Posts Tagged ‘Mark Brady’

When my daughter was around two years old, her mother and I simultaneously surfaced the fear-based thought that it was time to wean her from her “pavrer,” her pacifier. We decided on a ritual to both mark and honor what we felt was a necessary transition (necessary for whom? for what?). So one summer Sunday we packed up the car and headed out to the beach. With us we brought a special dissoluble bottle and some paper and crayons. At the beach we explained that we were going to have a “Farewell Party” and that we would be saying goodbye to her pavrer. Amanda was really excited. She loved the beach. Her mother and I wrote notes; Amanda made colored markings on her paper; then we took the notes and together with the pacifier, put them in the bottle and plugged the top. Still excited, Amanda walked with us to the water’s edge. “Let’s say ‘goodbye,’” I said. Amanda smiled and waved as I raised up the bottle and tossed it as far as I could out into the Pacific.

I was looking directly into her eyes the very instant her brain changed her excited smile into a look of shock and horror. And then she began to cry inconsolably: the father she loved and trusted had just betrayed that trust by throwing away the very thing she could count on to calm her down during stressful times. Needless to say, I felt absolutely horrified. In my heart I knew that I’d unwittingly perpetrated a “soft trauma.” She cried as we started home, and with no pacifier to console her, she quickly became exhausted and fell unconscious asleep.

I learned a number of important lessons from that seemingly small incident. One is, that no matter how much we might love and care for the people in our lives, at some time or another our own limited capacities will have us do things that trigger pain and suffering for them. That is a simple relationship reality. And some things we do may seem unforgivable, but that’s a limiting, self-centered perspective; it’s what happens after such events that matters most. Here is a list of a few things to consider in attempting to repair betrayals of trust:

1. A genuine desire to understand exactly what one did to cause or trigger the pain must emerge. Without such a desire, the repair process is difficult to begin. How do I uncover such a desire if I find it lacking in myself? If I can’t or don’t know how, it’s probably going to require me to get in touch with my hurt and anger, my own buried fears and needs, and find constructive ways to surface and express them first. Repair takes courage because the brain is naturally biased towards pleasure and away from pain. Aversion or avoidance strategies abound. Nobody willingly or joyfully turns towards “growth opportunities,” since they almost always involve pain. As grief specialist Alan Wolfelt reminds us, “You have to feel it to heal it.” Faced with that reality, many of us frequently decide it’s preferable to go unconscious, don one of the Dirty Dozen Psychological Defenses or self-medicate in one form or another. Defense is the first act of war, and on either side of the borders of betrayal it’s easy to lose strength of heart.

2. Some betrayals are so complex and painful and deeply rooted that repair may be unimaginable. I’m thinking here about what happens to women in times of war; women and children are always the “civilian casualties” of war. They are left with the traumatic ravages to somehow find a way to live with (soft trauma expert, David Bercelli is someone such women and children have found an ally in). But wars don’t only happen in foreign countries. And as Hillary Adams’s video from several weeks ago shows, they are happening inside thousands and thousands of homes here in America right now. Often with nary a word ever spoken before or after. The Shadow lives mostly in silence in America.

3. Cultivate the power of true contrition. In order for us to take the first steps toward repair, we want to know that a person has learned and changed as a result of their unskillful actions. Contrition is not something someone can simply declare and then have everything be all right. It’s something that has to authentically emerge from the heart and the bones. And neurological change needs to take place in the brain as well.

4. Apply truly restorative justice. Betrayals cast all parties out of heaven. Recall Amanda’s shock and stress and my pained and contracted heart. When possible restorative justice is often best discerned and served up by the aggrieved for the benefit of all. Restorative justice can often result from constructive counseling that insures the decisions we make do not continue the cycle of harm to others or to ourselves.

5. Work to restore the capacity for self-trust. It’s difficult to think of myself as someone who betrays others. Coming face to face with the reality of that experience can shake one’s confidence. Committing to and getting support for compassionate truth-telling and commitment to change can often help restore self-trust.

6. Recognize that true forgiveness is most often an organic, emergent process; if we could all just “get over it” and forgive our trespassers and betrayers, who among us wouldn’t? The cost in not doing so is simply too great. The evidence suggests that emotionally charged traumatic memories, held in the brain and body as “trauma cysts” deplete our life force. Carolyn Myss recognizes that failing to do the work necessary for forgiveness to emerge, results in a kind of energy denseness that ultimately leads to illness. Trauma cysts, wherever they may take up residence in us, need opening, draining, discharge, and reconnection back up to vital living tissue. Once that happens and the emotional charge is fully removed, often all that remains is simply a factual account of what happened. Without the emotional charge amping the memory, often forgiveness and compassion for self and others is simply what gets freed up to emerge from the depths of our all too human heart.

7. Finally, I’d like to offer up a cautious meta-perspective from Byron Katie who explains what happens when the time is right and we refuse to allow the crazy-suffering stories our brain makes up to run Central Command and then cannily seduce us into believing them: “Forgiveness is discovering that what you thought happened didn’t – that there was never anything to forgive. What seemed terrible changes once you’ve (deeply) questioned it. There is nothing terrible except our unquestioned thoughts about what we see. So whenever you suffer, inquire, look at the thoughts you’re thinking, and set yourself free. Be a child. Know nothing. Take your ignorance all the way to your freedom.”

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One of every two American’s is poor. One in TWO. In the housing project where I grew up, I would have put that figure at five in five. In our specific housing project unit, headed only by our bed-ridden mother, three out of three children went to bed hungry, especially at the end of the month when the Aid to Families with Dependent Children money (welfare) had long run out.

But something else sometimes happened at the end of the month in our New Haven housing project (New Haven is NOT one of America’s 20 most generous cities, BTW). I can clearly recall times when Dorothy Winfrey or Arlene Haggerty would show up on our doorstep at the end of the month with an extra casserole or a hot pot of stew. We never asked for anything from the neighbors and they never asked for anything in return. We were all on intimate terms with suffering and they were simply answering the call of their own rich, generous hearts. Suffering knows suffering.

Altruism Begins at Home

Children born healthy to caring, attentive parents almost universally begin developing a generous heart. It’s viable and measurable by 15 months (I would bet it begins in utero, but we haven’t developed ways to measure and test that theory yet). But something happens between then and the time children grow up to be bankers and captains of industry and contract one of the six billionaire’s diseases. Steve Jobs contracted one. I won’t go so far as to say that dismantling much of Apple’s charitable giving when he resumed full command in 2000 played a role in his recent death. But that kind of response seems more than a little disconnected from the heart.

Zell Kravinsky, on the other hand, was the opposite of disconnected. A successful real estate developer, Zell gave away his entire 45 million dollar real estate fortune to charity. Because that giving felt so good to Zell’s heart, brain, mind and body, he began looking for other ways he could express the freedom of a generous heart. He challenged his own fearful thinking, did the requisite research and discovered just how good giving really is for us. He also discovered that he, and all of us, have an extra kidney that we don’t really need – when they fail, kidneys always fail in pairs – and one is all any of us needs to adequately perform its necessary exocrine function. An evolutionary design flaw? At any rate, Zell anonymously donated a kidney to a needy donor. After he donated his first kidney, Zell’s brain apparently began generating so many endorphins and so much dopamine and oxytocin that he started making preparations to donate his second kidney, willing to go on dialysis for the rest of his life!

Pathological Altruism

Not all giving is good giving, of course. I know that much of mine, like Bill Gates’s, has mixed motivations. For one thing, the research is unequivocal: giving is good for the brain. I almost always get something back from giving. But I also have a bias that often gets in my way: me. Me and my do-good heart-brain bent on relieving suffering in the world. Too much ego sometimes in thinking I know what’s best for people, and if they would only take my advice and my gifts, we would all be so much better off. That’s pretty unskillful, as I’ve had more than a few recent opportunities to learn. But it’s a challenge worth taking up and making mistakes with, especially when I stop denying that I (and probably you as well) am living better than 95% of the rest of the world. (Half of America’s 1% reputedly don’t even realize they are in that demographic! How out of touch with the rest of the world is that?).

Nevertheless, as this recent NY Times article suggests, some kinds of giving can border on the pathological. Dr. Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan offers one possibility of selflessness gone awry when she identifies altruists who steadfastly believe: “I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological.” A more self-aware perspective probably works to take a bit more of the “I” out of altruism.

Giving Guidelines

Here’s a reasonable guideline for a charitable heart, I think: give people what they ask for and maybe a little more. Maybe. Most people, on some level, know what they need and what they can handle. They will tell you if you ask them and you make it safe for them to tell you. And often it’s not anywhere near what a truly generous heart is often more than ready to offer. Sad, but often true. Frequently what people need – especially the people closest to us – is something very inexpensive and plentiful indeed: our fullest, deepest, simplemost presence.

As for Zell Kravinsky, friends and family provided that presence and helped him correct the radical right brain imbalance that a generous heart can often produce. He elected not to donate a second kidney and go on dialysis. Instead he went back into real estate and now gives half of everything he earns to charity. Before enlightenment, there’s buying and selling real estate and donating kidneys. After enlightenment, there’s buying and selling real estate. Oh, and he also occasionally operates outside the law by brokering cash deals between kidney sellers and kidney buyers. I’m guessing he’s also responsible indirectly for these 30 kidneys being donated. My kinda road-less-traveled-by guy.

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I’ve recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs. It’s a surprisingly illuminating read, mostly as a compassionate, cautionary tale. Below are a few of the lessons I’ve extracted from Steve’s story.

1. Learn to skillfully manage stress. Steve was pretty driven, which seems to have resulted in him being unskillful in managing his stress levels. By his own admission, the stress of being a father and family man and simultan- eously the CEO of both Pixar Studios and Apple Computer seems to have contributed to the illness that ultimately killed him. He was probably right. Just driving in traffic from Cupertino to Emeryville every week would have done me in.

Three parts to skillful stress management are: A. first, recognize that stress absolutely needs to be managed; B. next, learn your own distinctive signals that indicate when eustress (good stress) has crossed over into distress; and then C. develop personal practices to effectively manage that crossover. Frequently the crossover happens when we believe a thought that isn’t true. Which is often much that we believe about the past and frequently imagine disastrously about the future.

2. Don’t have friends and family get to know you by having some acquaintance write your biography; have your family write it together with you … one day at a time. This is just SO obviously insane I can’t believe it wasn’t apparent to everyone, especially Walter Isaacson! If Steve was to ask his kids or wife which they’d prefer: to have a book about him and a new iPhone 4S around for the next 30 years, or him alive in the flesh, I would hope Steve alive would have been their preferred choice.

Steve would have additionally been well-served to realize that a biography will not ever make people know or understand anyone. Our hearts, brains, minds, bodies and souls make us all way too complex and dynamic for that. All people will ever know and understand from a biography is the story the writer chooses to tell, a partial and necessarily selective story at that.

3. Practice constructively channeling anger. There are numerous reported instances of Steve unskillfully displacing anger and deliberately hurting people who worked for him, as well as the people closest to him. He would commonly direct anger to wound people where they were most vulnerable. Steve needed to learn to continually challenge the illusion of separation: what harms others, harms oneself even more. He needed to stop the rationalizing and hypocrisy: “This is just the necessary truth-teller I am.” He was constantly challenging his engineers to exceed themselves. What made him exempt from growing into kindness? I suspect the failure to learn that lesson contributed in some way to his life ending early – when we hurt other people, considerable anecdotal evidence suggests it profoundly adversely affects our own neurophysiology.

4. Preferential treatment of sons is less than optimal for daughter’s brain development. As well as for son’s. As social worker, Cathy Jo Cress points out, many kids inherently grok the unfairness of such treatment. But they often feel stuck and powerless to say or do anything about changing it. Feeling stuck and powerless is probably not how most of us would ideally choose to raise our kids.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī

5. Even integration has a shadow side. Just as Steve yearned for technological integration, the human brain, too, yearns for integration as well. Integrated systems, after all, simply work better. UCLA neuro psychiatrist Dan Siegel often speaks eloquently and forcefully about the need for, and the power of an integrated brain. But just as the mystical poet Rumi observed there are a 1000 ways to kneel and kiss the ground, my guess is there are many more ways to integrate the brain, and some of them, like stringent demands and unexamined assumptions, will often produce disintegration, just the opposite of what’s needed. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffet (who probably borrowed from someone else), “We end up becoming the people our parents warned us about.”

6. Recognize the need for balance. Steve somehow missed this central tenet of Buddhism, a passionate pursuit of his. They don’t call it the Middle Path for nothing. Anytime we’re shooting for something “insanely great,” we may wish to look a bit more closely at the insane piece. Also, the ego piece. When the passionate pursuit of excellence morphs into the compulsive drive for perfection, we’ve crossed an important line. The pursuit of perfection is as bad for CEOs as research shows it is for parents. Even Buddha was satisfied with excellence, with becoming a “good enough” Buddhist.

7. Have the courage to live a life threaded with regret. Although it isn’t directly expressed by Steve at any time in Isaacson’s account, what I came away with was a sense that at the end of his life Steve had many regrets. As Kathryn Schulz details in this recent TED talk, allowing ourselves to deeply feel our regrets leads ironically to a life filled with few of them.

8. To constantly work to distort reality is to fail to love reality. Rather than pander to people’s addiction to toys and other technologies that will eventually end up in a landfill somewhere, Steve would have been better served substituting his “I-Know Mind” for “Don’t-Know Mind.” That might have allowed him to see that technology most often is a poor substitute for authentic human connection as this recent research suggests. 

9. Don’t passionately pursue technological excellence in order to solve the wrong problem. One central problem Steve seemed to be continually trying to solve, that many technology companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, are still trying to solve, is what NY Times columnist David Brooks terms the world-wide oxytocin shortage. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. It is essential in order for people to feel great affection and affinity for one another. From the telephone, to radio, to television, to computer-mediated-communication, to Skype video, technology keeps trying, but has so far failed to sufficiently address the oxytocin shortage. I think it might actually require human beings hanging out in person helping other human beings, heart to heart and face to face.

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Over a BILLION is the current count of women who have been sexually violated on planet earth at some point in their lives (Don’t believe it? Look around your own personal circle. Also consider sex addiction currently being diagnosed in record numbers). A single sexual trauma can profoundly impact parenting, from the way we communicate with children about how dangerous the world is, to the stress levels we feel about their safety, to how easily we can allow their own healthy sexuality to develop. Thus, to me it seems imperative that boys and girls receive useful, coherent, accurate information about proper use of the male sexual organ. And they need to receive it, not as some embarrassed, shameful, icky-quicky, fact-based offering, but in a way which emotionally drives home the point about how male organ mismanagement around the world damages hearts and  brains and results in incomprehensible human suffering. And not just for women! And here’s the important part: boys especially need to receive it over and over from mothers and fathers and teachers and clergy and peers and media until their testosterone-addled brains finally get it!

So, here’s a beginning list of guidelines. Some of them have been “reversed engineered” from Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and her recent writing (Over It) in response to the sex abuse scandals flooding the national news.  Feel free to add guidelines of your own (Please Note: This post is in no way intended to be male-bashing; just the opposite, in fact).

  1. Men who love and respect their penis, manage their penis. It’s the responsibility of the penis-owner to learn and practice what is and isn’t skillful management. Anything that leads directly or indirectly to suffering, even decades down the road, damages a penis-owner’s brain.
  2. Every action the penis takes or fails to take, the brain records. Each action or deliberate non-action adds positively to identity, health and well-being or else subtracts from it.
  3. Skillful penis management is sexy and liberating. If a man or woman knows you practice skillful penis management, they don’t need to flood their systems with a torrent of self-protective, anxiety-generated neurotoxins. Skillful penis management is good for the brain.
  4. A penis never, ever goes where it isn’t morally and ethically invited and warmly welcome, ever. Period. Unless you want to seriously damage your brain, powerfully compromise your immune system, be plagued by recurrent nightmares, and descend into a life threaded with pain and suffering.
  5. The damage that a poorly managed penis can do is unfortunately rarely later traced back to the source. Similar to how Judge William Adams fails to consider there may be a connection between his daughter Hilary only being able to work minimum wage jobs and his beating her, it’s difficult for most people to see the direct connection between the rape of a 16 year old and her later inability to hold a job for an extended period, struggle in primary relationships, or have so much of her creativity fail to ever fully manifest in the world. The neural disorganization caused by physical and sexual assault can have widespread and lasting repercussions. Without skillful, healing community support, it can last a lifetime.
  6. Penises need to remain intact. Some doctors, clergy and parents assume they know more than the intelligence that created the foreskin. Science is replete with subsequent discoveries that demonstrate this kind of thinking is the height of hubristic folly. We don’t circumcise dogs or horses. Why are baby boys so special? Some trauma specialists draw a direct line between foreskin removal – trauma perpetrated upon a very delicate neural network – and the modern propensity for war. Oh, and by the way, the 12 known functions of foreskin play a critical role for emotional sexual functioning (A telling research study, I think, might be to compare circumcision numbers among rapists with age-matched cohorts in the general population. My hypothesis would be that more rapists are circumcised than not).
  7. It’s a good idea to both genuinely feel and authentically express gratitude, wonderment, reverence and appreciation for those places when and where a penis is morally and ethically invited and warmly welcome. Always. 
  8. Penises are never to be erotically exposed to children of any chronological or emotional age. Those who might advocate for a nudist lifestyles, free and open sexuality, or who suggest that constant exposure normalizes and takes the mystery off the sexual organs frequently fail to consider what might be going on in children themselves, especially as they are required to become an integrated member of the larger culture. Penis mismanagment does not happen in a vacuum.
  9. Never expose a penis to toxic environments. Little penises have big ears. And those ears are connected to the self-esteem centers in the brain. Being shamed, dismissed, embarrassed, or in any other way diminished is poor penis management.
  10. Take your penis seriously and give your penis a stand-up name, one you can be proud of. Like Sterling or Knute or Ripken or Woody (Toy Story) or Canoodle. Vaginas have names; pets have names; plants have names. Names that are disparaging and derogatory frequently become prophetically self-fulfilling. Those are bad names. We can do better.
  11. A penis is part of a whole human being that includes a brain and a heart. Penises are best deployed as an inseparable, integrated ally of that triumvirate. All for one and one for all.

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At the graduate school where I’ve taught and learned for awhile now, the very first student assignment in the very first class consists of this: identify five people in your personal life whom you feel great affinity for. List some of the qualities you most appreciate about them. Next, identify five people in your personal life whom you feel some kind of aversion towards and list some of the qualities that you dislike about them. Now write a paper about how each of those qualities is alive and actively operating in you. The name of this exercise is “Reclaiming Our Projections.”  

Women outnumber men enrolled at my school by a wide margin. Many of them come from very difficult family histories involving both mother and father. As an older male, I often initially show up as “good dad.” Invariably though, through the magic of transference and projection and traumatic dissociation, at some point during the two years of the program I will inevitably be turned into “bad dad.” I intimately understand that the bulk of the brain’s processes take place below conscious awareness, and I am super-scrupulous about not consciously violating sexual and physical boundaries. And not solely out of altruistic and compassionate concern for others, but also out of enlightened self-interest: to act otherwise would profoundly damage my own heart, brain, mind, body and soul. Neurology never sleeps; it bears witness 24/7 to all trespasses, both for and against us (I’m pretty convinced it’s from that neurological reality that the notion of an all-knowing, all-seeing God has arisen; God’s kingdom, as Jill Bolte Taylor so powerfully reminds us, lives in the depths of the right brain mostly as embodied implicit memories).

Inevitably, even though I understand the dynamics intellectually, I am always a little bit astonished and disturbed every time I find myself transformed into Bad Dad. After all: they’ve done the reading; they’ve completed the assignments; they’ve written the papers! Bad Dad isn’t me, alive and threatening outside of them; he’s alive and overlaid upon the present and running the show from within them.

Painted Ladies

I struggle most with the students I have both strong negative and positive counter-transference toward. Women who remind me of significant females (and sometimes men!) from my own personal past pose more of a challenge than others. One woman, Adriana, stands out in recent memory.

Adriana and I had an easy, instant connection. She loved to write, and I arranged a grant for her through a woman’s foundation to do a book on a topic she had great passion for. Adriana had a wry, sharp sense of humor and made a living much as I had for many years: buying run-down San Francisco Victorians – Painted Ladies – and fixing them up to resell at a profit. I felt considerable affection for her. Adriana also had an alcoholic father, who was hyper-critical and abusive and extremely unskillful with boundaries. One day in a classroom exercise in which I elected to also participate, I paired up with Adriana. One part of the exercise was to offer two words that encapsulated our feelings or experience of the other person in the moment. Thinking about the remodeling work we shared in common, my two words for Adriana were: “painted lady.”

Well, painted lady is also the name used to describe prostitutes, and the moment the words left my mouth, by her strong reaction I knew that I had inadvertently violated a psychological boundary. Adriana’s face turned paper white. Her pupils dilated and her breathing stopped. In an instant she was no longer in the room doing this exercise with me. She was transported back to an earlier time, fully immersed in a very painful dissociated interaction with her own father, and she didn’t even realize it.

When Adriana mentally returned to the room, the dissociative episode was only partly abated. She stood up crying and screamed epithets at me. She threw her  textbook at my face and ran out of the classroom. She resisted all later attempts by me, the school administration and her fellow students to reengage and try to repair the damage that had been done. Even the sincerest apology rarely reorganizes neurology. Adriana went non-contingent and later wrote a scathing, damning letter to the school president and dropped out of the program – a personal history of suffering catalyzed, but not healed, by the inadvertent use of two unfortunate words. 

Unfit for Human Habitation

Over the years, partly in the wake of lesser variations of the above episode that didn’t result in a permanent relationship rupture, I have had many women confess to me that they felt “unfit for human habitation,” and express the desire to become a nun or go live as a hermit in a cabin in the woods. They longed for absolute safety and a strong container. While I fully understand such impulses, and have come to learn how early abusive childhood experiences profoundly disorganize the brain and confuse thinking and feeling – especially under stress – I am also deeply saddened by them. In the Gnostic Gospels Jesus said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Jesus was a master neuroscientist. He knew from long experience that any boundaries we place around our brains and hearts need to be like the boundary around a healthy cell – semi-permeable and flexible, lest we end up simply locking the demons inside. But what Jesus doesn’t mention here is the importance of honoring flexible boundaries, of readiness, and the timing that is so critical, such that what is inside us may be brought forth gently and patiently bit by bit,  rather than be ripped out wholesale like a bindweed from a flower bed.

Hold a Hand When Heading Home

Almost universally women like Adriana are of extraordinary intelligence, exhibit great sensitivity and have huge, compassionate hearts. They are women with the makings of great power, each on deeply intimate terms with the suffering that undergirds our world. Had Adriana remained in the program I would have hoped to have offered her this healing possibility from trauma expert John Palumbo: 

There cannot be effective emotional connectedness without understanding. I am suggesting that we attempt to directly enter the world with (the traumatized person). Not solely from an impassive theoretical arena, but to actually walk, feel, see, smell, taste the trauma. “Hold my hand. I want to go back there with you. I am afraid, and I don’t like where we may be headed together, but I need to go there with you. Maybe then, I can truly understand what now I can only glance. Maybe then, together we can touch this thing and take it out of the shadows.”

Some part of me deeply wishes for a world that could walk hand in hand with all of its abused and battered women, rock them, cradle them and sing them each a soothing lullabye; provide them with a kind of neuro-cardio do-over and assure them that “everything’s gonna be all right, rock-a-bye.” 

And with some of these extraordinary people, we and they, may ultimately be best served by having them honor the impulse to become celibate monks and nuns.

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Shortly after her book, Writing Down the Bones, was published, I attended a week-long writing workshop with Natalie Goldberg at the Green Gulch Zen Center. In that workshop Natalie gave a lot of useful directives designed to plumb the back alleys of the unconscious and mine the hidden depths of the right brain. One of those directives was “give yourself permission to write the worst crap in the world.”  Another was: “Write about what disturbs you.” Traumatic memories get stored in the right brain mostly as imagery and body sensation, and putting words to those memories can often help move them in the direction of integration and healing.

Shortly after I returned from that workshop I attended a Stanford basketball game with some friends. We had floor seats at Maples Pavilion and at half-time I looked out across the court and my eyes fell on a young woman sitting in the first row. Suddenly I felt a great wave of energy flooding my body. It was a mix of sadness and anger and regret all mixed together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was suddenly face to face with an Ursa Major person.

Invasion of the Constellation People

brain-cellBefore I continue the story, let me back up a moment. Ursa Major is one of the central constellations in the northern sky. It’s readily visible and contains the bright stars that make up the Big Dipper, often used by navigators to find the North Star to guide them. The North Star in me is my open, broken heart. If we think of stars in the night sky as nodal points in a network, and we also think of neurons in the brain as parallel nodal points, Ursa Major people are those who automatically and effortlessly activate many nodal points in our neural network – primarily in our right brain, and for most of us, below the level of conscious awareness. In people of similar developmental stages, that activation is often the cue they unwittingly use for beginning a romantic relationship. Our children are almost always Ursa Major people for us, and we for them. Not coincidentally, the primary nodes movie stars and Ursa Major people set atrembling are often the very ones holding memories from our personal traumatic past – everything that has resulted in heartbreak. Through the miracle of transference and projection, Ursa Major people have our number; they show up holding many of the keys to our personal trauma combination lock. If we have any choice at all, it’s probably only whether we elect to spin the dial.

The Real Work of Life

Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the Sufi mystic poet once wrote: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Unaddressed and unresolved trauma along with unprocessed grief and loss, in my experience, are some of the quivery foundations supporting the walls I have built against love. Projection and transference are the bricks and mortar that make and keep those walls erect. They overlay my conditioning and personal history onto others, distort my perceptions and prevent me from authentic loving encounters with real people as they actually show up in real time.

If we don’t have a practice like journaling, day review, mindfulness meditation, effective therapy, or hanging out with a network of intimate, trustworthy, spiritually oriented friends (anam carae) – something that allows us to clear out psychological daily distortions and upsetting emotional experiences on a regular basis – they begin to accrue and take up residence in the neural net. I suspect they also thread neural connections between one another. Losses must be grieved. Trauma must be resolved. My experience is that if they aren’t they’ll find a means to become displaced and leak out in more frequent and ever-stronger ways. They’ll begin standing in the psyche like a line of energetic dominoes and result in broken hearts divided. A simple thing like a chance meeting of an Ursa Major stranger at a basketball game can activate the whole line and bring them suddenly crashing down.

Majoring in Loss

As an Ursa Major person, it didn’t immediately become clear that Rhianna held big potential to bring great healing gifts to me and/or great painful reminders of traumatic memories and major losses that have accrued throughout my life. Or both, as it turned out.

I began looking for Rhianna at each Stanford game that season after that first time. I left every game greatly disturbed, then went home and began journalling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose in response to her. Gradually, those thoughts and feelings began to automatically take the form of a surprisingly compelling story.  Writing privately about Rhianna seemed to begin weakening my defense mechanisms; my suspicion is they also managed to weaken the hold that inhibitor neurons had for keeping traumatic memories tightly under wraps. 

Knowing How My Brain Works Makes it Work Better

In much the same way that neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s detailed knowledge of how the brain works helped get her through her stroke ordeal, writing about my encounters in response to Rhianna were aided and abetted by my own knowledge of the grief process and of brain workings. That knowledge allowed me to both directly experience and stand and bear witness to traumatic memories as they became actively awakened in my brain. They presented themselves one after another, week after week, like a kind of neurological Powerpoint: “This is Your Life in Trauma.” I simply took notes and let them flow into a coherent narrative.

I would offer that Ursa Major people show up in our lives all the time, and that their purpose, when put to skillful use, has the potential to be a healing, therapeutic, spiritually maturational one. I would also simultaneously suggest that when they do show up, unfortunately we often miss them completely or engage with them in unskillful ways that invariably add to the burden of suffering we each carry with us into the world. Most love affairs and many parent-child relationships have little to do with love; they often end up triggering and reenacting early wounding and usually result in very little healing resolution. They mostly build more barriers to Rumi’s direct experience of love.

When reemerging traumatic memories are worked with skillfully (through the suggestions above or with some form of somatic psychology like EFT, Somatic Experiencing or Hakomi), at some point, the isolated, dormant dendrites on the neurons holding the traumatic memories in check manage to come alive and hook back up into the larger network (this is all conjecture at this point, of course, although Scientology has made billions with their “auditing” process acting as if it were true). When reconnection back to the central network is done successfully, healing has been accomplished.


Stanford did well that Ursa Major year – I went to watch them play as one of the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio, Texas. They lost in double overtime to Kentucky. Rhianna’s doing well, too. She married her boyfriend basketball player and moved to Portland. He’s a homeschooling dad for their two kids and she’s a super-popular high school teacher who manages to show up in a Big Way every day for her students. I did well, too: my novel, The Icing of the Shooter – an exploration in grieving losses I didn’t even realize I’d suffered – managed to win the Jack London Award for fiction that year.

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Once, in a significant relationship of long duration, I very reluctantly initiated a breakup. I initiated it for many reasons. One “senseless” reason was to avoid having to re-experience the feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect so familiar from childhood. What I ended up feeling, of course, were crippling, pulsating pangs of loss, abandonment and neglect.

To the logical brain, initiating a breakup to avoid feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect makes no sense. To the feeling brain and a heart desperately trying to heal, it makes perfect sense. The Pain Body (an Eckhart Tolle term that I particularly resonate with) in concert with trauma long buried in unconscious Implicit Memory looks out and pinpoints the precise people to help us reenact the trauma – in unconscious hopes of healing it at last. But with abandonment and neglect, by their very nature, that rarely happens. Partly because every way you try to reenact it you lose, and partly because when you’re in the middle of a reenactment, a greater awareness of the larger picture is seldom available: it doesn’t feel like healing trying to happen in the least. More often than not ALL people involved end up in triggered states of emerging traumatic memory re-creation. And being in an actively triggered emotional state seriously compromises coherent brain function and possibilities for healing in everyone. It feels much more like a return to the wild, than trying to collaboratively and sanely navigate treacherous terrain.

Lacunae R Us

Children who experience abandonment and neglect repeatedly feel at risk when attachments of any kind are broken. Whether physical, emotional or neuro-cardiological, we also have large gaps in our developmental unfolding. Those gaps are called lacunae in the psychiatric literature. Spiritual teacher, A. H. Almaas simply calls them “holes.” These are missing structures that form normally from experiences of people/parents being there for us come hell or high water. As a result, we often end up with fewer inner neural reserves to call upon to help us navigate safely and securely together through the hard stuff. Our physical Pain Body simply becomes overwhelmed with emotion, greatly impairing coherent thinking or action. Often, the only way out, it seems, is to flee. Or to isolate. Isolation, different than deliberately chosen solitude, is rarely an optimal strategy.

Choiceless Unawareness

Some people, like Eckhart Tolle, assert that we all have choice in how we experience such re-surfacing memories. From my perspective they have little understanding of how transient disorganization happens when the stress of traumatic memories becomes activated in the brain. They also fail to understand how much activity of the brain is completely unconscious and easily manipulated (all we need do is look at Stanley Milgram’s at Yale or Phil Zimbardo’s obedience experiments at Stanford for confirmation). Furthermore, few of those who assert such notions concerning choice, while they may be victims of other forms of abuse, they have rarely suffered abandonment and neglect themselves. Choice may be available to some of us later, in the wake of traumatic memory activation, after the poo has been cleaned out of the loo. But Tolle and his advocates would be better served, I think, to hold the matter of choice and free will as an open question rather than to offer it as rigid dogma. I suspect neuroscientists David Eagleman and Bruce Hood live in my camp on this matter of choice, since each recognizes that every brain is enormously complex and operates the best it can in any moment in every situation.

Children at Risk

Those of us who hail from a history of abandonment and neglect are also at greater risk for abandoning and neglecting relationships and our own children than those who don’t. I came very close to unconsciously organizing the family (brain-body) stressors in my own life such that I nearly abandoned my daughter Amanda at age 4, the same age that my father abandoned my own sisters and me … the compulsion to repeat the trauma. The compassionate heart of one of the very few good therapists I’ve worked with over the years, helped me hang in … until Amanda was 13. Then, my understanding of the real limits of the psychotherapy profession at the time, and too many traumatic memories mounting an emergent assault on too many fronts, proved to be beyond my ability to manage. They shut down coherent functioning in my brain and severely limited my choices. Separation and divorce ensued. But I did manage to hang in a little better than my own father did: I continued to provide financial support and spent as much time as Amanda and we could manage together. An Authoritative Community might possibly have helped me hang in better. Possibly.

So, what will help to heal abandonment and neglect? I can only speak from my own experience, but what I most greatly yearned for during those periods of regression and painful traumatic reenactment was for someone who deeply understood how healing attempts often show up chaotically. They would be someone who could stay fully present in the midst of my regressed stony silences, plaintive wails or angry outbursts, and to each of them simply calmly say over and over again, “That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving. That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving.” That’s what it would mean, at least for me personally, to meet The Big Brain Question with The Big Heart Answer.

P.S. If you want to see the specific and startling impact that abandonment and neglect have on the brain, click HERE.

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