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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.

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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.

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 http://tonibernhard.com/. 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 http://www.thepainantidotebook.com/index.html. 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.

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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.

 

 

 

2015 May 16 to 23 Bar Harbor 052

Root to the earth and rise to the sky like a tall straight tree.

It is difficult to feel centered sometimes. We are scattered by all sorts of distractions – perseverating thoughts, loud noises, flickering lights, and most often these days from electronic devices like phones and tablets. There seem to be multiple things at any given moment getting us scattered mentally and emotionally, and also physically. Pay attention to your body when you are feeling scattered. Are you grounded and relaxed and in harmony with gravity? Or are you tense, stiff, tilted forward or to one side with gravity pulling you down.

 

Our bodies and minds are one and when you are scattered in one, the other is out of balance as well. In taijiquan and qigong, your center is your lower dantien. That is the energy center about three finger widths below your belly button and three finger widths inside your body. Essentially, it is your center of gravity, and we move around and breathe from that center. I sometimes say in taijiquan class that life is a struggle in finding balance with gravity. It is always there. Astronaut Scott Kelly was two inches taller after spending about a year in space. Gravity compressed his body back that two inches after his return to earth. When you are out of balance with gravity, your body pays a price. Your neck, your lower back, and your spine all struggle to keep you upright. The outcome is increased pain and an increased risk of falling.

When you are out of balance, you also do not breathe as efficiently. Beginning about age 6 or 7, our breathing tends to start moving from our belly towards our upper chest. This style of breathing is less efficient. We get less oxygen, we have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe more quickly. This “upper chest” breathing engages your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight/flee/freeze/faint system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing rate all rise. You get tunnel vision. Your blood moves from your internal organs and brain out to your arms and legs to get you ready for action. Your ability to think and improvise goes away and you automatically “go with what you know.” Your adrenalin and cortisol levels rise and form a feedback loop between your adrenal glands and your brain that causes the levels to continue to rise. Take a moment and put one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now breathe like you normally breathe. Which hand moves? Are you breathing from your abdomen or your upper chest?

You can practice getting your center – finding your balance and breathing efficiently. You will move better. You will feel better. You will function more from the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest way of being. You might even be more likely to use the other response to a threat – tend and befriend – when you are balanced.

This is an exercise we do at the beginning of classes to find balance with the earth and harmony with gravity.

There is a Zen story of a master who stands with his eyes closed and yet catches a falling object while those wide eyed around him have not yet perceived the object’s fall. He is in the moment and completely attentive.

Ruth M. Buczynski, PhD, president of the National Institute for the Clinical
Application of Behavioral Medicine
, recently talked about how to rewire your brain to improve willpower. A March 23, 2015 article in Medscape discussed a study in Sydney, Australia that looked at nine modifiable triggers for low back pain. The leading trigger is distraction while performing a task or activity.

What do willpower and distraction have in common? Both are associated with losing focus. How can we practice focus and get better at it? Buczynski suggests a simple breathing exercise for five minutes a day. Simple does not mean easy, however. Many people give up mindfulness or meditation because of a racing mind. Buczynski recommends just focusing on your breath, and when thoughts come into your mind (as they inevitably will) just acknowledge them and return to breathing. You can focus on the sound of the air as it flows in and out or the temperature of the air or whatever works for you. The important thing is, return to focusing on the breath. It gives you practice for staying on task, and returning to the task when you wander.

Any time I work with someone who has issues with anxiety and stress, we start with the breath. Slowing your breathing and breathing abdominally does many good things for you – lowers blood pressure and heart rate, lowers stress hormones and in doing so lowers blood sugar and redirects blood flow to the organs. You are balancing your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

So if you want to feel better and more balanced mentally, emotionally, and physically, start just focusing on breathing to your abdomen slowly and mindfully. You will improve your willpower and your focus. Paying attention to where you are now can also save your back.

Paul Assaiante is the winningest coach you probably never heard of.  His squash teams at Trinity College won 224 straight and 282 out of 292 matches during a sixteen year stretch.  Squash doesn’t play well on television and is most popular in former British colonies post 1776. Consequently, he is not well known in America despite his success.  He recently wrote a book on coaching to overcome fear called Run To the Roar. His story begins with a tale of a lion pride on the African savanna.   The oldest lioness is no longer able to run fast and hunt like the younger members. What she can still do is roar.  When the pride hunts, the young lions spot a heard of prey and stealthily move in the bush to the far side of the hunted.  The old lion stays on the near side and when all is ready, lets out a ferocious roar.  The prey, reacting to the perceived threat, run from the roar and right into the teeth of the waiting pride.  Coach Assaiante helps his athletes face their fears and move towards them. Running away never gives them a chance to cope with their fears and anxieties.

Pema Chodron addresses this in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.  She teaches mind training in Buddhist tradition to help one cope and learn from that which we fear.  We pay attention, we do not avoid life as it is, but embrace it with loving kindness.  We listen to the stories we tell our selves, and we re-write those stories.  She calls it training in the warrior’s journey.

We are all embarking on, as Joesph Campbell wrote, a hero’s journey in this life.  Our fears and anxieties and our failures are also our teachers. Our brain’s have remarkable plasticity and ability to change over our lifetimes.  Our minds can grow and we can re-write our stories.  Listen to the phrases you say to yourself. How are those beliefs and stories affecting your life? What we tell ourselves, we become.

Many of the people I see have problems with anxiety and stress.  There is always stress in one’s life.  What matters is how we frame it and how we manage it.  We frame it with our life narrative, our central organizing principal.  Those are the words you say to yourself as you live your life.  It may be something like, “no matter what happens, I will always land on my feet” and you take a problem solving approach anStress managementd see stress as opportunity for growth.  On the other hand, the mantra may be “I am always a failure and everybody can see that.”  The lack of self efficacy and self confidence can really raise one’s anxiety level.

When we perceive something as threatening, the amygdala springs into action sending messages to get stress hormones moving to get us ready to fight or flee.  We may be overwhelmed and freeze or even faint. The emotion hits first milliseconds before we are able to think.  There are a couple of techniques to practice to help cope with that rush, and to help you move towards another possible reaction to stress – flow. Flow is more akin to the reaction that the person who sees a crisis as an opportunity for growth and who actively problem solves will use.  Some of these techniques involve breathing and grounding.  You can practice by getting relaxed in a chair sitting so that your body parts have good blood circulations and don’t “fall asleep.” Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Breathe to your diaphragm.  Place one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach.  When you breathe, only the hand on your stomach should move.  Breathe slowly – count to four as you breathe in, hold it for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four.  Practice the breathing technique several times a day. You can pair a word with the exercise, something as simple as “serenity” or “relax” so that eventually you can just say the word to yourself and the relaxation begins.  Grounding is the process of getting yourself into the present moment – “be here now.”  Feel your feet on the floor, the way your clothes feel upon your skin, notice the colors of your environment, the shapes, the sounds, the smells, etc.  Focus on the surroundings to take yourself out of that vision of stress and into the present.

We will look at other techniques in later entries, but breathing is a good place to start and is fundamental.  When you slow your breathing down, it slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and reduces the stress you feel.  Then you can approach whatever the issue is with a clear mind.

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