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Russian-ship

Zhuangzi said that the sage can walk through fire and not get burned and through water and not get wet. There is a similar passage in Isaiah 43:2 – “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” How do we accomplish the ability to get through difficult times and be resilient? There are a couple of books that can help.

Coaching for Resilience: A Practical Guide to using Positive Psychology, by Adrienne Green and John Humphrey

The authors of Coaching for Resilience are the founding directors of Nice Work Consulting, Ltd. which specializes in workplace psychology and workplace wellbeing. Green, a psychotherapist, also authored Out Of The Blue: A Practical Guide To Overcoming And Preventing Depression. Both authors are based in the United Kingdom. Coaching for Resilience is an expanded and detailed guide based on workshops Green and Humphrey give on building resilience. Their goal is to help people manage stress so that they do not become overwhelmed and become physically and emotionally unwell. The authors see high stress and low resilience as a vicious circle, and this book helps one to get out of that vicious circle and does so with a series of thoughtful exercise based on what they call “the seven keys.”

The book is divided into two parts with each part having exercises and case studies that allow you to personalize and come up with your own way of learning to manage stress. There are also directives for reflection and specific ideas to pay attention to in each chapter to help you with the process of learning to manage and redefine how you cope with stress. Part one gives the background on what resilience and stress are, the neuroscience of the relationship of resilience and stress, the effects of stress, and why the strategies that we typically use to cope may not work so well. The neuroscience is explained in clear understandable language. Part one lays the groundwork for helping you to understand and define what is causing you problems with stress and resilience.

Part two covers their “seven keys” in detail. Key one is the need people have to be liked and/or to be in control. These needs are the underlying causes of stress. Those who need to be liked may use passivity as a communication style. Those with a need for control may use aggression as a style, while those with both needs may use passive aggression, which the authors see as the most problematic of the three styles.

Each key builds upon the prior key. For example, the second key is to live your values. They help you to determine your values, and then give you exercises to help you determine if you are actually living those values by using a continuum of whether an activity is important or not important and whether it is urgent or not urgent. The third key is that you have a right to determine your own life. Exercises, case studies and reflections teach you empathic assertiveness to help you take charge of yourself.

The subsequent keys are: change is the only constant, life is difficult and that is okay, attitude makes all the difference, and live in the present. In each section, you look at your life as you are living it and decide how you would like to change it to cope better. For example, people typically see change as either dangerous or as an opportunity. The authors use cognitive behavioral techniques to help you build self-confidence and change your self-talk to increase your coping skills. They also address challenging yourself in ways to improve your chances of functioning in a flow state by practicing mindfulness.

Despite the book’s relatively short length, it should not be thought of as a quick read. The authors include many exercises and opportunities for reflection and growth throughout the book in a structured step-by-step way. This is a workbook, and the fact that it is based on workshops the authors have given is a strength. You know as you work through the exercises that the authors have developed and refined these in their teaching. The authors also give examples from their own lives of times when it was a struggle to stay with the keys. What they teach here is realistic. It is an excellent book for getting to know yourself, how you manage stress, and how to improve your coping skills so that they become a way of life do that your life is one of resilience.

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney

Since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2012, both authors have had to put their research on resilience into practice in their own lives. Dennis Charney lost his father, and Charney himself was shot with a shotgun last year while leaving a deli in New York City by a disgruntled former employee. After five days in intensive care, he faced an arduous rehabilitation. Both of Steven Southwick’s parents died, his sister had colon cancer, and his very athletic brother’s leg was amputated, and his recovery was difficult as well. In researching this book, the authors spoke with Special Forces instructors, veterans who had suffered in POW camps in Hanoi, people who survived the World Trade Center attack of 9-11, individuals who had been raped and almost killed, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who had lost limbs to land mines, who had survived refugee camps in the Sudan, who overcame congenital birth defects, and more. They also did an extensive literature review on resilience – what it is, what are important factors in resilience, and how to be more resilient in your life.

Resilience is a complex topic. The authors came up with what they call “resilience factors” based on their interviews with resilient people but concede that the list is not comprehensive in what gives us the strength and ability to come back. The factors are the ones that were “most often the ones described as crucial and even life-saving.” The factors are realistic optimism, facing fear, a moral compass, religion and spirituality, social support, resilient role models, physical fitness, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and meaning and purpose in life.

Southwick and Charney look at a multitude of influences on resilience including neuroscience, epigenetics and genetics, physiology, and environment. They also put these into the context of the United States and our vulnerability in terms of resilience. Our overall lack of physical fitness, our disconnectedness with each other, and other factors are sometimes framed as a national security weakness. According to their research, about “75% of Americans age 17 – 24 are no longer eligible to join the military.” The most common reasons are poor physical fitness, not graduating high school and a criminal record. Our all-volunteer military comes from an ever-smaller cross-section of the US.

Each chapter has an extensive list of references, so you can do further research if you like. The research is impressive and comprehensive. The stories are what really stick with me. If you need role models for resilience, this book has an abundance of them. There are famous people like James Stockdale who was the ranking officer as a prisoner in Hanoi and Bob Woodruff of ABC news who suffered a traumatic brain injury covering the war in Iraq. There is Jerry White who lost a leg to a landmine in 1984 while hiking in Israel. His struggle to recover eventually led to his winning a Nobel Peace prize along with Ken Rutherford for their work with the Landmine Survivors Network. Just the stories of the strength and resilience of the people interviewed is worth the read. The people are amazing and inspirational. And the stories of how they were able to recover is insightful and thoughtful and always respectful of the struggle. The authors write with both critical thinking and open hearts.

I am happy to have this resource. Over the years I have worked with people who suffered repeated hospitalizations in psychiatric facilities, who were repeatedly incarcerated, and who suffered physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. I have worked with those who have struggled with severe physical injury and illness, and who were in combat in the armed forces. I have always been impressed by the resilience of not just those who were able to thrive, as the folks interviewed in this book, but also those who somehow got up each day and survived despite living in systems and environments stacked against them. I can share this valuable resource with them.

There are two appendices to the book. One is on posttraumatic stress disorder. In pondering the section, I came to realize that there is a high probability that two of the people I was very close to as a child most likely had some degree of PTSD, one from war and one from childhood trauma. This book is enlightening on many levels.

The other is on community resiliency. All too often we are complacent and don’t plan ahead or do what is needed to be prepared for the crises in our lives that sooner or later come to be. This book is an excellent resource to help us all become more resilient in our lives. The final story is of a small teenaged boy in a track race in the Special Olympics. The young boy’s attitude and his words will leave you with a smile and feeling moved and inspired. A young girl, also in the race, pointed out to him that, “You came in last.” “Tha, tha, that’s okay,” he stuttered as he faced the girl and looked her in the eye. “I came in.”

 

The old and the new - carbon and solar power.

A  review of Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, by Michael E. Kerr

I first came across Bowen family therapy around 1980 in graduate school when we studied a trio of therapy theories and methods – Bowen, Minuchin, and Satir. At the time I was working at a state psychiatric hospital and the lead psychologists would periodically travel to D.C. to study with Bowen and come back and tell us beginners all about it. I have been a believer in systems theory ever since and was delighted to come across Michael Kerr’s update to Bowen.

Kerr was both a student and a colleague of Bowen beginning in the 1960s. Bowen required that one look at one’s own family history in terms of systems, and genograms are the tool for doing this. Kerr includes genograms in the families he explores in this book, so you have an idea of how to do one. I find them very helpful in looking for patterns, but I also found they could get fairly complex in nontraditional families and when people didn’t have much information on prior generations. Still, you could find relationship patterns of the interplay of over functioning and under functioning in the triangles of family members.

We are a species that look for patterns and usually that takes the construct of cause and effect. Systems is not linear cause and effect. It is more of a process dance among the participants and plays out over generations. Kerr gives us many examples of this dance in exploring the dynamics of several families including Theodore Kaczynski, Gary Gilmore, Adam Lanza and John Nash. There is even a look at President James Madison’s family, which is quite interesting. Public functioning and private functioning can be quite different. He also delves deeply into his own family relationships, particularly with his mother and with his brother who was diagnosed schizophrenic and who eventually committed suicide. Throughout, Kerr approaches and examines these relationships with compassion.

At least to some degree we are all looking for safety and to care for those we love. This can lead to patterns of overfunctioning and underfunctioning. These become “a problem if chronic anxiety intensifies the emotional reactivity (overly sympathetic, overly caring, overly controlling) and drives the relationship interaction.” The anxiety distorts one’s perception of self and others. I like the Bowen definition of maturity, “People who assume responsibility for themselves, do not distance from others if they are distressed, and do not anxiously intrude and try to control others are whole or mature people.”

Anxiety and differentiation of self are the two main variables in the theory. Anxiety itself is not a psychiatric disorder in Bowen theory and all living things have some degree of anxiety. Anxiety is evolutionary and becomes a problem when it is overly active. Kerr writes, “What psychiatry textbooks term anxiety disorders are but one of myriad symptomatic manifestations of overly active evolutionary ancient anxiety systems.” We see in some of the families examined that when anxiety becomes overly active, for example a parent becoming excessively worried and protective of a child, what one seeks to prevent many times happens. When we become enmeshed in a relationship, we can lose our “differentiated self.” Kerr does an excellent job of explaining differentiated self, which he says is the most misunderstood of the eight concepts in Bowen’s theory. You can read further about the eight concepts here.

Kerr points out how Bowen adds a framework to Skinner’s behaviorism and to cognitive behavioral theory. You look at the behaviors in the contexts of the relationship system. Our behaviors feed back on each other.

Kerr includes a chapter on societal emotional process which was once called societal regression. Human culture has always been susceptible to this, but I think it would be especially helpful today if as a culture we become more aware of this process. Progression and regression occur all the time in cultures driven by both emotional and psychological processes. Emotions drive our behavior and heightened chronic anxiety can drive us to dysfunction. Kerr even suggests that with our vulnerability to emotional triggering and irrational thinking that our species be renamed from Homo sapiens (wise man) to Homo dysrationalis. Kerr looks at the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2009 as an example and for ways that we could improve functioning.

I found the chapter on unidisease especially intriguing. Kerr suggests including this in Bowen theory. The chapter begins with a quote from Peter Libby’s “Inflammation and Atherosclerosis: A Translational Tale” – “We all study the same disease.” Kerr suggests that “the core of the symptom-generating forces is the subcortical emotional system.” Internalized anxiety shows up in mental and physical symptoms, while externalized symptoms show up socially in behaviors like substance abuse.

There is also a chapter on spirituality, supernatural phenomena, belief systems, and mind-body interaction. Kerr includes a quote from Bowen’s 1987 address to the conference “Implications of Bowen Theory for Catholic Theology.” Kerr includes the quote because he feels it gives an aspect of differentiation that is often left out when talking about or trying to understand differentiation. Bowen said, “A major quality in the differentiation of self is complete selflessness in which doing for others replaces personal selfish goals. Jesus Christ has been a model for total selflessness.” I wonder how embracing that concept, which is present in many other religions and philosophies, would affect the level of anxiety in our current culture.

I highly recommend this book. It is a welcome addition to works on Bowen theory, family therapy, and systems theory. If you have never studied Bowen before, this is a good book to begin your study. It draws from a broad realm of research, is clearly written and will make you see the world, your family and yourself in a different way if you are not familiar with systems. And even if you are, its depth will give you more perspective. Even with studying Bowen all those years ago and following the concepts of systems, reading this gave me a deeper understanding of my own family relationships.

Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, by Michael E. Kerr

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.

 

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.

A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

This has always been one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poems. It goes well with questioning the nature of reality, the nature of the self, the passage of time in that reality, of life. We structure all these in our perceptions from our own nature. We have a beginning and an end (at least in this plane of existence) and a structure that we feel we perceive accurately based on our existence in our reality. But even our concept of time in everyday life -for example linear time or sequential time or synchronous time – comes to us from our culture and beliefs.

amelia-island-march-2011-049Some philosophies see no beginning or end of time, no boundary to the universe. Infinity is a difficult thing for our minds to conceptualize and comprehend. A few weeks ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Star Talk” discussed “Is Our Universe a Stimulation?” Perhaps we are all just part of a computer program similar to “The Matrix,” except it is just a machine with a programmer somewhere writing the code. We would have no way of proving of disproving the assumption. There could even be an infinity of universes or multi-verses. Whenever any decision is made, a timeline is created. That would theoretically make time travel a possibility since new timelines would create the logical possibility for paradoxes. I love reading counterfactual history. The speculation is always intriguing. What if Churchill had died when hit by a car in New York City in 1931? In some timelines, he would have.

An interview with Donald Hoffman called “The Case Against Reality” is a very interesting read. He uses physics to argue that the world is not hereas we see it. You can read it here or here. Even the concept of universal mind and the oneness of eastern philosophy is possible in his model.

I will end with these words from Alan Watts in his “Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking“: – “The world that we see is a creation of eidetic imagery. We select the human concerns as the significant areas. In a way, this is our answer to the cosmic Rorschach test. So, in that manner we have performed maya, the world illusion. But maya also means “art,” and it also means “magic.” Therefore, the magical evocation of the world of things from the formless world – which means from the world of pure Tao that simply wiggles – that is the real creation of the world.”

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.

When you study Eastern philosophies, you learn that there really is no objective reality. We see things through our own experience and filter accordingly. We tend to look for what reinforces what we already believe and miss or discount that which negates our beliefs – exactly the opposite of the scientific method.  To really find out how valid something is, you see if you can falsify it.  No matter how many times you prove something, that is not the final say. You may have just missed the one thing that proves it wrong.

But what happens when one is proved wrong?  Do we modify our beliefs accordingly? Sometimes, but often we modify our reality and our experiences to once again “prove” what we already believe.

Remember this conversation from the movie, “The Big Chill”?
Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

Rationalizations, or trying to make something unreasonable seem reasonable to ourselves, is one way to justify our beliefs, despite the evidence.

Festinger, Reicken, and Schachter studied a group in Chicago in 1954 and published their work in a 1956 book called “When Prophecy Fails.”  The group’s leader had been given a specific date for the end of the world.  The group of believers would be spared, rescued by a flying saucer. Members sold and gave up their possessions and on the prophesied date of destruction, waited all night for the saucer to arrive.  The world didn’t end, the saucer never appeared.  But that didn’t end the members belief. A new prophecy arrived and said that through their diligence and belief, they had shown a light on the world which led the deity to spare the earth.  Instead of ending the group’s belief, it actually strengthened their beliefs and led to proselytizing.  From this study came Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.  We have an innate need to have inner harmony in our beliefs and actions and use whatever psychological defenses we need to maintain that harmony despite reality.  “Smoking doesn’t cause any harm. I don’t believe all that talk. I know people who lived to be 95 and smoked every day,” words wheezed between puffs and hacks.

The University of Buffalo has done a lot of work during the past ten years on resiliency of individuals after disaster.  One of the factors in positive coping skills is to not watch much television news.  The problem with news these days is that most of it is not news.  The advent of 24 hour news networks led to the advent of filler provided by pundents and self anointed experts who fill in what is not known with speculations. Most of it is just information resulting from motivated reasoning, directed perceptions, and sometimes outright misinformation designed to appeal to political/religious beliefs despite reality and to boost the network’s revenue by playing to the demographic.  William Randolph Hearst (whose journalism helped spark the Spanish American War based on the misinformation that the Maine was blown up in Havana harbor when in fact, the ship’s boiler blew up in an accident) and P. T. Barnum would be proud. Or maybe disillusioned at just how gullible our discomfort with cognitive dissonance makes us.

Once again, critical thinking and questioning and mindfulness are keys to finding harmony between beliefs and the evidence of our world. Attachment to that which is clearly proved false has the potential to do great damage.

“The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.” Marcel Proust

After decades in public mental health, I am moving into the private arena.  My new location is Psychological Associates of Williamsburg.   Right now our website is at http://www.widomaker.com/~rockwell/psyassoc/PsyAssociates/index.html until we get a domain name. I will also be doing consultation work in areas such as fostering collaboration and leadership in organizations and also in web site development. Check back here for articles and updates or just subscribe via RSS feeds.  You can also contact me at http://www.linkedin.com/in/stanrockwell.

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