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Santa Fe 2009 298Many of the people I work with in both taijiquan and counseling have chronic pain. According to the National Health Interview Survey done by the CDC , about 25 million Americans suffer daily pain and about 54 million Americans have chronic pain. In working with pain, I use a combination of movement and mindfulness. Taijiquan and qigong can work wonders for pain relief. Each is a gentle way to get moving again and a way to attain balance in all parts of life.

There are several books I suggest to folks. First are the works of Toni Bernhard. You can read more about her at She addresses pain management from a Buddhist perspective. She has written several books on the topic and about her own coping with chronic pain. Another book is “The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers and Reclaim Your Life”, by Mel Pohl, MD and Katherine Ketcham. You can find out more about it at Pohl helps people get off opiates and develop alternate and more effective ways of coping with pain.

Taiji and qigong work with pain by changing your relationship with gravity, changing the way you breathe, and calming your mind and body. A principle of taiji is that you only expend the energy and engage the muscles for whatever it is you are doing at that moment. Everything else is relaxed but ready. Your joints are never locked. Your spine is upright and your head rests in balance on your shoulders. If you had a plumb bob attached to the center of the top of your head and it ran down the center of your body, that plumb bob would always touch the floor somewhere between your feet as you move. Standing at rest, it would be equidistant between your ankles. Your shoulders are relaxed – neither tucked forward nor pulled back. When you change your relationship with gravity and are balanced, there is less pain because you are not tilted forward or back putting a lot of work on your neck, shoulders, and back. You also carry your body differently according to mood. Being in balance and harmony with gravity can also balance your mood.

Breathing to your diaphragm also reduces stress which can reduce pain. There is an emotional component to pain. Calming the emotions can help reduce the pain. Abdominal breathing slows the heartbeat, reduces blood pressure and blood sugar, lowers stress hormones in the blood, changes the blood flow in the body, improves digestion, and even changes your vision. You are going from fight-flee-freeze-faint mode to rest and digest mode. This is a guide to finding balance in a standing meditation.


You can read more about the principles of taijiquan and qigong here.

You can also change your relationship with pain by changing the emotional relationship with it. Rather than fighting it, have a conversation with it. What is it trying to tell you? How does it feel? Is it hot, cold, throbbing, a dull ache? Notice it, be with it. Change your self talk with pain to change that relationship, too. Pain is not a bad thing, it is there to tell us something is wrong. Sometimes the harder we try to make it go away, the harder it works to be heard. Changing self talk can help with that as well. You change your relationship with pain.


Another option is humor. In 1979, Norman Cousins wrote a book called, “Anatomy of an Illness As Perceived by the Patient – Reflections on Healing and Regeneration.” I came across it back when it was published in 1979. My dad was in an intensive care unit for most of two years during that time. Cousins found that a component of his healing was humor and included things like watching Candid Camera and Marx Brothers movies. Laughter changes the hormones in your body and can bring on pain relief. Even just a smile can begin to bring calm and start to lessen pain. When people have found that support groups sometimes unhelpfully come down to contests of who hurts the most, humor can erupt to help with coping, especially in the form of Monty Python. Just the thought of the Yorkshire men can bring on a smile.




Kona Hawaii 2013 116Recently a friend mentioned how different he felt while on prednisone, and as a Buddhist it helped bring home the tenuousness of the concept of self. Alan Watts wrote extensively about the concept of self in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, with one example here.

I get to listen to about 10 or 15 minutes of Radio Lab on NPR during my Wednesday commute and recently there was a piece on the element lithium. Lithium is used as a psychotropic, but they also mentioned that towns which have an incredibly small amount of lithium naturally occurring in their water supplies also have lower suicide rates than towns with even smaller amounts. It reminded me that when lead was removed from gasoline and paint, crime rates went down. Transcranial magnetic stimulation not only helps with relieving depression, but in at least one study, people changed a decision after the stimulation. They didn’t realize the stimulation had occurred and had a rational explanation as to why they changed their minds, and the explanation went along with our concept of self and free will. So much of what we do and who we are occurs below our conscious level.

One theory in neuroscience I have come across is that the construct of “other” evolved first followed by the construct of “self.” These came about so that we could communicate and get along in this world. Music also evolved for our social and emotional well being, and it can have a very big impact on emotion. Think about the use of music in the soundtracks of movies, television and radio and how that affects your experience of the story. Athletes use music to change their performance. You can even use a soundtrack in your mind to change your mood and to change your self-talk. In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro tells how at his workshops he uses a soundtrack of drums to increase the sense of tribe for workshop participants who have to negotiate bringing their separate tribes into one tribe or else the world will end. The world almost always ends in the exercise. I wonder if that would change without the beat of the tribal drums during the cohesion of the tribes.

Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to the self – the “dual nature of identity.” He refers to our sense of self as the “fixed-identity problem.” Identity is not static, and includes our beliefs, rituals, allegiances, values, and emotionally meaningful experiences. We have various mindsets of the self. There is the fundamentalist who sees identity as fixed and governed by forces outside our control. There is the constructivist who sees identity as an “ever-evolving social construction.”   There is the anattist who sees us as having no permanent identity and transcending “the material world of attachment, experiencing identity as shifting waves within the ocean of life.” Lastly, there is the quantumist who sees identity as “a combination of nature and nurture” with identity both fixed and fluid and there are many possible selves. And we may change that perspective over time. They are not fixed either. With these different perspectives, how do we get along with each other? We change our relationships in that space between us. You can learn more by listening to Shapiro here.

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the attic in the home where I grew up. I found the speech I gave at my high school graduation. The last line was “we are all in this together.” All these years later, I still believe that. Shapiro’s work gives us good guidance on how to get along with each other in this world, and some different perspective on just what the “self” is.

When you hurt another, you may ask forgiveness from them. The Pope has asked forgiveness of those molested by priests and for the treatment of indigenous people in the New World. People convicted in court may ask forgiveness just before sentencing. Preachers and politicians ask forgiveness when caught in sin and then enter rehab to prove just how sincere they are. All of us do wrong at some time. Forgiveness is an issue that comes up often in life and in counseling. What does that word mean?

It does not mean saying that the wrong is now okay. “Sure you hurt me, but I forgive you, now it is okay.” That definition makes forgiveness extremely difficult if not impossible. It is giving a gift of dispensation to the one who harmed you. There is another view. Forgiveness can mean, “I don’t like what you did, and it is not okay but I will let it go. It doesn’t mean I want to have anything to do with you again, but I am not going to let anger and resentment devour me.” A quote attributed to the Buddha is that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal. The one who gets burned is you.

Many years ago I was having a conversation with a person who was working on recovery in AA and was doing step work. The eighth step is making a list of people you have harmed and you become willing to make amends to them. The ninth step is to make direct amends to those you have harmed except when to do so would injure them or others. It became quickly obvious that the person’s goal was to seek forgiveness even though in that case it would cause pain to the person wounded and to others. There was no talk about making amends. One universal principle throughout cultures and spiritual traditions (including secular ones) is to give without thought of return. When the Bodhidharma met with the Emperor Wu, one of the questions Wu asked was how much merit he had earned for all the monasteries he had built and all the other good deeds he had done in the name of the Buddha. “None,” said Bodhidharma. According to the story, the conversation was a short one. There are times when asking forgiveness is a manipulative act. We are asking forgiveness of the one we have already harmed with the sole purpose of making ourselves feel better. What is the merit of that? None. You are just doing more harm.

This is a place where the steps give good guidance. Look into your heart. It may be better to seek how you can make amends to those you hurt rather than ask forgiveness. Forgiveness belongs to the one harmed, and it is for them and within them that forgiveness occurs. If you are going to ask anything, ask how you can make amends and even then, only ask when doing so causes no further harm. Making amends with no expectations (including the expectation of forgiveness) may be a better way and work better at allowing yourself forgiveness with time.

For further thoughts on working on reconciliation and the process of forgiveness I strongly recommend “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts,” by Daniel Shapiro. Shapiro is the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. As a psychologist and negotiation specialist, he has worked with families as well as corporate and governmental groups including conflicting parties in the Middle East. He provides a very thoughtful and guided method for the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Setting goals is important, and how you frame them is critical to succeding. A goal can be as broad as “I want to live a life of integrity” to as specific as “I want to run a four minute mile.” With the former you need to define just what integrity is – how will you know when you are living that life and when are you veering off course. How do you get back on course? For the latter, you need training, a workout schedule and a sense of just how realistic that goal is. Whether your motivation is internal or external also has an effect on succeeding. You are less likely to burn out if you are focused on getting better for you.

One thing both those goals have in common is that they are positive goals. Positive goals are “I am going to do something.” They are action oriented in that something will happen and you will know it. It gives you a place to move towards. All too often we define our goals in a negative fashion – “I am not going to do something.” There are many problems with that. First off, you are activating your brain to think about what you don’t want to do. Do not picture a blue jay in your mind at this moment. What picture just appeared in your mind? I spoke with someone recently whose goal was, “I don’t want to be lonely.” “Well, what do you want to be?” I asked. How will you know you are not lonely? Focusing on loneliness tends to leave one lonely. So we began to look at how she wants to connect with people, what kinds of relationships does she want, and first off, what kind of relationship does she want with herself. It is much easier to be in the company of someone who is comfortable and secure with themselves. Negative goals too often become self fulfilling prophecies. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I didn’t want to be like my parent.” And then they realized that in focusing on what they didn’t want to become, they took on those qualities and became what they vowed they would not be.

A negative goal is inactive. Tough to prove a negative. So when you are setting goals, make them positive, something you will know is present. Put in as much detail as you can. It is like writing a good story of what you want to do or become. You can even use a 10 scale to track your progress. A ten is you have achieved the goal.  A zero is you haven’t even begun. Where are you now? Track your progress up the scale. That gives you some flexibility, too. Stuck at five? Reevaluate and redefine and see what you need to do to move up even to a 5.1. Edit your story.  One of my favorite exercises is “start-stop-continue” from Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang. What do I need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing to function at a higher level? And remember the concept of wu wei or effortless effort. Sometimes when you push too hard, you push yourself into the ground and get stuck. Have a plan but relax into it and have fun. It is hard to stick with a goal when the process is something you hate or find punishing. That is why so many resolutions for diets and exercise programs fail. Flow and adapt, and make your goals positive.

Join or Die FlagThe Gadsen Flag seems pretty popular these days – the flag with a coiled snake and the “don’t tread on me” caption. It has become the symbol of the individual, the independent “me.” There was another flag with a snake on it during the American Revolution, one with the snake divided and the caption, “join or die.” Ben Franklin even said, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall hang separately.” The individual as a separate self is a distinctly Western concept. But how does it stand up to empirical evidence? Aristotle once postulated that men had more teeth than women, but he did not look in people’s mouths to count to see if his hypothesis actually was correct. In Zen, there is an exercise in which you look deeply into your plate of food and you are able to see all the interconnections back to before the beginning. I use a sheet of plain paper when I do that exercise with people. You could even do it with the screen you are looking at. What is there? There are letters and words, but also whatever the surface is made from, whatever is powering it, all the people who made, sold, shipped, mined material, assembled parts and more to make it, those who worked to feed them, those who grew the food, and on and on back to star dust. Nothing and no one exists independently and all and everything are connected to some degree. Any action you take ripples out like the waves from a pebble tossed into a pond for better or worse with consequences intended and unintended.

Louis Cozolino’s book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, is an extensive and remarkable overview of how our brains work, particularly with attachments. Within the first few pages he says, “individual neurons or single human brains do not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die.” He goes on to discuss psychopathy in chapter 20 and includes the following:

Think about the characteristics that make for a “good citizen.” We expect each member of society to be aware of and adjust to the needs of others, recognize and conform to shared values, and live by the rules. In most instances, the needs of individuals are weighed against the needs of others and negotiations are established to create the most good for the most people. Antisocial individuals, on the other hand, are a society of one who adhere to the more primitive mandate of individual survival. It is as if they have passed over the eons of social evolution that have selected cooperation, emotional attunement, and being part of a group mind. While thinkers such as Nietsche, Machiavelli, and Rand have extolled the virtues of the Ubermensch (superman) and society even lionizes those who gain prominence and success, selfish behavior has not proved to be a successful overall strategy for group survival. For humans and other social animals, noncooperation and a sole focus on personal survival does not correlate with evolutionary success. (page 339)

I think a more positive and constructive way to function is by showing respect for ourselves and also respect for others and the relationships we all share, and respect for our responsibilities. And unlike Aristotle, we need to count the teeth. We need to look for the empirical evidence and not rely on a paid pundit whether from talk TV, radio, Internet or elsewhere. Researchers found after 9/11 that those who watched less cable news were more resilient and less depressed. Do yourself a favor and turn off those playing to emotions to increase ratings to make sales. You can read about it here and here.

Cozolino’s work is a well researched and well written book that I hope will be widely read. It speaks to all of us on our relationships in this world. [It is also an excellent resource on how attachment theory works on a neurological level, and how we develop secure and insecure attachments.] One concept I have struggled with is the Buddhist concept of “no self.” Mark Epstein’s talk about the spatial versus the temporal self makes a lot of sense to me. We experience ourselves as spatial beings even though we are moving through time and the “self  I was a moment ago is different from the self in this moment. We are constantly changing.  Cozolino takes it further. In order to function in the world, first our brains constructed the concept of “other” and then the concept of “self.” Those constructs enable cooperation, but also competition and egos that fight for supremacy when we lose sight that we all are one and that the “self” is a constructed illusion.  I remember coming across studies in graduate school about how resources last much longer when people cooperate, but when they compete, resources are much more rapidly depleted. One person competing destroys group cooperation, and all are forced to compete to survive, but ultimately, the survival of all is jeopardized and ultimately doomed by that self-centered competition for resources. There is an inherent paradox in those concepts of self and other. We cooperate with those in our tribe and those we perceive to be like us, and compete with those we deem to be different and of another tribe. We tend to forget we are all one tribe and are all in this together. Sensei Corky Quakenbush has written an interesting post on facing conflict with love using the principles of aikido. You can read it here.

I was recently asked the questions below about male friendships, particularly older male friendships.  I am always hesitant to put people into categories, though I know that is how we are wired. We classify things to simplify our lives. But things don’t fit into neat boxes. There are generally more differences within groups than between groups. When you classify, you get a good idea of the outliers but you miss the rich textures of the variability within groups. There was one thing I forgot to mention when I responded. (A thunderstorm came up so I hit send on the email and shut down quickly, and the person asking the questions was on a deadline, so I had to get them in yesterday.) As we get older, we use both frontal lobes when making decisions rather than one, and we tend to get better at picking our battles. Deciding what is worth arguing about can go a long way in saving any friendship.

 1.  Life, work and family can demand a lot of a man’s time. How important is it for men to maintain a social network?

We are social beings. Friends give us support and comfort when we are hurting, celebrate with us when things go well, and teach us how to get along in the world. They give us someone to talk to and to listen to and accept us for who we are, and can help us get better – and we give the same in return. There are many studies on the benefits of friendships for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There are studies that show the increased health problems of all types for those who are isolated and lonely – depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, antisocial behavior, memory loss, etc.

2.  Are there any distinct benefits for men regarding maintaining healthy friendships that should serve as an inspiration or reason for men to put more effort into their friendships?

Typically those with healthy friendships cope better with stress. They have lower levels of heart problems and immune system problems. I got an article in a newsletter today about how social supports mitigate some of the effects of ageism. Women may cope better than men, despite feeling more of the effects of ageism, because they have stronger social supports.  His is a synopsis of the article:

A new report examining attitudes towards ageing in Canada has been published. Revera Inc. and the International Federation on Ageing set out to examine the gender differences in ageing and experiences of ageism in the report titled “Revera Report on Ageism: A Look at Gender Differences.” Researchers surveyed male and females aged 66 and older. According to the findings, Canadian women are more optimistic about the ageing process compared to their male counterparts. Six in 10 women aged 60 years and older reported feeling optimistic about getting older whereas 5 in 10 men reporting feeling positive about the process. Compared to males, females were also more likely to agree with the statement “age is just a number” (47 percent for females, 33 percent for males). The report also examined Canadian older adult experiences of ageism. Interestingly, results revealed that women reported feeling they were treated differently because of their age. Women reported more often feeling ignored or invisible compared to men (46 percent for females, 32 percent for males) and that others have assumed they were incompetent (32 percent for females, 18 percent for males). Researchers suggested that the recorded findings might be connected to differences in social supports. The stronger social connections forged by females may help buffer against the damaging effect of exposure to ageism.

 AUTHOR: Misty Harris

SOURCE:, July 3rd 2013

3. Why do you think men often have trouble bonding with other men or creating close friendships/relationships?

There are a lot of reasons why any person can have difficulty creating friendships.  We learn from those who raise us, usually family, and from the culture we grow up in.  If the culture and/or family says that men are strong, don’t show emotion, are totally independent, must be competitive and win at all costs and trust no one – that doesn’t make for great relationships.  In addition to culture and familial gender roles, the number of variables that affect relationships is almost endless – the attachment style you learn as an infant, whether you trust that people will be there for you, your sense of self including self efficacy, how you define a friendship and what you look for, personal characteristics (like attractiveness, wealth, social status, substance use, communication styles, personality traits, etc.) whether you are more introverted or more extroverted.  I don’t mean shy by that. An introverted person can make friends, they just need more time alone to recharge their energy, while the extrovert may feel very uncomfortable alone for periods of time and get energy from the crowd.  Birth order can have an effect on whom you bond with, as well as your parents’ birth order. There is also the comfort level of friendships with persons of your own gender or with persons of the opposite sex and whatever complications that might arise from either.  There is also the effect of wanting things to stay the same. Friends will support positive change, and realize that at times friendships end or at least change. The need to win, to be one up in the hierarchy, can be very damaging. You may know people who lost friendships when they disagreed with a friend over a political issue (for example the Affordable Health Care Act has had some heated debate) or who lost a friend over religious differences. I think one reason men (or women for that matter) may have trouble bonding with their own gender is getting past the pecking order contest that sometimes ensues.  That can especially happen with the stereotypical male friends of not being able to just be together but to have to be doing something together. That can be great when they help each other get better at whatever it is, but when one decides he has to be the best and win, that leaves the other losing. That is not an act of friendship.  One thing I have noticed in working with fathers is that they sometimes worry about being respected. I remember one dad in particular telling me about the relationship with his son and his worry about not being respected. I asked about the relationship and found that they did things together like fishing and playing ball, they talked to each other pretty easily – the dad was teaching the kid discipline in a nice and gentle way. Turns out dad was worried because his dad taught him by beating him and he thought that was necessary for respect. Somewhere in all that for him fear and respect became synonymous when they are not. We all have unfinished stories, and until we get some kind of completion, we keep repeating them. I think one of the reasons men may have trouble with male relationships is that the first relationship they had with a man was a poor one. For some folks high school never ends and they continually repeat the types of relationships they had as adolescents both in friendships and the work place. Unresolved sexuality issues can have an effect. I sometimes work with gay people and transgender people and lack of acceptance and trust issues they face again affects relationships with others.  There are also issues of proximity. People move a fair amount these days. There are lots of ways to communicate online and by phone, and you can reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a long time. But there may not be the emotional intimacy and honesty that you have in a face to face relationship.

4. How would you encourage a man to branch out and meet new friends, OR how would you encourage a man to improve or build on existing friendships?

Each of us has our own story. I just try to work with the person in front of me and see what can help them to get to where they want to be.  The first friendship I encourage him to look at is the friendship with him self. How do you treat yourself as a friend?  How do you respect yourself as a friend?  What qualities do you look for in a healthy friendship? Do you have these qualities in your self?  In your friendships with others, is the relationship with the other person voluntary, mutual, equal and reciprocal, is there trust so that one can be vulnerable with emotions and still be accepted? Can a person leave the friendship if/when the time arises? Is there mutual respect and what does that mean to you? I would help the person decide which of those two choices in the question he wants to do.  He may even want to try to do both of those to some degree. We would look for whatever works for him, and be flexible and adaptable. And I would encourage him to work on his friendship with himself, for that is the only life long relationship he will have.

We might also look at how do disagree in a respectful way in a conversation. One factor in maintaining memory and cognitive function is to challenge your beliefs – to think critically. It is possible to have good healthy relationships with those who believe differently. That is one way to grow in this life. Part of that is looking at self talk as well. I think to have a good relationship with others, you need to have a good one with your self. And realize that it is always a work in progress.

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