as a result of the parents and extended family she has been born into. But what I didn’t want was to make my daughter’s moment of accomplishment overshadowed by my own emotional challenges. For lots of reasons, her mother and I have never managed to do much of the repair work that our relationship rupture revealed the need for. Historically, neither of us have been able to offer the trust and vulnerability that such a repair would require. On my side, whenever her mother and I are together my threat-detection circuitry becomes extraordinarily hyper-aroused and I am unable to hold any kind of solid center. Nor has she been able to easily control herself in my presence.

This pretty much describes the nature of my daughter’s mother and my relationship for much of her life after about age nine. We tried to get all kinds of help changing that relational dynamic, all to frustratingly little avail. Finally, the only viable solution we could come up with was to distance ourselves and maintain separate households.

It’s Your Senses, Silly

The more I study the brain and its interactive network functioning, the more interested I am in relationship ruptures such as ours. If THIS is true in terms of how little energy and information in bits per second our relational senses consciously take in, what might it tell us about the accuracy of our experience and perceptions of the people we struggle with?


A lot. Mostly, our brain invariably makes crap up about the people we are in conflict with and then goes about the work of making us forget that people aren’t static, unchanging beings, and that the default principle – observable by simply looking at tens of billions of neurons in the brain of any living being – is connection. But in order to maintain or repair connection, we invariably need lots of opportunities for practice. We can use the pain of lots of relationship ruptures to reconcile and repair to learn and grow. To do so, we need our brain to begin a process of reappraisal – to be able to authentically tell a new and different true story about ourselves and other people. Understanding the detailed workings of the brain, its limitations and how vulnerable it often is, can make the work of reappraisal somewhat easier. But make no mistake, it takes a LOT of hard emotional work. Especially if, like me, you tend to be conflict-avoidant. As neuropsychiatrist Gabor Maté noted in a recent riveting Insights at the Edge interview (minute 14:55), “I have my tombstone epitaph already composed: ‘(Becoming spiritually enlightened) was a LOT more work than I anticipated.'”

Deciding What’s Best for All

When it came time to decide whether or not to attend my daughter’s graduation, I was eventually able to freely choose to go or not go. The decision was no longer about me and how I might feel. My brain, body and I had come to a place of full “response flexibility.” It was her graduation, her needs and her decision to make. In the end she and I decided that since it would be too emotionally challenging to have her mother and I and all of the extended family together with so little repair work having been done in the interim years, it would be best if she and I designed our own separate celebration together. And while it wasn’t my first preference, that’s what we did. Lux et veritas!

If you want to learn more about how your own early experiences may impact the way your senses take in the world and affect your ability to deal with conflict, here’s an Enchanted Loom featuring child psychiatrist, Bruce Perry’s account of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.

No matter what business you’re in, first and foremost you’re in the change of heart business. If you want to change your brain, change your heart.                        ~ Mark Brady (Why not, right?)

I have a saying, one which anyone who spends more than a little time with me has heard more than once: “None of us escapes childhood unscathed.” There are lots of reasons why this is true. Primary among them is that, like the baby bunnies currently racing all over Whidbey Island, our fragile neurobiology is at its most vulnerable all through childhood. bunny.jpgIt is in childhood that we have the least ability to regulate our responses to stress and we learn the real dangers that other people, places and events can represent (In the bunny’s case, it’s eagles, owls, dogs, and coyotes in addition to people). Rarely realizing the true nature of our very vulnerable condition, through heartbreak after heartbreak, we begin to make connective, memorable meaning of the world. As a result of defense mechanisms like denial, distortion and rationalization, it’s not uncommon to truly fail to realize the damage we may have suffered.

Hurt Children Hurt Children

When I was four years old, my 11-year-old sister Andrea would take me to the local neighborhood playground. One day while Ann was pushing me on a swing set, a young girl who was maybe six or seven wandered over and stood off to the side watching me try to make the swing go higher and higher. Boy SwingingWhen I got it going as high as I could manage without totally terrifying myself, I began to ease off the climb. As I passed the little girl on my back swing, she stepped in close. Then, as my front swing brought me right up to her, she stuck her fist out and hit me right in the nose as I flew by. Then she immediately ran away. Fortun- ately, I managed to hold onto the swing – in great pain with blood everywhere. I still clearly remember this world-rocking episode of trust and innocence betrayed more than sixty years later.

This unexpected and unwarranted punch in the nose adversely impacted my heart. And every other organ in my body, including my brain, since they’re all wired together partly by the wandering 10th cranial nerve, the vagus. People hurt people, often for a good reason: they have been hurt themselves. Thus begins our personal Topography of Tears.

Broken Hearted to Death

Pioneer Award-winning researcher Lisa Barrett asks the question: “Why is it that you can sue someone for breaking your (nose) but not for breaking your heart?” The reality is that the emotional damage a broken heart enacts upon us can often be far more damaging and long-lasting than a broken bone. vagus_nerveNot only can it reduce Heart Rate Vulnerability – compromising the heart’s oxygen supply function – but it can also induce Takotsubo Syndrome (also known as Broken Heart Syndrome). This condition, affecting four women for every man, compromises the heart’s pumping function (There is some suggestion that it may have been a contributing factor in Debbie Reynold’s death last year in the wake of her daughter, Carrie Fisher’s death).

Other risks that heartbreak exposes us to are chest pain, shortness of breath, increased levels of inflammation, and Afib or atrial fibrillation – rapid and irregular heartbeat. It can feel like we might be having a heart attack. Any of the ten childhood adverse experiences listed in the ACEs research, in my mind, would qualify as heartbreak. In every one, trust and boundaries are violated, vulnerability is exploited and our young nervous system is flooded with stress hormones beyond all measure. Unless skillfully and successfully addressed, the end result of such traumatic beginnings will be an early death (some neuroscientists believe all you have to do to heal a broken heart it push a button on a computer. I’m not so sure. Read about it HERE).

A Broken Heart Never Forgets

At the same time, most broken hearts heal and grow. And as Leonard Cohen observed (putting music to William Blake’s poetry), the heart’s broken places are where the light gets in. Few of us would trade our unique personal heartbreaks for someone else’s, I suspect. And for good reason: the light holds the seeds for the growing, healing and learning that is an essential part of our own unique human developmental journey.

While it was impossible to understand at the time, being punched in the nose as a four-year-old has been a gift that has kept on giving. It taught me early on that there is pain in life, and that holding onto it as lightly and for as short a time as possible will allow me to avoid a lot of suffering in its wake. It also exquisitely attunes me to the great suffering in the world operating under many people’s personal radar.

“Words have power. They can save, cure, uplift, devastate, deflate and kill.”                                                                           ~ Robert Sapolsky, Behave

One power that words have – in this case, words found in the King James Bible – for those familiar with it – is the ability to regulate our neurophysiology, for better or worse. Ideally though, for better. Read this passage out loud. Pay attention, as best you can, to what goes on inside your body (interoception) as you do so:

shepherdThe LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalms 23:1-6)

Bible As Arousal Regulator

If these words have been with you since childhood, there’s a high probability that they have a calming effect. According to Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky (of opening quotation familiarity), they activate your mesolimbic dopaminergic system, a common brain reward pathway. They also work to slow your breathing and relax the muscular tension being held in your body.

If you haven’t been so exposed, it’s likely they will have very little effect on your brain and body. Or, as in my case, an aversive effect. What are we to make of such things?

As a young child, I was physically abused by the nuns at Sacred Heart Catholic School. They refused to let me go to the bathroom when I needed to and they smacked the knuckles on the back of my little hands with a wooden ruler. As you might suspect, I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings for Catholicism or Christianity in general.

Converting to Judaism as an adult came with an embarrassing ceremonial circumcision and lots of words I didn’t know the meaning of. Those experiences are partly why I’m currently not a practicing Jew.

Sitting in Buddhist meditation ended up quieting my mind sufficiently so that buried, early somatic traumatic memories, with no words accompanying them, would activate and flood my body with great waves of stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – seemingly out of the blue. For that reason and others, I currently do not practice sitting meditation. How’s a guy supposed to spiritually self-regulate?

Undoing Early Damage

It’s unfortunate that so many of these experiences – intended to draw me into closer connection with spirit and spiritual communities – have been associated with unpleasant or painful reactions in my body and brain. But I am not alone in my early religious trauma. The world is full of people like me. I have met and taught hundreds of them.

Home Fellowship.jpg

To combat the unskillful actions many people have experienced early on with organized religion, some people have taken to organizing prayer, bible-reading and spiritual fellowship similar to how home music concerts are organized. Twelve to fifteen people will gather in a private home and come together in a kind of grassroots worship service, forming a kind of intimate, boutique church as a way to have spiritual connection and social support. The House Church Movement is a growing one in America. There is safety in numbers.

Di-verse-ity Makes It Happen

One interesting finding about words and spirituality from neuroscientist Andrew Newberg in his book, Why God Won’t Go Away, is that the individual brain scans of the members of any religious cohort – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews – are all different. Both within any group and between any group. Essentially this means there’s no such thing as a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Jew. Each is unique in their own understanding, observance and practice of their professed faith. The words contained in the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras or the Talmud impact each adherent’s brain in ways that are specific and unique to them.

Finally, it turns out that taking the Bible literally and trying to fit many of its ancient prescriptions into contemporary culture, e.g. 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” can be quite damaging to our neural networks. Much like the connectivity that makes up the networks in the brain itself, connections between people are not meant to be unskillfully ruptured by word or deed. When that is the result, we, as the rupturer, pay a heavy price with disaffection and disconnection.

If you want to learn to truly be yourself on your personal spiritual path, here’s an Enchanted Loom review of a book that might excite you, Beau Lotto’s, Deviate.

Recently I’ve been spending time at Enso House, our local island hospice. Spending time with people at the end of their lives seems to naturally invite reflection on my own life thus far. Most lists like this tend to focus on regrets. For me, however, there is a long list of things I am grateful for. Here are twelve “gratitudes” – appreciations from my life thus far that head that list for my heart, brain and me:

Body brain1. We grappled mightily with a Wild Mind when it often generated high-arousal states and managed to redirect at least a few of them. We fought hard to keep our adrenal hormones from constantly limiting our life, i.e. making us their b!tch.

2. We managed the best we could so as not to give in to the fear and ignorance that contributes to great suffering in the world.

3. We did our best to follow the path of our own heart, brain, mind, body and spirit. It is a process of deeply honoring our own idiosyncratic, unique, actively dynamic body, brain, mind and spirit.

4. We practiced authentic gratitude as much as we could, and when we couldn’t we simply accepted that fact.

5. We did our best to grow our compassion and generosity networks. And sometimes we wish our best could have been better.

6. We followed the spiritual directive to “provide shelter for people” for as long as brain and body would allow.

7. We established one of the first safe places in the nation for children to heal from painful and disruptive grief and loss.

square-earth1.png8. We included ourselves in the wide circle of sentient beings we cared for.

9. We left many corners of this circular world a little bit better than we found them, using whatever awareness and means we had at our disposal at the time. We learned that love … helps.

10. We learned as much as heart and brain possibly could about what might come next. The primary takeaway: if what I do while I’m here makes a difference later, then it’s probably a good idea to do the best I can while I’m here.

11. We managed to work with and support people who work with and support people making an exponential beneficial difference in the world.

12. We did our best to be continually loving and kind to the significant people passing through our lives. We were good shepherds. We paid attention and were responsive.

Last week we began exploring how our brains contribute to us abandoning people in our lives when they might most need our support, love and connection. We looked at how interoceptive overload, confabulation and affective realism often operate during such times. These are very likely concepts and ideas that don’t arise into conscious awareness for most of us when we struggle with such decisions, though they are often operating implicitly behind the scenes nonetheless.

This week I’d like to add to those often unconscious processes by exploring three more brain operations that frequently can be found in the abandonment mix. The first is:

Making Prediction Errors

My brain (and yours) is in the Prediction Business. It is essentially a prediction machine. When I spend significant time researching what I think will be a great birthday present and it receives a lukewarm reception because you’ve already received something similar from someone else or bought it for yourself, I’ve made a prediction error.


Prediction Error

When I take time off from work and plan a surprise vacation and the destination ends up surfacing traumatic memories for you, forcing an early return home, I’ve made a prediction error. When enough of these errors occur time after time, other predictions will frequently emerge: we’re not well-matched; we’re bad for each other; it’s time to abandon the relationship. If one purpose of relationship is to help each other grow, heal and change, abandoning the relationship in the face of repeated prediction errors could constitute yet another error that would result in healing once again failing to happen. Nevertheless, we all have our allostatic load limits.

Malfunctioning Control Networks

Control Networks in the brain can be thought of as our emotion regulation networks. They are ideally designed to help us make sense of and optimize the uncertainties in our lives. They allow us to generalize thoughts, feelings and experiences we’ve learned in one context/environment – how to be in emotional relationships with the people around us as children – to another context/environment – how to be in relationships with people we meet and emotionally connect with as adults. If we emerge from a childhood that was a model of secure attachment, with few Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) then our Control Networks will have little difficulty transferring healthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors to our adult relationships. However, if our early attachment was insecure – ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized – then we are very likely going to find it challenging to emotionally control ourselves when conflicts or disagreements arise. We are also highly likely to feel powerless in being the architects of our experience as well as the electrician skilled enough to rewire our circuitry so that it functions well in such circumstances. We’ll simply move on to the next relationship and very likely find ourselves confronted with the same healing/rewiring work that is ours to do. Abdication rarely leads to integration.

Aging the “Immature Brain”

Brains don’t age in ways that are easy to see the way the body does. They don’t get more wrinkled, more saggy and more gray. They essentially show up gray, wrinkled and saggy from birth. What brains do do is change in the amount, degree and speed with which they process our life’s energy and information.

bald_brain_girl_by_memoriesofthehorizon-d8i8nsc.jpgI remember the first time I realized I was emotionally and intellectually “older” than both my parents. For my mother, it was when I had to go and convince Connecticut State mental hospital psychiatrists that she and the community would be safe if she was released into my care. For my father, I had let him come live with me and then had to explain to him why he couldn’t stay forever, and also why I wasn’t going to simply hand over to him – free and clear – a successful business I had spent five years of my life building. What’s wrong with these people?

One answer: neurally immature. But scientists are close to developing a way to accurately measure the age of our brain apart from our chrono- logical age. By combining MRI scans with machine learning algorithms, a team of neuroscientists at Imperial College London, has trained computers to provide a predicted “brain age” for people based on their volume of brain tissue. At the heart of the approach is a technique that measures brain volume and uses machine learning to estimate the overall loss of grey and white matter – a strong indicator of the aging process in the brain.

One book that might help us become “brain younger” and mature and also more skillful in relationship with significant people in our lives – encouraging us to hang in with them through troubled times – is Marion Solomon’s and Stan Tatkin’s collaboration – Love and War in Intimate Relationships, reviewed HERE in the latest Enchanted Loom. Enjoy.

Short answer: Abandoning is the best stress relief strategy we can come up with at the time. Everything else is explanatory fiction.

When I was 21 years old I co-owned a hardware manufacturing business with a partner. The business was extremely stressful – we were buying proprietary blueprints stolen from large government military contractors and then using those blueprints to manufacture items cheaply to sell to the U. S. government at huge margins (a pretty weird thing for a young kid to be doing, right?).

Airplane BP.jpg

One day our blueprint supplier was arrested by the FBI. My partner and I figured we were very likely also in their crosshairs. My solution: abandon my partner and the business completely, drop out of school and move to another state. Flight was the only option I thought was available to me.

It turned out we were in the FBI’s crosshairs. They came calling with a search warrant several months after I left. My partner however, was smart enough to get rid of every bit of incriminating evidence. The FBI was unable to make a case against him. Or me. A big bullet dodged.

But a lack of flexible, creative response to the relationship challenges I had with my partner – he lied, cheated and drank – that often accompany us in our youth is not the only reason we abandon people. Brain science is providing us with a possibility for many others. Below are just a few.

We fail to recognize our help is needed

When people do and say things that make us feel the need to abandon them, like making negative judgments or launching personal attacks, the flood of stress hormones in our brain and body – our threat detection circuitry now fully activated – essentially short-circuits much of the capacity we might have for deep thinking or making creative, connecting responses. Unless, of course, we have training and lots of practice. How do we train and get lots of practice to deal with the stresses that come in dealing with negative, verbally attacking people? One way is to have people repeatedly offer up personal attacks and negative judgments about us. With practice it becomes clear that – bromidic though it may be for them – hurt people do hurt people. Better to practice skillfully addressing the hurt rather than counter-attacking the hurter.

We experience Interoceptive Overload

Interoception is a word all of us would be not only well-served to learn, but even better served to observe it operating inside ourselves and other people. I think of it as “interior perception.” Here’s the formal definition: sophisticated body awareness that includes pain, temperature, itch, sensual touch, muscular and visceral sensations, vasomotor activity, hunger, thirst, and “air hunger.” Such body awareness in part, I believe, provides the basis for emotional intelligence. I also believe – when finely tuned – it provides the basis for much accurate intuition.

The key words above are “finely tuned awareness.” Most of us walk around the planet – and I definitely put myself in that category – with something less than such awareness. As such, it’s easy for us to become readily overloaded and hyper-aroused by the behaviors of the people close to us, for example, not keeping promises.

We Confabulate

We all do it all the time – make stuff up and either truly believe what we make up or convince ourselves somehow that the story we made up is true. pinokio-Copy-1024x768.jpgHere’s the formal definition: “The production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.”  In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor gives a great description of her confabulating brain being reborn and slowly coming back online at this link. David Dunning of The Dunning-Kruger Effect fame, sums up confabulation well in his piece for Pacific Standard magazine: “We Are All Confident Idiots.” When we decide to abandon someone who needs our help it’s very often in response to a confabulated story about them we’ve made up, most often from a Fixed Mindset.

We unskillfully apply Affective Realism to other’s struggles

Affective Realism refers to the way our feelings influence what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch — not what we think we see, hear, feel, smell, taste and touch, but the actual content of our perceptual experience. We can only experience what our senses make us believe. Human brains produce Affective Realism through much of the same network circuitry that it produces dreams and creative imagination.

If someone is constantly upset, if they feel unconsciously threatened in my presence, or abandoned by my lack of presence, it’s easy for me to attribute the problem to them. It’s a lot harder to consider: “Hey my business partner has had to make a lot of difficult decisions on his own while I’ve been spending much of the work week going to college. I wonder if that might be adversely impacting his behavior.” I might actually have some responsibility in our partnership.

Next week, in Part 2 we’ll look at the impact of our brain’s prediction errors, malfunctioning control networks, the impact of “immature brain age” and Insecure Attachment, all of which can play into our relationship abandonment decisions as well.