Posts Tagged ‘Rodney Smith’

First off, let me say that while it might seem the height of chutzpah for a married male to be writing this piece, it is in no way intended as a negative judgment about unpartnered women. Much of what I write I suspect can just as easily apply to partnered women or men of either circumstance. The central aim of this piece is to offer some possibilities that might provide food for thought leading to some kind of healing integration and the lessening of suffering. 

That said, over the last year or so, I have had contact with an increasing number of single women who have disclosed a preference to me that they wish they weren’t. They are all lovely, intelligent, spirited women, thus I find their struggle somewhat surprising. In contemplating their situation, I’ve come up with some uncommon possibilities I thought might be worthwhile offering up for consideration. Rather than simply offer six capsule summaries, I’m going to try something new and offer each possibility in-depth one at a time over the next six weeks …

Possibility 1: A Limited Ability to Embrace and Be Comfortably Embraced by “Dangerous Friends”

Dangerous friends tend to be people we trust to hold up mirrors that accurately show us parts of ourselves that we might normally be blind to. What we’re often most blind to are ways we move defensively and self-protectively (and sometimes self-destructively) through the world (You can learn about a dozen such ways here). What makes such people feel dangerous to us are the mirrors they hold up that often challenge our defensive postures and uncover and trigger Big Pain in the process. It is that Big Pain, especially when it feels like more than we can bear, that tends to rupture relationships and make it seem like the effort to repair them is too difficult and not really worth the energy drain.

I recently wrote about a close bond I developed with Delaney, a woman last year who abruptly and inexplicably abandoned our friendship in response to a blog draft I wrote. Out of that abandonment and into emotional awareness slowly emerged neural threads bearing a number of my own early painful memories (I’m guessing something similar was true for her as well, only her traumatic memories were apparently rapidly kindled): Images of me four years old standing on the street corner in front of our grocery store and having my father drive up, say goodbye and then forever abandon the family. It took me several months to emotionally descend into the pain of that loss reenacted by Delaney, move fully into it and through it, and then resurface more whole and integrated on the other side. I had a lot of loving help from my wife and friends. That process, however,  is not one I would have willingly volunteered for of my own free will. 

Cause or Trigger?

Such pain has a great possibility of being mistaken as being caused by Dangerous Friends, while in reality, it is most often simply being triggered by them. Everything I know about human beings, their brains, bodies, minds and spirits suggests that development is almost always in the direction of greater and greater neural organization, integration and connection. It’s a heart-process, that seems to want to move us toward the dissolution of the barriers to love’s awareness, as Rumi so often reminded us. But it is often a painful heart-process. Think Dark Night. Think pediatric surgeon who has to amputate a four-year-old’s leg in order to safe her life.

Rodney Smith

What turns such Dangerous mirror-holders into friends is when they become skilled and compassionate enough to operate in intimate relationships as Buddhist teacher and Hospice of Seattle director, Rodney Smith, suggests. In his wonderful book, Lessons From the Dying (which I’ve read at least a half dozen times already), Rodney offers three guidelines to Dangerous Friends for compassionate truth-telling: Is what we’re telling another person true? Is it necessary to tell them? And is it kind? An additional necessary piece is that in the process of truth-telling and receiving, WE learn to become similarly skillful and compassionate.

Compassionate Danger

One thing that makes it necessary for me as a Dangerous Friend to tell difficult truths to people I care about is when I see them doing something I know already is, or will end up being hurtful to themselves or other people. So, for example, my friend, Rayna is gay. I see her spending too much time alone. I know that’s less than ideal for her body and brain. Apart from work, the only other people she interacts with are people she sees at church on Sunday. Unfortunately, Rayna attends a church whose members believe in an authoritarian, critical God. And that God does not approve of gay people. Consequently, the little socializing Rayna does continually has her receiving overt and covert messages that she is unworthy, not only in their eyes, but in God’s heart. As a Dangerous Friend I feel the obligation to tell Rayna that there are other churches whose members believe in a loving, benevolent, compassionate God. In that church, gay women are simply gay women, as equally deserving of God’s love as any other person. As a Dangerous Friend I urge her repeatedly to explore alternative social and worshipping options. But I do it gently, and with the understanding that painful changes sometimes need small steps and their own sweet time to unfold.

Finally, Rodney Smith reminds us that “the truth, unkindly told, is a lie.” And this we will explore some in a future offering. But if you can’t wait and want to know right now how such truths can unwittingly do their damage, click HERE.


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I was 24 years old when I met my father after an absence of nearly twenty years. Like many fatherless kids, I had no idea what I’d missed by his absence, although alexithymia – no words for emotion – seems to be one thing I gained. We spent a number of days together trying to get to know one another over the next year, but I had no idea how to respond or really be in relationship to him. One thought that frequently arose after a day spent together was: “I’m sure glad I missed twenty years of this.”

“This” was apparently in part, the result of his role in the Merchant Marines during WW II – a form of PTSD that made him talk incessantly. That was struggle enough for me to endure, but the harder part was his frequent need to point out to me all that I was doing wrong and could be doing better. At the time, I was co-founder of a very successful manufacturing business and attending UCLA as an undergrad – all without any encouragement or support from him, thank you. For some reason, I was frequently physically sick during and after his visits – sore throats, stomach aches, headaches …

Making Wrong Right

I characterize my father as a Make-Wrong Person and not surprisingly I occasionally meet up with people who remind me of him in my current life. When I do spend time with such people, I pay close attention to how they affect my mind and body. First of all, I notice my breathing often gets very shallow, next my stomach tightens and I get very still. A kind of hypervigilance takes hold. It’s like I’m steeling myself for the next “assault.” This kind of automatic reaction it turns out, is all part of a Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenaline (HPA) axis stress response. My father’s way of interacting with me – unwittingly, of course – effortlessly managed to turn protective allostasis into damaging allostatic load.

Right Speaking

Seattle of Hospice director, Rodney Smith, writing in one of my favorite books, Lessons From the Dying, speaks to the power of speech to affect neurophysiology. He suggests using the things we say to others as the object of contemplative practice, and offers up Socrates’ Triple Filter for “right speaking” as a useful guide. Socrates suggested that before we go about correcting people, or gossiping about them, or making them wrong, we consider the following: Is what we’re about to say … good? This is not some kind of pollyanna-ish directive to simply always accentuate the positive, particularly when applied in conjunction with the second filter: Is what we’re about to say … true?  Finally, and this is one of my own particular challenges: is what we’re about to say … useful? If what we’re about to say is not good, true or useful, perhaps we might want to explore what our motivation is for saying it.

Prosodic Elegance

One of the things I would add to Rodney’s and Socrates’ guidance is a fourth consideration: does what we’re about to say have Prosodic Elegance? Prosody has to do with how the rhythm, tone and syllable stress of language convey feelings. Gregory Bateson identified it as part of the deep structure of language and it’s what our right brain responds to in communications more than the words themselves. Prosody has also been shown to powerfully affect neurophysiology, especially in young children. UCLA developmental psychiatrist, Allan Schore has written extensively on the role of prosody in brain development. Unknown to most of us, we emerge from the womb finely attuned to prosodic elements or our mother’s speech, which has played a significant role in our early neural development (it’s not an accident that hearing is the first sense to develop, and the last to go). Prosodic Elegance then, is the conscious ability to use our voice and speech to achieve the outcomes we most desire. In martial arts, the voice is often used loudly and forcefully to thwart an attack. In plays and poetry readings, the voice is used to move the listener emotionally.

Considering this evidence, were my father alive today, I would hope to have the awareness and ability to take him aside and in the most gentle voice I could manage, simply tell him that I understand he did the best he could given what life delivered to him. And that I love him, and I forgive him. But if he wants to spend time with me, he’ll have to curb his advice-giving, chatterboxing and criticism. That’s my bottom-line Triple Truth.

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