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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.

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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.

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.

zhuangzi

Zhuangzi

 

Many years ago, I was facilitating a group for folks who had been referred by the courts for drunk driving and had been evaluated as having a problem with alcohol. I came down to the group room early one afternoon, and one of the guys had gotten there early, too, and we just sat at the table and talked for a while before anyone else arrived. He was concerned that his son, who was about 12 years old, did not respect him as he had respected his dad. I asked him to tell me about his relationship with his son. They went fishing together, they talked, and his son could confide in him, and he could correct his son with words. What he did not do was hit his son. I asked him how did he see respect. “When I did something wrong, daddy didn’t talk, he just flailed us.” It became clear fairly quickly that what he had with his son sounded like a healthy loving relationship that included respect , but he saw respect as lacking. The relationship did not have fear in it. His son was not afraid to talk to him. As an adult, the man I was talking with was still afraid to confide in his father. He still felt fear of his father, and thought that was respect.

So what is respect? In a culture of western religion, we are taught we have a loving God, but that we should also fear that God. Politicians preach that for other countries to respect us, they must fear us. That same belief comes to permeate relationships among those in the community to those in the family and to friends.  In personal relationships, some come to believe that if they are not feared they are not respected.

How well does that work? A child cannot be honest with a parent. Western religions have the concept of original sin and being redeemed by being forgiven by the loving but feared God. Over the millennia, some believers, from various religious traditions, have chosen to kill those they deem nonbelievers in order to save them and to serve their God and spread their belief. Some mix their chosen economic system and put it into their religion, regardless of how incompatible they may be, and again hate and try to destroy those nonbelievers and  forcibly spread what they believe is truth. Nations, and individuals, may lie to each other, try to intimidate each other, and try to be at least one up on all others. Being on top means being the most feared in the hierarchy. Fear doesn’t plant the seeds of honesty very well. Fear kills honesty. For all the television and movie action stories that rely on fear and torture to get the truth, the reality is that those methods don’t work very well, and are often counterproductive. Meeting anger and hatred with anger and hatred just intensifies and increases and spreads the anger and hatred and fear. You reap what you sow in an endless feedback loop.

More and more, neuroscience focuses on the attachment style we acquire as infants and that style affects every relationship we have in life including relationships with addictive behaviors. Here is Allan Schore talking briefly about the effects of abuse and neglect on attachment.

Chinese philosophy doesn’t have the concept of original sin nor an eternal afterlife nor the need for the supernatural to save you from sin and eternal damnation. It is based in nature. The philosophers, who lived during the Warring States period, tried to teach a way that would help people treat each other decently, and the way of each philosopher was directed by their view of whether people are inherently good or evil or born with the capability for both with the outcome based on how they were raised. Confucius taught the need for ritual to be able to act and react in the right way with “de” or virtue. Mencius had us develop our “moral sprouts.” Laozi taught the need to get back to our original nature, which he felt was inherently good. Mozi taught the need to measure the utility of everything and direct behaviors based on outcomes. He also said that maybe it was better that people believe in ghosts and spirits for then they would behave better. Modern psychology does find that people tend to behave more ethically when they feel they are being watched. A poster of a drawing of eyes on the wall in a break room can increase the contributions to the honor collection for coffee. Mozi, however, never indicated that he believed in such beings.

Zhuangzi taught that no matter what path you take, you focus on the path and do your best. There are many ways to strive to get to the top of the mountain. Virtually every philosophy/religion has some version of the golden rule or categorical imperative – treat others as you would like to be treated. Love one another as you love yourself. The only life long relationship you have is with yourself, and the relationship you have with yourself affects your relationship with and attachment to others. Which gains more respect – treating yourself and others with honesty, a desire for understanding, empathy, compassion, and loving kindness, or in ways that invoke fear? How would you like to be treated? And how do you treat yourself and others?

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