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DSC_0068I came along at a good time. Just before senior year of high school all dress codes were dropped, and rules were lessened. Just before freshman year of college, all the freshman wearing of duck caps and the badgering of freshman by upper classmen were dropped, visitation restrictions among the dorms by the opposite sex was dropped, and FERPA took effect. We had to sign permission slips for parents to get our grades, and even the grading system changed. The F was dropped for a No Credit grade. D’s were dropped as well so anything below a C didn’t count towards graduation. And again, there were no dress codes. If you showed up for class, that was cool, but that was not required either. I have a friend who attended the first day of an econ class and didn’t show up again until the final and got the highest grade in the class. (These days he is not even sure he showed up for that first class.) There were few supportive services to speak of, orientation for new students was fairly minimal – we helped each other out. When the counseling center, then called the center for psychological services, tried to put a coffee machine in the waiting room, a vice president put the kibosh on that as unneeded and unwanted coddling of students. But the drinking age was 18 and there was a bar on campus that served beer for a quarter and unlimited servings and there was usually a live band and dancing two or three nights a week.

Now there is an army of supportive folks and orientation has an elaborate ritual designed to let new folks know they belong. The ADA has increased access, and there are a lot more opportunities for learning both on and off campus including abroad. And these days no one has to pass a swimming test to graduate.

But there are also more rules. On the plus side, if you have a concern for someone who is not showing up, you can report it to the dean of students who follows up. I was in a discussion yesterday about class attendance. How many absences are allowed over the semester? How do you decide what is excused? What counts as tardy, how many minutes can one be late? How many tardies count as an absence.?

I was taken back to days of working in groups that had folks referred by a probation office that covered people with drunk driving and drug possession convictions. There were lots of rules, especially about attendance. No late arrivals allowed, and no excused absences unless there was a doctor’s note or a documented death in the immediate family. I remember one counselor who was a stickler. I remember one person showed up for that counselor’s group (early) but came to the wrong building, so I walked the person over and vouched they were there on time, but we got to the group less than two minutes late (by the counselor’s watch). So the person was sent back to court which involved the possibility of jail. Meanwhile, the stickler was notorious for showing up for trainings at least ten minutes late and would not come in quietly. The arrival was announced loudly regardless of what the CPR or behavior management presenter was doing, and the presenter was usually me. No verbal intervention ever changed that behavior. Too bad jail wasn’t an option. Maybe there would have been an empathy increase. But I doubt it. One problem with rules is that too often those who cling to them don’t apply them to themselves. Power brings privilege, unfortunately.

The Daoists felt that too many rules just encouraged rule breaking. Rather than rules, they and other classical Chinese philosophers looked to establish the model at the top (the king) who set the example that was followed as the norm. De, or virtue, and ren, or humaneness, were the norms for the junzi (literally the son of the prince – a noble moral man, not a nobleman) who had those qualities. If you did not embody de and ren, you were not a junzi. It is very basic. You treat yourself, others, and the world around you with decency, respect and compassion. Whether as a teacher or a therapist, I have always tried to work with the person or persons in front of me rather than trying to fit them into some mold or label. We work with and teach each other. Those who rant against regulations typically don’t also follow the qualities of de and ren of the junzi. They follow the increase my profit, my sense of freedom, I-Me-Mine, everyone else and the world we live in be damned model which is so prevalent these days that the health of our world is collapsing. You want fewer rules? Stop being selfish and short sighted and take responsibility for who you are in this world and whether you treat others as you would want yourself and those you love treated. If you’re a billionaire, don’t do food drives for your employees. Pay them a decent wage. Consider the possible consequences of your actions out to seven generations. I had a couple of clients over the years who were young and came from wealth and privilege. When asked their goal, the response of both was, “I want to stop being an asshole.” Too bad that goal is not contagious.

So I have a difficult time with the rules of attendance. People can show up diligently and still not be there. I remember one person who was beyond the number of officially allowed absences. We talked and I learned what the person was going through, and we figured out how they could meet their responsibilities for the class. That student’s reflection paper was one of the best.

I remember John Wooden writing that one of his regrets was kicking a kid off the basketball team back when Wooden was a high school coach. He caught the kid smoking a cigarette – a violation of the rules. The boy lost his chance at a scholarship and missed out on college. As what is legal is not always ethical, what is strict rule compliance is not always what is kind or even productive. And it can have counterproductive results. Thank goodness the rule abiding Wehrmacht abided by the chain of command rules at Normandy and got a late start. The Allies were allowed leeway and improvisation saved the day.

We are wired to seek safety. When we feel safe, we see more possibilities, and we become more creative. We become kinder, more compassionate, caring, respectful people. When we are overcome by fear, we get tunnel vision in every sense of the word. We go with what we know. We hide behind rules that may no longer even be relevant. We become more short-sighted, meaner, and cruel. If we want to make the world a better place, we need to increase feelings of safety, which is difficult to do. Fear is powerful and is at the core of evolutionary survival. We pay more attention to what can hurt us.

I always think of the principles of taijiquan. Softness overcomes hardness. Flexibility overcomes rigidity. Yield to overcome. Despite what feels like rigidity in rules, my old school is putting a great emphasis on positive psychology these days. Produce an environment where people can be creative and see possibilities and that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As Barbara Frederickson says, “Positive emotions transform us.” Rules and their flexible (but not arbitrary and capricious) enforcement need to be a part of that transformation process. Our student affairs staff kickoff included the work of Martin Seligman and Frederickson. You can see and hear some of Frederickson’s ideas below. Now that get-together was truly energizing! I hope I can instill in students the ideals of Kongfuzi to learn for the sake of and the love of learning, not to impress someone else, and to advance the common welfare of all, not just the self.

 

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Jamesown

A display at Jamestown

A few years ago, I reviewed a book called “An End to Murder: A Criminologist’s View of Violence Throughout History,” by Colin and Damon Wilson. It was Colin’s last book and was completed by his son, Damon. Damon noted that life is actually getting safer these days. You are much less likely to be killed by your fellow man than you were centuries ago or even just a few decades ago. He cited theories for that. Among them were the removal of lead from gasoline and other products and a “good apple” theory. He was much more optimistic than our pundits and politicians. He did address terrorism and mass murder as well as our treatment of the environment and the short- and long-term consequences of that treatment.

Here in Virginia we have had mass murders in recent years from Virginia Tech to Virginia Beach. It seems that perhaps the Wilsons might be wrong. But I read an article in the Washington Post today about nearby Jamestown, and Europeans were committing mass murder in what would become the US even then. So what is the answer?

We proclaim that rights are god given or are natural rights. Maybe so, but how does that play out in the world. Rights end up being what those in power proclaim for themselves and for whomever and whatever they deem worthy. In the beginning, those who set up the US government deemed white males with property who were older than 21 were worthy. People of color were deemed savages and worthy of slavery or removal and genocide. The definition of white was also narrow and didn’t include southern and eastern Europeans. They would get white status much later when folks like Walter Plecker were worried that those of color were out reproducing whites, since they incorrectly saw race as biological rather than the social construct that it is, their logic is faulty on their own terms.

A right that is heatedly debated today is the second amendment. There have been restrictions over the years – machine guns during the days of Al Capone and mail order guns after the assassination of John F. Kennedy for instance. There was even a restriction on semi-automatic weapons for a time, but that was allowed to lapse during the administration of G. W. Bush, and any attempt to revive it is met with emotions that one would expect if the earth were about to end. What was okay 20 years ago is now a sign of the apocalypse. The fear of change is so great that the CDC is banned from studying gun violence and MDs cannot ask about guns at home. Having a gun is a sacrosanct right. Well, except in the 1960s when the Black Panther Party in California started to open carry for self-defense. Gun rights Republicans quickly made amends to sacred rights to change that situation. So, change can happen.

When the second amendment was written, guns were black powder muzzle loaders. To commit mass murder with those weapons you needed a mass of people firing, like at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. There was also the militia part of the constitution. Colonists were not happy with their treatment by the British Army, and there was a mistrust of the military. The original intention, despite what Scalia spun, was for those with rights and those they deemed worthy, to have guns and to train so that they would not need a big military industrial complex. It worked well for killing Native Americans and keeping Africans enslaved, but when it came to the War of 1812, we found we needed a standing army. Even then, it was kept small. It wasn’t until modern times that we give over half of our budget to the military – a time when the “big wars” are over.

Some argue that guns are necessary to protect you from the government. At some point along the way, “we the people” became the “you the enemy.” We became entrenched in tribes and if our tribe wasn’t in power, it was bad. The Wilsons could argue that tribalism is less than what it once was. People of different races, religions, creeds, sizes, colors, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, political parties, and all the other labels we put on ourselves and others, actually do get along these days, or at least co-exist nonviolently, and do not go to war on the whim of a monarch.

But it does all come down to power and culture. Pundits and politicians feed on if it bleeds it leads. We are emotional beings and fear might just be the most powerful emotion. In this culture you increase your power and your wealth at the expense of others. We express violence in culturally prescribed ways. I remember that the same day Sandy Hook happened, there was an attack in a school in China on the same number of people. The difference was that in China, the weapon was a knife. No one died. The culturally prescribed way in this culture is with a gun. Colin Wilson wrote many years ago about the evolution of violence in the US and traced it to a particular part of England. It especially took hold in the slave holding south (slavery is inherently violent) and became our honor culture. If you dishonor me, I get back at you, and it only matters if I feel slighted, for that gives me just cause to act. He even traced violence in northern cities to neighborhoods with large populations of southerners who had migrated there.

Yes, we need to do something about guns. We also need to look at ourselves and our culture. What kind of country do we want for ourselves and those who come after us? There is a universal maxim that has been around for a very long time and has been taught by everyone from Confucius to Kant to Jesus. Treat others as you would want to be treated, and don’t do to others that which you would not want done to yourself and to those you love. Remember that we are all in this together. That includes all people including people from other countries and people with less wealth and different religions and all the rest. It includes the world we live in and are a part of. To fall back on “It’s my right” is to sound as a spoiled child. As Samuel Johnson said about patriotism, it may be the last refuge of a scoundrel. With rights come responsibility. Does this right you cling to dogmatically include treating others with compassion, kindness, and respect? Does it include responsibility? What do you do for these, the least of my brothers and sisters? I always have liked the approach of solution focused therapy. As soon as you label something a problem, it gets worse. Instead, seek what you would like to happen. Suppose you go to sleep tonight and while you are asleep, a miracle happens and the problem you have is somehow remedied, but you don’t know that happened because you were asleep. How would the world be different? What would this culture look like? How would people treat each other and the world around them? What would our cultural rules, values, and norms be? Then you would ask yourself to rate on a scale of one to ten where we are now with one being nowhere near where we want to be and ten is we are there. Then we ask what we would need to do to move up even just half a point and get lots of detail. Just how will we change? What will be in that process? How will we do it? How do we adapt? How do we treat each other regardless of where they are from and where they live and what they believe? How do we treat all living things and the planet and the universe? And then you ask, again on a scale of one to ten, how much effort are you willing to put into making that change. One is to hope and pray it happens, and ten is to do whatever you need to. You need to rate yourself at least about a seven for change to have a chance of coming about. I have also found over the years that those who give a ten rating tend not to follow through.

Unfortunately, it is that need (sometimes demand) to feel respected as right, that honor culture, that supreme need to save face coupled with exceptionalism, constructed tribalism, and lack of humility and grace that makes coming to a consensus almost impossible. We are holding out hopes for the young to bring the solutions. But whatever happened to that peace and love generation that was going to save the world? The powerful have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. There is money to be made in the world of pundits and their media platforms of ratings and clicks. Money to be made in moving wealth in an upward direction and only declaring there is a class war when someone attempts to mitigate that flow. Odd that a country that so many call Christian forget that the apostles in Acts sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to others according to need. Negotiation will be difficult and a never-ending process, but that has always been so. Those with power and wealth tend to want to keep that and blind themselves and try to blind others as to the long-term consequences of a culture of greed and lacking in kindness. Native people encouraged looking out to seven generations considering the consequences of our actions. How foresighted are we these days? What effort are we willing to make? What do we need to start doing to make positive changes, what do we need to stop doing, and what do we need to continue doing? What kind of world do we want for ourselves now and for those who come after us?

Milky Way

The free lecture on the Great Courses site last month was David Kyle Johnson of King’s College discussing science fiction as philosophy – is time travel possible. He looked at various popular works such as Quantum Leap, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and others and talked about whether physics would allow for the time travel method used. The one he found closest to science was the movie “Interstellar.” He also mentioned H. G. Wells’s book The Time Machine, but not a couple of modern novels and their feasibility. I am thinking of two science fiction works that are also counterfactual histories – Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South and Lightning, by Dean Koontz. In Guns of the South, white South Africans travel back to save Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy by supplying them with AK-47s and other technology. Koontz has time traveling Nazis. Both are interesting reads with their own travel adaptations for travel and the time line.

I think the fascination with time travel is often a desire to change the past and perhaps to see what the future holds. We can also learn by speculating on what might have been had something, even something small, occurred differently – chaos theory in history. We can’t do those double-blind experiments in life to see which path is the best. Every moment, every choice, every action, is a crossing of our own personal Rubicon. Interstellar took care not to have those paradoxes that vex the idea of time travel, like the grandfather paradox. What if you go back in time and do something (like killing your grandfather or some other ancestor) which prevents you from being born. In that case you are not born and can’t go back in time and prevent your birth so then you are born then go back in time and prevent your birth, but then… You are caught in an unending time loop. In physics, theoretically time can go both forwards and backwards, but we experience time in a linear fashion. I think the Canadian series Continuum had issues like this, like having two of the same person in the same place and time. But if there are time travelers from the future, they would have at some point visited us in our present, but there is no evidence of this (at least that we can perceive) so that would lead one to believe that travel backwards doesn’t happen at some point from the future. As for visiting the future, how do you travel to a place that doesn’t exist yet?

I think of time travel as more of a transcendental experience, like Joseph Campbell talked about in the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers a few decades back. (Media does allow us to travel back in a virtual way.) He said that the life everlasting in the Coptic experience was not necessarily going to some supernatural place but experiencing eternity in the moment. It is that mindful place of feeling at one with everything and with all time. You are that everchanging stardust that always has been and always will be.

I do like the speculation of counterfactual history and science fiction. You get an idea of just how fragile a moment is and how there are almost infinite possibilities in each and every one. My favorite Star Trek series was Deep Space 9, and my favorite captain was Sisko. At the end, he explained human’s experience of linear time to the Prophets.

 

 

2013 Burlington Vermont 015

 I think my life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face. George Eliot

We are social beings. We have survived as a species because of our ability to live and work together. The idea of rugged individualism is a relatively recent myth strongly believed in the West, particularly the US. I remember a study from years ago in which people were asked to draw a circle representing the self, and another representing other. Americans drew circles much larger for the self than for other. People in Asia and Africa tended to make the circles the same size or maybe even make the circle for other larger.

We are born helpless and dependent. We rely on others to help us develop as humans, and we rely on others our entire lives. Attachment teaches us how to get along in life. John Bowlby wrote about attachment after noticing how infants in orphanages after World War II in Europe failed to thrive and, in some cases, died, despite having the basic physical needs met.

How hard wired are we for attachment? Take a look at this video.

According to the polyvagal theory, we help regulate each other’s emotions throughout our lives by how our ventral vagal nerve “reads” and responds to facial expressions. In “The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach” by Kenneth L. Davis and Jaak Panksepp, the emotion of panic/sadness is linked to separation from our caregiver in our developmental years.

Martin Seligman wrote in “Learned Optimism” that he could predict the winner of a presidential election by the optimism of the acceptance speech. In “The Attachment Effect,” Peter Lovenheim looked at politics in the US and looked at politicians and even speeches from another angle – from the view of attachment.

There are four kinds of attachment – secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. He writes that those with secure attachment “tend to be more giving and tolerant toward others, and they show more resilience in the face of challenges such as personal illness and the death of a loved one.” They are comfortable with intimacy and depending on others. Insecure attachments – avoidance and anxious – are more problematic. They do have strengths. A person with anxious attachment may be more successful getting a parent’s attention as a child (though the attention may not be positive) and the avoidant person becomes more independent and is less likely to feel the hurt, at least consciously. Anxious people may perceive danger more quickly, and avoidant people may see ways to escape more quickly. Anxiously attached people tend to be uneasy and vigilant about threats to relationships and are worried. Avoidant people tend to be very self-reliant and disinterested in intimacy. Disorganized attachment is coming to fear and be drawn to your care giver at the same time. They tend to be fearful of rejection, suspicious and shy.

Lovenheim found a correlation between secure attachment and centrist beliefs – more moderate, more flexible, more realistic, and more self-confidence, empathy and trust. Both anxious and avoidant people are more likely to be drawn to extremes. Avoidant may be drawn to the far right and anxious to the far left, but not necessarily. What does happen is that both are drawn to a dogmatism that gives them a sense of safety and security. “Anxiously attached voters, in particular, may project their unmet attachment needs onto leaders (and) may so crave attaching to a strong, care-giving leader that they nay be unable to distinguish between a transformative leader –one who protects encourages and empowers them – and a leader without such qualities.” The relationship of style to political leanings may be much more complicated. He also did an attachment style interview with Michael Dukakis and found the former presidential candidate and governor as avoidant. You may remember his detached analytical nonemotional answer during a presidential debate that was widely seen as costing him votes.

In speculating about recent presidents, Lovenheim found both anxious (like Clinton) but mostly avoidant including both 2016 candidates. Often anxious attached people wind up with avoidant people in relationships (and it generally doesn’t go well), and I wondered about voters and candidates. I didn’t find any data, but I am also curious because several presidential nominees (and at least two of those elected) have a history of being bullies. Is there an attachment style associated with bullies? At least among adolescents, avoidant attachment style was likely to be the style of bullies. But the relationship may be a bit more complicated. As usual, more research is needed. It also got me to wondering about cultural attachment styles. If a country tends to elect leaders with avoidant attachment styles, how does that affect the country’s relationships with the rest of the world? Also complicating that are cultures sense of the self in relation to others. The nonsecure styles would tend to lead a culture and a country to more extreme and have more rigid positions based on fear and the need to be right so that all are safe and secure, at least in our tribe. It also got me to wondering about attachment and religious belief. A concept of a power greater than yourself can give you a sense of safety. Lovenheim found that attachment styles in religion tend to reflect those we have in every day life. A secure attachment leads one to a feeling of God as loving protector, “available, reliable and responsive.” Those with anxious styles who see relationships as unreliable and unpredictable may be “deeply emotional, all consuming, and clingy.” The research he cites sees avoidant as tending towards agnostic or atheistic, but there are philosophies such as Buddhism and Daoism that have no deity or deities, and then there is rational empiricism all of which can be had by one with a secure attachment style. What I wondered about is more the disorganized style. If God is both loving and vengeful and to be feared, how would one get beyond that paradox and have a secure attachment? Again, with all the variables in daily life, it is complicated, and more research is needed.

I didn’t find any research on attachment style and likelihood of voting. I do wonder how outcomes of elections would change if a greater percentage of people voted. The best estimate I could find for the US population as a whole is that about 65% are secure attachment style, 20% avoidant, 10-15% anxious and 10-15% disorganized. About 75% of people live their whole lives in one style with no change. As Lovenheim writes, “If we’re going to raise emotionally healthy people, a consistent attachment figure must be present at least for the first eighteen months to two years of life. This is not a gender-specific role; it could be mother, father, grandparent, nanny, among other possibilities. But someone has to do it.”

Attachment is not static across a lifetime, and one can earn secure attachment. And, your attachment style may even affect your relationship with your dog.

Other books of interest in this area are “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships”, by Louis Cozolino; “The Feeling Brain” by Elizabeth Johnston and Leah Olson; and “The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory”, by Stephen Porges.

If you are curious about your own attachment style, there is an online test at http://web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116

I remember Dr. Peter Derks, my very first psychology professor, many years ago discussing a study in which people were asked to find patterns in flashing lights. Lights would flash in a sequence and participants were supposed to figure out the pattern so they could predict which light would flash next. What the participants didn’t know was that there was no pattern. The lights were programmed to flash in a random pattern. In every case, however, people found a pattern. When they were ultimately proved wrong, they would typically say, “now I see what you’re doing,” and would change their theory to a different pattern. No one ever figured out that there was no pattern, it was all random.

The NPR podcast, Invisibilia, recently did a story about patterns in the context of trying to predict behavior. One story was about a woman who had a history of abuse and arrests. She had turned her life around and was trying to become a lawyer in Washington state. Her appeal went to the state supreme court, and her attorney was a man who had convictions of bank robbery. Another story was about a Princeton study that used longitudinal data to try to predict outcomes in children. The researchers, despite massive amounts of data and coding efforts were not able to predict outcomes. You can listen to the podcast at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia (it is the March 18, 2018 podcast) or you can read the transcript here. People long for patterns and predictability and typically feel very uncomfortable with randomness. With randomness you can’t predict what will happen next. And life just has way too many variables to be completely predictable.Our brain takes shortcuts to give us the comfort that we can predict things. We inherently look for patterns. It enhances our chance at survival. It is part of evolution. It also gives us a sense of self, of who we are. We are those patterns we fall into.

Michael Puett, a professor at Harvard, and Christine Gross-Loh wrote a book called, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life.” Rather than looking inside for our “authentic true self” we are urged to “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” Every moment can be a moment of redemption or a moment of damnation. For all of us. Puett says that Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period, said that labeling yourself is dangerous. It limits you. Saying you are an inherently shy person limits you to being that, you become stuck in that pattern. Instead, you can look at each moment for what you can become. We are not static beings.

That moment of becoming reminds me of solution focused therapy and narrative therapy. You start with small steps, like a small snowball at the top of a hill that gets bigger as it rolls down. The problem is outside yourself, and does not define you. Instead of staying with your past patterns and stories, you look at how you would like to be. It reminds me of flow – you become one with the moment you are in. But that takes practice. Humans tend to fall off the Way or Dao. We get caught up in thinking and patterns and ruts. Joseph Campbell, when interviewed by Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, spoke about the Coptic Christians for whom the everlasting life was living forever in the moment – transcendence. Confucius used rituals to help us get there.

Chance life encounters with their randomness play a large roll in our lives, too. That can be for better or for worse. The better are situations like that if Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, who had given up on publishing his first book and planned to destroy it. That changed with a chance encounter on a walk home. You can read that story here. For worse could be an instance of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember years ago a man driving home from work, just as he did every week day, was killed when a car, driven by an adolescent girl and friends, went airborne with the front end coming down into his windshield and killing him instantly. Albert Bandura wrote an excellent article on chance life encounters in the APA Monitor back in 1982. You can read it here.

So in this life, with all its messiness and randomness and chaos, how can be live in a way of growth and loving kindness? How can we live in the present so that we are not captured by the past, but have a chance at a better future? How can we change our relationships into skillful ones? How can we flourish? The Path gives us some practical ideas from the Chinese philosophers whose ideas have been found to be supported by neuroscience.

I think a part of changing and just being in this life is to be comfortable with that randomness and ambiguity. We learn that going with the flow is being open to the results of that butterfly flapping her wings off the coast of Africa, and we adapt and adjust as best as we can. That may go against our nature of desiring predictability and a world of where everything is easily judged right or wrong, good or bad, and we always know what comes next. Rather than judge harshly and condemn or overly praise and think that something is solved for good, we look at how skillful we are and how we can improve that. We have a sense of curiosity. The Chinese philosophers all sought to teach us how to be decent people, each in their own way. It is a constant life long process, and our skill levels vary from moment to moment. The philosophers from Confucius to Xunzi all have ways of reaching a place where we automatically find and live the Way. But for all the teachings, there is an inherent paradox. The harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. In Chinese, the process similar to flow is “wu wei” or effortless effort. Edward Slingerland gives a good overview.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116You may have heard someone say, “I can’t believe I did that, that’s not me!” And sincerely believe it and be baffled at what they said or did. You may have felt that way about someone else. “My son/daughter/friend would never do something like that.”

There are at least two versions of us – the one in the moment, and the one we construct in our story over time. In the updated edition of “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn cites research from the University of Toronto about these two versions of the self. The study looked at people who had completed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and found “increases in neuronal activity in a brain network associated with embodied present-moment experience and decreases in another brain network associated with the self as experienced across time.” That second self is the narrative self or the self we experience as ourselves in the story we tell ourselves over time. The research findings encourage us to be in the present moment rather than caught up “in the drama of our narrative self.” “Non-judgmental awareness of our wandering mind may actually be a gateway to greater happiness and well-being right in the present moment, without anything at all having to change.”

Jeffrey Zimmerman in “Neuro-Narrative Therapy” goes a step further and cites the work of Dan Siegel. “Narrative therapy rejects the notion of a single, true self and instead embraces the idea of multiple identities or multiple versions of the self.” Siegel says that the notion of a unified self is “missing the point of the multiplicity of our normal, adaptive, ever-changing selves.” We need these multiple states to be able to adapt to the changing situations in our lives. We do tend to have states that we favor and see those override states or dominant style as our personality. Our brain is constantly taking short cuts so that we can cope with all the information we are constantly bombarded with internally and externally, and we see that dominant style as our self. “… (O)ur brain likes coherence, it has a bias for making the world appear solid and stable. To do so, it constructs an unbroken picture, giving us a continuous sense of self out of these multiple brain states.”

Mindfulness can help us be aware of those states, and to be with them in a nonjudgmental way and lessen the drama and the pain of everyday life.

I think it also helps to look deeper, even on the physical cellular level of the self. What we perceive, for example a chair, is not solid at the microscopic level. And we are not solid beings or even mostly made up of human cells, at the microscopic level. Take a look at this “Nova Wonders” called, “Nova Wonders, What is Living in You?” It not only tells about how in terms of numbers our human cells are vastly outnumbered by the bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms that co-habit our bodies with us, but gives some thought provoking ideas and findings about the function of our gut bacteria in illnesses ranging from C. diff to Parkinson’s to autism. You can find it at https://www.pbs.org/video/nova-wonders-whats-living-in-you-fnbfuy/. Fortunately, our human cells are bigger than all our fellow micro-organisms. Their total weight in our body is about three pounds – about the same as the weight of our brain.

Leo Copy

Uncle Leo

We are less than a year from the end of the centennial of World War I, the war to end all wars that ironically in many ways still continues to this day. My great uncle, Leo, was in the National Guard in Chase City serving as a medic when his unit was called. They were first sent to Camp McClellan in Anniston, Alabama for training. One day, his horse caught a hoof in the tracks at a railway crossing. Leo tried to free his horse and in the process, the horse fell on him crushing Leo’s kidneys. He lingered for three painful days with my great grandparents getting updates via telegram. He died April 28, 1918. My great grandmother was devastated. The soldiers who went to Europe and lived to return received a great welcome home. One of the soldiers from Mecklenburg County received particular acclaim. For his actions in capturing guns and twenty-two of the enemy on October 8 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Sergeant Earl Davis Gregory received the Medal of Honor. He was the war’s only Virginia recipient.

 

Not everyone got a welcome home, or even a loving send off. In “Water Tossing Boulders,” Adrienne Berard writes about how in Mississippi, black men had a choice of work on plantations, be arrested (and work on plantations) or be drafted into the Army. Nate Shaw, a black sharecropper, recalled that whites would meet the returning veterans “at these stations where they was gettin off, comin back to the United States, and cut the buttons and armaments off of their clothes, make em get out of them clothes, make em pull them uniforms off and if they didn’t have another suit of clothes – quite naturally, if they was colored men they was poor and they might not a had a thread of clothes in the world but them uniforms – make em walk in their underwear.”

Berard further writes: “In the spring of 1919, a band of white men in Blakely, Georgia, confronted a black soldier named Wilbur Little as he returned home from his tour of duty in World War I. When they ordered him to take off his uniform, he refused, A few days later, a mob attacked Little at a celebration for his achievements during the war. He was found beaten to death on the outskirts of town, still wearing his uniform. In the Mississippi Delta, a black coast guardsman returning on leave to visit his grandmother in Greenwood was stopped in Tchula and arrested for ‘trespassing without money.’ When it was discovered that he did, in fact, have money, the charge was changed to vagrancy. He was sentenced to thirty days of hard labor at a cotton plantation. Thirty-six days later, he was released, haven been beaten on several occasions with a ‘seven pound strap,’ once for writing a letter to his commanding officer.” These men were treated far better in France than in the country of their birth.

Not only do the repercussions of that war linger on in this world, but the struggle for equal justice and treatment with dignity, compassion, and respect for all continues as well.

2015 Bar Harbor

We unite ourselves and divide ourselves with words. We not only define but give emotional meaning to things with words, and you often can tell the importance of something by how many words there are for it in a language, a classic example being the number of Inuit words for snow.

Political correctness often comes up in the discussion of the evolving of our language and how we frame our culture. The discussion is often disingenuous, for the same philosophical group that disparages the move to change the name of the Washington professional football team name as political correctness gone overboard forced the Cincinnati professional baseball team to change its name to Redlegs for a time in the 1950s so they wouldn’t sound communist. That was also the time that the US national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of the many, one” – an inclusive unifying phrase) to “In God We Trust” in an effort to prove we were not and to divide us from “godless communists.” This was done despite the constitutional separation of church and state. In Virginia, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom had major supporters in the Baptists who did not want to pay taxes to support the official government religion of the Church of England. Those who most speak out against Sharia law ironically want to force their own brand of Christianity (and there are many brands and denominations) on others. They are doing exactly what they say they oppose, but it is okay because it is their brand. To oppose it is to be politically correct in a “bad” way. Those thoughts are further stirred up by talk radio and the disinfotainment branches of cable TV news and propaganda sources that masquerade as news.

One of the Founding Fathers of the US was a physician named Benjamin Rush. One of the things he is remembered for is declaring that addiction to alcohol is a disease. There has been an ongoing debate about whether addictions and other issues of behavior are diseases or not. The labels have changed over the years, and what is and is not a disease or a disorder has changed over time as well. Trying to decide what to call people we see as having these problems changes, too. Do you say, he is an addict? Or do you say he is a person with an addiction? Do you say he is a schizophrenic? Or do you say, he is a person with schizophrenia? Does it matter? Is it all just political correctness? Take a deep breath for a moment, and think. What do you call a person with cancer? Do you call them a cancer patient, a person with cancer? No one that I know of calls them a cancerite or some other word that implies that they are the disease. Now there are conditions like diabetes and hemophilia that do have words for a person with the condition. Do you feel a different emotional reaction to the words “alcoholic” and “schizophrenic” than you do to “diabetic” and “hemophiliac”? Would you feel differently towards someone called a cancer patient or a cardiac patient than you would schizophrenics and diabetics? Would that feeling change according to how you think they became ill? Did it just happen, or did they bring it on themselves by smoking or diet, or was it some environmental contaminant beyond their control? Does that change how you feel?

Our language shows in a very strong way how we determine and express our values. In a diverse culture, there are different values and different linguistic ways of expressing those values. One can rigidly hide behind lazy shortcuts like “political correctness” and somehow feel smugly superior when belittling something as politically correct. Or one can look more deeply at the language and try to see what values that language expresses. One thing working with families has taught me over the years is that families function better when the members treat each other with respect and compassion. Language and the values that language expresses and teaches can help a culture function more positively when it has compassion and respect as fundamental parts of its foundation. Remember the principles of taiji – softness overcomes hardness, and flexibility overcomes rigidity. In the West, another way of expressing that is that a soft answer turns away anger. The emotions of language are contagious for better or for worse.

I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at https://www.stickk.com/. They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

A few decades ago, I attended a wedding reception on Long Island and had a conversation with a person that has stayed with me all these years. I only had that one short talk with her and don’t remember her name, but she was very engaging and quite fascinating. She was Jewish and was born in Poland. She was a young girl when Germany invaded her country and systematically began to exterminate her people. Her life was saved by the actions of a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who provided exit visas to Jews in Poland and Lithuania. The woman and her father made their way across the Soviet Union via the Trans Siberian Railway to Japan to Canada and eventually to New York. I was fascinated by her story but the part that has stuck with me all these years was her wisdom of perspective. She said that we tend to focus on the present and forget to put things into perspective. She would catch herself complaining about the cold New York winters, but then she would remember crossing Siberia and the bitter cold. New York was not so cold after all. When I hear someone say, “this is the worst ever” or even “this is the best ever” I think of her. She saw both the worst and the best in people. And when I hear people judge others as different and as outsiders to be rejected, as we in the US did to the people on the SS St. Louis fleeing certain death, I think of the compassion and bravery of Chiune Sugihara and his family. Too few of us have their integrity.

All we have is the current moment, and how we view and live in that moment ripples through time in ways we can barely imagine.

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